Freddie Nietzsche has referenced the impact of life’s difficulties in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, but with that said I do have the ability to turn something negative into something positive.
I have mentioned my dyslexia in the past, but I think it deserves re-referencing here. As some of you know, I was unable to read in second grade. My teacher told my parents that she thought I was very bright and attributed this inability to poor vision. My parents took me to an optometrist who prescribed a very weak eyeglass prescription. I guess optometrists have to make a living.
My 7-year-old expectations were dashed when I put on the specs only to discover that I was as illiterate as before. The fear that my parents would be angry at me pushed me towards a solution; I created my own method to make sense out of the jumble of random symbols that my mind was seeing. I feel that my alternative way of reading has given me an advantage. I may read slower than many, but I have superior comprehension. Beyond comprehension, I appear to have an excellent ability to understand the subtext and sub-connections in a written piece. My reading difficulty turned into a reading advantage for me.
I apply this concept to other aspects of my life; most recently to the subject of backpacking.In a past post, I wrote about my trip to Glacier National Park, and how it had a life-altering impact on me. A subplot in this post centered around backpacking.
I enjoy day hiking, but I declined an offer from my friend, Tom to backpack with him. Tom is an inexperienced backpacker who challenged himself to hike in the backcountry armed only with knowledge from YouTube videos, and a healthy cash donation to REI.
His 4 day/3 night trip turned into a 6 day/5 night experience due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and physical exhaustion. Despite these barriers, Tom succeeded in his quest and enjoyed the experience. Further, he feels that he bonded even closer to his son, as they had to work together to accomplish their goal.
I am happy for Tom’s accomplishment, but I am also grateful that he brought me a wealth of information on this topic. I had thought a lot about backpacking and read extensively on it, but third-hand data can only yield so much real-world details. Through Tom’s narrative, I was able to get an up-close understanding of the experience. What were the primitive campsites like? How did he go to the bathroom? What would he change in future hikes? What were the positive things about the experience? What gear did he wish he brought? What equipment that he brought was unnecessary? It is one thing to watch a YouTube video from an athletic 25-year-old backpacker, it is another thing to listen to a 52-year-old guy’s first time out. Tom’s story gave real context that allowed me to visualize myself in his situations.
My personality is such that I get enjoyment from learning information and skills. As a new area of interest, the topic backpacking offers both opportunities. Additionally, my solo day hiking trips revealed something about myself that surprised me. Despite being a loner, I very much wanted to share my experiences with someone else, and I wanted to do that sharing in the first person.
I already had a sleeping bag, and I decided to buy an inexpensive lighter weight tent. Other small purchases followed: a blowup pillow, Smartwool socks, a better headlamp.
My next phase was to try out new behaviors in a controlled environment. I set up my little tent in the living room, unrolled my sleeping bag, and climbed in for a nap. Success!
Setting up my backpacking tent in my living room. Making sure my sleeping bag fits (and taking a little nap).
When Tom came off the trail he gifted me all of his Mountain House freeze-dried food with the statement, “I’ll never eat that stuff again!” I have eaten MH on occasion and found it reasonably palatable. However, Tom ate Mountain House for all of his meals, and quickly became sick of his soft and lukewarm diet. I would likely have a similar reaction, and so I have been exploring other simple backpacking meals. In fact, I have created a few homemade “freezer bag” meals that my official tester (my daughter, Gracie) said tastes better than the commercial stuff.
Trying to rehydrate pasta and my own dehydrated veggies. Rehydrating commercial freeze dried veggies. Making my own freezer bag meals that will be compared with a MH meal.Thanksgiving dinner in a freezer bag. Just add hot water and wait 10 minutes! My meal rehydrated.
The next phase of my experiment will be to attempt a backyard sleepout. I’m curious if I’ll be able to stand up straight after sleeping on the hard ground all night. Pending the weather forecast, I will likely do this in the next few days.
So, will I backpack? Unfortunately, I have run into some pitfalls in advancing this process. My goal was to do a three-night hike with Tom next summer when he travels to Yellowstone National Park. When I mentioned this to him, he was receptive but informed me that he was thinking about a 5-6 night adventure rather than a 3-night trip. This long trip would not be wise for me based on several factors. Tom is younger than me but in similar physical shape. Despite drinking a lot of water, he became dehydrated, and due to the sequelae of electrolyte loss simple movement became difficult for him. It is also clear that he became physically depleted after day three of his hike; this was his energy limit based on his level of physical conditioning. Any additional days became ordeals for him to conquer rather than enjoy. I would likely have a similar experience. Lastly, the way that he coped with this exhaustion was to lengthen his trip, advancing his adventure from 4 days to 6 days. This expansion would be multiplied with a more extended trip. For instance, a 6-day trip could turn into 9 or 10 days. Based on all of this, it would be foolish for me to consider such a long hike. I did suggest to him that we go on a few short local overnighters, which would allow me to check out my ability in situ, but as of this moment, he isn’t too interested.
What about other options? It would be great to hike with my son, Will, but he has no interest. Julie has never expressed a desire to go backpacking. My other kids are busy with their lives, friends, and activities.
I am starting to explore the option of an organized club or Meet Up group, but I wonder if the cohorts would be too advanced for me. I have even pondered finding someone on Craigslist, or some other public forum. What would I say in an ad? “Wanted a middle-aged or older guy who has never backpacked who would like to go backpacking with someone equally inept.” For some reason, I don’t think I would get a lot of takers.
At this point, I am enjoying learning about a new topic and testing out new skills. If this hobby advances further, all the better. With that said, I believe that learning new things is always useful, even when the knowledge doesn’t have an immediate practical purpose. Seemingly specific information can often be generalized. For instance, my ability to develop decent freezer bag meals is directly related to the many years of hotel room cooking that I did when I worked 2 days a week in Rockford.
My goal is to enjoy the journey and not negate the process by only focusing on the end game.
Today I told you about my backpacking transformation, but the same techniques can be used when dealing with much more difficult problems. In fact, these rules also apply to other issues, even trauma. There are several factors necessary to turn an unwanted experience (a negative) into one that is desired (a positive).
1. Understand the process.
2. Explore the pitfalls.
3. Practice the behaviors.
4. Evaluate if the overall outlay of time and energy are justified.
This methodology works, and so I thought I would pass the tips on to you.
I looked at the map and tried to find the most remote place on earth that seemed habitable. In my mind, that place was Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Vast and distant, it seemed to be the perfect spot. There I could be separated from the stress of negative interactions. I would pack all of my possessions with me. Books, electronics, scientific equipment, radios.
On Baffin Island, I would build a warm and secure cabin to protect myself from the elements. On Baffin Island, I could be myself.
Baffin Island was the mental place where I would go to as a child when I was feeling stressed or judged by the world and its people. This is where I would mentally travel when I was sick of acting a role so I could be accepted.
The power of a child’s fantasy is derived from the reality that it is not bounded by the constraints of logic. It is free-flowing with its only requirement being that it satisfies the needs of its creator, and Baffin Island was my fantasy. I knew that I was a loner, an introvert, a person who was happiest in his own thoughts. A person who was delighted to be left alone.
The preparations started months earlier, although I wasn’t sure what I was preparing for. I wrote pages of lists, watched dozens of YouTube videos, and mentally solved thought problem. I dug through my old camping gear, I gleaned gadgets from my electronics collections, I constructed things with the expert assistance of my friend, Tom.
I have come to believe that these actions were part of a greater coping strategy to deal with my internal anxiety. This statement seems strange, as I don’t consider myself to be an anxious person. I always could restructure my cognition, and when I face a stressful situation, I call upon that fundamental skill to calm myself and move forward. Yet, all of my preparation seemed to have a psychological motivation.
I also admit that I felt guilty about my plan to leave, but logically, I knew that I was adding only a few days to an already established trip. My feelings spawned out of causal comments that Julie said to me since I retired. “Did you have fun today?” She would ask when she got home from work.
I felt guilty that I had indeed had fun. A happiness based on no longer being responsible for the lives of others. A delight based on having the ability to do as I wished for once. I felt guilty that I was enjoying my freedom when she had many years of work ahead of her. I fully acknowledge that my interpretation of her comments was filtered by my personal assumption that the sole purpose in life was to produce.
The reason for my trip to Arizona was so I could clean my daughter’s college apartment and haul back the material contents of the last 4 years of her life. This act was productive, contributing, and even laudable. However, taking a few extra days to visit National Parks along the way was not. Logic told me that my actions were completely acceptable. I claim to be driven by logic, but I am actually ruled by my feelings, and those feelings made me feel guilty.
A psychological solution to my guilt appeared in the form of focused thriftiness. I decided that I would do whatever I could to reduce the cost of the trip and that somehow this action would justify those extra self-indulgent days. I would stay at National Park campsites. I would sleep and cook in my camper van. I would resist the temptation to buy unnecessary things. The thrifty strategy subdued my guilt, but that emotion was soon substituted with another even more ridiculous concern.
By coincidence random videos appeared on my YouTube homepage, most centering around bear attacks. There were instructional videos on how to protect yourself from maniacal bears. There were videos describing tales of loss of limb and life by grizzlies. There was even a video showing a bear using its massive claws to rip through a car door as quickly as one would poke a hole into a taut sheet of aluminum foil.
After watching a number of these videos, I told myself that enough was enough. I reminded myself that millions of people visit National Parks in any given year, and actual bear aggressions impacts a tiny percentage of those patrons. However, just to be on the safe side, I bought a canister of bear repellent and vowed to not smell like bacon when I was in bear country.
My trip preparation continued in earnest. I scoured the pantry for suitable camper food, and I made purchases of Knorr Sides and Spam Singles at the local market. I gathered my photography equipment. I filled my packing cubes with clothing. I put new batteries in my flashlight. There was nothing else that I could do, yet I continued to feel unsettled, and I didn’t understand why.
On the day of my departure, I found myself stalling to leave. Eventually, I pulled myself into my campervan’s cabin, buckled my seatbelt, and turned on the ignition. My solo trip was about to begin.
One mile became ten, ten became one hundred. I dug into my car food bag and munch on chips, mixed nuts, and Smart Pop popcorn. I calmed, but I still couldn’t understand what was really troubling me.
I traveled in external silence, thinking. I thought about making a helpful YouTube video for van dwellers. I plotted out the destinations of my trip. I remembered the contents of my cargo bins. And so it went.
My friend, Tom, would call to check on me, and I was happy about that. I would call Julie, and I was grateful that she seemed glad to talk to me, as I know she dislikes taking on the phone.
A conversation with one of my sisters here, a text message from one of my kids there, an encouraging Facebook comment or two. I was clearly looking forward to these interactions, and I was surprised how critical these touchpoints were for a loner like me.
I have never wanted masses of friends. I have never wanted to be popular. Such scenarios seem more exhausting than exhilarating. However, I cherish a small group of people. Those individuals represent my “Priorities,” and I will do whatever I can to make sure that I am there for them. However, traveling alone illustrated a second purpose to these relationships. Traveling alone had shown how imperative it is for me to be cared about by those who I care for. Traveling alone focused me on the reality that I need people in my life, and that it was the thought of separation from them that was the cause of all of my pre-trip anxiety. I find it curious that it is so easy for me to love, yet so difficult to imagine that others love me.
I don’t want to be cared for because of what I can do for someone, I have spent my life doing that. I don’t want to be included in a social circle only because I am entertaining, funny, or a good listener. Instead, I want to be loved and accepted for who I am. I want to be missed when I’m not around, and I want to be the source of excitement when I return on the scene.
During much of my life, I gained the acceptance of others by being whoever that person wanted me to be. Now, I want someone to see my soul and feel that I am good enough.
It brings me joy to comprehend that those people who I love also love me. As I write this, I am astonished by this realization, and eminently thankful for it.
On one phone call during my trip, Julie asked me if I was having a good time, and I told her, “Yes.” There are many positives when traveling solo. I set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time as I wish to do an activity. I can stay up as late as I choose, or go to bed as soon as I desire. These are wonderful things.
However, I did miss the lack of a traveling companion to share the wonders that I saw. Someone to be mutually amazed at the magnitude of the Great Sand Dunes, or to collectively wonder about the lives of the ancient Pueblo. I wanted to share a new sight, or a sunset, or conversation around a morning cup of coffee with someone that I care about. All of those activities seem sweeter when done with someone who you love.
This great adventure was an exercise in aloneness and was a success, but not the success that I initially imagined. Yes, I am perfectly competent by myself, but this trip illustrated to me how much I need others in my life, not to do for me, but to care for me. I am an introvert, but I’m not a loner.
As a child, I wanted to live on an island in isolation. As an adult, I realize the I am not an island unto myself. I still have much to learn about myself. Life lessons are everywhere. All I need to do is to stop and listen.
My 50th birthday coincided with another significant event, a need to buy a car. I had always purchased conservative vehicles, but I had a secret desire for something grander. I wanted a doctor’s car, and in my mind, that meant a Mercedes.
I accepted the fact that this was strictly an emotional purchase, and that it symbolized that I had arrived as a professional. The Mercedes that I purchased was dark metallic green with a tan leather interior. I thought it was beautiful, in an understated German way.
I felt like every driver was watching me as I drove it off the lot, and my chest swelled with pride to own such a luxurious vehicle. That euphoria faded with the realization that my Mercedes was intrinsically no different than the Ford that I previously owned.
After my car’s warranty expired, I was gobstruck with the enormous expense of maintaining my Mercedes. When I would bring the car in for a simple repair the cost would escalate as the dealership’s customer service writer would always find something else that needed repair. I would bring the car in for an oil change and leave paying a $1000 bill.
After a few years, I had enough of my luxury experience and traded in my low mileage doctor’s car for a simple Honda. The Honda delivered, while the Mercedes only promised. The experience was an excellent life-lesson.
The news has been abuzz with a new celebrity scandal, this one involving parents cheating the system so that their underperforming kids can get into selective colleges. The scandal consists of a man named William Singer, and his sham non-profit organization. Individuals of power and means paid Mr. Singer enormous amounts of money for him to work his magic with their unscholarly offspring. His deception went above and beyond ghostwriting personal essays. He created false identities, photoshopped prospective student heads on stock photos of athletes, had test proctors change answers, and bribed various university officials with cold hard cash. He claims that he has helped over 700 students cheat their way into college.
It would be naive to think that he is an island unto himself. Common sense dictates that this case is just the tip of a much more massive iceberg, its specifics made more interesting because celebrities, such as Felicity Huffman, and Lori Loughlin are involved.
I have a daughter who is a freshman at a large Midwestern university. When my wife asked her what she thought about the above scandal she seemed insouciant noting, “How is that any different from donating money for a building which then gets your kid accepted into that school.” She was, of course, correct. People with clout have always had a higher chance of getting their children accepted into a selective college, as opposed to those who lack influence. In fact, a legacy applicant has a three-fold better chance of getting admitted into a selective college than an applicant who doesn’t have such lineage.
I recently read an NYT’s article on the heels of the above story. It involved 4 excellent students and their efforts to get into highly selective colleges. One of the case studies currently is a student at the high school where my kids have attended. This girl achieved a near perfect SAT score and had a GPA of 4.8 out of a possible 4.0. She was active in clubs and organizations. She was involved in leadership positions. Yet, she was rejected by her first choice, Harvard. I can’t imagine that there was anything else that she could have done to have been considered. When you look at her impressive credentials and compare them to lesser students who were accepted, it makes you wonder about the real value of such an education.
There are over 5300 colleges and universities in our country, yet many students feel that they have to attend only a selective few. In a world where college tuition and fees are extraordinarily expensive, these colleges go above and beyond and hit new heights as far as costs are concerned.
Does attending these schools significantly impact the future of a college student? This is a complicated question, but the bottom line is generally, “no.”
At this point, you are probably recalling the frequently quoted study that noted that students who attended the most selective colleges have been shown to have significantly more earning potential than those who attended the least selective colleges. This statistic may be accurate, but the cause and effect association is not as direct as you may think. Other important factors need to be added in. For instance, the caliber of a student at a highly selective college is likely higher, as is their socioeconomic position, and their family connections. In fact, if you take a look at the wage gap between students from highly selective colleges vs. less selective colleges the earning difference disappears with students with similar SAT scores.
Other statistics worth noting is that the majority of CEOs from the top 100 Fortune 500 companies did not attend an Ivy League school. When Wall Street recruiters were asked where they found the best candidates, it wasn’t from Ivy League schools; instead, they listed the University of Illinois, Arizona State, and Purdue.
Most universities are bursting with highly academic faculty; there is no shortage of PhDs in the college world. An undergraduate experience includes a wide diversity of classes, usually presented at an introductory level. Is there a significant difference between English 101 at a local college vs. a highly selective school?
We are currently dealing with an artificially created frenzy where admittance to an ultra-expensive highly selective school becomes the ultimate prize for both the student and their proud family. However, I have to think that an education at such an institution may feel similarly to my Mercedes experience. The initial euphoria can quickly give way to frustration once you realize that you are paying 4-5 times the cost for something that is not 4-5 times better.
As parents, we need to help our kids see the reality of their life decisions. College shouldn’t be an experience, like a holiday vacation, it should be an education for the future. Part of being an adult is making wise decisions, including the value and benefit of a school.
For the ultra-rich spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is insignificant, but such a debt can be life-altering for a typical 21 year old who has graduated only to find that this overwhelming burden is preventing them from realizing their personal American Dream. Adult life does not start in college, it happens afterward. That is the time when our offspring need to be free to explore options.
It is my hope that the above scandal helps potential students and parents alike examine their higher education goals, and to explore all rational options. There is a big difference between true value and hype.
Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?
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.
Why is it that I can focus on a single negative in my life while ignoring so many positives? How can I change this waste of energy?
I think my thinking pattern is similar to many others. I can let a single worry dominate me. Typically, I find that this stance is a waste of my time and energy. Yet, I continue to do it.
I have made attempts to change my behavior, and some of my efforts have been more successful than others.
I have gotten better at letting go of trivial slights. The driver that cuts me off no longer spoils the rest of my morning.
I also employ cognitive techniques to correct my perceptual distortions. When I get upset about something, I will pull back and logically explore the problem and reframe the information at hand in a more realistic way and less catastrophic way.
Also, I work hard to let go of situations that I have no control over. I’ll, “Let go and let God.”
The above techniques all fall into what I would call a pathology model. In other words, they focus on lessening my current worries. The problem already exists, and so I actively treat it.
Good doctors not only treat problems they also practice preventive medicine. I would like to think of myself as a good doctor and what I advise my patients can also apply to me. So how do I prevent worry? There are many ways, but the one that I would like to share with you today is called a gratitude list. This technique is simple, but it does require some practice and thought.
The positives in my life far exceed the negatives. However, I can take my blessings as expectations and thereby ignore their significance. A gratitude list is one way to acknowledge these good things, and when I do this, I automatically have a more positive outlook of my life.
Here are the steps I use.
-Once a day I think of 3-5 things that I’m grateful for. They can be significant things or minor things. For instance, I might be thankful for my health (major thing), and I also may be grateful for having coffee with a friend (minor thing).
-I make an effort to vary the things that I’m grateful for. In other words, I don’t repeat the same list every day.
-Sometimes I’ll write down my gratitude list, sometimes I’ll only make a mental note.
-I don’t just write down a list, I also think about each example on that list. I may recall that I’m no longer on any medication and that I’m able to walk long distances once again. I might think about a walk that I took and how much I enjoyed it. For my second example, I may be grateful for having people in my life who want to spend time with me. I might remember the conversation that I had during my coffee klatsch, or how much I enjoyed the taste of the coffee.
-If possible, I recall my gratitude list during the day, repeating the above technique.
When I first started this daily exercise I had trouble coming up with unique things to be grateful for. However, over time, it became easy. The trick is to limit your list to a manageable number. I find that 5 examples works for me. I want to have time to think about my list, I don’t want to write down a lot of meaningless examples.
By doing this exercise regularly, it has become evident that I have much to be grateful for. When I think about my life in positives terms I feel more positive about myself, I attract more positive people, and many of my problems feel more trivial. All of these benefits for the cost of a little time!
I would encourage you to make a gratitude list every day for the next 30 days. Let me know if it makes a positive difference in your life. If the answer is yes, it is easy to incorporate a gratitude list into your daily routine.
Are you feeling overworked, and undervalued? Here are a couple of facts.
Fact #1: We have more leisure time than ever before. Life is good!
Fact #2: Fact #1 is a lie.
Mid-century prognosticators predicted that good times would lie ahead for the people of the 21st century. They believed that automation would make work more meaningful and efficient. It was predicted that work weeks would shrink to 15 hours, and leisure time would expand to fill the void. The United States, with all of its industrial might, would be at the forefront of this change, and its educated and skilled workers would benefit the most.
Data suggest that overall leisure time has increased in the US, and we are working less than we did a few decades ago. So, life is good, right?
Dear reader, do you have a job? Is your life easier in 2018 than it was in 1998, or is it harder? Do you feel that you have more free time, or less free time? Are you enjoying life more, or enjoying it less? I hope that your answers indicate a continued movement towards a positive and meaningful life. A life where you have time to do those things that you find personally satisfying and rewarding. However, for many of you, I doubt that this is the case.
Random statistics are like other generalities, they make great bullet points, but they only tell part of the story. Data suggest that our lives are better now than 50 years ago. We have less pollution, we live longer, our houses are bigger, we have more stuff. In addition, our lives have become more automated. We can order a new shirt with a click of a mouse. We can summon Alexis, Siri, or Google to start our favorite music playlist. We can cook a meal in minutes with the touch of a microwave button.
We have been told that to have a good life we need to become skilled and educated. We have been told that using our brains instead of our backs will give us lives full of meaning, and an abundance of leisure time.
So why are many of us stressed? Why do we feel that we have no time for ourselves; that we are on a hamster wheel frantically running but never moving forward?
Erik Hurst, University of Chicago economist, looked at leisure time and found that there are individuals in our society that have an abundance of leisure time and that this abundance makes them happy. However, they are not highly trained or educated. In fact, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum. A 2015 study found that twenty-two percent of undereducated males between the ages of 21-30 had not worked in the previous 12 months. These folks were typically living in a relative’s home (think parent’s basement), and they often filled their free time with cheap entertainment, usually video games.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were men who he referred to as “elite.” They were skilled and educated. Elite men had less free time than their fathers did. They often defined who they were by their work life, rather than other interest. They worked long hours and produced more than similarly skilled men in other developed countries. They did not rate as high on the happy scale.
I believe it would be reasonable to claim a similar outcome for elite women. More work, an extended workday, less free time, less happy. Many Fortune 500 companies expect their workers to work longer and to be more productive than previous generations. We can never escape work, as we are always accessible via our smartphones and laptop computers. A long commute used to be a time to listen to music or catch up on the latest sports news. Thanks to mobile devices our cars have now become our second office. Vacations served as escapes; now wifi and laptops help us to catch up on work emails when we should be catching rays.
We are stressed and tired, so we use services to supplement our energy gaps. We pay someone to watch our children, cut our grass, and clean our house. We go out to dinner or buy premade meals. We use our credit cards to procure an expensive vacation or buy an unnecessary item with the false belief that these things will make us happy. All of these behaviors cost us money, which means we need to work even harder.
Social media makes us feel that we don’t have enough. We see pictures of Jerry’s new car, Mary’s exciting trip, Bob’s bigger house. The visual images make us feel dissatisfied and want more. Our new purchases make us feel better, but only for a short amount of time. We live a bipolar life of working hard and playing hard. There is no middle ground. There is no balance.
Stressed, our normal life jobs become burdens. Routine tasks like helping our kids with their homework turn into annoyances. We ease our frustration by distracting ourselves with texting our friends or playing games on our phones when we should be focused on the task at hand. This multi-tasking disconnects us and we become less present, which makes us feel alone and lonely. Affairs, addiction, increased debt, compulsive eating, compulsive sleeping, compulsive buying, and other fixes serve as temporary ego patches that often result in long-term negative consequences.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, we continue this cycle with the magical thought: “If I only could make a little more money I would be happy” However, this is often not the case. Money is like heroin, whatever you make, you want a little more, and like heroin, cash promises much but delivers little.
So what is the answer, dear reader? Should we quit our jobs and move into our parent’s basements? For most, that is not the solution.
What do you really want out of life? Ask yourself, “Do I want”…
More time with my family? A safe living environment? Good health? A sense of real purpose? or Fill in the blank?
Are your actions consistent with your wants? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that making more money will automatically solve your problems.
Things that you may want to consider:
-Try to find a balance between work life and personal life. I have known some people who took lesser jobs or gave up careers, with a resulting increase in happiness and wellbeing.
-Realize that more stuff will not make you happy
-Practice being in the present.
-Designate times to silence your phone.
-Spend time with people who you love and cherish, and who love and cherish you.
-Avoid people whose connection with you is based only on what you can provide them.
-Develop a spiritual life.
-Connect with others in a meaningful and giving way. Consider helping someone for the pleasure of helping, without any expectation of a return for you.
-Realize that most of the things that we do are work, but the type of work can make a big difference not only in how we feel but also how others feel about us. I have heard many an adult talk glowingly about their parents. Beautiful memories of doing a project with dad, or baking cookies with mom (Feel free to reverse gender roles, if so desired). I have never heard an adult lovingly talk about an absent parent who bought them a new car on their 16th birthday. Further, I have never heard someone say, “My parents were awesome, they each worked 100 hours a week!”
-Write down a list of things that you are grateful for, and read it twice a day.
-Be thankful for what you have, instead of always thinking about what you want.
-Stop watching shopping networks; stop reading ad papers.
-Limit your time on social media.
-Leisure time is that time that we can devote solely to personal interests. It doesn’t have to be expansive when our lives are filled with other meaningful activities. Yes, those unemployed 21-30-year-olds may find happiness playing video games for 10 hours a day, but for most of us, a life of leisure would be unfulfilling. Consider leisure time like a desert. A bowl of ice cream can complete a meal. However, a diet of only ice cream would make most of us sick.
The date was set, we would meet at Starbucks at 7 PM. Not the Starbucks that I usually go to, but one on the far side of town. We had talked about this for months, and now we were finally doing it. At the very least it would be a fun adventure; I had nothing to lose.
I arrived at 6:59 and found a quiet table. I went up to the counter and ordered a Tall Pike’s, decaf. Moments later my phone rang, it was Nancy. She was outside the store trying to park her car, but the available spots were all blocked by a police prowler. The officer was apparently thinking that his convenience was more important than preserving three open slots for other customers.
Soon Nancy was sitting across from me, and we started to talk. First small talk, then more about what was going on in our lives. However, this chit-chat wasn’t the reason that we were meeting, our conversation was just a common preamble.
We reminisced and evoked memories from past years. Nancy, 7 years my senior, my friend, my older sister. We had decided to meet to explore our creativity. Like me, Nancy is a writer. Like me, she is trying to find her voice. Unlike me, she has studied her writing motivations though workshops and creativity groups.
Nancy tried to focus me. “What do you want to write? Fiction or nonfiction? What is your passion? Who is your audience? What is their age range? What topics have gotten you the most hits?” Questions that I never thought about.
So, dear reader, what is the purpose of this blog?
Drmikekuna.com was created as a writing exercise to see how far I could push myself in a public forum. As an introvert, I’m naturally reserved and private. However, to write effectively, I need to break through these limitations without fear of judgment from others. I also created this blog as a record of who I am. Eventually, I’ll download its contents onto a memory card and place it with other momentoes of me. Cards and letters that were written by patients when I left my private practice, notes from loved ones who wrote memories of me to commemorate my 65th birthday, and other things. I want my children and grandchildren to have a broader understanding of me. I want to be more to them than a few scattered recollections.
Like most things in life, my blog has evolved. It continues as a writing experiment, but there has been a shift. I now let my flow of consciousness take over as I write. It seems that my posts eventually evolve into some sort of life lesson. I find this new process interesting, but I have no idea if anyone else does.
I am trying to find myself, and redefine my purpose. My professional life has been a life or providing service to others, and I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to do so. However, I am entering a new season of my life, and my energy has shifted. I still want to contribute to the world, but I want to do so by engaging other talents. Specifically, writing and photography.
I need to determine what my goals are. Am I writing for an audience of one? Has my blog become a journaling exercise that would be better accomplished if it was done privately and within the confines of a spiral notebook? Should I abandon the blog and start the daunting task of developing a book? If so, what would my topic be? It is clear that my writing would reach a broader audience if I focused it on popular issues and selected demographics. Do I want to do that? Do I want to become more commercial in my writing? Would such a change remove the pleasure that I derive from my current spontaneous musing?
It is clear that I have just started this journey. I will meet again with Nancy next week as we continue to examine how we can support and help each other in our pursuits.
Dear reader, as I move into retirement, I am aware that I not only need to be flexible but also realistic. Grandiose ideas and plans can fuel the genesis of any new project. However, work, reassessment, and realignment are the real building blocks of growth.
Do you have goals and dreams? How are you approaching them? How are you redefining them? Let’s grow together!
Last week I had surgery, a long surgery that required over an hour of operating room time, but the operation was not my greatest fear as I approached this process.
What concerned me the most? I feared having to get a pre-op clearance from my internist; a simple visit that would require less than 10 minutes of contact time. You may be thinking that my primary care physician is mean, rude, and evil. Of course, this is not the case. He appears to be a nice man and a good doctor. If I felt otherwise, I would not work with him.
So Dr. Mike, what is the problem? First a little more background information.
As a person who has battled obesity all of my life, I have become acutely aware of the stigma that comes with weighing excess pounds. Few human attributes can be ridiculed and condemned in the millennial “microaggression” culture of 2018. Imagine criticizing or mocking someone because of their race, sex, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, physical stature, or a multitude of other differentiating human characteristics.
Making fun of “fat people,” is an acceptable national sport, even though the CDC reports that over 70% of adults in the US are now overweight. Of course, as the overweight population explosion redefines the concept of what is normal weight, there will always be those outliers who exist beyond a standard deviation from that norm. There will always be a group to abuse with fat jokes, both overt and covert criticism, and outright disdain. If you are obese, it appears that it is OK for others to assume that you are lazy, dirty, and stupid.
We would never make such assumptions for other medical epidemics. Imagine someone undervaluing you because of your high blood pressure, or your fasting blood sugar? Just like obesity, these illness are caused by multiple factors: genetic, environmental, and lifestyle. Unlike obesity, there are good medical treatments for these ailments, making them easier to treat. The majority of folks with high blood pressure can significantly reduce health risks with medication management alone. However, the majority of obese people will continue to be fat despite diet plans, medications, exercise, and shaming television shows.
I lost over 100 pounds about 3 years ago. I did this after failing many traditional techniques of weight loss. I feel that my weight loss was indeed a miracle that was fueled by common sense, rather than modern medicine.
We are humans, not machines. We are motivated and influenced by a multitude of factors. This variability can be considered a weakness, but it should also be acknowledged as one of our greatest strengths. We are complicated, and as such simple blanket solutions have marginal utility.
Over the three years since I lost weight, I have regained a small percentage of my weight. Most people have told me that I look better with a few extra pounds. They say I look less gaunt, and more vital with this increase. Additionally, I have long shifted from judging myself based on a number on a scale. My lifestyle changes have been just that, they are not strategies to lose weight and thereby achieve some sort of false utopia. “My life will be good if I am not fat.”
Three years into this process:
I still can wear my same wardrobe.
I still exercise every day, walking from 3.5 to 8 miles.
I still avoid all forms of concentrated sugar.
I still practice healthy eating.
I still make an effort to eat more natural foods.
I still assess and correct hidden forms of weight gain, like emotional eating.
When I determine my current status I would say that my efforts continue to be successful, but what about the matter of my small weight gain, does this one objective parameter signify failure? I would say, “No.”
I sit in a chair opposite from my primary care doctor who is staring at a computer screen.
“You have gained weight.” My doctor says. My initial impulse is to apologize for my failing. I resist. My second impulse is to defend my position. I resist and remain silent. “Are you exercising?” I reply that I am and had already walked four miles before our appointment. “But what about cardiovascular exercise?” He retorts. And so it went. Three minutes of questioning that felt like three hours of interrogation. Pain always feels worse when inflicted on an open wound.
Dear readers, I’m am a resilient person. Besides, I am good at using the counterbalance of logic when dealing with my emotional exaggerations. However, there is more to this story than just a detailed account of me stepping on the scale and my emotional response to that event.
Being a physician, I understand the power that doctors have over their patients. Patients come to us in an extremely vulnerable state looking for help. Studies have shown that a statement like, “You need to quit smoking,” will convert some active smokers into former smokers. Unfortunately, in medicine one size does not fit all. It is easy for physicians to generalize the above truth and think that simple pronouncements can be used to motivate all lifestyle change. However, a doctor’s command is a partial solution at best, and should only be used when wielded within a broader understanding of what causes people to change.
Many of the illnesses that physicians treat on a daily basis have a strong lifestyle component. My weight loss eliminated my need for blood pressure tablets, high cholesterol medication, and a CPAP machine. So why is it that physicals don’t learn and employ simple motivational techniques so they can move their patients towards health? I don’t ascribe to know all of the answers to this questions. However, I do know some of them.
Physicians in the US work in a production model. We get paid by the volume of the work that we do. See fewer patients, make less money. As medical practices get bought up by business investors the push for physicians to do more continues to increase. A good business model consists of finding ways to spend less and make more. This fact is contrasted by a simple truth; we are caregivers, and most of us want to provide care.
Our contact with patients is reduced by the use of physician extenders. Someone else takes our patient’s blood pressure and obtains their chief complaint. We employ electronic medical records (EMRs), which provide a clear notation of our treatment plan, but does so at the cost of patient interaction. Patients now have the “privilege” of answering our questions as our eyes are focused on a computer screen instead of them. Patients want care from us, and we want to meet their needs. There is a pill for everything, and today’s EMR makes prescribing absurdly easy. Is writing prescriptions the same as providing care? I believe that it is only a part of our job, and it should not define us in total.
When I retired from private practice, I was fortunate to have patients write goodbye letters to me. Almost universally they said that they valued their time with me because I listened to them, didn’t judge them, and guided rather than controlled them. To do these things I needed to spend time with them. I would have made more money if I saw 6 people in an hour, rather than the two that I scheduled. However, I would not have known my patients as well, and more importantly, they would not have known me as well. Trust is a function of integrity multiplied by time. Trust by itself offers a positive corollary to patient satisfaction and well-being. Besides, a career that includes connecting with others is eminently more satisfying to we providers than one that does not. A win/win.
One factor needed to motivate change is time. Unfortunately, extending the length of appointments may not be possible in today’s corporate medicine climate. There are indeed a variety of stop-gap strategies that doctors can do to build a connection, such as deliberately spending a few minutes directly with the patient before turning to a computer screen. Such simple changes can make a patient feel more connected, but they still don’t address the elephant in the room.
How should doctors interact with patients to create change? Fat people know that they are overweight, and should lose weight. Alcoholics know that they drink too much, and should stop. Diabetics realize the importance of blood sugar control, and that they shouldn’t eat that extra donut. We live in a culture that shames, and it is likely that some will avoid being humiliated by their physician by avoiding seeking necessary medical care. I admit that I have been an avoider in the past.
Big problems become smaller when shared with someone. I am willing to tackle projects that I would not usually attempt when I have someone at my side. This phenomenon is even more evident if that “someone” has expertise that I lack. If you have been reading my prior post, you know that I have been converting a cargo van into a camper. I dare to significantly modify my van because I am doing the project with a friend who has expertise far beyond mine in such manners. We, physicians, have expertise far beyond our patients in such manners as health. Most reasonable patients accept this, despite the advent of the Internet. A colleague of mine has a cup in his office that reads, “Please don’t confuse my medical degree with your Google search.” However, most patient’s intrinsically understand our expertise, which is why they are seeing us.
Doctors need to connect with their patients as human being to human being, and they need to do this on a level that patients can relate to. We need to become trusted knowledgeable friends rather than overbearing, critical parents.
We need to understand where our patients are coming from, and how willing they are to make change. We need to problem solve with them. Imagine if my doctor asked me, “Are there any barriers that prevent you from seeking medical attention?” Or, “Are there any ways that I can help you with your lifestyle change?” Those simple questions would instantly change my relationship with my care provider. I would want to meet with him, and I would look at setbacks as problems to be solved, rather than justifications for criticism.
Once a patient’s cards are on the table, all things are possible. Is the doctor’s goal the same as the patient’s? What are the barriers to achieving the desired goal? What steps should be tried? How will progress be measured? How is a reversal of progress addressed? Empathy joins, criticism divides.
A meaningful connection with a patient doesn’t happen all at once. Relationships develop over time. However, imagine helping your patients make a significant and real change. Imagine the satisfaction of having a substantial connection with them. What would it be like to work with real people instead of being a reviewer of lab data? What would it be like to end your workday with the knowledge that you truly connected with someone in a meaningful and significant way that changed their life? What would it be like to move from treating diseases to treating people?
We blame our patients for their failings, while we steadfastly hold on to methods and techniques that simply do not work. Imagine if our relationships with our patients were more as a knowledgeable and caring peer rather than a stern and critical parent? Imagine yourself as the patient. You are aware that you have a problem and you need help. Who are you going to ask? Someone who tells you what you already know, makes you feel bad, and offers no real help? Probably not.
Ninety-degree temperatures, 100% humidity, unforgiving sun; I baked. I had spent the morning with a friend under similar conditions as we destroyed the interior of my campervan with the hope of transforming her into something better.
Before the installing of the campervan insert, I had carefully run wires between post and pillar so there would be two electrical circuits available. One to power the yet to be installed exhaust fan, and another to electrify the proposed LED ceiling lights. These wires now covered by the plastic ceiling panels installed in Colorado just weeks before. It was now time to reveal them from their hiding place, and so the panels came down.
A 14 inch by 14-inch hole was cut out of her roof, an exhaust fan screwed into that gap. Huge solar panels were carefully bolted on. Another hole drilled into her roof’s center to carry the cables from those panels into her cabin. Yet another hole, almost 3 inches, was gutted out of her side to provide a place for an AC power connector. Interior side panels were removed to allow wiring access. Her beautiful kitchen was unbolted and temporarily abandoned in my friend’s garage.
Steps that should have been straightforward were difficult. My friend has all of the right skills, all of the right tools, and enough motivation to get the job done. To the best of my ability, I also did my job. Researching and buying products, watching YouTube videos, pre-testing, and pre-planning whenever I could. Yet, every step was hard.
As you know dear readers, it is difficult for me to ask for help. Asking for help in this situation was even more difficult, as such a request placed me in an especially vulnerable position. I do not have the skills, tools, or understanding to complete the project on my own, and once it was started it had to go to completion, there was no half-way. If my friend decided to walk away at any moment, I would be helpless. I do not like being helpless.
Naturally, I knew my friend would not walk away, but I had not placed myself in such a vulnerable place since childhood, and if you have read my previous post you know why.
The work continued with 10 individual LED lights bolted into the ceiling. To attach them properly each screw had to be individually cut with a grinder. I had previously tested all of the lights, but when I re-tested them in situ, they refused to illuminate. The screws that were so carefully cut were shorting out the LED’s circuits and had to be insulated. And so it went.
Despite my best efforts, I found myself transformed to a past time and prior role. I was no longer Mike, the doctor, I was was Michael the 9 year old. Old unwanted roles, high temperatures, lack of skills, and real problems conspired against me. I took my usual stance and soldiered on. This is a strategy that I have long practiced in challenging situations. I don’t give up. I don’t give in. I command my intellect to overpower my emotion, and I move forward.
The ceiling panels were re-bolted to the roof of the van, but even this task was difficult as some of the screws spun aimlessly, refusing to tighten. Why did everything have to be so difficult when I just wanted to get the project completed and to move on?
Add to this the guilt that I was feeling for imposing so considerably on my friend. He did not complain, but I had already consumed days of his personal time, and the end was not in sight. I thought I would let him know how appreciative I was by publicly announcing my gratitude on Facebook. But in honest retrospect, I think my actions were done in part to relieve my guilty feelings. I find it strange that I can willingly and joyfully help others, yet I cannot ascribe these attributes to those who offer a hand of help to me.
Now alone, I re-enter my van. Once beautiful, presently a mess of disarray. With me is my tester device. Made from a battery pack and fuse box, it stands at the ready. In my pocket is a multimeter.
I connect the wires that should power the LED lights and turn on the power. Only two out of the 10 lights illuminate. I connect the exhaust fan’s power supply and click on the remote control. It sits silent. I pull out my multimeter and set its controls to 50 volts DC. If all goes well, I should get between 10 volts to 20 volts registered on it when I touch the solar panel’s input cables. I press the sharp probe tips into the wires, and the meter records 1 volt.
A wave of desperation covers me. How is this possible? I have experimented with electricity since childhood. I have an advanced class amateur radio license. These circuits are simple, my planning was good, my friend’s work was flawless. Suddenly I’m enveloped by guilt. A pang of guilt from the distant past. A pang of guilt that tells me that all of these problems have to be my fault. That I am to blame. It was now time to approach my friend and admit this to him and accept my consequences. He, of course, tells me that my guilty assumptions are ridiculous.
I am persistent, and I don’t allow illogical thinking to rule me. Despite my guilt, I press forward, and we approached each issue methodically. The LED malfunction is traced to a faulty connector. I remove it, manually spliced the wires together, and 10 lights shine brightly. We test the fan’s electrical supply circuit, and despite being new, it is shorted. I piggyback the power wires from the fan onto the LED feed line, and the fan jumps to life. Each of the solar panel’s MC4 connectors are explored, and it is discovered that the final one in the chain is defective. Being a planner, I have a backup connector at the ready. It is replaced and the multimeter reads a stable 18 volts. From desperation to success, all due to perseverance. All due to not allowing my old and inaccurate emotions consume me.
Dear reader, most of my posts have a theme which is that we are continuously given life lessons, but most of us choose to ignore them. These lessons come in the form of projects, problems, our experiences, and our connections with others.
It would be great to say that the above experience transformed me. It did not. I will need to ask for this type of help many more times before I feel comfortable with that action, and I will likely succumb many more times to falling back into my childhood persona when I do take that risk. However, I now know that I can ask, I can receive, and I can survive. That is important knowledge.
The process also opened up new issues that I need to face, but isn’t that what life is all about? As they say, life is a journey, not a destination. I will never reach perfection, but hopefully, I will improve each time I challenge my false beliefs and inaccurate perceptions. Walk with me, please.