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