Soap, Chemistry, And Believing Lies

During the pandemic, I established a personal goal to talk to some of my close relatives daily.  It feels good to stay in touch with them as we share our lives and support each other.  Each of us has different knowledge that we bring to our conversations, mine being a strong background in medicine and science.

One of my relatives was upset that she couldn’t buy Dial antibacterial liquid soap.  When she had tried to purchase it early in the pandemic, she was shocked that a gallon refill was selling on Amazon for $70.  When she revisited that product a few weeks later, it was sold out.

I reminded my relative that consumer-level antibacterial soaps were no more effective than ordinary soap and that all soap-like handwashing products were equally effective in destroying the coronavirus. 

As the pandemic lumbered on, it became impossible to buy any liquid hand soap. My weekly trips to the grocer showcased bare shelves that pump bottles and refills of liquid hand soaps once called home. This elimination of usually plentiful products got me pondering.

My siblings and I are obsessive.  We get pleasure from overthinking solutions and learning about topics that most would consider trivial.  Anyone who knows me understands my obsessive passion for photography. However, beyond photography, I enjoy learning about many other topics that capture my interest. 

My relative’s concerns about the lack of Dial liquid soap incited me to learn more about soap, so here is my “deep dive” on the topic. It is more complicated than you may think.

Soap can be a very inexpensive commodity, yet some people spend $25 or even $100 on a bar with similar cleaning qualities to brands that sell for 40 cents.  Some of this additional cost can be accounted for by extras like packaging and exclusive fragrances, but those manufacturing expenses are relatively minor. What sells a product is how it is perceived, and how a product is perceived is often determined by advertising. Advertising and reality and not always bedfellows.

Why do we need soap?

Our skin has glands that secrete oil to protect our bodies from excessive water loss.  We also have glands that produce sweat that helps us regulate our body temperature. These secretions are essential, but they also make us “sticky” to dirt, allergens, and microorganisms. 

The microorganisms that typically reside on our skin are harmless, although they do contribute to odor.  However, our skin can sometimes become contaminated with organisms that cause disease.  Keeping our skin clean not only helps us smell nice, but it also protects us from illness.

Before the invention of soap, people relied on other ways to clean themselves.  Most commonly, they just used water or water plus an abrasive (like pumice).  Oil and water don’t mix, and this method of cleaning isn’t very useful.  Like the Romans, some cultures used scented oils that they spread on their skin and scraped off using a unique gadget called a strigil.  

History of soap

Archaeologists have discovered recipes for soap dating back to 2800 BC. Soap was likely being used before that time.  These soaps were not the colorful scented bars that we use today, but they functioned as soap.

Animal fats and plant oils are made up of triglycerides.  The molecular structure of a triglyceride looks like an “E.” The three horizontal arms consist of fatty acids bound together by a glycerol (glycerin) molecule (the vertical line of the E).  When a triglyceride is reacted with a very strong base like sodium hydroxide (Lye), the bonds between the glycerol and the fatty acids are broken. This results in fatty acid “salts” and glycerol. We call these fatty acid salts “soap.” 

These salts have a unique property.  One end is “lipophilic,” meaning fat-loving.  This end easily mingles with fats and oils.  The other end is “hydrophilic” or water-loving.  This end mixes well with water.  Fatty acid salts (soap) can bridge the gap between oil and water, allowing us to quickly wash away the gunk and funk. Also, the mixture’s glycerol is an excellent humectant; it attracts water to our skin, keeping it moist. 

Soap is one of humankind’s most significant discoveries. The practice of cleaning our bodies has had untold benefits to our health. How would you feel if your surgeon didn’t wash their hands before operating on you?

Soap has been manufactured for hundreds of years. Still, mass production of soap and the resulting reduction in cost happened in the late 1700s.  By the 1800s, consumer brands like Ivory soap started to appear on store shelves. 

During WWI, Germany needed to use soap making ingredients in their war effort.  Their scientists created other compounds that performed similarly to soap but didn’t use animal fat or plant oil. We now know these agents as detergents, and there are now more than 1000 types in use today.  Detergents offered qualities that made them superior to traditional soap.  They could be made more concentrated for industrial applications, or significantly gentler than soap for personal care products. Detergents were more neutral in their pH (a measurement of how acidic or basic something is) than soap, making them less irritating on skin.  It was also easier to add things to detergent products.  Moisturizers and conditioners could be added to personal care products, while powerful cleaning chemicals could be mixed into industrial products. Importantly, traditional soap reacts with calcium and magnesium in water to create soap scum; detergents don’t do this, making them perfect for a variety of products ranging from laundry detergent to shampoo. 

Some detergents had branched hydrocarbon chains making them less biodegradable. However, many common detergents have linear chains similar to fatty acid salts (i.e., soap) and are readily biodegradable.  Although some detergents are made from petrochemicals (oil), many are now made from renewable plant oils.

Both soaps and detergent products alter their ingredients to create mixes that serve different needs.  For instance, the addition of fatty acid salts made from coconut oil in soaps and the addition of the detergent sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) in detergent-based products makes these respective products more “sudsy.”  

Personal care products will add chemicals that attract water to the skin, serve as an occlusive barrier that prevents water from leaving the skin, or act as an emollient to soften the skin. Some products will add abrasive agents for more robust cleaning  (Lava soap); others will dilute a cleanser making it milder (Dove with ¼ moisturizing cream). Other additives include water softening agents like EDTA, colorants to make the product look pretty, and fragrances to make the product smell nice.  

Most consumer soaps are created for “mass appeal” they work great for healthy skin or skin that is slightly dry or a bit too oily.  Some ingredients in soaps are there to differentiate them and offer little unique benefits. Growing up, I recall a product that touted “mink oil” and a shampoo that contained “placenta extract.”

Not all bars of soap are soap!

To label a product soap its cleaning agent has to be made of the salts of fatty acids created by a chemical process called saponification:

Triglycerides + water + a strong base = fatty acid salts (soap) + glycerol (glycerin)

Real soap mostly exists in “bars.” However, if a soap chemist uses potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide, the resulting soap will be a liquid instead of solid.  That is how Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap is made. However, liquid soap represents a minimal market share of the soap industry.

Almost all liquid hand “soaps,” body washes, shower gels, and shampoos are made from detergents.  Detergents have more desirable properties than soaps, including the fact that they don’t cause soap scum. Anyone who has tried to wash their hair with a traditional bar of soap will attest to the fact that detergent-based shampoos are vastly superior.

If a bar doesn’t use soap as the cleansing ingredient, it can’t use the name soap on its label.  Instead, it will be called a “cleansing bar” or a “beauty bar.” The most popular bar, “soap” in the US, is Dove.  Dove is a syndet (synthetic detergent) bar and does not contain soap.

“Lies” that soap makers tell us

If you search Google using the keyword “soap,” you will come across many websites from cottage soapmakers, beauty gurus, and “natural” experts.  They often repeat the same incorrect and misleading information concerning soaps vs. detergents. I’m guessing that some of this is due to a desire to promote their products, and some are due to poor understanding of the scientific literature on the topic.  

Many of these sites seem to use the same wording, suggesting that they are cutting and pasting information.  They sometimes use “scary psychology” to frighten consumers from buying cheaper, mainstream products. I like handmade soaps.  However, I think consumers should buy them because they like them, not because they are afraid to use cheaper but equally effective commercial items.

I’m only going to touch on some examples, as there are too many to list in this already long post. 

-Soaps are natural; detergents are not.

Both soaps and detergents are made from naturally occurring substrates.  Both undergo chemical reactions to make the final product.  Fats don’t turn into soap “spontaneously.” By the way, many think that natural always means better.  That is a bias, not a fact.

-Soaps are biodegradable; detergents are not.

Some detergents were created using branched-chain hydrocarbons.  These take longer to biodegrade.  However, the structure of many detergent hydrocarbon chains look very similar to soap and are readily biodegradable.  With that said, no soap or detergent should be used directly in a clean water source (such as a clear stream or lake).  If you are hiking, dispose of your wash water at least 200 feet away from such a source.

-Detergents remove your skin oils.

That is precisely what both soaps and detergents are supposed to do. The key is to remove as little as possible while still cleaning you. The gentlest skin cleansers are made from detergents, not soaps. 

-” Our soaps are gentler to the skin than commercial products.”

It is possible to make a gentle hand-crafted soap, but overall soap is harsher than syndet bars like Dove or Cetaphil.  Soap has a higher pH (9-10), while syndet bars have a pH closer to skin pH. High pH can be irritating to sensitive skin.

-Manufacturers use detergents to cut costs.

Detergents cost more, which is why Dove costs more than Ivory. 

-Detergents are made from petroleum, but soaps come from living things.

Petroleum is natural as it comes from algae and plankton.  Many detergents are now made from plant oils instead of petroleum. 

-Sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, etc.

Some detergents contain sulfur. One of the common detergents in personal care products is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).  This agent is used because it is good at removing grime, and it also foams well.  Consumers like products that foam (suds) because foaming gives the impression of cleaning.  However, foaming has little to do with removing grease and dirt. 

Products will advertise that they are “Sulfate-free” as an advertising ploy.  There is no credible evidence that sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, or other problems.  I have also seen “experts” claim on webpages that sulfates are harmful because they can burn if you get them in your eyes and that they can dry out your skin.  Well, duh… so does real soap!

-” Our products are phosphate-free!”

Another gimmick.  Phosphates were effective water softeners and had been used in products like laundry detergent in the past. As far as I’m aware, they were never used in personal care products. Phosphates can serve as a nutrient for plants, like algae, causing overgrowth, which can be damaging to other aquatic species.  Because of this, phosphates have been banned in consumer products, like dishwasher detergent for decades.  Many states in the US have total bans on the use of phosphates.

-” We only use essential oils to scent our products.”

Essential oils smell great, but they are also significant allergens for many.  These plant products contain dozens of compounds that can increase your chance of getting inflammation of the skin (dermatitis). I love essential oils, but I don’t think that they are risk-free.

-” We are paraben-free.”

Parabens are preservatives used in some cosmetics, and some of them can mimic the hormone estrogen.  However, the strongest estrogenic paraben is only about 1/10,000 as potent as real estrogen.  Besides, some parabens do not act like estrogens at all.

-” We are 100% natural”.

The term natural is a marketing term and doesn’t mean anything. However, I have to admit that it sounds nice.

-” We use pure (fill in the blank) essence in our products.”

Essence is another term that has no real meaning.

It’s great to support small soap-making operations, and you may love their products. Buy because you like their stuff, not out of fear or guilt. 

As I said above, almost all shower gels, shampoos,  and body wash are made from detergents. This is because detergents don’t leave a soap scum film.   It is possible to create washes and gels with a more neutral pH and build in extra moisturizers (good things). However, some products have a lot of colorants and fragrance added. Consumers like colorful products that have a strong smell. However, these two characteristics are the leading causes of skin irritation in cleansing products.  If you have sensitive skin, use a mildly scented product or one that says it is “unscented” or “fragrance-free.” However, both terms have no legal definition. Products listing themselves as “unscented” or “fragrance-free may still include masking fragrances that block unpleasant smells or have an added fragrance to make them smell more beautiful. Confusing, I know. With that said, lightly scented products are less likely to cause an allergic skin reaction than strongly scented ones.  You can use your on-board chemical analyzer to determine if a product is strongly scented.  Press your nose to the item and give it a good sniff.

Overall shower gels are more colorful and fragrant, and body washes are more “moisturizing.” People like using thick body washes and gels.  However, their thickness is caused by a thickening agent and has little to do with the concentration of other ingredients.  

In general, consumers tend to overuse liquid cleaners, and a lot of these products wind up going straight down the drain.  Although a bottle of wash should last (roughly) the same as a bar of soap, they typically have to be replaced more often.  I scanned the internet for comparisons, and it seems like a bar of soap lasts many consumers about twice as long as a bottle of shower gel or body wash.  When it comes to teenage use, the difference is even more significant.

More soap facts

The gentlest bar soaps aren’t soap at all; they are syndet (synthetic detergent) bars.

Dove is #1 selling “soap” by far in the US, and it is a syndet bar.

Other gentle bars like CeraVe and Cetaphil are also syndet bars.

Syndet bars can be very gentle cleansers.

Both soaps and syndet bars clean effectively.  Certain brands add ingredients to differentiate them from other products, color, and fragrance being the most obvious.

Different fatty acid salts and detergents have different properties.  For instance, soaps that are manufactured with added coconut oil and detergents with SLS foam more.  People like sudsy cleansers.

You can add extra fat to make a bar of soap “more moisturizing” and less effective as a cleanser (less drying).

You can add humectants like glycerine and honey to help keep moisture close to the skin.

You can add barriers like oil and waxes that reduce moisture evaporation from the skin.

Some ingredients, like oatmeal, are calming and reduce itching (Alveeno). Others are abrasives and help clean oily/dirty hands (Lava soap).

These ingredients change some of the properties of “soap,” and you may find that one brand may suit your skin type or use needs more than another.  However, the base product is the same.

Liquid soap has been promoted as being more sanitary than bar soap. Some of these claims may be due to soap manufacturers’ desire to sell these more expensive products. However, bar soap is sanitary.  Researchers deliberately inoculated bar soap with bacteria and then had people wash their hands with the soap.  Afterwards, they didn’t find the bacteria on the subjects’ hands.  Why?  When you wash your hands, you are also cleaning the soap.  The bacteria doesn’t go on your hands, it goes down the drain. However, liquid soaps are neater when used in common areas like kitchens and public bathrooms.

Soap is soap

You can spend $2800 for a bar of Qatar soap, which is infused with gold and diamond dust.  It is easy to find very expensive soap that sells in the $40-$100/bar range.  Is this cost justified?  These soaps will be made of high-quality materials. They may be milled many times to provide better blending and a harder bar; they may be a few ounces more in weight than a traditional bar. They may have more beautiful scents and come in a nicer box.  These upgrades do justify a higher price, but certainly not $40-$100.  Why are some willing to pay that much?  Perception and image.  Cause?  Advertising at its best.

You can buy many brand name soaps for around a dollar a bar, and most are formulated to be gentle and effective.  For people with healthy skin, a forty-cent bar of IVORY or a dollar bar of Dove will meet their hygiene needs.

More fun facts

Consumer antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps in controlling germs.  However, they may pollute the environment more. Many brands that had antimicrobial agents have quietly removed them and now use confusing terms like “Washes Away Bacteria,” All soaps do this.   

Although people have been using soaps for thousands of years, the commercialization of soap is more recent. Soap factories were known to exist in the 12th century. It wasn’t until 1811 that Eugene-Michel Chevreul determined the exact amount of fat needed to make soap.  Before this, soap making was a guessing game.  This finding plus other discoveries revolutionized the commercial production of soap.

During WWI, Germany needed oils and fats for their war effort. German chemists developed detergents made from petrochemicals during that time.  Detergents are still made from petrochemicals, but many are also made from renewable resources, like vegetable oils.

In the 1930s, Procter and Gamble introduced a continuous process for the manufacturing of soap, which increased production and decreased manufacturing time to less than a day.  Before this, many soaps had to “cure” before they could be packaged and sold. Large scale soap manufacturers still use this method.

Soaps, cleansing bars, shower gels, shampoos, and body wash may contain additional ingredients that may make their products more desirable.  Color and fragrance are two apparent additions.  Others may include conditioners, anti-static agents, sudsing agents, thickening agents, humectants, moisturizers, water softening agents, exfoliants, gritty additions, and preservatives.  

A Historical Timeline

Ivory soap was introduced in 1879 to produce an inexpensive but good quality product.  To reduce costs, Proctor and Gamble extracted the naturally occurring glycerol (glycerin) from the soap and sold it separately.  They also whipped air into the product making a less dense soap in another cost-cutting method.  This aeration allowed Ivory to float in water, a happy coincidence that was used to create the tag line, “So pure it floats.” The lack of glycerin made Ivory more drying than other soaps (despite its claim that it was gentle). It was eventually added back into the soap’s manufacturing process several decades ago.  You may think that Ivory smells like soap.  However, what you are detecting is a mild citrus fragrance that is added during the soap making process.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-In-One soap was introduced in 1946 and emphasized simple, quality ingredients.  It is a soap product and comes in two forms, liquid and bar form.  With quirky advertising and emphasis on simple ingredients, it has gained a following among people who think less is more. The real Dr. Bronner wanted humanity to unite as one, and you can find some of his thoughts on Dr. B’s soap bottles and bar soap wrappers.  He also claimed that his soap had 18 uses, including as a toothpaste.  As a person who once tried to brush his teeth with this stuff, I can tell you that it is a no go.  However, it is a lovely soap.

Dial soap was the first antibacterial soap, and it was introduced in 1948.  The original antibacterial agent was hexachlorophene, which the company called “AT-7.” Hexachlorophene was removed from the soap in the 1970s as it was determined to be dangerous.  It was replaced by triclocarban, which was removed from the soap in 2016 due to FDA concerns.  Dial soap bars now contain benzalkonium chloride as its antibacterial agent.  At this point, it can be assumed that their antibacterial additions are more marketing than science. Dial was the most popular bar soap in the US from 1953 to the early 1990s.  It is now the second most popular soap.  Beyond antimicrobial additions, the soap is relatively mild and has a pleasant nostalgic scent that people associate with clean.

Zest was introduced in 1955 and emphasized that it didn’t produce soap scum in its commercials. “You’re not fully clean if you’re not Zestfully clean!” Zest was a combination bar of both soap and detergents.  The detergent portion of the bar prevented soap scum.  Zest was reformulated in 2007 and removed the detergents, likely to reduce production costs.  They countered this change by adding more color and fragrance to the bar.  

The Dove Beauty Bar was introduced in 1957. It was the first commercial bar to rely totally on detergents instead of soap as its main ingredients.  Advertised as being gentle because it contained 1/4 cold cream, its real strength was in using detergents, which were gentler and more pH balanced than soaps.  Dove bars are now (by far) the most sold bar soap in the US. 

Irish Spring was introduced in Europe in 1970 and came to the US in 1972.  It is a soap-based bar with a strong citrus/woody/clean smell.  I was 19 when this soap came to the US and loved the scent.  However, within a shower or two, I started to itch. I’m guessing I was sensitive to the overpowering fragrance.  

Coast bars are also soap products, and the original scent was introduced in 1976.  This is another bar that smelled fantastic and clean.  I thought I would be a Coast user, but after a few showers, I scratched my skin off. Again, I believe my itching was due to the pleasant but powerful fragrance.

Liquid soap has been around since the 1800s. Its use in a home environment became popular in 1979 when Softsoap was introduced (a detergent, not a soap).  Softsoap solved the age-old problem of the wet communal soap bar and became an instant hit.   

The 1980s saw the emergence of liquid body washes followed by shower gels.  These are almost exclusively detergent products. These products have decimated the bar soap industry, with about 80% of consumers using them in preference to bar soap.  Manufacturers are happy with these numbers as body washes and gels are more expensive to buy than equivalent bars.  It should be noted that their ingredients are very similar to shampoo, which is why many claim to be “body and hair cleaners.”

In 1999 the Deb company introduced the first foaming hand soap.  Foaming soap is a diluted soap pumped through a special aeration pump that turns the liquid into a soft foam.  Foamers use less soap, and you need less water to wash the foam off. I like foaming liquid soaps because there is less drippage on counters and sinks. I’ll give you a recipe to easily make DIY foaming soap later in this post.

My history (and Hack 1)

I have moderately dry skin, and dry winters used to be brutal.  I would scratch my skin to the point of bleeding (usually not realizing that I was doing it). When I was a kid, I used whatever soap we had at home, the typical national brands.  Once my father brought home an entire case of an unmarked and unwrapped green soap that was harsh, I referred to it as “rash in a bar.” Eventually, the whole family refused to use it even though my dad said it was, “Just fine.” By the way, he also stopped using it after we did!

As soon as I had a little spending money, I started my long journey to find a soap that would solve my dry skin problems.  Some soaps, like Irish Spring and Coast, made my pruritus worse as I was sensitive to their strong fragrances.  Other soaps like Dove and Camay felt like they left a coating on my skin, which was still dry and itchy.  When body washes and shower gels came out, I was the first in line to try them.  I enjoyed their pleasant smells, but I was still scratching.  It didn’t seem to matter if I was using inexpensive Dial or high end shower gel, I kept scratching. 

Decades ago, I decided to switch to more basic hygiene products.  This process started with shaving. In the past, I would buy a razor and blade set at the drugstore. Although the cost of a razor was inexpensive, its replacement blade cartridges were not.  Every few years, another blade would be added to a cartridge product, and the prices kept on going up.  I didn’t see any benefit to the new razor designs; they seemed like gimmicks that forced me to stay within a particular brand.  I decided it was time for a radical change and went back to using a simple double edge safety razor.  I liked that the replacement blades were less than a dime apiece and that the system was more eco friendly.  At that time, I also switched from aerosol shaving cream to shaving soap.  I was no longer dumping plastic blade cartridges and aerosol cans into landfills.

My success with the “new” shaving system got me thinking about other products that I was using, and I decided to leave shower gels and go back to bar soap.  I genuinely like using a good old bar of soap in the shower.  I love the smell of bar soap, and the way a bar feels in my hand.  Another win was the cost, as a bar of soap that can be up to 10 times less expensive than an equivalent body wash. For me, the combination of preferring bar soap plus some small savings has kept me in the bar soap camp for the last few decades.  I like to switch brands, going from typical consumer products to imported bars and back again.  I get tired of one scent and enjoy switching to another. Although I could tolerate just about any mild bar soap, my skin was still dry and itchy during the winter months.

I needed to think outside of the box.  Our skin is soft and supple when it is well hydrated.  Soaps and detergents remove a lot of the protective oils and dehydrate our skin.  Formulations with milder surfactants (soaps and detergents) leave more oil behind, but they didn’t make me feel particularly clean.  Products that contained substances like glycerin and shea butter were a bit more moisturizing, but I was still scratching. 

Hack 1

My wife had told me to use a body lotion for years, but I hated rubbing all of that gunk on me.  It seemed to take forever, and my skin would be white with the greasy stuff.  Many years ago, I had an idea. What if I put on lotion as soon as I got out of the shower while I was still wet?  That was a game-changer.  First, because a little lotion or cream goes a long way and glides on your skin.  Second, because it traps water on the surface of your skin, precisely what you want. When you apply lotion this way, you need to use very little, so you have no white greasy skin. It also works much better than toweling off and then applying a lotion. 

I like two products, and use whatever one is that is on sale.  My favorite is CeraVE moisturizing cream, and my second choice is Cetaphil moisturizing cream.  Both come in tubs, and a little goes a long way.  When you spread these creams on yourself, you also flatten out the water droplets on you, sort of like you are squeegeeing yourself.  By the time that you are done, you are dry-no towel needed.

Hack 2

Foaming hand soap is convenient, it doesn’t drip onto your counter, and it requires less water to wash off your hands.  It is diluted hand soap, so why does it cost as much as hand soap?  It is easy to create your own foaming soap for about one-fourth of the price of the purchased stuff.  Simply fill your foaming soap dispenser one-quarter full of regular liquid hand soap and then add water.  Distilled water is the best, but I have used regular tap water too. Add the top, give it a shake, and you have just made foaming hand soap.  Typical “Softsoap” detergent type refills, as well as liquid Castile soaps like Dr. Bronner’s work well.  You can vary the amount of soap to water ratio a bit to meet your particular tastes.

Hack 3

During the pandemic, it became hard to buy any liquid soap refills. However, body wash was in plentiful supply, some selling for as little as $15/gallon. Body wash is hand soap with added skin conditioners.  It also foams more, which can be a pleasant experience.  You can use body wash just like hand soap in a traditional pump dispenser, or dilute it (as in Hack 2) to use as a foaming hand soap.

Hack 4

Body wash and shampoo are also very similar.  A lot of body washes say “hair and body.” A cheap shampoo can be an excellent hand cleaner, and if you are out of shampoo, you can use many body washes.  However, don’t try to wash your hair with regular soap as the soap scum will leave your hair a dull and tangled mess.  If you have to do it, you will need to use an acid wash (like diluted lemon juice) to get rid of the gunk. 

Hack 5

You can wash your hands using liquid dish soap, and you can also dilute it to use in a foamer. Liquid dish soap is relatively mild but more robust than traditional hand soaps (After all, it is designed to degrease pots and pans).  Using dish soap would be my least preferred choice as it is more likely to dry your hands.  If this is your only option, follow up your handwashing with a hand little lotion.

Hack 6

You can easily make liquid soap.  I have never done this, but there are many YouTube videos on the subject, just type in DIY liquid hand soap, and you will be flooded with videos.  The process is simple, shred a bar of regular soap and dissolve it into some hot water.  Then add more water (often a gallon total).  Let the mixture cool and gel, then beat it into a smooth consistency with a hand mixer.  Sometimes recipes call for a couple of tablespoons of glycerine.  Distilled water is best to use in this case.  

There is a lot more to most things when you scratch the surface.   

Soap is something that we use every day, but most of us rarely think about it. However, our lives would be very different if we didn’t have soap and detergent products.  From body wash to toothpaste, soaps and detergents touch every aspect of our lives.  The use of surfactants made surgeries safer and our populations healthier. We can all be thankful for soaps when we are forced to sit directly next to strangers on a commuter train or airplane.

Soap is not magical; it does its work using understandable principles of chemistry.  Did you think that the chemistry class that you took in high school was useless?  Here is an example of how chemistry is real, and how we encounter it every single day of our lives.

Soap like products are big business and individuals have made fortunes manufacturing the slippery stuff.  Soap makers, both big and small, have used manipulations and untruths to differentiate their products from the rest.  Small companies claim that the ingredients that big manufacturers use are dangerous to health, incorrectly citing research literature.  Big companies promote their more expensive products while ignoring their equally good but cheaper offerings.  Go to any store, and you will find more expensive body washes and gels at eye level while less expensive bar soaps languish on the bottom shelf. We have also been led to believe that bar soap is unsanitary, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and not to mention the fact that it has been used safely for hundreds of years.  You have to admire the advertising genius that convinces someone to spend $100 on a product that is very similar to one costing under $1.  

I touched on many aspects of these products. Still, in the end, I was most interested in the psychology of soap, and how we believe things when we are told them enough times, even if they are false.  

There appear to be two common links that are necessary to convert fiction to “facts.” The first is an air of expertise or authority, and the second is a sense of trust.  You see these characteristics when you read the FAQs of soap maker’s websites. They are also present when you scan a “filler” article in a magazine.  It seems like many of these authors never read primary sources; they just copy other’s interpretations. Individuals with no actual expertise in an area claim it, and we believe it.  Someone who has “Twenty years in the beauty industry” is unlikely able to fully understand a scientific research paper.  Yet we believe them.  When we hear something enough times, our minds accept that information as fact. Once we accept a fact, we rarely question it.  The sky is blue; water is wet… we don’t need to think further on these topics. 

Another way to influence us is by associating something with something else that we believe is true. Bar soap must be unsanitary because people who are dirty touch it. Something that was associated with being clean is now associated with being dirty. This “guilt by association” way of influencing others is classic. It can be seen used in many aspects of daily life.  Unfortunately, it has also been used to denigrate entire groups of marginalized individuals.

Lastly, another way to manipulate someone is to create a problem and then offer a solution.  Antibacterial soaps did this by making us believe that we didn’t need just to clean our bodies, we had to sanitize them so we wouldn’t offend.  A non-related example of this problem/solution model can be seen in Portland, Oregon.  Relatively peaceful protestors were labeled as terrorists, and so the solution was to arrest them “secret police” style.  This later use of this technique is far more frightening to me than if I needed antibacterial soap to avoid having BO.

We are a naive and trusting culture, and our ideas are often formed by others who do so for their gain. Cult leaders and politicians gain huge followings by lying to our faces. They tell us that they have the answers while convincing us that any information contrary to their monolog is suspect and dangerous.

The next time you pick up a bar of soap, push a shower gel pump, or squeeze a tube of body wash, think about the complexity of this simple pleasure. Soap helped civilization prosper and likely had a stronger impact on infectious disease than antibiotics. Soap making is one of the first practical uses of organic chemistry.  The selling of soap demonstrates how an essentially similar product can be differentiated and promoted by manipulation and trickery.  More importantly, it demonstrates how easily we humans can be controlled.  Is it possible for us to still be led to believe falsehoods in this age of facts and information?  The sad news is that it is easier than ever before.  We want to believe that we understand the world around us, and we look to influencers and leaders to guide us in this pursuit.  Unfortunately, this desire leaves us vulnerable.  We accept lies as the truth and then feel forced to defend our erroneous position. If you understand the history of soap you also understand the strengths and weaknesses of humans. Think about that the next time you plunk down a few bucks to buy a block of bars at Walmart.

I know that this is a very long post so thank you for reading it. I’ll be away from an internet connection for the next couple of weeks and I won’t be posting because of this. Have a great day! Mike

Simple bar “soaps” come in many “flavors.” From left to right: a totally synthetic bar, a soap bar with minimal fragrance, and an imported bar with an exotic scent.
It is easy to “make” your own foaming soap. The example on the left used liquid Castile soap and the one on the right used regular hand “soap” (detergent). Use a 1:4 ratio of soap to water and save some money. I add a drop of food coloring for appearance’s sake.
A razor from Germany, shaving soap and badger brush from England, and blades from Israel. My shaving has become an international affair.
One of my favorite moisturizing creams. A little goes a long way.

Dr. Mike Goes To Walmart

I arrived back in Chicago from a trip to New Mexico in early March. I was met by escalating panic around COVID-19. I had heard stories of shortages, and so I checked our pantry and freezer. I found a reasonable amount of food, but many items were things that we didn’t eat. Yes, we had stuff, just not the right stuff. I decided to go to the store and stock up.

Over the last few years, I had been doing more grocery shopping, and I had narrowed down my purchase locations. If I needed to pick up something quick, I would go to the Fresh Thyme Market, a small grocer around the corner from my house. However, if I needed to buy a significant haul, I would head over to my local Walmart Supercenter.  

I can’t say that I enjoy shopping at Walmart. It is big, crowded, and it always seems to need a little tidying up. However, despite my complaints, Walmart has some positive attributes. The grocery store is part of a Walmart, making it easy to buy anything from camping supplies to printer paper. Walmart’s house brand, “Great Value,” is decent, and I know the store’s layout well enough to make my trips efficient.

However, that early March stock-up trip was different. The store was significantly more crowded, and its shelves were bare. No toilet paper, no paper towels, no rice, no flour, no pasta, no tomato sauce, no oatmeal. The list went on.

That week I also “hit” a few other stores, including Aldi and Jewel. I wanted to have food in case the world was about to shut down. Different stores had different stock items, so I was able to buy enough essential foods to secure my family’s immediate future. Although I felt good about “providing,” I experienced a less than enthusiastic reception from Julie. She saw my stockpiling in a more negative light.

Based on this, I turned the job of grocery shopper over to her and settled into other tasks. Shortly afterward, Governor Pritzker ordered that Illinois shut down; I spent the next few weeks isolating in my house, only venturing to leave for a daily walk.

Julie did assume shopping duties, but her own busy life hampered her ability to take on these tasks fully. At the same time, our adult kids were complaining that we lacked food items again. It became clear that I had to shoulder some of the shopping burden, a task that I was not looking forward to.

I felt that shopping at Walmart held a higher than acceptable risk, as it was huge and always crowded. The sheer numbers of individuals made me concerned that the place was a cesspool of viral particles. I could order groceries online, but most of those services have an upcharge, and feeding five adults is already an expensive proposition. I thought about returning to Aldi, which is the least costly grocery in our area. However, Aldi isn’t a full-service store, which would mandate that I would have to shop at least two different stores every week, and I didn’t want to do that. The most reasonable plan would be to buy at a regular grocer, like Jewel. Jewel is a full-service grocery store that also houses a drug store. Also, it appeared that their sanitizing standards were high, and their shopper density was low.  

Once a week, I would drive to Jewel, shopping list in hand. I organized my list into food zones and shopped as quickly as possible. I didn’t hunt for the best prices, and I bought what was available. If they only had designer tomato sauce, that is what I purchased. The idea was to balance viral exposure with economy and convenience.

Overall, the strategy worked. I was able to get in and out relatively quickly. Naturally, I took all the necessary precautions along the way. However, this was not a total “win” strategy as my grocery bills were extraordinarily high. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend over $400 in a given week, without buying a lot of meat. However, it still was the most reasonable option at that time.

One month dragged on to two, two months dragged to three, and three dragged to four. Along the way, I found myself assessing and reassessing what I could do. I expanded my “social circle” to include my friend, Tom. I visited my sisters “from a distance.” I traveled to “safe spots” to take photographs. I started to live again but in a more cautious way.  

My grocery bill was out of control, and I needed to evaluate if there were more cost-effective options. I was aware that Walmart was making efforts to keep its stores as safe as possible, including requiring face masks. It also seemed reasonable to assume that the first hoards of COVID panicked shoppers had subsided, and that food stocks had been replenished. It was time to return to Walmart.

One of the tricks that I do to make a tedious task more palatable is to include family members. Before the pandemic, I would often take one of my kids on my grocery shopping trips. This addition turned a chore into an adventure. We would joke, laugh, and explore as we shopped. Also, my co-participant received special status. If they wanted to buy a frivolous or special item, I almost always capitulated. I know that CDC experts suggest solo shopping, but I’m more efficient in having a helper. Both Grace and Kathryn agreed to assist me on my return Walmart trip.

With masks on our faces and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket, we arrived at Walmart. I was happy to see that they were limiting entrance to a single monitored door. As we entered the store’s vestibule, we were handed a shopping cart by an employee who had just wiped it down with a sanitizing solution. It did seem like they were making efforts to keep things as safe as possible.

We approached our job with purpose as we divided and conquered each grocery section. The store was stocked, but there were still areas that were showing shortages. Toilet paper was available, but only one brand and in limited quantity. Flour was present, but only a few bags were on the shelves. Cleaning products were there, but any brand that claimed that it was antibacterial was missing.

Although I bought quite a few groceries, my card was not overflowing. I purchased very few “high ticket” items like steak, and I stocked up mostly with the “Great Value” house brand. All in all, my grocery bill was just over $260. I would have spent more with a comparable Jewel haul, but it was clear that Walmart’s prices had increased significantly since my last trip there. With that said, I’ll likely return as I estimate that I saved anywhere from $50-$75 over a similar Jewel shopping trip. 

So, where am I going with all of this? During a short crisis, it is easy to make a radical change because you know that things will soon be back to normal. However, as a crisis continues, it transforms into a way of life. In past posts, I wrote about how I moved from trying to replicate my previous experience to living in my current one. Part of that process involved returning to Walmart. Before the pandemic, such a trip would be routine. Still, I had to think carefully if the risks of going into a crowded big-box store were reasonable. I had to think about how I would make such a task as safe as possible.

I believe that this is a reasonable way to approach life in our brave new world. I have no intention of going to a crowded restaurant or a packed church service. However, I know that I have to continue to expand my horizons as this pandemic continues. Naturally, I will uphold whatever laws dictate. I understand that I am not only doing this for my health but also the greater good. 

I feel that this is a balanced approach that avoids politics and ideologies. How are you making life decisions during this crisis time? How will your actions change if this way of living becomes the new normal?

After we got home from Walmart we washed our hands. The kids and I put away our food. I divided and sealed up the hamburger that I bought, but reserved some for meatloaf that I made last night. Since I have been sharing recipes, I thought I would share this one too. It is a classic that originated from the Quaker Oats company. It is super easy to make and pretty tasty.

Walmart was less crowded than I expected.
I like to portion out large quantities into meal-sized packages.

Basic Meatloaf


  • 1-1/2 Pound(s) lean ground beef or turkey
  • 3/4 Cup(s) oatmeal
  • 3/4 Cup(s) finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 Cup(s) catsup
  • 1 Egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tablespoon(s) Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
  • 2 Clove(s) Garlic, minced
  • 1/2 Teaspoon(s) Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon(s) Black pepper

Cooking Instructions

Heat oven to 350°F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl; mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape meatloaf mixture into 10×6-inch loaf on the rack of broiler pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until the meatloaf is to medium doneness (160°F for beef, 170°F for turkey), until not pink in center and juices show no pink color. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing. Cover and refrigerate leftovers promptly and use within two days, or wrap airtight and freeze up to 3 months.

(a little substitution never hurt anyone)

I only had 1 pound of ground beef in the spirit of substitution, so I added a little more oatmeal. I also upped the garlic a bit, chopped a medium onion that I didn’t measure, and reduced the catsup a little. I baked it in a loaf pan instead of on a rack. It turned out just great, and the kids ate it up.

Basic meatloaf with mixed vegetables, country-style potatoes, and a roll.

Meal Preparation During The COVID Pandemic

Adjusting to life in a pandemic has had its challenging moments. My well-established habits and routines have been tossed aside to accommodate a new way of living. Mask wearing and 20-second handwashes have become standard operating procedures for me, as have been daily checks of COVID morbidity and mortality numbers.

The pandemic has converted our empty nest household into a residence of 5 adults, only one who is working. The reality of our increased population has forced many changes, including the return of a nightly family dinner. Eating dinner with my wife and three of my children has been a joy. However, it has also included the additional stress of making dinner for five regularly.

When our kids were younger, my wife was a stay at home mom and our principal cook. She returned part-time to the paid workforce when the kids were in middle school, and I started to cook some of our family dinners when she was working late. Being a multi-tasker, I decided to teach my kids how to cook and began “Cooking With Dad Thursdays.” Every Thursday, the kids and I planned, purchased, cooked, and ate dinner. Naturally, we also cleaned up our mess. My goal was to make my kids competent in this vital life skill. Little did I know that I would call upon their services in 2020.

Cooking with my kids makes meal prep a lot more fun.

As I noted above, all of us try to eat dinner together. My wife continues to make several meals a week, and we usually order carry-out on Fridays. That leaves 3-4 dinner preparations that I commit to making. When the kids and I did “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” the sky was the limit. Steak with all of the trimmings? No problem. I was working 60 hours a week, and I didn’t flinch with expensive grocery bills. However, things have changed. I am no longer a wage earner, my kids are adults, and grocery prices have escalated. Meal planning and preparation could be an expensive and time-consuming chore. Luckily, I have wonderful and adaptive kids who almost always help me cook. Cooking with them is fun, but meals need to be simple and reasonably priced. I have a secret weapon to accomplish these goals. I grew up in the 60s, and my mom cooked for seven people. She was a great cook, and I have fond memories of the meals that she made. Many of her meals were designed to feed a crowd efficiently and economically.  


Sixties cooking does not comply with the eating standards of 2020. If your family only eats salads, stop reading now.

The secrets of 60s cooking

Using basic ingredients

In the 1960s, most cooks had a larder filled with basic ingredients. Flour, sugar, eggs, and the like. Basic ingredients allow for maximum flexibility when cooking. Cooking from scratch can be nearly as efficient as making prepared foods once you have gained some experience.

Using prepared foods

In the 1960s, packaged foods were also popular. Cake mixes, tubes of crescent rolls, canned condensed soups, and many other items were (and are) relatively inexpensive. Thoughtful use of these foods can ease your cooking burden.  

Don’t want to make a white sauce? Try a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Need to make a quick dessert? A brownie mix is cheap; you don’t have to remember if you have baking chocolate on hand. Want to boost a boring main dish? Crack open a tube of crescent rolls. The options are endless.

Using frozen foods

Some frozen foods, like vegetables, are cheap and good. Take advantage of them. The more “prepared” they are, the more expensive they are. Buying frozen broccoli is dirt cheap, but it is more expensive if it has a “butter sauce.” Forgo the latter and add your own pat of butter to save some money. 

Substitute when needed

In the 60s, it was common to modify a recipe based on what you had on hand. If you didn’t have one ingredient, it was perfectly OK to substitute a similar item. No green onions? Try some finely chopped regular onions. You don’t have a particular spice? Try another one that compliments the meat that you are using. No fresh garlic? Try some of the stuff in a jar or use garlic powder. Don’t have tomato sauce? Try using a can of tomato soup. Your results will vary with the number and types of items that you switch out, but with reasonable care, you will end up with a good dinner. 

Keep it simple

In the 1960s, it was common to eat one-pot meals. Casseroles, soups, stews, and the like were easily augmented with a simple side dish. Combination foods are also cheaper to make as they use less meat.  

Clean as you go

I mentioned that my mom was a great cook. However, she was a messy cook who seemed to use every pot, pan, and bowl to prepare a meal. If you want to ease your cooking stress, clean up as you go.  

By the time that we are ready to sit down for dinner, all of our preparation dishes are washed and put away. When we are done eating, everyone clears the table, one person washes the table, and someone else loads the dishwasher. A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen.

I thought that I would share some of my classic recipes with you. Although I have modified many of them, most were created by other cooks. Thank you to those individuals!

Meal options

Breakfast for dinner

Making breakfast food for dinner is quick, cheap, and delicious. Ham and eggs, pancakes with sausage, or waffles, and bacon are some breakfast foods that we sometimes have for dinner.  

Waffles and Bacon

We usually make our bacon on a jelly roll pan lined with aluminum foil. Place the bacon in single slices on the sheet and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes, or until done.  

You can use Bisquick or a pancake mix for waffles, but I think these scratch ones are easy to make and taste better. If you don’t have a waffle iron, you can probably pick up one cheap from a resale shop (like Goodwill). Ours is over 25 years old, but it still does the trick. Here is my waffle recipe.

Two eggs

2 cups flour

½ cup melted butter

One ¾ cups milk

1 T sugar

4 t baking powder

¼ t salt

Heat the waffle iron and spray with cooking spray. Mix the ingredients into a batter and add enough mixture to the hot waffle iron to fill the cavity (but not so much that you are dripping everywhere). Waffles are done when less steam comes off of the iron. You can keep them hot in a warming oven until serving, or pass them out as they are made. 

Homemade waffles taste so much better than frozen ones.

Simple Spaghetti

I debated about posting this recipe, as it is so simple. However, there may be people out there who have never cooked, and this recipe is easy, filling, and delicious.

Boil spaghetti following the package directions. When done, drain and return to the pot. Add a tablespoon or two of butter to the drained spaghetti to keep the strands separated. 

While you are making the spaghetti, brown about a pound of hamburger (or other ground meat) in a separate pot, drain off the fat while carefully retaining the browned meat in the pot. Add a jar of spaghetti sauce to the ground meat and heat. We tend to go with inexpensive brands like Ragu and Prego. You can be as creative or straightforward with your sauce as you like. Add some parmesan cheese, a little red wine, a bit more oregano, a small can of mushrooms, whatever suits your fancy.  

We dump the sauce into the cooked spaghetti pot and mix it up like a casserole.  

Along with the spaghetti, we will serve a tossed salad and some garlic bread. Commercial garlic bread is good, but it is easy to make some from scratch. Just melt some butter and mix in some chopped garlic (or even garlic powder). Brush the mixture on some decent bread and “toast” the bread butter side up on a cookie sheet in the oven (350F-400F), removing the bread when it is nicely toasted.

Beef Tips in the Instantpot (or any pressure cooker)

Beef tips usually use sirloin, but we go cheap and use stew meat. You can also use cut-up round steak or pot roast.

In a large Ziplock bag add:

3 T flour

2 t steak seasoning (optional)

2 t garlic powder

1 t onion powder

½ t salt

½ t pepper

Add 1-2 pounds of cubed steak and shake to coat the steak in the mixture.

Place the Instantpot in saute mode, add some oil, then brown the steak in batches. Remove the meat.

Add to the hot Instantpot:

1-2 T oil

One chopped onion

Lightly brown the onion

Then add:

Three cloves chopped garlic (or some garlic powder)

⅓ cup red wine (or water)

12 oz beef broth (you can also use low sodium bouillon and water)

1 T Worcestershire sauce

½ t ground thyme (No thyme? Try oregano). 

Return the meat to the pot and cook under high pressure for 35 minutes. Let the pressure come down for 10 minutes after 35 minutes of cooking time. Carefully release the pressure and open the lid. Place the pot back into saute mode and wait until the mixture is bubbling. Take a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch and mix with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stream this mixture into the Instant pot whisking as you go. Cook for a few minutes and then adjust seasonings. I usually have to add more salt, garlic powder, and pepper. A squirt or two of hot sauce doesn’t hurt either.

I often serve this dish with bread/rolls, a vegetable, and a starch. If I’m using rice as my starch, I’ll make a lot more to use it for the next recipe. 

Beef tips made in the InstantPot.

Mike’s “Sort Of” Chinese Fried Rice.

The secret to good fried rice is to use cooked rice that is a few days old. Freshly made rice will result in a sticky mess. I tend to keep leftover rice uncovered in the fridge and use it about 2-3 days later. 

Fried rice is a recipe that you can modify to your heart’s content.

Heat a wok or large frying pan and add some oil. Saute 3-4 sliced green onions and then add chopped ginger root (1t to 1 T), and chopped garlic (3-4 cloves).  

Add some meat (½ to 1 lb), cut into small pieces. I like using chicken. Cook in small batches while you continuously stir and flip the meat using a wide utensil. Make sure you don’t overcook the meat. Remove the meat from the pan.

Add more oil if needed, and then add your cooked rice. How much? Around 4-6 cups are about right. Keep the rice in motion until it is heated.

Push the rice to the pan’s sides and add a couple of scrambled uncooked eggs in the center of the pan. Cook the eggs until they are almost done and then mix them with the rice mixture.

Take a bag of frozen vegetables (peas/carrots, stir-fry mix, etc.), and heat in the microwave for about ½ of their cooking time. Add the vegetables to the rice mixture and stir to distribute. Return the chicken and heat a bit more. Mix in some soy sauce until the rice is the color that you like.

Add salt and possibly pepper to taste. Personally, I also like to add a shot or two of hot sauce.

Fried Rice.

Super Easy Quiche

One large pie crust

Six large eggs

3/4 cup milk 

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup cooked ham cut into small cubes

1 1/2 cups shredded cheese divided (any meltable cheese, but not mozzarella) 

Four tablespoons chopped green onions

Mix liquids and seasoning together. Put green onions, ham, and 1 C of the cheese into the pie crust. Pour the liquid mixture into the pie crust and top with remaining ½ C of cheese. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let rest at least 10 minutes before cutting. I like to serve this quiche with homemade bran muffins and a green vegetable.

Super easy quiche.

Bran Muffins

1/2 cup oil

1 cup of sugar

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk (or 2 T vinegar into a scant 2 C milk-let it sit for a few minutes before adding to the dry ingredients)

4 cups Raisin Bran cereal

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

Mix ingredients and let the mixture stand for at least 45 minutes. Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 400 F for 12-15 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the muffin’s center). Cool for at least 10 minutes before removing muffins from the tin. 

Easy to make and delicious bran muffins.

I hope that these ideas reduce some of your cooking stress and turn the drudgery of cooking into a fun activity.



Re-engaging In Life.

In the 1960s, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” based on her work with dying patients.  In case you have forgotten, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although some aspects of this work are now in question, she did bring to the forefront the idea that we work through significant changes of life in stages.  Those stages may be different from event to event, and from person to person.  

In many ways, I have gone through various stages of loss during the COVID crisis.  I feel I was in a stage of denial at the start of the crisis. Before the Illinois stay-at-home order, I traveled to New Mexico convincing myself that the trip was safe since (at that time) there were no reported COVID cases in that state.  

During the early phase of stay-at-home, I entered a fear stage fueled mostly by the panic I witnessed around me.  It was impossible to buy toilet paper, then paper towels, then facial tissues. Everyday pharmacy items such as rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and ibuprofen became purchases that were only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. Essential foods like flour, pasta, oatmeal, and rice were impossible to buy. 

I had five adults living at home, and I’m a person who takes caretaking seriously.  I did my best to adapt to other foods.  Tom helped out by finding a big bag of flour for me, and I even bought a sack of pinto beans, “just in case.” My preparedness can be a point of ridicule in my family, but I had to be true to myself.  I am hardly perfect, but I have become successful in life by moving past what other people think that I should do or what I should be. 

I had a depressed phase around that time. Although I’m an introvert, I still need contact with others in my life.  Luckily, I was able to safely expand my social connections and experiences to lift my down mood.

I moved into an “approximate” stage where I tried to “simulate” what my life was like before the pandemic. COVID Easter, COVID birthdays, COVID Mother’s Day.  I pretended that I could have the same pre-COVID experience by recreating those special days sans outside adventures and people.  In many ways, this strategy worked, but in some ways, it did not.  I discovered the latter fact when I did the self-exploration that I chronicled in last week’s post.

Life seems to be moving into a new normal, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear path back to the way it was.  It has been exhausting for me to rationalize that by (fill in the blank) date, I would once again be able to do those things that I used to do.  As the numbers of infections and deaths have escalated, I have moved into a new stage of acceptance. I am no longer trying to approximate my former life.  Instead, I am trying to live life.

I had an unstructured day.  My friend, Tom, was busy, and Julie and the kids were doing their things.  I spent the morning writing and making phone calls, but by the early afternoon, I was feeling unsettled. What I wanted to do was to take some street photography, but in this new era, that wasn’t a very practical solution.  Instead, I went to our local Herrick Lake forest preserve. I have photographed Herrick Lake many times; there are only so many different shots that you can take.  I thought that I had taken all of them, but did I?  I decided that I would up the creative game by shooting only in black and white. Because of this restriction, I had to view the landscape in a very different way.  My creativity was sparked.

The forest preserve is close to my sister, Carol’s house.  I have been calling her daily, but I missed seeing her in person.  Was I only going to have phone contact with her from now on?  Carol is older than I am, and she is rightfully concerned about continuing her excellent health.  I phoned her and asked her if she would be comfortable seeing me in person.  She said she would be as long as I could maintain a social distance from her. We had a delightful time as we sat on her patio, masks on, and 8 feet apart.  

On my return home I got a call from my friend, Tom.  He was at a project close to my home, and he wondered if I could stop by. Tom is in my “bubble” of contacts, so there was no problem stopping by and giving him a hand with his job. 

At dinner, I reflected on my day, noting how full it was and how much I enjoyed it.  I didn’t feel like I was trying to pretend that it was a pre-COVID day; it was an enjoyable day.

My daughter Gracie sent out a group text to our immediate family, asking us if we wanted to have a 4th of July party.  Julie and I had already planned to have a barbeque, but Gracie wanted to expand on that idea.  She wanted to make some treats, play yard games, and have a bonfire.  I thought it was a great idea.

Grace made some desserts, Will offered his frisbee and “Spikeball” game, Julie and I took over various dinner making tasks, Kathryn did some cleanup, and Will and I built a fire. I didn’t feel like I was substituting; I felt like I was experiencing a good day. 

It is possible that this pandemic will have the same culture-changing power as the 911 event had on our country.  Things may never be the same.  I was willing to put my life on hold for months, but I’m not ready to place myself in suspended animation.  Yet, I am acutely aware that to go back to pre-COVID behaviors would be both dangerous and foolhardy. 

Life requires continual adjustment.  There are things that I could do at age 30 that I’m unable to do at 67.  With that said, there are things that I can do at 67 that I could not do at age 30.  My goal has always been to live the best life that I can in any situation. I need to apply that same logic to my current life.

I have always loved nature, and I have always loved being in the country.  I have taken trips where I am living in a space that is smaller than my walk-in closet.  Places where the nearest Walmart is 4 hours away. Areas where there is no cell phone coverage. I have traveled to these places deliberately and savored the simplicity of my life. I didn’t feel deprived during those times; I felt liberated.  I focused on what I had and what I could do instead of what I didn’t have or what I couldn’t do.  I was happy living my life in the here and now.  It was great.

I know that we will eventually develop a vaccine, and I’ll be the first person to get it.  However, I don’t know if life will be the same as prior to the pandemic.  I am determined to move forward and to live life.  What can you do to enjoy your new “today?’ 

Some black and white shots of Herrick Lake.

Grilling on the 4th of July.
Yard games.
Our 4th of July “feast.”
Frisbee toss!
Grace (with the help of others) made some “cake balls”
Will and I made a fire.
We even had a sing-along.