Some years ago I committed myself to work out regularly. I started my exercise journey by walking, but several years ago I transitioned from this to using a personal trainer at a gym. The big draw for me to go to the gym was that I would typically coffee klatch with my friend, who also went there at the same time.
I enjoyed going to the gym, but it wasn’t my favorite type of exercise. Eventually, I got injured and around that same time, my friend got tired of going. It was time to re-think my routine.
I returned to walking, which is an exercise that I love. I typically walk between 3.5 to 4.5 miles on any given morning, and I usually start in the pre-dawn. During my walk, I can think, pray, or meditate. I time my walk, so I arrive at my local Starbucks when it opens for the day.
I bring along a computer on my walks, and Starbucks is where I write this blog. My friend, Tom often stops to visit, but when he doesn’t, I now know enough regulars that I can always engage in a little conversation. For me, walking outdoors is an ideal exercise, but it does have its pitfalls.
The main barrier when I walk is the weather. In northern Illinois, we have four seasons that are often dramatic. In the last few years, our winters have become milder, but this has posed a new problem for me as it isn’t uncommon to have warm days of rain/sleet/melt followed by cold days, which results in super slippery ice formation.
Bad weather would be an easy excuse for me to stay in bed, but as I tell my kids, There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. In today’s post, I want to share with you the gear that I use to walk in just about any winter weather. I’ll give you what I wear on a typical winter day, a bad winter day, and a horrible winter day. Your mileage may vary depending on your needs and climate.
About Gear Quality
It is easy to say, Buy only the highest quality winter wear. It is true that better quality gear works better and lasts longer. However, it is also expensive. I take a balanced approach. The more regularly I use a winter gear item, the better the quality.
I have a great Cabelas down coat and several different types of footwear that are pretty decent. I wear these items every time I go out, and I need functional items that last. However, I only wear thermal underwear a few times a season. In that case, I opted for an inexpensive but reasonably rated pair purchased from Amazon. I know that they won’t last as well as Under Armour gear, but I don’t need them to.
Several layers of clothing work better than one heavy layer as each layer traps air, which serves as insulation. Layers are typically lighter than one heavy layer and they can be removed or added as your situation changes. Consider layers when you walk in the winter.
What I wear
Typical Day: Stocking cap and jacket hood.
Bad Day: All of the above, plus a thermal face mask.
Horrible Day: Trooper hat, hood, face mask, scarf protecting mouth and nose, inexpensive ski goggles.
Typical Day: flannel shirt, Cabela’s down jacket, scarf on the chest.
Bad Day: The above plus a hoodie.
Horrible Day: Thermal undershirt, flannel shirt, hoodie, Cabela’s down jacket.
Typical Day: Gloves
Bad Day: Gloves
Horrible Day: Gloves with hand warmers
Note: I usually like good ski type gloves, but I always lose them, and I’m usually stuck with the crappy gloves that I never seem to lose (go figure).
Typical Day: Jeans or pants
Bad Day: Jeans
Horrible Day: Jeans plus thermal underwear.
Note: After recently walking at -24F with a windchill of -50F I have now ordered a pair of snow pants.
Typical Day: waterproof hiking boots (Vasque) or ducks, or Bogs (depending on outside wetness), warm socks.
Bad Day: as above
Horrible Day: As above, plus a double pair of warm socks or good wool socks.
Ice cleats for shoes
There are several brands of ice cleats; I use a one called YakTrax. They have been an absolute game-changer for me, and without them, I would probably stay in bed about 30% of the time. Ice is my most feared challenge, but I’m relatively confident going out when I’m wearing cleats. I highly recommend them.
An umbrella is surprisingly useful in winter and can turn a miserable sleety/snowy walk into an OK one. I only think about umbrellas when I need them, and most of the ones in our closet were bought as impulse purchases at big box stores. They fail in every way that you could imagine, and they are frustrating to use. They should be avoided. Last year I bought a Totes standard umbrella, and I have not looked back. Cheap umbrellas fail when you need them the most, brand name offerings will save you money in the long run.
There is nothing more miserable than walking in wet shoes. Besides, wet shoes and warm feet create the perfect environment for smelly bacteria and fungus. No one wants to clear a room when they take off their shoes. Several years ago I purchased a shoe dryer. This is a simple and inexpensive device that consists of a circulating fan with two arms that you hang your of shoes on. The interior breeze quickly dries wet shoes and yields happy, fresh springtime feet.
Thoughts On Shoes
The most important foot factor is comfort when it comes to walking. For me, comfort means dry and well-supported feet. I have three different pairs of shoes to accomplish these goals. You may require only one pair, or you may need more than three. Footwear is entirely a personal choice.
Vasque Waterproof Hiking Shoes
I bought my hikers at The Shoebox in Black Earth Wisconsin. I was hiking in cheap hikers in the rain and ruined them and so I went shopping. I was interested in getting a good pair of shoes and wanted one that wouldn’t get soaked. My shoes have a Gore Tex lining to keep my feet dry. However, there is a dark side to this technology as once water gets in (via the top the shoe) it has a hard time getting out. A shoe dryer comes in handy for this problem.
Generic Duck Shoes
I bought these classic waterproof shoes on Amazon and mine are serviceable, but slightly too large. They serve my purpose well enough that I don’t feel a need to replace them. These are great when there are puddles or light snow as they have a higher water barrier than my hiking shoes.
For many years I wore cheap, pull on boots for snow blowing. They were junk and were guaranteed to spring a leak within 2 winter seasons. About 10 years ago I bought a pair of Bogs boots, and I’m still using that pair today. Bogs boots are well made, and they slip on easily. They don’t offer the support of my hiking shoes, and so I only use them when I’m dealing with poor conditions, such as newly fallen deep snow. If you are planning on being away for the day, I would advise that you bring a second pair of shoes to change into. In a typical indoor environment, Bogs make your feet hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.
I am a multi-tasker, and I often write when I arrive at Starbucks. I bring a small messenger bag with a shoulder strap when I walk. In it, I carry a lightweight laptop, a spiral notebook, pens, earbuds, a book, and a couple Zyrtec for my allergic friend who occasionally forgets to take his at home. I really like having a grab-and-go bag that doesn’t require any additional early morning thought.
Other Important Items
You don’t need to take a lot when you walk, but I would advise taking your cell phone, as well as ID and some cash. Other items (like Bluetooth headphones) can be added based on your particular walking style.
High Vis Gear
I have to be honest, as I don’t currently have any High Vis gear. I took a short pause writing this and logged onto Amazon and just bought some. High Vis gear is cheap, and it isn’t necessary to get anything elaborate. Any hardware store will sell you a vest for a few dollars and for a few bucks more you can get jogging style gear that is sleek and very reflective. Some items even light up.
When Not To Walk
I am ready to walk in almost any condition, but there are rare times when I opt to stay home. I recently walked when it was -24F with a windchill of -50F and I was well prepared. However, I lost my ice cleats on that walk, and because of this, I felt it would be dangerous to walk the following day. As soon as a new pair of cleats arrived, I was walking again. The question of when not to walk is contingent on both the weather and the individual. Use common sense when embarking on any adventure.
If you don’t want to face the elements, you can also walk indoors. Many health clubs are reasonably priced, and park district gyms often will allow residents to walk for free. You can also tool around a shopping mall or big box store if they are available in your area.
You don’t need a lot of fancy gear to walk in just about any type of weather. However, you need to plan accordingly. Walking is free and offers benefits beyond exercise.
Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?
I woke up at 3:45 AM to find that we had a snowfall during the night. The temperature was about 35F; not impossibly cold. I put on a scarf, my red stocking cap, ski gloves, and donned my Cabella down coat. On my Bogs boots, I strapped on a pair of YakTraks ice cleats and headed out the door. Off I went on my 3.5-mile round trip walk to Starbucks.
I had discovered YakTraks a few years back, and they have allowed me to walk much more securely on icy sidewalks. We have had strange weather in the Midwest with warm rainy days followed by freezing cold. These juxtapositioned temperatures have resulted in a lot of very slippery sidewalk ice, which is even more dangerous when it is hidden by freshly fallen snow. I have had a lot of near falls in the last month, which is why I have become increasingly dependent on the YakTraxs.
The weather reports had all been warning about an upcoming Arctic Blast that was scheduled to hit Chicago on Wednesday. They spoke of the lowest temperatures in Chicago’s history and cautioned everyone to stay inside.
I decided to walk on that Wednesday, despite potential temperatures below -20F. I felt that I could face the cold safely if I prepared adequately. My overall goal is to try to walk most days, and through the years I have purchased gear to handle most any weather. I’m hardly a risk taker, but I like to push the envelope and challenge myself.
I did a mental inventory of the things that I already had at home that would be useful for the trek, and went on a hunt and gather mission in my closet. I looked for a pair of glove liners, but I found my old trooper hat instead. I located a good flannel shirt and my Naperville North orange hoodie. In my sock drawn I grabbed two pairs of heavy socks. I planned on wearing jeans, but I knew that they wouldn’t be warm enough on their own. I clicked on Amazon and found an inexpensive, but recommended pair of thermal underwear and ordered it. I popped for the extra $3 next day delivery charge. At the same time, I ordered a pair of inexpensive ski goggles. In past winters I discovered that frigid cold wind would really burn my eyes and I was unsure what -20F would do to them. With accessories gathered or ordered I felt up for the challenge.
Tuesday-Temperature 0F, Windchill -26F
Another day to get up at 3:45 AM, Same gear as Monday, same walk. On my return I made a horrible discovery, I lost my YakTrax cleats on my left boot. That explained why I was slipping so much! I checked the driveway and looked down the street for the rubbery, spikey band. It was nowhere to be found.
I left mention of my intentions of walking the morning of the Arctic Blast on Facebook and received many responses from friends and family advising me to reconsider my plans. Most said that my actions were foolish and a few offered an alternative, like taking a nice walk in at the mall.
My son William seemed especially concerned and clearly wanted me to stay home. My wife Julie said that it wasn’t uncommon for her to walk to school in sub -20F temps in Minnesota, “They never closed schools.” Spoken like a real Swede! With that said, she was not without concern as she showed me where she kept her stash of hand warmers.
I checked Amazon, and the soonest I could get a replacement for the YakTraxs was the following Monday. I checked the websites of local stores to see who carried ice cleats and headed out to buy a pair. First Walmart- sold out. Then Dick’s- sold out. Then Home Depot- sold out. Then Ace Hardware- sold out, but the Ace manager did say that they had a different brand that was still in stock. Those cleats consisted of a small rubber band that was held onto a boot with a flimsy sheet of velcro. Being the only option, they were the best option, and I bought them.
Wednesday-Temperature -24F, Windchill -52F
I woke up at 3:45 and noticed that the house seemed colder than usual. Everything was silent and dark. I had stacked my clothes on the chair in the corner the night before and grabbed them in the dark, so as not to wake Julie. I dressed in the bathroom.
Thermal long sleeve T-shirt, thermal long johns, two pairs of socks, flannel shirt, heavy jeans, hoodie.
I went downstairs and checked the weather on the computer as I drank a half cup of coffee and ate an apple with peanut butter. Then it was time to complete my preparation.
Down coat, face mask, trooper hat, ski goggles, scarf over my nose and mouth, coat’s hood over everything. Into my gloves, I placed the hand warmers that Julie shared with me.
I had set up a chair in the hallway to make it easier to put on my Bog boots. I had already attached the new ice cleats, and they were sharp and seemed like they could damage the floor, so I wanted to be able to get the boots on and be out the door in a single step.
I opened the door and faced the elements. I have discovered that when you leave the house on a cold day you temporarily take the house’s heat with you, and for the first 30 feet or so it didn’t feel cold at all, but then it hit me.
I had dressed so well that it felt like a typical cold day and I started to walk. Some sidewalks were freshly shoveled, but even these had a thick layer of ice on them. Within 4 houses I began to notice that my feet were really slipping and I almost fell a few times. I looked down at my boots, and even in the dark, I could see that both my ice cleats were missing. It was time to problem solve.
The most sensible option would have been to return home. However, I absolutely didn’t want to do that as I had prepared so well and I really wanted to challenge myself. Staying on the sidewalk was a no go. Every few feet I found myself almost falling. It was dark, and just about everyone was indoors. If I fell and lost consciousness, there was the real chance that the snow that I fell into would melt and negate all of my carefully planned layers. The possibility of freezing to death at -52F is real. Walking on the sidewalk was not an option.
My brain moved into problem-solving mode. I could walk on the grassy, snow-covered lawns, but the snow was too deep, and I would surely get wet. The streets, being dark asphalt, retained more heat and thereby were less icy. I usually don’t like walking on the streets because of the possibility of getting hit by a car, but it was a reasonable option, and it would allow me to continue my journey. I elected to do it.
My face, trunk, and feet were all pretty warm, but my legs were starting to feel the burn from the cold. My ski goggles were definitely helping, but they were beginning to ice up in a way similar to a car windshield on a frosty day. The ice started at the top of the goggles, and with each block, it expanded down a bit.
The cars on the road were few, and I was grateful for the limited traffic. A middle-aged couple in a minivan stopped and asked me if I needed a ride; I told them I was thankful for their kindness, but I was OK. My walk continued. A few blocks later I saw a compact car stopped dead in the middle of the road a block ahead of me. I was concerned that something was wrong. I approached the vehicle and saw an older man sitting in the driver’s seat; I asked him if he was OK. He said he was waiting specifically for me, and that he would be happy to drive me anywhere I needed to go, “It’s too cold for you to be out.” I thanked him for his kindness and moved on.
I entered Starbucks, but I was unrecognizable due to my getup. I waved to the barista and said hello. She recognized me and rewarded my walk by upgrading my coffee. Initially, I had the entire coffee shop to myself, and I set up my laptop and started to write. My friend Tom showed up to visit and commented that his diesel pickup started without a hitch. I was amazed as I thought a diesel required some sort of heater to keep its fuel from turning into Jello on freezing cold days. He went off to his worksite, and I redressed for the walk home.
It was now light outside, and there was more car traffic. A man in his 30s driving a BMW was very annoyed with me (edging close to me with his car) because I was taking too long to cross an icy street, and this delayed his left-hand turn. I wasn’t about to speed up my efforts so he could arrive at his destination 3 minutes earlier.
The return trip seemed colder, but also quicker. I decided to walk down Jefferson instead of my usual Jackson as I thought that the roads would be less slippery. As I crossed the DuPage River, an old Chevy pulled up alongside me. It was full of young Mexican guys, and I guessed that they were going to work. The window on the passenger side rolled down, and I saw a youngish man with a concerned look on his face. “Sir, can we offer you a ride somewhere?” I told them that I was only two blocks away from my destination. I thanked them and sent them on their way. I arrived home feeling triumphant. I honestly felt like I had just scaled Mount Everest.
My actions were not foolish, they were careful and calculated. The safest option would have been to stay in bed. The possibility that I chose did have some risk, but it was not reckless. I like the idea of pushing myself because when I do that, I grow. The lessons that I learned on other cold day walks served me well on this freezing day. No information is ever useless, you just need to know when to apply it.
I gained more information on that freezing day. Out of the four encounters that I had with drivers, three of them showed me how good and wonderful strangers can be.
In the Kuna household the Christmas season brings more than sweet treats and gifts, it brings my two college-aged daughters back to Naperville. For a few short weeks, our family is reunited, and family seems as it should be.
Our Kathryn returns from her college in the Southwest, our Grace comes back from hers in the Midwest. It is always exciting to see how they have changed, but it is more rewarding to witness that deep down, they are the same beautiful people that left us in the fall.
Old traditions, like Cooking With Dad Thursday resume and new traditions form. This year our Kathryn introduced us to “The Great British Baking Show,” which she reports as popular among her peers. She convinced Grace to watch it, then Julie, then me, then Will; we were all hooked.
The show is of the reality TV variety with a format that consists of 12 amateur bakers who are challenged with three difficult tasks and then judged on their efforts. All of the contestants are very experienced bakers, and to make things interesting, they are given short time limits that push them to be as productive and efficient as possible. Under such pressure, the results range from outstanding to disastrous. In reality TV tradition, one baker is eliminated every week, and one gains the exclusive title of, Star Baker. The difference between this show and a typical Food Network contest is that everyone is civil. The bakers help each other, and the leaving baker gets hugs instead of insults.
Kathryn returned to school, but Grace’s holiday continued, which opened up the opportunity for the two of us to have an adventure or two.
“Dad, let’s make Macarons,” Gracie said. After a moment I responded, “OK, but I don’t think that I ever tasted one.” “That’s OK, we can figure it out together,” commented Grace. Not that many years ago I didn’t even know what a Macaron was and when they started to become popular, I thought that people were talking about Macaroons, the sweet soft coconut lump cookies that you can buy in the cookie aisle; now we were going to make them! Grace was quick to find an “Easy Macaron Recipe” on the Internet, and I said that we could give it a shot after lunch.
When I was growing up one of my favorite memories was sitting with my mom and watching The French Chef on Saturday afternoons. I liked the fact that I was doing something with my mom, but I also loved the way that Julia Childs approached cooking. She was precise and scientific in her approach, and her methodology was something that I could admire. She did things for a reason, and she understood what that reason was. My mom never made a recipe featured in the show, but I have used the cooking knowledge that I gained from viewing it my entire life.
“Let’s look at the recipe,” I said. We were lacking in a number of the things necessary to complete our task. “Almond flour, I wonder where we get that,” I said. “Let’s try the Jewel,” Grace responded. “We also have to get some pastry tips and a sieve. Hmm, it says that the eggs have to be room temperature. I remember that from watching, The French Chief. I also remember that we can’t use a plastic bowl when we beat the egg whites because even a trace of oil will prevent them from forming peaks,” After a few more moments of pondering I said. “Let’s go shopping!”
We figured that the closest place that would have special baking equipment was Michael’s, and that was our first stop. We found the baking aisle, and we were confronted by a wall of pastry tips, coloring gels, and silicone baking mats. Neither of us knew what to buy. I decided to go with plastic pastry tips, as they were less expensive and I wasn’t sure if this macaron experience would be of the “one and done” variety. In addition to our piping equipment, we opted to get some food coloring gels to use instead of regular food coloring as it seemed more bake-worthy for such an exotic treat.
Our next stop was the Jewel. We entered the baking aisle, and I was astounded to find that they actually had two different brands of almond flour. I have been down baking aisles hundreds of times, and I have never seen this stuff. I guess my brain has always been in selective filtering mode. We went down another aisle and I grabbed an overpriced sieve.
Now back home, and I was on the hunt for the Kitchenaid’s whisk attachment. I found its hiding place in a bottom cupboard, and we assembled our tools and ingredients for the task at hand. With 4 eggs reaching room temperature we decided to reconvene in 30 minutes.
Step-by-step we followed the recipe, and although we had never made macarons, instructions are instruction. “Let me show you how to fold the flour into the egg whites without deflating them,” I instructed Gracie; another lesson from Julia Child. I added what seemed to be a tiny dot of blue coloring gel, and the cookie dough became the color of denim jeans. Note to self: food coloring gel is potent stuff!
We did our best to pipe out the batter into neat circles, but it was clear that our “star” tip was inadequate for the task. Since we had no other option, we pushed forward hoping for the best, but willing to accept the worst. Into a 300F oven our little cookies went, then cooled, then filled with buttercream icing.
They certainly did not look like the ones we saw on TV. They tasted OK, but we wondered if they tasted like macarons, as neither of us had ever eaten one before. The next day Julie answered the latter question by purchasing 3 cookies, each a different flavor at the Standard Market. Those cookies looked perfect, and they had just the right amount of filling. I was shocked that she paid almost $5 for three of them, and did a quick mental calculation on what a dozen would cost. At least we now had an idea of what macarons should look and taste like. Five dollars was the price paid to acquire information to improve our next macaron bake.
Yesterday I was driving Grace back to college. As we drove we talked through a research paper that she was reading on a mutation of an adenovirus strain. Reading a research paper is not that different from reading a recipe. In both instances, you needed to know the lingo first before you can understand the content.
She is going to participate in a research project next semester and she will be doing lab research on adenoviruses. I told her that baking and running experiments are very similar. Methodology and accuracy in both are critical if you want to get reproducible results. “Learn your protocol, refine your method, and repeat. That’s all there is to it.” I advised.
My friend Tom often teases me when I ask him why he is using a specific tool, or why he is approaching a construction project in a particular way. “Mike, this is useless knowledge for you, you will never use it.” I feel that all knowledge can be useful or useless. It is up to the end user of that knowledge to determine its utility. I have never acquired a piece of information that I felt was useless. It is all useful, I just haven’t used it all yet!
Julia Child helped me be not only a better baker but also a better research scientist. Understanding science has made me a better cook. Circular, no?
In 1961 we lived in a neighborhood called Gage Park. Gage Park is a blue-collar community on Chicago’s Southwest Side that consists of small, tightly spaced bungalows that are placed on narrow lots in tidy rows.
Like most Chicago neighborhoods we had our own busy shopping streets, which were located down the alley from our house. They consisted of two blocks along 55th street which were bisected by California Avenue.
Grocerland Foods, Wooley’s Five and Ten, the Cinderella Beauty Shop, Reck’s Hardware, Amoco Gas, Walgreens Drug Store, the Pixie Shoppe, plus restaurants, a branch library, and, of course, several bars. This type of local shopping is typical for Chicago, which was built on the neighborhood concept. You could buy anything that you needed without the benefit of a car. It was common for my mother to send me to the grocer to buy food for dinner, or for me to walk to the branch library to research a school topic.
My sister Nancy was in the 7th grade at St. Clare De Montefalco school in 1961 and spent a lot of her free time hanging out with her girlfriends. On a fall day, she was walking with two of them westward on busy 55th street towards California Avenue. Suddenly she heard screeching tires and honking horns. She looked up to see a jet black creature running across the street, clearly terrified and confused. She looked again and saw that the little beast was a puppy. She went into rescue mode.
The three girls coaxed the puppy to them and hatched a plot. This little puff ball needed a home. Nancy’s friend, Nancy Klimczak was the first to claim her. She pleaded her case to her mother, but it fell on deaf ears. They moved on to their backup plan.
My mother was in our kitchen wearing the mom uniform of the day, a housedress. For those of you who are unaware a house dress is a casual dress that is often in a small floral pattern. It is structureless, loose fitting, and has ample pockets making it both comfortable and practical. A housedress is usually pulled on over the head allowing a mom to get dressed in 10 seconds flat.
My mother was cooking dinner, and I was sitting at the kitchen table watching her work. I was eight years old at the time.
Nancy entered the kitchen through the backdoor. She appeared to be in a panic. My mother looked up at her and Nancy started to speak in a rushed, compelling way. “She would have been killed if we didn’t save her. She is so cute, and she is only a puppy. She looks hungry and afraid. Can we keep her?” “Absolutely not!” my mother said. We had several attempts at adopting strays, and they all had been disastrous. I recall one instance of my mother chasing a crazed dog who was running in circles around our dining room table.
Nancy moved into tears mode. “Please, Please! I’ll use my allowance to buy her dog food. I get up early every morning to let her out. I’ll walk her every day. You won’t have to do anything. You won’t even know that she is here.” My mother could not resist my sister’s tears. “We can try, but that dog is on 90-day probation, and she has to stay in the basement, she is not allowed in the rest of the house! If anything happens, she goes…understood?” Nancy replied, “Of course, thank you! You won’t regret this.”
With my mom’s OK the little puppy became part of our family. In 24 hours, her domain went from the basement to the entire house. Sweet and smart, she was easy to love, and she had only one bad habit, barking. When anyone would approach the house she would start a rapid staccato, “Wow wow wow, wow, wow,” until she felt that the perimeter was secure. My father hearing this said we should call her Wowser and the name stuck, at least temporarily. Soon Wowser became Bowser, a boy dog name for a girl dog.
Bowser grew to be a medium-sized dog, black with a white chest and some white markings on her nose and paws. Being a mutt, her lineage was unknown, but she appeared to be part Border Collie and part Cocker Spaniel. She instantly bonded to my mother, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear my mom shout “Bowser!” because she had once again tripped over her.
Bowser’s passion was chocolate, and we often gave her little pieces of the tasty stuff. This was before anyone knew that chocolate could kill a dog, and thankfully Bowser was never worse for her indulgences. If I wanted her to come running all I had to shout was, “Chocolate,” and she would soon be at my side. In those days you could find chocolate scented dog toys, including ones that were rubberized versions of favorite candy bars.
In high school, my sister Nancy was dating a boy named Jim Brown. At Easter, Jim gave her her very own Easter Basket. This was a first as at our home we all had to share one basket, and my two brothers usually got all of the good candy. We were heading out to church, and Nancy decided to hide her basket under the bed, and away from my brothers. When we arrived back home, we were all confused as we saw shredded silver foil all over the house. Suddenly, Nancy screamed; Bowser had found her basket and proceeded to eat its entire contents. The foil was from Hershey Kisses’ wrappers that were licked completely clean of any chocolate residue.
Once when we were camping my mother tied Bowser to a small folding table and then went to the camp’s community bathroom. After a short time, she heard shouts coming from the other stalls. The source? Bowser had found her way into the bathroom and was dragging leash and table. Being a logical dog, she was going stall to stall to find my mom, much to the chagrin of other women who were using the facilities. Once found, Bowser was at peace. My mother commented “That dog!” but she was charmed by her efforts.
It is human nature to think that our kids and pets are the smartest, and I felt Bowser was pretty quick. She seemed to understand complex language. Bowser loved my mother, but hated baths. She was resting under an end table in the living room when my mother sweetly called to her from the basement. “Bowser, where are you?” Bowser tore through our shotgun-style house towards the basement stairs which were located at its back. I was next to the stairs when she arrived, and in a flat monotone I said to her, “She is going to give you a bath.” Bowser stopped dead in her tracks, turned around and ran back under the table. I was amazed that she understood what I was saying. My mother was less amazed by my actions.
Although Bowser’s primary loyalty was towards my mother, she had plenty of love to go around. For me, she was my family connection. My siblings were doing their thing. My parents were older and had already raised four other kids. Bowser was my friend and confidant. When I was having a bad day, she would sit with me. When I needed someone to talk to, she would listen. When I was cold, she would warm me up. The bond that I felt for her was great, and that bond continued as long as she was alive.
I was away at college, and my parents said that they were coming up to see me to take me out to dinner. This was highly unusual, and I was pretty excited. They also told me that my two maiden aunts, Mary and Lill, were coming along. I liked my aunts and I was amazed at my good fortune.
My parents arrived with my aunts, and we all went out to eat at “The Junction,” a family-style restaurant decorated in a train theme. Just as the food arrived my mother blurted out, “We put Bowser down.” My father must have noticed the horrified look on my face and started to spurt justifications, “That damn dog couldn’t hold her urine. Her breath smelled terrible. Mike Lawler (my brother-in-law) held her when we took her to get the shot, and he said her breath made him sick.” Dear reader, these are not the right things to say to someone who just lost one of their very best friends.
I was trapped. My parents knew that I wouldn’t make a scene with my two aunts present. That is why they brought them along. However, it was a terrible time for me. I couldn’t express my grief. I couldn’t express my anger. I couldn’t eat. I had to make polite conversation. I was dying inside.
I remained upset about that incident for years, but I couldn’t understand why. Deep down I knew that Bowser was old and that the quality of her life was no longer good. She was a proud dog, and I am sure that she was embarrassed by her inability to control her bodily functions.
Eventually, I figured out why I remained so upset. Once again, other’s feelings were more important than mine. My parents wanted to do the right thing by telling me, but they didn’t want to deal with the aftermath of their disclosure. On some level, I understood this and gave them exactly what they wanted from me, no grief, no anger, just polite conversation. They got to go home feeling like they were good parents, I once again had to deal with my sadness alone.
Events like this have strongly impacted me, but not just in a negative way. Knowing my feelings made it possible for me to understand the feelings of others. Recognizing my hurt allowed me to build on my empathic skills. Having such a strong bond with an animal helped me understand that connections in life don’t have to make logical sense to be relevant and important.
We learn by our victories, but we grow by our disappointments. I will never put my children in a position where they feel that they can’t express their anger to me, and so in some way, the restaurant incident made me a better parent.
Every day we are given lessons, we can choose to learn from them, or we can choose to ignore them. I am learning every day.
By the way, I believe that my sister honored her doggie obligations for less than a week. Bowser was fed, and cared for by my mom. No surprise, I know.
I grew up in a 1920s style bungalow before living in such a house was chic. My parents moved into our Chicago home on Francisco Avenue in 1951 and did a minimal amount of redecorating at that time. Interestingly, most of that work actually destroyed some of the house’s natural charm. For instance, the living room fireplace and its two companion stained glass windows were removed to make that room more modern.
The kitchen had undergone the most basic of renovations then and remained the same until we moved to the suburbs almost 25 years later. The floor was redone in red and green tiles that were arranged in a checkerboard fashion, and one wall received “tile work” from its baseboard to its midpoint. The “tiles” were, in fact, a single sheet of linoleum that was molded into a yellow square tile pattern. An example of remodeling on a minimal budget.
My memories of the kitchen are from the 1960s, and at that point, the prior effort to update it just added to its hodgepodge appearance. By then the floor tiles were dull and broken, and the linoleum wall was aged and worn. Against that wall was a 1950s style chrome kitchen table with matching tube chairs. Its grey Formica top had the look of one from an old diner booth, with parts of the surface rubbed off after thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Above the table was a small cheap wall lamp, which was secured by a single screw 2 feet above the faux tiles. The room was illuminated by a bare circular fluorescent ceiling light that gave the space a cold bluish tinge. Directly across from the table was a white freestanding cabinet, its surface enameled steel. On top of the cabinet was an old Sunbeam Mixmaster that my mother used every day to bake the family a variety of treats. To the right of the table was a farm style sink with a built in drainboard. It was mounted to the wall and supported by two cylindrical porcelain legs. The old vessel had a worn down finish. Across from the sink was our single door Coldspot fridge and our Crown gas range, both purchased when my parents moved into the home in 1951.
The Crown range was a point of displeasure for my mother, who was a skilled cook and baker. My father purchased it without her approval, and it was apparently the lines “base” model. It was a 36” wide appliance finished in basic white. Its enamel backsplash featured a small clock in its center that had long ago lost the ability to keep time. The front of the range was split in half, but instead of featuring two side-by-side ovens, it only had one. The other side was for pot storage.
The top four burners were lit by two pilot lights, perpetually burning gas during a time when natural resources were cheap and endless. Its surface scratched by a past run-in with a steel wool pad.
Lighting the oven was not for the faint of heart as the operator had to turn on the gas, light a match, and insert the match into a little hole on the oven’s floor. Being late for even a second would cause a giant whoosh of flames and heat.
The over-temperature was always off by 25 degrees on the Crown, and we all knew to make the correct adjustment. Being the base model, its walls were not adequately insulated causing it to bake unevenly, which was my mother’s chief complaint, the other being the oven’s small size.
The stove had significant imperfections, but it worked. It was the heart of our kitchen, and the kitchen was the heart of our home. There was always a supply of fresh percolator coffee on the stovetop and some sort of freshly baked treat from the oven. Family, relatives, and friends gathered in the kitchen to sit on the old chrome chairs and sip, eat, and talk.
I bought my Naperville home in 1989, and I was fortunate that the prior owner left a stove and fridge. There was nothing wrong with these appliances, but I wanted something more modern, and after a few years I moved them to the basement to be replaced with expensive stainless steel ones.
The cheap appliances from my parents home never failed and never needed repair. Such was not the case of my shiny new appliances. The fridge received many service calls, and the gas stove’s burners lost their ability to be adjusted. After about 8 years both had to be replaced, which prompted a trip to the appliance department at Sears.
I had been playing around with a tabletop induction burner, and I was dazzled by its utility. I knew that I wanted that technology in my new stove. The salesman at Sears pointed me in the right direction, and after an hour of exploration I pulled out my charge card and made my purchases. A Samsung fridge with French doors and a Kenmore Elite range that had both an induction cooktop and a convection oven.
The Samsung fridge turned out to be a nightmare, it was so over-engineered that it constantly broke down. I replaced it with a similar model from Whirlpool last year. The ranged faired better and sealed my love for induction cooking. However, its oven was less reliable, and the unit had a catastrophic failure last month. The stove cost over $2500 when I purchased it 9 years earlier, and now it was heading for a landfill.
My shopping habits have changed in the last decade and with Julie’s OK I bought the new stove online from Costco, based only on pictures and reviews. Being so cavalier with such a significant purchase would have been unimaginable in the past.
On Monday a delivery man took away the Kenmore and installed our new GE stove. It is similar to the Kenmore, but it has few features added, and a few others were taken away. Its backsplash is filled with computerized controls; I now look at such functions as future repairs rather than modern marvels.
My kitchen’s appearance is very different from the one that I grew up in. Modern and efficient, it has every cooking convenience that a chief could want. Instead of a percolator, we have both a Bunn drip pot and a Keurig single serve unit. Instead of a Formica and chrome table, we have one made of real wood. Granite countertops and cherry wood cabinets sit in for my parents’ old enamel one. A deep under-the-counter stainless steel sink takes the place of my parent’s worn farmhouse unit. The recessed lights in the ceiling number 12, and give off a warm and welcoming glow. The floor consists of oak planks instead of worn and broken asbestos tiles. A fancy light fixture from Pottery Barn defines the dining space in place of the dimestore wall lamp that my parents used.
My kitchen is different from the one that I grew up with, but it also very similar. Despite 60 years of separation it still has to serve the same function as the one that my mother cooked in. It also serves the same social functions that my parent’s kitchen did. It is a gathering place for my family, relatives, and friends. There we eat, we talk, we plan, we play games, we entertain. I could comfortably live without our living room, but I would be lost without our kitchen.
Shiny and modern, my kitchen should be advanced in every way from my childhood one, but it is not. Although my parents had imperfect appliances, they worked for decades. Their oven may have been off by 25 degrees, but it never faltered beyond that value. The freezer compartment in their fridge may have been small and frosty, but we never worried that our ice cream would be melted.
My complex new appliances promise fancy advances, most of which I will never use. The new stove is more computer than a cooker. I had to read the manual twice just to understand how to set its digital clock. Yes, my fridge and stove are more energy efficient, but what does that really mean to me and to the environment when I have to replace a costly unit every 7 to 10 years. Planned obsolescence is good for manufacturing companies but bad for everyone else.
I live in 2019, not in 1950 and I have to accept the reality of early appliance demise. However, I can also celebrate advances that range from practical convection cooking to silly wifi connectivity. Our new stove has both, and to initiate it to our kitchen my daughter, and I baked 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. We were both pleased with how the new oven worked. However, you may want to check back with me 7 or 8 years from now as it is likely that I will once again be in the market for a new one. That is if it lasts that long.
Stop over sometime for a cup of coffee and some homemade bread with jam. The coffee pot is always on, and the conversation is always flowing. Some things never change.
“Do you want to do it?” I thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I think so. You only live once, right?”
My campervan was mostly complete, and I had already had taken it to Colorado and Missouri on separate trips, but those trips were during warmer weather.
Tom’s son wanted to go camping sometime in January, and Tom was inviting me along. This would be more of an experience than an actual trip, and we would be spending only one night in the cold. The destination, Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. Tom has a fondness for Devil’s Lake, it is a beautiful park; its centerpiece being the lake which is surrounded by high bluffs.
After Christmas Tom told me that he decided to go up on New Year’s Eve. I had a concern about this date as I thought that many services could be closed, but it sounded exciting and fun. Besides, we had unseasonably mild weather, so how bad could it be?
The other concern was my homefront. I knew that Julie wouldn’t mind me going on a camping trip, but on this one, I would be away from her on holiday. With that said, I’m usually in bed by 11 PM on New Year’s Eve. I’m hardly a party animal. I asked for her thoughts she said she didn’t mind it if I went.
My friend Tom had to work the morning of the trip, and he suggested that I go up early to secure a campsite. Tom imagined a party like atmosphere with the campground filled to the brim with happy campers excited to bring in the new year, and he wanted to make sure that we had a spot. Only one of the park’s multiple campgrounds is open year round, and that one didn’t take reservations.
Traveling the 3 hours to Baraboo WI solo was not an option for me. In the summer of 2017, we traveled separately to the same campground. I got turned around and wound up at a different site at the opposite end of the park. T-mobile cellular service at Devil’s Lake was almost non-existent, and it was nearly impossible for me to reach Tom. He had arrived hours earlier with both his son and my son. Eventually, we connected which is when I found out that all of the campgrounds were full. Exhausted from a full day of work and a drive to Wisconsin, I loaded William into my car and drove 3 hours home. It was not a warm and fuzzy memory.
I still have some finishing touches to do on my campervan, but it is functional. However, I had removed most of its storage boxes, as we were in the process of building out a large container that would reside under the camper’s platform bed. I debated if I wanted to return the contents to the camper. After all, I was only going for a day. At the last minute, I tossed the bins into the van. “Better safe than sorry,” I thought.
We left together, me in my campervan and Tom and his son in his 4×4 Dodge Ram dually. It was around 35 F, and it was lightly raining. We started our drive north, and the rain got progressively worse. I kept looking at the outside temperature readings on my Promaster’s dash. Thirty-five degrees, then 34F, then 33F, then the dreaded 32F. Thirty-two degrees, the point where rain turns to sleet. Thirty-two degrees, when the wet pavement turns to black ice. Initially, the van seemed to handle the change in conditions, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
We turned off the Interstate and onto a county road. Google maps said we had about 26 miles to go until we reached the park. By that time the sleet had turned to snow, and it was coming down hard. We were on a 4 lane road (two lanes per direction) that was winding up a hill. I could see that Tom was having a bit of trouble as the back of his truck was wiggling. I could feel that my traction was also slipping. There was no option, so we moved on.
As we turned a curve, the traffic suddenly slowed down to a near stop. In the middle of the right lane was a sedan with its flashers on. I thought that the owner was having car trouble, but I wondered why he had foolishly stopped directly in the middle of the right lane. I drove a little further and saw another car in the right lane, its flashers blinking. Then another, and another. The higher I drove up the hill, the more cars I saw parked in the right lane. I could see Tom’s truck ahead. He was moving forward, but his Ram has 6 tires of traction. The sedan in front of me was lurching forward, sometimes sliding sideways, sometimes almost stalling. I could feel my traction failing, and I started to panic as I imagined having to spend the night in my van as it sat directly in the line of traffic. By some miracle, I made it up the hill, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The road narrowed to a single lane, and the snow continued to fall. It became impossible to determine if I was in the correct lane. I made a conscious effort to stay in the tire tracks that Tom’s truck made, using his four rear tires as my personal snow plow. I was in the middle of nowhere, it was getting dark, my van was struggling, I was feeling sick to my stomach. My doctor’s training has made me good at handling crises, but I was still feeling the stress. I willed myself to move forward.
Tom pulled into the broad entrance to Devil’s Lake State Park, and I followed. The road past the entrance went down at a steep angle and instinct told me that I should stay put. I told Tom that I was not going down. He felt that his 4 wheel drive could do the job and said that he would make the loop drive to explore the park and then come back to pick me up. He gave me an alternative route to the campground, just in case. Time ticked on, and I thought about the possibility of staying put at the entrance for the night. That option would certainly be better than getting stuck in the middle of a road.
Tom returned and said that my van would not have made it down and back. We took the alternate route to the campground. We traveled another quarter mile and took a right turn on an unplowed road with a slight incline. I could see that Tom traction was struggling again and I could feel my van straining. The only way I was able to move forward was by running my engine at 30 miles per hour. This constant acceleration moved the van at a jerking 5 miles per hour. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to stop as I knew that I would not be able to move forward again.
Although we only traveled a few blocks on that road, it seemed like miles. I’m glad that Tom was so familiar with the park, as I would never have seen the entrance to the campground. He pulled in, and I followed. The campground was completely empty, and its roads were unplowed and deep in snow. I thought, “Find a spot close to the entrance,” but he continued to drive as if he was looking for the perfect campsite. He eventually stopped, and so did I. When I tried to move forward again it was clear that I was stuck. Stuck in the middle of the road in an empty campground, and it was definitely getting darker.
I signaled Tom, and he said that he would loop around the campground and come up on my rear. I wasn’t sure what his plan was, but I was grateful that I wasn’t alone. He got back into his pickup and drove out-of-sight. My mind moved into solution mode, and various ideas and contingency plans flooded me in multiple data stream. I wondered if I could rock myself back then forward. I tried to back up, and surprisingly I was able to do this. However, I could not move an inch forward, as the road ahead was on an incline.
I got out of the van and scanned my surroundings. Despite the heavy snow, I could see the boundaries of level places, which were intended for the camper’s cars. I made some quick calculations and came up with a crazy plan to back up my van several hundred yards in reverse and then turn into one of the almost invisible parking slots. If successful I could take that move into a three-point-turn and point my van in the opposite (and downward) direction towards the campground’s entrance. I felt that I had nothing to lose.
I could feel my tires slipping as I started the backup, but I continued. I made another mental calculation and decided that I should be close to a flat spot and quickly turned my wheel to the right as I wanted to keep my momentum. The van tracked into a parking spot, and I had a sigh of relief. After a 10 second pause to catch my anxious breath I shifted the gear selector into drive and gently pressed on the accelerator. The van moved forward!
I was now going downhill and towards the entrance to the park. Tom was nowhere in sight. I could finally see the entrance, and then I saw Tom. He had been delayed because he got stuck and almost slid into a tree.
We were committed to camp, and frankly, we had no other options. Tom pulled into a spot, and I asked him if he would park my van next to his truck. I was exhausted and didn’t need any more challenges.
Tom had brought a wheelbarrow of firewood in the bed of his pickup, and he set about the task of starting a fire with a Bernzomatic torch. While he was doing this, I spotted the sites power pole and wondered aloud if the juice was still on. “They use GFI outlets, why don’t you check,” Tom said. I walked over and lifted the heavy metal shroud that covered the outlets. A tiny green LED blinked back at me. Being a good Eastern European type I had brought enough food for at least two days, now we also had power. I was jubilant. I opened the back of the Promaster and started to search the storage boxes that I had tossed in as an afterthought. Yes, here was the 30 Amp power cord, and there was the 30 Amp extension cord. In another box, I found the $18 little black electric heater that I bought at Walmart months earlier. I called Tom’s son to be my gopher, and in about 5 minutes I had AC power in my camper. I plugged in the little heater and turned it on. The temperature was quickly dropping outside, and I wanted to capture every BTU that I could.
Tom was busy setting up a tripod stand to hold the cast iron Dutch oven that he brought. In it, he had chunks of steak, onions, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. The fire was now blazing, and he was adjusting a chain that was supporting the Dutch oven. Lower into the flame for hotter, higher away from the flame for colder.
We had food, electricity, some heat, and a fire. I was content and my panic from earlier in the day had washed away. I was now in my 12-year-old boy mode and was feeling like a great explorer in an unknown wilderness. I asked Tom’s son if he wanted to go on an adventure walk with me. He did, our main discovery was that the pit toilets were unlocked! Now we could definitely weather the storm. I had a down coat from Cabela’s, my rubberized Bog boots, and a new pair of fancy Gordini gloves that Julie had given me for Christmas. On my head sat a red stocking cap. Over the hat was my jacket’s hood. The fire plus my outfit kept me surprisingly warm.
The three of us stood, then sat around the fire talking. Despite being an introvert, I have no problem talking to Tom for hours. With that said, I can’t honestly remember much of what we were talking about. That’s the way it sometimes goes with best friends, the contact is more important than the context. At one point Tom decided that he was going to pick up a bottle of wine to help me relax after my harrowing drive. Although I initially protested his plan, I eventually gave in. I am not much of a drinker, and Tom doesn’t drink at all, but he got into his dually and drove to a local gas station that had liquor service. I had seen a plow go down the street in front of the campground and I was anxious to get a road report. If anyone could navigate in the snow, Tom could with his 6 wheels of traction.
Tom return, and I opened the bottle with my Dollar Store corkscrew. I bought it for a $6 camper supply “buying frenzy” several months earlier. I poured some wine into a stainless steel camping mug and took a sip. We continued to talk. Eventually, it was deemed that Tom’s stew was done and he pulled the Dutch oven off the fire. I contributed some paper plates, bread, salt, and a black garbage bag. Not much of a contribution, but at least I felt the I was doing something.
There is nothing quite as delicious as hot food when you are standing out in the cold for hours. I felt like I was dining at a 4-star restaurant. I ask for and received seconds.
Tom’s son was starting to fade and wanted to go to bed. Tom set up a bed in the back seat of his truck’s cab and off he went. Tom and I continued to talk for several more hours as even a single glass of wine can turn me into a philosopher. At some point, I started to talk about the existence of God. Eventually, we both felt the need to call it a night. Tom set up a place in his truck for him, and I fluffed the blankets in my camper van for me. My Walmart heater was definitely warming the van, and I was grateful, as I knew that it was going to drop to 19F during the night. Bedtime, 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve.
I can’t say that I slept perfectly, but I did sleep reasonably well. The morning came, and I could hear Tom’s diesel running. He started his truck at 2 AM, as the cold was beginning to make his feet numb. It was time to break camp. The firewood had done its job, and all of it had been consumed. Without the fire, we would have never have been able to spend hours the night before standing in the freezing cold
“Breakfast?” Tom said. “Of course,” I replied. It was now the moment of truth. Would the Promaster be able to navigate the snow and drive out of the campground? Tom backed it out, and then I climbed into the driver’s seat and shifted the gear selector into drive. I lightly, but purposefully, pressed the accelerator and the van moved forward. Down the snowy path I went. Soon we were back on the road that had been so treacherous the night before. However, it was now plowed and sanded. Off to Baraboo.
There is a little breakfast joint in Baraboo that resides in an old diner. The diner building was once located somewhere in New England. Apparently, it was disassembled and stored for decades in a warehouse in Ohio. It was discovered there and reassembled in Baraboo, piece by piece. The inside of the restaurant is in a classic diner style, replete with green vinyl upholstered booths and an abundance of chrome. We have eaten there in the past, and I knew that they served a hearty breakfast.
We pulled up to the diner, and I was happy to see that it was open on New Year’s Day. Inside we found an open booth, which was easy as only one other table was occupied as was one chair at the counter. Tom and his son went to wash their hands as the waitress came over. She reminded me of Flo, from those Progressive Insurance commercials. The back of her T-shirt proudly proclaimed, “Body By Bacon.” I knew I was in the right place. Tom and his son returned, and we placed our orders. Both of them ordered omelets. I went for eggs over easy and sausage links. By the time our order arrived, I was well into coffee, but I had to consciously control my consumption as I would soon be on the road. I didn’t want to have to stop every 30 minutes. We confidently noted that we were the very first people to use a campsite at Devil’s Lake State Park in 2019. We did this with the vibrato of Lewis and Clark explorers.
With our bellies once again full it was time to start the journey home, and after a few directional missteps, we were on the newly plowed and salted Interstate heading south. Tom called me and noted that he was going to exit as his son wanted to explore the sporting options at Cascade Mountain. I wished him well and drove on.
I made a call to Julie to let her know that I was safe and heading home. I traveled the rest of the trip in silence and entertained myself with memories of the last 24 hours. I was grateful that I brought the right clothes, enough food, and the right van equipment to weather the storm. I was thankful that I had traveled with my friend, Tom. He thought to bring some things, I remembered others. Together, we had enough.
The nausea of the drive in had long passed, and the pleasure of the trip was present in my mind. I don’t think I would have gone if I knew that I would have had to travel in a snowstorm, but that was behind me, and I was left with the sweet memory of a crazy camping trip where only three people filled a huge campground with their adventurous spirit. It was a great way to start the New Year and to kick off my impending retirement.
I could see the outline of the Minneapolis-St. Paul skyline from my window seat as the plane banked to the left. The year was 1989, and I had just finished taking part II of my Psychiatry Board exam at the Hennepin County Hospital in Minneapolis. I felt that I had done well, and I was feeling a sense of relief. This was my first time visiting the Twin Cities, and I remember thinking that this visit would be not only my first but also my last. There was no reason to return. December 1991, I packed two suitcases into the tiny back seat of my 1988 Mustang GT convertible. My Mustang had a brilliant white body, accented by a dark navy blue ragtop. She was sleek, sexy, and very fast. The GT drove like a dream on dry pavement, but it could be treacherous with the slightest bit of snow. This latter fact concerned me as I was about to embark on a 450-mile trip up north. I started the car’s engine and rotated the heater knobs to warm the cabin and defrost the windshield. I reached over the passenger seat, grabbed my yellow window scraper, and started to hack the ice and snow off the windshield. I waited for the car to warm up before going back into the house to get my girlfriend. I was already feeling anxious. She was also feeling nervous, but we were both playing it cool. Soon we were whizzing down I-88, then I-39, then I-90. We made random conversation and tried to appear calm. Our hidden anxiety evidenced by our frequent detours to interstate rest-stops. I would have to stop, then she would. Our suddenly overactive bladders were providing a window into our inner emotional state. We had started dating in July, and a few months later she had asked me to travel north to spend Christmas with her family who lived in a rural town outside of the Twin Cities. I had given up on all dating for almost two years before that July. I had decided that the whole courtship process was too stressful and I had made a commitment to myself to live a single life. I was happy with my choice, but I also felt like something was missing. I met her at a random meeting one week before she was to leave our workplace to return to graduate school. We sat next to each other at that meeting, and we started to chat; a week later I asked her out on a date… now we were driving to Minnesota. The drive was long, the air was frigid cold. We drove through the Twin Cities and got onto Highway 55, traveling west towards the town of Buffalo. My heart was beating faster as we drove down the narrow road, past farms and frozen fields. Finally, we arrived at Buffalo, the county seat of Wright County. A town of 10,000 surrounded by Buffalo Lake, Lake Pulaski, and Deer Lake. Julie’s parent’s house was on Buffalo Lake. We pulled up a large circular driveway at the back of the house. There were cars already parked, we were not the first to arrive. There was no need to knock, and Julie opened the back door and walked in. I followed with my suitcase and a large gift basket that I brought as a hostess gift. We were greeted with welcomes and hellos. Everyone was excited to see Julie and curious to meet me. I was satisfied with smiles and the smell of dinner cooking in the oven. I’m naturally shy, and I quickly donned my more social alter ego. A smile on my face, I moved forward boldly. The day consisted of polite questions, good food, and parlor games. At some point, Christmas gifts were opened. Julie’s father, Bob requested that she play a piano duet with her sister Kathy. They dutifully banged out a few Christmas carols. At some point, Julie and I walked to Buffalo’s downtown, which was only a block away. At the town’s grocery store Julie ran into several residents, all of them wanting an update as they looked at me with questioning eyes. At another point, Bob loaded me into his old Lincoln and drove me directly onto Buffalo Lake. As a city boy, I was confident that we would plunge to our deaths believing that the weight of the car would crack the ice beneath its wheels. It did not, and I lived another day. That night the temperature dropped to -19 F, I got ready to go out and warm up the Mustang to make sure that it would start the next morning. Julie’s brother-in-law, Karl quizzically looked at me, “Why are you starting the car, it is only -19?” I was definitely in Minnesota! Despite my shyness, I soon felt comfortable and fell back into my real personality. Julie’s family is very Swedish, and I’m Eastern European by heritage. Some of their customs were different than mine, but I was more aware of our similarities rather than our differences. I wondered how many men she had brought up to Buffalo through the years. I found out later that I was the first, and only one. Today is December 25, 2018. I write this post from Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. I arrived here yesterday with Julie and our three children. Running late, we traveled directly to Faith Covenant Church, My sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s home church. There we met the rest of the family as we celebrated Christmas Eve with a candlelight service. After church, we returned to their home. We had interesting conversation, good food, and played games. We caught up on each other’s lives. This morning we opened gifts, ate more, talked more, and played more games. As I write this some of us are reading, some are playing the board game, “Risk,” two are finishing the construction of a Christmas present, two are completing a jigsaw puzzle, I am writing this post. Today I learned that Oregon produces the most Christmas trees, and the dentist elf in the TV special, “Rudolf The Red Nose Reinder,” name is Hermie. Knowledge is power! I have been traveling to Minnesota for the last 27 years, not only for Christmas but for other events too. I have long lost any anxiety when visiting my wife, Julie’s side of the family. After all of these years, her family is my family. In 1989 I thought that I had completed my one and only trip to Minnesota. Twenty-nine years later I have been here over 100 times. Dear reader, life is full of surprises.
When I was growing up our dining room table served many essential functions, and most of them didn’t involve eating. Yes, we did serve Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner in the dining room, but that was about it for our culinary experiences there.
During normal times the table was a repository for coats, packages, and books. It is where I did my homework every night in grade school. It was where my mother would be up all night typing my brother Dave’s college term papers. And it was where we wrote out our Christmas cards. I know my mother was the family’s principal card writer, but I have a vague memory that my father was also involved.
Our dining room table was in the Duncan Phyfe style, and it was huge, old, and dusty. It had a sheet of glass on it that protected its non-Formica top and gave it a cold and hard feeling when touched. Around it was 6 creaky chairs. The rectangular dining room of our 1920s bungalow held the table along with an equally old and ugly spindly legged buffet. Kitty corner from the buffet was my mother’s sewing machine, housed in a boxy imitation mahogany cabinet.
My mother bought the machine at Goldblatt’s department store on a special where the machine’s “furniture” cabinet was thrown in to sweeten the deal. The device was made in Japan at a time when this did not mean quality. It was a constant source of frustration for my mother who always complained that its tension mechanism was too tight.
Early in December the dining room table would be cleared of its holdings and repurposed with boxes of greeting cards, rolls of stamps, and sheets of return address labels. A long evening followed with my mom (and possibly my dad) signing and addressing dozens of cards. We didn’t have self-stick stamps or address labels in those days, and I would usually be employed as the licker.
We tended to buy off-brand of cards as Hallmarks were too expensive. The card’s style varied from year to year, sometimes religious, sometimes Santa-ish. My mother’s goal was to get the most beautiful cards at the most reasonable price.
I would sit and watch her expertly sign and address each card, amazed with her neat and precise handwriting. My handwriting was terrible, so bad that a nun once tried to humiliate me by making me write my assignments on control paper. That is the multi-lined stuff that primary level kids use to make sure that they correctly spaced their uppercase and lowercase letters. I remember watching my mom write while thinking to myself., “When I grow up I’ll have neat and precise handwriting too.” Well, I grew up and became a doctor, and those stories about doctor’s handwriting are all true, sorry nuns.
Christmas cards were a big deal in the 1960s, and they had to go out on time. To have them arrive after Christmas would be insulting to the receiver. Some of our relatives were in better financial positions than us. From them, we would receive cards with their names printed instead of handwritten. At the time I thought that this was the height of class; as a kid, I was easily dazzled.
We didn’t receive many Christmas newsletter, but my married sisters did. Generally, they were perceived as a tacky vehicle to brag. In fact, in those days there was a counter movement of letter writers who deliberately and humorously wrote newsletters that dramatized all of the bad things that happened to them in the previous year.
My wife, Julie is from Minnesota, and it is common practice with her family and friends to include a photocopied newsletter in their Christmas card. I enjoy reading these newsletters which chronicle everything from the births and deaths to the successes and failures of the sender’s family. I especially like the ones from Ag families that document the year’s crop yield, or the latest livestock venture. As a kid, I thought names printed on Christmas cards were good, and newsletters were bad. Now I feel the opposite. Maturity does these things.
In the 1990s I started to write a Christmas newsletter every December. In those days I was into desktop publishing, and these skills were the perfect foil for my holiday writing aspirations. Early on I decided on an “all inclusive” format that would include at least one photo, a written year in review, and a recipe. I have kept that format to this very day.
I bought my first laser printer for newsletter printing, and then my first color laser printer. To get the best photo I purchased my first digital camera in 1996. My Kodak DC-40 retailed for $1000, but I got it at the bargain price of $800. Incredibly primitive by today’s standards it took photos at a maximum resolution of 0.4 MP (less than one-half of a megapixel). Most new cameras have a resolution of 24 MP to 50 MP, which contains 60 to 125 times more image detail then my original camera, Despite the Kodak’s limitations it was the start of my obsession with digital cameras and digital photo editing. I find it interesting that the primary task of writing a Christmas newsletter could improve my both my desktop publishing skills and my technology skills as it also spawned my interest in digital photography. One little twist in your life can lead to many turns.
Over the last few years we have received fewer and fewer holiday cards, and it seems that the trend of sending them is becoming passe. Besides, Facebook has made the yearly update style of a Christmas newsletter somewhat obsolete. Based on these facts I have thought about stopping the practice of writing one. However, after some deliberation, I have decided to continue the tradition. However, I may deliver future copies in a more limited manner.
I have come to realize that I don’t write “Christmas Time” for others, I write it for my family. A copy of each year’s letter is saved in a special Christmas book that will be handed down at the appropriate time. The letters have chronicled our lives in pictures, words, and recipes. It gives me pleasure to think that grandkids, who may never know me, will read my words and make Julie’s recipes. I hope that these newsletter and other things that I’m creating will allow them to know me on a personal level, instead of just viewing a blurry photographic image of me.
I know that it is essential for me to be remembered by my family, and the best way that I can do this is by my writing and photography. Why is it important? I’m not sure, but I know that it is important, and that is enough reason to do it.
I really can’t stay (Baby it’s cold outside) I gotta go away (Baby it’s cold outside) This evening has been (Been hoping that you’d dropped in) So very nice (I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice) My mother will start to worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry?) My father will be pacing the floor (Listen to the fireplace roar) So really I’d better scurry (Beautiful, please don’t hurry) Well maybe just a half a drink more (I’ll put some records on while I pour) From “Baby It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser in 1944 A few weeks ago I was scanning Facebook and came across a comment from my friend, Mary Jo. She was wondering why the holiday classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was being banned by radio stations across the country. I also wondered why. It turns out that radio disk jockey Glenn Anderson of Cleveland’s WDOK-FM listened to the lyrics of the song and found them, “Manipulative and wrong.” We now live in a protective bubble world. A place where our interpretation of something trumps its actual meaning or intent. We are supposed to live politically correct lives, at least on the surface. I can understand how some things that we once thought were acceptable are now considered offensive. When I was growing up, it was common to see a small statue of a black coachman at the entrance of a suburban driveway. As I kid I didn’t think much about this, but I am a white male. Many blacks felt otherwise, and these creepy statues have long disappeared. This is a world of extremes and absolutes. Concepts that have merit can be neutralized by applying their intent in such a broad way that they become meaningless. #metoo brought to the world’s attention the atrocities of men in power who used that power to abuse both men and women sexually. Bringing these practices to the forefront was both essential and necessary. However, as this hashtag caught fire, it spawned an ever-broadening set of things that offended. Dear reader, there is a big difference between masturbating in front of an unwilling underling to telling someone that you like their outfit. If this common courtesy offends the recipient, I believe that they should say to the commenter that they would prefer not to hear such things. This empowers the individual and clearly lets the complimenter know the rules of the road for that individual.
We need to be respectful of individuals, but we also need to acknowledge that something that offends one person may actually be appreciated by another. I am delighted on the rare occasion when someone tells me that I look nice. I make an effort to tell people (both men and women) when I think that they look nice. Conversely, I have gotten negative feedback when I have failed to notice changes. My kids will often remind me when my wife has gotten a new haircut. Once alerted I do see the difference and I’m happy to let my wife know. I understand that there are readers out there who will be offended by my opinion. They may cite instances where someone’s outfit comments were clearly out-of-line. I once heard a female speaker at a conference refer to her tall leather boots as, “Come f**k me boots.” However, it is unlikely that she would appreciate it if I said to her, “Hey, I really dig your come f**k me boots!” Common sense in all things. It is not just what is said, it is the context in which it is said. We now converse with each other by text message, and individuals who have been raised on this type of communication have less exposure to the nuances of communication. We are no longer listeners, we are readers. How many times have you read someone’s text and wondered, “Are they being funny or serious?” So is “Baby Its Cold Outside” an innocent flirtatious love song or a date rape anthem? The song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 as a call and response duet. He wrote it for his wife and himself so they could perform it when then were attending friend’s parties. “Hey honey we don’t need to bring any nacho dip, I decided to write them a hit song instead. Good thing that we can both sing.” (not a real quote) The song was featured in the 1949 movie, “Neptune’s Daughter.” However, the version that seems to be most popular on the radio was recorded by Dean Martin in 1959 (using a chorus for the female part). In the American culture in the 1940s-1960s, women who were more open about their sexuality were considered tramps or sluts. The ideal woman was called a “good girl.” Chast, pure and absent of any libidinal urges until those feelings were unlocked by that special someone. Romantic communications were more indirect, and part of courting involved gentle persistence and resistance. I’m not endorsing or condemning this style, I’m just stating that was the way it was. If you are 30 or under, you may not believe me. If you are 40 and older, you know that that was the case. You see these behaviors played out in “Baby Its Cold Outside.” The suitor continues to suggest that his date stays longer (likely for the night). Her main reason for not staying is not that she doesn’t want to, she is concerned what other people will think of her if she does, “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious… So really I’d better scurry.” She is representing the popular concept of a good girl. In that role, she is offering gentle resistance to his pleas. She tells him how she is expected to act, while she also tells him what she is really thinking. “I ought to say no, no no, sir. At least I can say I tried.” She delays leaving a number of times in the song with lines like, “But maybe just a cigarette more,” and “But maybe just a half a drink more.”
Good girls were supposed to be sexy and sexless at the same time. When they acted outside of this contradictory set of rules, it was expected of them to blame external influences or events. We see those mores played out in lines like, “I wish I knew how to break this spell,” and “Say what’s in this drink?” The song ends with both parties singing in unison, “But, baby it’s cold outside!” After persuasion and resistance have played out, they are now allowed to do what they intended to do, reputations intact. “Baby it’s cold outside.” is a fluffy little love song that was correctly understood by the audience that it was intended for. To make it into something else shows how limited we have become in our critical thinking skills. Sadly, this lack of critical thinking extends to broader and more important issues in our lives and the world around us. It is important to understand things not only from our viewpoint and frame of reference but also from the perspective of others. Unfortunately, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes has gone from commonplace to exotic. The video below has two version of this song. The first one is from the movie, “Neptune’s Daughter.” The second is the comedic Red Skeleton version. Both give you an idea of Mr. Loesser’s intent. However, the comic Red Skeleton version gives you an even clearer view of what the song was really saying by reversing gender expected roles. Give the video a watch.