The Long Drive

I opened the pantry door and selected a Trader Joe’s forever grocery bag that was decorated with bright swatches of colors. My eyes moved up towards Julie’s snack bin, where I grabbed a few bags of savory treats. I knew that I wouldn’t eat most of the snacks, but I like the security of having them with me in readiness for a Heartland hurricane or a Great Lakes tsunami. It is good to have a plan B, even when it is entirely unnecessary. My next stop was the refrigerator to secure a couple of bottles of Kirkland water. The bottles were left over from a prior camping adventure, and I was glad to give them purpose.

I pressed a button on our fire engine red Breville coffee grinder, and its LCD panel sprung to life, “Grind Level 44, Grind Time 26 seconds,” it read. I pressed the same button again and was greeted by the whine of the machine’s burrs as they converted roasted beans into ground coffee. Twenty-seven seconds later, the coffee was in the basket of our Braun coffee maker. A few minutes after that, it found its way to my reusable Starbucks travel cup and the small S’well thermos that the kids gave me for Father’s Day.

I always bring lots of snacks on a road trip, even with the knowledge that I probably won’t eat them.

Now in the car, I pressed the Google Map icon on my iPhone and tapped in the address of my daughter’s dormitory. My mission was to retrieve Grace from university, an eleven-hour round trip. The drive from Naperville to Ohio is mostly through the state of Indiana. It is an uninspiring trip. Still, I am grateful that the expressways are dotted with numerous small towns and refueling stops.

I moved into thinking mode, one of my favorite alone activities, and I started to process theoretical problems and scenarios as the miles clicked by. After a few hours of driving, I got a call from Tom, reminding me to stay alert on the road. I was grateful for his concern and expressed the same to him; he was about to drive to Wisconsin on a mini-vacation with his family.

My driving continued in an external silence as I pondered more questions, some relevant, but most trivial. It was now 12:30 PM. I was only mildly hungry. Still, I was transfixed by the number of restaurants listed on the blue information signs as I approached the exit for Layfayette, Indiana. One placard caught my attention, “Chick-Fil-A,” and I decided to stop for lunch. I exited on to a county highway and started to scan both sides of the street, but after 3 blocks, no Chick-Fil-A could be found. I decided to cut my losses and pulled into a Burger King. “I’ll have one of those Impossible Beef Whoppers,” I thought.

As I started to chomp on the synthetic burger, my iPhone rang. This time it was Julie checking on me. We talked a bit as I ate and told her of my drive. In return, she described her day at work. She would be home after 5 PM, but I wouldn’t arrive back in town until 10 PM or later.

It was time to get back in the van, and I once again filled my time with thoughts, now mixed with a little NPR, and a phone call to Nancy, my sister. I tend to tell myself that these types of trips are shorter than they really are. By the time I reached Indianapolis, I had falsely convinced myself that I was close to my destination. The miles dragged on. I munched on some of the chips that I brought, stopped for gas, and sipped coffee.

The last 25 miles to my daughter’s college are on rural roads. It is a zig zaggy experience that would completely befuddle me without the power of GPS. I started to send updates to Grace via Siri’s voice transcription. “Thirty minutes ETA.” “I’m in town, get ready.” “I’m 5 minutes away, where do you want me to park?” I can’t see the small texting print on my Apple watch without reading glasses, so my auditory efforts have sometimes resulted in ridiculous messages. I could only hope that no matter what they said, Grace would interpret their meaning correctly.

Soon I was illegally backing into a spot next to her dorm’s garbage dumpsters. With fingers crossed, I pressed a button to activate Violet Van’s emergency flashers and hoped that I wouldn’t become a towing victim. Thankfully, Grace was quick to come to the car, and we were off.

The university is always impressive on approach.

Although more fatigued, the return trip home was my reward. As I have said in previous posts, I enjoy my 4 children. I spent some “talk time” with William when he returned from his college the night before, and now I would have that same privilege with Grace.

Our conversation was lively as it jumped from topic to topic. Her final exams, some updates on her friends, national politics, and so it went.

My recent conversations with my kids have shown a subtle change. I have always felt that I have had excellent communication with my children, and I have ever tried to be respectful of their opinions. However, our interchanges now seem different. We are moving towards a peer level of conversation. I love this transition, but it does have its pitfalls. For instance, a driver rudely cut me off, and an expletive unconsciously left my lips. I’m usually more mindful of such behaviors when I’m with my kids, and I was surprised by my impulsive actions. I did apologize to Gracie, who seemed unfazed.

Soon it was time to refuel both the car and the riders. I pulled into a Pilot station, and we were dazzled by the enormous array of dining options. We elected Subway, as we have always found these joints to be relatively standard and safe when traveling.

Grace ordered a turkey and cheese sandwich. She always eats her sandwiches extremely plain and so I was surprised when she had the worker add some toppings. When I innocently brought my observation to her attention, she gave me a quick glare, and I instantly knew that I crossed an etiquette line. “I’m sorry, did I just embarrass you,” I said in earnest. “Yes,” was her reply. The faux pas now forgotten, we moved on. I ordered ham and Provolone on a toasted bun and added just about every free topping that was offered. By experience, I know that the meat portions at Subway are skimpy, and I have learned to boost the sandwich’s contents.

I maximize my Subway sandwich by adding anything, and everything free.

Now back in the car, our conversation continued, more out of the joy of reconnecting than anything else. Soon we were singing along with children’s songs streamed from Spotify. When we were tired of that activity, we each took turns picking artists that we enjoyed. My Frank Sinatra paired her Jon Bellion, my Sarah Vaughn countered her Lizzo… and so it went.
Before I knew it, I was pulling into our driveway, tired but happy.

Dear reader, most of life’s activities are routine, and many people view such tasks with dread or boredom. Yet, there is interest and excitement in all things. The trick is to find the uniqueness in every event and to celebrate it. An 11-hour drive could be a mind-numbing bore. However, it could also be an adventure. A time to catch up on the news, think, see new sites, ponder new thoughts, and to connect with people who you love.

Do you have tasks, activities, or events coming up in your life that you are not looking forward to? If the answer is “Yes,” I would ask you to use your creativity to focus on the positives of those experiences. Turn your lemons into lemonade.

The Crawl Space

I moved into my home on Sunnybrook Drive in 1989, over thirty years ago. I purchased it for one sole purpose to give my daughter a stable and secure environment. I bought a four-bedroom, two and one-half bath dwelling for myself and my daughter, who visited me every other weekend. Overkill, you ask? I’m am a person who gets confused in chaos, and in my home, I had more than enough space to have a place for everything and to put everything in its place. 

In 1993 I married Julie, and we decided that we would start our married life together in my house. This made the most sense as she was busy getting her Ph.D., and my house was move-in ready. Julie brought to the marriage the contents of her old apartment, including a few boxes of things that we had no use for but were too “good” to throw out. These boxes served as the nidus of growth in the hidden part of our home, known as the crawlspace.

You enter the crawlspace from our basement, climbing into it from the furnace/utility room. It is a large, hollow area situated directly below the family room. The floor of the crawlspace is a hunk of very rough concrete and the short height of the room forces exploration on your hands and knees. This uncomfortable experience is made worse by looming joists and ventilation ducts that seem to be pleasured when you bang your head on their hard surfaces. The crawlspace tends to be more humid than the rest of the basement. Dark, dank, and dusty; its only redeeming value is that it is hidden from view. 

Over time boxes entered the crawl space, and once in, they never left. Our family grew from three to six, and with each child, there were clothes to save, and toys to box. Both Julie and I stored full sets of old heavy outdated luggage. I had a complete set of china that found a home there when our wedding dishes replaced it. Boxes of school notes, old textbooks, VHS tapes, and personal journals were tossed there. An end table, an electric “wonder oven,” a deconstructed shelving unit, kids Halloween costumes, broken tools, and an endless sea of Christmas decorations.

The Christmas decorations deserve special mention. For many years I would buy Julie a special Christmassy gift at Christmas. Porceline villages, giant snow globes, fancy nativity sets, and more. I also had a habit of purchasing super tacky animated Christmas novelties to surprise the kids. There was the talking Chrismas tree, the Jazzy Santa, and the dancing snowman, to name a few. All of these items found their way to the crawl space keeping company with boxes of ornaments, wreaths, lights, and our bulky fake Christmas tree. Julie didn’t like or display my Christmassy surprises, which achieved permanent residency in the crawl space. The kids did enjoy the Christmas novelties, but their poor construction combined with the damp crawl space warranted their quick deaths. Once in the crawl space, they joined other useless items creating our very own island of misfit toys. After thirty years, the island was bursting at its metaphorical seams.

My coping strategy was simple; I pretended that the crawl space didn’t exist. However, every time I replaced the furnace’s filter, I had to confront this delusion. I would glance at the area and quickly turn away, ashamed. However, even a glance would force a feeling of urgency in me that I needed to do something, anything, about the mess. I countered that urgency with the reality that I didn’t have the time to tackle such a project. I was working two jobs while trying to be a good husband and parent. That was what I could do. 

In 2019 I retired; I no longer had two jobs. In 2019 our youngest child entered college; our kids were grown. It was time to deal with the crawl space.

Julie had no interest in being a co-cleaner, and I can’t say that I blamed her. The thought of spending countless hours crawling on hands and knees was not my jam either. I knew that I needed to approach the problem differently. Those boxes, bags, and loose items had been squatting in the crawl space for years; they didn’t need immediate eviction. 

I developed a simple and nearly painless strategy. Three times a week, I would go down into the crawl space, and each time I would remove one item. That item could be a garbage bag of loose things, a storage box, or a single larger item. Each session would last (at most) 10 minutes, and once I completed my goal, I made a conscious effort to pat myself on the back. This also meant that I only had three additional items to take out in the trash every week, making Julie, the sanitation worker, and me happy.

I started this process several months ago, and I have been faithful in its execution. Initially, it seemed like I was making no progress, then the chaos of my actions made the space look worse. I knew that this would be the case, and I pushed forward. Now, several months later, I still have a way to go, but I can see progress. I hope that I will regain crawl space order in the first quarter of 2020. With that reality, there is also the awareness that the empty spaces could serve as a magnet for future clutter. I will need to be vigilant to continue to keep the crawl space clutter-free.

Life can be like my crawl space, chaotic, and full of unwanted things. Full of habits that no longer serve a purpose, but you can’t seem to discard. Packed with relationships that hamper you and hold you back instead of propelling you forward. When life is full of such clutter, there is no room for progress as all energy is used to maintain the status quo.

When humans face severe problems, most want rapid and easy solutions. We buy silly potions that promise miracle results or go on radical exercise programs that are abandoned as enthusiastically as when they were initiated. We quit unrewarding jobs without a back-up plan. We run from one relationship to another, seeking someone to make us feel complete only to find that we take ourselves with us. 

Most significant problems are not solved quickly or easily. It can be overwhelming to contemplate making a change when dealing with a substantial issue. However, it is often possible to make small changes in a dedicated and consistent fashion. Initially, it may seem like your efforts have no impact, then things may even seem a bit worse, but eventually, you will see the fruit of your labor. Just as in my crawl space, it is essential to remain ever vigilant to not fall back. 

Accept responsibility and approach change with a discerning eye. Your best life is ahead.

I hope to have the crawl space cleaned out by the first quarter of 2020.

Traditions

We arrived home with our arms full of packages and were met by a blinking light on the answering machine. I pressed the play button and heard Julie’s mother’s voice. “We won’t be able to drive to Chicago for Thanksgiving; your father is lost in Siberia.” The answering machine clicked off. That was the total message. We stared at each other in disbelief. What did we hear? 

We decided to host Julie’s entire Minnesota family for Thanksgiving, and they would be staying at my house for several days. Although I kept a neat house, it was still the home of a bachelor, and I didn’t have many of the amenities that a traditional house would have. In the weeks approaching Thanksgiving I had been on a buying spree. I purchased new bath and dish towels, juice glasses, pot holders, a creamer, other kitchenware, bottles of shower gel and shampoo, new rugs for the bathrooms, and even a new rug for the kitchen. 

I spent an absolute fortune on food and bought everything from fresh Ho-Ka turkeys to a giant shrimp platter. Since they would be staying for several days, I made sure that I had enough food for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. 

I polished my house from stem to stern. My linen closet was full, and my refrigerator was beyond its capacity. But it was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and the entire get-together had just been canceled by a one-sentence phone call. I was flooded with feelings. There was a relief knowing that I wouldn’t have to entertain a  large group for three days. There was concern over what I would do with all of the food that I bought. And, there was significant worry about Julie’s father, who was lost somewhere in Russia. He said that he was going to Siberia to sell leather coats, or was it computer hard drives this time? Bob always seemed to be going to very exotic places to sell things. He had worked in Army intelligence and then the CIA in his younger years, and we used to joke that he still was a covert spy. 

I was not yet aware of the understated way that Swedes communicate, and so I was utterly bewildered by Julies’ mom’s phone call, which appeared as casual as someone calling to say that they would be 15 minutes late. 

How could we know if Bob was safe? Could we trace his credit card activity? Should we call the State Department?  It was a national holiday, and it seemed like everything had shut down. We did what we could and prayed. Late Friday night, I received a fax from Julie’s dad saying that he was fine and had Thanksgiving dinner with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. I imagine that all of this sounds slightly fantastic. Still, it is entirely accurate, and it was the start of over 25 years of hosting Julie’s family for Thanksgiving.

Her family would arrive on Wednesday night and leave on Saturday morning. Julie and I would share the overall workload. Still, I was in charge of the Thanksgiving meal, including the preparation of the turkey. Thanksgiving has always been a lot of work, but with repetition, it has become routine. Our menus are always the same. 

Thanksgiving Day 

Breakfast: 

Freshly baked cinnamon rolls, various other sweets, coffee, mandarin oranges, OJ, cereal. 

Dinner (2 PM): 

Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, freshly baked rolls, corn casserole, jello salad, green bean casserole, cranberries, gravy, various add-ons, and pie. Julie’s mom usually brings a pecan pie, which we supplement with pumpkin pies and at least one other dessert. (Yes, it is a gut buster meal).

Supper: 

Sandwiches, salads, sweets.

Friday

Breakfast

Ham and Egg Strata (sort of a bready souffle), OJ, coffee, hot rolls, sweetbreads/coffee cake, oranges.

Lunch

Homemade cream of turkey soup (one of my specialties)

Sandwich fixings and dessert 

Dinner

Stuffed pasta shells, tossed salad, garlic bread, dessert.

Saturday

French toast, OJ, coffee, various cereals, various sweetbreads/coffee cakes.

Julie’s sister Amy kindly brings some of the desserts and we make the remaining ones.

Our Thanksgiving weekend is filled with lively conversation, football games on TV, card and board games, long walks, and lots of eating. Every year I look forward to her family’s arrival, and I immediately take a nap as soon as they leave. Hosting Thanksgiving has become a family tradition, but this is changing.

This year my two nieces celebrated Thanksgiving with their spouse’s families. My nephew stayed in London, and his dad (my brother-in-law) traveled there to be with his son. My daughter celebrated with her Peace Corp peers in Africa, and Karl’s brother Kurt spent the day with other relatives. This reduction in force eliminated some of our activities, like the giant Bunko game, but many of our usual pastimes continued. 

Amy, my sister-in-law, told Julie that next year, she would have her own Thanksgiving in Minnesota as she wants to maximize the holiday time with her far-flung children. It is likely that Julie’s 90-year-old parents will celebrate with Amy, as will the rest of the family. However, we will stay in Illinois as it allows us to spend the most time with our kids who are in college and beyond. Next year our 25-year tradition will end.

I do have sadness over this, but I also wonder what our new smaller gathering will bring. I imagine that we will still have a giant, gut-busting dinner. My kids all look forward to their favorite dishes. However, we will undoubtedly pare back on the other meals. We may fill the weekend with new activities. Perhaps a family trip to the movies, or a ride to downtown Chicago. 

Few things in life remain constant. Some traditions last longer than others but most eventually evolve or end. It is essential to respect tradition, but it is unhealthy to be a slave to it. A change can offer new experiences and new growth. We will always have the memories from past events.

In life, it is important to be flexible. We will try to use some of our old Thanksgiving traditions as a foundation for our new holiday weekend. Next Thanksgiving will be a new adventure.

Addendum: Julie read this post and wanted me to correct it noting that the changes for next year’s Thanksgiving are not written in stone and that our tradition could be continuing. I add this addendum at her wish and for completeness.

Making sure that the turkey is 165 F.
One of two tables set for Thanksgiving.
Joining hands to give thanks.
I’m in charge of making the Thanksgiving dinner.
Food served buffet style.