All posts by Dr. Mike

A Bachelor Again

Last Saturday night Julie hastily packed a single suitcase. At 7:30 AM, the next morning, she headed out the door, and with her leaving, I was suddenly a bachelor again. 

Julie was not exiting our marriage; instead, she was traveling to visit friends and family on a 3-day excursion.  

Eight years spanned the gap between the dissolution of my first marriage and the consecration of my second. During that period, I sometimes dated, and at other times I was single. However, except for those times that my daughter Anne was with me, I lived alone. I am a person who is comfortable being by myself, but at times my house felt empty. My marriage to Julie filled the house with her presence, and eventually, the presence of my three additional children. 

My family of origin was routine and typical for its time. My mother didn’t work outside the home, and my father was usually sitting in his comfortable chair by 4:00 or 4:30 PM. We never went on vacation, and my parents seemed to do everything together.

Julie’s family was different from mine. Her father frequently traveled internationally, and her mother worked outside the home. Her family had a cabin two hours north of Buffalo, and it was common for her father to spend time there away from his wife. Being apart from each other was normal.

Early in our marriage, I was devastated when Julie would go away without me. I took it as a personal affront that she didn’t want to be with me. It was usual for her to travel to her hometown during “Buffalo Days,” a local celebration. Buffalo Days are scheduled on Father’s Day weekend, which meant that her dad got to celebrate Father’s Day with Julie and my kids while I spent the day alone. 

The first time that this happened, I filled my time by feeling sorry for myself, but by the second year, I was prepared. I realized that it wasn’t Julie who was making me unhappy, it was me. To resolve this issue, I came up with a “Plan B,” I would celebrate Father’s Day weekend in my own way; I would turn this disadvantage into an advantage.

When you are married, you compromise. You abandon some activities and adopt others. There are many benefits to such a transition, but if you aren’t careful, it is possible to lose yourself in the giving process. Father’s Day weekend didn’t have to be a period of imposed sadness, it could become a time of rediscovery.

During Father’s Day weekend, I would be responsible only to myself. I would not have to compromise. What were some of the things that I gave up when I married Julie? I gave up going to movies that she didn’t like, which were mostly of the action genre. I gave up frequenting certain food joints, like White Castle. I pulled back on socializing with others. I abandoned a past activity of spending a given day researching an esoteric topic or learning a new skill. I stopped cooking foods that I considered delicious, but Julie thought were unhealthy.

With the above awareness, I decided to face Father’s Day weekend head-on. That Friday’s dinner consisted of a trip to White Castles where I feasted on a bag of Sliders, a jumbo box of onion rings, and a large vanilla shake. I paid for that indiscretion, but it was worth it. On Saturday, I deliberately woke up late. I then pondered on an esoteric topic until I reached my intellectual saturation. I willfully stayed in my PJs until the evening, at which time I changed into street clothes and took myself to a bad, but wholly enjoyable action movie. On Sunday morning, I fried up a half-pound of bacon and cooked three over-easy eggs directly in the bacon’s pool of rendered fat. I accompanied my bacon and eggs with buttered toast using white bread instead of our standard whole wheat. I ate my eggs, drank strong coffee, and listened to straight-ahead jazz, all at 10 AM in the morning. 

In the early afternoon, I picked up my sister, Carol. Carol asked, “Where are we going?” I pointed vaguely westward, “There,” I said. Off we went with no particular destination in mind. Our goal was to visit small towns along the way and to find an exciting restaurant to celebrate Father’s Day dinner. We both love these discovery adventures, and to this day, we enjoy reminiscing about them.

My Father’s Day plan was a success. A dreaded weekend became a weekend to anticipate. With a few thoughtful steps, I went from being a victim to being victorious. 

Julie and the kids now spend Father’s Day at home with me, and I love the happiness that this brings, but these new memories don’t discount my Plan B adventures.

I have been married to Julie for over 25 years, and the days of being traumatized by her absences have long passed. Also, I no longer feel a need to fill every away minute with activity. However, I have learned that I can have a lot of fun during those times when I am responsible only to myself. 

And so it was with last Sunday. I drove Julie to Midway Airport to catch her flight to Minneapolis. Midway Airport is west of Gage Park, which is the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. As you know from previous posts, I don’t have a lot of positive memories growing up. However, I still have a connection from that time and that place.

I turned my car east on 55th street and headed to my old neighborhood. The roads seemed much narrower than what I remembered. Gage Park has become one of the most dangerous communities in Chicago However, the blocks were tidy and well maintained. Eventually, I turned right on Richmond Street, made a left on 56th Street, and then a quick left on Francisco Avenue, which was the street that I lived on. There on the east side of the block was my former home. Some siding had been added to the second floor, a bay window had been installed, bricks had been painted, and pavers filled the space that had been formally occupied by broken and cracked concrete. My old house looked better than it did when I lived there 45 years earlier! I took it all in, and I drove on.

My old house (far right). Bad composition, but I was driving at the time.

My old neighborhood has a little shopping area centered at 55th Street and California Avenue. In the day you could buy just about anything that you needed there. Grocery stores, clothing stores, a dimestore, a branch library, beauty shops, a bakery, and even a little movie theater lined the streets. On my return visit, many of the original buildings were still there, but their occupants had changed. Colorful signs now announced a plethora of Mexican restaurants. However, a few old businesses continued, including the corner gas station and the “Hong Kong” Chinese restaurant. I took it all in, and I drove on.

Next, I drove by Gage Park High School. When I attended Gage Park, it was so dangerous they brought the police in by school bus. Once, the home of several thousand students, it now has less than 400 due to its undesirability. I took it all in, and I drove on.

Gage Park, not a place of happy memories.

I finished my adventure by driving by my childhood friend John’s former home on 59th Street and California Avenue. He had told me that the house had a major fire several years earlier, but by my visual inspection, it looked intact and occupied. Lastly, I went past the old Colony movie theater, a childhood mainstay for Saturday afternoon adventures. Its worn facade and closed shutters saddened me as the movie theater was one place where I did have happy memories. I took it all in and headed home.

The old Colony Theater, now shuttered and closed.

Now back home, my goal was to understand the implementation and use of off-camera flash triggering via RF transmission. I was also very interested to see if I could get two flashes of different manufacturers to coordinate with one another. I know you are thinking BORNING, but I found the process utterly fascinating.  

It was then time for a break, and I got into my car to pick up an overdue prescription for Julie. On the way, I received a text from my friend, Tom inviting me to come over. Of course, I was more than happy to comply. 

With a prescription secured, I headed to Tom’s house spending a couple of delightful hours there. Tom is a great cook and invited me to dinner and a bonfire. He didn’t have to twist my arm. 

I love bonfires.

On Monday, I did some architectural photography work. That afternoon I discovered that my relatively new and expensive Nighthawk WiFi router had failed. I spent the next few hours retrofitting an old castoff router that I had stored in the nightmare that I refer to as my basement. The job made more complicated by the many Google Nest devices that I had to manually reconnect one at a time. 

Tuesday, it was more of the same. Some photo-taking, some errand running. I ordered a new router on Amazon. I spent some time with Tom. I returned to my camera flash study and made some more progress in getting my odd couple flashes to talk to each other. 

I decided to make myself some potato pancakes, a dish that I last made over 20 years ago. Hot and delicious, I topped each pancake with a dollop of sour cream. “Better than steak!” I thought to myself.

During dinner, my daughter Anne called. She was having a difficult time. There was little I could do except to extend my support and to let her know that I love her. I felt helpless.  

I got the mail and discovered a letter from my son, Will. I plopped into my study’s giant leather chair and started to read. Just as I finished the last line, I was startled by loud banging on the window, which caused me to jump out of my chair. It was Tom and his son Charlie. Tom was clearly delighted that he scared me. His printer was busted, and he needed to use mine. We chit chat a bit as the document prints, but he is quickly on his way.

Tuesday ended with a hot shower and the Democratic debate. Soon I’m out for the night. At some unknown point, Julie arrived via Uber and life in Kunaland returned to normal.

When I reflected on what I did this weekend, I discovered that it was remarkably similar to Plan B that I concocted on that fateful Father’s Day. However, what took significant effort has long become a natural and effortless action  

You may be a situation where you feel challenged. However, I encouraged you to think outside the box and discover if you can turn that scenario around and develop your own Plan B. Changing behavior requires effort, but with enough repetition, what seems novel or even awkward becomes routine and easy. Take control of your life.

Oh, I also made some REAL popcorn, not the junk in a microwave bag… and I even had a glass of wine!

Peace

The (Almost) Free Secret To Happiness

We arrive at his college with anticipation. We had been talking to Will on the phone, but this would be the first time that we would see him in situ since we dropped him off at his dorm, which was over a month ago.  

We text Will as we approach, and he responds that he will meet us in the Domino’s Pizza parking lot. I’m grateful for this as parking would be difficult since Violet, the van is almost 9 feet tall. She doesn’t play well with parking garages.

Will is happy to see us and spends the day showing us his classrooms and sharing stories. I am proud of him and happy. I’m pleased that he is adjusting to college life, but I’m even more glad that he is a kind and gracious host. His mature actions turn Parents’ Weekend into a happy experience.  

Exploring Will’s college campus.

Julie had called about a hotel room, but the only rooms available were $300 per night. Instead, she booked a camping spot for $30, and we headed there after our day with Will. We arrived after 10 PM, but Violet, the van, is self-contained, and setting her up is easy.  

Violet, the van makes camping easy.

I pull into the campsite, and we get ready for bed. I have camped a lot in Violet, but this would be the first time that Julie will be spending the night, and we both wonder if two can comfortably sleep on Violet’s small and non-standardized bed.  

Will said that he would be happy to go to brunch with us on Sunday, with the stipulation that it would have to be after 11 AM. With the lack of a morning deadline, we sleep in. Upon awakening, I start my Gas One butane stove up. I place my $7 Walmart kettle on it and fill the kettle with a bottle of water. After a few minutes, the kettle’s whistling alerts me that it was time to make the coffee, which I do one cup at a time. Julie sips her coffee as she looks out of Violet’s large sliding door window at the green grass and trees of the campground. I ask her how she slept, “Fine,” was her reply. Her response signaling that we could take a more extended camping trip together.

Making coffee one cup at a time.

We decide to walk around the campground, which is quiet and serene. It abuts a calm lake dotted with small boats. The setting is idyllic. I feel the happiness that I always do when I’m camping. At peace, feeling the calm of nature.

The campground was idyllic.

It is 4:45 in the morning, and I drive 12 minutes to my friend Tom’s house. I pick up two cups of coffee at Dunkin Donuts on the way; one with cream for me, and the other black for Tom. He is already waiting for me, and we sit on his front porch and talk about everything from politics to the weather. Eventually, we pile into his pickup truck and run various errands. We continue our banter as we ponder an endless list of topics. We enjoy each other’s company. I am having a good time.

The main job of the day is to grind down the surface of a patio in preparation for a new coat of paint. This involves several machines, which are both expensive and very heavy. At one point, I operate one machine as Tom stands on it to add extra weight for higher grinding power. In between my labors, I grab my Canon 5D Mark IV and snap pictures of the process. These will be used for Tom’s website and blog. I enjoy learning things, and on that day I learned about cement refinishing. 

Learning how to refinish a patio.

That evening I return home and download the photos. My regular computer is in the shop, and so I can’t use my professional photo editing software. Instead, I have to make do with a consumer-level program on my backup travel computer. This is challenging as I need to extract every capability of the software to achieve an acceptable result. I find the process mildly stressful, but also exhilarating and fun. Another opportunity to learn and to be creative! Also, I know that I’m helping my friend Tom. Tom is always helping me, and it makes me happy when I can return the favor and help him.


It is Sunday, which is the day that I clean the house. I took this task over from Julie several years ago. I can’t say that I enjoy scrubbing toilets, but I do like having my living space clean and tidy. On completion, I pause and examine my efforts. My results give me a sense of calm, and I savor that feeling. 

During the afternoon, I get calls from my daughter Grace, and my daughter Kathryn, who is serving in the Peace Corps. It feels lovely to connect with them. I am so grateful that they want to talk and share with me.


Another one of my jobs is to make Sunday supper. I generally like to cook from scratch. I have a rough idea of what I want to make and research a recipe on the internet. With print-out in hand, I head to “Fresh Thyme,” a small grocery store near my house. For such purchases, I prefer going to a little store as I tend to get confused and agitated in larger and noisier establishments. “Fresh Thyme” is not only small, but it also has limited choices making decisions simple. I buy what I need and head home.

Going to a small grocer makes shopping easy.

That evening my dinner includes a salad, grapes, roasted carrots, steamed rice, and lemon chicken. I enjoy researching a recipe, creating dishes, and using a gadget (in this case, the Instant Pot). Julie said that the dinner was excellent…a bonus!

Sunday supper.

On Monday we watch a movie on my computer. I problem solve and figure out how to project the video from the laptop to the TV. I explain the process to Julie so she will have the ability to do the same in the future. Teaching and sharing information gives me joy.


Dear reader, you may wonder how all of these mundane examples relate to finding happiness. For me, they resonate with the core things that make me happy. The above scenarios have examples of me connecting with people who I care about. They demonstrate learning new things and the use of technology to expand my abilities. They illustrate different ways to be creative. They allow me to share my knowledge with others by teaching. They identify that I am most at peace in a tidy and organized space. They illustrate how I thrive in the serenity of nature.

These are the things that give me satisfaction in life. All of them are nearly free.

You may have a different set of things that make you happy. Explore your feelings and examine the common elements of those things that satisfy you. Look for the essence of these common elements. Perhaps you like to go dancing, but why? Is it the exercise, or the music, or the social interaction? A core essence is generic and can be found in many other activities and situations. Those other activities and situations will probably make you happy too.

Also, explore things that stress you and make you unhappy. Distill the essence of these activities and situations. Use this knowledge to avoid negative people and situations.

You may notice in my examples that I didn’t mention the many things that we are TOLD makes us happy. I didn’t say a big house, a fancy car, or other material things. I didn’t discuss popularity or celebrity. I didn’t cite designer clothing or elaborate beauty regimes. I feel that in some cases, these things can make us unhappy. Getting in debt over possession purchases is stressful. Trying to find happiness by seeking external approval can be a never-ending struggle. Attempting to feel better about ourselves by the clothing that we put on our backs or creams that we smear on our face is folly.  

Dear reader, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a beautiful house if you can afford it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make an effort to be liked, and I’m not saying that you should not have flattering clothes. What I am saying is that for most people, these things do not add to their happiness quotient, and when they try to substitute them for your core happiness elements, it can be dangerous. Happiness can not be found by running a credit card to its limit, and that package from Amazon will at best have a temporary, mood-elevating effect.

Discover the real core things that make you happy and pursue them. Listen to your soul instead of worshiping advertisers and influencers. Transcend commercialism to find your inner peace.

When Things Fall Apart

October 1st, 2019 was a day that will go down in infamy. OK, that is a bit dramatic, but it was a challenging day.

I had to be at Tom’s house at 5 AM as I was going to a job site to do a photoshoot. I had prepared the night before by getting out gear, charging batteries, and resetting my camera to its standard settings. After some coffee and conversation, we headed to the job location in nearby Warrenville.

I was shooting outside in a shaded area, and I knew that additional light would make a difference. Before I got out of the car, I attached the flash to my Canon 5 D Mark IV. I headed to the customer’s backyard and took some test shots without the flash, confirming that a flash would enhance the pictures and so I powered on my old but very reliable Canon 430 EX speedlite. I took a picture and did a quick look at the back of the camera to chimp the results. The photo was hopelessly over-exposed. I checked the camera settings to discover that it was not communicating with the flash; my flash was fried. The day was not starting well.

I returned home, and decided to tackle the hedges in front of my house. I am not a yard work kind of guy, and so I try to simplify these tasks as much as I can. Along these lines, I have a battery-operated hedge trimmer. I have a bunch of other battery-operated lawn gadgets that use the same battery packs which I had charged a week earlier. I slid in a battery and started to clip a large, and out of control bush. After about 30 seconds, the clipper stopped cold. I put in the second battery, and the same thing happened. The final battery acted similarly, crap.

I still have my original corded electric hedge trimmer, which I then pulled out. My long extension cord was nowhere to be found. I had lent it out to a friend, and it had not come back to me. I pieced together three smaller extensions, plugged in the old trimmer and pressed its power button. The gadget sprung to life, but after about a minute it slowed and stopped. Checking everything from the AC outlet to the extension cords proved that the problem was in the clipper, it was busted. With a sigh of remorse, I dug out my manual clippers and went to work on the bush, creating a massive pile of branches and leaves. I then went back into the garage to get a rake, so I could gather the mess that I had created. Within seconds the head of the rake fell off. Back in the garage, I found its spring-loaded retaining clip, which was so stiff that I couldn’t reattach it. How in the world did it fall off? Into the garbage the rake went.

I grabbed another rake and built a huge pile of leaves and branches. I returned to the garage to retrieve a paper grass bag that already had a small amount of chopped grass. I double-checked to make sure that the bottom of the bag was intact before I started to shove my newly cut shoots into it. I then carefully lifted the bag and carried it back to the garage at which point the entire bottom ripped open dumping dirt, leaves, stems, and partially decomposed and fermented grass everywhere.

Naturally, my hedge trimming took longer than expected. Now in a rush, I grabbed my computer bag and drove to the Apple store. This was my second visit to Apple this week as I have two computers that have keyboard recalls. As usual, it was a “hurry up and wait,” experience. Eventually, a young man named Jordan appeared. I explained to him that the keyboard on my MacBook was malfunctioning and that I was aware that Apple had a recall on this particular model. Jordan scanned my serial number into his iPad and shook his head. My MacBook had been bought as an overstock item, and because of this, it was sold “as-is.” If I wanted to fix it it would cost over $350. Apple produced a defective product but wouldn’t fix my computer due to a loophole; typical Apple.

I got back into my car and decided to go to Menards to buy a replacement electric hedge trimmer, some contractor bags, and a long extension cord. I always wander through Menards as I can never find what I’m looking for in that store. I meander to their food section where I buy a can of Progresso Cream of Mushroom soup. I am not sure why I buy groceries at a hardware store, but I often do. Now in the checkout line, I hand my items one by one to the cashier. The store’s checkout counters are tiny. Finally, I hold up the large box for the trimmer which she scans. I then place the box back in the cart. The clerk looks at me with a raised eyebrow and in an exaggerated movement cranes her head towards my cart. She queries, “I suppose you also want that can of mushroom soup?” There it was stuck behind the hedge trimmer box. Yes, I say sheepishly as I imagine being hauled away for soup thievery. I simultaneously wonder how I missed the can and why I was buying it in the first place. I leave the store with my head hanging low.

On my way back home, I remember that we had some Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza leftovers. A vestige from entertaining our friends John and Barb over the weekend. Easy to reheat and tasty; finally a little break in my day of fails! Unfortunately, under the foil, I find a piece of crust and a tiny trimming from a larger piece. I sigh and heat my subpar dinner in the microwave.

Over the last few months, I have episodically gone down to my basement with a black contractor bag; my goal being to remove at least one bag of junk for the garbage, or for a Goodwill donation. I feel that every bag removed is one bag closer to a clean space. On such an adventure earlier in the week, I had noticed that the dehumidifier wasn’t working. I cleaned the unit’s filter and readjusted its dials in a hopeful effort.

With a black contractor bag in hand, I went down to my basement; its mustiness confirmed that my dehumidifier repair efforts were in vain. It appears that I’ll be spending another $250 bucks at Menards this week. I make a mental note, “Avoid the soup aisle.”

I did a review of my day and decided it was time to call it quits. I took a long shower, put on my PJs, and went to bed. Time 8:30 PM.

Dear reader, I think we all have had days like this. Nothing truly terrible happened; no lives were lost. However, when I’m having such a day, it feels like I’m being attacked by a swarm of mosquitos —irritating, annoying, joy sapping.

I don’t believe that there is any particular significance to these days. I feel that they are just the product of random occurrences. However, they are still troubling and tiresome. In my mind, the best thing to do when faced with such a situation is to accept and surrender. That is exactly what I did.

I write this post on October 2, 2019 at 6 AM. A day for a new beginning. A day to buy a new dehumidifier

Life Lessons From A Bathroom Remodel

I believe that it all started with the toilet. I can’t say for sure as the process began well over a year ago, but the toilet hypothesis is the most logical. Let me give you some background information so you can make sense of this opening sentence.

My house was built in 1984, which makes it about 35 years old. Its style is what I would call standard suburban issue for its era. Two stories, four bedrooms, two and a half baths. I completely remodeled the upstairs bathrooms around 5 years ago, which incidentally is how I became best friends with Tom. He was the general contractor on the job.

My downstairs bathroom never got that love, although I did lamely attempt to update it around 10 years earlier. At that time, I was remodeling our kitchen and extended some of that work into the downstairs powder room. Its old dated oak sink cabinet was resurfaced with a cherry wood veneer, and a remnant piece of granite from the kitchen was added to the cabinet’s top. Due to the geometry of the granite piece, I had to use an odd round sink. The vanity never looked quite right, as the granite was too big for the tiny bathroom, and the sink was too small for the granite. 

Above the cabinet was a cheap, oak-framed mirror that covered a tiny medicine cabinet. Above the medicine cabinet was an old fashioned wall light that projected from an oak base plate. In an attempt to unify the mirror and light with the cabinet, I sanded down their old finishes and applied a cherry wood stain. The result of my DIY staining job? When my sister Carol saw it, she tactfully suggested that a lot of people were replacing medicine cabinets with mirrors. Lastly, I had the room painted in a faux finish that was trendy at the time but now is hopelessly dated. I never was very pleased with my remodeling effort, but it was good enough, and I put up with it.

The old contractor grade toilet was far from perfect, although I replaced its innards. Over the last few years its ability to flush wholly deteriorated. This was evident when someone unfamiliar with the unit used it and didn’t wait for a second flush. The next person in line could be met with a little surprise waving at them in the loo. This loo wave became so common that replacing the toilet became a high priority.

As you know, I have difficulty asking people to help based on childhood issues. However, I have been working on this. In fact, I have a small handful of individuals who I’m pretty comfortable requesting aid and assistance. One of those individuals is my friend, Tom.

My hypothesis is that I didn’t ask Tom to remodel my entire powder room, that level of imposition on him would simply be too high. I believe that I asked him to help me replace the offending toilet. However, the project slowly expanded. The ugly sink cabinet had a large warp along its bottom side panel, and it was decided to replace that unit. Naturally, the dysfunctional medicine cabinet and old fashioned wall lamp were on the chopping block, then the beat-up door casing, and equally worn base molding, then the faux finished wall paint, and so on. Within two weeks, my simple toilet exchange had spun out-of-control.  

I ordered the sink cabinet and the medicine chest a year ago, but they sat in my garage waiting for a sink. I wanted a basic porcelain top, as I thought it would look both lighter and cleaner in my very tiny powder room. Finding one proved challenging and required Tom’s personal connection at Kohler. The light and the faucet were ordered but had to be returned, and different ones had to be purchased. Other items, like a higher quality exhaust fan, were added at Tom’s suggestion. With a design plan and materials in place, the project began. This was when we faced real challenges. 

The original faucet had to be returned as it was not compatible with the sink. However, I do like the new one!

For clarity, sake, I use the word “we” lightly, as the bulk of the efforts were Tom’s. I was the guy who helped move things, found the pencil, located the level, and did other menial tasks. With that said, I still learned a lot during the project. Of course, I learned a construction technique or two. However, the bathroom remodel also served as a metaphor for life, and it is those life lessons that I would like to share with you today.

Life lessons from a bathroom remodel

#1 Assuming is not knowing.

It is possible to go to a big box store and buy a complete vanity set that has both a cabinet and sink. In the past, I thought that these units looked OK, but my taste has been corrupted by my friend, Tom. He has shown me the glaring differences between cheaply made vanities and cabinets of higher quality. As I mentioned above, it took me a long time to locate the type of sink that I wanted. However, there was a glaring problem. The sink was several inches narrower and about an inch wider than the cabinet that I purchased. I had assumed that these kinds of items were of standard dimensions. We did come up with a work-around (more on that later), but my assumption cost me both time and money.

I wanted an all porcelain sink, but it was the wrong size for the base cabinet.

How many times do we make assumptions in life? Perhaps we assume something about a person based on peripheral facts. “He must be conceited because he has a lot of money.” “She must not be knowledgeable because she never finished school.” Most people will likely deny such biases, but they probably affect them despite their protests. Assumptions can shrink our personal world.

#2 The Internet does not make you an expert.

I like watching YouTube videos and TV shows on home repair as they are entertaining. Their simplistic explanations make it appear that every home project is a relaxed weekend away. My friend, Tom, is an expert when it comes to many home repair tasks. Time and time again, I observed how “simple” tasks required additional knowledge, tools, and effort. 

I can remember instances as a doctor when a patient thought that they had more knowledge than me about a topic because they read something (often very biased) on the internet. I recall one middle-aged lady who I had been working with for over a year. I was surprised that she came to one appointment quite peeved.  

“Doctor, I want to be on Paxil, and I’m upset with you that you don’t have me on it!” I was taken aback as she was doing quite well. Apparently, she had seen a few commercials about Paxil (an antidepressant) which prompted her to click on their website. She was convinced that my medical degree, board certifications, and experience were overshadowed by her 30 minutes of “research.”  

I let her vent for a while, and then I asked her a few questions. “Do you remember that medicine that your first psychiatrist had you on?” I asked. “Yes, it was terrible,” she responded. “You couldn’t tolerate the side effects, and you didn’t find it to be very effective for your symptoms,” I said. “Yes, I have no idea why I was placed on such a horrible medicine, which is why I changed to you.” She said.  “That medicine was Paxil,” I informed her. Silence was her response.

Becoming an expert in anything takes time and energy. There is a difference between knowing information and knowledge based on training and experience. This is not to say that we shouldn’t question the experts around us. However, it would be ludicrous to think that I know more about construction than Tom, or that 30 minutes on the internet would turn a consumer into an expert in psychopharmacology.

#3 Measure twice, cut once.

Despite concerted effort, there were times that we made mistakes in our bathroom remodel. Sometimes it was because we “remembered” a measurement instead of writing down the number. At other times we bought the wrong item, and then we had to retrofit or replace it. 

In life, many problems can be avoided with just a little extra thought, and the examples for this are endless. A little planning almost always makes life easier. In life, think twice, act once.

#4 Many mistakes can be corrected, but always at some cost.

I mentioned that my vanity cabinet and sink were mismatched. This was a potential disaster as I couldn’t return the custom cabinet, and there aren’t a large variety of porcelain sinks available. Luckily, one of Tom’s subcontractors is an expert cabinet maker. He was able to trim the depth of the cabinet as well as its side panel. In addition, he cleverly used a piece of base shoe to optically widened the cabinet. Naturally, the fix cost me both time and money, but the problem was corrected.  

We all make mistakes, but the fewer mistakes you make, the easier your life will be. At times avoiding mistakes is as simple as becoming a better planer. For instance, if you always forget items when you go to the grocery store, bring a grocery list. At other times it is essential to look deeper into a pattern of behavior. Do you find yourself “falling” for the wrong type of person? You may need to carefully examine your selection process, and you would likely benefit from the help of an expert. In this case, a psychotherapist. 

I said that many mistakes can be corrected. However, some can’t.  In those cases you have to live with your mistake. Here radical acceptance can help.

#5 Listen to what people have to say.

Tom has told me stories where individuals went against his advice and then regretted their decision. From my professional life, I have had many incidences where individuals took their treatment into their own hands (and against my medical advice) by stopping meds, radically increasing meds, or trying bizarre “alternative” treatments . Their outcome was typically poor. 

It is OK to challenge experts. If we didn’t, we might still believe that the earth was flat. With that said, experts deserve our attention and respect.  

#6 Seek experts when you need an expert, but become more expert when you can.

A bathroom is just a room. It is the decorating touches that change it from a utility space to something that we can call our own. Despite its diminutive size, I wanted to give my newly remodeled space a personality. I chose a blue-grey paint as I desired a more contemporary color (grey), but I also wanted some continuity with the rest of the downstairs, which is a shade of blue.

I also wanted to add some art to the room and decided that one larger piece was the way to go. I determined that a group of objects in such a small space would look cluttered. In my mind bathroom art should be interesting, but not engaging. The powder room is a space where people spend a short amount of time in an active process. It is not an art gallery.

The problem was that I could not find anything that matched my requirements. I had a similar problem with our upstairs hall bathroom and solved that problem by creating the art myself. I have never had training in art, and I have never studied the mechanics of art. However, I do seem to have a sense of balance and design. Also, I like to do creative things.

Creating a piece of art would only cost me my time and a little money for materials. If my project turned out badly, I was not obligated to use it. With all of this in mind, I made the piece that now hangs above the toilet. I like the way it turned out, and I learned a thing or two in the process. 

My homemade “Loo Art.”

Many of our behaviors tend to be repetitive, and we can see these patterns in everything that we do. In the above post, I tried to illustrate some of the lessons that I learned from a bathroom remodel.  Lessons can be gleaned from just about any situation or interaction. Take some random event that you recently experienced and see what it tells you about yourself and the people around you.  

My tiny bathroom. Who knew that so much work would be required to update it.

A Letter To My Children: How To Predict Good Relationships

Dear Kids

Wouldn’t it be great if we had supernatural powers that allowed us to predict the future? We could evaluate a job before we ever started working there. We could explore the future loyalty of a friend. We could predict the reliability of a potential spouse.

Humans have craved such powers for millennia, and have gone to extraordinary lengths to attempt such prowess. Gypsi card readers, psychics, and Ouija boards are examples of some common efforts. Companies have made fortunes developing software that attempts to predict stock trends. Cryptic writings from mystics like Nostradamus have been dissected and their vague metaphors interpreted. Even YouTube is swollen with channels that predict everything from the next new feature of an upcoming iPhone model to the cataclysmic breakdown of society as we know it.

Predictors and predictions are popular, as they give us a sense of mastery in a world where certainty is typically met with an equal and opposite force called uncertainty. Predictions purport to give us a glimpse into the future and knowing that future can provide us with options. We can prepare, we can retreat, we can confront. The unfortunate reality with these predictions is that they are often wrong. So why do we believe them? Likely because they offer us the illusion of knowledge, and knowledge is power. 

Kids, there is a much more accurate way to predict the future, especially when dealing with your interpersonal life. It is a method that costs nothing but often ignored. Why is it ignored? Mostly, because as humans, we want simple solutions that allow us to continue with a situation or connection. We basically want to have our cake and eat it too.

In my work as a psychiatrist, I have witnessed many couples where one partner is the giver, and the other is the taker. I can recall one situation where a woman was married to her husband for many years. She was the one who soothed the kids. She was the one that professed love to her husband. She was the one that always forgave her spouse for his selfish and inconsiderate behavior. Her rationale for staying in the relationship was that she “knew” that deep-down her husband loved her and would do anything for her if the need arose. A significant crisis struck the family, and this woman became utterly overwhelmed. She needed her husband and desperately asked for his help. His response echoed their 25 years of marital history. Not only did he refuse to help, but he also blamed her for the problem. He then became upset with her because he wasn’t getting his needs met. Her relationship was built on the false idea that her husband would be available for her if she really needed him.  However, the long history of their connection foretold otherwise.

A famous saying from Alcoholics Anonymous is, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When you have invested in a relationship, it is easy to accept a promise that, “This time I’ll really change.” In my years as a therapist, I was privileged to be included in the personal lives of thousands of patients. I witnessed countless times where people chose to ignore the reality of their situation as it was easier to hope that their friend or partner really meant it “this time.” This call and response may make both parties temporarily feel good, but how realistic is change fueled only by a promise?

If you want to predict the future, look to the past. If you have a friend who is consistently unreliable and selfish, expect this behavior to continue. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to continue to invest in this relationship, or are my time and energy better spent elsewhere?” If you are in a relationship that is fueled by constant crisis, blame, and anger consider reflecting on the reasons why you continue. 

Patients would often ask me a different “why” questions. Why is my partner violent? Why does my friend constantly lie? Why is there always drama with my co-worker? It is challenging to analyze someone in the third party; the more important question is, why are you putting up with them?

Sometimes the answer to this question is that you have no choice. You may be working with a difficult person, but other positive factors keep you in your job. In situations like this, it is best to minimize that person’s impact on you. However, there are many times when you may think that you don’t have options, but in fact, you do. However, change may involve a certain amount of work and discomfort. Parting ways with a toxic friend may also close a broader social circle. Leaving a pathological spouse may force a reduction in lifestyle. I would like to remind you that these realities may be unpleasant, but they are absolutely surmountable. Happiness is not measured by your number of Facebook “likes” or the square footage of your home, it is measured by a sense of meaning, belonging, and worth. Is the relationship that you are questioning enhancing these, or hampering these qualities?

If a person has promised to change the way that they interact with you, ask yourself, how? In many cases, a simple promise to change a long-standing negative pattern will become a broken promise. Such pledges of change can be an easy “get off my back” tactic. With that said, I have seen folks make a dramatic and significant change and improve their behavior, but typically this is with consistent, hard work. Bad practices are often generalized. If someone mistreats others but treats you well I would suggest that it won’t be too long before you are also on the B list.  

The good news is that this historical predicting is bidirectional. If you know someone who is a salt-of-the-earth person who treats others with respect and kindness, there is a high likelihood that they will treat you similarly.   

Kids, I know that you are wise and sensible, and I acknowledge that you have made good choices in your friendships and connections. However, I believe that we all face difficult situations in life. A friendship or relationship can start off great, only to have it slowly dissolved into a painful disaster. Don’t judge your connections with others based on a honeymoon period. People reveal their true self over time. 

It is also important to realize that we are all imperfect. A quality friend may hurt you or even fail you. However, when you look back at your history with them, you will find that the overall positives of the relationship far exceed any negatives. Relationships are not about perfection, they are about connection.

My pride in you and my respect for you are tremendous and overflowing.  

Love,

Your Dad

A Letter To My Children: Choose Kind Friends

Dear Kids

When I was young, the most common descriptor of me was that I was kind. In my young mind, this suggested that I was weak. I wanted people to think that I was smart, brave, or possibly strong, not kind. To me, it seemed like kindness was just the way I was, no different than the fact that I had blue eyes and dishwater blond hair. 

As I grew older, I realized that kindness was not a passive trait or a sign of weakness. I came to understand that kindness is an active choice and a measure of strength. Many sought after behavioral characteristics offer benefit to the bearer of that trait. Kindness does not, at least not directly. Kindness is very different than being passive or subordinate to the wishes of others. Kindness is an active process that recognizes that all people have worth and value. Being kind to a person means that you place them on the same level as you are, and treat them with the care and respect that you wish to be treated.

As you become older, it can be easy to become cynical and self-serving. As our world becomes ever more fragmented and competitive, it may seem like the best “get ahead” option is the best option for a good life. As a society we celebrate aggression, ruthlessness, and power. We are told that these qualities will get us a big house, a trophy partner, and a fancy car. We are led to believe that having these things will give us happiness. Of course, this is not the case.

You know that I love my toys and that things, such as my cameras give me great pleasure. However, those objects are only valuable as tools, and in fact, they have no value by themselves. What good is it to have a high-end camera if I don’t have a subject to photograph, or someone to share that photograph with? Without connection taking pictures is just a job.

We are defined by the connections that we have with others. That holds true even for an introvert like me. I envision myself at the center of my “ relationship web.” Connected close to me are those people who I love greatly, a bit further out are those I care about, then those I associate with, and so on. Somewhere in a distant ring of my web is the checker at the Jewel, or the neighbor three blocks away who I occasionally see on my morning walks. My web keeps me not only connected but also supported. Without it, I would be spinning out of control and without direction.  

We all have these webs of connections, but our connectors can be very different depending on our efforts and expectations. Some of us have webs that enhance who we are, and some have webs that pull us apart and prevent us from being ourselves.  

In life, you will make choices, and some of those choices will center on your connections with others. Some may think that the ultimate goal is to be popular or to be part of a popular group. I would caution you that the entrance fee to such a cadre is high.  To be accepted you will be required to bend to the will of others, you will have to show your “ popularity superiority” by putting down others, and you will be expected to do things that you may not be comfortable with. In other words, you will lose yourself to gain something that is artificial and easily lost.

So how does one form a healthy support web? Instead of seeking external validation by belonging to a high-demand group, it is better to find internal peace by seeking individuals and groups that mirror your core values and behaviors. Most good things in life require some work, and that is the case here. Quality people are attracted to quality people. Seek people in your life who are intrinsically kind, and who value you for who you are. In turn, it is imperative that you are kind to and value them. 

Kids, I see great kindness in each an every one of you. That same kindness trait that I now value in myself. Make it a priority to keep it alive, nurture it, embrace it, and practice it. Being kind is not an action that should be reserved for those in the inner rings of your connection web, it should extend outward to all corners, no matter how weak or temporary. Extend your kindness to the clerk at Walmart, the waiter at your favorite breakfast joint, and the receptionist at your doctor’s office.  

At the beginning of this letter, I mentioned that kindness was a trait that didn’t offer direct benefit. However, it does provide indirect benefits. When you treat others with kindness and respect, they are more likely to return those feelings to you. What could be better than that?

Love,

Your Dad

A Letter To My Children-On Saying No

This is one of a set of letters to my children.  These letters will not be in series; instead, I will write them as I am moved to do so.

Dear Kids

I was raised to show respect to adults and to submit to their wishes.  I never liked conflict, and this combined with my childhood training resulted in me subjugating my needs and wants for those of others. I came to understand that when people ask me for something, they were telling me to do something.  “Can you do this for me,” was really, “Do this for me.” If someone asked me to do something for them, I did it, even if I didn’t want to, or didn’t have the time. Helping people when I didn’t want to made me feel like a martyr instead of a hero. 

I recognized this problem, and I tried to actively change my behavior in high school. When I started refusing requests, people were not very happy with me; they were used to getting their way.  

When someone asked me to do something that I didn’t want to do, I would say that I was sorry that I couldn’t help them, and then followed that statement with a reason or reasons why.  This often resulted in the individual picking holes in my excuse as they tried to convince me that I could still do the task at hand. That wasn’t difficult because many of my reasons were quickly fabricated to “Let the other person down gently.” At times my, “No,” would stand, at other times I would give in.

Requests could range from something as simple as someone wanting to hang out, to more complex tasks that could require days or even weeks to accomplish. My refusal skills were moving in the right direction, but I had a long way to go.

An event happened when I was a 1st-year medical student that changed how I approached this issue.  I had been attending Northwestern for a few months and was invited to go to a meeting. At that meeting, many committees were looking for people to sit on them.  A 4th-year med student saw me and approached me. She seemed very excited and happy to see me, but I had a strong impression that she was playing me. With great enthusiasm, she told me about a committee that she was on.  I listened to her, and it became clear that she was looking for someone to take over her position so she could get out of it. The committee held no interest for me. Worse, it met almost weekly and involved a lot of work outside of its scheduled meetings.  If I agreed to join, I would be committing my time for the next four years. 

Finally, she popped the question and excitedly “invited” me to join the group.  I knew that I didn’t want to do it, and my mind started to race to come up with some reason why I couldn’t.  I could not come up with a reason, and on some level, I knew that any reason would quickly be countered by the 4th-year as her goal was to get rid of her responsibility.

I paused for a moment and then looked her straight in the eye. “No, I am not interested,” I said.  “Why not, this is a great honor,” she replied. I continued to look at her and made an effort to smile, “No,” was what I repeated and walked away.

I have to say that I felt enormous guilt and anxiety after my refusal.  My heart was racing, and I was concerned about what this 4th-year could or would do to me as her position of power (in my mind) was exponentially more significant than mine.  She represented an adult, and I was once again a child. It was physically and emotionally painful to walk away, but that discomfort started to dissipate by the next morning. By the end of the week, it was gone entirely.

That simple, “No,” saved me from years of pointless work.  It also taught me that I didn’t always have to give someone a reason why I didn’t want to comply with their wishes.  

Kids, over the years, I have made an effort to continue to do many things for other people, but I now do those things as a choice rather than out of some false sense of obligation.  There are times when I will do something mutually beneficial to both parties; I relish these win/win situations. There are other times when I don’t benefit, but what is asked from me is small, and it has little impact on my life.  Still, there are other times when I may not want to do something that also requires a lot of work, and I do it anyway. When I help someone by choice, it is a beautiful feeling. I know that my intentions are sincere, and this knowledge gives my efforts meaning, and value.  When I refuse a request, it is also done with thought. Yes, I may upset someone, but they can likely find someone else to do their bidding. I understand that I can’t solve the problems of the world. 

Refusal skills are essential in all areas of life.  Friends that want you to do something that goes against your values.  Job expectations that are unreasonable. Relationship demands beyond your comfort zone. If you have a stable connection with someone refusing to do something will not hamper that connection.  If your relationship is based on a house of cards, it is better to know that too.

I want you to be generous and giving adults, but I would never want you to abandon your values or sense of self because of outside demands. Always be true to yourself and your values.

Love,

Your Dad

Leaving Las Vegas

Julie floated the idea sometime in May and acted on it a few weeks later.  I didn’t object, but I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.

“Will and Grace will be in college, and Kathryn will be in her Peace Corp training. We should do something as a couple.”  Julie’s idea was to go to Las Vegas. Why Las Vegas? The destination was determined more on inexpensive airfare than anything else. 

“I reserved a hotel; it is only $29 a night,” Julie said.  “How is it rated?” I asked. “Surprisingly, OK,” she replied. 

The month before the trip had been rough due to all of the effort needed to transition our kids to their various destinations.  It was also emotionally rocky as it heralded a significant change in our relationship. When we met decades earlier, I already had my daughter, Anne.  During our entire courtship and marriage, we had never been a single couple.

Our Allegiant Air flight would depart from Rockford and would fly non-stop to Las Vegas.  I had flown out of Rockford in the past and liked the airport, which is tiny by comparison to most other airfields.  There is something to be said of the fact that you can park directly in front of the terminal, and then leave your car parked for $10 a day.

The Airbus A 319 was packed, and I also felt packed into my very compact seat.  However, I wasn’t about to complain as the airfare was cheap, and I remembered the adage, “You get what you pay for.”

When we landed, we picked up a rental car and headed to our $29/night hotel. The Plaza is an older hotel built in the 1970s and is located in the downtown area. We parked in the hotel’s parking garage and took the elevator to the lobby level. The elevator opened directly into the hotel’s massive casino.  There a hundred or more machines, all ablaze with bright lights, and many making noises assaulted me. I was taken aback.

We used the hotel’s automated check-in as the line at the hotel’s front desk was long and slow-moving.  The machine spit out our keycards, and we proceeded to our room on the 7th floor. Thankfully, the room was large and nicely appointed.  My only concern was the smell of cigarette smoke. In Las Vegas, it is OK to smoke in hotel rooms.

After settling into our room, we returned to the lobby via the casino, and I was struck with the number of people who at 3 PM were gambling on machines, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol.  Outside the front door of the hotel was Fremont street which contained the ”Fremont Experience,” which consisted of blocks of brightly lit establishments, multiple live bands, street performers, open-air bars, restaurants, casinos, and a vast curved dome canopy that was a gigantic video screen.  It was like no place that I have ever visited. Once again, I was struck with the vast number of people drinking, smoking, and doing just about whatever they wanted to do.

Internally, I was on overload, and on some level, I found myself judging those around me, and not in a positive way.  I think that I thought of myself as above the other patrons. They were acting so wild and carefree while I was my usual calm and controlled self.

Similar sensory assaults occurred throughout my Las Vegas experience. It didn’t matter if I was downtown on Fremont street, or at the very tony Bellagio Hotel on the strip. Las Vegas seemed to be out-of-control and filled with people who were also out-of-control.

Over the next day or two, I became aware of an interesting phenomena; I started to adjust to the over-the-top stimulation of the city.  As I became more able to filter out the noise, I also started to view my co-inhabitants differently. Yes, they were drinking, many were loud, and some very drunk.  However, most were very civil, and no one hassled me. I didn’t see fights breaking out in the streets, or people performing lewd acts in the alleyways. Just about everyone seemed to be having a good time and were enjoying the experience around them.

I looked further into the crowd and noticed that it consisted of all ages and races.  Not everyone was loud; many were spectators just like me. I looked more closely at the building facades festooned with lights and neon.  Yes, they were completely over the top, but they were also spectacular and envisioned at a level that I had never witnessed before.

I think it is interesting that once I got past my preconceived biases, I was able to view the people, culture, and architecture of Las Vegas in a different light.  I saw Las Vegas for what it was, a fantasy escape town. I saw my fellow travelers for who they were, people who were looking for an escape from their day to day lives — people who were more similar to me than different.

The experience made me think of how it is easy to judge others based on our biases, and how it is simple for us to place someone in a category, rather than to spend the time to get to know who they are.  I believe that if I had held on to my biases, I would have left Las Vegas regretting the trip. However, by looking at similarities rather than differences, I was able to enjoy my stay and experience a city that is like no other. 

When I returned to Naperville, I didn’t have a desire to drink more alcohol or go to the local riverboat casinos.  I returned the same person. However, the trip did highlight something significant to me. We live in a time when it is becoming more acceptable to judge, criticize, and condemn others because of our preconceived feelings concerning their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else that we see as different from us.  Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is, why is that? Why is it vital for us to exclude and judge others based on a single factor when, as humans our essence it the conglomeration of thousands of factors, not just one. It is time for us to use our big human brains to expand our horizons, not contract them. I am reminded of the Martin Niemöller poem:

First, they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me

Peace

The Fremont Experience

The strip A city of neon

An Empty House

The living room became a staging area.

Items slowly filtered in and then exploded in quantity.

The floor, the chair, the couch all had to bear their packaging burden.

Bags from Target, boxes from Amazon, loose items from drawers and cupboards, each has its place.

Like a summer thunderclap their presence short lived but soon replaced by another wave.

William, then Grace, then Kathryn.

They vanish with their possessions.

By car, by plane, they travel away.

The house now quiet except for Mercury the cat.

Confused by the absence she seeks comfort from me.

A renegotiation with Julie.

Our lives no longer centered on offspring.

Together we grieve our loss.

As night falls I anticipate the dawn of a new day.

Moving Day

The pile in our living room grew.  It was initially seeded with a lump of bedding; a new grey plaid comforter, and complimentary grey sheets made of Jersey.  Soon other items appeared, a steamer style trunk from Target, new pillows from Walmart, a modern desk lamp from Amazon. In a matter of days, the pile dominated the northeast corner of the room.  My neatness tendencies had me restacking the collection, but I remained calm despite its ungainly appearance. I knew that its life in my living room was short-lived.

Wednesday evening, I pressed the automatic seat retraction button on my Ford Flex.  An unseen motor whirred, and magically, the car’s rear seats disappeared.

“Will, I need your help,” I called.  A grumble emerged from the family room, “Alright,” Will growled.  Our job was to load the Flex in preparation for move-in day. 

Will is our fourth child to go to college and our only boy.  There is a difference in what boys bring to college vs. girls. We followed the recommended list given to us by his university, but there wasn’t a lot of energy expended finding the perfectly colored comforter or matching wall art.  Will had gone shopping with his girlfriend, Lauren and purchased some old vinyl records with the plan that their covers would inject personality to his corner of his dorm room. That was the extent of his decorating project.

He was late to the gate when it came to securing housing, and because of this, he was relegated to a “quad,” an oddly shaped room that housed three other roommates. I hoped that his place wouldn’t turn into an “animal house.”

Thursday morning Julie, Will, and I pile into our Ford, and I plug in his residence hall’s address into the car’s navigation system. After two hours of driving, we take the exit to the university.

It is now past 1 PM, and we are all hungry.  “Do you want to stop for lunch before we unload?”  I ask. “Yes!” Will responds. “Will, this is your day, where do you want to eat?”  I inquire. After a short pause, Will responds, “How about that, Chick-Fil-A?” I scan the street in front of me and spot it on the right and pull in.

It is hard to describe what I’m feeling.  In some ways, it seems like we are on vacation and stopping for a bite.  However, the atmosphere of the restaurant clearly has the vibe of a college town.  I’m still in automatic mode, and I have entirely blocked any sadness. Instead, I’m feeling a subtle undertone of anxiety as I anticipate the actual move-in process.

With lunch over, we pile back into the car for the remaining mile to campus.  Apparently, we were given written directions to ease the move-in process, but they never made it to the car.  I drive around aimlessly as I encounter one street closed, and then another. Eventually, I make the right turn, and I’m guided to his dorm’s drop-off zone by a legion of police, each officer separated by about sixty feet.

Will’s dorm is 27 stories high and gigantic.  Its architecture has a 1970’s vibe, and its awkward appendages remind of “big hair” a typical fashion from that decade. I am surprised at how small the parking lot is. An officer guides us into a parking slot with clear instructions, “Unload your items to the curb.  One person stays with the items, and another goes in to register. Sir, you need to drive to the overflow lot to park.” I nod in obedience.  

I glance over to move-in piles from other students and see everything from couches to massive boxes filled with clothes and room decorations.  I’m grateful that Will pile is considerably smaller. His dorm has a unique elevator system that only stops on every 5th floor. In Will’s case, we will need to travel two levels above his floor, and we will have to carry everything down two floors to his room.  

I drive off and follow the signs to the overflow parking lot; the mile distance seems far away. I exit the lot and start the walk back to campus.  My “excellent” direction sense points me in the opposite direction extending my 1-mile walk by 50%. “My exercise for the day,” I mutter to myself.

On my walk back, Julie sends me a text telling me Will’s room number and informing me that they are off the curb and in the building.  I arrive at the dorm, enter, and take the elevator two floors past Will’s. “Excuse me, can you tell me where this room is.” I show my text message to a student move-in volunteer.  “Take the stairs two floors down and then go to the left.” I’m informed.

Will’s room has oddly shaped dimensions.  It is “L” shaped, long with stubby alcove. Originally envisioned as a room for three, it is now designated for four.  In its standard configurations, it contains two bunk beds, 4 dressers, 4 small desks, two open closet areas, and a little freestanding wardrobe to give the 4th roommate a place to hang his coat.  Along the long end of the “L” is a large picture style window overlooking a parking garage and other random structures.  

I enter the room to find Riley, a freshman from Darien, and his dad, Joe.  Both are friendly and engaging. They inform me that Julie and Will had gone down to the main level to secure a “loft kit,” which is a set of metal bars that changes a single bunk bed into two lofts (a mattress on top with space below for a desk and dresser). Eventually, Julie and Will return carrying a set of metal tubes. I’m grateful that Joe, a general contractor, is there to guide me in the conversion from bunk bed to loft unit.

The room is starting to come together, and in the process, it becomes clear that we need a few more items.  A pencil holder for the desk, a few more school supplies, a microwaveable bowl. Will puts the kibosh on Julie’s idea of getting an area rug.  

Joe’s wife arrives and informs us that there is a CVS within walking distance, but just as we start to depart the dorm’s fire alarm kicks in, forcing the entire building to be evacuated.  Every one marches in unison and slowly moves down the stairs to the street below.

Will’s dorm is alcohol-free, but I spy at least 4 stores advertising alcohol sales within walking distance. I think to myself, “Not much has changed since I have gone to college.”  I stifle an urge to give Will my “act responsibly” talk. I know that at some point I’ll say it despite my understanding that it will have little impact. Will’s behavior will be determined by years of parenting, and his own constitution, not by some cheesy two-minute speech from me.

The CVS is inadequate for Will’s needs, and we exit only with a few cold sodas.  A random person calls out, “Will, hey Will!.” It is a fellow Naperville North student who wants to exchange SnapChat information with him.  I feel comforted knowing that Will has excellent social skills, and people like him.

We hike to overflow parking, get into the Flex, and drive off to Target.  There he runs into another familiar face, his good friend, James who is dorming in the same residence hall.  Up and down the Target aisles we go, a desk caddy here, a pencil sharpener there. We head back to his dorm, which has given the “all clear.”  The fire alarm was a prank.

The line to the elevators is at least a block long, and I suggest that we take the stairs.  Twelve floors later, I regret my decision. Task complete it is time to go back down to the car to hug and say goodbye.  Julie gets misty-eyed, and I’m surprised that she doesn’t break down sobbing. I drag myself into the front passenger seat, and we drive off, one child lighter.  In the next 11 days, we will lose two more as they travel on their life journeys.

Dear reader, you may have noticed that I didn’t talk much about my feelings during this transition.  The reality is that I’m uncertain what I’m feeling. Of course, I love my son. Of course, I miss my son.  However, I’m not really allowing myself to dig into my psyche at the moment. This act is not deliberate, it is automatic. I am not ready to face the reality of having my last three kids transition from home to “other,” and because of this, I’m keeping my feelings at bay.  Instead, I find myself getting involved with projects, and creating little experiments, and cleaning the house. I do these acts not only as a way to symbolize that life goes on, but also to recognize that even sad events can have a positive side. Rooms will be shuffled, and Julie will finally have a study again. We will have additional flexibility in traveling.  My electricity and grocery bills will be reduced. 

I don’t feel that I’m in denial. Instead, I think that I’m exploring this change in its entirety. Life doesn’t stop when significant events happen, it goes on.  We can decide how we deal with a given situation. Are we victims of our fate, or can we be an active force in our own lives? Today, I choose the latter. I will celebrate my children’s independence, but also relish the time that we do get to spend together.  I will investigate the positives that any change brings, and I will attempt to mitigate any negatives. I won’t waste a day thinking about what I have lost; instead, I’ll focus on what I have gained.

Peace

Another pile grows in my living room as Grace prepares to leave.

I spied at least 4 liquor stores within walking distance from his dorm. Moving crew. Will posing, and me fixing something.

The view from his dorm room.

Will decorated his walls with old album covers.