All posts by Dr. Mike

Whom Do I Love?

The word love is a word that has tremendous meaning and significance, and at the same time, it is so overused that it has no meaning or significance.  We think we know what love is, but how can that be the case when it means nothing? Love is a conundrum.

People would tell my parents that I was kind as a child.  I believe that statement was, and is, true.  But kindness isn’t love.

As humans, we announce to the world that “We are in love!” An emotion so powerful that it takes rational thinking away.  But being in love isn’t love.

I love pizza.  But pizza isn’t love.

Dear reader, when I was younger, I felt like I couldn’t love.  I cared about people.  I tried to be a good person.  I tried to do the right thing.  But, I didn’t love. Like many of my deficits, I accepted this imperfection and moved on with my life.

Over time I became more aware of who I was, and it was then that I started to understand why I couldn’t love. I discovered that my inability to love was based on a personal decision.  The decision determined in my subconscious. It was decided by me but without my conscious awareness. You see dear reader, to allow myself to truly love someone would make me vulnerable.  I could become subject to someone’s control. I could be hurt.  I could be manipulated.  I could be used. I saw love as a weakness, not a strength, and there was no room for weakness in my life.  I would not let anyone get close enough to me to have access to my soft underbelly.

In the place where love should have resided there was a hollow spot. It was in an area deep inside of me.  A region occupied by other deficits.  My lack of spirituality, my feelings of personal shame, my fear of being different. A zone well protected, and well hidden from others.  In my young life, I emphasized my strengths and buried my weaknesses.  It was the most efficient way to move forward.

Such a strategy can only carry one so far, and so I started to fill those empty spot.  Slowly and carefully for most, except for the love deficit.

I regained my ability to love in one day.  That day was January 27, 1983.  The day that my first child, Anne,  was born.  Something that was completely unnatural and foreign to me became completely natural and familiar.  The ability to love was always inside of me.  It was just hidden so deeply that I had no awareness of it.

I now love freely.  I celebrate my vulnerability.  I view my ability to love as a strength, not a weakness.

So what is love? The best definition that I have found was written by a tentmaker in a letter a long time ago.  It follows:

Love is Patient

Love is Kind

Love Does Not Envy

Love Does Not Boast

Love is Not Proud

Love is Not Rude

Love is Not Self-Seeking

Love is Not Easily Angered

Love Keeps No Record of Wrongs

Love Does Not Delight in Lies But Rejoices With the Truth

Love Always Protects

Love Always Trusts

Love Always Perseveres

Love Never Fails

I am imperfect in my ability to love, but I ever strive to closer approximate this standard.  So, whom do I love? Those whom I love know it by my intent and actions.

At The Lorraine Hotel, Fifty Years After Martin Luther King’s Assassination

I debated about writing this post. I thought about writing it, then discarded the thought.  I thought about it again.  Even now, I write it with trepidation. I’m writing it because I know that if I don’t I will continue to think about it.  It will become an earworm.

I don’t want to come across as a privileged white male writing about the poor oppressed blacks.  I don’t want to seem as if I am pandering about their great struggle in the way that some closet condescenders do.  Those folks who join with their “brothers,” but do so with a hidden air of superiority.

I don’t even want to write about Martin Luther King on Martin Luther King Day.  Instead, I want to write about feelings, specifically my feelings.

I traveled to Memphis with my friend Tom and his son Charlie to tour the Gibson guitar factory.  It was a long ride from Chicago, but we are good travel companions.  We arrived early Sunday afternoon.  Tom had been to Memphis before and wanted to stay at the Peabody hotel, which is directly downtown.  It is a beautiful place with the classic styling of the 1920s. We settled into our room.

After a bit, we ventured into an unseasonably cold Memphis evening and walked the short distance from the Peabody to Central BBQ for dinner.  I was impressed with my slab of ribs, my friend Tom’s more discerning palate was not. From Central BBQ I could see the old sign from the Lorraine Motel.  Dear reader, if you don’t recall this is the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at in 1968.  The motel and adjoining buildings are now the National Civil Rights Museum. We decided to go to the museum on Monday, which was Martin Luther King day.

I was already struck with a racial divide in Memphis.  Our hotel’s occupants were mostly white, the staff was a high percentage black.  The blues bars patrons were often white, but the main performers were often black. This is not some political statement, it is just an observation. An observation that struck me.

On Monday we stood in a moderately long line at the Civil Rights Museum. The line moved quickly.  Due to the holiday, the entrance “donation” was reduced to $5.  My calculation was that the attendees were about 95% black.  I did not feel out-of-place.  I was met with smiles and nods from both staff and fellow visitors. There was clearly a, “we are so pleased you came,” feeling.

I entered a long room that contained a civil rights art exhibit.  I was struck with one piece that seemed to be a combination of abstract art and words.  The art had a high relief that gave it power.  It made me want to stare at it.  In the background, I could hear a grandmother talking to her young granddaughter.  She was carefully explaining to her the meaning of each picture while she deftly wove in just a little bit of history to reinforce her narrative. She wanted the little girl to remember.  She wanted her to learn.

I moved into another room, this one crowded with people. In the middle of the round room was a docent.  Talking with a loud clear preacher style oration, he recounted the history of slavery.  How colonists first tried to enslave the Native Americans, then indentured servants from Europe, finally Africans. Africans proved the best as they were purchased as property, and thereby couldn’t work themselves towards freedom.  He spoke of the first country to abolish slavery (Haiti) and the last one (Brazil).  He noted that children born from slaves were automatically the property of their owners.  As property, they could be used for whatever purpose the owner wished. They could be sold and taken away from their parents without notice or consequence. He said that the plantation owners were some of the wealthiest people in the country; their fortunes based on this labor model. I moved on.

I stopped at an old 1950s style bus and entered at the back door.  I looked at photos of black people crowded and standing in the back, while front seats were empty.  An audio recording of a bus driver barked orders: “Get on back. If you don’t give up your seat I’ll have you arrested!”  I moved on.

I came upon a Greyhound bus from the 1960s.  It was a wreck with its aluminum roof burnt into eerie shards. The bus contained black “Freedom Fighters” ambushed by a hate group. The bus had been set ablaze. I moved on.

I looked at the balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. I moved on.

Dear reader, I remember these events as a child.  I remember the hate that whites felt towards blacks.  I remember my fear that blacks were going to hurt me.  My belief that they were somehow inherently corrupt, bad, and dangerous.  I can’t even say where I got those fears, but I know that they were common in the blue-collar Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.

I don’t exactly remember when my prejudice left me, but it was a long time ago.  I believe the process was gradual.  I know that it involved interacting with African Americans.  I remember being fearful in high school.  I remember that during two different high school years two black teachers reached out to me.  They seemed to think that I was special and unique.  I was worth their time and energy.  I was worth taking under their wings.  They told me about their families, confiding in me their dreams. They encouraged me.  They told me I was meant to do more. I was here to do more.  I wanted to believe them.

I always knew that I was different, odd, and unlike others.  I thought different was something to be ashamed of.  I was ashamed of being me. Why was I born the way I was?  Why couldn’t I have been like everyone else? Those teachers also knew what different was, in me they saw a special kind of different.  I was unique and one of a kind. Rather than a thing to be avoided and rejected, they saw me as a person to be celebrated and cared for.

The teachers were just the start of my transformation from prejudice.  This essay is not about the black struggle.  It is about people who are judged based on  irrelevant trivial but identifiable attributes.  Human beings who are rejected, hated, punished, or worse based on characteristics that they have little or no control over.  Skin color, religion, political belief, gender, sexual preference, ways of thinking, body size.  Name your poison.

How is it possible for us to convince ourselves that there is justification for such actions? Yet, we do so easily and without apology.  We find the bad apple in a group and use them as our reference.  We remember the facts that support our hypothesis and ignore the data that rejects it. We evoke God and say we are doing His work when we exclude or torture others.  We are God’s people, we shout. The “others” are not.

Yet, it is so clear that diversity of all types makes a nation stronger.  It brings new energy, new ideas, new solutions. Excluding groups does the opposite.

Will it ever be possible for humans to identify with each other based on an individual’s worth and character instead of nonsensical and unproductive biases?  It has been 50 years since the death of Martin Luther King.  There have been changes and shifts in our world, but in some ways, our anger and prejudices have just moved to new groups to fear and hate.

…In the background, I could hear a grandmother talking to her young granddaughter.  She was carefully explaining to her the meaning of each picture while she deftly wove in just a little bit of history to reinforce her narrative. She wanted the little girl to remember.  She wanted her to learn…

 

KISS

KISS- Keep It Simple Stupid!

Saturday morning, 3:40 AM, and my alarm goes off, I hit the snooze bar for an additional 10 minutes, I get up.  Dressed, I go downstairs for an apple with peanut butter and a cup of strong coffee. I noodle on the computer for a bit and glace at the clock.  Time to put on my coat and start the drive to Tommy’s.

I arrive at his house it is 5 AM. I know that it is OK to come in without knocking, and I do so.  Tommy is in his study, behind his huge desk.  I pull out my computer, he is already on his.  And so another Saturday morning starts.

We chat, do a little work, examine some changes that he is making on his revised website, chat some more.  Tommy says, “Do you want to go to breakfast?’ “Where?” I ask.  “Where else,” he responds.  I know that he is talking about the Palace, a breakfast joint in Chicago, over 30 miles away.  “Sure.”

As we drive into the city Tommy comments on how clear the sky is, and we decide to make a detour to the lake to see the sunrise.  Tommy is a little boy in a middle-aged man’s body.  I completely get him, a little boy is hiding in me too.  Time for an adventure!

It is freezing, but the adventure is great fun.  Then fantastic omelets at the Palace; then home.

My daughter Grace left me a sticky note stuck on my phone.  “Dad, if you see Tom today can you borrow a C-clamp from him.”  Grace is trying to make her own oboe reeds and needs to use a C-clamp to properly secure the reed’s thread.  Tom is happy to lend me a C-clamp, but I forget about it due to our breakfast adventure.  Grace and I go to the Ace hardware in search of one.  Along the way, we chat and laugh.  Grace is astounded that the Ace has free sandwich cookies and popcorn for its patrons on Saturday.  She grabs both, I take a cone of popcorn.  “Are you sure we can just take them?” she asks.  “Sure,” I tell her.

Julie returns home after seeing a couple of patients and asks me if I want to go for a walk.  Dear reader, by now you know I love to walk. “Yes,” I say.  We walk to our little downtown and then past it as we meander along the river.  We talk about our kids, noting how proud we are of them.  They are getting older and we celebrate their increasing independence and grieve over it at the same time.  We are now at the backside of the strip mall where my Starbucks resides.  The little boy in me returns, and I’m determined to find a secret way to get into the Starbucks without having to go all of the way around to the front entrance.  I try opening many backdoors, most are locked.  Finally, I get into the back of the Penzey’s spice shop and feel victorious.  I saved at least 3 steps!

A quiet evening follows, supping on a grilled cheese sandwich and Amy’s Curried Lentil Dahl Soup. I then meander into my study with a 40-quart black garbage bag.  I glance over at my oak rolltop desk and roll my chair up to it.  My goal is to go through two of the seven drawers.  My desk is jam-packed full of junk, I have always been too busy to clean it out.  Old cell phones, calculators that don’t work, outdated prescription pads.  Ninety percent of the contents are tossed.  I find some treasures; rewards for my efforts.  A family reunion photo from 1995, some photobooth pictures of me from an unknown year.  A recipe for French Silk pie from Julie, before we were married and before she became Dr. Julie.  

Then a little TV, but I bore quickly.  I open a book on WordPress and I start to thumb through it, my concentration betrays me and I close it. The remainder of the night ends pleasantly.

Dear reader, for me this was a perfect day.  I spent time with people that I love.  I did silly things.  I ate good food.  I organized a couple of drawers and found a few forgotten treasures.  Is there any way that I could have had a better day? I really don’t think so.  So many of the pleasures of life are free, or nearly free.  I am grateful for Saturday, I am counting my blessings.

Me, year unknown.
Family reunion picnic 1995.
From Julie, before she was Dr. Julie.
Winter sunrise on Lake Michigan.
Chicago skyline at dawn.

There Are No Emergencies For Those Who Are Prepared.

There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. If you started to say that slogan in front of my kids, they could complete it, as they hear it often from me. It is true… to a point. So many emergencies happen because a situation isn’t thought through. This applies to all facets of life, from work projects to interpersonal relationships.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. There are times when unforeseen variables enter the picture. However, many of my “emergencies” have happened because I was in a hurry, or too lazy to set up a situation appropriately. The time that I decided it would be safe to stand on a chair with a known broken leg would be an example of both poor planning and laziness. An extra 5 minutes of effort would have avoided several weeks of recovery pain as a result of crashing down onto a very hard concrete basement floor.

The above mantra also works when you want to sustain a behavior. I know that I feel better when I get some exercise every day. Going to the gym gives me the best workout, but walking offers me many more practical advantages. Walking allows me to pray and meditate. Walking is something I enjoy. Walking means that I can stop and get a cup of coffee. Walking means, I can stop and write (as I am doing right now). Walking, there is a good chance that I’ll see my friend, Tom.

There are potential pitfalls to walking as I’m no longer in a controlled environment. The three deterrents to walking for me are very hot weather, freezing weather, and precipitation in the form of rain or snow. In most cases, these are not insurmountable barriers. Over the last few years, I have been refining my waking “gear.” Warm weather gear is easy, wear less. Rain gear requires a little more planning; a good umbrella, “duck” type waterproof shoes, a light rain jacket. Cold weather presents more challenges. This morning I checked the iPhone weather app. It was -12F (-24 Celsius) outside! It would have been easy for me to stay in bed. It would have been easy to say, “I’ll walk tomorrow.” In my case putting things off can become a pattern, one day becomes two, two becomes three.

For Christmas, I asked my wife to get me a few items. UnderArmour thermal tights, a long sleeve t-shirt, and one of those “bank robber” face masks. Wearing these types of clothes are not particularly pleasant for me. They are very tight and remind me of my obese days. However, to accomplish a goal, you need to do those things that will most likely yield success. I walked yesterday without the UnderArmour, and by walk’s end my legs were burning in pain from the cold.

The rest of my cold weather gear sounds like an advertisement for a clothing catalog. Wool socks from REI, Columbia hiking shoes, heavy duty pants from Duluth Trading Company, a Woolrich flannel shirt, a Cabella down coat, Carhartt gloves. Add to this outfit a face mask, and a long scarf. There are no emergencies for those prepared! Out into the environment, one foot in front of the other.

The walk to Starbucks was still cold, but very manageable. I do not fear the return walk home.

Sometimes no amount of planning is sufficient to avoid a problem. A sudden storm appears when you are in the middle of nowhere. Your computer’s hard drive corrupts when a report is due. The person that you are trying to solve a problem with is erratic or irrational. Yes, there are times when there are emergencies for even the prepared. However, they are much less frequent. Learning to plan for situations and events also help you cope when things do go awry. Your mind is in a problem-solving mode, and you are primed to explore reasonable solutions.

I know people who prepare little. In fact, I would say some of them are comfortable with the chaos that poor planning yields. They live on the edge when it comes to their spending habits. They choose conflict over peace. They blame rather than solve. They deal with unnecessary emergencies. In the process, they waste their own energy and the time and goodwill of those around them. The power that could be moving them forward in life is expended to just keep their dysfunctional status quo.

It is not my goal to judge such individuals. I can only state that this is not my preferred behavior. Planning and preparation may take a little more time in the short run, but yield less “forest fires” to put out in the long run.

So, with UnderArmour, down coat, and wool socks I will venture back home. Some may make fun of me for being “too OCD.” Others may think me too controlled, and therefore not very exciting. They are all welcome to their opinion. A nice walk will reward me despite the fact that it -12F outside. When I get home, I will carefully take off, fold, and put away my cold weather gear. It will be waiting for me when I get up at 4 AM tomorrow.

Scarf, mask, hood. Ready for -12F.
Writing today’s blog. Coffee at the ready.

The Discarded Party Hat

The Discarded Party Hat.

Yesterday was New Year’s Eve; I had no intention of staying up until midnight. My alarm is set to 3:40 AM and I’m too old to function on a couple hours of sleep.

Last night Julie asked me if I wanted to watch a movie and I said, “Sure.” We clicked on a movie called, “Detroit,” and I paid the $3.95 rental. The movie is a fictional account of people impacted by the Detroit riots of 1966. It was violent and disturbing. At 10 PM I told her that I didn’t want to start 2018 with this memory. The TV was turned off.

Three-forty AM, my clock radio clicks on to BBC news and I immediately hit the snooze bar. I force myself to sit up in bed to escape my warm blanket. Eventually, I dressed and stumbled down the stairs. Into my pockets goes my wallet, glasses, and iPhone. On my wrist, I strapped my Apple Watch. I checked the temperature, -8F degrees.

It is my custom to send a morning text greeting to my friend Tom. I had surmised that he would probably be sleeping in on New Year’s Day, but I like wishing him a good morning. I tap out a “Good morning, Tommy,” and hit send. As expected, there is no return text. I make sure that I have a cup of coffee at home because I know that Starbucks was opening late today. My walk would be a circle route without any stops.

Flannel shirt, sweater, ski mask, scarf, gloves; time to hit the streets.

My walk is completely to myself. New Year’s Day, 5 AM, -8F below zero… no surprise that even the early morning joggers are in bed. I love the privacy.

Instead of praying or meditating I just think about random things. I circle my Starbucks, which is closed and completely dark. I find a lone party hat in the street. Made of cheap cardboard, it looks ridiculous in its synthetic pretentiousness. Last night it was proudly worn by an excited bar patron. Now it has become trash.

If you have been reading my posts you probably have noticed something about me. I tend to pool information and compare things. I see connections between things. That cardboard hat went into a pool. It was the pool of things that we think are important that are not. That pool not only contains objects, it also has a place for goals, relationships, and desires.

I thought to myself, “How many times have I worked on a goal that made no difference in my life? How many times have I argued over some point with a relationship that turned out to be completely unimportant? How many times have a wanted something that in the end provided no real benefit to me?” I’m sure the answer to all of the above questions is many.

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but on this quiet and cold morning, one was given to me. I want to spend my time and energy in ways that have meaning to me, and with healthy people who love and support me. I have a right to my opinions, but it is OK for others to have different ones. I want to move towards people and things that make me grow positively, and away from those who make me feel bad for who I am. I don’t want my life to be like that party hat; something that looks good from a distance, but cheap and phony close up. When I review 2018, I want to see myself in a more positive place, not a more negative one.

Happy New Year dear readers. Wishing you a meaningful life in 2018.

The discarded party hat.

Prejudice and Jello Salad

Prejudice and Jello Salad.

Thanksgiving break and my daughter Kathryn is preparing to leave the U of A and come home to the Upper Midwest for the holiday.  “I’m looking forward to my mother’s Jello salad,” she tells her western friends.  “What’s Jello salad?” they query.  

Back in Illinois, she relates the above. Kathryn explains that her friends know what Jello is, it is the salad part that is confusing. I guess that makes sense as Jello salads are still only popular a few places: the Midwest, the South, and Utah.  In other regions of the country, Jello salad is mostly forgotten.

To gain a better understanding of contemporary feelings around Jello salad, I turned to YouTube’s query function.   Up popped a number of videos, most of them created by millennials.  In one video a couple makes a simple Jello salad and then warm the mold too much when they try to release the Jello.  Out comes a slimy mess.  They make disparaging comments on how gross and disgusting Jello salad is.  Another channel makes a classic lime Jello salad that has mayonnaise as one of its ingredients.  “I can’t get past the mayonnaise,” the host says as she twists her face. Still another channel has two hosts sitting at a desk, news anchor style. They don’t bother to make anything; they just show Jello salad recipes scanned from magazines from the 1950s.  Laughs, gagging noise, and other disgusting sounds erupt from them in forced humor.  The implication being that these are some of the most disgusting foods that they have ever seen. I am saddened.

If you are over 50, you probably have some recollection what a Jello salad is. Let me give the rest of you a brief history of Jello.  Jello is a brand name for gelatin, an animal product that is derived from processing collagen that is abundantly found in connective tissue.  There are records from the 1500s where the wealthy ate gelled foods served up in fancy molds.  In the middle 1800s techniques were developed to create a gelatin powder, and shortly after that Pearle and May Waits combined the powder with flavorings and sugar to create Jello. At the turn of the 20th century, Jello’s popularity skyrocketed with clever advertising that also features recipes that combined Jello with other food ingredients.

In some ways, Jello was one of the original fusion foods, as it allowed homemakers creative license to combine Jello with all sorts of things, both savory and sweet.  The mixture could then be poured into a mold, and the resulting dish would be not only tasty but also beautiful. Countless Jello recipes combine Jello (often lime flavored) with vegetables.  These are one form of “Jello salad.”  However, it is easy to broaden the definition of salad. There are recipes for tuna and chicken Jello salads, and a multitude of recipes for sweet salads that combine fruit and a wide variety of ingredients like marshmallows, cream cheese, or whipped topping (Cool Whip). In the spirit of a tossed salad, many recipes have a little mayonnaise in them. Although it may sound disgusting, mayonnaise adds a creamy goodness that tones down the sweetness of the Jello in a good way.

Jello was often served in my 1960s home.  Sometimes plain as a snack, or with fruit cocktail suspended in it.  My mother would make Jello salads for special occasions, always of the sweet variety. Typically, they would be poured into her prized Tupperware mold that had a quick release top for easy salad removal.  Although my mother made a variety of Jello salads, she is most remembered for a classic Lime Jello that blended cream cheese, cottage cheese, and pineapple into a green delight.  This signature salad is now brought to family gatherings by my niece “Kat,” and it has become her signature Jello salad. My wife fondly recalls her mother’s “Under-the-Sea” Jello Salad (Lime Jello, pears, cream cheese and a touch of cinnamon).  My sister-in-law is famous for her Eggnog Jello, and my wife’s signature Jello salad is a layered concoction that has a graham cracker crust, a cream cheese/Cool Whip layer, a Cranberry Jello/mandarin orange layer and a top Cool Whip only layer.  Julie’s salad is made in a 9 x 13 pan, and it is cut into squares for serving.

Many of the above concoctions may sound dessert-like, and indeed there are many desserts that use Jello.  Pies, parfaits, and poke cakes are just some that come to mind. So what is the difference between a Jello salad and a Jello dessert?  Often, not much.  A salad is served with the meal; a dessert is served afterward.  If it was molded, it was a salad.  If it looked like a dessert, it was a dessert.  I know that this is a weak convention, but that is the way it is.

A homemade Midwestern celebration (not catered) will likely have Jello salads.  This is not the case for a fancy dinner.  Despite millennials disgusting grunts, many Jello salads are lovely.  Like a good pot roast, they don’t claim to be haute cuisine.  But like a pot roast, they can be delicious and satisfying.

When I was researching contemporary views on Jello salad I was struck with the bias that so many younger people had against it. That bias was formed by lack of experience, lack of understanding, and preconceived notions.  People were willing to write off Jello salads because they didn’t conform to something that was familiar to them. YouTubers who sell their channels by trying to be sophisticated and hip were happy to discount something that was outside of their comfort zone. Strong negative judgments were formed with little and in some cases no objective evidence. They hated Jello salads because of their ignorance.  The salads were different, and different was terrible.  

Our views on Jello salads are not that different from our views of people.  Often if we are familiar with them, we are willing to accept and even embrace them, flaws and all.  However, if they are different from what we are used to it is easy to come up with biases and conclusions about them that can be negative and demeaning.  

Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion; it is so easy to judge the label and not the person.  May I suggest that you make a nice Jello salad today and serve it up with an open mind.  You may find that you think differently about it.  Perhaps you could also experience a person who is different from you; you may find them sweet and delightful.

Our well-used recipe!
Jello salad at a family party.

 

Ice On The Road!

Ice On The Road!

The basement bonus bedroom was dark and quiet.  Julie asked me, “What time is it?”  I looked over at the little nightstand and touched my Apple Watch to activate it.  “Nine-ten,’ I said.  “We have to get up!” she exclaimed.  

Our Thursday morning was already starting late.  We had hoped to leave Minnesota early and avoid the predicted snow.  I quickly got dressed and headed upstairs where I was greeted by my in-laws, and our hosts the Petersons.

The large granite island in the kitchen already had breakfast laid out in a buffet style. Yogurt, frozen berries, fresh fruit, homemade granola, juice, an oatmeal bake.  I spooned up some yogurt and tossed onto it a large scoop of frozen fruit. I grabbed a couple clementines and headed to the side counter for the coffee maker and a mug of strong black coffee. I sat at the big rectangular table and chatted with my relatives, as Julie came up the stairs and headed for the coffee. Grace appeared, followed by Kathryn.  Will was still missing, and so I sent Grace down to rouse him awake.

Breakfast now done, we repacked the car.  It was 10:30 AM and Julie reminded me that we had promised Will that he could go to Ragstock at the Mall of America. Ragstock is a hip Goodwill type of store that Will likes. The chain is Minnesota based, and there is no Illinois outlet.  

I hate malls, but the trip to Ragstock was part of Will’s Christmas gift. The five of us piled into the Flex, and I dialed in the M of A on the car’s GPS touch panel.  

The Mall of America has a  Tim Hortons. As we passed it, I told the family, “After Ragstock I get coffee.”  I wanted a little Timmy’s out of the deal.  The family agreed.

Shopping and coffee completed, we got back into the car and drove towards the parking lot ramp.  I could feel the Flex slip and slide.  “Oh crap,” I thought.  We were 8 hours away from home, and the roads were icy.  We entered the expressway, which was moving at a snail’s pace. Despite the slow speed, there were cars in the ditch.  I pressed the wash button on the car’s wiper control dial and heard the whir of the pump; no windshield washing fluid appeared.  My windows were starting to salt up from the road spray, and the windshield was turning a pebbly opaque.

Car slipping, poor visibility, no place to stop.  We moved on because it was the only option.  Eventually, I was able to pull over and clear the ice from the wiper cowl.  I could now get washer fluid on the window, but only from the passenger side nozzle.  Some of that fluid would mist over to the driver’s side giving me a 1-inch swatch to peer out of. Double crap!

Into Wisconsin, we traveled and saw more vehicles in the ditch.  Some looked like they just ran off the road, others squashed and belly up.  We saw two semis abandoned; the second one was partially off of a bridge.  Police prowlers with their Mars lights ablaze were everywhere. I could feel my jaw tightening as I consciously tried to stop grinding my teeth.  I positioned my torso to the right to increase my view. This caused my back to stiffen up.

A December trip to Minnesota is always a game of chance. Sometimes we have clear sailing, at other times we face white outs and black ice.

On past trips, we have spent nights in random hotels in unknown towns, and even ate our Christmas Eve dinner at a truck stop.  As the family’s main driver I do a minute to minute risk analysis.  The tipping point is usually determined by my stomach.  When I feel that it is in a permanent knot I know it is time to find refuge.

Yesterday’s trip was right on the edge but never crossed over the line, so I kept on driving.  As we were about to exit Wisconsin, the windshield fluid ran out.  Luckily, there was an exit ahead.  I felt smug because I had an extra gallon of wash fluid in the car.  I popped the hood, but I couldn’t figure out how to release its safety hatch. A wave of panic hit me with enormous force as it was injected with the stress of driving over 300 miles in abysmal conditions. I put on my “doctor” hat and forced myself to calm down.  “Think logically.  Give yourself a few seconds to gather yourself. Your panic is preventing you from accomplishing a simple task,” I told myself.  With my terror down a few notches, I pulled out my iPhone and typed in, “How do I release the hood latch on a Ford Flex.”  The 4th result on the search page gave me the required answer.  Up went the hood, in went the fluid.

As we crossed the Wisconsin/Illinois border I pressed the windshield washer button for what seemed like the millionth time.  Holy cow, both jets now worked, I could see out of the entire window!

I drove the final 100 miles back home.  The road was less slippery, my windows now clean. The remaining trip was not stress-free; it was less stressful.

Dear reader, I write you today to remind you to be prepared when you drive in adverse conditions.  We had proper clothing, blankets, food, and washer fluid.  Yet I didn’t pre-check the window washers, and I didn’t even know how to completely unlatch the car’s hood.

When traveling in winter, dress appropriately, have an ice scraper, and a cell phone with you.  Do this even if you are going a mile down the street to your grocery store.  Remember, to use common sense, and trust your gut.  Slow down in slippery conditions.  Stay home, turn around, or seek refuge if you feel that it is too dangerous to drive.

Will we drive back to Minnesota next Christmas?  Probably, but we will have food, sleeping bags, gloves, and anything else that I can think of to keep a stressful situation from turning into a dangerous one. Of course, I will check the windshield wipers.

Happy winter you ol’ Midwesterners! The rest of you don’t know what you are missing.

A little Timmy’s to soften my dislike of shopping malls.

 

Challah On Christmas

Challah On Christmas.

Saturday before Christmas and my son William left an urgent note on the kitchen countertop. “We need cat food!”  Day three of his plea; it was time to act.  

Our cat eats Iams brand cat food. Since it was Christmas, I thought it would be nice to get her a little wet food and a cat toy as Christmas presents.  Mercury has never stated a particular religious preference, but I knew she wouldn’t object to any holiday that would score her some Friskies pate. It was time to make a trip to Walmart. Unfortunately, a place to avoid on a Saturday afternoon is Walmart.

To buffer the trauma of hoards of Walmart shoppers I asked Grace and William to come along.  To sweeten the deal, I promised them lunch at Portillo’s. They accepted.

“Do we need any groceries?”  I asked the kids.  Silence for a moment and then Grace said, “Dad, let’s make Challah bread.”  Grace loves the stuff, which we usually buy at a local bread store.  I had told her that I made Challah when I was a resident physician and was living in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie.  However, that was over 30 years ago.  “OK,” I said.  “Look up a recipe on your phone.  At the very least we need to buy yeast.”

Back home and out came the Bosch Universal Mixer.  In went water, oil, yeast, honey, eggs, salt, and flour. Around and around the mixture spun and kneaded.  After a rise, we divided up the dough and braided it into two loaves.  The smell of baking bread drove the entire family mad with desire.  The result was worth our effort. The bread was much better than what we would have purchased.  Soft, slightly sweet, warm.  A little unsalted butter melted onto each slice… perfection.

I was raised Catholic and currently attend a non-denominational Christian church. With that said, I love Jewish food, which is very similar to the Eastern European food that I grew up with. Lox, bagels, kreplach, latkes, the list of mouthwatering delicacies are endless.

Growing up I had no exposure to other cultures and religions.  As I grew up, I started to meet people that were “different” than me.  Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on.

One of the things that brought us together was food.  Brisket, hummus, shawarma, mango chutney, dal, tandoori chicken. Dining at a friend’s house, eating at a restaurant;  we ate delicious foods made with creativity and care.

When you eat with another person, you share something special.  Breaking bread is much more than filling your stomach.  You eat with people who you care about.  You eat with people who you trust.  You talk, you share, you laugh. Food becomes a link between the two of you. By eating together you realize your similarities and accept your differences.

Christmas signifies the birth of Christ and the start of Christianity. A belief system of inclusion, not division.  There are those who will use any religion to control and manipulate others.  They create “us versus them” scenarios to bolster their power. I don’t believe that exclusion and demonization of others has ever been the intent of any true religious dogma.

Our world is polarized.  It is so easy to identify a group of people to vilify and blame. Perhaps we all should preach less at each other, and dine more with each other. Let’s do lunch!

Making Challah
Two fragrant loves!

 

The Empty Office

The Empty Office

For over twenty years I sat at my desk, facing south.  To my right were the huge windows that overlooked Seven Gables Park.  To my left was the computer desk with my two Apple monitors.  Behind me were my bookcases.  In front of me was my wall of diplomas and certificates.  Twenty years, a long time.

I remember where we were planning this office suite.  The thirteen offices, the clerical bullpen, the conference room, the waiting room, the kitchen.  It was new and shiny in 1996. I remember the smell of carpeting and fresh paint. I remember bringing in a guitar so I could practice during free time.  But there was no free time.  I remember the early partner meetings.  My push to bring technology to our practice.  I designed the first logo, built the first website, designed the brochures, programmed the voicemail, starting the podcast, and so it went.  It was exciting to combine technology with a psychiatric practice.  Cutting edge in the day.

Over 20 years sitting with patients.  Some happy, some sad, some angry, some confused and psychotic. Most patients would choose the couch, a position where I could see them and the peaceful park beyond.

Over twenty years of picking up voicemail, filling prescriptions, returning phone calls.  Over twenty years of eating at my desk so I wouldn’t have to stay later than my already late hours. Over twenty years of taking a quick 5-minute nap at my desk. Over twenty years of thinking about other people’s problems.  

My office was my second home.  It was filled with me.  My bookcases full of knowledge and tchotkes, my desk drawers containing everything from pens to silverware. My life condensed.  My place.

A few weeks before I closed my private practice I started to move things out.  I did this carefully, as I didn’t want my patients to see my office in a transition state.  I didn’t want to stress them more.  I took out big things that weren’t vital.  The fake ficus, my twin Apple monitors, the old 1930s console radio tucked in the corner.  I left the rest for this week.

I returned to the office over the weekend.  Down came the diplomas.  They are my prized possessions as they represent my life’s work. More things to throw out, give away.  Then came the drawer sorting. Garbage, things once important, useful items, important items.  Each drawer, each bookcase shelf, each space sorted. Exhausting.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday.  Working until I could bear no more before returning home.  Tuesday I came for the last time.  Four more moving boxes loaded into the Flex.  I returned to my office, the furniture was where it always was.  My desk, my leather chair, the couch, the bookcases.

I had a little time and I pulled out my laptop. The office was quiet and I thought I could work on this year’s Christmas newsletter. I started to type but I felt like I didn’t belong, I was in someone else’s space.  The office was no longer mine.  Dear reader, this feeling was internal to me.   The staff was happy to see me, no one was pushing me out of my office.  The space was still mine to use for the day.  

But it was no longer my space.  In a matter of days my office had gone from my second home to a blank, generic space.  The feeling was indescribable, strange and awkward. The feeling only partially created by the dearth of stuff. My soul had made the transition.  I had given up the space.  

I looked around the room for one last time, closed the lid on my laptop, put on my hat and coat, prepared to leave. Just as I was about to leave I ran into Ralph.  He will be taking over my space.  He walked in and looked around.  Soon my office would have his diplomas and certificates on the wall. The bookcases will have his books and tchotchke.  He will sit in the big leather chair.  His patients will lounge on the brown leather couch.  The life of the office will go on with a new master. It won’t notice the difference, it will be business as usual.

Despite careful pruning, I still have multiple boxes in my garage.  When it gets warmer I’ll sort through them, discard and give away more.  My house is already too full and I don’t have plans of opening up another private practice.  Some items will find new homes.  A print will be hung in my home study, A floor lamp will have a spot in my family room, extra “cheater” glasses will be put to use, and likely lost like so many pairs before them.  

My work will continue, in part-time mode.  Today and tomorrow I’ll work from my basement studio doing telepsychiatry.  Friday, I’ll drive to Rockford. Life goes on.

I spent yesterday cleaning out my home study closet.  Full to the brim with mostly useless garbage tossed in over the last 25 years.  Once done I’ll be able to organize my study.  It will now be even more important to me to have a dedicated place for creation and reflection.

For everything, there is a season.  I move into my new seasons with my eyes open.  Prepared, but still unaware of what the future holds.  Determined to continue to be productive.  Determined to allow myself to, at times, be unproductive.  Forward, ever forward, one foot in front of the next. Each day anew.

Diplomas off the wall.
Empty bookcases.

This Friday It Will End

This Friday It Will End

Dear reader, allow me to let you in on a little secret.  There is a difference between confidence and a sense of self-worth.

I am a confident person.  I believe in myself and my actions.  Others respect and seek my opinion. However, I can sometimes question my self-worth.  Let me tell you more.

You may know from reading past post that I was the last child in a family of five children. The 60s was a time when parents told it as it was, without a lot of sugar coating. I knew that I was not considered an asset or a surprise blessing. Add a significant stress when I was a freshman in high school, and you have a recipe for a very angry teenager.  My life could have turned out very differently than it did.

Thankfully, I had some great people in my extended life who saw something in me.  They felt that I was different, in a good way. Individuals, often in the form of teachers, would seek me out and take me under their wing.  For whatever reason, a number of them told me that I was destined for great things.  Dear reader, I have no idea what those folks saw in me. I was mad and felt that the world didn’t give a damn about me.  Despite my angst, these guides would find me, talk to me, like me, value me.  They believed in me, and I wanted to believe them. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t bound to my past;  I could determine my future.  I would not wallow in what others had done or not done to/for me.

The way that these two opposing forces impacted me was significant.  I started to define my self-worth based on what I could accomplish, especially what I could provide to others. I have spent my life being productive, and I have felt good about myself because of it.  

However, there is a negative side to such an approach.  When you are not providing a service, you feel like you are no longer needed or wanted.  Dear reader, I have had this hypothesis proved at times, but disproved many more. When I am in a normal state of mind, I know that there are people in my life who care about me.  Like my past angels, they see something in me that they connect to. That quality is not about what I can do for them; it is about who I am.  They like me for me.

Unfortunately, in times of stress, the logical part of me submits to my primitive fears.  A stressful time is upon me, my partial retirement.  

I told my friend and business partner Ralph, that I did NOT want any retirement celebration. My stressed mind felt that it would be an imposition for others to attend.  I could not imagine that they would want to gather for the sole purpose of wishing me well.  I was retiring; I no longer had anything to offer them. Ralph continued to push, despite every reason I could come up with.  Finally, I told him the truth.  “Why would anyone want to celebrate with me?”

Ralph, would not budge and he finally resorted to contacting my wife Julie about it.  With mounting pressure, I gave in, but I imagined that I would be standing in an empty room. I imagined myself feeling awkward, then embarrassed, and ashamed.  What would my wife and kids think of me?  Would they be ashamed of me too?

Old tapes are hard to suppress under great stress. I gave in to Raph’s pressure, and parties were going to happen. It was my fault for saying yes, but it was too late now.  I called upon my psychological toolkit. “By this time next month, it will all be over.  I will heal from the embarrassment.  I am strong.  I can only be hurt if I allow myself to be hurt.” and so it went.

I was already getting contrary evidence from my patients.  Notes and cards of thanks, little gifts of appreciation.  “Doc, please find me someone just like you to take your place.”  It felt wonderful, but my fear was great.

Last Sunday the festivities started, a reception at a special restaurant, everyone showed. Docs from the practice, docs that had long left, my former business partner Steve, my sister who worked at Genesis and her husband, and of course my wife and kids.  Balloons bobbed, champagne flowed, and forks clicked on plates full of food.  People reminisce and told stories from the past.  My good advice, my bad guitar playing, my crazy socks… and so it went.  I felt cared for.  The room had been booked for 2 hours, at hour 3 we finally exited.

The next day was an office reception; fear once again welled up in me.  The room was packed; the party was put together with thought and care.  I’m known for getting packages from Amazon; my retirement cake looked like Amazon boxes.  They even made one of the layers sugar-free, as I no longer eat sugar.  People took pictures, asked questions, made conversation. I was presented with a beautiful memory book that the staff created for me.  It contained letters from doctors, therapist, and patients who I had served.  I opened the scrapbook style book and saw the care that each page was created with.  I thought that I would burst out into tears, so I closed it with the promise that it would be explored when I was in a better state of mind.

At the end of my last office hours day, a patient dropped off a poem that she wrote for me.  It was clever and sweet, more tears.

Today is Thursday.  Tonight my office voicemail gets redirected.  I’ll call the office once or twice tomorrow to approve prescription refills.  This Friday at 5 PM my private practice career will end. I will still be working at another workplace a few days a week, but my private practice will be behind me.  I remember when I received my letter of acceptance to Northwestern University’s medical school in 1978.  The whole world was before me.  Another chapter has now closed.

I continue to be taught lessons if I allow myself to listen.  I know many of you who will read this have little or no faith in a Higher Power.  I am not trying to convert you.  However, I see God in my life on a daily basis.  Once again He has stressed me and pushed me to the limit so I could learn and challenge my false beliefs.  Amazing.

A wonderful goodbye celebration.
A retirement cake in the shape of an Amazon package.
A beautiful scrapbook of memories.
Right after seeing the last patient of my private practice career.
A beautiful poem from a patient.
A life built on paper.