Category Archives: Family relationships

Droby Fest 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was a funeral…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, Complex Dr. Mike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

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

 

Lessons From A Simple Average Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in all, a wonderfully average day.

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

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

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

Peace.

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

Chinese Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

September Song

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

———

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

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

——–

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

——–

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

——–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear reader, celebrate today!

A Coffee Date With Nancy

The date was set, we would meet at Starbucks at 7 PM. Not the Starbucks that I usually go to, but one on the far side of town. We had talked about this for months, and now we were finally doing it. At the very least it would be a fun adventure; I had nothing to lose.

I arrived at 6:59 and found a quiet table. I went up to the counter and ordered a Tall Pike’s, decaf. Moments later my phone rang, it was Nancy. She was outside the store trying to park her car, but the available spots were all blocked by a police prowler. The officer was apparently thinking that his convenience was more important than preserving three open slots for other customers.

Soon Nancy was sitting across from me, and we started to talk. First small talk, then more about what was going on in our lives. However, this chit-chat wasn’t the reason that we were meeting, our conversation was just a common preamble.

We reminisced and evoked memories from past years. Nancy, 7 years my senior, my friend, my older sister. We had decided to meet to explore our creativity. Like me, Nancy is a writer. Like me, she is trying to find her voice. Unlike me, she has studied her writing motivations though workshops and creativity groups.

Nancy tried to focus me. “What do you want to write? Fiction or nonfiction? What is your passion? Who is your audience? What is their age range? What topics have gotten you the most hits?” Questions that I never thought about.

So, dear reader, what is the purpose of this blog?

Drmikekuna.com was created as a writing exercise to see how far I could push myself in a public forum. As an introvert, I’m naturally reserved and private. However, to write effectively, I need to break through these limitations without fear of judgment from others. I also created this blog as a record of who I am. Eventually, I’ll download its contents onto a memory card and place it with other momentoes of me. Cards and letters that were written by patients when I left my private practice, notes from loved ones who wrote memories of me to commemorate my 65th birthday, and other things. I want my children and grandchildren to have a broader understanding of me. I want to be more to them than a few scattered recollections.

Like most things in life, my blog has evolved. It continues as a writing experiment, but there has been a shift. I now let my flow of consciousness take over as I write. It seems that my posts eventually evolve into some sort of life lesson. I find this new process interesting, but I have no idea if anyone else does.

I am trying to find myself, and redefine my purpose. My professional life has been a life or providing service to others, and I feel fortunate that I have had the opportunity to do so. However, I am entering a new season of my life, and my energy has shifted. I still want to contribute to the world, but I want to do so by engaging other talents. Specifically, writing and photography.

I need to determine what my goals are. Am I writing for an audience of one? Has my blog become a journaling exercise that would be better accomplished if it was done privately and within the confines of a spiral notebook? Should I abandon the blog and start the daunting task of developing a book? If so, what would my topic be? It is clear that my writing would reach a broader audience if I focused it on popular issues and selected demographics. Do I want to do that? Do I want to become more commercial in my writing? Would such a change remove the pleasure that I derive from my current spontaneous musing?

It is clear that I have just started this journey. I will meet again with Nancy next week as we continue to examine how we can support and help each other in our pursuits.

Dear reader, as I move into retirement, I am aware that I not only need to be flexible but also realistic. Grandiose ideas and plans can fuel the genesis of any new project. However, work, reassessment, and realignment are the real building blocks of growth.

Do you have goals and dreams? How are you approaching them? How are you redefining them? Let’s grow together!

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.

————————————–

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

The Family Vacation

I write this as I fly back home from Portland, Oregon. I am aboard  Southwest flight 3053, aisle seat C23. My wife is in seat C22, so my knees have been saved from an inconsiderate recliner. My daughter is in the window seat beside me, and I we are blessed with an empty seat in-between us. This is in contrast to our flight out of Chicago where I felt pressed and compressed.

I remember the days of travel where the flight was its own special event. Seating was comfortable, and a meal was included. Those days are long over, and if you are tall like me flying has become a necessary burden.

I’m returning from our family vacation, possibly the last one that we will have, as my kids are becoming adults. We decided to travel to Oregon this year, as we like the Pacific Northwest. I have to say that I personally love this part of the country. Green, lush vegetation, lots of good coffee joints, and charming people. It is a hard combination to beat.

We all had our own sightseeing requests. Julie wanted to see the city of Portland. Kathryn wanted to tour the famous Powell’s bookstore. Grace wanted to view the ocean. Will wanted to experience Portland’s famous donuts. I wanted to explore Crater Lake National Park.

Many of our requests were met within the first 24 hours. We toured Portland’s downtown, went to Powell’s, ate Blue Star donuts, and drove out to Cannon Beach. The next day we piled into our rented Kia Sorento and drove over 4 hours to Crater Lake National Park. As we got within a hour of the park, I noticed that fog seemed to be everywhere.

“I wonder if we can book a cabin in the park,” Julie said. “It doesn’t hurt to check the website,” I replied. “Wow, I think we can get one tomorrow night,” she exclaimed. We booked the cabin and decided to do a preliminary scouting mission at the park. We were surprised that there was no ranger to collect an entrance fee. As we drove further inside the reason why became evident. The fog wasn’t fog at all, it was smoke. The park had two wildfires burning. The park was open but almost deserted. We drove the scenic rim drive, which goes around Crater Lake, but could barely see anything. The lake was almost entirely obscured by a thick carpet of smoke. We canceled the cabin feeling a little letdown. Time to move on to our next activity.

On vacations you have to accept that some things won’t work out. This was one of those things. However, the rest of the trip was wonderful. We went on a number of hikes, toured the city of Bend, stayed at the famous Timberline Lodge at Government Camp, and even drove to Mount St. Helens.

My family has always traveled well, but it wasn’t uncommon for at least one melt-down to happen sometime during a family vacation. That was not the case this time. Everyone seemed to be extra flexible, cooperative, and appreciative.

Traveling with 5 people is expensive, no matter how you do it. We had to rent the largest car that we could find, as we had 5 adult sized people, plus luggage. There was no skimping here. Rooms in Oregon are expensive, and to reduce cost we all bunked in a single room. We accomplished this by packing an air mattress in our checked luggage, and the kids rotated sleeping on it on a night to night basis.

We also were more conservative than usual with our meals. Buying three meals a day for 5 can add up fast. We avoided the 25 dollar a person brunch at the Timberline Lodge and went for bowls of lamb stew at the Rams Head tavern instead. When a hotel offered a complimentary breakfast, you can be sure that we were all in attendance. One evening we ordered a pizza to eat in the room, and we went to a grocery store to purchase non-perishable food for another in-room dinner.

I loved how the kids took care of us. Will caught me when I almost fell on a trail. Kathryn made sure we checked into Southwest early so we could get a “B” boarding number. Gracie showed me how to tape my baggage sticker on my luggage (I just couldn’t figure it out). My kids will always be my babies, but it is wonderful to watch them become considerate and helpful adults.

In a few hours, we will be home and back to our regular routines. Julie will go back to work on Tuesday, I return on Wednesday. Will and Grace will continue their summer jobs, Kathryn will get ready for her return to school. Life goes on.

Although I enjoyed seeing the sights, my favorite memories are those of our family times. Off-key singing in the car. Laughing to the point of being sick. Kidding each other mercilessly (but kindly). All of the above serving to celebrate our unique connections.

I feel proud that I have such great kids. By mutual decision, Julie stayed home with them when they were younger, placing her career on hold. If she had worked, we would have had a lot more money in the bank, but at what cost? I absolutely believe that we made the right decision.

I took a lot of photos, which will be sorted and tweaked in the next week. Some of them will find their way into a photo book that I’ll make titled, “Oregon 2018.” It will go on a shelf in my study with other books that I have made from other family vacations. I hope that the kids will decide to keep these books and show them to their children as they recount our travels and recall our off-key singing, uncontrollable laughing, and merciless kidding.

Dear reader, connect with your loved ones. Memories don’t have to involve far travel, significant expense, or exciting adventures. Take a little creativity, a dash of humor, and a sprinkle of love; turn any experience into a memory.

Beautiful Portland Powell’s bookstore, the world’s largest. Fantastic Blue Star donuts. The Oregon coast. Crater Lake obscured by smoke. Beautiful Trillion Lake. On yet another hike.