Category Archives: decision making

Vandwelling As A Metaphor

I reread this post, and it seems to be mostly a self-reflection, which may be uninteresting to read. I’m going to publish it anyway as one of my goals has been to become more open and transparent to others.

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This morning I sliced up an apple and smeared some peanut butter on it. I carried it, along with my cup of coffee, to my study and sat in my broken desk chair. I powered up my computer, clicked on YouTube, scanned the splash screen, and chose a video from vandweller, Robert Witham. In the video, he talked about why he decided to move into a van when he was 40. His wife had died after a heroic battle with cancer, and he had to face his own mortality. He realized how short life was, and he asked himself if he was living his life, or waiting for some unknown time when he would do so. This is a question that I have been asking myself.

If you read my blog, you know that I’m building a campervan from a cargo van. I will make significant progress in that endeavor this weekend when I drive solo to Colorado and have the bed and kitchen insert installed by Wayfarer Vans. After next week my campervan will be functional, and about 80% completed. The rest of the project will move slower, as it will rely on my limited construction skills and my friend Tom’s limited free time.

If you like to connect dots, you may assume by reading the first two paragraphs that I’m about to abandon my home and family and become a vandweller. That is not the case. In reality, the van serves as a metaphor for my life as it is now evolving. Let me explain further.

It would have been easy for me to have given into my less than perfect childhood and settled for a life of pipe dreams. It is reasonable to assume that I could have gotten a factory job while regretting what, “could have been.” However, I felt that was not my life’s script. Even as a child I believed that I could, and should, do more.

Wishes are only that, and I believe that I am where I am because of many things, including luck, and the grace of God. I feel incredibly fortunate, so why am I continuing to expand my horizon? The answer is simple, like most people I still have unresolved issues and goals. I do not want to be a person pondering a list of regrets when I draw my dying breath.

I’m not into spectator sports, I don’t play golf, I find games and competitions frustrating. These activities are often where men bond and form friendships. My lack of these interests and abilities contributed to my belief that I didn’t have much to offer to a potential male buddy.

Conversely, as a psychotherapist, I have worked with men from every economic and educational level. Time and time again I have been able to make solid connections with my male patients, who are more than willing to talk about topics ranging from their spiritual beliefs to their feelings and fears. The fact that I don’t know the latest sports score has no bearing on our connection.

My childhood self felt that I had little to offer a male friend because I wasn’t sporty, but my adult self had proof that I could connect in a significant and meaningful way. Childhood beliefs can be compelling, even when confronted with contrary data. However, I refuse to be defined by my irrational self, and in the last few years I have attacked this erroneous belief and pushed forward.

Most of the significant relationships that I have had in my life have been with women, who generally sought me out, and seem to value me for who I am. However, I really missed not having a best male friend. Someone to do guy things with. Over three years ago I asked Tom if he would be my friend, and we have become best friends. His friendship has been a tremendous blessing. I can honestly say that it has been life changing for me.

Lately, I have been trying to expand my friendship circle. With that said, it is hard for me to be vulnerable. When I reach out to someone, my old tapes say “Don’t bother them, they really don’t want to spend any time with you.” This makes it difficult to put myself out there. But when have I ever stopped doing something because it was difficult? My experience tells me that practice makes difficult things easy. I’m still waiting for the easy part, so I guess I need to practice more.

Though much of my adult life I was obese. Stress, lack of exercise, poor diet, terrible sleeping patterns, they all conspired to cause me to believe that I could never lose weight. Through many different avenues, I have lost a considerable amount of weight and have become more fit in the process. Another goal.

I am very grateful that I had the ability and opportunity to pursue a career in medicine. If I had to do it again, I would. The benefits of my profession are numerous, but there are also some drawbacks. A doctor’s professional life is all-consuming. You are always on, you always have to place the needs of others before your needs. Being a physician is not a 9 to 5 job, it is a 24/7 dedication.

This dedicated style has seeped into my marriage and family life. I have a wonderful family, and I feel a strong compulsion to take care of their needs. I have tried to be a good provider, parent, and husband. However, I have not always been very good at taking care of myself. In fact, I placed my physical and emotional self-care somewhere below the needs of our cat. For instance, I continued to add work hours to my schedule, although my health was in decline. My life was a repetitive cycle: work, home, eat, sleep.

I love to learn and to compensate for my lack of self-time; I would become an expert on things that held my interest. This usually involved obtaining items to study and understand. These pursuits would temporarily appease me. However, they didn’t have an impact on the root cause of my problem. Things cannot take the place of emotional needs.

I continue to learn, teach and create. However, I’m now trying to pursue these interest in the context of healthy growth. You see some of that effort in this blog where I attempt to be honest about what is going on with me in a public forum. Why is that important? Because it is another way of me announcing to the world who I am. Take me as I am, I will no longer be a chameleon who changes colors to please those around me.

Some of my new life goals have been to find greater personal balance. This balance includes developing significant connections with others, regaining my health, recognizing and respecting my own needs, redefining my creative side, and the list goes on.

Will I accomplish all of my life goals? Other goals are more difficult, and I don’t feel that I have the ability to solve them on my own. These goals reference the most profound aspects of who I am. Because of their complexity, the only way that they could be achieved would be by direct intervention from someone other than myself, or by God himself. Either solution would be a miracle. I have already witnessed miracles in my life, but I need to accept that fact that these goals may never be met.

The van conversion symbolizes my ability to do something for myself. The process involves spending money on myself. It involves giving myself time. When completed the campervan will serve as a physical portal that will allow me to learn more, teach more, expand my writing and photography, meet new friends, and challenge other false beliefs.

My first adventure will occur when I drive to Colorado this Saturday morning. During that trip, I will try out some of my recently acquired vandwelling skills. I am anxious for Saturday to come.

Robert Witham’s video rang true to me when I viewed it this morning. I’m 65 years old. If I don’t attack my goals now, when will I? There is no time better than the present.

Dear readers, what are your life goals, and what are you doing to achieve them?

Addendum: I started writing this post on Tuesday morning, and it is now Wednesday morning. In the interim, a new friend that I met at Crater Lake National Park emailed me noting that he would like to keep up our correspondences. I then went to Starbucks and ran into Ed, a nice guy who stops for coffee now and again. He mentioned that he wanted to catch up with me before he heads out to his vacation home and that he would stop by again on Thursday to do so. All these years I was afraid to reach out my hand of friendship because I thought it would be rejected. Perhaps I was the one rejecting.

Robert Witham’s Vlog Post

Facing Mr. Kustom-The Secret To Success

Facing Mr. Kustom

Seven AM and I’m back from my morning walk. One-third cup quick cook oatmeal, two-thirds cup water, microwave for two minutes. Some mixed nuts, a few dried cranberries stirred in; I’m eating breakfast, and I’m feeling anxious.

I’m not usually an anxious person, but I do have a distaste for the unknown. I also have a dislike for the over-stimulation that driving to Chicago during a Monday rush hour brings.

Seven thirty and it is time to get into my Promaster. Gigantic and white, my wife refers to him as the “White Whale.” I have named him Albus, as a nod to the imaginary headmaster of Hogwarts who transformed the lives of others through magic.

I’m not suggesting that my work van is magical, but with some effort, it will be transformed from a bare truck into a camper-van that is capable of taking me to magical places. However, for this magic to happen, I will first need to stretch my personal comfort level.

To be honest, I still not used to driving Albus. He is enormous, and a master of blind spots. His two large mirrors help, but I’m still getting used to them. The thought of facing road construction traffic as I steer him is the source of my anxiety.

I pull myself up into his cabin, and I strap on my seatbelt. I dial in Google maps, paste in Mr. Kustom’s address, hit “start.” Soon I’m on I-88, then I-294, then I-90. I cling to the right lane as I drive. My sweet Google Assistant’s voice guides me but doesn’t lower my anxiety. I glance at the clock on the dashboard, and it is now 8:25. My appointment is at 9 AM. Despite padding my travel time with an extra 30 minutes, it looks like I may be late. “You can’t change traffic Mike, you need to accept where you are and let go,” I tell myself. Traffic chugs along, and soon I’m on Irving Park Road. I find a spot on the street, and wait for the store to open. I have 5 minutes to spare.

Now inside the store, my anxiety lessened, I find a spot among the three waiting chairs which seem out-of-place as they are awkwardly planted in the main showroom; I sit, knowing that the job will take 9 or more hours.

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I have already finished a graphic novel on Joel Kupperman, of Quiz Kid’s fame, lent to me by Julie, I found it both a fun and interesting read. I now write, more to fill time than anything else. Albus is getting windows put in, two on his rear doors, and one on his sliding door. The salesman suggested adding an additional window on the driver’s side panel, but I’m already at my financial limit. The windows will make Albus more drivable, and add light to his interior when he becomes a camper. The windows are necessary, which is why I drove to Chicago, and why I’m patiently sitting as I listen to reggae music blaring over the store’s music system. Today is the beginning of his transformation. Tomorrow, he will have a hitch installed. In about two weeks I’ll drive to Colorado by myself to have Wayfarer vans install a modular camper interior that will include a floor, walls, ceiling, bed, and a kitchen. I’m looking at the Colorado trip as an adventure, but I’m only allowing myself a few days to get there and back, which adds time-stress to the mix.

After the Colorado trip, he will become a useable camper, but there is still more to do. A roof fan, though the wall power port, swivel seats, the list goes on. I’ll tackle these jobs with the help of my friend, Tom. Having a knowledgeable person to brainstorm with definitely helps me feel more comfortable and less anxious.

The goal is to make Albus a good camper by the end of August, but he won’t be completed until fall. There are many steps ahead.

Anything and everything can be a learning lesson. Today’s lesson is that sometimes you have to go through unpleasant steps to achieve the desired goal. I know that the windows will be put in and by tomorrow I’ll be on to my next project. The discomfort that I am experiencing today will soon be forgotten.

In my life, I have had many “no pain, no gain” experience. One of the reasons that I believe that I have been successful is that I have an excellent ability to do a cost analysis when it comes to the task at hand. I’m willing to expend substantial effort and to experience significant discomfort if I feel that the outcome is worth it. Conversely, I am unwilling to put out small effort and slight discomfort if I think that the desired result is unlikely. I’m also persistent, and very consistent. I used to think that everyone felt and functioned as I do, but I know now that this is not the case.

Most people want a good life, but they don’t want to expend the effort or experience the discomfort necessary to achieve that outcome. Do you want financial security? Spend less, and put more money in the bank. Feel that you are working beneath your intelligence level? Go back to school, retrain, or look for a better opportunity. Miserable because you are dealing with something that is out of your control? Accept it, or leave the person/situation.

I understand that some of you may be muttering, “Easy for him to talk, he’s a doctor.” Yes, that is true, but the way that I became a physician was by following the above principles. I come from a blue-collar background and didn’t have the opportunities that others had. However, I can be as tenacious as a bulldog when I need to be. We can’t always have everything that we want. In fact, sometimes we have to give up things that we do want to obtain something that we want more. That is life.

As an aside, I believe that you can accomplish goals while still being kind and generous to others. I find no joy in hurting or putting down someone.

Dear reader, It is easy to blame life, others, or God for not having what you think you deserve. The “Secret to Success” is that there is no secret. The sourness of a distasteful task is quickly remedied by the sweetness of a goal achieved.

Before Before New side window New windows.

On Vandwelling, Part II

In my life, I have dreams, accomplishments, and disappointments.

I try to minimize disappointment by adopting three simple strategies. I can neutralize it. I can transform it from a disappointment into an accomplishment. I can merely accept it and move on. These are reasonable approaches that often, but not always, work.

There are problems that I need to act on immediately if I hope to have any chance of resolving them. However, sometimes a disappointment can convert itself on its own. In other words, it really wasn’t a disappointment; instead I was just misinterpreting the situation. Such a case is the case of my retirement fund.

Thirty years ago I established my retirement fund. No, I’m not talking about an IRA, I’m talking about an adventure fund. I put a chunk of money into an account as a seed, and I planned to add money to it on a regular basis until I had a sizeable nest egg. The fund was envisioned to establish some sort of retirement adventure plan. Perhaps I would purchase a second home in a beautiful location, maybe I would buy an ultra luxurious Class A RV. The designation for the fund was pretty open.

My savings plan never developed in the way that I wanted it to. Its value went up and down over the years, but the overall amount has remained mostly the same.

Over time the thought of a second home became more of a burden than a blessing, and after spending decades camping, I came to realize that I was happiest surrounded by nature.

My camping trips made me understand that I needed certain things to be comfortable. I wanted my bed to be off the ground. I wanted to have the ability to quickly access my gear so it would be at the ready for a spontaneous weekend trip. I wanted enough shelter to have a place to comfortably hang out in inclement weather.

I never used the onboard bathroom in my old camper, as it was a hassle to dump and clean the system. I never hooked up my camper’s kitchen, as I found it more enjoyable to cook on a picnic table. I never took advantage of some of my camper’s electronic features, like the cable TV connection, as I preferred the crackle of a campfire to the canned laughter of a sitcom.

When I started my search for the perfect camper, I was thinking in terms of 5 people traveling together. But that number quickly changed to 4 when I realized that it would be unlikely that my 21-year-old daughter would want to continue to take family camping trips with us.

Two years ago I bought a Ford Flex, which could tow 5000 pounds. I started to look at small campers/trailers that could sleep 4 and fell in love with a little Winnebago trailer called a Minnie Winnie. It was a marvel of compact design, and also light enough to be pulled by the Flex. However, something held me back, and I never bought it. My wife Julie is still working, which meant that I might be taking some solo trips, and the thought of backing up a trailer by myself created some anxiety in me. More recently, I have gained additional awareness. We have not gone on a family camping vacation for over 3 years, as we have traveled on other types of trips instead. It made little sense to build my plans of camping adventures based on accommodating a family. It made more sense to think in terms of one or two campers. I continued to look, but no option seemed right.

Time ticked on, and I tried to use the tool of acceptance. “I will accept the fact that I may never have another camper.”

My friend Tom also has a Ford Flex, in fact, his car was the inspiration for purchasing mine. Tom often travels with his son Charlie in his Flex, and he has developed a system to use it as a car camper.

His example got me experimenting with turning my Flex into a similar rolling home. With the back two rows of seats turned down I could fit nicely. An REI self-inflating mattress made a comfy bed, and the nooks and crannies of the vehicle served as places for gear storage. This system worked pretty well on several mini-trips, but it had its limitations. First was the hassle of converting and loading the car every time I wanted to use it. Second was the space factor. Yes, I had a comfy bed, but that was about it. If the weather was inclement, I was stuck outside. Third was the fact that this was strictly a solution for one person, no more. I’m well over 6 feet tall, and I take up a lot of space.

I had toyed with the idea of buying an old conversion van and modifying it. Tom had said that he would help me with the job, and as a general contractor, he has all of the skills and tools necessary for the task. However, I felt that such an extensive project would place an unreasonable burden on him.

The next part of the puzzle was solved by a random YouTube video that appeared in my “To Watch” feed. The video was from a lady who used a company called Wayfarer in Colorado Springs to install a simple modular conversion system in her Promaster City. Further searches led me to a video of the company’s conversion offering for a full-sized Promaster van. This modular kit could be installed in 2 hours and included all of the things that I would need in a home away from home. Just as importantly, it didn’t include things that I would never use, like an onboard bathroom. Of course, I was fearful, but I also felt excited.

Tom had found me a good deal on my Flex, and now he found me a good deal on a high-top Promaster. Two weeks ago I broke into my retirement nest egg and bought it. Today I’ll get a hitch installed for a bike carrier, in a few weeks I’ll have a couple of windows installed, and by the end of the month, I’ll have Wayfarer install their conversion systems. Tom and I will do the finishing touches (vent fan, shore electric, etc.). My dream is about to be realized!

If I had acted rashly, I would have made a mistake. By waiting, the disappointment that I felt transformed into the realization that an earlier decision would have been a wrong decision. I can park the new van in my driveway packed and ready to go. I can travel in it by myself with all of the necessary creature comforts. I can go on trips with Julie. I can caravan with Tom. The van is big enough for me to stand up in it. It has a comfy bed, lots of storage, and a simple, practical design. It is everything that I wanted, except I won’t have to spend several months building it out.

Time turned my disappointment into an accomplishment. I’ll post the conversion process as it proceeds. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. Sometimes you just need to let life happen without trying to control every second of it. Dear reader, kick back and relax today and see what life gives you.

My new cargo van.
My future home?

I Screwed Up

It is easy to screw up, but it is more difficult to admit it. How can I grow as an authentic person if I don’t acknowledge my mistakes? It is not my life’s goal to be perfect, but I believe that I should learn from my errors. Unfortunately, I have found that it is easy to learn a lesson, and still repeat the same mistake. I think this is the nature of being a human being.

I woke up foggy and forced myself to place my feet on the ground. After a few moments, I stumbled into the bathroom. Once inside I issued a command to my Google Assistant. “Hey Google, good morning!” After a few seconds, she said, “Good morning, Mike!” then she recited the weather, told me my calendar appointments, and finally read me the news. On this particular morning, she announced, “Scattered thunderstorms today.” I took note and proceeded to get dressed.

At 4 AM in the morning, I am routine driven, as my ability to problem solve is compromised. The last thing that I do before my morning walk is to check the computer. A story caught my eye, and I became distracted. I glanced up at the time and realized that I was running late. On shoes, on ball cap, on jacket, and out the door, I bounded.

I was a few doors down the block when I realized that it was drizzling. I could have returned home for an umbrella, but I decided to continue forward. In my gut, I knew that this was the wrong decision. Because I was feeling lazy, I convinced myself that the rain was light and my cotton jacket would protect me.

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I am a planner and preparer. I’m obsessive, and solving problems gives me a degree of pleasure. When I committed to walk/exercise on a daily basis, I worked out many scenarios so I could accomplish my objective in most any situation. For rainy weather, I have a raincoat, waterproof shoes, an umbrella, and even rain pants. It is simple for me to don my rain gear, I was only a few houses down the block. Logic said “Turn back,” laziness said, “Move forward.”

I made it to the Starbucks and was only a little damp. Triumph! I thought. My friend, Tom, stopped by for coffee and we started to chat. He was also running late and was in a hurry to get to his job site.

We parted ways, and I started the 35-minute walk back home. The rain began in earnest, and with each block, it picked up in ferocity. I was becoming more soaked and uncomfortable. The cool breeze now felt damp and icy; I was starting to tremble. The only option was to continue to walk, so I moved forward.

By the time that I reached my front door, I was so wet that even my underwear was soaked. I was shaking and my jaw was chattering. Once inside I headed straight for the bathroom and washed off the cold with a long and steamy hot shower. Somewhat rejuvenated, I put on dry clothes and went to work.

Behaviors repeat themselves in both significant and insignificant ways. If I can learn from my minor mistakes, I can avoid more significant ones. There were many lessons that my screw up taught me. With a little thought, I could have left the house properly attired. With a bit of effort, I could have returned to my home to re-outfit myself. I could have challenged my problem of asking people for help and pressed my friend, Tom, for a ride. I could have called Julie when I was at Starbucks to request a pickup. Any of the above and I would have avoided getting soaked. However, once I started to walk back home I was compelled to complete my hike, as waiting around for a ride would have just made things worse. I could no longer solve the problem, and now I had to correct the outcome.

Here are some things that I learned from my rainy day screw up.
-I need to pay attention and stay on task.
-I should correct small problems before they become bigger ones.
-I should ask for help when needed. People who care about me won’t mind a little inconvenience if they know that I’m genuinely in need.
-If I ignore the first three rules and wind up with a problem, it is my responsibility to come up with a reasonable solution to that problem.

These rules are not only applicable to stormy days but also other life problems, both big and small. I need to be more mindful and aware. Fixing unnecessary problems is a waste of time and energy. At the same time, I need to accept that fact that I am human and I will screw up. Finding the balanced between these two poles can be difficult, but finding this balance is necessary to have a happy life. I want to avoid problems, but I don’t want to plan every scenario so wholly that I lose the joy of spontaneity.

Dear reader, are you a planner, or a fixer? Have you found the right balance in your life? What lessons did life teach you today?

The rain increased with every block that I walked.
So much rain that the river flooded my walking path.

Shari’s Story: Living With Autoimmune Disease

It is 7 PM on a Thursday, and I am seated across Shari, a 46 years old woman with shockingly red curly hair. This is her story.

Shari grew up in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Downers Grove. She showed exceptional creative talents at an early age and would entertain her parents with her complex stories about bunnies. There was something different about Shari, an old soul with an inquisitive mind.

Early intelligence testing gave a partial answer. Shari was a genius. Coming from a family of achievers, she was right at home. Shari was in the top two percent of her high school class, a fact even more amazing as she was involved in over 20 clubs/activities while she worked a part-time job. Despite her accomplishments, Shari always found the most peace in simple things. She deliberately choose the smallest bedroom at her parent’s home and shunned excessive possessions.

College was expected, and she applied and was accepted to the University of Illinois, a premier university. Always a storyteller, she decided on a rhetoric major. As a concession to her father’s fears of unemployability she also took courses in accounting. As in high school, Shari excelled at the U of I. She overloaded herself with classes, worked different jobs, and even became a resident advisor for her dorm. “I took six years of classes in 4 years,” she told me. Her academic achievements at the U of I were significant enough for her to be named a Bronze Scholar, one of the university’s highest undergraduate honors.

Despite her success, something was not quite right. Late in her college career, she became ill to the point of requiring hospitalization. Despite her academic success she felt stressed, instead of accomplished. “I raced to the top of the mountain, and there was nothing there.”

More studies followed at the University College of Cork in Ireland where she obtained a certificate in Irish Studies. Then it was time to get a real job.

What jobs are available for rhetoric majors? Not many, and so she accepted a two-day temporary position at Ace Hardware corporate doing routine data entry. When you are smart, you can generalize what you know and see the bigger picture. In Shari’s case, she was able to use her accounting knowledge to see errors in the data that she was inputting into the computer. She told her supervisor what she observed and went from a two-day temp worker to a full-time position on her first day. Shari was entering the corporate world.

One task led to another, and soon she was designing complex databases and doing statistical analyses for Ace. At the same time, a romance was forming in her life. She met her first husband when she lived in Ireland. He traveled to the US so they could check out the viability of their connection. When his visa ran out, she quickly decided to marry him.

Unfortunately, the relationship was doomed. Her husband couldn’t hold down a job, and would impulsively spend money. She would react by working harder to pay down their debt. Shari learned more programming languages, and soon was working on mainframe computers. A lucrative but time demanding job in pre Y2K.

Wanting to do the right thing it wasn’t uncommon for her to work late in the night and then bring home additional work. The stress of unnecessary debt, extraordinarily long working hours and a difference in values eventually took its toll, and her marriage ended. Raised in a strict Roman Catholic household, the divorce was devastating to her.

More jobs, more responsibility, more challenges. Shari was being pulled by two forces that were equal, but opposite in direction. A desire to have a simple life, and a wish to do an outstanding job in the corporate world.

Along the way, she met her second husband. He was resentful that Shari had a circle of friends and convinced her to move so they could start anew and be on an equal playing field. Where did they move? They moved from Chicago to Australia. In Australia Shari did what she does best, learn. She finished a Master’s degree in creative writing at the prestigious University of Sydney and then went to work at the university. Shari told me that she loved living in Australia, as everything she needed was within an easy walk. A simple life was what made her happy.

She traveled to India on holiday and became ill. She returned to Australia sick and very weak. She found herself working from home, as she did not have the energy to get dressed and travel to work. This went on for many weeks. Slowly, and with the help of medical professionals, she recovered. However, something had changed, something was wrong. Also, her second marriage was now failing, and another divorce was on the horizon. The prospect of a second divorce was sobering.

Shari continued to work at the University of Sidney, and her brilliance promoted her. She was given important projects and a team to work under her. One of her hires was a man named Jason. A person who barely said two words to her while they worked together. But more on Jason later.

With a broken second marriage, she decided to leave her life in Australia and return to the United States. She left behind true friends and the basic life that she loved.

Now back in the US she once again got jobs in business and IT. Learning new systems quickly, always seeing the bigger picture, always overworking. After 18 months she returned to Australia to visit friends and co-workers. Her former employee Jason was at one of her welcoming dinners. “He seemed different, more talkative and engaged.” By the end of the evening, they were holding hands. Four years later they married.

Finally, it seemed like things were going her way. She was married to the love of her life, she had a small and manageable home in Downers Grove, and she had a good job.

Stress was working overtime in the background as she continued to overwork. In the first year of her marriage, she was hospitalized with a bout of Ulcerative Colitis. She developed chronic anemia. In 2012 she was hit by a severe, unknown malady that left her twitching, and uncoordinated. She couldn’t think straight and had no short-term memory. She was in constant pain, and she was continually sleeping. She went from being able to see the bigger picture to not knowing if she let her dog out. It was a horrible time for Shari.

She sought medical attention and diagnoses were made. Autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune neuropathy. She started to do her own research and determined that one of her problems was Hashimoto’s Encephalopathy (HE), a diagnosis later confirmed by her physicians. HE is an autoimmune disorder that causes an inflammation of the brain and produces neurological symptoms because of that inflammation. Other related problems emerged, Lyme Disease, Possibly PANDAS (another autoimmune disease caused by a Streptococcus infection). The combination of stress and infectious agents were creating a one, two punch that was making her life unmanageable. Her body was literally destroying itself.

Shari fought back. Using her own research, novel treatments, and an expert medical team, a multi-modal treatment emerged. Thyroid replacement hormone, steroids, neuro-cognitive training. These have all helped improve Shari’s functioning. However, her health is still fragile. She takes one step forward, only to slide backward with the slightest stress.

Shari is a giving person, but she can become over-involved helping others. She willingly helps friends and family, but her actions can result in an exacerbation of her autoimmune illnesses making her non-functional for days. She would like to be a financial contributor in her marriage, but even part-time work can be too stressful. She struggles with her current lack of functioning, her poor memory, her fatigue.

She says that many doctors missed her diagnoses; they only reviewed simple lab panels and didn’t delve further. She wants to advocate for others who are dealing with undiagnosed maladies. At this time she is a health coach for a young woman who suffers from another chronic disease, but Shari wonders what her next step should be. She knows that it can’t be fueled by the obsessive drive that gave her success but contributed to her sickness. Her illness has forced her to re-explore what has consistently made her happy in the past, a simple, basic life.

Despite her illness, she is grateful. Grateful for the beauty and majesty of nature, grateful for her caring friends, grateful for her loving family, and most of all grateful for her soulmate, Jason.

Life is what you make of it. Sometimes it is more important to celebrate what you have than to constantly grieve over what you have lost. Rejoice in today as will never be repeated.

Do you have a story that you would like me to tell?  If so, click here for more information on this project.

 

Shari

What A House Fire Taught Me

Many people see events as separate dots on a timeline. This is not the way that I view things.  To me, everything connects to everything else. I believe that the world is continually teaching us life lessons, but most people ignore them. This leads me to the story of Mike and the builder.

My father was reasonably handy, but only repaired things under duress. Our house was in shambles.  Although we had a basement workshop, he didn’t teach me the arts of construction and repair. Mostly, he would just tell me to fix things. The results would often be poor, and I would hear about it.

I assumed that by some magic I should know how to do things without any teaching or experience.  This made me a self-starter. It also made me hesitant to tackle significant repair jobs.

I never lost interest in fix-it-up projects, and they still fascinate me today. Accomplishing a small repair can give me a sense of pride and joy.

If you have read some of my other posts, you are probably familiar with my friend Tom.  He is a general contractor, and we are the best of friends. We complement each other in our skills.  There are things that I know how to do that are helpful to Tom. There are things that Tom knows how to do that are helpful to me.  The fascinating thing is that many of the ways that we help each other are not by providing direct services to each other. Instead, we complement each other by our association.

Tom is acting as the general contractor on a home rebuild project.  A fire started in the garage of the home, and in 20 minutes it caused an immense amount of damage.  In 20 minutes the homeowner’s lives were changed forever. Their family was safe, but almost all of the contents of the home were destroyed.  Part of the house will need to be rebuilt entirely. All of the interior walls, floors, doors, and fixtures will need to be replaced. The roof, siding, and driveway will have to be reconstructed.

I have been documenting the progress of the repair with photographs.  This project has been done in short segments. However, recently Tom invited me to spend the whole day with him as he was having his carpentry crew do some significant deconstruction and construction of the house.

He picked me up in his dually from Starbucks, and we headed off to the Naperville site. The house was boarded up, and about one-half of the siding had already been removed. I pulled out my Canon 5D Mark III from my Manfrotto backpack, and I started to shoot.  Soon his crew arrived. A caravan of trucks and vans lined the street. Their contents contained carpenters ready to do battle with a house. This job was too big for one person alone.

Tom’s carpenters are experienced, and they scattered over the house without so much as a word from him.  Soon they were ripping down the remaining siding and pulling off the charred wood. The house started to disappear as pile after pile of burnt wood, siding, and other materials filled the driveway.  As the walls came down in the garage, I could see the destruction that the fire caused. It was sobering.

Tom was now coordinating their activities.  Soon we started a shuttle process. To the recycling center with the siding.  To the lumberyard for lumber. To the garbage dump to offload garbage. To the hardware store to get hardware.  To the grocery store to get water. And so it went.

Piece by piece the garage came down, one slice at a time.  Piece by piece a new structure started to emerge, one board at a time.  The new construction wasn’t rising from the ashes; the ashes had been swept away.  The new garage was rising with careful and methodical planning. The new space modified to improve on the old, but still on its familiar footprint.  A structure connected to the remaining beams that were healthy and strong.

There will be a bigger loft above the garage, better lighting on the adjacent porch, a concrete driveway to replace the melted asphalt one.  The new space will look similar to the old, but it will be better.

The effort will be immense, the cost high. In the end, the owners will have their familiar house back, but it will be improved.  Something good will arise from something terrible.

You may think that I’m am using this construction project as a metaphor. However, I would like to challenge that belief.  A metaphor is typically a word or phrase used to describe something which is not literally applicable. What if these life lessons were utterly relevant?  What if there was a cohesiveness that binds us to our planet and all of its occupants? Like laws of physics, these laws were also constant. If one understood these “laws of the world” he or she could apply them globally to improve other aspects of their existence. I believe that we can enhance who we are, what we do, how we feel. The world around us can be our teacher; we need to stop, look, and listen.

Here are just a few of the things that this house taught me:

-Bad things can happen for no reason.

-It is important to accept things that you have no control over.

-It is essential to take responsibility for those things you do have control over.

-Most events or situations are neither good nor bad. We assign these values artificially.

-We can take good things and make them bad.  However, we can also take bad things and make them good.

-When faced with a difficult task, things go better with friends to help you.

-The homeowners will have a better house once the construction is completed.  They will need to pay for this metamorphosis with discomfort, time and effort.  They will have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty. This is no different than making a change in a person’s life. Changing from an unhealthy place to a healthy one will require discomfort, time, effort, and uncertainty.

-At the recycler, we saw mountains of worn metal that will be melted and repurposed.  At the garbage dump, we saw broken cardboard boxes being prepared to be processed for future use. We also saw garbage that had to be discarded, as it was dangerous and toxic.

We may have parts of us that we think are bad, but with effort, we can make those parts good. Other parts have to be discarded, as they are so broken that they pose a danger to us.

-The fire destroyed some of the homeowner’s garden. For new growth to thrive, the dead plants need to be removed.  

Just like the dead plants we need to rid ourselves of bad habits, behaviors and relationships to make space for good, healthy ones.

These are just a few of the lessons that I learned from a burnt house and a general contractor.  Dear reader, look around you, life lessons are everywhere. Perhaps your clothes dryer is trying to tell you something.  Think I’m being ridiculous? Think again.

After the fire
Removing the bad to make room for the good
Rebuilding
Old metal will be melted and become anew
Some things are so toxic that they have to be completely discarded

 

Getting Rid Of The Landline

This week I made a change of monumental personal proportions. With that said, it was long overdue and probably would seem insignificant to anyone under 40. What did I do? I got rid of my landline phone.

When I was growing up a hardwired phone was considered essential, and it was an expensive essential at that. My home had a single, black rotary phone. Borning in its simple functionality. In those days phones were controlled by the powerful AT&T, which was essentially a monopoly.

Calling outside a limited “zone” meant an upcharge. Calling long distance was extremely expensive. Add-ons to your phone had to be purchased from AT&T at exorbitant prices. No mere mortal could afford an answering machine.

By the 1970s AT&T was forced to loosen its grip. Third party companies were allowed (by law) to connect with AT&T phone lines, and suddenly there was a tsunami of designer phones, answering machines, and other telephonic gadgets at reasonable costs. Ma Bell still had a stranglehold on infrastructure and charged accordingly. Long distance calls were still only made on very special occasions in my household; every second measured with no calls to exceed 10 minutes.

This all changed with the advent of the cellphone. My first one was a Panasonic box phone. I purchased it for almost $2000 in 1987; I was charged ten cents for every minute of airtime. The Panasonic was the size of a cigar box and had a separate handset that pulled out from the case. It had a giant gel type battery to power its circuitry, and the combination weighed so much that I had to use a shoulder strap to carry it. Even so, it was a miraculous invention, so amazing that people would stop me on the street and ask me what it was. “Can you make phone calls from that?” They would ask in awe and amazement.

Fast forward a decade, and what was novel became commonplace. Almost everyone had a cellphone. Fast forward another ten years and the world was introduced to the first iPhone. The iPhone not only changed an industry, but it also changed our culture. It was the first “smartphone” designed for people, not businesses. It was cool. It was a status symbol. Everyone wanted one.

Smartphones are now commonplace. Common with the affluent suburbanites where I live. Common with the poor folks that I treat in Rockford. Common in third world countries where it is more usual to have a cell phone than hot running water. Now that most people have their own “personal communication device,” the once-essential landline has become a dinosaur technology.

When I was active in my private practice, I kept the landline as an emergency backup. Our hardwired phone had multiple extensions in my home. I didn’t have to have my cell phone velcroed to my hip at all times as my answering service was instructed to ring the house phone at night. The landline also served as a central hub. The place where we would get reminders of doctor’s visits. The place where banks would call if they suspected fraudulent activity on our credit cards. The place where we would get our robo calls from our kid’s school when there was a snow day.

Every month I paid for the phone and the extra, but necessary services. Extra cost for voicemail, and the increasingly important caller ID.

Over the years our phone calls changed. The majority of the real calls came to us by our cell phones, but that didn’t stop our landline from being used. There was an endless number of calls from sellers, politicians, charities, and random spoofed numbers that implied that they were coming from down the block, rather than across the world. These nuisance calls become ever more prevalent, and ever more aggressive. If I didn’t pick up a call, the caller would call again and again. Calls during dinner time, calls late at night, calls early in the morning. Some telemarketers became so aggressive that I elected to spend over a hundred dollars to buy a “call blocker,” a device designed to intercept unwanted calls and hang up on them.

The landline had gone from necessary, to a backup, to an annoyance. It was time to go.

I retired at the end of 2017, and I planned to do a technology purging by the end of January 2018. Not only was I going to get rid of the landline, but also my cable TV, and my unreliable internet service.

January came and went, as did February. I wondered what was holding me back from making a simple cancellation call. As with most personal roadblocks, I started to explore what was going on.

Part of the problem centered on the fact that I had had a regular phone for so long that on a subconscious level it did seem like a necessity, even though I knew that this was no longer the case. Part of the problem centered on the fact that eliminating the landline would be an indicator that my private practice was over. Part of the problem was my fear that I would make a mistake. Since our phone, internet, and cable were all from the same provider, a mistake would leave us disconnected and technologically dead in the water. This last point resonated true. It was the main reason that I was not pulling the plug. Now that I knew what was stopping me, it was time to come up with a solution.

The solution was simple. Instead of starting one provider and ending another in a precision one-two punch, I would allow for an overlap. I would only cancel my old services once my new internet connection was in place and working to my satisfaction.

I know that this sounds obvious, but I had been thinking rigidly, and I assumed that my lack of action was because of laziness. I had to understand the “why,” before I could come up with the “how.”
You may ask why I’m writing about a utility cancellation. Like most things that I write about, there is a broader reason. How often do we get stuck continuing to do things that are not in our best interest? How often do we get stuck not making a change, when doing so would make our lives better? Could there be reasons for our actions that go beyond laziness? Have we thought about alternative way to think about a solution? Have we considered asking someone trusted if they had any thoughts on a solution? My phone issue illustrates that a little time and flexibility can sometimes turn the impossible into the possible. The same process applies to a bad relationship, a terrible job, or damaging behavior.

So often it is the little things in life that make the biggest difference. Small annoyances are like dealing with a cloud of gnats. Singularly, they have little impact. Cumulatively, they can bring us down.

 

 

Evaporating Time

Evaporating Time.

Time is thought to be constant.  Something that in a Newtonian world does not vary. On my kitchen wall is an Atomic clock, so named because it has a radio receiver that listens to WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado.  That transmission consists of a signal which is synchronized precisely to the atomic clock that resides there. An instrument so precise that it measures time by the electromagnetic radiation emitted as electrons move from one energy level to another. Science and technology rely on this precision. If time were not constant, our lives would be in chaos. Global travel would be impossible; cell phones would brick, Scientific research would be meaningless, nuclear reactors would melt down. However, it seems that time is not constant for me.

I worked seven days a week as a medical student. When I rotated through senior medicine, I was fortunate that my teaching resident liked me.  During the twelve week rotation, she thoughtfully gave me a Saturday off. I was overcome with appreciation. This would mean that I would have Friday night off, and could sleep in Saturday morning if I wished.  I would also have all of Saturday to do whatever I wanted to do. It was like receiving a Christmas present in August.

Early in my professional career I worked multiple jobs, which included a busy private practice. I was on call seven days a week for my patients, and I never knew when my pager would go off.  It was hard to go into noisy places because it would be difficult to take a call on my cigar box sized cell phone. I couldn’t have a single beer. I slept very lightly. On occasion, I would get someone to cover for me.  This would give me an entire weekend to do with as I pleased. I could travel beyond my pagers range. I could leave my 7-pound phone behind. More Christmas presents for sure. However, it didn’t seem three times bigger then the single day I got as a medical student.

My career continued, and it became easier to have slices of open time.  I learned how to manage my patients, and they rarely called on weekends.  They knew that I was good about returning their calls during the week, and so they didn’t panic.  I was respectful of their needs, and so they were respectful of mine. My phones shrank in size and weight.  I no longer carried a pager. More freedom, more time. But the ratio of time to extracurricular activity did not grow proportionally.

I now work three days a week, giving me a four day weekend 52 weeks out of the year.  This four day weekend my family went to Minnesota, leaving me behind. Completely free of any obligation, my opportunities were endless.  How would I fill all of those days? I quickly came up with a todo list in my head. There would be some practical projects and household tasks.  I would do some socializing. I would take myself out to eat. I would go to a couple of movies. I might even travel to the country for a day trip.  There were many things to do, but I had four days all to myself. At the start of the weekend, my  time seemed endless.

The days came and went. I did do a few practical projects, but not all of them. I did socialize some, but not to the extent that I would have liked. I did take myself out to eat, but it was at McDonald’s. I did watch a single movie, but it was over two days and on Netflix. I did travel into the country, but only to keep my friend Tom company on a business call.  There were other things on my list, but I just never got around to do them.

It was as if time shrank.  I would wake up and do a few things; then it was time to go to bed. The cycle would repeat, and then the weekend was over. Dear reader, I had a perfectly lovely weekend, but it seemed like the activities that usually would fill one day had expanded into four. It was almost as if time had shortened, or perhaps my activities expanded.  I see this trend in other areas of my life. I am doing the things that I said that I would do. But the quantity and frequency of those activities have dramatically shrunk. It is so easy to fill my time with a conversation, or a walk, or some meditation. I am not complaining, as I think this is a natural progression as one goes from a more structured to a less structured life. However, I find it interesting.

I could come up with a rigid schedule.  I could have my phone beep commands to keep me on target. I could use an accountability partner. With that said, there is something to learn from a reduction of traditionally productive activity. A growth that comes in gentle breezes of learning that are interspersed with fewer planned experiences.

Does time shrink? Does it evaporate? It doesn’t appear to be constant in my real world.  I accept that fact, but I am unsure of its significance. Sometimes not knowing is OK.

Is time really constant?

My life is like my spice cabinet

What is on your bucket list?  Going skydiving? Attending baseball games at all of the major stadiums? Buying a BMW M6?  I have a bucket list too, and I am in the process of tackling one of my items. My list has some fun goals on it, but it also has some things that I need to do for other reasons.  So what am I tackling? Cleaning out my spice cabinet, of course!

Dear reader, as I type this, I imagine you yawning as you click off this post, but I am who I am.  In our house, the spice cabinet occupies an entire three shelf kitchen cabinet. For years it has been so full that finding the most common item can require digging through its entire contents.

The cabinet serves as a repository of general baking items, such as baking powder and vanilla.  It has specialty items, like my wife’s ever-growing collection of cookie sprinkles. It has cooking items, like bouillon.  And of course, it has lots and lots of spices.

The last sentence may make you think that we are exotic gourmet cooks.  This is not the case. Like many, we buy an unusual spice to try out a recipe and then keep it.  Our cabinet has Chinese, Indian, and Cajun spices with names that I can’t even pronounce. We also have the usual spices: oregano, bay leaves, paprika, basil, thyme, cinnamon, that we use often.

 The cabinet is jammed packed, and I have wanted to clean it out for years, but the thought of doing the job was overwhelming.  Instead, I would waste time digging through unneeded items to find those common spices that I did need. I would rebuy spices that we had because I couldn’t locate them in the cabinet. The cabinet was so full that a little jostling would send these bottles to their death. It was common to have a bottle fall and shatter on the kitchen countertop when I went spice hunting, creating an unnecessary and sometimes dangerous mess.  

Yesterday I decided that enough was enough and I started the process of cleaning, eliminating and restocking.  Various jars and bottles completely covered my kitchen countertops. I sorted through them. Long expired spices went into the garbage, as did those spices that we used once and are likely never to be used again. I asked my wife if she wanted to participate in the cleanup.  She said no, and I couldn’t blame her. Her refusal has exonerated me from any future blame if I accidentally tossed out an item that she would have kept.

Today I’ll line the cabinet with shelf paper, and restock it with the saved items.  Cleaning a spice cabinet is like many life tasks. At some point, I’ll have to do it all over again.

Dear reader, if you have been following my blog, you likely realize that I find life lessons in just about everything. As humans, our responses are limited and routine. We tend to practice the same behaviors in many of our actions, whether it is in our lack of attention to a spice cabinet, or lack of attention to our lives, goals, and relationships.

These are the lessons that I learned from my spice cabinet cleaning:

  • Just like bottles of unused spices, it is easy to let unimportant things clutter up my life.
  • Keeping “brain clutter” around increases my chance of not paying attention to things that I do need to pay attention to.  The result is that unnecessary problems can come crashing down on me.
  • It is OK to give up those things that are not important to me, even if they would be considered important to someone else.
  • Sometimes I have to do the real work of cleaning this stuff out of my life, even if I don’t want to.
  • Doing this necessary work doesn’t have to be pleasant.  Necessary does not mean pleasant. Necessary means necessary.
  • When indicated, I need to include the feelings and needs of those around me when making such decisions. However, my needs also count.
  • This is not a one and done process, and I will need to repeat it once my life-clutter builds again.
  • If I do regular check-ins with myself, I will be able to deal with my life-clutter sooner. The task will become more routine, it will be easier to accomplish, and I will become more efficient at accomplishing it.
  • Just like spices, having a little variability and uncertainty adds interest to my life.  However, just like spices, too much ruins it.

Wishing you a clean spice cabinet, and just enough spice to make your life interesting!

a cabinet full of unused spices!

 

Taking Pictures In The Bathroom

Taking Pictures In The Bathroom.

My original plan had me walking Tuesday morning at 5 AM.  My friend Tom was going to pick me up at 7:30 AM and take me to do a photoshoot of a recent remodel job that he completed. Monday night I received a text message from Tom, “Can you help me with my computer?  I’ll take you to breakfast.” “Sure,” I replied. An adventure with Tom trumps walking.

At 4:50 AM Tom pulled up in front of my house.  I put my coat on and headed out the door. Once inside the cabin of the car I was greeted by a friendly hello and a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee.  We headed into the city meeting rush hour traffic. I was grateful that Tom was driving; traffic makes me crazy.

At our favorite breakfast joint, The Palace, Tom chided me to order “Something decent  this time.” I have been making an effort to be conservative in my ordering, and this unannounced change had clearly been picked up by him.  I went with a veggie omelet. Tom pulled out his MacBook Pro and I fiddled with it and solved his technical problem. I have never had a computer class, but I seem to have an ability to understand computers.  Sometimes the answers to a computer problem will literally flash in front of me. I guess this talent would be classified under the category that my wife refers to as my autistic brain.

Off to the suburbs and the photoshoot.  Tom had several appointments Tuesday morning and so I shot solo.

The remodel consisted of a kitchen and two bathrooms.  He had put a lot of thought and energy into the project and was rightly proud of the outcome. He wanted me to digitally capture when he was seeing for his portfolio.  

Dear reader, there are few architectural shoots that are more difficult than a bathroom.  Consumers see glossy photos in advertisements, but they don’t realize that these images can be bathroom “sets,” and not the real thing.  When a pro shoots a real bathroom the room is sometimes partially deconstructed to allow for proper shooting angles.

Bathrooms are small, and to give photos the illusion of a larger space it is necessary to use a wide angle lens along with a camera capable of using such a lens to its greatest advantage. Wide angle lenses add a tremendous amount of distortion to an image. Objects towards the corners of the lens spread out and tilt in very unnatural ways.

Lighting is difficult when shooting a bathroom, a flash has to be carefully directed to avoid washing out closeby surfaces. Even using existing lighting presents its own problems of unwanted reflection and exposure blowouts.

Reflective surfaces, like mirrors and glass shower doors, are everywhere.  It isn’t considered professional to see a photographer in the mirror of a finished photograph! Doors open into spaces, blocking the room view.  The list of issues goes on and on.

When we view a bathroom in person we are able to take in the whole experience. Our brain makes a composite image out of many scanned images. Unwanted objects are filtered out, holes are filled in.   The camera can only see the room one section at a time which highlights, not hides, flaws.

Door removal and room modification were (obviously) not an option, the best I could do was to try to emphasize creativity, rather than absolute accuracy.

I mounted a borrowed 16-35 mm L series lens on a Canon 5D and positioned myself in the room looking for the best angles… I started shooting. High shots, low shots, inside shots, outside shots, this angle, that angle… click, click click.  A quick scan of the camera’s LCD screen to make sure I was in focus. Another scan to make sure that I wasn’t being reflected in the glass shower door. Click, click, click. It took me hours to shoot the two remodeled baths and the kitchen.

When I arrived back home I loaded the images into my computer.  A tweak in the overall contrast, a little more exposure here, better white balance there, and so it went.  I have some perspective correction tools that reduced some of the most egregious optical distortions, but I’m am hardly a Photoshop expert.  I don’t have the ability to create a geometrically accurate image, or the ability to perfectly clone out imperfections. Even so, I spent the rest of the day tweaking photos.

In the end, I felt OK with the results.  They were a little better than the last bathroom photoshoot that I did.  Hopefully, the next bathroom shoot will be a little better than this one. Although challenging, my project was also exciting.  I pushed myself to think differently, I became more proficient, not only with the photography but also the post-production work. I forced myself to use my own standard as a reference point.  That standard was not perfection.

Dear reader, I believe that last Tuesday’s photo shoot was actually a metaphor for how I approach life and its problems. If I have a problem I tend to believe that there is a solution to it.  I think about the potential issues and plan accordingly. I explore my solution specific strengths and weaknesses. I focus on potential pitfalls and possible workarounds for them. I face the problem and try to learn from both my successes and failures.  I correct my course as needed. I establish what is an acceptable outcome. Perfection does not exist, acceptable is the way to go.

I am not claiming that this method is the only reasonable one, but it generally has worked for me.  When I talk to some of my patients I can see how their problem solving is ineffective and at times causes them unnecessary stress and grief. Some people adopt the impulsive “ask forgiveness” model.  Some plan so obsessively that they never get around to tackling the task at hand. Some use the “I’ll worry about it tomorrow” option. Some feel that any outcome other than 100% is a failure, so they do nothing. Some utilize the, “It is not my fault, it’s your fault,” philosophy. None of these are congruent with happy life.

We are creatures of habit, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt and change.  If you are unhappy with the way that your life is going explore what you can do to change it.  Be reasonable and take responsibility for your actions. Don’t blame others, become your own force of change. Sometimes the slogan, “Life is what you make it,” can be true.

Bathroom detail shot.
A beautiful bathroom.
Interesting angles.
A wonderful roll-in shower.
Bathroom detail shot.