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!