All posts by Dr. Mike

On Being Powerless

Dear readers, today I am writing in a personal exploration style. The content may be too heavy for some.

Prior to creating drmikekuna.com I wrote my thoughts on Facebook. All of my writing has had a purpose, a purpose that may be unknown to many of you. You see, dear readers, I am trying to find my voice, specifically my writing voice. Part of that process includes being fearless in what I say.

I find that when I write different writing styles emerge. They press forward and then recede, only to be replaced by another style. My writing process is quirky. Sometimes I will get an idea during a life event. Sometimes a photo will trigger a post. At times I will have a great idea, only to forget it by the time that my fingers touch keyboard.

Today I felt a need to write. Today I had absolutely no idea what to write about. One phrase came to me. That phrase repeated itself in the insistent way that things sometimes do in my life. I have learned to address insistent thoughts as they often lead me in a direction that I am intended to travel. Where do these thoughts come from? My subconcious? An event? God? Likely, all of the above.

This morning I woke up to the insistent thought that I am powerless. I thought that I would write about it. Dear reader, like many I despise cryptic posts. Those post that make a dramatic statement, but offer no juicy details to finalize the story to a satisfying completeness. That is not my intention here. Rather, I would like to include you in the process of discovering the reasons why my consciousness has directed me. I will attempt that discovery by writing about it. If this level of obtuseness is unsatisfying to you then I would suggest that you stop reading now, lest you be frustrated and bored. I am going to write today’s piece as it flows from me, editing only grammar, not content nor sequence. Welcome to my mind…

My beginning was one without power. I suppose that is what most early lives are. I realized that if I wanted to move myself in any direction I would have to be my own active agent. I have talked in the past of individuals who helped propel me forward, but I had to do the actual work on my own.

To my surprise, I was able to accomplish what appeared to be impossible goals. Initially, I attributed those achievements to random chance or blind luck. Later, I accepted my personal efforts. Larger changes in my life seemed to happen by unknown external forces. Eventually, I had to admit that large changes were generated by a Higher Force. That Force I now call God.

Sometimes an apparent positive change turns out to be negative. Sometimes an apparent negative change turns out to be positive. Most times I accept this fact, at other times I fight it tooth and nail.

After decades of practicing my professional craft it has become easy to identify key problem areas in a patient and to develop useful interventions to help alleviate those problems. After decades of practicing my profession, I have learned that many patients are unwilling to accept such solutions. Of those that do accept my suggestion, many will not implement them. I understand this. I am not that powerful, and even a small percentage of change makes my professional life significant. Positive force, even small, pushes humankind forward. Negative force, even small, does the opposite.

So why am I writing about being powerless? Why did this thought enter my mind on awakening this morning? To understand this I need to go past my two polar extremes. The first being my well controlled internal milieu, and the second being my professional connections with others.

In between lies those people that I love. Those individuals where I have gone past empathic concern, and have connected with them on a profound level. Those connections can be both emotionally exhausting, and intensely rewarding. Because of the tremendous outlay of interpersonal energy required, I choose those connections carefully.

A number of factors combine to offer me unique insights in others. My co-dependency roots afford me more empathy than some. My OCD roots constantly analyze situational outcomes and potential solutions. My autistically (according to my psychologist wife) structured brain allows me to see data and solutions in aggregates, rather than in the A + B = C fashion of linear thinkers. Add to these the secret sauce of my training as a psychiatrist and 30+ years of “field” work; I come to the table better prepared than most.

On the surface, it would seem that the above package would be immensely beneficial to the loved ones in my life. I can recognize problems as they emerge, come up with potential options, and I even have the skillset to bring such options to a workable solution. Patients pay me hundreds of dollars for an hour of my time. Loved ones get that expertise for free.

However, people that seek your advice are different from people who you give unsolicited advice to. The later group viewing such interactions as potential intrusions. On an intellectual level I can understand this completely. However, my deep connections with others are not intellectual in nature. They are based on deep feelings, deep commitment, and a genuine desire to give that person what they tell me that they want. Of course, what people say what they want is not always what they feel that they deserve.

I tend to take on a loved one’s problem as my own and devote high levels of resources in helping them obtain the outcome that they say that they desire. It can be difficult for me to recognize that they may have a different actual agenda when I am so focused. This is very different from my professional life where I can stand aside with enough distance to explore the sub plots of a patient’s psyche.

When I connect with someone deeply I can be blinded by my desire to protect them. From what, you may ask? I don’t always have an answer to that question. I can only generate a metaphor that defines this feeling:

I am seeing a small child on a railroad track. The child says that they want to get off that track and I can sense their genuine fear. The train is coming and I am shouting solutions. Each solution is met by an illogical rationale why it can’t be done. The train moves ever closer, my pleas become louder, the returning rejections become firmer. Eventually, my attempted solutions become part of the problem. They delay the inevitable. They prolong the agony. Since they are not accepted, they have no true meaning or benefit. They are just words. What should I do? Do I stop shouting and let the train crush the child? Will the child figure out a way to save himself? Should I just wait with open arms to comfort and help pick up the broken person?… None of the above seems right to me.

I need to realize that solutions are only helpful if someone implements them. People have a right to guide their own lives, even if their action cause avoidable distress to them. I cannot make change happen by the sheer force of my will.

As I write this I am sad. I don’t want the people that I love to suffer. I want to pick them up and carry them to safety. I want to cover them up with a soft blanket and keep them warm. I want to protect them. I want them to know that they are loved, that they have value. Instead, I have to accept sadness and powerlessness.

Over the last 5 years I have undergone many significant changes. Some of them initially presented as truly terrible events. However, they were part of a greater movement that has had a profoundly positive impact on my life. I need to remember this as I look at problems that the people that I love face. I can’t predict how their seemingly incorrect actions will impact them as they travel through their own timeline. I need to constantly remind myself, some bad things produce good changes, some good things produce bad ones.

I also need to be cognizant of my personal needs. I may assume that anything that strengthens my connection with someone that I love is mutually beneficial for both of us. It is possible that a loosening of that connection could actually be good for someone that I care about, as it would allow that person to form potentially deeper connections with others. Despite my personal desires, it is important for me to realize that when I truly care about someone I need to consider that they may need to move in a new direction, even if that direction is away from me.

Today I am powerless, helpless, but not hopeless. Today I must accept my limitations. I understand that I am not alone, and that something greater than myself has a personal interest in me. That entity, who I refer to as God, also has a personal interest in those around me.

Still, the above knowledge doesn’t help the agony that I feel for the “child on the railroad track.” Perhaps writing in the future will help me understand that.

Today my goal to continue to gain a better understanding of myself and my actions.

The Cabin

Two Hours north of Minneapolis, I drive.  Past malls, past restaurants, past car dealerships. Two hours to get to Isle, on the shores of the great Mille Lacs.

It has been a long time since I was last there, I can’t exactly remember how long.  Ten years?  A long time.

The cabin has an address, but no one knows it.  Directions are provided by my sister-in-law, Amy.  Carefully written in her best school teacher scribe they guide me.  Left here, right there; all I have to do is to follow her directions, as the roads become ever narrower and more deserted.  North to the Northwoods, north to the cabin.


Despite the years, it seems familiar.  The cabin, the dock, the smell of the water, the sting of the mosquitoes.

As we are a family of five we are awarded the loft. Up the steep staircase, close to the knotty pine ceiling, space for all under its slanted roofline. Protected from falling by the railing built by my father-in-law Bob, and my brother-in-law Karl.  My mother-in-law proudly recounts that she stained every piece of wood for the railings herself. My father-in-law notes that he copied the design from a restaurant in Florida.

The cabin evokes memories, and those memories generate stories. There is something about the cabin that makes it unique.


I sit next to my father-in-law on the front porch of the cabin.  The porch with the seaman’s rope that serves as a stylized railing.  He sits quietly as he looks off into the distance.  His eyes fluttered for a moment, and he starts to speak.  

He talks about his grandfather, who came from Sweden.  He would visit Mille Lacs with his immigrant cronies to net whitefish when they ran.  The activity reminded them of Sweden, a piece of home to ground them in a new and strange country.  That was almost 100 years ago.

He talks about the building of the first cabin by his father, the dentist, F.O. Nelson.  The cabin that served the family from 1928 to 2001, when it was razed to make room for the new cabin.

My father-in-law believes that he was conceived at the cabin, shortly after it was built.  Now 88 years old, he has come to the cabin ever since.  He tells me of fishing for Walleye.  He talks about his now passed brother Jim.  Jim bought a cabin about a half of a block away.  That cabin now occupied by Jim’s wife Arlene, her adult children, and their children.  Like our cabin, they are building a history in theirs.

My mother-in-law Avis smiles as she remembers the cabin that served as a meeting place for the extended Nelson family. Then owned by Ruby, FO’s wife. They all came: taking turns making meals, talking, playing games, fishing, swimming.


My wife Julie and I go for a walk down towards the point.  Memories flood her…  Playing board games with her cousins.  The big stone fireplace of the old cabin.  Grandma Ruby’s arts-and-crafts that decorated the place. The napkin holder made out of a repurposed  Joy bottle, Ruby’s oil paintings. She recalls crayfish hunts, waterskiing, old magazines the were re-read 1000 times,  the endless hours swimming in the lake.  She starts to tear up, “Will this be the last time I come here?”

I flash back to memories of the original cabin.  The one where water had to be ported from a community well.  The outhouse. The smell of old wood and fresh pine. The “Liberty Beach Resort” where I dug for quarters so I could use their pay-as-you-go shower.


My kids settle into the cabin routine.  They have been there many more times than me.  They volunteer to help when it is our day for meal preparation.  They play in the water.  They laugh over Mexican Dominos.  They talk to grandma and grandpa.


I ponder, what makes this place so special?  Is it the location? Is it the cabin itself? No, it is activities that forms connections with others, and the memories created by those connections.  

Today my goals are to build a memory and celebrate the connections in my life.

Bob, the consummate storyteller
Julie remembers
Mexican Dominos
Two of my kids ponder at the end of the dock
New generation, new memories
Me
Sunset

 

 

 

  

21 Hours In A Car

Last week was full of connections with people that I care about, each connection could have served as the topic of a blog post.  However, one event stands out, as that event included a Harley, Dunkin Donuts coffee, and a 21 hour car ride.

Fridays are travel days for me.  I leave the suburbs of Chicago and drive almost 90 miles to Rockford to see a full day of patients.  I then get back into my car and drive 90 miles back to home.  I enjoy going to Rockford, but I’m tired on my return. Friday evenings are reserved for lounging activities.

You may recall me mentioning my friend Tom in previous blog posts.  Tom and I spend a lot of time together, and through the years we have helped each other in many ways.  This week Tom asked me for a favor.  He was selling his Harley Springer Classic motorcycle, and he wanted me to go with him to the sale.

Let me give you some additional information:

  1. The buyer lives in Texas.  
  2. The buyer wanted Tom to drive half-way to make the transaction.  Specifically, the buyer wanted to meet Tom in Springfield, Missouri at 8 AM on Saturday morning.
  3. Springfield, Missouri is between a 7 ½ and 8 ½ hour drive from my home.  

I usually arrive home from Rockford at around 6:30 PM. Tom’s plan was to pick me up at 7:00 PM and we would drive all night to Springfield.  A totally crazy idea on all levels. I said, “Sure.”

The trip…

I dig through my pantry for whatever snack food I can find. Some mixed nuts, Barbecue Sunchips, Ritz crackers, and some Beef Jerky nuggets.  It’s 7:03 PM, Tom pulls up towing his Harley on a UHaul trailer.   He is ready for travel with a Yeti cooler filled with LaCroix, and two cups of hot Dunkin Donuts coffee.  I get into the passenger side and close the door behind me.

The plan is simple, and simply insane.  We drive all night to Missouri, sell his Harley, and immediately turn around and drive home.  Estimated total awake time for me, about 36 hours.

Tom and have no problem filling up hours with idle conversation, but we have never attempted interacting with each other for almost 24 hours straight while being physically separated by only a center console.  It is hard to imagine that any friendship could survive such a stress test.

My somewhat OCD friend insists on driving most of the way, and I insist on making sure that he stays awake.  Tom was raised in Communist Poland, and I have an fascination of life behind the iron curtain.  With that said, even a professional interviewer like myself has limits, my brain starts to short out.  

Time for a new plan.

 (editor’s note: only one person has permission to call me Mikey, that person is Tom. Only one person calls Tom, Tommy, that person is me).

“Tommy I’ll ask you a question, then you will ask me a question!”  Sighs and groans erupt from the other side of the cabin.  “Mikey, I hate doing that.  I have nothing to ask you.  I won’t do it!” “I completely understand,” I reply.

I begin with something simple, “Tell me your favorite Eastern Bloc city and why.”  Tom finishes his answer and I prompt him to ask me a question.  “I told you that I won’t do it!  I don’t have any questions to ask you.  I already know everything I need to know about you.”  … long pause, groans, humfs, another pause, and then Tom asks me a question.  This cycle repeats itself for about 4 hours.

Back and forth questions, bathroom breaks, attempts to see the stars through the car’s windows,  and more random conversation.  

Like two school kids we get excited seeing the sights:  a Route 66 sign here, the St. Louis Arch there, sightings of antique cars, police prowlers with their Mars lights ablaze, small towns with highway signs that beg us to stop and visit.

Around 3:00 AM we find a rest stop and decide to attempt to sleep for a couple of hours.  Tom is shorter than I am and quickly finds a comfortable spot in his chair.  My long body is not as adaptable, and I bend this way and twist the other.  In less than two minutes I start to hear noises that could only be described as an animal in pain.  Gurgling noises, snorts, sputters and goans.  “Don’t focus on his snoring or you will never fall asleep.”  I tell myself.  How can I not focus on it, the entire car is vibrating.

At 5 AM, we are up and getting text messages from Tom’s potential buyer, Jeff.  Jeff is at the Super 8 in Springfield, and he is willing to buy us breakfast.  We accept.  

We meet Jeff and his friend Gary at “Jimmy’s Eggs.”  They have already started eating and Jeff motions over the waitress for our orders.  I go for eggs over easy, Tom tries a some sort of skillet.  

Jeff is clearly very excited about getting the Springer Classic.  However, in a cautionary tone he says to Tom, “I don’t trust very easily. I checked you out on the internet, and took a look at your website.”   I designed and built Tom’s website, and it is hard not to ask Jeff if he liked it. With effort, I keep quiet.

After breakfast Jeff takes a look at the bike and his eyes tell me that he has already bought it.  “I want to test drive it,” he says.  “We can go the the Bass Pro Shop parking lot,” Jeff says.  Apparently, Springfield, Missouri is the original home of Bass Pro, and has therefore been gifted their world’s largest store.  

A quick ride around the parking lot, and it is a done deal.  Tom generously offers Jeff some bonus items: several helmets, an all-weather Harley backpack, and a really cool Harley jacket.  Secretly, I’m wishing that I had dibs on the jacket.  My avarice passes as I see how excited Jeff is to get it.

Time to go home, time for more conversational questions, time for more protests and groans from Tom.  “Mikey, does it always have to be your way!”  I laugh, as does Tom, he knows that we go toe to toe when it comes to who is leading and deciding things.

On our way home we view derelict towns, a completely burnt out van, and the St. Louis skyline in early morning’s light. We decide to stop for food in Springfield, Illinois at the Cozy Dog.  The place is busy, and all of the tables are full.  A couple motions us to share their table, a conversation ensues.  I think to myself, “In less than 24 hours we ate in two different Springfields, and struck up conversations with two different groups of strangers.  What are the chances of that?”

We return the trailer to UHaul, and as we turn up my street Tom says, “Mikey, can you help me pull some carpeting out of a house that I’m working on tomorrow?”   Without hesitation I say, “Sure Tommy,” as I ready myself for this next adventure.

How lucky I’m am to have extraordinary people in my life.

How often do people go to any lengths to save dysfunctional or one-sided relationships?  They rejoice when given an occasional crumb of acknowledgement, a particle of peace, or a shred of acceptance.  

Today my goal is to be thankful of the people in my life who care about me, enjoy my company, and celebrate my odd and eccentric ways.  In return I happily do the same for them. Life is good.

The Harley ready for its final journey.
Jimmy’s Eggs, good eats in Springfield, Missouri.
World’s largest Bass Pro Shop and motorcycle test track.
A sad burnt out van on the side of the road.
The Arch, early morning.
The famous Cozy Dog in Springfield, Illinois.
Getting Gas.

Confessions Of A Reluctant Father

I didn’t want to be a father. I didn’t want to have children. I based my decision on several logical facts.

Growing up I was told that children were difficult. I was told that I was difficult. “Your mother and I never fought until we had kids,” My father would say. “You were a mistake.” The later point proven true by the fact that I am 7 years younger than my next sibling, my sister Nancy.

My father was 43 when I was born. I thought that he was just too old to want to spend much time with me, which is why he didn’t. My mother was often sick, and seemed to have endless chores to do around the house. She certainly couldn’t dedicate time just for me. This all made perfect sense.

How could I attract their attention? I had nothing to offer. I was reminded that I was an expense that required food, clothing, and a roof over my head. I was always wasting electricity by leaving the lights on, wasting hot water by leaving the tap on, and wasting time when I should have been “helping around the house.” Clearly children were a terrible burden. Clearly I was a terrible burden.

I knew that I would be a terrible father. I had no skills in parenting, and no model to pattern my behavior by. To want children would have been crazy and foolhardy. Why would I want something that would require time, effort, and money? Why would I want something that required teaching and training? Having a child would only change my life for the worse. Kids take everything and return nothing. The answer was crystal clear, no children, not ever.

I was comfortable with this decision. I had discussed my thoughts with my first wife, and she was in agreement. Life moved forward.

God seems to enjoy throwing me curveballs. The usual scenario is that he stresses me about something to the point that I am confused and upset. Only later do I realize that the curveball was quite intentional, and intentionally powerful. Its impact much more significant than I could ever have imagined.

My first marriage was in deep trouble. My life was highly stressed by that relationship, medical school, and impending decisions about my future life. It was then that I found out that my first wife was pregnant. My stress increased exponentially. I angrily asked God, “Why is this happening now? You know that I don’t have the ability to be a good parent. I don’t even know how to parent. I’m on the verge of divorce. I don’t have two pennies to rub together. Why are you f**** with me!” There was no answer.

My wife was pregnant, we were in the process of divorcing, and I was garbage picking furniture out of alleys for a future apartment. Awesome.

On January 27, 1983 my daughter Anne was born. Amazingly cute and cuddly, with wispy hair and penetrating blue eyes.

She needed to be held, and so I held her. She needed to be fed, and so I fed her. She needed someone to talk to her, and so I talked to her. I figured that as a newborn she wouldn’t know that I didn’t know how to parent, so I would just do the best job that I could. I would explain to her why I was a bad parent when she was old enough to understand such things.

I was now in my own basement apartment and I was trying to turn it into a home. My friend Sue bought me a highchair for $4 at a garage sale. I bought a pullout couch on clearance from Sears. When Anne would visit she could have my bed. The couch wasn’t so bad if I ignored the bar that would stick me in the back.

I bought her Fisher Price toys at garage sales, and cloths at K-Mart and Venture. My chief resident’s salary added $100 a month to my miserable paycheck. After paying the bills and child support there was almost nothing left. When she was old enough I would let her know that I didn’t have enough money to buy her more expensive clothes, like a better parent would have.

I mostly cooked at home as it was too expensive to eat out. Anne was very particular in what she would eat, and because of this we had a lot of Banquet chicken nuggets and apple sauce. When she was old enough I would let her know that I fed her nuggets because I didn’t want her to go hungry. A better parent would have thought of a better solution.

With so little money we did mostly free things. I would get on the floor and play with her. We would go to park. We would visit my sisters. I wasn’t much. When she got older I would let her know why I didn’t take her to Disney World. I was doing the best that I could, I was never meant to be a parent.

On Sunday night I would take her back to her mother’s. I would return home and sit in the dark and cry. Why did I miss her so much, I just saw her? I didn’t need to tell her about my ridiculous weaknesses when she grew up.

The years past. The adventures changed. Life went on. I was never meant to be a parent, I just did the best that I could.

God had thrown me a curveball, and in the process he showed me that I was capable of doing something that I absolutely felt that I was incapable of doing. He showed me that I was capable of loving someone without restriction. That love based strictly on the connection with them. The ability to love someone without expectation or demand is one of the highest gifts that I have ever received. A gift that initially presented itself wrapped in stress and confusion. What a trickster.

Eventually I remarried, and we decided to have another child. What I thought would be an easy process proved to be arduous and lengthy. Eventually my Kathryn was born, then my Gracie. At age 48 I welcomed my son William into my life. I still don’t know how to properly parent. All I know is to meet my kids needs, spend time with them, listen to them, and love them fully and without restriction. That will have to do, I can explain to them when they get older why I didn’t do a better job.

Today my goal is to be ever thankful of the four miracles that have been entrusted to me. They have changed my life in more ways than I could list in 100 blog posts. Life moves forward.

Why Peanut Butter Cake?

It is difficult to know how traditions develop in families. In ours, an event or action gets repeated a few times, and it becomes a tradition. Such is the case of special day celebrations. Special days are those that are significant for an individual family member. Birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and so forth.

These days often require planning, and usually contain at least three nonnegotiable elements: breakfast in bed, gifts, and a dinner made to the celebrates specifications. The month of May has two of these special days, both for my wife Julie. In May we celebrate her birthday and Mother’s day.

After so many years one would think that pulling off this tradition would be easy. It isn’t hard, but it requires organization and preparation. Two such events separated by only a few weeks offer their own challenges. Finding gifts even small ones, for someone who has all of the necessities of life, can be difficult. I’m not saying that Julie is overly demanding. The fact is that I want to do the best that I can to make her (or any other celebrant) feel special on their special day.

Julie’s request is typically routinized. Her breakfast in bed routine involves coffee, fruit cup, orange juice, and some sort of home baked item that has cinnamon in it. As far as gift items I have learned that grander items should be purchased by request, but I’m capable of finding smaller offerings. Dinner is usually healthy fare, and always from scratch.

I start my information gathering early, at least 10 days before the event. “What do you want us to make for your birthday?” I always get the same response, “I’m thinking about it.” Because of my OCD traits I start to stress, and just before I reach the zenith of my anxiety Julie will give me her list.

This year most of her birthday requests were typical. Homebaked cinnamon coffee cake was the feature item for breakfast. Parmesan tomato/basil encrusted salmon for dinner. Great, as I had salmon steaks in the freezer from Costco!

For many years her dessert choices have remained the same: a Baker’s Square French Silk pie for Mother’s Day, and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake for her birthday. Always the same, except for this birthday.

Instead of an ice cream cake from DQ she wanted a peanut butter cake, homemade and from scratch. Pressure… Her mother made her said cake for her 16th birthday. I was to use the same recipe from a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook. It was to have a peanut butter ganache filling, and fluffy homemade buttercream frosting. I started to sweat.

Dear readers, I am not afraid of the kitchen, and I am not afraid of baking. With that said, it has been years since I made a layer cake, probably decades since I made one from scratch. I wasn’t even sure what peanut butter ganache was.

Julie’s cake requests were exacting and based on the teenage memory of a cake that her mother made only once, and to celebrate her 16th birthday. I was certain that the efforts of a Food Channel chef would not compare to the sweet birthday memory of a one time only peanut butter cake filled with ganache, and delicately frosted with vanilla buttercream. I was doomed.

Desperate times call for desperate actions, and I became a man with a plan. My two teenage daughters have been bonding over baking Snickerdoodles and Matcha Green Tea Cake. What better way to show their love than to take over the cake assignment! Any effort made by them would be greatly appreciated by Julie. A new memory replacing the old. Problem solved, or so I thought.

At the 9th hour my older daughter “bailed” and my youngest turned to me for baking assistance. When your kids call, you answer. We found the cake recipe from Julie’s 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook, a frosting recipe from my 1980s edition, and a ganache recipe from Google. We were ready to go.

Off to the grocery store went Grace and I. List in hand, ready to do battle with measuring cups and spatulas. Driven by purpose, driven by fear, we moved forward.

I would like to inform you that bittersweet chocolate is not the same as Baker’s chocolate. A fact discovered late in our ganache making process… But I digress.

There was much to do. 1950s cookbooks seem to be written in a strange cypher, formatted in a pattern similar to a crossword puzzle. Find the pan size in the recipe above, the baking temperature on a different page, the ingredient list scattered among the baking instructions. We persevered. Time ticked on.

The 9” layer pans were found in basement storage. The Baker’s Secret pan release spray at the very back of the spice cabinet. Time ticked on.

The cake recipe barely covered the bottom of the cake pans. Something had to be wrong, we decided to double the recipe. Time ticked on.

Apparently, a double recipe takes significantly longer to bake than a single one. Time ticked on.

The cake started to brown, but was completely liquid in the center. I turned down the oven’s thermostat and covered the top of the pans with foil. Time ticked on.

We made the ganache, it was bitter! I called on powder sugar and made a recipe modification. Time ticked on.

The cake was finally done, but red hot. Onto a cooking rack and into the freezer it went. Time ticked on.

We decided to double the batch of frosting. Note to self, when adding powdered sugar to the Kitchenaid turn the machine’s speed control down to low. Mess and major clean up! Time ticked on.

Time to find the fancy party cake plate… ugh, it needs to be washed and dried. Time ticked on.

Why not teach Gracie my trick of keeping the cake plate clean by using waxed paper. Now where was that waxed paper? Time ticked on.

I normally go to sleep very early, as I get up before 4 AM to exercise. The cake was completed, but it was now well past 11 PM. Time ticked on.

Our project completed, we went to bed with hope that our efforts would be appreciated.

The cake was well received, and my family said it was good. I believe Julie was pleased with our efforts. I have no idea if it approximated her sugary memory, but she did have an extra big piece with a side scoop of peanut butter cup ice cream.

Despite all of our trials, Gracie and I had a lot of fun baking the cake. We worked through a variety of problems, laughed a lot, bonded over both our successes and failures, and moved forward despite our lack of knowledge. We are good at supporting each other in both our missteps and triumphs.

Today my goal is to remember that some things in life require effort, mistakes can often be corrected, and that trying to do the right thing can be as important as succeeding at doing it. My additional goal is to remember that Baker’s chocolate has no sugar, while Bittersweet chocolate does. Thank goodness for miracle that we call powdered sugar!

1950s cookbook
The cake pans didn’t look full enough.
How the heck do you make ganache?
Julie seemed pleased with our creation.
An inside view of our efforts.
Nothing says birthday cake like a side of ice cream!

Before The Parade

Before The Parade

Stores Closed.
Sidewalks empty.
The river flows.
Chairs hold their owner’s spots.
The streets are quiet in anticipation.
They wait for the parade to begin.
A street cleaner readies them.
A lone person swings in the park.
Coffee drinkers buy their morning brew.
Flowers, fields, and structures seem unconcerned.
Soon, the quiet will cease.
Drums will beat.
Children will dance.
Flags will wave.
The parade will pass.
We will celebrate and be proud.

Happy Memorial Day friends!

The Swamp

I made my purchase in 1989. My purchase being the house that I still live in. Four bedrooms, two and one-half baths. It was considered nice in the day, now deemed modest, dwarfed by the new multi-million dollar mansions just up the street.

I was drawn to my town. I knew that I wanted to live here since I was a teen. I remember traveling here in the 1970s. Then a small farming community of about 20,000, it was separated from metropolitan Chicago by miles of corn and soy. Now a far western suburb of almost 150,000, it is connected by urban sprawl. Often on top 10 lists of best place to live in the country, it was carefully planned with beautiful parks, great schools, and a charming downtown. It still draws me.

The downtown is an easy walk from my house, a walk that I take multiple times a week. Sometimes for purpose, often for ambiance. My town has a river that runs through it. It runs through my neighborhood, through my downtown, and beyond where it eventually empties into the great Illinois river.

My river has been gentrified with cobblestone paths, shepherd hooks streetlights, artistically arranged flowerbeds, and even a carillon. People travel to its Riverwalk from surrounding communities for the flowers, sculptures, restaurants… the well-crafted package.

An army of workers make sure that the paths are litter free, the flower beds are weed free, and the grassy lawns are trimmed to perfect regulation height. I love the Riverwalk, and when I walk along its prosaic paths I feel fortunate and blessed. Beautiful people, happy children, street musicians, food cart vendors. The experience is more akin to a Norman Rockwell painting fused with a Hollywood creation like Pleasantville, rather than a Chicago neo-suburb.

It is easy to get caught up in the well-planned magic. It is easy to set a high standard of expectation. It is easy to assume that by some type of osmosis I am part of this picture perfect community, part of the picture perfect beautiful people that gracefully shop in the little boutiques, dine in the fine restaurants, rejuvenate in the spas. It is easy to disconnect from the real world and to assume an artificial specialness about myself, among the herd of artificially special residents. Cohabitants synthetically elevated by their SUVs, impressive wardrobes, and high-limit credit cards.

My reality is disconnected from this fantasy. A blue-collar kid with a gift for science who pursued graduate school, then medical school. A kid who never took a psychology class as an undergrad, then exposed to the novelty and complexity of human behavior during his 3rd-year psychiatric rotation. Impressed by this complexity enough to change his plans of subspecialty internal medicine to psychiatry. My outward appearance now white-collar, my inner core still blue-collar; a core that finds excitement and wonderment from honest labor and earned dirt under my fingernails.

There are other places in my town. Places that can reconnect me to my real self, and the greater world. Places to re-educate me, to reground me. One of those places is the swamp. The swamp is along the Riverwalk, but away from the gelato shops and fusion cookery. It is in a wild area, less managed, more natural. To find the swamp you need to veer off the cobblestone paths and onto one of crushed ash. Not very far, but a world apart. A wild place dotted with fallen trees, covered with a carpet of blue-green algae and surrounded by wild flowers.

A place teeming with life. Frogs, snakes, insects that can dance on its surface without sinking. Listening, I can hear the sound of the swamp. Deep rich sounds of insects calling each other, splashes of swampy creatures, songs of birds.

The vegetation wasn’t planted. The swamp wasn’t sculpted, the fallen trees weren’t artistically placed. They just are. They make me feel alive, they fuel my soul, ignite my creativity. Most importantly, they ground me. They make realize that beauty comes in many forms. One not better than another.

How easy is it for me to judge others based on their outward appearance, their social standing, or their credit card limit. How foolish of me to do this. How grateful I am to have my swamp to visit. A place to experience a different kind of beauty. A place to appreciate the benefits of diversity, the greatness of difference. A place to understand that the world is a better place not only because of carefully architected landscapes and personas but also because of wild places and people whose outward appearance reflects who they are in earnest, rather than a holographic projection of who they want you to think they are.

Today my goal is to be grateful, yet grounded.

Sculptures adorn the Riverwalk.
Covered bridges dot the Riverwalk.
Cobblestone walkways and even a carillon.
Paddle boats on the Riverwalk.
The swamp is beautiful and wild.
Fallen branches and algae.
Flowering trees.
No artfully planted flowers in the swamp.

The Wedding

When I got the news I thought it may be an adventure, but I had some trepidation. There was the distance, the unfamiliarity, and even the concept to contend to. However, my attendance was assured. My niece Emma was getting married, I would attend. The event made sweeter by the passage of time; the last wedding on my wife’s side of the family was ours. The distance measured by 25 years, three children, and the loss of my hair.

My niece met her husband when they were both counselors at a summer camp in Michigan. A Swedish Covenant Bible camp, to be specific. She hailed from Minnesota, her husband from Michigan. Joined by a mutual heritage, they found each other among the cabins and fields in a place that they initially attended as campers, metamorphosed by time into camp counselors.

Their shared friends, experiences, and memories from that epicenter; it only made sense that they marry there.

I only attended summer camp once as a child. It was a Boys Club camp somewhere in Wisconsin. Barren uninsulated cabins, metal cots, and a community bathroom were the biases that I brought with me. My biases were wrong, as biases often are. The beautiful setting was picture perfect with clean and neat bunkhouses, grassy lawns and a sparkling lake.

We had been assigned a room in one of the cabins that was jam packed with beds. Our room was one of four in the building, which also contained two bathrooms. The camp also functions during the winter months as a retreat center, and there are comfortable spots to meet, discuss, and exercise. It even has its own coffee shop, a perfect place to purchase my early morning Americano.

It was clear that my niece had put a tremendous amount of work and planning into making her wedding memorable. Clever homemade signs, packets of information, strung lights, these were just a few of her special touches. The officiating minister had known both Emma and Luke for years, so his sermon was heartfelt and personal. The music performed by friends.

The reception was held in an all-purpose building at the local county fairgrounds. Classic in presentation with food, music, and the now ubiquitous photo booth. The music got me dancing. The dancing made me grateful that I had been jogging and going to the gym. Overall, I was able to keep up with the younger attendees, at least in endurance if not in style.

The event warmed me. I was warmed by the love that the newlyweds radiated. I was warmed by family, who traveled long distances to celebrate with my niece and her new husband. I was warmed by their friends: fellow campers, college connections, childhood besties. They all came to be part of the momentous event. I was happy to be there. Happy to witness the genesis of their marriage. Aware and happy that their union signified the passing of one generation to the next.

Weddings are happy times. Weddings are serious times. Their wedding was unique in a wonderful way. Stamped with their personalities, dusted with their experiences, and filled with their connections.

As I drove the long drive home I savored the sweet aftertaste of the event. A smile on my face as my imagination projected forward into their coming weeks, months, years, and decades.

Today I am grateful for the opportunity to be included in great events in the lives of others.

 

On Being An Introvert

The problem with placing people into broad categories is just that. It is conceptually easy to attach a label to someone, or even yourself, and allow that label to define. Often a group category has enough merit to grant this deception to occur, but it is limiting to define anything or anyone based on criteria of 5 to 10 facts.

Categorizing a person, or group of people can also have a very dark side. Negative connotations have been assigned to groups for millennia, typically in an us versus them mindset. In the land of the free, there have always been different rules for different people. Gender, race, sexual orientation, immigration status, weight, religion; these are just a few of the categories where it has been acceptable practice to attack and denigrate individuals who are different. Dear reader, it can be easy to place someone in a box, and define who they are based on that box. Remember, a box is just a container, and containers can hold many different things.

I have placed myself into categories many times. One group that I have identified with is the introvert group. Indeed, I can check off many of the canned introvert characteristics. However, I’m am more than a list of 5 to 10 elements. You can put me in a box, but to know who I really am you need to look inside that box.

I have always been comfortable being in my head.

I can get distracted easily by noise and other abrasive stimulation You may find me sitting in a dark room thinking. Thinking seems to energize me, and the process itself seems to serve as its own end. I have come up with a number of good ideas thinking, but the majority of that effort is simply done for the pleasure of the activity.

I don’t want to impose on you.

I’m not sure if this characteristic is part of my introversion, or if it reflects a childhood where I felt that I was more of a burden than a blessing. I almost always let people come to me. This is not out of conceit, rather the opposite. I would never want to take up someone’s time. When someone engages with me I am more certain that they want to make the connection. Are there exceptions to this rule? There have been very few, and I believe that those exceptions were the result of forces outside myself.

I am a loyal and true friend.

I have many acquaintances, but only a select group of deep connections. I have never needed to be the most popular kid on the block. To be clear, I have avoided such aspirations as they would compromise my integrity. With that said, when I make a friendship it will often last for decades. Ed note: I was tempted to use the phrase, “for life” in the last sentence, but that phrase would assume that I could foretell the future, a capability that I have not acquired. A great advantage of having a select group of connections is that you have more time and energy to devote to enriching those relationships. I am sure that this latter fact is one of the reasons that my friendships tend to be meaningful and tend to last.

I don’t mind small talk.

I like having light conversations, but I often have to recharge after attending a large group activity, like a party or conference. While many extroverts gain energy from many contacts, I lose energy. I recharge by getting back into my head, either by thinking or doing a solitary activity.

I think best when I am alone.

There are exceptions to this rule, and I have had many brainstorming sessions where new ideas and concepts grew with the help of others. In addition, there is a very select group of individuals who I love to think with. I feel so close to them that our thoughts seem to connect in a subconscious flow where the creation process is more akin to a Vulcan mind meld. Even with those individuals there are times when it is best for me to think alone. This is especially the case with technical problems, as I have found that I can process such exercises more quickly if I can direct all of my energy to the topic, and also allow myself to make mistakes as I acquire the solution.

I really like people.

You may want to categorize introverts as antisocial. If so, this does not apply to me. I love connecting with people, and I find them endlessly captivating. I like the fact that we are a varied species with a wide variety of interests. I’m am always learning from others. Important facts to trivial information, it is all interesting to me. I feel that it is a great privilege when someone trusts me enough to share a part of their life with me.

I like public speaking and have no fear of talking to a group of 100.

People have told me that I am a natural teacher, and it excites me when I can expose someone to a new idea or concept and have them jump on board. Giving a lecture, or teaching one-to-one has always been pleasurable.

I am never bored.

One of the benefits of being comfortable in your head is that you don’t need a lot of external activity to feel content. Thinking, taking a bike ride, walking in the woods, taking pictures, figuring out the problem of the day, these are just a few of the many activities that keep me company.

I have a child’s heart.

Small, common things make me happy. A beautiful day, a sincere hug, a new adventure. I’m not sure why my decades of existence hasn’t calloused me to such things, but I often view life with the excitement of an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. I get immense joy from simple things. I’m happy to vacation in Paris, but I’m also happy riding a bike along the lakefront.

Since I tend to be quiet I sometimes am afraid that I will easily be forgotten.

I went to the funeral of a relative who was very extroverted and popular in his community. The condolence line was so long that it extended out of the building. It is likely that hundreds of people offered their sympathy to my cousin, who was his wife. I sometimes wonder who will come to my funeral. I sometimes wonder if my presence will just fade into the ether once I am no longer providing a service to others. I believe that this fact drives me to attempt to be a positive force, no matter how small. We are all just grains of sand on an immense beach. With that said, this grain of sand wants to stop erosion, not contribute to it.

I need to constantly create and constantly learn.

I get joy from acquiring any knowledge. I get joy from taking any knowledge and turning it into something. A thought, a lecture, a photography, a video, a blog. The creation process itself is as exciting as any acknowledgment that I may gain from the end result.

Dear reader, I am more complex than the few paragraphs above. But I hope they define me outside a canned checklist found on Facebook or in “Psychology Today.” I wrote this piece with the hope that you would look beyond any person’s categorization. When I have made efforts to do so I have almost universally found that I have more in common with them than I have differences.

Today my goal is to celebrate who I am.
Today my goal is to celebrate who you are.

Even in a large group I often live in my head

 

The Walk

I didn’t go to the gym today, I walked.
It was cold, rainy, and gusty, I walked.
The umbrella snapped in the wind, I walked.
My ears were frozen, I walked.
I walked and I thought.
I thought about my day ahead and walked.
I thought about my close connections and walked.
I thought about my walk and walked.
How grateful I am to be able to walk.
How grateful I am to have wonderful people in my life.
How grateful I am to live in this beautiful city.
How grateful I am.

Walking downtown in the rain.