All posts by Dr. Mike

Baby It’s Cold Outside-The Controversy

I really can’t stay (Baby it’s cold outside)
I gotta go away (Baby it’s cold outside)
This evening has been (Been hoping that you’d dropped in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice)
My mother will start to worry (Beautiful what’s your hurry?)
My father will be pacing the floor (Listen to the fireplace roar)
So really I’d better scurry (Beautiful, please don’t hurry)
Well maybe just a half a drink more (I’ll put some records on while I pour)  From “Baby It’s Cold Outside”  by Frank Loesser in 1944


A few weeks ago I was scanning Facebook and came across a comment from my friend, Mary Jo.  She was wondering why the holiday classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was being banned by radio stations across the country.  I also wondered why. It turns out that radio disk jockey Glenn Anderson of Cleveland’s WDOK-FM listened to the lyrics of the song and found them, “Manipulative and wrong.”  

We now live in a protective bubble world.  A place where our interpretation of something trumps its actual meaning or intent. We are supposed to live politically correct lives, at least on the surface.  

I can understand how some things that we once thought were acceptable are now considered offensive.  When I was growing up, it was common to see a small statue of a black coachman at the entrance of a suburban driveway.  As I kid I didn’t think much about this, but I am a white male. Many blacks felt otherwise, and these creepy statues have long disappeared.

This is a world of extremes and absolutes.  Concepts that have merit can be neutralized by applying their intent in such a broad way that they become meaningless. #metoo brought to the world’s attention the atrocities of men in power who used that power to abuse both men and women sexually.  Bringing these practices to the forefront was both essential and necessary. However, as this hashtag caught fire, it spawned an ever-broadening set of things that offended. Dear reader, there is a big difference between masturbating in front of an unwilling underling to telling someone that you like their outfit. If this common courtesy offends the recipient, I believe that they should say to the commenter that they would prefer not to hear such things.  This empowers the individual and clearly lets the complimenter know the rules of the road for that individual.

We need to be respectful of individuals, but we also need to acknowledge that something that offends one person may actually be appreciated by another.  I am delighted on the rare occasion when someone tells me that I look nice. I make an effort to tell people (both men and women) when I think that they look nice. Conversely, I have gotten negative feedback when I have failed to notice changes. My kids will often remind me when my wife has gotten a new haircut.  Once alerted I do see the difference and I’m happy to let my wife know.

I understand that there are readers out there who will be offended by my opinion. They may cite instances where someone’s outfit comments were clearly out-of-line. I once heard a female speaker at a conference refer to her tall leather boots as, “Come f**k me boots.”  However, it is unlikely that she would appreciate it if I said to her, “Hey, I really dig your come f**k me boots!” Common sense in all things.

It is not just what is said, it is the context in which it is said.  We now converse with each other by text message, and individuals who have been raised on this type of communication have less exposure to the nuances of communication. We are no longer listeners, we are readers. How many times have you read someone’s text and wondered, “Are they being funny or serious?”

So is “Baby Its Cold Outside” an innocent flirtatious love song or a date rape anthem?  The song was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 as a call and response duet. He wrote it for his wife and himself so they could perform it when then were attending friend’s parties. “Hey honey we don’t need to bring any nacho dip, I decided to write them a hit song instead.  Good thing that we can both sing.” (not a real quote) The song was featured in the 1949 movie, “Neptune’s Daughter.” However, the version that seems to be most popular on the radio was recorded by Dean Martin in 1959 (using a chorus for the female part).

In the American culture in the 1940s-1960s, women who were more open about their sexuality were considered tramps or sluts. The ideal woman was called a “good girl.”  Chast, pure and absent of any libidinal urges until those feelings were unlocked by that special someone. Romantic communications were more indirect, and part of courting involved gentle persistence and resistance. I’m not endorsing or condemning this style, I’m just stating that was the way it was. If you are 30 or under, you may not believe me. If you are 40 and older, you know that that was the case.

You see these behaviors played out in “Baby Its Cold Outside.”  The suitor continues to suggest that his date stays longer (likely for the night).  Her main reason for not staying is not that she doesn’t want to, she is concerned what other people will think of her if she does,  “My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious… So really I’d better scurry.” She is representing the popular concept of a good girl. In that role, she is offering gentle resistance to his pleas.  She tells him how she is expected to act, while she also tells him what she is really thinking. “I ought to say no, no no, sir. At least I can say I tried.” She delays leaving a number of times in the song with lines like, “But maybe just a cigarette more,” and “But maybe just a half a drink more.”

Good girls were supposed to be sexy and sexless at the same time.  When they acted outside of this contradictory set of rules, it was expected of them to blame external influences or events. We see those mores played out in lines like, “I wish I knew how to break this spell,”  and “Say what’s in this drink?” The song ends with both parties singing in unison, “But, baby it’s cold outside!” After persuasion and resistance have played out, they are now allowed to do what they intended to do, reputations intact.

“Baby it’s cold outside.” is a fluffy little love song that was correctly understood by the audience that it was intended for. To make it into something else shows how limited we have become in our critical thinking skills.  Sadly, this lack of critical thinking extends to broader and more important issues in our lives and the world around us. It is important to understand things not only from our viewpoint and frame of reference but also from the perspective of others. Unfortunately, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes has gone from commonplace to exotic.

The video below has two version of this song.  The first one is from the movie, “Neptune’s Daughter.”  The second is the comedic Red Skeleton version. Both give you an idea of Mr. Loesser’s intent. However, the comic Red Skeleton version gives you an even clearer view of what the song was really saying by reversing gender expected roles.  Give the video a watch.

Droby Fest 2018

Saturday night, December 1, 2018, we pile into my red Ford Flex. It is cold, just above freezing. Rain is falling, and we are all chilled. I tap directions into my iPhone, and off we go to Droby Fest. At this point, you may be thinking that Droby is the name of a band, or that Droby Fest is a community event, it is neither.

A Droby is a fresh Slovak sausage. Our family’s version is made from pork, organ meats, rice, and potatoes. It is seasoned with marjoram. There seem to be many renditions of this peasant sausage. However, they all have meat and potatoes in them.

Droby sausages are not bought, they are homemade in a laborious process. As a child, I had the job of grinding ingredients. My father would clamp a meat grinder onto a tall wooden stool. A large blue speckled Granite Ware roasting pan was then placed below the mill to catch the product of my efforts. I would feed chunks of raw meat and peeled potatoes into its nickel-plated hopper, as I cranked and cranked. When making Droby, you start with a coarse grinding plate and reprocess the mixture with successively smaller plates until it is the right consistency, relatively smooth with just a little bit of chunkiness. At home, we made our mixture casserole style, right in the roasting pan. However, my grandmother made her’s the traditional way, in sausage casing.

My extended family would meet at my grandparent’s south side walk-up on Christmas Eve. Their small residence consisted of a living room, a kitchen, three very tiny bedrooms, and an unheated back porch. Clean and neat, it appeared to be a homage to the 1940s, as most of it had never been modernized. Extremely tiny by today’s standards, it was the home where my grandparents raised their 6 children.

Our festivities would start with a meatless Christmas Eve meal. After a blessing, we would dine on Oplaki (wafers with honey), Opekance (steamed bread balls with poppyseed), and my grandmother’s delicious dried mushroom/sauerkraut soup. Sweets were aplenty, and there were endless supplies of kolacky, drop cookies, and homemade yeast coffee cake. I had to sample all of them.

At 11:30 PM we would go to midnight Mass at Assumption BVM church, a small Slovak Catholic church that was a few blocks away. The church would be packed with parishioners wearing their finest clothing, which were often items that had been removed from mothballs only hours earlier. The smell of mothballs mixed with onions and garlic is a distinct, if not wanted, memory for me.

After Mass, we would return to my grandparent’s for a second feast. My teetotaling aunts might sip on a glass of sweet Mogen David wine, getting a little silly in the process., My father and his brothers would do shots of whiskey, and become more boisterous. We kids would talk, play made up games, and continue to eat sweets. It was then time to eat again, although everyone was still completely full. I don’t recall everything that the second meal consisted of, but I do remember my grandmother’s light rye bread, baked ham, hard-boiled eggs, and Droby. Her bacon wrapped Droby sausage was baked until the casing was deliciously crisp. Yummy!

My grandparents died, and over the years our families grew apart. I recall going to many extended family parties as a kid, but very few by the time that I was in high school. With the loss of get-togethers came the loss of ethnic foods. I tried to make a dish here and there, but I had neither the time nor the skill to move past the most basic recipes.

And then there was a funeral…

When families drift, it isn’t uncommon to only re-connect at funerals and weddings. Such was the case of my extended family. At my Aunt Suzie’s funeral, my sister Nancy struck up a conversation with my cousin Ken. During that conversation, it was suggested that the family have a reunion picnic. At that picnic, it was determined that we needed other opportunities to reconnect, and a variety of get-togethers were eventually created. We now get together a number of times during the year. My cousins Ken and Kris are our family organizers. Their dedication to the Kuna cause is steadfast, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

Droby Fest is our cousin Christmas party, and it is held in the community room of the small Lutheran church where my cousin Bob attends. The building is tucked away on a side street in a quiet neighborhood in Palatine. It appears to have been built in the 1960s, and I would describe its architecture as functional.

The room where we meet is a large, bright rectangle. The walls, a utilitarian blue, the floor basic linoleum tiles. At the far end of the room is a large painting of Jesus with outstretched arms, floating on a cloud. Long folding tables stand in rows, each dotted with folding chairs. Seating is not assigned.

When you enter Droby Fest, you can feel the energy of the crowd. People mill around to connect with each other in a fashion that appears both random and purposeful at the same time. Smiles are everywhere.

As with my grandparent’s parties, food is at center stage. A long row of tables on one wall serves as the buffet bar for the main meal. Another table on an opposite wall serves as the dessert bar.

Everyone brings food, some homemade, some ethnic, some store-bought; it really doesn’t matter. This year the offerings ranged from Slovak chicken paprikash with haluski dumplings, to meatless Shepherd’s Pie for the vegetarians, to gluten-free perogies for those with gluten intolerance. There was something for everyone. My cousin Ken always makes Droby sausage in enough quantity to feed a small army.

The dessert bar is enormous and offers up a wide variety of store bought and homemade sweets. I no longer eat concentrated forms of sugar, so I drool as others sample a little bit of this or that. Alcohol is available, but only a few imbibe, and those that do seem to limit their consumption. This is a far cry from my father and my uncles drinking whiskey shots from the days of yore.

There is no rigid format at Droby Fest. Attend if you can, if you can’t, you will be missed. Talk to whoever you choose. Do whatever you want. Guilt and shame are off limits. We have long transcended peacocking. Victories are celebrated, losses are comforted. There are handshakes, smiles, and hugs.

I am proud of my extended family. Our grandparents arrived from Europe with nothing. Our parents were blue collar workers who wanted more for their children. My generation is highly educated and professional. America really is the land of opportunity!

Droby Fest now extends to three Kuna generations. My kids have tasted Slovak food, and they enjoy it. This Thursday I’ll cook Chicken Paprikash and Haluski with my son Will. He tried this dish at Droby Fest, and he was interested in learning how to make it. Our heritage lives on.

My cousins are kind, generous, interesting, and smart. What a privilege it is to spend time with them. How proud I am to be part of the Kuna family.

Next year we will celebrate 20 years of Droby Fest. We are no longer drifting apart.

Food, the heart of any gathering involving
Eastern Europeans.
Just some of the desserts.
Older connecting with younger.
A new generation of Droby eaters.
Julie, Will and me.
Family
Cousin Bob makes 60 loves of cinnamon bread by hand!
Getting ready to say grace.
Family gathering together.

Thoughts On Christmas Presents

The questions start in November and continue well into December. “What do you want for Christmas?” A query posed to my kids, to my wife, and to me.

When I was a child, this was an easy question to answer. I had very little and had many wants. Unfortunately, family finances were limited growing up, and receiving my desired gift was in no way a certainty.

We opened presents after dinner on Christmas day. This time was chosen so we could include my two maiden aunts, who ate Christmas dinner with us. Most of my friends opened their gifts on Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning, and waiting until 7 PM on Christmas Day seemed like a cruel eternity. This delay also heightened my anticipation for what I could possibly receive.

One Christmas I asked for a radio. That year my mother decided to wrap presents early, and she used a “secret” code to identify the gift recipients in an effort to prevent prying eyes. Unfortunately, she forgot the system by Christmas and had to use other, less than perfect, identifying skills.

She handed me my present and I took it with great anticipation. The size of the box was right, the weight of the box was within specs. I was very excited. I opened my present and burst into a, ”Thank you, thank you,” cry. Under the wrappers was a box that contained a Motorola AM table radio. I wanted something a little more sophisticated, but I was overjoyed getting this approximation. I looked at my mom and saw a disturbed look on her face. “Michael, that radio is not for you. It is for your brother, Tom.” I handed it over to him. There was no radio for me that Christmas.

During my post-divorce/pre-remarried period it was common for me to get little or nothing at Christmas. Yes, there were those times when I was dating someone, and we would exchange gifts, but there were other times when I was “single” and alone. I no longer had the desperate wants of childhood, but I still felt sorry for myself.

I have been re-married for many years, and with this union, I am assured to receive Christmas presents. Early in our relationship, we would shower each other with extravagant gifts. When we had kids we scaled back on our gifts, putting more effort into their presents. Over time, we also scaled back on those gifts.

Gone are the days when Christmas morning meant getting a pair of desperately needed shoes, or a new winter coat. We buy things as required year round. If my kid’s phone goes down I don’t expect them to wait 6 months to get a new one.

Every year my wife and I talk about scaling back further on our purchases, and we have had some success in that endeavor. Yet, we still can buy each other gifts that are forgotten as soon as, “Thank you,” leaves our lips.

This is possibly the point in the post where you may think that I’m going to say that in a moral cleansing effort I have decided to donate all of my gift money to charity. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the case.

We do give to charities, and we also participate in a gift mart where we buy gifts for kids less fortunate than ours, but we still plan on buying gifts for our kids and each other.

After many years of not having anything to open on Christmas day, I want a present or two. It symbolizes to me that someone cares enough about me to make an effort to do something for me. In fact, we encourage our kids to give gifts, not only to their friends and siblings but also to us. It is vital for them to learn that their lives should be more about what they can do for others, rather than what stuff that they can get for themselves.

Through the years I have received many cherished gifts from my children. A red marble from William sits on the desk in my study, a piece of homemade pottery from Kathryn adorns my Rockford office, and a decorated flower pot from Grace serves as my pen and pencil holder at the Ware Center.

Back to the question that I posed in the first paragraph of this post. Since we have few wants, it can be challenging to find a gift that is meaningful to its intended recipient. It has also been vital for us to acknowledge that we are individuals, and we need to be respectful of each other’s desires.

A few years back my wife felt that as a family we should give each other experiences instead of gifts. That sounds great, but the kids and I wanted things to open on Christmas. A favorite gift for me is the gift of time. In other words, taking over one of my household chores for one or two cycles. This kind of gift would be meaningless to my kids, but they, in turn, would appreciate homemade cookies made by one of their siblings. What I’m saying is that it is important to include everyone’s feelings when making a global decision about holiday gift giving. You may think that donating the family’s gift money to charity and spending Christmas Day dishing out food at a local shelter is a fantastic idea. However, your spouse and kids may feel differently. Consideration in everything.

I do feel that gift giving has gotten out-of-control in many families. It makes no sense to go into debt to buy things that you absolutely don’t need. At the same time gift giving is a national tradition during the holiday season. The secret to success is a balanced approach and a doable budget. This balance/budget idea should be extended beyond our immediate families. I have talked to many a patient who was sick with financial worry after buying expensive gifts for relatives because “It was expected.” A frank discussion at Thanksgiving can preserve both your mental health and credit rating. Most extended families are grateful to move from debt spending to a simpler and cheaper option, such as a grab bag or white elephant gift exchange.

As I have already said, few people remember the gifts that they receive a month after getting them. However, most will remember time spent together. Having a happy and low-stress holiday returns the true spirit of that day. Imagine opening up your January credit card statement with relief, instead of dread.

So what did I asked for Christmas this year? I requested a good wool blanket for my campervan’s bed. A quality blanket is something that I would not likely purchase on my own, but once owned I would gratefully use it for years to come. It is lovely to be remembered at Christmas, and it is terrific to be toasty warm when camping on a frigid morning.

A snowy winter.
Christmas tree near downtown.
Christmas lights downtown.

Thanksgiving Day

I started doing it 25 years ago, as a request from my wife. I initially took on the job out of brash self-confidence, but it now has become an annual tradition. The job? Roasting the Thanksgiving turkey.

I woke up at 6 AM on Thanksgiving Day. A late morning for me as I’m usually up by 4 AM. I went to bed the night before at my usual time, but I was quickly joined by my wife, and minutes later three of my kids appeared at my bedside. Two of them had been away at college, and there was still a need to connect and catch up. Even Mercury, the cat, made her way to our bedroom. The conversation delayed my sleep, which in turn stalled my wake time.

I took my walk downtown but didn’t stop for coffee as I had things to do. Back home I plugged in our 25-year-old Nesco electric roaster and preheated it to 400 degrees F (205 C). I went out to the garage, which was serving as a temporary refrigerator on this frigid morning. We had brined our 18-pound turkey overnight in a slurry of herbs, salt, and water. I now had the task of draining off the water without spilling it all over the floor. Drained, rinsed, patted dry, it was now time for the turkey to get a butter bath in preparation for its roasting.

The remainder of the morning consisted of a familiar pattern of cooking, directing helpers, and cleaning up one task before starting the next one. Daughter Kathryn, Grandma Nelson, and Aunt Kathy peeled a mountain of potatoes, Julie ran back and forth serving many roles, Will and Grace helped set the tables, Aunt Amy did finishing touches. Together we were a team with a clear goal to get dinner on the table by 2 PM. There was no sitting down for me from the start of cooking to the saying of grace.

We have made the same dishes for Thanksgiving every year for the over 25 years that we have been preparing this dinner for Julie’s side the family. It is a celebration of starchy, high-fat foods, punctuated by sugary desserts.

Turkey, dressing, whipped potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn casserole, green bean casserole, gravy, cranberries, herring, jello salad, rolls/butter, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie… and I am likely forgetting something. Thanksgiving dinner is not for the faint of heart, it is a calorie bomb designed to put any eater into a prolonged food coma.

This year our dinner was smaller, with only 15 attendees. Our nephew was in Rome. Two nieces and their spouses, my brother-in-law, and sister-in-law were elsewhere. At grace, we acknowledged and prayed for all of them.

We have long used a buffet style of serving the meal, always starting the food line with my wife’s parents and ending with Julie and me. Our wedding china makes its yearly appearance, as does various other serving dishes, some are antique depression glass, others simple 9 x 13 Pyrex dishes.

It is almost a requirement to try each food. Many of them are doused with a coating of gravy, and the resulting meal resembles a stew rather than a variety of separate dishes. Diving into all those carbs can be heavenly, but after the plate’s half-way point, the food becomes a potent sedative. Despite meal participant’s acknowledgment that they are bursting at the seams, most opt for dessert.

Conversation is lively during dinner, we catch up on each other’s lives. I have noticed a lack of political discourse over the last few years. A wise move as guest’s beliefs range from conservative to liberal. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever changed their political view during Thanksgiving dinner.

Every year we go around the table stating what we are thankful for. A beautiful affirmation of the blessing that we all are given. One thing that I’m grateful for is that some of the guests usually pitch in during cleanup duty. Despite my efforts to “clean as I go” there are still mounds of items after feeding so many people. The serving dishes alone fill the dishwasher.

Dinner tasks completed, exhaustion sets in. This year I gave myself 30 minutes to lie down to rest and digest my food. Post nap, Julie and I elected to go on a walk, and we were joined by family and guests as we meandered on the Riverwalk to downtown. The holiday lights were lit making our journey Christmas festive.

The rest of the evening was filled with TV sports, conversation, and games. At the end of the day, I asked Julie, “Do you think the food was good?” She replied, “It was great!” For some reason this affirmation of my cooking allowed me to relax and fall asleep.

Many of our guests are from out of town. They arrive on Wednesday and leave on Saturday. However, those additional meals are easy in comparison to Thanksgiving dinner.

Friday and Saturday fly by and before I know it our last guest has left. Another Thanksgiving concluded.

Why is it that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday? Despite the looming specter of Black Friday, Thanksgiving has remained a non-commercialized event. It centers on spending time with people you care about and sharing a meal with them. I cherish each aspect of the day, from the morning conversation to the after-dinner walk, to the post-meal activities. Thanksgiving is a celebration of connection and a time to reflect on those things that we are grateful for.

We live in a society of want. We feel deprived because we have last year’s computer, or that we are wearing last season’s color. As I write this, I’m sitting in a warm house, and I’m sipping on a nice cup of tea. In the next room, I can hear Julie talking to a friend from New York on the phone. Son, William, is playing a video game. Both of my college-age daughters have texted me that they have safely returned to their respective schools. My oldest daughter and her family are back at their home in central Illinois. Life is good.

I always feel happy at Thanksgiving. I know that this is due, in part, to the fact that I am focused on gratitude rather than dissatisfaction. I don’t need to eat a starch laden turkey dinner every day, but I do want to be thankful daily. I want to celebrate my life, and I want to focus on my “haves” rather than my “have-nots.” Dear reader, please join me and celebrate your daily thanks.

Carving the turkey.
Family help in setting the table.
Time to catch up!
A walk downtown.

Simple, Complex Dr. Mike

At 6:20 PM I exited the house and pulled myself up and into my freezing Ram Promaster campervan. I switched on the ignition and started my drive to Panera Bread on the other side of town. It took me about 15 minutes, and the van was still cold when I arrived. Once inside I used the restaurant’s kiosk to order a diet coke and a bowl of squash soup. The restaurant was busier than usual, and my favorite booth was already in use. I sat at a corner table instead. My sister Nancy arrived, and we sat, talked, and ate. This was our weekly creativity night. A time to catch up on each other’s lives and to focus on our writing.

The meeting concluded, and it was time to come up with a writing topic for the next week. I was dry of ideas. Nancy thought of a few for me, but none of them rang true. We Googled “interesting writing topics,” but the suggestions seemed trite, and not very interesting.

With a shortage of ideas, I decided to fall back on me, and the odd way that I approach life. I’ll call this piece “Simple, Complex Mike.”

I’m one of those obsessive people, who really enjoys his obsessiveness. I tend to become interested in something which then starts a sequence of events of learning, experimenting, and doing. This sequence can vary depending on the circumstance, but it is consistent enough to identify it as a pattern.

You may think that this “scientific” approach to life was developed when I was a microbiologist (Ed note: I was a scientist before I became a medical doctor), but it has been with me since birth. My wife, being a conservative Swede, didn’t understand this aspect of my personality and for many years and it was a source of endless frustration for her. I become obsessively interested in a topic, and part of that interest involves comparing things to understand their similarities and differences. I have multiple cameras because I like to explore their pros and cons. I know many ways to make a pie crust. I am comfortable using a variety of computer operating systems. The list goes on.

In most cases, I discover that similarities exceed differences in any given area of interest. A fact that I also find interesting. I have a small room in my basement full of various objects because of this comparison obsession. Julie has gone from complaining about my “junk” to merely shaking her head. This is one of the great things about knowing someone for decades, you start to accept the person for who they are instead of trying to change them into something that you think that they should be.

I see these same behaviors in my siblings, although they are expressed differently. We are all just a little bit crazy but in a harmless way. It must be a genetic thing.

My recent obsessive “energy” has been spent on my van to campervan conversion; its actual construction almost complete. One of the final stages is to convert the open space under the platform bed into a more usable storage area. I had some ideas about this, and I asked my friend, Tom, for his construction expertise. Tom, being a creative guy and general contractor, developed a grander and more comprehensive vision, and my garage is now filled with plywood slabs that are waiting for the next phase of construction. He is currently working 7 days a week, to completes a major project, and I am especially grateful for any bit of time that he can find to help me. However, since he is often busy I now have time to think about other things. I always have a “Plan B” at the ready. In this case, my brain has switched from storage construction to van kitchen completion.

I have been camping all of my life and have owned travel trailers. Based on this it should be easy for me to come up with a simple cooking system for the van. However, that is not how my brain works. In my mind, this is an opportunity to learn more about cooking systems and methods. I’m sure that some of you are shaking your heads and muttering, “Dr. Mike you have too much free time on your hands.” This may be the case, but I have always approached life this way, even when I was working 80 hours per week.

The question at hand: Can I use free solar energy to cook my food? This question has pushed me to learn about solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, amp hours, efficient appliances, and so on. You may be thinking, “Just get a camp stove and be done with it!.” That is a good suggestion, and it may be my eventual decision. However, my brain exercise is as much about learning as it is about implementation. It is exciting for me to acquire new knowledge and to pass on that knowledge on. In this case, I’ll probably produce a video to help other new campervan builders.

You would be right in surmising that many simple issues turn into complex problems for me because of this. That is true and OK by me, as solving problems is one of my favorite activities. You may also be confused by the fact that I’m building out a very simple campervan. A place of simplicity that is spare when it comes to material objects. Welcome to Dr. Mike’s bipolar world. I have these two very different sides. One pole creates complexity when it isn’t necessary. The other pole pushes for simplicity and eschews complexity. You may think that these converse positions pull me apart, but in reality, I’m quite comfortable with this duality.

Simplicity is the counterpoint of my self-imposed complexity. An emotional island to travel to for some mental R and R.

My van is simple, its contents are spare. The interior of my Promaster is considerably smaller than the square footage of my master bathroom. I have 2 pots, and I pan. One sleeping bag and an extra blanket. A few basic tools. Yet, it is enough. It is enough because my needs change when I’m vandwelling. My life becomes simple, and make do with what I have. When I camp I never feel deprived, instead I feel blessed. My behavior calms. I slow down. I savor simple meals and simple pleasures. Nature gives me peace.

As humans, we tend to categorize the people around us quickly. It is so easy to judge someone by their appearance, demeanor, or vocabulary. We put individuals in slots that determine not only what we think of them, but also how we treat them. Have you ever given someone you initially rejected a “second look” only to find a remarkable and faithful friend? Conversely, have you been dazzled by someone only to discover that they were empty, self-centered, and self-serving?

We are all complex and simple at the same time. The way that we express these poles vary from individual to individual. However, if you insist on judging a book by its cover, you will likely deprive yourself of many wonderful relational adventures.

I am fortunate to have the title of doctor. Those six letters instantly give me a level of status and acceptance. This is in contrast to young Michael, the kid with one pair of pants who had to sleep on the back porch. However, Doctor Mike and little Michael are the same. My drive to learn is the same. My caring for others is the same. My quirky personality is the same. How is it then that people treat me so differently just because of a title?

I believe that we need to not only accept others for who they are, but we also need to love them for who they are. Does someone have a different political belief than you? Are they a different race? Do they have a different sexual orientation? Are you judging them because of these things? If so, you are depriving yourself. You are demonstrating your limitations, rather than theirs.

I spend my time comparing and contrasting things, and in the end, I almost always discover that those things that I compare are more similar than different. Similarities are necessary for continuity, but in differences, I find new ideas and more creative ways to think. Similarities may make me comfortable, but differences make me grow.

Let’s celebrate our similarities and differences. I ask you to love me based on who I am. In turn, I will do the same to you.

Peace

My campervan’s very simple interior.
Best friend, Tom and a garage full of plywood.
The initial box that will eventually be partitioned into useable storage space.
Experiment: Can I successfully cook chicken using a 12-volt battery?
Experiment conclusion: Yes!
Experiment: Can I make a complex meal using a simple rice cooker?
Answer: Yes!

 

Lessons From A Simple Average Day

Stumbling downstairs I greeted Mercury, our jet black cat. She meowed an acknowledgment and followed me into the kitchen. Her affection a guise for her true motives, the acquisition of a treat. Her goal met, she looked up at me in a thank you glance and sauntered off to perch herself on top of her favorite comfy chair.

Sticking a K-Cup into my Bunn single serve coffee pot I pressed the brew button. Hot brown liquid squirted into my Smoky Mountains earthenware mug. With each sip, I became more alert and focused.

Grabbing my old brown leather messenger bag I shoved my MacBook into it. I knew that I would not be seeing my friend, Tom, for coffee, and for an alternative activity, I stuffed several articles on Medicare into the bag’s back compartment. I have to admit that I had been avoiding reading these articles, as the fear of making a catastrophic health insurance mistake had immobilized me. However, it was time to take my head out of the sand and move forward.

Heading out the door I was instantly smacked in the face by a blast of cold, wet air. I glanced up to the streetlight in front of my house to see a fine mist silhouetted against its bright backdrop. For an instant, I thought about returning for an umbrella, but the mist looked light, and my red Columbia jacket has a weatherproof hood. As I walked the mist turned to rain. I continued to move forward.

Greeted by a friendly, “Hello,” I entered Starbucks and ambulated to the counter to order a Tall, Veranda. It was then time to coordinate my Medicare articles with their corresponding websites. One YouTube video offered a fee Medicare guide, and I signed up for it, an action that I regret, as their salesforce called me at least a dozen times.

It was election day, and I determined that I would walk to my polling place from Starbucks. Unfortunately, the rain had increased in ferocity. My jacket had reached its saturation point, and the dampness now enveloped me.

At the polling place, an unknown elderly lady election judge recognized me. “You are Doctor Kuna! You delivered my Mary! She announced this to several other officials around her. I could not place her, but I surmised that I possibly treated her in the distant past. I smiled and quickly moved away as I didn’t want to get into a conversation that would reveal that I was a psychiatrist, not an obstetrician. Her private life was hers to keep.

Back home, I contemplated taking a hot shower but elected to drip dry instead. On the computer, I watched a few videos from Dale Calder, a retired man from New Brunswick. I stumbled on his videos by accident, and find his slow and deliberate style peaceful and engaging. He often records his videos from a tiny micro cabin and chats with his viewers while he makes comforting meals on a wood stove. He has a quality about him that makes me feel like he has invited me into his cabin for a cup of tea and quiet conversation. I value his Zen-like “appreciate the moment” way of living.

Watching his videos inspired me to explore camping cooking, and I pulled out my little butane stove, the one that I bought at H-Mart over a decade ago. I then assembled my 20-year-old Coleman camp oven. If Dale could make shortbread on a wood stove, certainly I could do more than warm up a can of soup on my little burner.

I elected to make breakfast and decided on blueberry pancakes, as I had a small clutch of dehydrated berries left from a previous camping adventure. Flour, egg, baking powder, salt, milk, melted butter, each item was measured then mixed in a big red melamine bowl. Last went in the blueberries, and my yellow slurry instantly turned a bright purple.

I lit the butane stove and placed on it my 10” GSR camping fry pan. If I was going to do camping cooking, I was going to use camping equipment! I heated oil until it popped with a test drop of water and then poured in three pancakes. I only made a small amount of batter, and the job was quickly completed in two runs. A pat of butter, a smear of sugar-free apricot preserves, and a squirt of sugar-free syrup, breakfast was served.

Encouraged by my success, I placed the Coleman oven on top of the stove and lit the fire. I mixed another batch of batter, this time for sugar-free muffins. Fingers crossed, I set the muffin tin into the Coleman.

As my muffins baked, I searched the basement for my GoPro video camera. I located it and contemplated how I might use it in a “Saving Savvy’ video that I was thinking of making. The muffins continued to bake as I searched for my tripod and audio recorder. My nose informed me that they were done. Success, and a perfect complement for the vegetarian lentil soup that I was planning for lunch!

Guilt overtook me as I looked out at my front lawn, which was covered with a thick carpet of leaves. My next door neighbor has a meticulously kept lawn, and the wind was blowing my leaves onto his grass. I really despise raking leaves, and so I decided to turn my task into an experiment. Learning something new always makes a dull job more interesting. The question: “What is the best gadget to remove leaves, rake, blower, or lawn mower?” Each section of the lawn was tackled by a different method. The result: Mowing was the fastest, while raking gave the best overall results. I knew that this was no great discovery, but it kept me at the task, and I finished the job.

A few more random jobs ebbed away the rest of the afternoon. Will returned home from school, followed by Julie coming from work. I sat with them as they supped on a dinner of leftovers: spaghetti, bits of turkey breast, and reheated crescent rolls. I nibbled on some of the turkey but deliberately avoided a full meal as I was having dinner with my sister later in the evening.

At 6:45 I hopped into the Promaster and drove 15 minutes to Panera Bread. Nancy had already arrived, and I sat down across from her as I waited for my order of squash soup. It eventually came, and I sipped it while I caught up with the news of her family. I have been meeting with my sister every Tuesday night for the last few months. We are both writers, and our meeting’s purpose is to mutually support each other as we try to improve our writing skills. Beyond this function, it is wonderful to regularly meet with Nancy, as we genuinely enjoy each others company.

By 8:30 our meeting had concluded, and it was time to head back home and to the pleasure of a long, and scorching hot shower. Julie and I chatted a bit, and the day concluded.

All in all, a wonderfully average day.

Dear reader, you may be asking why I am writing about my day. There are several reasons. The first is that I am ever trying to appreciate being in the here and now. The day that I described above is never to be repeated. To dismiss it would be a negation of 24 hours of my life. Although typical, the day was filled with learning new things, experiencing new things, connecting with others, and doing productive work. How often have I ignored such days, as I focused on vacations and other spectacular outlying experiences?

I am making an earnest effort to celebrate each event and every connection. I am getting better at this effort. This improvement was not caused by a significant life event; instead, it was seeded by the ticking of time. When I semi-retired in January, I felt an urgent need to do the next big thing. Over the last 11 months, I have come to realize that life isn’t about the big stuff, it is about all things. Happiness can be found by appreciating and savoring every experience. Making breakfast becomes an adventure, raking leaves an experiment, meeting with my sister a growth experience, taking a hot shower a pampered luxury. Everything has significance. It is crucial for me to focus on this truth, instead of discounting a typical day as just something to get through.

I am uncertain if my writing and photography will ever reach a broader audience. However, it gives me pleasure to think that you have taken the time to travel on this journey with me. Along the way, I hope that you will also open your eyes and your heart to all of the experiences that you are given on a daily basis. One step in front of the other, moving forward together, not alone.

Peace.

Feeling proud (and damp) after voting.
Camper blueberry pancakes with sugar-free preserves.
My 20-year-old Coleman oven seated on my camp stove.
Yummy sugar-free muffins, camper style.

Chinese Halloween

I grew up in the 1960s, and at that time Halloween was a minor holiday celebrated by young children. My costumes were usually homemade and pieced together from existing house items. A favorite resource was our kitchen closet, which was never pruned of its contents and therefore it was a treasure trove of costume building materials.

I would often adopt the persona of a hobo. I would find a worn flannel shirt and a beat up fedora in the closet and paint on a pseudo-beard with a piece of burnt cork.

Costumed, it was then time to meet my best friend, John, for our trick-or-treating adventure. Our goal was to get as much candy as possible, with our journey ending when the street lights came on. Once home I would pour out my bag’s contents onto the living room carpet and start my sort. If I had gone to enough houses, there would always be a few full-sized candy bars, and these would be my most prized finds. I was guaranteed to have a lot of mini-candy bars and other cellophaned sweets. Naturally, I would have random Many Janes or peanut butter kisses, so disliked by me as they were usually rock hard and inedible. And then there were the items that would make a direct trip to the garbage can: apples, homemade popcorn balls, loose candy corn. These items were considered dangerous as some maniac could possibly alter them with razor blades or injected rat poison. This urban myth fueled by the annual TV news story of kids having their candy x-rayed at a local hospital for pins, razors, and shards of glass. As far as I know none of the above were ever found, but I wasn’t going to die by biting into a poison apple, and so I willingly tossed all suspicious items.

Sorting done, it was now time for hiding. Seven of us lived in our small Chicago bungalow, and hiding spaces were scarce. Despite my efforts, it wasn’t uncommon to find the best candy treasures missing by the next morning, stolen by my older brothers. With limited recourse, the only option was to move on and focus on the next big holiday, Thanksgiving.

My Halloween adventures abruptly stopped in the 5th grade when a crabby lady loudly shamed my friend John and me for being, “Too old to trick-or-treat.” It was time to move on.

For many years Halloween was insignificant. I would attend an occasional Halloween party, but that was about it. This latter fact changed when I started to date my wife, Julie. Together we experienced what we now refer to as the Chinese take-out incident.

Twenty-seven years ago Julie came over to my house on Halloween, and we decided to order Chinese carryout for dinner. I had in my possession a giant magnum of very high-quality champagne. It had been gifted to me by a friend the prior Christmas. I have to confess that I know little about champagne and that I’m a pretty lightweight drinker. However, I knew that champagne does not improve with age, and so I decided to uncork it for our Halloween feast.

We sat at the kitchen table noshing on Mongolian Beef and potstickers while we drank the champagne, served up in paper cups. I couldn’t detect much alcohol in the beverage which tasted a bit like apple cider, and I kept on pouring out drinks because I knew that its fizzy goodness would be gone by the next day. No sense wasting it!

Every 30 seconds the doorbell would ring. Initially, Julie or I would go to the door. However, in short order, we were both rushing to the door to hand out candy. With each paper cup of champagne, our food seemed more delicious, our conversation more fascinating, and the costumes more amazing. Who knew that Halloween could be so much fun! Unfortunately, the joy faded and was replaced by headaches and significant malaise. That evening I learned that champagne and carbonated apple juice are two very different things.

Years passed, we married and had children. It was time for new traditions. When my kids were younger, there were the requisite trips to Bengston’s Pumpkin Farm, which seemed to get even more commercial and expensive with each passing year. Then there was pumpkin carving day. Each of our kids would tell me what kind of face that they wanted on their pumpkin and I would do my best to create it. In the early days, I did all of the carvings, but each child was expected to eviscerate the slimy innards from their respective fruit. I always seemed to carve just a day or two too early, and by Halloween, our masterpieces were gooey messes.

My kids made mostly homemade costumes, not by need, but by choice. Sometimes they would dig through our box of dress-up clothes, at other times we would go searching the Halloween store for the right wig or grease paint. I recall one Halloween when I was covered with red spray paint, the result of the Lego costume that I made for Will. One of my favorite memories is walking with my kids as they went door to door. Although I stayed on the sidewalk, I was still able to relive my own Halloweens from days gone by.

Just like me, they would pour their bounty on the living room floor and sort. The girls were especially happy with this protocol, as William didn’t eat chocolate. In addition, he was the youngest. Four mini Snickers for a single Twizzler? Will was delighted to make the trade. Where I came from a “want” model, my kids live in a “plenty” one. Their candy would sit on the floor for days until I would set a strict limit. I have to say that my anger was tempered by their generous gifts of Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, two of my favorite candies.

As I write this my oldest daughter has a family of her own, the next two are in college, and my William is almost 18. This year there was no Pumpkin Patch, no Carving Day, No costume creation, no Halloween walk, and indeed no champagne.

Instead, we sat around the kitchen table eating Chinese carry-out, having fascinating conversation, and running to the door to see the kids dressed up in their amazing Halloween costumes. Some traditions come, some traditions go, but it seems like Chinese Halloween is here to stay.

The kids were expected to eviscerate the fruit’s innards.
Grace as a grape

 

Kathryn as a doctor, Grace as a cat
Will as Santa. His friend James as a mushroom.
Yes, we did have Chinese carry-out this year

The Highly Selective College Myth And The Terrible Student Loan Crisis

For my 50th birthday, I gifted myself with a real doctor’s car, a Mercedes. When I pulled out of the dealer’s lot, I felt like I was the king of the world. After a month of driving my new car, I realized that it was just another box on wheels.
_______________

The house lights dimmed and my eyes focused on the panel of experts sitting at a long table. The host introduced each member, starting with the representative from our local community college, and ending with a counselor from the University of Chicago. She represented all of the “highly selective colleges.” It appeared that the panel members were positioned in a classic good, better, and best order.

You may be wondering what a highly selective college is. A selective college is one that accepts less than half of its applicants, and a highly selective college is a college that accepts less than one-third of its applicants. I attempted to determine who coined the selective and highly selective terms, but I was unsuccessful. However, these names have the ring of a good advertising campaign slogan.

A school can become a selective or highly selective simply by refusing more applicants. The Washington Post in an October 2017 article listed some of the ways that colleges become selective and highly selective. One way is to buy the list of names of individuals who have taken the ACT and SAT college admission tests, and to then market your school directly to those students, even when your college has no intention of ever accepting them. This not only reduces the percentage of individuals accepted, but it also provides revenues to the college via application fees. A second technique is to use multiple applications cycles, like early decision.

As an example, Vanderbilt University filled 54% of its freshman positions via early decision rounds. In other words, only 46% of first-year slots were available for the majority of the applicants, thereby reducing the percentage of students accepted. It is unlikely that applicants accepted by early decision will be offered merit scholarships, as they have agreed to a binding commitment to attend. The college has them and doesn’t have to worry about the student getting a better offer elsewhere. This makes it more likely that a higher percentage of these students will come from affluent families who can afford to pay full tuition.

You may hear statistics that promote the benefits of attending a highly selective school. In a 2010 article, the New York Times cited a study from the RAND corporation that showed strong evidence that graduates from highly selective colleges did very well. The study looked at participants who had graduated ten years prior and found that individuals who attended highly selective colleges made 40% more income than individuals who graduated from the least selective colleges. On face value, it would seem that highly selective colleges possess some “secret sauce” for success. However, isolated statistics rarely tell the full story. Students from highly selective colleges are often very motivated and enter college as excellent scholars. In addition, they can be more affluent and thereby have greater social and business connections. Graduates for the least selective colleges can be at the opposite end of the success spectrum.

A 2017 Atlantic article revealed that when students with similar SAT scores were compared there wasn’t a significant difference in overall earning between highly selective and less selective colleges. Factors that have a more direct impact on someone’s earning potential include the type of degree (engineering vs. social work) and the individual’s drive, talent, social skills, and motivation.

You may also have heard that 30 of the top 100 CEOs from fortune 500 companies come from Ivy League schools. This sounds impressive, but note that 70 of the top 100 CEOs did not. And let’s not even talk about university dropouts like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Do graduates from highly selective colleges have higher job satisfaction? A Journal of Labor Research article states the opposite. Highly selective college graduates were less satisfied with their job than individuals from less selective schools.

The subgroups that did seem to show a positive financial benefit from attending a highly selective college included individuals whose parents did not have a college degree, as well as blacks and Hispanics. The article speculated that these students benefited from the networking and connections that they made at their universities.

Highly selective colleges are typically more costly than other schools. Harvard’s 2015 average annual cost for a student was $64,400.00, compared to $24.673.00 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Both schools offer excellent educations, but a year at Harvard is almost three times as expensive. Many universities offer some financial need aid, but highly selective colleges typically do not provide academic merit scholarships.

The pressure to get into a highly selective school can be enormous and can be both internally and externally generated. I have known students who felt that they would be a failure if they didn’t get into the highly selective school of their choice. Parents sometimes use their child’s college acceptance as a personal point of pride, as well as a license to brag. High schools loudly celebrate when one of their students is accepted into a highly selective school. Parents talk about giving their kids the “college experience” as if going to an institution of higher learning was akin to a ride at Disney World. All of these factors contribute to the myth that a degree from such an institution is magical, which it is not. In my work life, i have talked to parents plagued with guilt because they didn’t have the resources to send their child to the school of his/her choice. It should be noted that the student’s choice often had little to do with academic reasons and more to do with setting, and social life.

A 2018 Forbes article headlined that the price of college is increasing almost eight times faster than wages. A 2012 report from the Huffington Post cited that the cost of a college degree has increased 1120% over the last thirty years. These numbers apply to all colleges, but highly selective institutions (as stated above) are the tuition leaders. There are many factors for these outrageous increases. However, a significant factor has been the increase in “easy money.” Students can take out almost unlimited secured and unsecured student loans, as can their parents (Parent Plus loans). This surplus of cash has allowed colleges and universities to raise their tuition and fees to unprecedented levels.

College loans have become big business, and lending benefits both schools and loan institutions. Sallie Mae was under the control of the government, but in the 1990s a private lender bought the Sallie Mae name for five million dollars. The new private Sallie Mae has been reported for unethical practices, but many parents associate the name with secured government loans and assume that their child will be treated reasonably and fairly.

Student loan debt is currently at a staggering 1.5 TRILLION dollars and rising. There are countless stories of student and parents who signed for loans, later noting that they had no idea what they were doing at the time. Students get not only subsidized loans but also unsubsidized ones. If the borrower can’t pay back the loan due to hardship, it may temporarily go into forbearance. This may sound like a good idea to the student, but it isn’t.

If a loan is in forbearance, it continues to accrue interest. That interest can then be added to the principal of the of the loan in a process called capitalization. There are cases where a loan has almost doubled from its original value. Imagine that you borrowed $60,000.00 and later discovered that you now owe $100,000.00. For lenders, the more money you are in debt, the more money they make. The government guarantees many student loans, so if you don’t pay them back, they will get that money from the US treasury. There is little incentive for companies to work with borrowers.

Forbes in a 2018 article noted that student loans are now the 2nd highest consumer debt, behind mortgages. The average debt per student is a staggering $37,172.00, but this only tells part of the story. Over two million students owe over $100,000.00, four hundred and fifteen thousand students owe over $200,000.00, and there are currently one hundred students who owe over $1,000.00000 in student loans.

It is easy to blame students for the loan crisis, after all, they signed on the bottom line. However, the massive scope of the problem suggests that the blame also needs to be placed on lenders and colleges, as they did not inform students and their parents adequately. Many students approach college decisions emotionally. They sign for loans with the perceived idea that they will make good money after graduation, and that they will have no problem paying the loan back. Yes, students need to be responsible, but so does both the lender and the college.

Many college students study majors that do not provide a path to a high paying job. Also, many students who start college never obtain a degree. Both student and Parent Plus loans cannot be eliminated by bankruptcy. This law was enacted in the 1970s with the industry citing a 20% student loan default rate at that time. However, only a tiny fraction of that default rate was due to students filing bankruptcy. A student loan debt is yours for life and it will impact everything from your credit score to your ability to get hired.

When a person stops paying a loan, it continues to grow with little chance of forgiveness. Search, “Dave Ramsey, student loans” on YouTube, and you will find the story of a teacher who owes $160,000.00, and dentist who owes over $1,000.000.00 in student loans. Couples that marry enter that union with their combined student loan debt, sometimes making it impossible for them to live independently.

We have a generation of graduates who are often underemployed and hopelessly in debt. They can’t buy a new car or purchase a home. They wonder if they can ever afford to have children. These are the young adults who did the right thing, they delayed their lives and got an education. Now they feel betrayed. Their financial insecurity impacts all of us and has a negative impact on the US economy.

Colleges are run as big businesses and employ those same marketing techniques as fortune 500 companies. It is essential to approach higher education as a consumer, rather than a student. It is crucial to squarely examine the cost to benefit ratio when making any college decision.

It is ridiculous to think that everyone should go to college; there are other paths to being successful in life. I know of many individuals who are skilled tradesmen. These people do very well financially. As bonuses, their earnings started after high school, and they have zero school loan debt.

When a college degree was less expensive, it made sense for some individuals to obtain less marketable degrees. Students were encouraged to pursue their passion and to broaden their horizons. However, college is becoming a trade school; a place where you gain a marketable skill. It makes no sense to saddle yourself with $100K of student loan debt for a profession where you will only be making $30K a year. Passion for an area of study can run cold when you can’t afford to put food on the table.

College is supposed to prepare you for life. However, massive debt cripples you. To circumvent the debt problem students and their parents need to be creative and think outside the box. Applying to a college because you liked the look of the campus, its sports complex, or its location makes little sense in today’s market.

  • Consider a community college for your first two years. English 101 and Math 101 are pretty much the same wherever you go. You may get more personalized attention at your local school.
  • Explore any scholarship options. Merit scholarships can be given by outstanding schools who want to attract the best and brightest to their institution. If you are a top student, it is nice to be the big fish in a little pond.
  • Strongly consider the cost-benefit ratio of your chosen major.
    If you choose a low paying major, think carefully why you are doing this, and have a clear idea on how you plan to make a living that includes paying off your student loan debt.
  • For-profit online schools often have high tuition and a low graduation rate.
  • Your community college may offer the same certificate program that a private school provides at significant savings.
  • Realize that many interesting sounding careers have few job openings. You may want to become a music recording engineer, but good luck in finding a job in that field. Check job availability before you start a degree or certificate program.
  • Choose the best school THAT YOU CAN AFFORD, rather than the best school that accepts you.
  • Consider attending a commuter school to save thousands on room and board fees.
  • It is likely that you will need to take out a loan. Stick with government subsidized loans, and set a limit to the total amount that you will borrow throughout your degree. Don’t use loans for everyday expenses.
  • Use online calculators to understand what your monthly payments will be.
  • Understand loan terms, such as forbearance, un-subsidized/subsidized loans, and capitalization, and know how these terms impact your loan.
  • Schools and loan companies are looking out for their interest, not yours. Accept this fact and approach any offers accordingly.
  • Consider a certificate program instead of a baccalaureate degree, if appropriate. Community colleges offer many such programs.
  • Consider a trade. A practical skill combined with ambition and a little business sense can make for an excellent life.

I currently have two daughters in college. The oldest of the two attended IMSA, which is considered the top math and science high school in Illinois. Also, she was a National Merit Scholar. This latter fact granted her free college tuition at some colleges and universities. When we met with her guidance counselor, we were surprised when the counselor informed us that the majority of the school’s National Merit winners did not take advantage of free tuition, opting to set their sites on selective universities. I am thankful that my daughter bucked this trend and she is now completing her degree in Chemistry and Russian at an excellent state school.

My other college student was accepted at Vanderbilt and Washington University, both selective schools. She is also an accomplished student, but neither school offered her any merit-based money. However, many other colleges and universities did offer her money based on her academic performance. She is currently attending a wonderful Midwest university, majoring in Public Health. I am so grateful that they will not have the burden of tremendous debt that many students face. My graduating daughter is strongly considering applying to the Peace Corps. She would not have this option if she were facing the repayment of massive student loan debt.

Dear readers, it is essential for all of us to explore our dreams. However, the wise person makes this discovery sensibly and thoughtfully. Happy school hunting, and please share this post as I believe that the information it contains can help many parents and students who are facing the challenge of college.

Sleeping In My Driveway

If I were a car, I would probably be a minivan. Sensibly designed with just enough flash to make me interesting. Ferrari’s are exciting, but if you need to get the job done you hop into a reliable and roomy Honda Odyssey.

Are you a person who likes to fly by the seat of your pants? I don’t fit into that category, I’m a planner and a tester.

A few months back my friend Tom and I installed a mains power port on the side of my campervan, and in the weeks afterward I created a simple power distribution system for the vehicle. However, I never operated it.

Dear readers, a Midwest October is upon me; perfect to do a little van exploration. With nighttime temperatures in the high 20s (-2C) it was time to test several different camper systems.

Early yesterday I pulled out the 30 Amp extension cord from the camper’s storage bin and attempted to connect it to the van’s receptacle. Crap! It wouldn’t go in. The pins on this type of plug are circular, and with some study, I was able to determine that they were slightly out of alignment. A little bending with my multi-tool and the plug slid in and mounted.

I went back into my van’s storage and located the $16 Walmart electric heater that I had purchased a few weeks earlier. I plugged it in, turned it on and… it worked! I was then off to the basement to find my 25-year-old sleeping bag. It is old and flattened, but it is also extra-long and thereby perfect for my 6’3” frame.

With heater and bag in place, I was ready to do a test run. The wilds of a National Park, you may ask?  No, my driveway, of course! When I told Julie about my plans to sleep in the driveway, she nodded in acknowledgment. After 25 years of marriage, she didn’t feel it necessary to comment on the absurdity of my vision. My more adventurous friend Tom thought that I should try to sleep in the cold with the heater turned off. Likely, as some sort of manly exercise. It should be noted that Tom possesses an ultra high quality and very warm REI sleeping bag, as opposed to my 25-year-old “pancake.”

As bedtime approached, I gathered my camping essentials:  water bottle, laptop, and iPhone. I traversed the 30 feet from my front door to the camper and entered with anticipation. It was cold! On went the electric heater powered by my garage’s outlet. I reached down and powered up the van’s 12V power system, and then flipped on its interior lights.

The heater seemed anemic, and I thought I would be spending the night freezing. But, in short order the van warmed up. I settled in my sleeping bag, fully dressed including a stocking cap. Like any other wilderness he-man, I opened up my laptop and checked Facebook, braving a weaker wifi signal from my house.

I worried that I wouldn’t fall asleep, as I fell asleep. Comfortable, warm, sleeping in a van parked in my driveway Silly for Dr. Mike, a 65-year-old physician, exciting for the 9-year-old Michael inside of me.

The outside temperature dropped to 29 degrees, but my little heater plugged on. In fact, I had to turn it to low in the middle of the night because I was getting too hot.

I write this the next morning after following my tradition of walking to Starbucks. Here I sit at my usual table, typing and sipping coffee. Mission accomplished.

My adventure may seem childish to you, or it may not. However, it was fun and informative for me. I tested out several of my camper’s systems and felt the security of reassurance. I had a “backyard” camping adventure. I had a good time.

Dear reader, so often we get locked into doing only “appropriate” behaviors. We don’t allow ourselves simple pleasures because we have deemed them childish. We criticize our children, “You are too old to do that.”

I am here to tell you that it is OK to explore the child in you because that is the part of you that still possesses wonderment. I challenge you to rediscover that aspect of you. I believe that you will grow just a little bit more in the process.

My $16 Walmart heater, and 25-year-old sleeping bag.
View of my front door from my sleeping quarters.
Plugged into the house’s AC power.

September Song

Oh, it’s a long, long while
From May to December
But the days grow short,
When you reach September.
When the autumn weather
Turn leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game.
September Song
M. Anderson-1938

———

We sit around the kitchen table. Julie, my wife. William, my 17-year-old son. Diana, my 3-year-old granddaughter. Sebastion, my 9-year-old grandson. Me.

In front of Sebie is a large stack of conversational cards. He pulls one and reads it. “If you could always live in your favorite season, would you?” We go around the table, and all participants answer, “No.” We agree that each season possesses its own magic. As we tire of one season, we are given the gift of a new one.

——–

I pick up my sister Carol from her apartment and drive to Arrowhead Country Club to celebrate her 80th birthday with a Saturday lunch. We talk, nibble, sip, and talk some more. “I have never been happier. This is the best time of my life,” Carol says in earnest.

——–

I walk to Starbucks in the pre-dawn. I pass by a tree, its leaves turning a golden orange.

——–

The fall of my life is upon me, the days are growing shorter. Time is accelerating.

Would I want to go back to any other time in my life? Childhood? Early adulthood? Middle age? I don’t think so. Each phase of my life had its advantages and its disadvantages. Each stage of my life added to my wisdom and to my appreciation of the gift of life. I don’t want to give up the present to live in the past.

There are disadvantages to being 65. I have more wrinkles on my face than hairs on my head. My stamina is a percentage of what it was when I was 30. My short-term memory is less acute than in the past. I am more inclined to take naps.

There are advantages to being 65. I care less what others think of me. I am less concerned with what I don’t have and more satisfied with what I do have. I realize that most happiness lies in small things: dinner with my family, coffee with a friend, learning new things, giving back.

In January I left my private practice of 30 years and gained perpetual 4 day weekends. As a person who likes to move forward, I had developed a productivity plan in anticipation of this change. That initial plan has been only partially realized. Frankly, I’m OK with my partial compliance.

I am writing, taking pictures, and converting a van into a camper for future adventures. I have made a weak effort to organize a basement storage room. I’m not practicing the guitar, and I have not started the process of learning a foreign language. I think that this latter objective may be on a permanent hold.

I am spending a lot more time socializing with people who I care about. I am stretching my introverted boundaries. I am learning about construction and power tools. I know that this last fact may seem odd for an old retired doctor, but I assure you that it is not. I come from a blue-collar background, but I was never mentored in the art of the Sawzall. One of the reasons that I gravitated to science was that it was an entirely novel discipline in my family, and somehow that fact made it OK for me to teach the subject to myself.

There is a joy in learning those things that I was so curious about as a child. I see the similarities between medicine and construction. Each discipline requires training and practice. Each discipline follows a specific methodology and is protocol driven. However, with building the fruit of your efforts is immediate and tangible.

I have spent much of my life goal-directed; focused on practical knowledge. However, I appreciate learning something that serves no personal purpose in my life. Learning for the sake of learning is my cocaine.

At 65 my world isn’t shrinking, it is expanding. I wake at 4 AM anticipating what that day will bring. What will I see on my walk? What will I write? What new thing will I learn? What projects will I tackle? What adventures will I have with those people that I care about?

The days may grow short in the September my life, but they are still days to be celebrated. Today I know more than I knew yesterday. I have connected with others more. I have done more. Each day is a gift, never to repeat.

Dear reader, celebrate today!