Cooking With Dad Thursday

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My mother was an effortless cook. Without the use of a cookbook recipe she could create the most delicious foods. Her skill developed from the making of thousands of meals. Her confidence born from the confidence that intelligent and creative people sometimes have. But she didn’t teach me how to cook, Julia Child did.

Despite her avocation my mother loved to watch cooking shows, and as a small child I would watch them with her. I was captivated by Julia Child. Enormously tall, she had a high falsetto voice and a higher level of enthusiasm… I watched transfixed, as she blended, rolled, diced and folded. She did things with a dedicated purpose that showed me the skill and science of cooking. Boeuf Bourguignon, Cassoulet, Beef Wellington, Mousse au Chocolat… the creations went on.

I cooked a little when I was younger, not much. Then, as a divorced young resident physician, I returned to the kitchen. With little to no money, cooking provided me a way to stretch a dollar. Additionally, it served as a creative outlet.

Gradually the time demands of my career pulled me away from cooking, and I had virtually stopped by the time that I remarried and Julie took over the role as house chef.

And then Julie returned to work. The time that was spent making meals was now being devoted to other activities. Homemade meals transitioned to simpler fare, and the percentage of carry out and drive thru meals grew exponentially. Our kids were used to meals that came to the table in serving bowls, not paper wrappers… they protested strongly.

I have to admit that I too grew tired of double cheeseburgers and frozen pizza. Julie’s stress continued to increase as she transitioned from a group practice to her own private practice. In contrast, I was purposefully reducing my stress level on many fronts.

My daughter Grace is an amazing and talented girl. She is one of those individuals who is good at many things. This can be a good thing, but sometimes too many career choices can be immobilizing. Yesterday morning I was sitting with her. She was eating a late breakfast, and I was munching on an orange. We got onto the topic of college and college majors. I told her that instead of focusing on a discrete career choice she should first think about her general areas of interests. If she choose a path that fulfilled her general interests, she would ultimately pick her right career path.

I know the things that interest me. I like to learn and teach. I like science and technology. I like comparing things. I like gadgets. I like doing creative things. I like feeling that I am contributing to society. I want the world to be a tiny bit better because I was in it, not a tiny bit worse. Both my personal life and my professional life are guided by the above tenets.

Dear reader, at this point you are likely wondering how the above paragraphs are related. I can assure you that they are. They intersect on Thursdays, specifically at the Cooking With Dad Thursday portion of the day.

As the kids complaints about the lack of homemade meals grew my initial solution was to simply take over the grocery shopping and cooking. Although within the range of my capability, the prospect was not appealing. Despite my efforts to reduce my personal stress I was still working two high demand jobs. In addition, I had already taken over a variety of other household tasks.

Dear reader, I believe in turning problems into solutions and flaws into strengths. Making homemade food for my kids didn’t have to be a burden, it could be a blessing with a little thought;  and so it was.

Every week the kids and I pow-wow on what we want to make for Thursday dinner. At 5 PM on Thursday we work together preparing the food, setting the table and (subsequently) cleaning up the mess. Our meals are not the elaborate concoctions that Julia Child created, but they involve a lot of basic cooking techniques, which I get to teach my kids. I often research recipes, and in the process I learn and compare. We talk about the science of cooking as we create our meal. Naturally, I employ gadgets, from pressure cookers to toaster ovens. A chore becomes a new tradition. My kids learn how to cook, I spend time with my kids, we work as a team. Our activity culminates with good food and good conversation.

Now that Julie has settled into her work life she is cooking more, but Cooking With Dad Thursday remains. At dinner time we will usually go around the table and tell each other our rose and thorn (good and bad) of the day. On Thursdays it not uncommon for all of us to say that one of our roses was preparing and eating a meal together. A potential burden has transcended.

Today my goal is to appreciate that life’s daily activities are not burdens, but they are potential gifts.

Bon appetit!

The Gift of Time

Dear readers, it has been a tough week.  Over the last few years I have been carefully planning in preparation for my eventual retirement.  I like to know what is ahead, and I’m not terribly good with unexpected change.

This last week I received a phone call that could alter my future plans in a significant way. To say that I was stressed and upset would be an understatement. The night after I got the phone call I slept less than 4 hours, and that was interrupted sleep.

As an introvert I am comfortable being alone in my head, but I also need a few people in my life.  I reached out to friends and family and received statements of support and encouragement.  It felt good. My friend Tom was apprised of my tale of woe when I met him at the gym on Friday. He also offered me encouragement and statements of support.

Most early Saturday mornings are spent with Tom.  We usual do some business type work, and sometimes a bit of personal growth stuff.  However, we also have a lot of unstructured time.  I call this our, “solving the problems of the world time.”  During this time we may price out the cost of running a taco truck business, design a house, or talk about the best type of exterior house siding (James Hardie siding). We do these things for the fun of doing them.  I believe Tom’s wife refers to this activity as “Two boys playing together in a sandbox.”

And so it was 4:50 AM and Tom’s car quietly pulled up in front of my house.  I know his patterns well enough that a text message from him was unnecessary.  Within two minutes shoes and coat were on, and I was out the door.

At 4:50 AM there are not a lot of coffee options, Tom’s car seemed to automatically drive to the Dunkin Donuts.  We pulled out of the drive-thru and went in a direction opposite from Tom’s office.  “Do you think we can do our work in the car today?”  Tom asked.  I was a bit puzzled, but I said, “Sure.”  “I thought that we would go out to breakfast,”  Tom said.  This was not that unusual, and I said, “OK.”

Dear readers, I love breakfast anywhere, but my absolute favorite place for omelets is a little diner/cafe in Monroe, Wisconsin.  Tom said, “What would you think about driving to Monroe?”  We live in the suburbs of Chicago, Monroe is 130 miles, or two and a half hours away!

In an effort to make me feel better he was willing to drive the 5 hours round trip for an omelet.  Of course, what he was really giving me was the gift of time.  A gift that said that I was important enough for someone to take an entire morning just to make me feel better.  A priceless gift.  A gift that made me think.

How often do we deny ourselves the gift of connecting with others?  How often do we deny our connections the feelings of worth and importance by not even giving them 5 minutes of our full attention?  How often do we half listen to the important people in our lives because we are distracted by reading, watching TV, or playing with our smartphones?  It is a terrible feeling to be less important than a TV rerun.

When you give your time to someone you get to know them on an entirely different level.  You move past the headlines of their lives, and into their footnotes.  You know what they ate for dinner, how their back is feeling, what challenges they faced the day before.  You get to know the real person, and they get to know you.  It is an amazing gift that so many people throw away for insignificant time wasters.

Dear readers, pay attention and listen to your friends.  Allow your friends to listen to you. Give them the gift of your time.  A TV show, or even a best-selling novel, will have zero importance in the overall fabric of your life. A real connection with another person will.

Today my goal is to ponder the above.

… and yes, the omelet was delicious.


I Don’t Like Taking Risks. Why I Am Taking Risks.

I like getting dirty.

It is 5:30 in the morning, and I sit and type.  Five-thirty may sound early to you, but I actually slept in today, as my normal wake time is 3:50 AM.  A very early wake time, signifying a change in my life, a change that involved risk.

I’m getting older and I’m examining my life carefully. I’m getting older and I’m asking myself the big questions.  The questions that are big for me, anyway.

I have never been much of a risk taker.  I tend to be a plodder.  I tend to play it safe.  I’m one of those people who may look on the surface as someone who pushes the envelope, but I really don’t.

I do things that I feel that I have a reasonable chance at succeeding at.  I will take on a project, like creating a complicated website, even when I don’t know the first thing about web design.  My arrogance tells me that if someone else can do it, so can I. I will teach myself photography, or how to play a musical instrument, or how to bake bread, for the same reasons.  Yesterday my wife told me that I’m good at everything that I do.  That may be true, but what about the things that I choose not to do?

There are somethings that I have done in life that have felt risky to me.  Leaving graduate school on the pipe dream of becoming a physician was one of them.  It felt foolish and crazy at the time.  It felt like I was throwing my carefully calculated future away.  But it was not a true risk, as I felt compelled to apply.  Directed by what I felt was my Higher Power.  As a doubting Thomas I recall the regret that I felt when I sent in my medical school applications. Each application felt like a nail in the coffin of my prior plan of becoming a university professor.  My Higher Power reassured me by flooding me with medical school interviews. Every school, sans one, wanted to talk to me.  It was as if God was letting me know that when He wants me to do something He will stand by me, and make it happen.  I remember how many of the different school interviewers commented that they were moved by my personal statement.  A writing that just flowed out of me, without much thought or reflection.  Another God thing, I suppose.

A year ago I took a risk.  Major for me, trivial for most; I joined a gym. I avoided physical activity all of my life.  I have been told that I’m clumsy, weak, and physically inadequate.  By avoiding physical activity, I didn’t have to face my perceived limitations.  I joined a gym, but with the gentle hand holding of a friend who walked me through each step of the way. A friend who intuitively sensed my high level of fear and discomfort.  Although it felt like a great personal victory, I never would have accomplished it without my friend’s help.  So, was joining a gym a risks?  On reflection, it is hard to say.

Yesterday at 5 AM I sat with the same friend  in his office.  We are working on personal improvement plans.  We have been working on them for months, as you can only do such things in small bites.  In some areas I have no problems coming up with a plan of action for myself.  Yet, in others I am utterly immobilized.  Risky things.

Yesterday afternoon I decided to tackle a project that I had been dreading.  I have a room in my basement that has become a storage room.  It is filled with things that hold my interest.  Photography equipment, electronics, musical instruments, camping gear, old computers… the list goes on.  The room had fallen into complete disarray after I dug around  for a few things needed for some creative projects. As I worked on the mess I realized how fortunate I am.  If I have an interest I have the ability to indulge myself. I have so much cool stuff, tools that could help me grow as a person for years to come. But the cleanup also made me sad.  The room represented so many of my aspirations.  Yes, I am a photographer, but I want to be better, more creative, more inspired.  Yes, I can knock out a tune on a guitar, but my skill is static, and I never seem to find the time to practice and improve. A room filled with hope, somewhat dashed because of my inability to take risks.

I mentioned to Julie that I had been working on a self-improvement project with Tom.  “Don’t you think you should clue me in as it will affect me?” she said. I told her that my goal was to become more authentic, more real, more true to who I really am.  She replied, “That is very Benet Brown.”  It may be, but my desire to change isn’t from reading the latest psychotherapy guru, it is a natural evolution that is erupting from deep inside of me.

So who am I reader, and how am I different from the persona that I portray to others?  That is a difficult question for me to answer.  My external persona is indeed me, but only a part of me.  A sub-part, so to speak.  There are many other pieces of me that have been shielded and consciously buried.

I have been exploring the rough and tumble me. The part that enjoys using a choice expletive for the sheer exhilaration of doing it. The part of me that wants to build things with my hands, go camping, get muddy.

There is the free spirit part of me that wants to embrace unstructured free time, and not feel guilty that I’m not being productive enough.

There is another part of me that wants to break down barriers, and form true close connections with others.  I have lived a life of service, and most of my connections are based on doing service for others.  I’m trying to change that by being more real, but I fear that my intensity will scare people away. Are there people who could tolerate the always thinking, always intense, always obsessive, always somewhat different, always enthusiastic, always problem solving me? I like doing service for others, but there are times that I would like someone to take care of me.  Do I deserve to be taken care of?

I’m trying to allocate time for myself. I am exploring new activities and behaviors. I am exploring new ways to connect.  On the surface those close to me tell me that these are good things, but the stronger subtext is that I have changed, and that I should return to my former style of behavior. “It’s not just me, others have commented on how you have changed,” I’m told.

I am told that people have noticed that I’m acting differently, swearing more, less obsessively concerned about placing the needs of others before mine.  I am asked why I have to go to the gym, hang out with a friend, have a certain level or order around me, or a handful of other things that were out-of-character for me.  But these are, or have become, my true character. I wonder, can those people around me not only tolerate my change, but also embrace it and celebrate it? System Theory says that change can be difficult, but it is possible.

I am determined to not return to behavior as usual.  I battle to move forward, and to be true to myself.  We are only given so much time on this planet.

I won’t bother you with the goals that I developed for myself in my personal improvement plan.  I will tell you that one goal is especially daunting for me.  Every time I think of making the smallest movement on it I immediately panic and retreat. It is possible that my ambivalence is a sign that I should just let go of that goal.  It is possible that I’m immobilized by the fear of moving on it.  It is possible that I want too much, or my goal is too lofty.  Perhaps, I need to simply accept where I am at, and be done with the agony of indecision.  

When I am in such a state of uncertainty my only option has been to pray for guidance. If you are so inclined, I would appreciate your prayers too.

Today my goal is to live bravely, fully, and authentically.  It is a goal that is harder than you could possibly imagine.

A New Year’s Eve Alone.

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve is changing for us.

Family Christmas, one week late.

I have long since given up on parties and celebrations for New Year’s Eve. Instead, this year we celebrated our family Christmas on December 31st, as we were away on the actual holiday.

A simple, but nice, dinner of a turkey breast, corn casserole, tossed salad, store-bought tortellini, fresh strawberries, and my homemade 100% whole wheat bread. Julie tried to include a favorite dish for each family member. Then it was time to open presents that were a week overdue.

I told Julie that I didn’t want any gifts for Christmas, but some items still found their way into my pile.  Gym socks, a couple T-shirts, an apple slicer, and a new Oxo garlic press.

One daughter disappeared into her room reading, another went to a movie and then downtown with friends, my son went to a friend’s get-together. We were essentially on our own.  The first time on New Year’s in 19 years.

Scanning Netflix, there was little to offer.  A well rated movie was streamed, but turned off after 20 minutes.  Too depressing, too dark, just too.

Neither Julie nor I had the desire to search through dozens of movie icons and descriptions.  We found White Christmas and settled on it, as we had just watched Holiday Inn on the real Christmas Day, that we celebrated with the Nelson Clan a week earlier.  We thought it would be interesting to compare two movies whose theme song was the same Irving Berlin classic.

Hokey, thin plot line, and filled the optimism that the early 1950s radiated; Julie thought it slow moving, I thought it charming, in an old fashion way.

It was not yet 11 PM. and I was ready for bed.  Julie decided to stay up until the kids were safely back home.

Now it is New Year’s day.  I woke later than usual and here I sit drinking coffee and eating an apple that has been quartered (with knife, not apple slicer) and liberally spread with peanut butter… and typing this post.

2017 is here, what will it bring?  2017 is here, what will I contribute to the world this year?  2017 is here, time marches on.

Today my goal is to attempt to savor and celebrate each day in 2017, I will realize that each day is a gift that will not be given twice.

Now off I go on a walk with a DSLR on my shoulder.  Symbolic of my continued goals for the new year, for my new life.  Welcome 2017!