My First Time

It was my first time. At the age of 64 I image that most would have thought that I would have done it many times before, but that wasn’t the case. I had thought about doing it once, but that was over 25 years ago. I was younger and stronger then. It sounded like an intriguing and exciting thing to do, but I never got around to it. To be honest, the only reason that I did it now was because of Julie. She felt that we should do it. I guess a lot of couple do it and don’t think twice about it. The idea wasn’t alien to me, I have to admit that I was intrigued. Naturally, I was also a bit nervous. Julie said it would be OK.

I’m used to traveling where the transporters goal is quantity rather than quality. However, I remember a time in the distant past when that was not the case. My first flight was spectacular. I traveled to Hawaii at the age of 19 accompanied by friends, and at the sensible cost of $300. A cost that included lodging at a string of budget motels. The Boeing 474 that took us was first class, as was the gourmet meal that was served on tiny real china. The flight attendant took a special interest in our little group, adding to the illusion that were were closeted royalty.

Like a junkie’s first high, this experience was never to be repeated. Air travel is now something I endure. An experience where I feel grateful for a half of a cup of lukewarm coffee served up in a paper cup.

I was unprepared for what I experienced. Friendly, helpful, smiling… they guided me from station to station. Up this ramp, down that velvet roped maze. Always smiling, eye contact mandatory. It felt good, yet a bit disconcerting. My first time on a cruise. My first time to the wilds of Alaska.

Cruising on the mighty Norwegian Jewel. Gigantic in size, a small city afloat. My every need tended to. A place where the steward calls me by name. A place where my ever ravenous son William can order two complete breakfasts plus a side, and the server doesn’t blink. A place where someone makes my bed and puts out fresh towels in my boat style bathroom. A place where my questions are always met with a smile and a polite response. It feels good. It feels unnatural.

There are dangers at sea, but they don’t present as super storms or pirate’s ships. Rather, they arrive more subtly. Endless food of every type available 23 out of the 24 hours of a day. A soft mattress that whispers, “Stay with me, you can go to the fitness center tomorrow.” A ship’s credit card that makes any purchase magically possible, as the bill only arrives at the end of the trip.

I am learning to navigate these dangers, but with difficulty. I’m trying to eat sensibly, but my questioning GI system is letting me know that my choices still need to be adjusted. I did make it to the gym, but at a time later than I would have liked. As far as the ships credit card is concerned, for now it is a wild card. However, I can tell you that I have not purchased an Omega watch or an original oil painting.

Today is a day at sea, with our first port-of-call tomorrow morning. Soon it will be time for lunch. I hope to be more controlled in my choices. Perhaps I will go to the Stardust theater for some family friendly entertainment this evening. My original plans to visit the pool have been dashed by strong winds and frigid temperatures. I’m on a cruise. I’m relaxing. I’m slowing down.

Today I am grateful for first times. My goal is to continue to seek more of them.

On Being Powerless

Dear readers, today I am writing in a personal exploration style. The content may be too heavy for some.

Prior to creating I wrote my thoughts on Facebook. All of my writing has had a purpose, a purpose that may be unknown to many of you. You see, dear readers, I am trying to find my voice, specifically my writing voice. Part of that process includes being fearless in what I say.

I find that when I write different writing styles emerge. They press forward and then recede, only to be replaced by another style. My writing process is quirky. Sometimes I will get an idea during a life event. Sometimes a photo will trigger a post. At times I will have a great idea, only to forget it by the time that my fingers touch keyboard.

Today I felt a need to write. Today I had absolutely no idea what to write about. One phrase came to me. That phrase repeated itself in the insistent way that things sometimes do in my life. I have learned to address insistent thoughts as they often lead me in a direction that I am intended to travel. Where do these thoughts come from? My subconcious? An event? God? Likely, all of the above.

This morning I woke up to the insistent thought that I am powerless. I thought that I would write about it. Dear reader, like many I despise cryptic posts. Those post that make a dramatic statement, but offer no juicy details to finalize the story to a satisfying completeness. That is not my intention here. Rather, I would like to include you in the process of discovering the reasons why my consciousness has directed me. I will attempt that discovery by writing about it. If this level of obtuseness is unsatisfying to you then I would suggest that you stop reading now, lest you be frustrated and bored. I am going to write today’s piece as it flows from me, editing only grammar, not content nor sequence. Welcome to my mind…

My beginning was one without power. I suppose that is what most early lives are. I realized that if I wanted to move myself in any direction I would have to be my own active agent. I have talked in the past of individuals who helped propel me forward, but I had to do the actual work on my own.

To my surprise, I was able to accomplish what appeared to be impossible goals. Initially, I attributed those achievements to random chance or blind luck. Later, I accepted my personal efforts. Larger changes in my life seemed to happen by unknown external forces. Eventually, I had to admit that large changes were generated by a Higher Force. That Force I now call God.

Sometimes an apparent positive change turns out to be negative. Sometimes an apparent negative change turns out to be positive. Most times I accept this fact, at other times I fight it tooth and nail.

After decades of practicing my professional craft it has become easy to identify key problem areas in a patient and to develop useful interventions to help alleviate those problems. After decades of practicing my profession, I have learned that many patients are unwilling to accept such solutions. Of those that do accept my suggestion, many will not implement them. I understand this. I am not that powerful, and even a small percentage of change makes my professional life significant. Positive force, even small, pushes humankind forward. Negative force, even small, does the opposite.

So why am I writing about being powerless? Why did this thought enter my mind on awakening this morning? To understand this I need to go past my two polar extremes. The first being my well controlled internal milieu, and the second being my professional connections with others.

In between lies those people that I love. Those individuals where I have gone past empathic concern, and have connected with them on a profound level. Those connections can be both emotionally exhausting, and intensely rewarding. Because of the tremendous outlay of interpersonal energy required, I choose those connections carefully.

A number of factors combine to offer me unique insights in others. My co-dependency roots afford me more empathy than some. My OCD roots constantly analyze situational outcomes and potential solutions. My autistically (according to my psychologist wife) structured brain allows me to see data and solutions in aggregates, rather than in the A + B = C fashion of linear thinkers. Add to these the secret sauce of my training as a psychiatrist and 30+ years of “field” work; I come to the table better prepared than most.

On the surface, it would seem that the above package would be immensely beneficial to the loved ones in my life. I can recognize problems as they emerge, come up with potential options, and I even have the skillset to bring such options to a workable solution. Patients pay me hundreds of dollars for an hour of my time. Loved ones get that expertise for free.

However, people that seek your advice are different from people who you give unsolicited advice to. The later group viewing such interactions as potential intrusions. On an intellectual level I can understand this completely. However, my deep connections with others are not intellectual in nature. They are based on deep feelings, deep commitment, and a genuine desire to give that person what they tell me that they want. Of course, what people say what they want is not always what they feel that they deserve.

I tend to take on a loved one’s problem as my own and devote high levels of resources in helping them obtain the outcome that they say that they desire. It can be difficult for me to recognize that they may have a different actual agenda when I am so focused. This is very different from my professional life where I can stand aside with enough distance to explore the sub plots of a patient’s psyche.

When I connect with someone deeply I can be blinded by my desire to protect them. From what, you may ask? I don’t always have an answer to that question. I can only generate a metaphor that defines this feeling:

I am seeing a small child on a railroad track. The child says that they want to get off that track and I can sense their genuine fear. The train is coming and I am shouting solutions. Each solution is met by an illogical rationale why it can’t be done. The train moves ever closer, my pleas become louder, the returning rejections become firmer. Eventually, my attempted solutions become part of the problem. They delay the inevitable. They prolong the agony. Since they are not accepted, they have no true meaning or benefit. They are just words. What should I do? Do I stop shouting and let the train crush the child? Will the child figure out a way to save himself? Should I just wait with open arms to comfort and help pick up the broken person?… None of the above seems right to me.

I need to realize that solutions are only helpful if someone implements them. People have a right to guide their own lives, even if their action cause avoidable distress to them. I cannot make change happen by the sheer force of my will.

As I write this I am sad. I don’t want the people that I love to suffer. I want to pick them up and carry them to safety. I want to cover them up with a soft blanket and keep them warm. I want to protect them. I want them to know that they are loved, that they have value. Instead, I have to accept sadness and powerlessness.

Over the last 5 years I have undergone many significant changes. Some of them initially presented as truly terrible events. However, they were part of a greater movement that has had a profoundly positive impact on my life. I need to remember this as I look at problems that the people that I love face. I can’t predict how their seemingly incorrect actions will impact them as they travel through their own timeline. I need to constantly remind myself, some bad things produce good changes, some good things produce bad ones.

I also need to be cognizant of my personal needs. I may assume that anything that strengthens my connection with someone that I love is mutually beneficial for both of us. It is possible that a loosening of that connection could actually be good for someone that I care about, as it would allow that person to form potentially deeper connections with others. Despite my personal desires, it is important for me to realize that when I truly care about someone I need to consider that they may need to move in a new direction, even if that direction is away from me.

Today I am powerless, helpless, but not hopeless. Today I must accept my limitations. I understand that I am not alone, and that something greater than myself has a personal interest in me. That entity, who I refer to as God, also has a personal interest in those around me.

Still, the above knowledge doesn’t help the agony that I feel for the “child on the railroad track.” Perhaps writing in the future will help me understand that.

Today my goal to continue to gain a better understanding of myself and my actions.

The Cabin

Two Hours north of Minneapolis, I drive.  Past malls, past restaurants, past car dealerships. Two hours to get to Isle, on the shores of the great Mille Lacs.

It has been a long time since I was last there, I can’t exactly remember how long.  Ten years?  A long time.

The cabin has an address, but no one knows it.  Directions are provided by my sister-in-law, Amy.  Carefully written in her best school teacher scribe they guide me.  Left here, right there; all I have to do is to follow her directions, as the roads become ever narrower and more deserted.  North to the Northwoods, north to the cabin.

Despite the years, it seems familiar.  The cabin, the dock, the smell of the water, the sting of the mosquitoes.

As we are a family of five we are awarded the loft. Up the steep staircase, close to the knotty pine ceiling, space for all under its slanted roofline. Protected from falling by the railing built by my father-in-law Bob, and my brother-in-law Karl.  My mother-in-law proudly recounts that she stained every piece of wood for the railings herself. My father-in-law notes that he copied the design from a restaurant in Florida.

The cabin evokes memories, and those memories generate stories. There is something about the cabin that makes it unique.

I sit next to my father-in-law on the front porch of the cabin.  The porch with the seaman’s rope that serves as a stylized railing.  He sits quietly as he looks off into the distance.  His eyes fluttered for a moment, and he starts to speak.  

He talks about his grandfather, who came from Sweden.  He would visit Mille Lacs with his immigrant cronies to net whitefish when they ran.  The activity reminded them of Sweden, a piece of home to ground them in a new and strange country.  That was almost 100 years ago.

He talks about the building of the first cabin by his father, the dentist, F.O. Nelson.  The cabin that served the family from 1928 to 2001, when it was razed to make room for the new cabin.

My father-in-law believes that he was conceived at the cabin, shortly after it was built.  Now 88 years old, he has come to the cabin ever since.  He tells me of fishing for Walleye.  He talks about his now passed brother Jim.  Jim bought a cabin about a half of a block away.  That cabin now occupied by Jim’s wife Arlene, her adult children, and their children.  Like our cabin, they are building a history in theirs.

My mother-in-law Avis smiles as she remembers the cabin that served as a meeting place for the extended Nelson family. Then owned by Ruby, FO’s wife. They all came: taking turns making meals, talking, playing games, fishing, swimming.

My wife Julie and I go for a walk down towards the point.  Memories flood her…  Playing board games with her cousins.  The big stone fireplace of the old cabin.  Grandma Ruby’s arts-and-crafts that decorated the place. The napkin holder made out of a repurposed  Joy bottle, Ruby’s oil paintings. She recalls crayfish hunts, waterskiing, old magazines the were re-read 1000 times,  the endless hours swimming in the lake.  She starts to tear up, “Will this be the last time I come here?”

I flash back to memories of the original cabin.  The one where water had to be ported from a community well.  The outhouse. The smell of old wood and fresh pine. The “Liberty Beach Resort” where I dug for quarters so I could use their pay-as-you-go shower.

My kids settle into the cabin routine.  They have been there many more times than me.  They volunteer to help when it is our day for meal preparation.  They play in the water.  They laugh over Mexican Dominos.  They talk to grandma and grandpa.

I ponder, what makes this place so special?  Is it the location? Is it the cabin itself? No, it is activities that forms connections with others, and the memories created by those connections.  

Today my goals are to build a memory and celebrate the connections in my life.

Bob, the consummate storyteller
Julie remembers
Mexican Dominos
Two of my kids ponder at the end of the dock
New generation, new memories





21 Hours In A Car

Last week was full of connections with people that I care about, each connection could have served as the topic of a blog post.  However, one event stands out, as that event included a Harley, Dunkin Donuts coffee, and a 21 hour car ride.

Fridays are travel days for me.  I leave the suburbs of Chicago and drive almost 90 miles to Rockford to see a full day of patients.  I then get back into my car and drive 90 miles back to home.  I enjoy going to Rockford, but I’m tired on my return. Friday evenings are reserved for lounging activities.

You may recall me mentioning my friend Tom in previous blog posts.  Tom and I spend a lot of time together, and through the years we have helped each other in many ways.  This week Tom asked me for a favor.  He was selling his Harley Springer Classic motorcycle, and he wanted me to go with him to the sale.

Let me give you some additional information:

  1. The buyer lives in Texas.  
  2. The buyer wanted Tom to drive half-way to make the transaction.  Specifically, the buyer wanted to meet Tom in Springfield, Missouri at 8 AM on Saturday morning.
  3. Springfield, Missouri is between a 7 ½ and 8 ½ hour drive from my home.  

I usually arrive home from Rockford at around 6:30 PM. Tom’s plan was to pick me up at 7:00 PM and we would drive all night to Springfield.  A totally crazy idea on all levels. I said, “Sure.”

The trip…

I dig through my pantry for whatever snack food I can find. Some mixed nuts, Barbecue Sunchips, Ritz crackers, and some Beef Jerky nuggets.  It’s 7:03 PM, Tom pulls up towing his Harley on a UHaul trailer.   He is ready for travel with a Yeti cooler filled with LaCroix, and two cups of hot Dunkin Donuts coffee.  I get into the passenger side and close the door behind me.

The plan is simple, and simply insane.  We drive all night to Missouri, sell his Harley, and immediately turn around and drive home.  Estimated total awake time for me, about 36 hours.

Tom and have no problem filling up hours with idle conversation, but we have never attempted interacting with each other for almost 24 hours straight while being physically separated by only a center console.  It is hard to imagine that any friendship could survive such a stress test.

My somewhat OCD friend insists on driving most of the way, and I insist on making sure that he stays awake.  Tom was raised in Communist Poland, and I have an fascination of life behind the iron curtain.  With that said, even a professional interviewer like myself has limits, my brain starts to short out.  

Time for a new plan.

 (editor’s note: only one person has permission to call me Mikey, that person is Tom. Only one person calls Tom, Tommy, that person is me).

“Tommy I’ll ask you a question, then you will ask me a question!”  Sighs and groans erupt from the other side of the cabin.  “Mikey, I hate doing that.  I have nothing to ask you.  I won’t do it!” “I completely understand,” I reply.

I begin with something simple, “Tell me your favorite Eastern Bloc city and why.”  Tom finishes his answer and I prompt him to ask me a question.  “I told you that I won’t do it!  I don’t have any questions to ask you.  I already know everything I need to know about you.”  … long pause, groans, humfs, another pause, and then Tom asks me a question.  This cycle repeats itself for about 4 hours.

Back and forth questions, bathroom breaks, attempts to see the stars through the car’s windows,  and more random conversation.  

Like two school kids we get excited seeing the sights:  a Route 66 sign here, the St. Louis Arch there, sightings of antique cars, police prowlers with their Mars lights ablaze, small towns with highway signs that beg us to stop and visit.

Around 3:00 AM we find a rest stop and decide to attempt to sleep for a couple of hours.  Tom is shorter than I am and quickly finds a comfortable spot in his chair.  My long body is not as adaptable, and I bend this way and twist the other.  In less than two minutes I start to hear noises that could only be described as an animal in pain.  Gurgling noises, snorts, sputters and goans.  “Don’t focus on his snoring or you will never fall asleep.”  I tell myself.  How can I not focus on it, the entire car is vibrating.

At 5 AM, we are up and getting text messages from Tom’s potential buyer, Jeff.  Jeff is at the Super 8 in Springfield, and he is willing to buy us breakfast.  We accept.  

We meet Jeff and his friend Gary at “Jimmy’s Eggs.”  They have already started eating and Jeff motions over the waitress for our orders.  I go for eggs over easy, Tom tries a some sort of skillet.  

Jeff is clearly very excited about getting the Springer Classic.  However, in a cautionary tone he says to Tom, “I don’t trust very easily. I checked you out on the internet, and took a look at your website.”   I designed and built Tom’s website, and it is hard not to ask Jeff if he liked it. With effort, I keep quiet.

After breakfast Jeff takes a look at the bike and his eyes tell me that he has already bought it.  “I want to test drive it,” he says.  “We can go the the Bass Pro Shop parking lot,” Jeff says.  Apparently, Springfield, Missouri is the original home of Bass Pro, and has therefore been gifted their world’s largest store.  

A quick ride around the parking lot, and it is a done deal.  Tom generously offers Jeff some bonus items: several helmets, an all-weather Harley backpack, and a really cool Harley jacket.  Secretly, I’m wishing that I had dibs on the jacket.  My avarice passes as I see how excited Jeff is to get it.

Time to go home, time for more conversational questions, time for more protests and groans from Tom.  “Mikey, does it always have to be your way!”  I laugh, as does Tom, he knows that we go toe to toe when it comes to who is leading and deciding things.

On our way home we view derelict towns, a completely burnt out van, and the St. Louis skyline in early morning’s light. We decide to stop for food in Springfield, Illinois at the Cozy Dog.  The place is busy, and all of the tables are full.  A couple motions us to share their table, a conversation ensues.  I think to myself, “In less than 24 hours we ate in two different Springfields, and struck up conversations with two different groups of strangers.  What are the chances of that?”

We return the trailer to UHaul, and as we turn up my street Tom says, “Mikey, can you help me pull some carpeting out of a house that I’m working on tomorrow?”   Without hesitation I say, “Sure Tommy,” as I ready myself for this next adventure.

How lucky I’m am to have extraordinary people in my life.

How often do people go to any lengths to save dysfunctional or one-sided relationships?  They rejoice when given an occasional crumb of acknowledgement, a particle of peace, or a shred of acceptance.  

Today my goal is to be thankful of the people in my life who care about me, enjoy my company, and celebrate my odd and eccentric ways.  In return I happily do the same for them. Life is good.

The Harley ready for its final journey.
Jimmy’s Eggs, good eats in Springfield, Missouri.
World’s largest Bass Pro Shop and motorcycle test track.
A sad burnt out van on the side of the road.
The Arch, early morning.
The famous Cozy Dog in Springfield, Illinois.
Getting Gas.

Confessions Of A Reluctant Father

I didn’t want to be a father. I didn’t want to have children. I based my decision on several logical facts.

Growing up I was told that children were difficult. I was told that I was difficult. “Your mother and I never fought until we had kids,” My father would say. “You were a mistake.” The later point proven true by the fact that I am 7 years younger than my next sibling, my sister Nancy.

My father was 43 when I was born. I thought that he was just too old to want to spend much time with me, which is why he didn’t. My mother was often sick, and seemed to have endless chores to do around the house. She certainly couldn’t dedicate time just for me. This all made perfect sense.

How could I attract their attention? I had nothing to offer. I was reminded that I was an expense that required food, clothing, and a roof over my head. I was always wasting electricity by leaving the lights on, wasting hot water by leaving the tap on, and wasting time when I should have been “helping around the house.” Clearly children were a terrible burden. Clearly I was a terrible burden.

I knew that I would be a terrible father. I had no skills in parenting, and no model to pattern my behavior by. To want children would have been crazy and foolhardy. Why would I want something that would require time, effort, and money? Why would I want something that required teaching and training? Having a child would only change my life for the worse. Kids take everything and return nothing. The answer was crystal clear, no children, not ever.

I was comfortable with this decision. I had discussed my thoughts with my first wife, and she was in agreement. Life moved forward.

God seems to enjoy throwing me curveballs. The usual scenario is that he stresses me about something to the point that I am confused and upset. Only later do I realize that the curveball was quite intentional, and intentionally powerful. Its impact much more significant than I could ever have imagined.

My first marriage was in deep trouble. My life was highly stressed by that relationship, medical school, and impending decisions about my future life. It was then that I found out that my first wife was pregnant. My stress increased exponentially. I angrily asked God, “Why is this happening now? You know that I don’t have the ability to be a good parent. I don’t even know how to parent. I’m on the verge of divorce. I don’t have two pennies to rub together. Why are you f**** with me!” There was no answer.

My wife was pregnant, we were in the process of divorcing, and I was garbage picking furniture out of alleys for a future apartment. Awesome.

On January 27, 1983 my daughter Anne was born. Amazingly cute and cuddly, with wispy hair and penetrating blue eyes.

She needed to be held, and so I held her. She needed to be fed, and so I fed her. She needed someone to talk to her, and so I talked to her. I figured that as a newborn she wouldn’t know that I didn’t know how to parent, so I would just do the best job that I could. I would explain to her why I was a bad parent when she was old enough to understand such things.

I was now in my own basement apartment and I was trying to turn it into a home. My friend Sue bought me a highchair for $4 at a garage sale. I bought a pullout couch on clearance from Sears. When Anne would visit she could have my bed. The couch wasn’t so bad if I ignored the bar that would stick me in the back.

I bought her Fisher Price toys at garage sales, and cloths at K-Mart and Venture. My chief resident’s salary added $100 a month to my miserable paycheck. After paying the bills and child support there was almost nothing left. When she was old enough I would let her know that I didn’t have enough money to buy her more expensive clothes, like a better parent would have.

I mostly cooked at home as it was too expensive to eat out. Anne was very particular in what she would eat, and because of this we had a lot of Banquet chicken nuggets and apple sauce. When she was old enough I would let her know that I fed her nuggets because I didn’t want her to go hungry. A better parent would have thought of a better solution.

With so little money we did mostly free things. I would get on the floor and play with her. We would go to park. We would visit my sisters. I wasn’t much. When she got older I would let her know why I didn’t take her to Disney World. I was doing the best that I could, I was never meant to be a parent.

On Sunday night I would take her back to her mother’s. I would return home and sit in the dark and cry. Why did I miss her so much, I just saw her? I didn’t need to tell her about my ridiculous weaknesses when she grew up.

The years past. The adventures changed. Life went on. I was never meant to be a parent, I just did the best that I could.

God had thrown me a curveball, and in the process he showed me that I was capable of doing something that I absolutely felt that I was incapable of doing. He showed me that I was capable of loving someone without restriction. That love based strictly on the connection with them. The ability to love someone without expectation or demand is one of the highest gifts that I have ever received. A gift that initially presented itself wrapped in stress and confusion. What a trickster.

Eventually I remarried, and we decided to have another child. What I thought would be an easy process proved to be arduous and lengthy. Eventually my Kathryn was born, then my Gracie. At age 48 I welcomed my son William into my life. I still don’t know how to properly parent. All I know is to meet my kids needs, spend time with them, listen to them, and love them fully and without restriction. That will have to do, I can explain to them when they get older why I didn’t do a better job.

Today my goal is to be ever thankful of the four miracles that have been entrusted to me. They have changed my life in more ways than I could list in 100 blog posts. Life moves forward.

Why Peanut Butter Cake?

It is difficult to know how traditions develop in families. In ours, an event or action gets repeated a few times, and it becomes a tradition. Such is the case of special day celebrations. Special days are those that are significant for an individual family member. Birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so forth.

These days often require planning, and usually contain at least three nonnegotiable elements: breakfast in bed, gifts, and a dinner made to the celebrates specifications. The month of May has two of these special days, both for my wife Julie. In May we celebrate her birthday and Mother’s day.

After so many years one would think that pulling off this tradition would be easy. It isn’t hard, but it requires organization and preparation. Two such events separated by only a few weeks offer their own challenges. Finding gifts even small ones, for someone who has all of the necessities of life, can be difficult. I’m not saying that Julie is overly demanding. The fact is that I want to do the best that I can to make her (or any other celebrant) feel special on their special day.

Julie’s request is typically routinized. Her breakfast in bed routine involves coffee, fruit cup, orange juice, and some sort of home baked item that has cinnamon in it. As far as gift items I have learned that grander items should be purchased by request, but I’m capable of finding smaller offerings. Dinner is usually healthy fare, and always from scratch.

I start my information gathering early, at least 10 days before the event. “What do you want us to make for your birthday?” I always get the same response, “I’m thinking about it.” Because of my OCD traits I start to stress, and just before I reach the zenith of my anxiety Julie will give me her list.

This year most of her birthday requests were typical. Homebaked cinnamon coffee cake was the feature item for breakfast. Parmesan tomato/basil encrusted salmon for dinner. Great, as I had salmon steaks in the freezer from Costco!

For many years her dessert choices have remained the same: a Baker’s Square French Silk pie for Mother’s Day, and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake for her birthday. Always the same, except for this birthday.

Instead of an ice cream cake from DQ she wanted a peanut butter cake, homemade and from scratch. Pressure… Her mother made her said cake for her 16th birthday. I was to use the same recipe from a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook. It was to have a peanut butter ganache filling, and fluffy homemade buttercream frosting. I started to sweat.

Dear readers, I am not afraid of the kitchen, and I am not afraid of baking. With that said, it has been years since I made a layer cake, probably decades since I made one from scratch. I wasn’t even sure what peanut butter ganache was.

Julie’s cake requests were exacting and based on the teenage memory of a cake that her mother made only once, and to celebrate her 16th birthday. I was certain that the efforts of a Food Channel chef would not compare to the sweet birthday memory of a one time only peanut butter cake filled with ganache, and delicately frosted with vanilla buttercream. I was doomed.

Desperate times call for desperate actions, and I became a man with a plan. My two teenage daughters have been bonding over baking Snickerdoodles and Matcha Green Tea Cake. What better way to show their love than to take over the cake assignment! Any effort made by them would be greatly appreciated by Julie. A new memory replacing the old. Problem solved, or so I thought.

At the 9th hour my older daughter “bailed” and my youngest turned to me for baking assistance. When your kids call, you answer. We found the cake recipe from Julie’s 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook, a frosting recipe from my 1980s edition, and a ganache recipe from Google. We were ready to go.

Off to the grocery store went Grace and I. List in hand, ready to do battle with measuring cups and spatulas. Driven by purpose, driven by fear, we moved forward.

I would like to inform you that bittersweet chocolate is not the same as Baker’s chocolate. A fact discovered late in our ganache making process… But I digress.

There was much to do. 1950s cookbooks seem to be written in a strange cypher, formatted in a pattern similar to a crossword puzzle. Find the pan size in the recipe above, the baking temperature on a different page, the ingredient list scattered among the baking instructions. We persevered. Time ticked on.

The 9” layer pans were found in basement storage. The Baker’s Secret pan release spray at the very back of the spice cabinet. Time ticked on.

The cake recipe barely covered the bottom of the cake pans. Something had to be wrong, we decided to double the recipe. Time ticked on.

Apparently, a double recipe takes significantly longer to bake than a single one. Time ticked on.

The cake started to brown, but was completely liquid in the center. I turned down the oven’s thermostat and covered the top of the pans with foil. Time ticked on.

We made the ganache, it was bitter! I called on powder sugar and made a recipe modification. Time ticked on.

The cake was finally done, but red hot. Onto a cooking rack and into the freezer it went. Time ticked on.

We decided to double the batch of frosting. Note to self, when adding powdered sugar to the Kitchenaid turn the machine’s speed control down to low. Mess and major clean up! Time ticked on.

Time to find the fancy party cake plate… ugh, it needs to be washed and dried. Time ticked on.

Why not teach Gracie my trick of keeping the cake plate clean by using waxed paper. Now where was that waxed paper? Time ticked on.

I normally go to sleep very early, as I get up before 4 AM to exercise. The cake was completed, but it was now well past 11 PM. Time ticked on.

Our project completed, we went to bed with hope that our efforts would be appreciated.

The cake was well received, and my family said it was good. I believe Julie was pleased with our efforts. I have no idea if it approximated her sugary memory, but she did have an extra big piece with a side scoop of peanut butter cup ice cream.

Despite all of our trials, Gracie and I had a lot of fun baking the cake. We worked through a variety of problems, laughed a lot, bonded over both our successes and failures, and moved forward despite our lack of knowledge. We are good at supporting each other in both our missteps and triumphs.

Today my goal is to remember that some things in life require effort, mistakes can often be corrected, and that trying to do the right thing can be as important as succeeding at doing it. My additional goal is to remember that Baker’s chocolate has no sugar, while Bittersweet chocolate does. Thank goodness for miracle that we call powdered sugar!

1950s cookbook
The cake pans didn’t look full enough.
How the heck do you make ganache?
Julie seemed pleased with our creation.
An inside view of our efforts.
Nothing says birthday cake like a side of ice cream!

Before The Parade

Before The Parade

Stores Closed.
Sidewalks empty.
The river flows.
Chairs hold their owner’s spots.
The streets are quiet in anticipation.
They wait for the parade to begin.
A street cleaner readies them.
A lone person swings in the park.
Coffee drinkers buy their morning brew.
Flowers, fields, and structures seem unconcerned.
Soon, the quiet will cease.
Drums will beat.
Children will dance.
Flags will wave.
The parade will pass.
We will celebrate and be proud.

Happy Memorial Day friends!