Mike Kuna, Revised Version b

Mike Kuna, Revised Version b

I write this at 5:44 AM on Monday morning, November 20, 2017. A significant date, both typical and also unique.

The typical aspect of November 20, 2017, is that it is the Monday before Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.  The weekend was spent with a little extra cleaning, as guests are coming Wednesday evening.  We raked leaves, although that job always seems futile.  I did my usual Thanksgiving walk-around, replacing burnt out light bulbs. My wife Julie made sure that there was extra toilet paper in the bathrooms. I dusted the tops of the picture frames and started the heater in our sunroom.  It will take a couple days for the room to heat up and we will need all of the space possible as over 20 people will be with us for a couple of days.

Julie and I went to Gordon’s, a restaurant supply store, to start the purchasing process.  A big turkey and a boneless Turkey breast for Thanksgiving Thursday, a giant bag of frozen stuffed pasta shells  for Black Friday dinner.  First store, several hundred dollars down… more shopping to come.  My main concern is will the rock-hard frozen turkey thaw in time for Thursday?  Let’s hope, otherwise, we will be serving beans and franks to our guests.

The unique aspect of November 20, 2017, is that this Monday marks the one month date for the end of my private practice.  Everyone said that the last year would go fast.  Time seemed to move at a glacial speed in January.  Now, time is moving at light speed.

Patients who I haven’t seen for several years are calling trying to set up appointments with me. Their cases are closed and they need to be referred on, there are no more appointment slots left on my schedule.

I spent the last year worrying about the impact of my leaving on patients, some who I have known for decades.  I neglected the impact that leaving would have on me.  Imagine yourself as a trusted friend/counselor who knows someone for 10 to 30 years.  You are told things that no one else knows.  You witness the other person’s triumphs and tragedies.  At times you are given the privilege to watch them grow from acting-out teenagers to solid middle-aged adults.  It is impossible not to develop a connection with them.  I have always kept up my professional boundaries, but I will miss many of these individuals.  

I am burdened by experiencing loss on a 30-minute appointment schedule.  I  get through one loss, in walks another and the process starts over again.  I have to be the strong one, the one giving comfort and reassurance.  That is my job.  

Most patients want to know what I will do in my retirement.  Over the last few months I have been a bit freer with my personal information.  Anonymity no longer has the importance that it once did. Most people congratulate me, some offer me retirement advice, a few offer comments of comfort.  They must be picking up some of my concealed stress.

Today I will see patients from 8 AM to 8 PM.  That’s a lot of goodbyes.  I’ll do it all over again tomorrow.  Four more weeks, time to define Mike Kuna version b.

Next Thursday

Next Thursday

It is Sunday morning.  The Sunday before Thanksgiving.  My clock radio clicks on at 3:40 AM and I hit the snooze bar, but I don’t sleep.  Ten minutes later I listen to a few seconds of a BBC program reappropriated to an American market.  I click the reset button.

I decide to get up.  Teeth brushed, face washed, clothes on; I head downstairs.  The upstairs was unusually hot last night, and now I know why.  When my last child came home yesterday they didn’t close the front door completely and it was now open.  We were heating Naperville last night.  

My first concern is for the cat, who can be adventurous.  She prances down the stairs to say good morning to me.  I am relieved as I tell her good morning.  I know her motives, she has me well trained and soon will receive a cat treat.  I close the door and briefly worry about a mischief of field mice using last night’s open door opportunity to appropriate a new warm home.  

I power up the coffee maker and prepare a banana smeared with peanut butter. I wander into my study.  There I sit in front of my computer and do a quick catchup.  Email, mostly useless. Facebook, mostly reposts.  YouTube, the usual fare.  

I don my coat and hat and head out the door.  Thanksgiving will be in a few days and there is still much to do.  The guest will start to arrive on Wednesday and will leave either on Friday or Saturday.  I believe that this is the 26th year that we will be hosting the holiday for my wife’s family.  Dinner for 20.  After all of these years it is routine, but still, slightly anxiety provoking.  The group has grown a bit with the addition of one niece’s new husband, and the other’s fiance.  We will be missing my nephew Jack, who is on assignment in London this year.  Soon the house will be abuzz with activity.

I am feeling grateful this Thanksgiving.  I am feeling fortunate.  In about 4 weeks I will partially retire from my work-life.  Short-term plans are forming as the date approaches.  I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for my extended family and friends. I ponder, what would my life be without them? The thought leaves me barren.

I am grateful that I feel healthy and younger than my chronological age.  I am not ready to spend my retirement indulging myself.  I’m not looking for a new career, but I know that there is more for me to do.  What exactly is still shrouded, I don’t feel done.

I write this from my usual station at the small round table next to the picture window at my Starbucks.  Soon, I’ll upload this post and be gone.  Padding back home, to a house still asleep.  Then church, then leaves to rake, then more tasks to ready the house.  I am grateful to have a reason to ready the house.  It will be good to see family.  I am thankful to you, dear reader, for taking the time to peruse this missive.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Asking For Help

Asking for help

 

It is almost impossible for me to ask someone for help, and I know why.  The result has been a blessing and a curse for me.

Being the last child in a large family there wasn’t a lot of resources left for me.  Energy had been spent raising my 4 siblings and the family was on “spin-down” by the time that I made my surprise entrance. My mother was exhausted, and my father was disinterested.  It really was as simple as that.

Like most boys I wanted my father’s attention.  Since he wasn’t trying to engage with me I tried to engage with him. I had given up on the “let’s toss a ball around,“ approach due to lack of success.  However, that didn’t stop me from trying other forays.  Asking for advice usually resulted in a negative response.  Often something like, “You don’t have problems, wait until you are an adult, then you will have problems.”  Crap!   

Asking for help on a project would initially be met with “Can’t you see I’m busy.” If that wouldn’t dissuade me I would encounter the “Why do you need to do that! ” shaming gambet. If I continued to push I would be told that the task at hand, “Couldn’t be done.” Dear reader, I’m not trying to cast my father in a negative light. I’m sure that there were times that he would help me,  I just can’t recall them. This was the 1960s, it is possible that I was experiencing the “children should be seen, but not heard,” method of parenting.

Often when I would bring a project to my father I already had an idea how to solve the problem.  I was looking for reassurance, methodology, and most importantly attention.  Early on I would take a “could not be done” project, do it myself, and return to my father expecting praise for my accomplishment. That did not happen

Over time my desire for approval turned into a demonstration of anger.  In my mind I would I would think, “You said it couldn’t be done.  Look, I did it.  What do you think of those apples!” Dear reader, understand that I’m normally not an angry individual.  In fact, I only think anger is useful when it acts as a catalyst for a positive change.

There was a part of me that liked the fact that I could do things that my father said were not possible.  It didn’t matter if his comments were meant to dismiss me, solving the problem gave me a sense of competency.  I started to assume that being told that something could not be done actually meant that the person asked either didn’t want to help me, or they couldn’t figure out the solution.  Just because they couldn’t figure out the solution didn’t mean that I could.  This was a gift that my father gave me.  He would tell me that something couldn’t be done, I would then do it.   

I came to believe that there were solutions to every problem.  Please understand that a solution can exist, but it may be impossible or impractical to implement.  However, when you think with this mindset you are open to many other possibilities. Perfect solutions that are impossible can lead to imperfect but useable options.

I stopped asking my father for help, but I didn’t stop solving problems. People seek me out because of this ability.  In fact, my professional career is based on problem-solving.

Everyone has negatives in their lives, you can define yourself by those events, or you can use them to push yourself forward.  In good, there is always some bad.  In bad, there is always some good.  I believe that it is better to think of an event as just an event, and to not assign a “good” or “bad” label on it. Learn from life’s events and use them to your advantage.

Yes, I am good at coming up with solutions.  I have been good at teaching myself how to do things.  I am independent, but I am not an island unto myself.

There are many benefits of asking others for help.  These range from social interaction to learning how to do something more effectively.  I taught myself how to play the guitar, but my overall skill and technique are limited. It would have been better to have had someone teach me this instrument.

I know that I need to achieve more balance in my life, and I have been slowly moving towards allowing myself to ask for help from others. I am trying to broaden my circle of “helpers” as courage allows.This process has been risky for me because I still sting from my childhood experience. I do not want to feel shamed, foolish or like a burden.

I have close connections with my siblings, their spouses, and their children.  On occasion, I will ask them for their help. These connections have been there for me.  I know that if they are able they will help me.  With that said, I only ask them for their help rarely.

I frequently ask my immediate family for help.  I would say that in this respect my behavior is normal and healthy.  I help my kids by giving them rides, they help me by raking the leaves.  My wife takes my shirts to the cleaners, I fix her computer problems.  In my family,  I give and take help multiple times a day.  Family connections are… well, family.  I think this security has made it easier for me to ask for help from them.

This has not been the case with other connections that I have.  I have been good at giving help, but not good at asking for help. I know that my fear is irrational.  When I help someone and they are appreciative I feel great.  I feel closer to that person and proud that I can offer them assistance. Intellectually, I know that the converse is true.  However, knowledge does not always translate into action.

If you have been reading my blog you know that I have a very close friend named Tom. Tom is a general contractor and we met when he was doing some extensive remodeling in my home.  Over the number of months that my remodel took to complete we had many interactions and moved from friendly to friendship.  Initially, I offered to help Tom with his sorry looking website. Tom took me up on that offer and we completely rebuilt his site together.  

Tom has many skills that I lack, but the thought of asking him to help with a project would have been unimaginable to me. Over time Tom made offers to help me with a variety of things. Like me, Tom is a helper. As our friendship grew, so did my trust. Trust is a wonderful antidote when it comes to fear of rejection and shame.

You may recall from a previous post that I recently bought an inexpensive computer desk from Amazon.  That desk arrived a few weeks ago.  It was in a giant flat rectangular box that was so heavy that I could barely slide it from my front stoop and into my living room.

The box sat for over a week until I had the courage to open it.  When I did I was met with dozens of cut out pieces of particle board, hundreds of fasteners, and a multipage “easy to assemble” guide. The front of the box said, “Easy to assemble” and noted that the only tools needed were a single screwdriver and a hammer.  Who were they kidding?  My heart started to race, and I closed the box. What had I gotten myself into?

The next day Tom was visiting at my house, and in a typical Tom fashion, he made a sarcastic comment about the huge box creating a hazard in my living room.  Being a general contractor Tom has many construction skills.  However, he also has his likes and dislikes. In the past, he had told me that he hated the tedium of putting Ikea type furniture together.  “It drives me crazy.  Buy the better stuff. Buy it once and have it forever,”  he said.

There was Tom, the box, and me.  Without hesitation I said, “Will you help me put this thing together?”  Without hesitation Tom said, “Sure.” He returned the next day with tools.  We took out piece after piece of particle board, poured out a huge bag of fasteners, and set to work.  I watched him as he put post-A into socket B and twist cam 1 into hole 3.  Soon my son Will joined us and we all sat on the floor. Tom doing most of the work, Will and I trying to find pieces and interpret directions.  In addition to helping, I was watching.  How much glue should be applied to a joint?  How tight should the screws be tightened?. This wasn’t me having a friend do my job, I was learning from an expert.  I was allowing myself to be taught.

Like most projects of this nature, the estimated time to assemble and the actual time were wildly different.  Soon a number of hours had passed and Tom had to leave to take care of another obligation.  The superstructure of the desk was completed, but there was still more to do.

Will and I set to it. I felt more confident because I had been watching and learning. The X shaped metal bracket was screwed in.  Then the decorative back of the desk.  After that we assembled the drawers, only making a few minor mistakes here and there.  Finally, we stood back from our project and looked… looked at my new completed computer desk.  Tom started it, I watched, Will and I finished it… done.

That was not the first time that I let Tom help me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  The desk project will be a happy memory.  Three guys together, sometimes working, sometimes laughing, sometimes swearing.

When I initially opened that big box full of odd pieces of wood I thought to myself, “This is impossible, it can’t be done.”  But dear reader there is a solution to every problem.  Sometimes that solution is asking for help from a friend.

 

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The $100 Computer Experiment

The main reason why I created the drmikekuna.com blog was to become more transparent about my feelings via writing.  To put out to the greater public what was going on in my head.  The idea being that this would allow me to hopefully write more authentic compositions in the future.

When I write this blog it is usually with little planning.  I write what the spirit moves me to write in that moment.  My rule is if I write it, I post it. Not doing so would defeat my overall blog objective.

I am always thinking of and solving problems in my head. Some are significant, most are not. Problem-solving interests me. There are some people who enjoy solving puzzles, I like solving problems. What came out in today’s writing was a “problem” that I have been thinking about for the last few weeks. One of my “Why?” “What if?” or “How would I solve that?” kind of problem.  

Here we go…

I acquired my first home computer in 1983, a Commodore 64. Since then there have been many others.  I bought off-the-shelf computers from Circuit City, modified them, and assembled the first computer network for Genesis Clinical Services in 1992.  I hand built video editing workstations In the early 2000s.  I even constructed my own multibay DVD replicating computer In the mid-2000s.

Microsoft introduced the Windows Vista operating system in 2006, a textbook example of introducing a product before it was ready for release.  My love affair with Windows quickly went sour with constant computer crashes and software conflicts.  I made the switch to Apple around that time, and never looked back.  Apple computers are well built, well designed, and… well, expensive.

That expense seems to be ever growing as Apple continues along a path defining itself not only by its technology but also its luxury branding.  Even an old doctor like me has to take a deep breath when it comes to purchasing the next upgrade. Overall, Windows machines are less costly, but the powerful ones are still pricey.  

So, where am I going with all of this?  

My current  thought problem:

Computers have gone from household status symbols to necessary devices.  We do everything on our computers.  Although today’s smartphones are powerful, laptops are still the preferred machine for many tasks.  You would not expect your high school student to type a term paper on their smartphone!

Computers have become integrated into daily life to such a degree that they have gone from being a shared family resource to a personal use item.  My children do almost all of their schoolwork on computers.  It would be impossible for them to share a single device. 

In 2017 if you do not have ready access to a computer you are at a clear disadvantage.  As more services go online it is expected that you can easily connect and interact with them. Shopping, news, music, schoolwork, banking, media consumption, social media, email, the list is endless. A family of 4 with limited resources may be able to buy a single computer, but they would be hardpressed to afford two or three MacBooks or similarly expensive Windows machines.

Low-cost alternatives have emerged to bridge this gap.  Chromebooks were introduced by Google in 2011.  These laptops use a very lightweight operating system (OS) that serves as a framework to support Google’s Chrome browser.  Google supplies the OS with its integrated browser for free to computer manufacturers. This allows those manufacturers to produce low cost, but functional laptops. In return, Google receives precious user data. Chrome OS is updated every 6 weeks and becomes evermore mature and useful.  

Chrome OS has moved from being an industry joke to becoming the second most popular computer operating system in the US, surpassing Apple’s Mac OS. Computers running Chrome OS have become the dominant computer in schools, and Chromebooks are often the top-selling laptops on Amazon.  This is not because they are particularly powerful, it is because they can easily handle basic tasks, are simple to manage, and are dirt cheap.

The meteoric growth of Chromebooks has caught the eye of Google’s competitor, Microsoft. In an unprecedented move, Microsoft now allows its flagship Windows 10 operating system to be loaded on low powered computing devices, free of charge. Because of this, there is now an explosion of low powered “Cloudbook” laptops and tablets running Windows 10. Cloudbooks and Chromebooks have some differences, but their overall purpose and audience are the same. Cheap computing with a heavy emphasis on using the web. In other words, the everyday tasks that most of us use a computer for.

Technology has evolved allowing the use of low cost and highly efficient microprocessors to run both Chromebooks and Cloudbooks.  Companies like Rockchip from China buy off-the-shelf chip designs from ARM and produce inexpensive RISC microprocessors for use in a variety of computing devices, including laptops. Intel has countered by providing their own inexpensive Atom/Celeron chips. Because of their simpler design and lower transistor counts, these types of CPUs use very little power and produce little heat.  This results in very long battery life and quiet fanless operation.

The combination of cheap components combined with a free operating system has resulted in a plethora of Chromebooks and Cloudbooks that can be had for $200 or less. We are finally in an age where almost everyone can afford a computer.  Computers have gone the way of the microwave oven and the tabletop television; high tech products at bargain basement prices.

Both Chromebooks and Cloudbooks are powerful enough for day-to-day computing tasks.  However, if you want to do sophisticated video editing, photo editing, or audio mixing, you are going to have to pony up the cash for a Mac or a high-end Windows PC.

$200 is inexpensive, but what is the lowest price that you can spend and still have a usable computer for basic needs?  That has been the question that I have been pondering. Perhaps there is a student who needs a computer but has extremely low funds. Perhaps there is a retiree on a very tight budget. These individuals may have an absolute limit on what they can spend.  They don’t have the option of spending an extra $50 on a machine, even if the additional cost would provide a significant performance boost.

Question: Can you purchase a workable computer for less than $100?  A device that would be capable of all basic required tasks? Facebook, online banking, YouTube, Netflix, streaming music, web surfing, email, office documents, etcetera?

Many of my interests involve computers.  I have a YouTube channel, an audio podcast, and this blog. In addition, I’m an avid photographer. These are hobbies that require high computing resources.  For these needs, I usually use a Mac Pro or a MacBook Pro.

Question: Are there ways to use this lesser technology such as Chromebooks and Cloudbooks to approximate the tasks that I do on my more expensive computers?  The operative word is “approximate” as I already tax my high-end devices with my computing needs.

So what are the sub $100 choices?  It is impossible to get a working Mac for $100 or less.  Any traditional Windows computer at a $100 price point would be trash.  It is possible to mount a Linux OS on an old Windows computer, but how many people know how to do that?  It may be possible to get a used, but workable Cloudbook for less than $100. Unfortunately, my search could not find one priced at $100 or less.

It is possible to find Chromebooks at or below $100.  These are often off-lease machines that are “seller refurbished.”  A term that likely means that the seller did a quick once over and then washed the unit off with some Windex.

In fact, I’m typing on such a low-cost computer to write this post.  I’m using an off-lease Chromebook that was “seller refurbished” and was purchased off of eBay for a total cost of $68 (including shipping). I’m using the free/online Google Docs to compose this post on a computer that is less costly than a family meal at a mediocre restaurant. In addition, I’ll also edit and post a photo for this blog and embed my YouTube video on “Chrome vs. Cloud Computers,” below the post. Lastly, I’ll manage and update my WordPress (blog) website. A pretty good test for a cheap computer.  As an aside, as I’m typing this post I’m listening to streaming music from my $68 computer, which is wirelessly transmitting straight-ahead jazz to my Bluetooth earbuds!

Does my $68 computer have flaws?  Yes.  Am I limited in what I can do with my $68 computer? Yes.  However, I am able to do some amazing things with it.

During the next phase of my exploration, I will try to record, edit and post my audio podcast. I’ll also try to see if I can create some sort of YouTube video using it.  These projects are more complicated and demanding and will push the limits of this basic technology. Hopefully, not to its breaking point. My plan is to combine all of my results into a summary video on my YouTube Saving Savvy Channel. There are other geeks out there that enjoy this kind of stuff, just like me.

My first computing device was a basic Texas Instrument SR 10 calculator.  I bought it in 1973 for $129.00. That would be over $700 in today’s money. The converse of this would determine the cost of this $69 computer in 1973 money. That would be $12! Twelve dollars for a device significantly more powerful than the computer used on the first lunar lander.

This week’s thought problem is still in progress, but the basic parameters and methodology are set.  At problem completion, I will breathe a sigh of relief.  But, then there is always the next problem, whatever it may be. So many problems to solve, and so little time to solve them. I guess they keep me out of trouble!

Aside:  Dr. Julie hopefully reading this post will give you some insight on why we have so much junk in our basement! 😉  

My $68 computer

The Apple Effect

Thursday Morning  November 2, 2017, I roll out of bed.  The temperature outside is in the 40’s and despite the benefit of central heating, I can feel it.  I stumble into the bathroom and prepare myself to face the day.

Dressed, I head downstairs for my first cup of coffee.  I pop in a coffee capsule into my single-serve coffee maker, place a cup in its cradle, and press the start button. After 60 seconds of hissing and spurting and I am rewarded with my morning cup of Jo.  Shoes, then coat, then hat; I am off into the darkness.

I love my early morning walks.  Dark and quiet the world belongs to me, but not today. I walk the mile or so to downtown and I notice unusual activity on Jefferson Avenue.  It looks like someone has erected a small collapsible beach tent on the sidewalk. My brain does some quick early morning calculations, and I assume it must be some sort of a warming tent for a work crew.  I approach ever closer, but something doesn’t feel right.

There are people standing around the little tent, but they are dressed in expensive jackets made of down and high-tech insulators.  They appear purposeless, sober, and tired.  As I move closer I’m now aware that what I thought was a few workers is actually a very long line of people standing between a narrow gangway between two buildings.  The line goes back as far as I can see and is dotted with lawn chairs and other collapsible contraptions.  I acknowledge the first person in the line, “Hello!” I say.  He doesn’t respond.  “Hello, good morning!”  He looks up.  “What’s going on here?”  “The iPhone X,” he mumbles.  Now it becomes clear, my quiet and meditative walk has been subverted by a gaggle of Apple fanboys and girls all wanting the new iPhone X.  A product that they deem so important to them that some of them have likely spent the night standing in the cold to get one.

Dear readers, I have a Mac, I have an iPad, and I have an iPhone.  They are wonderful if overpriced products.  I enjoy using them every day.  However, I would not be willing to wait in the cold for hours so I could have the “honor” of being one of the first people on my block to purchase one. Clearly, many people do not share that opinion.  This got me thinking.

I have owned several generations of iPhones.  Each one is better, but hardly a life-changer.  Perhaps the processor was a bit faster, the camera had a few more megapixels, or the screen was a slightly sharper. However, the essence of the experience has been about the same from one version to the next.

It is likely that most of the people standing in line already had iPhones. So why wouldn’t they just buy their new toy online and wait a couple weeks for delivery?  The overall outcome would be the same. I call the reason the “Apple Effect.”  The ability to hype a product to such a degree that people become irrational about their desire to have it.  A utilitarian device becomes a symbol, a badge of prestige and sophistication.  A telephone has been transformed into something else.  That something else is significant enough to demand a premium price.  It is significant enough to have people give up sleep and comfort in order to obtain it. On some level, the buyer becomes convinced that a phone will somehow change them or their lives, despite absolute evidence that is contrary to this hypothesis.  It is cool to get a new toy, but we all know that a new toy becomes an old toy in very short order.

Creating desire is one of the oldest methods of advertising.  Making something that is common, uncommon is as obvious as the number of women wearing diamond engagement rings. Over 100 years ago De Beers transformed diamonds from a fairly abundant stone to a priceless gem by coining the phrase, “A diamond is forever.” Diamonds are made of carbon, like coal.  They burn up in fires, they can fracture and chip.  In reality, they are not “forever.”  The reality is not important, the catchphrase is.

Current hypesters like Apple also play on the idea of shortage to make their products seem rare.  They leak “secret” information about their designs to tweak interest.  They tout features that have little significance.  A processor that is 60% faster has little significance if your current processor is fast enough. The ability to turn yourself into an animated unicorn or pile of poo is hardly a reason to pony up the cash needed to move to the next generation device.  However, we buy the excitement and jump onboard.

Apple has adopted another strategy for success, it prices its products above similar equipment.  Apple has always had an “Apple tax,” but recently they have pushed overpricing into the stratosphere.  They know that making a product more expensive intrinsically makes it more valued. Women with logoed purses and men with branded ties know this phenomenon well.

Apple has been expert using channels like YouTube to hype their products.  All advertising is good, even if a phone reviewer questions their cost or design.  Every time you see an electronic article, YouTube video, or vlog about the iPhone X you are reminded of it.  Free commercials for this very rich company.

We all can be 15-minute celebrities when we flash our new toy, the question to ask, is it worth it?

That depends on the person or situation.  For some waiting in line all night is akin to being the first in line for a Black Friday sale.  Yes, you got that unneeded Bluray player for $40, but you really went to the sale to be part of the circus.  For some having the latest and greatest is a fun pursuit.  Then there are a few who really need the additional functionality or power of the new phone.  However, it saddens me if someone is going into debt to possess a gadget that they don’t need and can’t afford.

I was surfing YouTube the day after the Thursday launch and came across a video from Brian Tong, the host of CNET’s “Apple Byte.”  He looked weary from being up late from monitoring multiple internet buying sites so he could secure a new iPhone X.  During his short video, he commented sadly on the fact that so much energy was being spent purchasing a very expensive product when there were so many other more important things happening in the world.  I know that he will never see this blog, but that video gave me new respect for him.  His comments rang true.

Will I get an iPhone X?  Possibly, and I can’t absolutely justify it.  I have some Apple gift cards and I will be retiring soon. I like new toys.  So am I a hypocrite?  I can’t answer that.  I’m a complex guy and not a two-dimensional cartoon cutout. Sometimes it is OK to do irrational things, as long as you are not hurting yourself or someone else in the process. However, if I do get one it will be with the understanding that I am buying it because I want it, not because I need it.  Or is it because I have become victim to the “Apple Effect?”

Hours before the Apple store opened, they wait.
The line of potential iPhone buyers snakes off into the distance.

Chinese Halloween

It is Thursday, October 31, 1991. My girlfriend Julie sits in my family room surrounded by books. She is knee deep in her Ph.D. program and already feeling the stress of multiple classes, a teaching assistantship, and initial research exploration.

It was Halloween, and as usual, I overbought on the candy. I had arranged to be home early to pass out the treats, and I had also invited Julie over for dinner. She already knew that I could cook. I was stressed by work and I didn’t feel the need to impress her with my culinary skills. The easy dinner solution was to order Chinese carryout.

Just up the street was the now defunct, “Chan’s Kitchen,” my closest Chinese restaurant. A place so familiar with me that they knew my order before I had to utter it. I dialed them up and was greeted by a strong female Chinese accent. “Chan’s Kitchen, can I help you? Oh Kuna, the usual? It will be ready in 20 minutes.”

A quick trip and I was back with plastic and cardboard containers filled with Americanized Asian delicacies. I plopped the paper bag on the table and pulled a few plates from the cupboard. I had asked for chopsticks and put them on top of the plates in all their paper sleeved glory.

Vince, my boss at the time, had been pleased with some work that I had done and gave me a huge and very fancy gift box filled with all sorts of good stuff. Among the prizes was a large magnum of Cristal. I’m not much of a drinker and far from an expert, but I did know that champagne was a wine that did not age well. I didn’t want it to go faulty. “Hey Julie, do you want some fancy champagne to compliment our carry-out? “ “Sure, “ she said.

I didn’t have any champagne flutes and we made due with a couple of wine glasses from Crate and Barrel. We are both light drinkers, but the fruity sweetness of the champagne went down well with the salty goodness of the Chinese food.

There we were, sitting at my kitchen table, plates heaped, glasses full, candles lit, Dexter Gordon’s mellow tenor sax playing in the background. Life was good and for very inexperienced champagne drinkers it just seemed to be getting better with each sip.

The doorbell was constantly ringing and we both would rush to the door to see the latest costume. As we ate and drank the outfits seemed to be getting ever cuter. We decided to finish the bottle, as we thought that the fizziness could not be contained by a replacement cork. Anyway, how bad could this stuff be? It almost tasted like soda pop… or so we thought.

Dear readers, as I mentioned I have very low tolerance to alcohol. I usually drink a single glass or wine, or a single beer. Even at that level, I can feel it. Julie is a bit more tolerant, but not by much.

Finally, the last trick-or-treater came and left. The magnum was empty. I would have to say that the feeling that I had was “unique.” I was happy, actually silly. At the same time I was dizzy and I wasn’t too sure if I was correctly feeling the floor (or my nose, for that matter). Julie was in a similar state. We laughed, we snorted, we commented on the cute costumes, we continued to eat.

The next day was a day of lessons, as my alcohol naive body clearly let me know that I had done something… well, not good. Foggy, somewhat sick, and with a massive headache that refused to respond to acetaminophen, I faced the work day. As sick as I was on Friday, I still had pleasant memories from that 1991 Halloween Thursday.

Last night was Halloween, 2017. Julie was working late and I ordered Chinese. This time from the computer, not the telephone. I had to rely on the web descriptions and (as usual) way over ordered. Our kids were away. Julie picked up the food on her way home from work and I lit some candles. We sat among curry chicken, fried wonton, and tofu shrimp. Now filling paper plates instead of china ones. Now using more practical forks instead of sophisticated chopsticks; each of us having only a small glass of wine. We reminisced over past Chinese Halloweens, as Chinese food on October 31st has now become a 26-year tradition. The doorbell rang, over and over. The cuteness of costumes less evident without the benefit of “champagne goggles.” Twenty-six years… Twenty-six years! A long time ago, yet a memory fresh.

Our tradition of Chinese Halloween came by accident, and it is now part of our family tradition. However, the addition of Cristal has not been repeated. Traditions come from many places and gain a significance of history. Halloween without Chinese food would simply not be Halloween.

I once again overbought the Chinese carry-out.

Sibling Breakfast

Eight twenty Sunday morning, I shout down the hall.  “We have to leave now.”  Julie responds, “I’m ready.”  We get into the Flex and make the 10 minute trip to Butterfield’s breakfast restaurant.  We arrive exactly on time, 8:30 AM.

We enter and are met by the vanilla sweet smell of pancakes and the hellos of my sister Nancy and my brother-in-law Mike.  Mike offers a funny comment, which I only half hear due to the clatter of plates and my less-than-perfect hearing.  I smile and nod.

The host arrives and I instruct her that we need a quiet table for 6. She leads us to a round table towards the back of the restaurant.  Strong coffee is poured, and we all start to sip.

In a few minutes my sister Carol arrives smiling.  She apologizes for being late, she was up late babysitting.  We all nod and welcome her.  We wait for my sister-in-law Kathy to arrive until someone remembers that she wasn’t coming due to a previous engagement,  in this case a date.  My brother Dave passed away a few years ago and Kathy is dating again.  We all comment how happy we are that she is getting out and enjoying her life.

The waitress arrives and passes out laminated menus.  We take them and scan them in earnest. I find the process amusing, as we always order the same thing.  Swedish pancakes for Mike,  scrambled eggs for Nancy, omelets for Carol and Julie.  I always get the Lox and bagel plate, and I always order a styrofoam carrier to bring half of it back home.

Our chatting continues.  My family has never learned the fine art of conversation, and it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt each other as we build and add to our conversation streams. Of course, it is also OK to tell the interrupter to, “Wait, I’m not done talking!”

Nancy and Mike talk about their new, and at this point nameless dog.  As Nancy recollects the sudden loss of Toby (their last dog) she tears up.  “I don’t know if we can handle this dog.  He is so active.  Jeannine said she would take him if we can’t.”  I know my sister, nameless has entered their home, never to leave.

Carol recounts events from her recent life.  Time with her kids, talk of her grandkids, and her lifelong desire to become more organized and to simplify her life. Julie talks about our kids and updates the family about the grandkids.  She reflects on her psychotherapy business, now pretty successful.  I focus on my latest obsession, my upcoming retirement.  Lately, I have been pondering my next step.  I feel compelled to write, to take photos, to be creative.  I anguish, “Will anyone care about what I have to say?”  Carol reassures me that I write in an engaging style.  She ends by saying, “Mike I would comment on your post if I could figure out how to do it.”  I nod, as I know that she would.  My brilliant sister Carol does many things well, but she still has trouble with the simplest computer task. “When I get organized I’m going to learn how to do it.”  A statement that I have heard many times through the years.

I was the youngest child in our family of five siblings.  My two brothers are now gone.  In their place are my wife Julie, my brother-in-law Mike, and my sister-in-law Kathy. After decades together we are all siblings, with no distinction based on biology.

Our sibling breakfasts have become a tradition that happens every 6 weeks or so.  The format varies slightly from time to time, but their overall significance remains.  Sibling breakfast is a way for us to connect and celebrate our bonds with each other.  The meetings can sometimes be a vehicle for support or advice, but its main purpose of one of connection.

The waitress comes by and picks up our plates.  She offers more coffee, but we all decline.  Despite our lack of food and drink, we linger.  Our conversation continues until I finally say, “We need to set up a time for the next breakfast.”  Participants pull out their appointment books or smartphones as we negotiate our next get together.  We ask the waitress to take our picture, stand, and put on our coats.  Hugs and goodbyes follow.

It is still early in the morning, enough time for Julie and I to make to church.  During the service I utter a silent prayer, “God, thank you for my siblings and sibling breakfast.”

Simple Gifts

 


A chilly morning, the tip of my nose still cold as I type this.

I enter Starbucks and I am greeted by Smokey Robinson’s, “Tracks Of My Tears.” It is a happy sounding song whose upbeat tempo is in direct contrast with its lyrics. I tune into the happy tempo and ignore the sad lyrics.


My friend Tom is acting as the contractor for a window replacement at my house. He stopped by to supervise, which meant that I got to see him a few times yesterday. Bonus.

Our house was filled with the smells of baking. Julie had made some yeast rolls for the family, and my step-mother’s Winter Apple Cake for her small group at church. There is nothing like the intoxicating smell of baking on a cold fall day.

After dinner, we went to Band-A-Rama. It is a high school event where the various school bands play separately and then together. Grace is the first chair oboe in SWE (Symphonic Wind Ensemble), the top band at the high school.

Since the concert features 4 different bands it was held in the school’s fieldhouse instead of the auditorium. This meant foregoing the nice theater seats in lieu of the bleachers. Bleachers seem to negatively impact my back after about 30 minutes.

We sat down and soon Julie’s friend Glynis and her husband Tom sat next to us. Glynis is an English professor and a salt-of-the-earth kind of person. Julie and Glynis have been friends since Julie formed a mother/daughter book club around 15 years ago. After a few pleasantries, I turned to my phone to see what settings I would use to record parts of the performance.

Heavy in concentration I felt someone deliberately lean on me from the other side. It was Joe, my neighbor. He coached my kids in T-ball decades ago. We entered into conversation about our kids and the neighborhood before the music started.

The concert was long due to the fact that each band had to play a few pieces. Luckily, high school bands play pretty well and the experience was enjoyable. At one point one of Gracie’s friends came by and motioned a hello.

At the end of the concert, I ran into Jennifer and her husband. She is a Clinical Psychologist who works in my office. I nodded a greeting to her and her husband. Next to them was John and his wife Helen. John retired about 4 years ago and he was there to see his grandkids perform. He looked at me and as if he could read my mind he said, “Mike, you are going to love retirement.”

My daughter’s high school has almost 3000 students. How great it was to have so many nice people to interact with.

As SWE played Simple Gifts from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” I thought that it was truly a day of simple gifts for me.

NNHS: “Simple Gifts”

Rose And Thorn

Another morning at Starbucks.  Another Tall of Pikes Place with too much half and half added.  The Spotify playlist is especially engaging this morning.  Music from the 40s.  Judy Garland, Satchmo, Billie Holiday.  I imagine that I’m grabbing a cup of coffee at a local diner before I head off to work in a wartime aircraft factory. My illusion only shattered by the computer in front of me.  Perhaps I can pretend that it is an Underwood portable typewriter.


Last night…

I wander into the family room.  It is around 7 PM and my family is in its post-dinner routine.  They are roughly arranged in the shape of an isosceles triangle. Grace has commandeered the “dad chair” by the french doors. She is humorously reading off a worksheet from her economics class. Yes, it is possible to find humor in macroeconomics. Will is on one end of the couch with earbuds in and face invisibly tethered to his iPhone.  Julie is on the opposite end of the couch.  She has built a nest.  Macbook, a hardcover book, a couple magazines, and a small bowl of precisely ratioed Smartpop and bean chips filled out her space.

I engage them and they are happy to reply, but in the short bursts that people do when they are trying to be polite but involved elsewhere.  I survey the landscape and realize that the only other comfortable space available would involve having Julie and Will move their belongings from the center of the couch. I do a quick benefits analysis and decide to recede to my own space and plug into my electronics.  I grab the latest Time magazine with the hopes of reading the cover story. I make a mental note that it may be a good topic for this month’s podcast. The quiet evening continues with my eventual conclusion of sleep.

I’m sure that this scenario is playing itself out in the other houses up and down my suburban street.  A typical evening in typical America.  And that is why I’m grateful for “Rose and Thorn.”

What is “Rose and Thorn?”  It is a conversational device that our family has been using for about 10 years. The rules are simple, the objectives are not.  Let me tell you how it works… but first I have to set the stage.

Those family members who are at home at dinner time are expected to sit down with the rest of the family and eat.  We try to avoid electronic devices at dinner (try, is the operative word). We say Grace. We settle in and follow our respective “start-up” routines.  Will checks out the meal’s protein source, Gracie carefully picks out her favorite pieces of cut up fruit, Julie sets up a plate that may include choices outside the regular dinner offerings, I start to assemble my salad “casserole.”

We start to talk…  “Will, why don’t you tell us your rose and thorn today?”  Will will then talk about his rose, something good from the day.  He will then say his thorn, a negative from the day. He may also say a leaf, something neutral.  Questions may be asked about his replies, and side conversations may erupt.  We go around the table until all willing participants have had their turn.

The vast majority of rose and thorns are pretty routine.  For instance, these are mine from yesterday:

Rose: I got to talk to people that I care about.

Thorn: I had to say goodbye to patients who I have become fond of.

Leaf: Dinner (a McDonald’s Southwestern Salad).

Other family members quizzed me about my responses. In this example, most of the questions were about my thorn, and I was offered some TLC about my loss.

The whole process of “Rose and Thorn” doesn’t take too long, but it serves an important family function.  It acknowledges that we each face ups and downs in daily life.  It allows my family to talk about those events, and to support each other.  It gives us a structure to talk to each other.  Naturally, we chat about other things too, but “Rose and Thorn” gets the ball rolling.

By the time dinner was over I knew what was happening in my family’s life.  It was OK that they were connecting elsewhere after dinner.  I didn’t need their undivided attention, and I was perfectly happy to drift into my own introverted space.

Sometimes simple traditions like eating together and having a conversation starter can become some of the most important things we do to maintain the relationships in our lives.  If you want to have a real relationship with someone you have to relate to them (duh).  The personal connections that we have with others are not business connections that rely strictly on growth goals or profit.  They enrich us by their sheer existence. They don’t happen magically, they require work, like any other good connection.  

People often make the false assumption that once a connection is established it should stand on its own.  This is not the case.  When we want a plant to grow we pay attention to it.  We water it when it is dry, we move it so it can be warmed by the sun, we prune off the bad parts and encourage new grown.  It is no different with the important relationships in our lives. What are your rose and thorn today?

 

Someone Else’s Shoes

 

Empathy is the ability to understand a person’s feelings or situation. This is different than identification where you actually identify with a person’s feelings. “Oh, I felt just like that.” As a psychiatrist, it is important to have empathy, less so identification.
 
Some people have a natural gift for empathy, just like some people have a natural gift for playing a piano. With that said, just like learning to play the piano empathy can be taught.
 
So where am I going with this? Hold on, I’m about to talk about Pella windows. What!? In fact, I’m going to try to bridge the theme of Pella windows with empathy and then join the two topics in what I think is a disturbing trend that I see in society. I’m doing this at around 5 AM in the morning, sitting in Starbucks, so we will see how this goes.
 
Many months ago my friend Tom generously offered to put in new windows at my circa 1984 house. Windows were not urgently needed, but they were aging. About 6 weeks ago they were custom ordered through Pella. They now reside in my garage, waiting to be installed. The initial install date was last week, but delays with his carpentry crew pushed the date up to this week, specifically yesterday.
 
Yesterday it rained, and the windows could not be installed. Today it rained, and the windows could not be installed. I am hopeful that the process will start tomorrow.
 
I know Tom, and I know that the windows will be installed as soon as possible. The only aggravation that I feel centers on the desire to get the job done. I’m one of those people who likes to check boxes off when a task is completed.
 
Tom has told me stories of customers who seem to ignore the reality that life happens. If a cabinet is delayed, or if a part is on order it can halt a remodel. Many people understand this, but other become incensed and angry. They assume that it is Tom’s fault. Their attitude is one of condescending superiority. They are unable to move past their own inconvenience and understand that delays also impact Tom’s bottom line. When work is not done payments are not made. He wants to finish a project just as much as his customers wants a project finished.
 
As a professional, I have been fortunate that most of my patients have been respectful of my time and expertise. However, I can also face individuals with a lack of empathy. The person who calls at 3 AM in the morning because they can’t sleep. The individual who becomes insulting and angry because they had to wait a few hours to get a return call, not caring that I’m seeing other patients. The patient who feels that I should have an encyclopedic memory of their past and present medications when I get a call from them on a Sunday afternoon.
 
A lack of empathy not only impacts the connections with the people around us, it also directly impacts us. I understand that it is impossible to install windows when it is raining. I feel sorry for myself, but I also feel sorry for Tom. We can bond over our mutual disappointment. However, what if my attitude was different? What if I wanted what I wanted, and I didn’t care what was going on with the other person (in this case Tom)? Now I’m frustrated and angry. I feel like a victim. I may act-out those feelings with anger or threats. Now everyone is upset. My day is ruined. I can’t even enjoy the end result of getting new windows. You can see that empathy is not only important for our connections, it is also important for our own personal well being.
 
I might suggest that when you are frustrated by a situation to “try to put on the other person’s shoes,” for a moment. Get a feeling for what they are going through and try to connect to those feelings. Approach the situation and the person with your new understanding. More often than not you will be a happier person and you will have a better outcome.