Category Archives: Empowerment

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

 

Sitting In The Car Waiting

I sit in my car and wait. My daughter is inside her teacher’s home having her oboe lesson. I hear the sounds of a small gas engine, likely a lawnmower. It drones in the background. The temperature, a pleasant 67 degrees. It is damp due to recent rain. On my lap is my trusty lap table. On that table is my iPad. I type.

Another Monday in my retirement. It started with me donning rain shoes, rain jacket, and umbrella. As usual, I walked to Starbucks. I was surprised to see Tom’s truck already in the lot, as I’m typically the first to arrive. He was inside drinking coffee and polishing off an unknown snack; probably a scone.

Donovan, the barista, poured my tall cup of Veranda as soon as he saw me enter. I grabbed it and sat down next to Tom and started our Monday review.

Tom didn’t go to the Blues Festival as he had wished, due to yesterday’s rain. I did go on my breakfast walk with Ralph, despite the rain. We checked an auto-posting problem for his website, talked about our kids, sipped our coffee. And so the conversation went. Tom asked me if I had time to go to Roselle with him and I did a quick calculation, as I needed to drive Grace to her lesson. A few adjustments were made, and off we went.

Back home I did a minor project, and now I sit waiting in the driver’s seat of my red Flex. I don’t like to be unproductive, which is why I brought my gear with me.

Sitting, typing, occasionally looking out the car’s windows to a slowly changing scene.

Now a senior man in bib overalls is mowing his grass directly across the street from me. The mower’s growl replacing the noise from the more distant one that droned earlier.

I seem content with my new found slower pace, but at the same time, I’m slightly restless. I continue to feel that I need to be doing more, accomplishing more, being more. This is countered by the reality that I am doing things, just not at the pace that I had originally set for myself. I grant myself forgiveness for the reduction in my output.

As I sit, I notice that I am feeling grateful, and I’m not sure why… let me think. Grateful for living in a good community, Grateful for friends and family. Grateful for my health. Grateful that I still have the wonder of a little boy inside of me.

My mind drifts again. What would it have been like if my grandparents had not immigrated from Slovakia? Likely, I would not exist. But what if I did? Limited education, limited opportunities, a limited life. I wonder if I would have made the best of it. It seems to be in my nature to view things in a positive way. I think that I would have been OK.

Some people think that they can fix their lives by being somewhere else. In some cases this is true, but in most cases, it is not. After all, we take ourselves with us wherever we go.

I drift again. I wonder what is in store for the rest of the day. I guess life is a box of chocolates. I’ll bite in and see what I get.

Dear reader, what are you grateful for today?

Posting on the road.

Driving back home.

The Kuna Kampout

Traditions are customs, activities, or believes that are repeated over time. They can seem trivial to those who are outside the group, but they are essential to the individuals inside of it. Traditions offer a sense of security, belonging, and stability to participants. They sometimes serve a higher purpose, or they can be significant based on their merit. In our family, the Kuna Kampout is a tradition that extends to the greater group of my siblings, cousins, and their respective connections. It occurs once a year at a state park in Michigan, typically early in June.

My cousin, Ken, reminded me that the first Kuna Kampout happened in 2002 and was the result of a conversation that I had with him at another family event the year earlier. We were talking at the Clans Christmas get-together called Droby Fest (named after a Slovak meat/potato/rice sausage). I was telling him how much I enjoyed camping, and he had the idea of having a summer campout.

As a child, most family activities were done en masse with all relatives. Birthdays, First Communions, Confirmations, Christmas Eve, Easter; we would all gather, eat, play, and connect. However, our family expanded over time, and it became more and more challenging to host these large events. Our parties transitioned from extended family get-togethers to immediate family get-togethers.

On the Kuna side of the family, this change occurred when I was in high school. Suddenly, the only times that I saw my cousins were at weddings and funerals. I was young, and my life was busy; I didn’t think much about the change.

For the next 20 years, it was unusual to see my cousins as most of the weddings had already happened, and funerals were, thankfully, rare. In the 1990s my sister was talking to my cousin at a funeral, and together they came up with the idea of a fall reunion picnic. I was given the job of making the invitation flyer, and so started a series of major and minor get-togethers that have continued ever since. Our family is lucky to have my cousin Ken and his sister Kris, who have become our event planners. They are instrumental in keeping our family traditions alive.

Within the tradition of the Kuna Kampout are embedded sub-traditions. My nephew’s late night group hike. My cousin’s baked over coals pineapple upside down cake. A campfire sing-along accompanied by my bad guitar playing. However, the main reason we get together is to talk, eat and reconnect. It is over these three activities that we recommit to each other.

I am very fortunate to have nice relatives. No one gets drunk and violent. No one makes snide remarks. No one needs to brag their way to synthetic superiority.

For traditions to continue, they need to be flexible. I had to be flexible to attend this years camp out, as all of my immediate family could not attend. I had a choice to stay at home, or go solo. I decided to push myself and go to the event.

Being an introvert I like the security of having my immediate family around me, but instead of focusing on what I wasn’t getting I decided to ponder what I was getting.

The advantages of going to the camp out solo were:
It would be much easier to pack.
I would be able to spend more time with my cousins.
I could determine what activities I wanted to do.
I would challenge the guilt that I feel over doing things for myself.
I could try vandwelling.

These last two points were of great interest to me. I always have had a sense of obligation that somehow dictated that doing things just for me was bad. This is a ridiculous belief, but it is one that I hold. Over the last few years, I have gone on a couple of small trips with my friend Tom. However, the Kampout would be my first solo event. I want to write about people across America, and that will involve traveling by myself. This solo excursion could be a step in that direction.

Going solo would also allow me to try vandwelling. I am a big guy, but I have a big car that has fold down seats. The rear space is enough for a sleeping bag, and the ability to sleep in the car on a road trip would make any solo travel immensely more affordable. Another step towards my goal.

I am happy to say that I accomplished my goals. It rained heavily on the night of the campout, and sleeping in my car was an advantage, as many of the tent dwellers were soaked the next morning.

In review, this is what this year’s Kuna Kampout gave me. I kept a tradition and grew a little closer to my relatives. I broke a tradition, by traveling solo, and grew a little more personally. Lastly, I tried something new, vandwelling, and grew a little more adventurous.

Dear reader, explore and celebrate your healthy traditions, but feel free to modify or eliminate repeated behaviors that prevent you from moving towards your goals. Celebrate the relationships in your life. There is no better time than right now to let those around you know that they are your priorities.

My home away from home.
Vandwelling.
Playing the guitar
A smaller, but enthusiastic group this year.

Let Me Write Your Story

Dear reader, I need your help. If you help me, your actions will also help you.

I want to document the lives of people.  This process would involve writing their story and taking some photos of them.  I’m interested in telling the story of regular people who have had extraordinary experiences. Extraordinary is a confusing modifier, so let me explain.  I would like to write about stories that changed the direction of someone’s life, either for good or for bad.

Most of us would say that having a child causes a monumental change in a person’s life. But what about the person who had to deal with a child’s serious illness, or perhaps the person who had a severe illness as a child? Did these experiences significantly change the trajectory of their life?  

How about someone who fell into a career path, only to find out that it was their life’s calling?  How about the person whose career path almost destroyed them?

Do you have a passionate interest that has impacted your life? Are you driven to change the world, no matter how small? Have you changed your ways (good or bad), and how did that impact you?  Did you make a significant career change that was surprising to those around you? Did some random event transform your life? YOUR LIFE MATTERS. YOU HAVE A STORY TO TELL.

I would want to explore one storyline with you, which would likely take several hours of your time.  Also, I would spend some time with you to take some photos.

I would write up your story and post it on my blog along with some of the photos that I shot. I’m doing this as a proof-of-concept for a possible book, which could include your story.

Who will know who you were 100 years from now?  I look at old photos of relatives, and I don’t even know their names, let alone their story. What would it be like to personally touch a future relative?  What would it be like for them to know just a little about who you were? What would it be like to have someone distill a pivotal part of your life into a cohesive narrative?  What would it be like to have high-quality photos attached to that story? Images that would transform written words into a real person to the reader. Not just random cell phone snapshots, but pictures that were taken with the expressed purpose of making your story real.

I am a professional interviewer.  I am a writer. I shoot photos professionally.  There are folks with lesser skills who would charge you to do what I’m offering to do.  Your story is worth telling.

If you are interested, here are some more details:

My initial effort will be limited to 5 stories (5 individuals). If you have an interest in me doing this for you, please don’t wait or hesitate.

I will decide whose stories that I document.

For this round, I will travel up to two hours (by car) from my Chicago area home.

Naturally, you will need to allow me to post/publish your story and photos. (I know, obvious)

I will make my written narrative and select photos available to you for your archives.    

Email me at SPAMmike_kuna@hotmail.com (remove the word “SPAM” in the email address). In a paragraph or two tell me about your story. Don’t let yourself or your story disappear with the passing of time.   

Let me know if you are interested.

Dr. Mike

PS If you are further than 2 hours away from Chicago, write me anyway.  Although my initial efforts are limited geographically, I absolutely will consider expanding the scope of this project in the future if there is enough interest.

Your story is important.
Photos make your story alive.

Concerning My Birthday Party

The offer to me came earlier this year, and to Julie’s shock, I accepted it.  The offer? Julie asked me if I wanted a birthday party to celebrate my 65th birthday.  She has queried such options in the past, and I have always said no. But, dear reader, it is time for a change, and I am changing. With this said, my simple “Yes” was anything but easy for me to utter.

Why would it be so difficult for me to allow someone to celebrate such a special day? The answers go beyond the obvious, but many of these reasons will be familiar to those of you who have been reading my blog.

First, the obvious.  I am an introvert and being the center of attention can be an exhausting experience.  

Second, the more significant reason.  My life has been a life of service, both professionally and personally.  I have formed many of my relationships under the umbrella of things that I have done, or could do, for others.  I think that this reality is not accidental. In part, I feel if you can help someone, you should. In part, providing a service to someone justifies the relationship. “Be my friend, and I will help you.”  In part, it allows me to have a certain amount of control over the connection. Like most people, I am complex, as are my motivations to do things. Those motivations are neither good nor bad, they are.

Back to my birthday party…

My real fear of asking someone to do something for me is that they won’t do it.  This is based on my childhood where that was my experience. I learned very early on that I had to rely on myself.  I could not expect others to do things for me. Having to rely on myself made me angry, and I turned that anger into the fuel that drove me forward.  As I have said in previous posts, “Take a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage.”

I became robust, resilient, and self-reliant.  However, there is a flipside to this coin. There is a part of me that wants to be loved, cared for, nurtured, and celebrated for who I am, not what I do.  This aspect of me is buried deep in my psyche and highly protected. However, part of my current efforts to grow beyond past limitations is to confront these needs and acknowledge them.  Hence, “Sure throw me a party.”

My past strategy had been to never expect anything from anyone, but to fantasize that people in my life would be there, “If I needed them.”  As a psychiatrist, I know the folly of such a fantasy. I have worked with many caregiving patients (often women) who have devoted themselves to others in selfless ways.  They have selected individuals who were more than happy to be cared for. Sadly, when these caregiving individuals needed help in return, their relationship was nowhere to be found.  Their connections signed up to receive full service, not to deliver a service. Naturally, this makes sense. However, even psychiatrists use psychological ploys to get through the daily experience that we call life.

Although my actual birthday was earlier this year, my celebration is scheduled for this weekend.  I am stressed as this event draws a clear line defining my worth to those around me. My old tapes are playing.  Instead of thinking that the people who care about me will be happy to celebrate with me, I think that they will be resentful and act out their feelings in one way or another.  I have heard stories of people traveling to another state to celebrate a milestone with an old neighbor or a casual friend. This seems entirely normal for others, but not for me. Are my close connections willing to put themselves out a bit to celebrate with me?  My rational self says yes, my inner child says, no. I guess I will know the truth in a few days.

To add to this drama, Julie has asked people to write a little note or letter to me which she will bind into a scrapbook.  I want such records to pass onto my children and grandchildren. I don’t want to become an unknown image on an old photograph.  I want to be a real person to my future lineage. I don’t think that this is grandiosity, I believe that it is based on my sense of mortality.  Who are we if no one remembers that we ever existed? Here again, I fear that I’m burdening others. This reality will also be soon known.

Dear reader, thank you for following my story.  We are all imperfect. My goal in life has always been to make a difference in the world, however small.  I want to leave the earth a bit better, rather than a bit worse. Otherwise, why should I exist?

To move forward with my life, I have decided to be fearlessly honest with myself and those around me, including you.  I may be 65, but I still am growing and evolving. I am traveling forward to a destination not yet apparent in the fog that is my future.  However, I am starting to see vague shapes ahead, and my writing is one of the things that is allowing this clarity to happen.

Next Sunday is my birthday party; the day will come and go.  It will be replaced by Monday. Will it justify my childhood fears? Will it support my objective reality?  I guess I will have to wait and see. Either way, I will grow. Peace.

 

A Forest, A Lone Tree

A block and a half away is the DuPage river and its paths.  As I enter the commons that abuts the river I have two choices, I can turn right or I can turn left.

Turning right takes me down a cobblestone path that leads to downtown Naperville.  Along the way, there are luxury houses, colorful fountains, covered bridges, and public sculptures.  It is beautiful but in a scripted way. Every bend of the path carefully calculated to be the most aesthetically pleasing. However, turning left takes me to a different reality. The reality of a preserve called McDowell Grove.

I turn left. Within minutes of walking, I am on a gravel path that winds through forest and prairie. The path takes me under a railroad trestle, then under a highway, then past a dam.  Soon I am walking among trees, then through an open and wild prairie. A prairie not unlike prairies of the past. Low and rolling, buzzing with life as if to spite the long lingering winter.

I walk carrying an old camera.  My Canon 7D slung over my shoulder on a strap that transects my chest.  That strap designed to counter its gravid 820-gram weight.

I looked to the right and then to the left as I explore photographic possibilities. I have been on this path a hundred times, but I always find something to peak my creative interest. I enter the prairie and force my vision to the right. In front of me stands a lone tree surrounded by tall grasses.  Behind me is a forest of-of trees, each member huddled closely together.

My mind floods as it starts to compare and categorize the two visual experiences. What are the advantages of being a lone tree?  What are the advantages of being a tree among many in the wood?

My thoughts generalize and regroup.  What are the advantages of being in a group?  What are the advantages of being apart from a group? I pull my camera from my hip and press it against my cheek. I squint into the viewfinder and compose.  Click, click, click. I take three shots shifting my field of view slightly with each. I slide my camera back onto my hip and continue walking. Although I move forward my thoughts remain on the trees.

My thoughts generalize and regroup again.  Now I am focusing on my children and the lessons that I have taught them. Those lessons both directed and inferred.  Lessons of ethics. Lessons of integrity. Lessons of justice.

I realize that there are many paths in life, I reflect that I have tried to instill in them the values that will allow them to become strong and honorable adults.  Values that places ethics before gain. Values that place integrity before popularity. Values that place justice before complacency.

My thoughts shift back to the trees.  In some ways, those that stand together are protected.  Protected from the wind and the frost. The tree that stands alone does not have those protections, so it must become strong and resilient on its own.  For its efforts, it gets to grow freely, without pressure from its neighbors to conform. However, to grow freely doesn’t mean that it will grow well. Other factors determine this.

Most trees grow together in forests, but an entire forest can be destroyed by the single lighting flash of a thunderstorm. After such a disaster the lone tree is the one that survives, that continues to grow, that ultimately determines the new direction for its species.

My thoughts shift back to my children. I see them as trees standing in a prairie.  Not bending to those around them. Growing strong and able to battle the wind and the frost. I hope my lessons will help them grow well.  However, I can only plant a seed, they will grow as they wish. I cannot determine this.

Standing alone in the prairie.

 

Meeting With Pastor Dave and WordPress

I accept the fact that I’m an introvert, but that acceptance wasn’t always the case.  Before I understood this aspect of my personality, I used to be self-critical of my behavior.  I would see people around me on the move. They would socialize with one group, and then another.  They had 5 or 6 “best friends.” They would form “close” connections based on their personal monetary or career needs.

I would think to myself, “Why is it so hard for me to socialize in these ways?  If I could be more like them I could…” I felt that there was something wrong with me.  

I can’t recall the actual moment when I realized that I was an introvert, but I do remember that it was a great relief to understand why I behaved the way that I did.  It was affirming to view this aspect of me as a positive trait; part of who I am.

With that said, there are times when introverts have to play the part of an extrovert, and I am able to put on a coat of sociability when necessary.  However, since this isn’t my natural demeanor, it can be exhausting. Usually, I manage these energy expenditures carefully. An extroverted activity followed by some private time.

As I have written many times, I do like people, and I do enjoy interacting with them.  However, I need my personal space to recharge. I am not energized by large groups; I am depleted.  It is a rare day that I would deliberately schedule multiple social interactions. One of those rare days was yesterday.

At 1 PM I had a scheduled meeting with my pastor.  I belong to a large non-denominational church, and I was meeting with its co-founder, Dave.  I had set up a meeting with him weeks earlier. The meeting was based on my “leave no stone unturned” philosophy of life.  Other than that, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to happen at the meeting. I knew that in some abstract way I was trying to move forward on the “next aspect of my life” thing.  Pastor Dave is a smart guy who takes charge of his world, but beyond that, I knew little about him.

The morning of the meeting met me with dread.  “Why would he want to meet with me? He is too busy.  I am using up his valuable time.” And so the tapes played.  I understand the historical reasons for these thoughts, and I do not let them stop me.  However, they are still distressing.

I returned home from my morning walk and briefly discussed my concerns with my wife, Julie.  She was busy getting ready for the day, and I tried to respect her time limitations. I drove over to my friend Tom’s house and also voiced some of my fears to him.  It is a good thing for me to share my irrational fears with people that I’m close. This is a relatively new behavior and a healthy one.

Soon it was time for me to go to the church and my anxiety returned full force.  I reminded myself. “He is only going to spend 30 minutes with you. It is not that much of an imposition.”

One PM arrived, and I found myself seated in a medium sized room at a large round folding table.  In walked Pastor Dave. I started to talk, not knowing what would come out of my mouth in the next second.  I assumed that Dave did this sort of thing multiple times a day, but he told me that he was more involved with the vision of the church and that he enjoyed the chance to do something different.

Our conversation continued well past 30 minutes.  At the hour point, his assistant stuck her head into the room to remind him “about that call that he needed to make.”  I’m sure that this was the standard protocol when she sensed that a parishioner was taking up too much of the pastor’s time.  I immediately started to grab my coat, but Dave put his hand up indicating that he wanted to continue to talk. He recommended a couple of books that might be helpful to me, and also suggested a life assessment that he found personally useful.  Ninety minutes into the meeting we ended with a prayer. I didn’t feel like I wasted his time, it was a nice feeling.

Shortly after I arrived home, I drove my daughter, Grace, to a meeting.  In my mind, I imagined returning back home. I would take a long shower and put on some loungewear. I would immerse myself in a project and I would consider having a glass of wine.  Then, the reality hit me. I had signed up for a MeetUp group on WordPress, and it was running from 6 PM to 9 PM that evening.

Part of me wanted to bail out of the meeting, but I also wanted to go.  Fears crept back in as I imagined that I would sit in a room of WordPress experts. Would I be wasting their time?  Would I look foolish or stupid? I had only been learning the software for about a month and felt very much a newbie. Dear reader, I will not allow my fears to determine who I am.  I put on my coat, plugged in the coordinates into my phones GPS, and drove to the meeting.

I found myself in a classroom with about 40 other people.  Time to put on my extrovert cloak. With a smile on my face, I introduced myself to the three people seated around me.  Soon we were engaged in a nice conversation. The formal part of the meeting consisted of a speaker talking about a major revision that was about to take place on the WordPress platform.  To my surprise, I understood what he was talking about and could see the implications of the upcoming changes. There were groups members who knew more than I did, but it seemed that I knew more than some others.  The meeting ended, and I said my goodbyes to my new acquaintances. I was happy that I went.

In total exhaustion, I returned home.  Julie was reading a book in our bedroom, but wanted an update on my day, especially on my meeting with the pastor.  I briefed her as best as I could. It was then time for my long-awaited shower. Extra hot, extra sudsy. I let the water run on my back as it relaxed my tense neck and shoulders.  The day was over.

Dear reader, we are who we are.  I believe that we all have strengths and weaknesses.  I accept the fact that I am an introvert, and I have used this knowledge as an advantage, rather than considering it a disadvantage.  I am a great independent learner, I am never bored, I come up with wonderful ideas when I am by myself.

However, there are times when I need to reach beyond my introverted self if I wish to move forward.  Sometimes the uncomfortable option is the right option. Some actions can be hard, but worthwhile. I feel that for me it is important to respect my personality, but still challenge it with reasonable risk-taking.

If we are unhappy, it is easy to blame our unhappiness on circumstances or other people.  However, it is our responsibility to make any change. We can’t expect others to usurp that responsibility.   I encourage you to gently step outside your comfort zone today and gain a little more control over your life.  Who knows where it will lead you.

My Mega Church

 

How WordPress Taught Me About Myself

Dear reader, I believe that everything we do in some ways connects to other aspects of who we are. We show our true selves in our everyday actions.  Things that seem unrelated are often related if you look closely enough.

In this post, I explore how the process of building web pages has also taught me about how I relate to people. This is less of a stretch than you may think.  Let’s start…

My adventure in creating websites started around 15 years ago and was directed more by need than want.  In those days I was a partner/owner of a medium sized psychiatric practice. With my two partners, I had built the practice into a thriving enterprise.

Most of our business was generated from former clients and referring professionals.  However, we knew that we needed a website, as it was becoming a common instrument that new clients used to find their next care provider.

I come from a blue-collar background, which inherently makes me a do-it-yourselfer and cost-conscious. I was already heavily invested in creating marketing and advertising materials for the practice and had been doing everything from brochure design (remember paper?) to head shots of the staff.

It was only logical that I build the website.  To hire someone to design even a simple one would have cost thousands of dollars, as well as countless hours of committee work to write copy, and approve design concepts. I felt that I had the potential to do the necessary tasks: photography, copy creation, design, deployment.  However, there was a problem, I had never designed a webpage, I had never taken a computer course, and I had never written a single line of HTML. In hindsight building a complex website was an insane thought. People spend years learning this stuff. What was I thinking?

Naturally, it was a massive project that was complicated by the fact that I had to learn everything on the fly. Initially, I tried to go the easy route by using the hosting company’s template-based web designer.  I wrote two entire versions of the clinic website with that program, but it just couldn’t handle a site as complex as the one the I envisioned. I recall spending an entire Saturday trying to upload a few more pages to the site, only to have it repeatedly crash.  Finally, I realized that I would have to go beyond the limitations of this easy software and use something more sophisticated. That moment was sickening to me, as it meant that not only would I have to learn an entirely new software package, but I would have to recreate every single page of the website again.

This process was occuring in my almost non-existent “spare time.”  I created extra working time by removing needed sleeping time. I know my partners had no idea of the hours that I put in. They assumed that I was able to build a site during my lunch break. For months most of my evenings and weekends were spent staring at a computer screen. Sure, my lack of knowledge made easy things more difficult, but there was also the reality that I was wearing all of the creative hats. It was overwhelming.

The more sophisticated software that I settled on was from a British company called Serif. It was graphically based and similar to the page layout programs that I had used for paper publications.  The familiarity offered me a small degree of confidence. However, building an interactive multimedia website is very different from placing photos and print on a physical page.

Eventually, I got the hang of it and created seven redesigns of the clinic site over ten years.  It wasn’t too long before friends started to ask me if I could help their small businesses and build a website for them. This is how I became a web designer/content creator.

In 2015 my friend, Tom, asked me if I would write some copy for his small business website.  He had paid someone to do the total creation of the site, and he wasn’t pleased with it. “I don’t think that the website represents me very well.”  He told me. “Sure,” I said. I was eager to repay a favor that he had recently done for me.

Tom is a smart and creative guy who has a sense of style.  Initially, I thought that he was overly critical of his site.  I assumed that a professional would know all of the tricks to creating a visually appealing and engaging experience. It was then that I looked at the web pages. His site was an example of “you don’t always get when you pay for.”  Cluttered, poorly written, lousy clipart, encyclopedia length boring content that was likely copied from elsewhere. It was not good.

“Tom, why don’t you let me build a new site for you?”  The words came out of my mouth without thought. “I can’t let you do that, I don’t want to take advantage of you,” Tom replied.  Suddenly, I found myself convincing him that it was OK, and a good idea.

Like most projects, it was much more complicated and time-consuming than I initially thought. Despite being a lot of work, it was fun and I felt good helping my friend. I was proud of the way the new website turned out. Simple, clean, beautiful!

Fast forward to 2018.  Tom had been doing some marketing research and decided that his site would be more searchable if it was created using the WordPress PHP format instead of the simple HTML of the site that I wrote.  He even found someone willing to port my created content to a shiny new WordPress site. So, what did I do? I took a look at the prototype site and saw a different vision. Once again I was asking my friend if he would mind if I would make some “adjustments.” Some of this may be grandiosity, some reality. I know Tom very well, and I have some understanding of his business. Two pieces of knowledge that his WordPress colleague didn’t possess.

Dear reader, you are reading this post on my WordPress blog site that I created several years ago.  It was a straightforward creation that involved a few mouse clicks. I set it up with no knowledge of WordPress in about 30 minutes. On the other hand, Tom’s site is a very complicated bonafide website that is loaded with all sorts of content. I was telling him that I could improve his site and I didn’t even know how to modify a single page in WordPress.  Why do I do such crazy things?

As you know by now when I don’t understand my behavior I ponder and try to figure it out.  This is what I came up with:

I love learning new things, and I love intellectual challenges.  Despite being slow going, there is a genuine thrill when I figure out even a small aspect of a new puzzle. Knowledge is my cocaine.

I have pride issues.  I put a lot of energy and effort creating content for his original website.  I want my work in a setting that adds to it and doesn’t detract from it.

I show that I care about someone by doing things for them.  Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words.

I want to justify Tom’s friendship with me.  I want to give him a good “return” on his investment in our connection.  This realization was a surprise. In reality, I know that Tom connects with me as much for my imperfections as my strengths.  I don’t need to prove my value to him, and I honestly feel that he would like me just as much if all we did was to hang out with each other. In fact, Tom is also a helper who is more comfortable taking care of, rather than being taken care of.

This need to be valuable to my friend stems back to a time in my life when I felt that I had little value. The, “I am not worth anything,” part of my life. This likely is also a reason why I did all of the extra work for my former clinic. It was a way to prove that I was worthy of my fellow doctor’s time and attention.

I am a protector. I have a strong maternal side to my personality. When I feel close to someone, I am constantly trying to make sure that they are safe and that their needs are met. I can guarantee that my friend does not need my protection. He is physically stronger than I am and has survived most of his life without my sage interventions. Luckily, Tom seems to understand my motives and tolerates my actions. He is happiest when his business is thriving. I want to make sure that his website does as much as it can do to help his business thrive. For whatever reason, I think I hold the key to making his website the best that it can be.

Conversely, my protective trait drives an immediate family member crazy. They view it as me trying to control them.  In reality, I’m just trying to make sure that they have everything that they need. However, I do understand their annoyance, and I have tried to modify my behavior.

These are some of the reasons that I came up with, but that is enough writing for today. Hopefully, this post will get you thinking about how the unrelated parts of your life that are actually related to each other.  Connect the dots and learn just a little bit more about yourself! Have a great day.

WordPress as an insight oriented therapist?