All posts by Dr. Mike

The Long Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The university is always impressive on approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crawl Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day 

Breakfast: 

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

Dinner (2 PM): 

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

Supper: 

Sandwiches, salads, sweets.

Friday

Breakfast

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

Lunch

Homemade cream of turkey soup (one of my specialties)

Sandwich fixings and dessert 

Dinner

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I Prejudice By Design?*

My parents were raised in a Chicago Slovak neighborhood, in a city of ethnic neighborhoods. They lived in a place where you could converse in Slovak, shop in Slovak stores, and attend a Slovak Catholic Church. Adjacent to the Slovak neighborhood was a Polish neighborhood where similar services were available but in Polish instead of Slovak. These countries touch each other on the European continent but are separated by state borders. Similarly, old Chicago neighborhoods touched each other but were separated by cultural borders. People were expected to marry someone from their religion and cultural background, which is precisely what my parents did.

During the first half of the last century, women were told that they were incompetent to hold positions of importance. Nevertheless, women performed a vital role during WWII by working in responsible positions. The war would not have been won without their efforts. However, after the war was over, they were expected to adopt their prior limited roles. 

During World War II, propaganda was used to unite US citizens. One method of propaganda was to create grotesque caricatures of our enemies. Especially notable were those of the Japanese where the physical differences between Asians are whites were so exaggerated that the Japanese looked more monster than human. 

I was raised in a neighborhood that was mostly blue-collar, mostly Catholic, and completely white. When I was a child in the 1960s, there was a great fear of blacks. A fear justified by stories of violence and immorality. We were led to believe that the integration of our neighborhoods would result in them becoming ghettos. This fear played out in the high school that I attended, which was ripe with racial conflict and violence. That violence was a product of our fear, but we were led to believe that it was proof of our false conjectures. 

Unlike my parents, my generation melted more into the American fabric. My wife is Swedish and was raised in a Protestant tradition. My siblings married spouses who were Irish, German, and Polish, respectively. Our parents believed that it was necessary to marry their kind. However, my generation found that “our kind” had more to do with values rather than ethnic heritage. 

My colleague Glenn was a Psychiatry resident whom I trained with during the 1980s. He attended a prominent pharmacy school in Iowa before he decided to seek a career in medicine. He told me of an experience that he had with a college roommate. One day his roommate asked Glen a favor, “I never met a real Jew before, can I see your horns?” His roommate was completely serious.  

While attending medical school at Northwestern, I became friends with a kind and thoughtful fellow student named Todd. We never talked about religion, that is until one day. On that day, this smart and kind man told me in earnest that he knew that the Pope had a massive arsenal of weapons hidden in the basement of the Vatican. “Someday, the Pope will give a secret signal, and all Catholics will rise up and attempt to take over the country,” he told me sincerely. I was glad that I did not tell him that I was Catholic.

My friend Tom, who grew up in Poland, said that homosexuals were hated and rejected there. He was taught that the gay agenda was to convert straight children into a gay orientation. As a child, he had a genuine fear of this group based on this lie.

Our highest officials tell us that all Muslims are terrorists and should not be given the same rights and privileges as others in our society.

I am writing this post from Starbucks, where I have a direct view of the street. Outside I see a Hispanic woman wearing a safety vest and wielding a leaf blower. She is working purposefully as she cleans the sidewalk that I will be walking on in a few minutes. I am told that the people of her race are lazy, drunken criminals. It does not appear that she got that memo.

What is the common link between all of these diverse groups? The common link is that in some minor way, they are different from the group in power and that these differences are enough for denial of their human rights.

In nature, other organisms exhibit destruction based on differences. Advanced species like chimps wage war on other chimps, as do lesser species like meerkats. Ants and bees, destroy insects from other colonies. Lions, bears, and even horses kill the offspring of other males. 

Plants, including walnut and pine trees, secrete agents that prevent competitors from growing near them. Other plants go a step further by secreting chemicals that directly attack the roots of living neighbors, killing them.

Some researchers feel that the distrust of others has a genetic component. However, others believe that distrust is entirely a learned phenomenon. I am in the first camp, as the traits of trust and distrust would seem critical for the survival of early humans. If primitive humans had an inherent mistrust of individuals who were different from them, it could provide a survival benefit.

Let me digress. Have you ever fallen in love? Think back to one of your high school crushes. The object of your affection could likely do no wrong. Their flaws were minimized, and their strengths were magnified. You probably had an intense interest in their behaviors and a strong desire to connect with them. Most adolescent crushes last from weeks to months. Most “post crush” individuals wonder why the former object of their affection has suddenly developed clay feet.

A chemical storm in your brain causes a crush that clouds your judgment and artificially emotionally connect you to your love interest. Why would your brain play such a trick on you? Stated, this emotional closeness can lead to physical closeness. In other words, your brain is setting the stage for you to procreate. Humans prize their intellectual capabilities, but many of our actions are based on primitive instinctual drives.

It can be assumed that during our early evolution, resources were scarce, and mortality was high. Having a more significant piece of the resource pie would ensure a higher rate of survival, and one way to have more pie for yourself is to take someone else’s piece. This presents a problem. We are social animals who are more successful when we work in groups. Therefore, if our only drive was to selfishly secure resources for ourselves,  we would lose the significant benefit of working with others. Thankfully, we have other inherent characteristics that balance this drive, including empathy, compassion, and a desire to connect. It is fashionable to think that these characteristics are taught, but in reality, they are baked into us. However, they can be strengthened by teaching. Our connecting forces balance our self-serving forces. This yin and yang combination has enhanced our ability to expand our species and thrive. 

Although Homo Sapiens have been on this planet for around 200,000 years, our modern societies have only existed for 6000 years. Complex societies present their own problems and require additional solutions. As thinking creatures, we have developed social norms and established laws. Mechanisms from etiquette to governmental rule help humans work together in harmony.

In a perfect world, our innate drives combined with external forces (such as laws) would give us a utopian-like existence. However, we do not live in a perfect world. It is all too easy to channel suspicious feelings to others whom we perceive as different. The more significant that difference, the easier the alienation. Color of skin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, and physical characteristics are just a few of the ways that we can separate ourselves from others. However, in modern society, it is challenging to denigrate someone on such facts. Instead, negative attributes are added to justify our emotional feelings. This group is lazy, that group is dirty, etc. 

Individuals and groups have intuitively used our fear of “different” in weaponized ways for millennia, and their manipulations have resulted in societies accepting and even celebrating tragedies from wars to mass genocide. Sadly, it is easy to see these weaponized forms of hate being applied in our present day.

This condemnation of particular groups can be partial or complete. During World War II, propaganda against the Japanese was so successful that little was said when Japanese Americans had their property seized and were locked up in camps. 

Partial condemnation allows an individual to continue to serve society while their rights are restricted. Blacks were allowed to do manual labor, cook, and care for our children, but were denied all human rights. Women were allowed to raise families, but were not considered equal to their spouses. 

Such actions keep power in the dominant group, but at a high cost to both the dominated and domineering. Increasing a pool of talented individuals allows for more meaningful and more varied solutions, as well as higher productivity. For instance, the US became an intellectual power when working classes were allowed to gain a higher education via the GI Bill. A whole country is a healthy country. 

Why is it that we continue to experience prejudice and the denial of human rights, and why do these behaviors seem to be on the rise? These actions give the group in power short-term gain. Unfortunately, we are in a time when it appears that leaders are more interested in what they can get in the next few years rather than what would benefit all (including their offspring) over time. As our society becomes further fractionated into very rich and very poor groups, it becomes easier for those on top to identify those on the bottom as being different, and not as worthy. Extreme wealth provides a second set of rules making some wealthy people feel that they are not only above the law but also above any consequences,

The solution to the above problem is disarmingly simple but extraordinarily difficult to implement. Groups that are determined to be different need to be accepted as similar.  

When connected with marginalized groups, most people tend to see more similarities than differences. However, forced clumsy immersions can have the effect of worsening discrimination rather than helping to heal. Our leaders need to model a behavior of tolerance, and our laws need to reflect true equality. We need to see positive models of different types of people in media, social media, and in our daily lives. Traditional ethical bearers, such as religious leaders, need to emphasize acceptance of all as a central core of their teaching. Intolerant behavior needs to be squarely addressed. Hypocrisy must be met with truth in equal force. 

One of the most powerful influencers of our basic drives is social modeling. Therefore, our society must demonstrate the full acceptance of individuals who may be perceived as different. Our current model rewards people who commit criminal acts while demonizing non-conformers who live ethical lives. This must change.

Groups in the majority fear loss. Loss of power, loss of prestige, and loss of influence. However, the healthiest societies are those that maximize the talents and skills of all of their unique members.

As humans, we have to accept our primitive beginnings, but also aspire to be higher than what those traits drive us to do. 

*This post represents my personal opinion.

Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault

It all started when my wife, Julie, returned to the paid workforce. My kids had been used to home-cooked meals, but her lack of time had them dining on fast food, delivery pizza, and frozen entrees. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a family cooking day that I labeled, “Cooking With Dad Thursday.” My goal was to provide my kids with more than a meal, I wanted to teach them how to cook and have them experience the fellowship of sharing a group-made meal.

The task was multi-faceted. We would plan, shop, cook, and clean up together. Each cooking Thursday culminated with a Facebook post where I would upload a photo of the plated and completed meal. Naturally, I tried to present our dishes in their most favorable light on Facebook. I would always ask my kids, “Reality or Facebook reality?” when I posted the photo in an attempt to emphasize that most things that you see on Facebook are highly curated. Another effect of posting the picture surprised me; friends started to post pictures of their homemade meals. Also, “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” spawned a mini-movement of others preparing real food from scratch.

I grew up eating great food. My mother magically threw things together in the most delicious ways. She didn’t teach us how to cook, but she did write down some of her recipes in a ledger style notebook, which was passed to my brother when she died. Her musings provided her with the information that she needed to remember a recipe but they were incomprehensible to anyone else.

Most of the “Cooking With Dad Thursday” recipes originated from conventional sources. Standard cookbooks like “The Betty Crocker Cookbook,” and “The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook” provided some inspiration, but most of my recipes were procured and printed off of the internet. I have always felt comfortable cooking, as the process is a form of practical chemistry. I have been making meals for decades and can interpret a list of ingredients quickly. Most of the recipes that I selected had to conform to the tastes of my kids and also be essential enough to teach a particular cooking technique. 

Many of the dishes were well-liked by my children and warranted saving, but where? The answer came early in the form of an old and somewhat beaten up school folder from my son William’s elementary days. Its bright orange color made sure that we wouldn’t lose it; all that it needed was a little updating. With a black marker, I scratched out Will’s name on its front, and in a bold and sloppy script, I wrote “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault.” The folder was neither super-secret or a vault, but reality should never stand in the way of a creative process. During any Thursday meal, I would ask the kids, “Is this dish worthy of saving in the vault?” If the answer was yes, I would toss it in the folder. One checkmark indicating pretty good and two checkmarks noting that the dish was excellent. 

Nowadays, my kids can make anything from a savory lasagna to 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. However, they are in college and beyond, causing “Cooking With Dad Thursday” to become a school break activity.

When a door closes, a window opens. With our new empty nest status, Julie and I had to negotiate who would be the meal preparer. In an egalitarian fashion, we decided to split the duty. I’m now the Sunday chief, and so “Cooking With Day Thursday” has evolved into “Simple Sunday Supper.” Julie is a more adventurous eater than the kids, and so I can revisit the culinary memories of my past, including soups, stews, and casseroles. However, she has banned peas from the list of acceptable ingredients. 

My new routine often starts with an internet search for a potential meal candidate. Once printed, I check our larder to see what we have in stock. I’ll highlight any needed purchases directly on the recipe, fold it, and stick it in my pocket to serve as a shopping list. I dislike large stores, and so I’m fortunate to have a little grocer called “Fresh Thyme” just a few blocks away. Although limited in selection, they have all of the basics plus a good meat counter and an excellent fruit and vegetable section. It is a short and easy trip for me to buy any needed ingredients, and the store’s limited selection prevents me from overbuying.

I have also taken over the weekly house cleaning, which I do on Sundays. It is a bit of a balancing act when it comes to time management. However, I’m getting good a juggling these tasks and cooking is hardly a hardship. 

Yesterday I made Italian sausage and lentil soup garnished with a little sour cream and served with chewy ciabatta bread. Total cooking time in my Instant Pot was 25 minutes, and it was the perfect dish for a frigid fall night. Julie gave me a thumbs up on dinner, and so I marked the recipe with two checkmarks. Where did I save it? In “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault,” of course!

The folder is now over two inches thick. It has been loosely divided into categories such as “stovetop,” “oven,” and “Instant Pot.” In that old and now worn-out folder resides years of recipes and memories. It may not have the charm of my mother’s handwritten cookbook, but it is wholly legible and clear. I hope that someday one of my kids will want the collection, and perhaps they will teach their children using some of the recipes that we so lovingly made. The vault may serve as a new tradition as well as a vehicle for my kids to tell their kids about their crazy dad and the food adventures that were spent together.

Traditions don’t have been elaborate, they just have to be. What traditions do you have? 

The old repurposed orange folder.
The vault is over two inches thick representing many dozens of cooking adventures.
I usually post an ingredient shot. Why? Because I think it looks nice.
Last Sunday’s meal. An Italian sausage, lentil soup with chewy ciabatta bread.

Halloween, And First Snow

I heard the weather report on Tuesday. It would snow on Wednesday and Thursday. Not just a little dusting of snow, but 4-6 inches. I felt my heart sink. Thursday was Halloween, and it would be cold and snowing.

I always thought of Halloween as a fun holiday. A day to dress up, be creative, and a bit silly. 

My involvement with the day has changed over the years. When I was single, I often worked late, so I was one of those houses where a doorbell ring yielded little for an expectant trick-or-treater. When Julie entered my life, either one or both of us were at home to pass out candy. Early on, we established the tradition of eating Chinese carry-out on Halloween. A habit that started out of chance, but is now has become an expected event.

The introduction of children to our family brought new traditions. I would carve pumpkins to the specific instructions from my kids, and Julie and I would help them realize their costume visions. One year Julie blew up dozens of purple balloons to turn Grace into a bunch of grapes, and I remember spending many evenings perfecting a costume for William that transformed him into a living Lego block. 

Julie would pull a kitchen chair into the front hall so she could be close to the door to pass out candy. She especially liked seeing the little kids dressed up, so excited and fresh. I would walk with our kids, protecting them from imaginary danger. My reward was their company. 

Our Halloween decorating was simple, a few candlelit pumpkins on the front stoop, and a giant blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn that I had purchased from the Dollar Tree. That monstrosity graced our home for at least a decade, although its internal lights ceased operation after the first 5 years of service.

As my kids aged their trick-or-treating became more independent, then stopped altogether. However, I could vicariously remember those pleasant days by passing out candy to the next generation of young candy seekers.

However, this year, Halloween was predicted to be very snowy and very cold. Even if the kids did come out, they would be sealed in coats and hats hiding their costumes and blunting their wonderment. With all of our kids out of the house, this functional cancelation of Halloween felt especially harsh. It was another life-change to deal with.

I discovered that it snowed more Wednesday night when I got up for my morning walk at 4 AM on Thursday. I have a morning routine set on my Google Nest smart speaker, which includes the weather. Bitter cold and more snow were the agenda. I cleaned up, got dressed, drank coffee, and prepared myself to face the snow and cold. 

I stepped out of the front door, and I was met with a winter wonderland. The air was still and calm, and a thick carpet of snow lay on the ground. The trees had not yet shed their fall leaves, and these appendages served as landing pads for snowflakes that transformed them into glistening ornaments. 

The snow had served as sound insulation, adding to the stillness of the morning and making my walk even more meditative. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of calm as I traversed the distance between my house and the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue.

Julie had decided to lighten her workday, so she would be home for the bulk of the trick-or-treaters. At 4 PM, I was ready for our transient guests with bucketfuls of candy that were placed in a massive orange bowl. Eventually, Julie came home, and we ordered Chinese food from Grub Hub; Pot Stickers, Brocolli Chicken, Spicy Tofu… enough food for the night and lunch the next day. 

We decided to start another tradition and streamed a horror movie. Our first watch was “Aliens,” a movie new to Julie, but one that terrified me so much the first time that I saw it in 1986 that I checked the back seat of my Nissan Sentra when I left the theater. This time around, it was less frightening; muted by time and the much smaller screen of our family room TV.

Halloween concluded with only three groups of trick-or-treaters (less than 20 kids) gracing our doors. Yet, the day was a success.

Dear readers, as you know by now, I look at every event and experience as a potential tool for learning. I had an expectation of what Halloween was supposed to be, but the weather dashed that dream. However, Mother Nature didn’t take away, it gave. My morning walk was quiet, beautiful, and serene. Yes, there was a lack of trick-or-treaters, but that allowed us to start the new tradition of watching a scary movie. The day was different but no less pleasant or special.

I wanted to pass out candy as a way to revisit the time when my children were young, naive, and full of expectation. That didn’t happen, but instead, I was given new experiences combined with some of our old traditions. My Halloween symbolized my current life, build on the foundation of the past, but changing in an unknown way. My current life direction is not that different from the expectations of my children in the past. I, too, await with excitement to see what tricks or treats will be placed in the bag that I call my life. 

Snow on the autumn leaves made them look like glistening ornaments.
The carpet of snow dampened the sound and made my walk quiet and meditative.
Downtown Naperville as I walk towards Starbucks.
Even my back yard looked like a winter wonderland.

A Frying Pan Teaches Dr. Mike A Lesson

I looked in the sink, and it caught my eye. I had observed it many times before, but I had ignored it. Now, I felt different. I wanted to do something.

There, among the suds and water, was our ten-inch frying pan. The pan that I bought over ten years ago when we switched to induction cooking. The pot that we purchased because our old cookware wouldn’t work on a stovetop that used an oscillating magnetic field instead of one that heated by a gas flame or an electric coil. 

The pan had been shiny stainless steel the first time that I used it. It performed its job flawlessly, and I gave it little thought. It is easy to take for granted something that does its job well and without complaint. I suppose that is what I did with this pan.

Its interior was spotless, almost new looking. However, the pan’s exterior was an unsightly mess. After thousands of uses, its outer surface was covered in little spatters of burnt oil that had built up on its shiny surface, causing it to gain a streaky bronze-like appearance. Beyond this bronzing, there were significant blackish marks on the base of the pan that appeared like someone had drawn them with a fat black permanent marker.  

The pan’s thousands of cooking cycles each took their toll. Each cycle adding another droplet or two of burnt oil to its surface. Each cycle further bonding the older stains into the metal. A soapy sponge or scrubby did not eradicate these blemishes. Our dishwasher’s efforts were folly. The pan was wholly functional beyond its ugly exterior. The only options were to live with its unsightliness or to replace it.  

I was moved to clean it. I adjusted the water to a scalding hot, and I squirted more dish soap into the sink. I pressed the scrubbing side of a sponge against the tarnished metal, and with all of my might, I moved the sponge in concentric circles over the base of the pan. Over and over, I continued my efforts pressing so hard that my biceps ached. I agitated the surface of the pan to the point that thick creamy soap suds obfuscated it. I felt that surely I had made an impact. I rinsed the pan, and to my astonishment, it looked exactly as it did when I started. I double my efforts, and then tripled them, but to no avail. It seemed like the stains were there to stay. 

I paused and thought. It appeared that I was approaching this problem like I had approached many issues in my life, with brute force. During my pre-retirement life, I had little time to ponder, and I had to solve problems in as an expedient way as possible. I aggressively gave 100% of my time to get a job done. I thought that I had to do things this way as there were always ten other tasks waiting. When you work like this, you can never celebrate what you have done; the work that you are doing on one task serves only as a delay from starting the next job.

Perhaps it was time to approach this problem differently. I reached under the kitchen counter and grabbed an old can of Bar Keepers Friend and a pillow of steel wool. I then sprinkled the Bar Keepers Friend on the stained surface and made a paste by adding a few drops of water. I walked away. After a bit, I returned with the steel wool and scrubbed the pan’s surface. When I found myself pressing with a painful force, I backed off with a deliberate effort and used a light circular motion instead. My arms didn’t hurt, and the movement felt meditative. I found myself humming in rhythm as I continued my slow and deliberate actions. A quick rinse showed some progress. I repeated my steps of letting the paste sit and then lightly scrubbing the surface, and with each repeating cycle, more of the decade-old grime disappeared. 

Instead of continuing a pattern of actions that gave me a negative outcome, I approached the problem with thought and consideration. A gentler approach achieved my goal and left me energized instead of tired and frustrated. Understanding trumped aggression. 

And with that, dear readers, I end this week’s post.

Ten years of grime gone.

Yet Another Family Weekend

If you have had children in college, you are aware of the phenomena known as Family Weekend. A time to face crowded restaurants, sold-out football games, and inflated hotel room prices. 

At this point in my post, I can hear some of you shouting back at your computer screens, saying, “Well, what about the children, Dr. Mike, you cynical SOB.” Dear reader, of course, we go for our children, but you have to admit that my opening sentences do have the ring of truth.

I have four children. Two have graduated from college, and two are presently attending college. I have gone to such weekends for three of my four children. My daughter, Kathryn, went to a college that was over 1,700 miles from our home, and it just wasn’t practical to go with my wife and two minor kids.

This year I attended two such celebrations. Earlier this month, I drove two hours to be with my son at his state university, and last weekend I drove five hours to go to my daughter’s school in another Midwestern state. 

Taking Grace out to lunch on her Family Weekend.
Taking Grace out to lunch.

There is a tremendous amount of hype over these days, and we are typically inundated with flyers, postcard reminders, and emails. Despite knowing that hotels fill very early, we have a tendency to book late, which has resulted in us having to stay in hotels in other towns or pay the outrageous prices that such procrastination brings.

Family weekends always includes a football game. We commit to going to the game, but by the time we go to buy the tickets, they are sold out. There are a variety of other activities, and there is typically some performance by a celebrity, no matter how minor. We have a 50% hit rate when it comes to getting tickets for those shows.

William showing us his campus.

My wife is our primary booking agent, and she was horrified to find that the only hotels available for my son’s weekend were $300 a night. Instead of paying that, she booked a campsite in a nearby county park for less than $30. I was delighted with her choice for several reasons. First, I love camping, which I especially enjoy in my homemade campervan, Violet. Second, this would be the first time that Julie and I would attempt sleeping in the van together. Thus far, I have only slept in Violet solo, and we weren’t sure if the two of us would fit on Violet’s non-standardized platform bed. We booked similar camping accommodations for my daughter’s Family Day weekend and the same reasons. The results of our sleeping experiments would determine the feasibility of the two of us going on longer adventures in Violet.

My friend Tom and I planned Violet’s buildout well, and traveling in her is a pleasure. She is self-contained, and solar panels on the roof power her house functions (roof fan, interior lights, fridge, etc.). The kitchen is permanently stocked with pots and pans and equipped with both a butane stove and a microwave oven. She carries her bedding, and her garage area holds outdoor necessities like a table and chairs. Going on a weekend trip is as simple as packing a change of clothing and raiding the house fridge for food to make a few simple meals. Since we would be taking our kids out for meals during their respective Family Weekends, the only foods that we needed to pack were some snacks as well as some freshly ground coffee for our wake-up cup.

Making pour over coffee in Violet the van.

I know that it would be more interesting to share dramatic stories of generational conflict or teenage angst, but the fact is that I have fantastic, wonderful offspring. They are smart, kind, considerate, and have great empathy. My pride in them overflows.

At both colleges, I witnessed kids walking with their parents with their heads down in utter contempt. I heard snarky comments from students and saw parents with exasperated looks on their faces.  

During both of this year’s Family Weekends, our kids were gracious hosts. They smiled when they looked at us, and when we professed our love for them, they sincerely told us that they loved us back. They not only allowed me to hug them in public, but they squeezed me just as tightly. They didn’t seem bothered that we wanted to do things with them, and we were the ones who ended the evening because we were just tuckered out. They even were willing to go to Sunday brunch with us, delaying any activities that they had planned for that day. They are just fun to be with.

The campus at dusk.
A little chapel on Grace’s campus.
The student center.

There is something that happens as your children age; they become adults. I know that this may sound obvious, but the actual experiencing of this phenomenon can seem oddly strange. I spent 36 years raising children (that is not a typo). In that role, I (along with my wife) was the caregiver, the decision-maker, the soother, the provider, the compromiser. These roles never end for a parent, but they do evolve. 

As a parent, you start to see this transition when you realize that your kids have their own opinions, interests, and desires and that those attributes may be different from yours. Suddenly, you are aware that you are talking to them with the honesty of an adult conversation rather than with the protected and padded conversations that you had with them only a few years earlier. You start to notice that they are taking your feelings into account when they interact with you. You observe them making plans and charting their course. You note that they are keeping their responsibilities and honoring their commitments without your reminders.

When I saw these changes in my children, I was immensely proud, but also quietly sad and even a little afraid. When they were younger, they looked up to me; now we look eye to eye. I had the answer to all of their questions; now they give me answers. I had a feeling of security knowing where they were and what they were doing; now, I can only assume that they are making good choices. Raising children is a tremendous responsibility, but that work returned something to me worth any costs, that return is called “family.”  

I am not saying that my children have become islands onto themselves. They still need my support, and they even ask for my advice. However, my contributions have become just one stream out of several that they use.

Julie and I put away money for our children’s education. However, there was no reasonable way that we could wholly pay for all of their college degrees. We are fortunate that our kids are smart and do well academically, which opened the door to merit scholarships. When it came down to college decisions, several factors were at play: the overall quality of education, the cost of education, and how the applicant (our kids) felt about the school. The financial goal was simple, scholarship funds + college savings = debt-free college degree. We would never expect our kids to go to a school that they hated. However, a school’s scenic location or a state-of-the-art fitness center were of minor importance. The kids made their own decisions, but they did have to deal with years of my ponderings on the positive impact of having zero college debt. This may seem too calculating to some who grade schools by climate, football teams, and ivy league pedigrees. Debt may be the inevitable price for many college degrees, but if it can be avoided, I think that it should be avoided. 

Our William was somewhat reticent about his college choice; however, it ticked off all of the boxes. It was gratifying to have him tell us that after five weeks away, he liked his new school. He was mature enough to move forward instead of continuing to stay in a sullen place. 

It was awesome to witness our kids acting rationally and maturely. Grace told us of her horrifyingly stressful midterm week with accuracy and also with some humor. When Julie said, “What can I do to help you,” Grace wisely replied, “Just listen to me and love me.” She let us know that it wasn’t our job to fix her problems; loving her would be enough.

I am a realistic man who knows that few things stay the same. I’m not expecting that everything will be rosy with my kids from now on. I know that we all have our ups and downs, but I feel that my children have the flexibility and resiliency to cope in today’s modern world.

For me going to Parent’s Weekend had little to do with football games or comedy acts. Parent’s Weekend was just another time to be with my children and to marvel at the miracle before me.

And if you are wondering about the camper sleeping thing, yes, we can both fit on the bed with a little artful spooning. 

I love to camp.
Julie reading on Violet’s platform bed.

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.