My birthdays have become important markers for me over the last few years. Their significance is less about my ever growing age, and they are more about a reflection of my previous year and a projection of my future one.
Last year I retired from private practice, but I continued to work 3 days a week for Rosecrance in Rockford. I also turned 65 and had a big party. Julie had asked me if I wanted a celebration get-together and she was surprised that despite my introvert nature I said yes. It was a most significant day as guests took the time to write remembrances of me that are now part of a scrapbook for my children and grandchildren.
Last year gave me two additional days of free time a week that I had initially planned to use in a concerted effort to improve myself and change the world. Reflecting one year later I did not change the world last year, but I did improve myself, just not in the ways that I initially envisioned.
Goals, like learning a foreign language and improving my guitar skills, fell by the wayside. Learning a language seems almost impossible with my poor auditory discrimination. It is likely that I will eventually focus more on my guitar playing, but I’m just not feeling it at the moment.
As far as changing the world is concerned, I think my grandiosity got the better of me. I believed that I could focus my passions for photography and writing, and combined these passions with my knowledge of human behavior to create a product that would have some sort of impact. I’m reassessing this goal, but not my passions.
It appears that my impact on others is much more significant when applied locally, rather than globally. This is something that should have been obvious to me as this has consistently been the case throughout my life.
I continue to write, and I believe that my overall writing has improved throughout this year. However, it is unlikely that I will be nominated for the blog hall of fame. I write now for the pleasure of writing, and to leave a chronicle of my life and ideas for my children and grandchildren. If my words impact a reader, all the better.
My photography has continued and is flourishing. I am doing a tremendous amount of architectural photography for my friend, Tom. Other photo opportunities are also presenting themselves, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be the contracted photographer for a Daddy/Daughter dance and a 50th wedding anniversary church service and reception. I have to say that I love the variety of doing different types of photography. Each presents its own kind of planning and method. My photos won’t be on any magazine covers, but I’m getting tremendous pleasure creating them as I think that they are serving a purpose higher than my own self-serving pleasure.
I feel most at peace in nature, and one of my goals has been to give myself the ability to experience the outdoors in the most cost-effective way reasonable. I don’t want the barrier of money to stop me from getting out among the trees. I am pleased to report that I am moving forward on this goal. Last summer I purchased a bare cargo van, and I have been in the process of converting it into a useable camper for one or two. Such a vehicle opens up many cost-effective possibilities for discovery. Last summer I had the initial interior shell installed by Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs, and since then Tom and I have been outfitting the van with vents, solar panels, and many other refinements. I now have a fully self-contained off-the-grid camper at the ready. I have already used it to travel on a few small trips and in May I will use it to meander to Arizona. Later in the summer, I will mount a trip to Glacier National Park. I am hoping that these trips will not only be soul cleansing, but they will also give me a chance to do more landscape photography. In addition, I am interested to see how my writing will change when I’m surrounded by pine trees instead of concrete.
I am doing things that were not part of last year’s plan. I’m learning more about construction; something that I enjoy immensely. I am also picking up a hobby that I abandoned over 15 years ago, Amateur Radio.
You may recall from previous posts that I have always loved radio, and as a grade school kid, I was building complex radios to exploring the airwaves. My private psychiatric practice was located by a lot of technology companies, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to treat scientists and engineers. In 1999 I had some knowledgeable experts warn me about the uncertainty of Y2K, and I eventually took them seriously. I felt that it would be important, not only for my family but also my local community, to have a way to communicate in a scenario where traditional communication lines were down. The apparent solution was Ham Radio, and I set myself a goal to obtain my radio license. In short order, I got a Technical Class license, then a General Class license, and finally the coveted Amateur Extra license. In my typical compulsive manner, I explored and bought radio equipment and practiced the art of using that equipment to make over-the-air contacts. My primary interest was in long-distance communications, but my small suburban lot didn’t have space for a proper antenna. Add to this reality my very long work schedule and the responsibility of raising young children, and I abandoned the hobby after about 3 years. I felt that I would never return to it.
I mentioned that I am planning a trip to Glacier National Park this summer, which has no cell coverage. Julie will remain at home during this trip, and I was thinking about ways to keep in touch with her. I explored the tools at my disposal, including my Amateur Extra license. In many ways traveling to a remote location is similar to having your community communication grid go down. No phone lines, no internet, no cell service. Ham radio could provide a communications solution. Unfortunately, Julie doesn’t have an amateur license, and so it would be illegal for the two of us to communicate over their air. However, there are options and the one that I plan to deploy is called Winlink. This is a protocol that allows the sending and receiving of email over the Ham radio bands. The recipient gets an email via their email client and can respond to that email just like they would any other email.
I have not been active in Amateur Radio for almost two decades, and I have forgotten much of what I had formally learned, so I’m now in the process of giving myself a crash course in electronics, radios, and communication law. You may think that my efforts are unnecessary and excessive, but that is the way I roll. I love learning and growing in knowledge.
Last week I had a much quieter, but equally lovely, birthday. Last Thursday Rosecrance also had a retirement reception for me. It was wonderful to be recognized, but also a bit sad as I’ll be leaving people that I have become fond of.
This week I will work today and tomorrow. This Friday my work life as I know it will be over. Some of my current activities may eventually fade from interest, but my life history tells me that there will always be new interests to take their place. Every day has become a new adventure and soon every day will be a Saturday for me.
Some years ago I committed myself to work out regularly. I started my exercise journey by walking, but several years ago I transitioned from this to using a personal trainer at a gym. The big draw for me to go to the gym was that I would typically coffee klatch with my friend, who also went there at the same time.
I enjoyed going to the gym, but it wasn’t my favorite type of exercise. Eventually, I got injured and around that same time, my friend got tired of going. It was time to re-think my routine.
I returned to walking, which is an exercise that I love. I typically walk between 3.5 to 4.5 miles on any given morning, and I usually start in the pre-dawn. During my walk, I can think, pray, or meditate. I time my walk, so I arrive at my local Starbucks when it opens for the day.
I bring along a computer on my walks, and Starbucks is where I write this blog. My friend, Tom often stops to visit, but when he doesn’t, I now know enough regulars that I can always engage in a little conversation. For me, walking outdoors is an ideal exercise, but it does have its pitfalls.
The main barrier when I walk is the weather. In northern Illinois, we have four seasons that are often dramatic. In the last few years, our winters have become milder, but this has posed a new problem for me as it isn’t uncommon to have warm days of rain/sleet/melt followed by cold days, which results in super slippery ice formation.
Bad weather would be an easy excuse for me to stay in bed, but as I tell my kids, There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. In today’s post, I want to share with you the gear that I use to walk in just about any winter weather. I’ll give you what I wear on a typical winter day, a bad winter day, and a horrible winter day. Your mileage may vary depending on your needs and climate.
About Gear Quality
It is easy to say, Buy only the highest quality winter wear. It is true that better quality gear works better and lasts longer. However, it is also expensive. I take a balanced approach. The more regularly I use a winter gear item, the better the quality.
I have a great Cabelas down coat and several different types of footwear that are pretty decent. I wear these items every time I go out, and I need functional items that last. However, I only wear thermal underwear a few times a season. In that case, I opted for an inexpensive but reasonably rated pair purchased from Amazon. I know that they won’t last as well as Under Armour gear, but I don’t need them to.
Several layers of clothing work better than one heavy layer as each layer traps air, which serves as insulation. Layers are typically lighter than one heavy layer and they can be removed or added as your situation changes. Consider layers when you walk in the winter.
What I wear
Typical Day: Stocking cap and jacket hood.
Bad Day: All of the above, plus a thermal face mask.
Horrible Day: Trooper hat, hood, face mask, scarf protecting mouth and nose, inexpensive ski goggles.
Typical Day: flannel shirt, Cabela’s down jacket, scarf on the chest.
Bad Day: The above plus a hoodie.
Horrible Day: Thermal undershirt, flannel shirt, hoodie, Cabela’s down jacket.
Typical Day: Gloves
Bad Day: Gloves
Horrible Day: Gloves with hand warmers
Note: I usually like good ski type gloves, but I always lose them, and I’m usually stuck with the crappy gloves that I never seem to lose (go figure).
Typical Day: Jeans or pants
Bad Day: Jeans
Horrible Day: Jeans plus thermal underwear.
Note: After recently walking at -24F with a windchill of -50F I have now ordered a pair of snow pants.
Typical Day: waterproof hiking boots (Vasque) or ducks, or Bogs (depending on outside wetness), warm socks.
Bad Day: as above
Horrible Day: As above, plus a double pair of warm socks or good wool socks.
Ice cleats for shoes
There are several brands of ice cleats; I use a one called YakTrax. They have been an absolute game-changer for me, and without them, I would probably stay in bed about 30% of the time. Ice is my most feared challenge, but I’m relatively confident going out when I’m wearing cleats. I highly recommend them.
An umbrella is surprisingly useful in winter and can turn a miserable sleety/snowy walk into an OK one. I only think about umbrellas when I need them, and most of the ones in our closet were bought as impulse purchases at big box stores. They fail in every way that you could imagine, and they are frustrating to use. They should be avoided. Last year I bought a Totes standard umbrella, and I have not looked back. Cheap umbrellas fail when you need them the most, brand name offerings will save you money in the long run.
There is nothing more miserable than walking in wet shoes. Besides, wet shoes and warm feet create the perfect environment for smelly bacteria and fungus. No one wants to clear a room when they take off their shoes. Several years ago I purchased a shoe dryer. This is a simple and inexpensive device that consists of a circulating fan with two arms that you hang your of shoes on. The interior breeze quickly dries wet shoes and yields happy, fresh springtime feet.
Thoughts On Shoes
The most important foot factor is comfort when it comes to walking. For me, comfort means dry and well-supported feet. I have three different pairs of shoes to accomplish these goals. You may require only one pair, or you may need more than three. Footwear is entirely a personal choice.
Vasque Waterproof Hiking Shoes
I bought my hikers at The Shoebox in Black Earth Wisconsin. I was hiking in cheap hikers in the rain and ruined them and so I went shopping. I was interested in getting a good pair of shoes and wanted one that wouldn’t get soaked. My shoes have a Gore Tex lining to keep my feet dry. However, there is a dark side to this technology as once water gets in (via the top the shoe) it has a hard time getting out. A shoe dryer comes in handy for this problem.
Generic Duck Shoes
I bought these classic waterproof shoes on Amazon and mine are serviceable, but slightly too large. They serve my purpose well enough that I don’t feel a need to replace them. These are great when there are puddles or light snow as they have a higher water barrier than my hiking shoes.
For many years I wore cheap, pull on boots for snow blowing. They were junk and were guaranteed to spring a leak within 2 winter seasons. About 10 years ago I bought a pair of Bogs boots, and I’m still using that pair today. Bogs boots are well made, and they slip on easily. They don’t offer the support of my hiking shoes, and so I only use them when I’m dealing with poor conditions, such as newly fallen deep snow. If you are planning on being away for the day, I would advise that you bring a second pair of shoes to change into. In a typical indoor environment, Bogs make your feet hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.
I am a multi-tasker, and I often write when I arrive at Starbucks. I bring a small messenger bag with a shoulder strap when I walk. In it, I carry a lightweight laptop, a spiral notebook, pens, earbuds, a book, and a couple Zyrtec for my allergic friend who occasionally forgets to take his at home. I really like having a grab-and-go bag that doesn’t require any additional early morning thought.
Other Important Items
You don’t need to take a lot when you walk, but I would advise taking your cell phone, as well as ID and some cash. Other items (like Bluetooth headphones) can be added based on your particular walking style.
High Vis Gear
I have to be honest, as I don’t currently have any High Vis gear. I took a short pause writing this and logged onto Amazon and just bought some. High Vis gear is cheap, and it isn’t necessary to get anything elaborate. Any hardware store will sell you a vest for a few dollars and for a few bucks more you can get jogging style gear that is sleek and very reflective. Some items even light up.
When Not To Walk
I am ready to walk in almost any condition, but there are rare times when I opt to stay home. I recently walked when it was -24F with a windchill of -50F and I was well prepared. However, I lost my ice cleats on that walk, and because of this, I felt it would be dangerous to walk the following day. As soon as a new pair of cleats arrived, I was walking again. The question of when not to walk is contingent on both the weather and the individual. Use common sense when embarking on any adventure.
If you don’t want to face the elements, you can also walk indoors. Many health clubs are reasonably priced, and park district gyms often will allow residents to walk for free. You can also tool around a shopping mall or big box store if they are available in your area.
You don’t need a lot of fancy gear to walk in just about any type of weather. However, you need to plan accordingly. Walking is free and offers benefits beyond exercise.
Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?
I woke up at 3:45 AM to find that we had a snowfall during the night. The temperature was about 35F; not impossibly cold. I put on a scarf, my red stocking cap, ski gloves, and donned my Cabella down coat. On my Bogs boots, I strapped on a pair of YakTraks ice cleats and headed out the door. Off I went on my 3.5-mile round trip walk to Starbucks.
I had discovered YakTraks a few years back, and they have allowed me to walk much more securely on icy sidewalks. We have had strange weather in the Midwest with warm rainy days followed by freezing cold. These juxtapositioned temperatures have resulted in a lot of very slippery sidewalk ice, which is even more dangerous when it is hidden by freshly fallen snow. I have had a lot of near falls in the last month, which is why I have become increasingly dependent on the YakTraxs.
The weather reports had all been warning about an upcoming Arctic Blast that was scheduled to hit Chicago on Wednesday. They spoke of the lowest temperatures in Chicago’s history and cautioned everyone to stay inside.
I decided to walk on that Wednesday, despite potential temperatures below -20F. I felt that I could face the cold safely if I prepared adequately. My overall goal is to try to walk most days, and through the years I have purchased gear to handle most any weather. I’m hardly a risk taker, but I like to push the envelope and challenge myself.
I did a mental inventory of the things that I already had at home that would be useful for the trek, and went on a hunt and gather mission in my closet. I looked for a pair of glove liners, but I found my old trooper hat instead. I located a good flannel shirt and my Naperville North orange hoodie. In my sock drawn I grabbed two pairs of heavy socks. I planned on wearing jeans, but I knew that they wouldn’t be warm enough on their own. I clicked on Amazon and found an inexpensive, but recommended pair of thermal underwear and ordered it. I popped for the extra $3 next day delivery charge. At the same time, I ordered a pair of inexpensive ski goggles. In past winters I discovered that frigid cold wind would really burn my eyes and I was unsure what -20F would do to them. With accessories gathered or ordered I felt up for the challenge.
Tuesday-Temperature 0F, Windchill -26F
Another day to get up at 3:45 AM, Same gear as Monday, same walk. On my return I made a horrible discovery, I lost my YakTrax cleats on my left boot. That explained why I was slipping so much! I checked the driveway and looked down the street for the rubbery, spikey band. It was nowhere to be found.
I left mention of my intentions of walking the morning of the Arctic Blast on Facebook and received many responses from friends and family advising me to reconsider my plans. Most said that my actions were foolish and a few offered an alternative, like taking a nice walk in at the mall.
My son William seemed especially concerned and clearly wanted me to stay home. My wife Julie said that it wasn’t uncommon for her to walk to school in sub -20F temps in Minnesota, “They never closed schools.” Spoken like a real Swede! With that said, she was not without concern as she showed me where she kept her stash of hand warmers.
I checked Amazon, and the soonest I could get a replacement for the YakTraxs was the following Monday. I checked the websites of local stores to see who carried ice cleats and headed out to buy a pair. First Walmart- sold out. Then Dick’s- sold out. Then Home Depot- sold out. Then Ace Hardware- sold out, but the Ace manager did say that they had a different brand that was still in stock. Those cleats consisted of a small rubber band that was held onto a boot with a flimsy sheet of velcro. Being the only option, they were the best option, and I bought them.
Wednesday-Temperature -24F, Windchill -52F
I woke up at 3:45 and noticed that the house seemed colder than usual. Everything was silent and dark. I had stacked my clothes on the chair in the corner the night before and grabbed them in the dark, so as not to wake Julie. I dressed in the bathroom.
Thermal long sleeve T-shirt, thermal long johns, two pairs of socks, flannel shirt, heavy jeans, hoodie.
I went downstairs and checked the weather on the computer as I drank a half cup of coffee and ate an apple with peanut butter. Then it was time to complete my preparation.
Down coat, face mask, trooper hat, ski goggles, scarf over my nose and mouth, coat’s hood over everything. Into my gloves, I placed the hand warmers that Julie shared with me.
I had set up a chair in the hallway to make it easier to put on my Bog boots. I had already attached the new ice cleats, and they were sharp and seemed like they could damage the floor, so I wanted to be able to get the boots on and be out the door in a single step.
I opened the door and faced the elements. I have discovered that when you leave the house on a cold day you temporarily take the house’s heat with you, and for the first 30 feet or so it didn’t feel cold at all, but then it hit me.
I had dressed so well that it felt like a typical cold day and I started to walk. Some sidewalks were freshly shoveled, but even these had a thick layer of ice on them. Within 4 houses I began to notice that my feet were really slipping and I almost fell a few times. I looked down at my boots, and even in the dark, I could see that both my ice cleats were missing. It was time to problem solve.
The most sensible option would have been to return home. However, I absolutely didn’t want to do that as I had prepared so well and I really wanted to challenge myself. Staying on the sidewalk was a no go. Every few feet I found myself almost falling. It was dark, and just about everyone was indoors. If I fell and lost consciousness, there was the real chance that the snow that I fell into would melt and negate all of my carefully planned layers. The possibility of freezing to death at -52F is real. Walking on the sidewalk was not an option.
My brain moved into problem-solving mode. I could walk on the grassy, snow-covered lawns, but the snow was too deep, and I would surely get wet. The streets, being dark asphalt, retained more heat and thereby were less icy. I usually don’t like walking on the streets because of the possibility of getting hit by a car, but it was a reasonable option, and it would allow me to continue my journey. I elected to do it.
My face, trunk, and feet were all pretty warm, but my legs were starting to feel the burn from the cold. My ski goggles were definitely helping, but they were beginning to ice up in a way similar to a car windshield on a frosty day. The ice started at the top of the goggles, and with each block, it expanded down a bit.
The cars on the road were few, and I was grateful for the limited traffic. A middle-aged couple in a minivan stopped and asked me if I needed a ride; I told them I was thankful for their kindness, but I was OK. My walk continued. A few blocks later I saw a compact car stopped dead in the middle of the road a block ahead of me. I was concerned that something was wrong. I approached the vehicle and saw an older man sitting in the driver’s seat; I asked him if he was OK. He said he was waiting specifically for me, and that he would be happy to drive me anywhere I needed to go, “It’s too cold for you to be out.” I thanked him for his kindness and moved on.
I entered Starbucks, but I was unrecognizable due to my getup. I waved to the barista and said hello. She recognized me and rewarded my walk by upgrading my coffee. Initially, I had the entire coffee shop to myself, and I set up my laptop and started to write. My friend Tom showed up to visit and commented that his diesel pickup started without a hitch. I was amazed as I thought a diesel required some sort of heater to keep its fuel from turning into Jello on freezing cold days. He went off to his worksite, and I redressed for the walk home.
It was now light outside, and there was more car traffic. A man in his 30s driving a BMW was very annoyed with me (edging close to me with his car) because I was taking too long to cross an icy street, and this delayed his left-hand turn. I wasn’t about to speed up my efforts so he could arrive at his destination 3 minutes earlier.
The return trip seemed colder, but also quicker. I decided to walk down Jefferson instead of my usual Jackson as I thought that the roads would be less slippery. As I crossed the DuPage River, an old Chevy pulled up alongside me. It was full of young Mexican guys, and I guessed that they were going to work. The window on the passenger side rolled down, and I saw a youngish man with a concerned look on his face. “Sir, can we offer you a ride somewhere?” I told them that I was only two blocks away from my destination. I thanked them and sent them on their way. I arrived home feeling triumphant. I honestly felt like I had just scaled Mount Everest.
My actions were not foolish, they were careful and calculated. The safest option would have been to stay in bed. The possibility that I chose did have some risk, but it was not reckless. I like the idea of pushing myself because when I do that, I grow. The lessons that I learned on other cold day walks served me well on this freezing day. No information is ever useless, you just need to know when to apply it.
I gained more information on that freezing day. Out of the four encounters that I had with drivers, three of them showed me how good and wonderful strangers can be.