It all started when my wife, Julie, returned to the paid workforce. My kids had been used to home-cooked meals, but her lack of time had them dining on fast food, delivery pizza, and frozen entrees. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a family cooking day that I labeled, “Cooking With Dad Thursday.” My goal was to provide my kids with more than a meal, I wanted to teach them how to cook and have them experience the fellowship of sharing a group-made meal.
The task was multi-faceted. We would plan, shop, cook, and clean up together. Each cooking Thursday culminated with a Facebook post where I would upload a photo of the plated and completed meal. Naturally, I tried to present our dishes in their most favorable light on Facebook. I would always ask my kids, “Reality or Facebook reality?” when I posted the photo in an attempt to emphasize that most things that you see on Facebook are highly curated. Another effect of posting the picture surprised me; friends started to post pictures of their homemade meals. Also, “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” spawned a mini-movement of others preparing real food from scratch.
I grew up eating great food. My mother magically threw things together in the most delicious ways. She didn’t teach us how to cook, but she did write down some of her recipes in a ledger style notebook, which was passed to my brother when she died. Her musings provided her with the information that she needed to remember a recipe but they were incomprehensible to anyone else.
Most of the “Cooking With Dad Thursday” recipes originated from conventional sources. Standard cookbooks like “The Betty Crocker Cookbook,” and “The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook” provided some inspiration, but most of my recipes were procured and printed off of the internet. I have always felt comfortable cooking, as the process is a form of practical chemistry. I have been making meals for decades and can interpret a list of ingredients quickly. Most of the recipes that I selected had to conform to the tastes of my kids and also be essential enough to teach a particular cooking technique.
Many of the dishes were well-liked by my children and warranted saving, but where? The answer came early in the form of an old and somewhat beaten up school folder from my son William’s elementary days. Its bright orange color made sure that we wouldn’t lose it; all that it needed was a little updating. With a black marker, I scratched out Will’s name on its front, and in a bold and sloppy script, I wrote “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault.” The folder was neither super-secret or a vault, but reality should never stand in the way of a creative process. During any Thursday meal, I would ask the kids, “Is this dish worthy of saving in the vault?” If the answer was yes, I would toss it in the folder. One checkmark indicating pretty good and two checkmarks noting that the dish was excellent.
Nowadays, my kids can make anything from a savory lasagna to 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. However, they are in college and beyond, causing “Cooking With Dad Thursday” to become a school break activity.
When a door closes, a window opens. With our new empty nest status, Julie and I had to negotiate who would be the meal preparer. In an egalitarian fashion, we decided to split the duty. I’m now the Sunday chief, and so “Cooking With Day Thursday” has evolved into “Simple Sunday Supper.” Julie is a more adventurous eater than the kids, and so I can revisit the culinary memories of my past, including soups, stews, and casseroles. However, she has banned peas from the list of acceptable ingredients.
My new routine often starts with an internet search for a potential meal candidate. Once printed, I check our larder to see what we have in stock. I’ll highlight any needed purchases directly on the recipe, fold it, and stick it in my pocket to serve as a shopping list. I dislike large stores, and so I’m fortunate to have a little grocer called “Fresh Thyme” just a few blocks away. Although limited in selection, they have all of the basics plus a good meat counter and an excellent fruit and vegetable section. It is a short and easy trip for me to buy any needed ingredients, and the store’s limited selection prevents me from overbuying.
I have also taken over the weekly house cleaning, which I do on Sundays. It is a bit of a balancing act when it comes to time management. However, I’m getting good a juggling these tasks and cooking is hardly a hardship.
Yesterday I made Italian sausage and lentil soup garnished with a little sour cream and served with chewy ciabatta bread. Total cooking time in my Instant Pot was 25 minutes, and it was the perfect dish for a frigid fall night. Julie gave me a thumbs up on dinner, and so I marked the recipe with two checkmarks. Where did I save it? In “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault,” of course!
The folder is now over two inches thick. It has been loosely divided into categories such as “stovetop,” “oven,” and “Instant Pot.” In that old and now worn-out folder resides years of recipes and memories. It may not have the charm of my mother’s handwritten cookbook, but it is wholly legible and clear. I hope that someday one of my kids will want the collection, and perhaps they will teach their children using some of the recipes that we so lovingly made. The vault may serve as a new tradition as well as a vehicle for my kids to tell their kids about their crazy dad and the food adventures that were spent together.
Traditions don’t have been elaborate, they just have to be. What traditions do you have?
This is one of a set of letters to my children. These letters will not be in series; instead, I will write them as I am moved to do so.
I was raised to show respect to adults and to submit to their wishes. I never liked conflict, and this combined with my childhood training resulted in me subjugating my needs and wants for those of others. I came to understand that when people ask me for something, they were telling me to do something. “Can you do this for me,” was really, “Do this for me.” If someone asked me to do something for them, I did it, even if I didn’t want to, or didn’t have the time. Helping people when I didn’t want to made me feel like a martyr instead of a hero.
I recognized this problem, and I tried to actively change my behavior in high school. When I started refusing requests, people were not very happy with me; they were used to getting their way.
When someone asked me to do something that I didn’t want to do, I would say that I was sorry that I couldn’t help them, and then followed that statement with a reason or reasons why. This often resulted in the individual picking holes in my excuse as they tried to convince me that I could still do the task at hand. That wasn’t difficult because many of my reasons were quickly fabricated to “Let the other person down gently.” At times my, “No,” would stand, at other times I would give in.
Requests could range from something as simple as someone wanting to hang out, to more complex tasks that could require days or even weeks to accomplish. My refusal skills were moving in the right direction, but I had a long way to go.
An event happened when I was a 1st-year medical student that changed how I approached this issue. I had been attending Northwestern for a few months and was invited to go to a meeting. At that meeting, many committees were looking for people to sit on them. A 4th-year med student saw me and approached me. She seemed very excited and happy to see me, but I had a strong impression that she was playing me. With great enthusiasm, she told me about a committee that she was on. I listened to her, and it became clear that she was looking for someone to take over her position so she could get out of it. The committee held no interest for me. Worse, it met almost weekly and involved a lot of work outside of its scheduled meetings. If I agreed to join, I would be committing my time for the next four years.
Finally, she popped the question and excitedly “invited” me to join the group. I knew that I didn’t want to do it, and my mind started to race to come up with some reason why I couldn’t. I could not come up with a reason, and on some level, I knew that any reason would quickly be countered by the 4th-year as her goal was to get rid of her responsibility.
I paused for a moment and then looked her straight in the eye. “No, I am not interested,” I said. “Why not, this is a great honor,” she replied. I continued to look at her and made an effort to smile, “No,” was what I repeated and walked away.
I have to say that I felt enormous guilt and anxiety after my refusal. My heart was racing, and I was concerned about what this 4th-year could or would do to me as her position of power (in my mind) was exponentially more significant than mine. She represented an adult, and I was once again a child. It was physically and emotionally painful to walk away, but that discomfort started to dissipate by the next morning. By the end of the week, it was gone entirely.
That simple, “No,” saved me from years of pointless work. It also taught me that I didn’t always have to give someone a reason why I didn’t want to comply with their wishes.
Kids, over the years, I have made an effort to continue to do many things for other people, but I now do those things as a choice rather than out of some false sense of obligation. There are times when I will do something mutually beneficial to both parties; I relish these win/win situations. There are other times when I don’t benefit, but what is asked from me is small, and it has little impact on my life. Still, there are other times when I may not want to do something that also requires a lot of work, and I do it anyway. When I help someone by choice, it is a beautiful feeling. I know that my intentions are sincere, and this knowledge gives my efforts meaning, and value. When I refuse a request, it is also done with thought. Yes, I may upset someone, but they can likely find someone else to do their bidding. I understand that I can’t solve the problems of the world.
Refusal skills are essential in all areas of life. Friends that want you to do something that goes against your values. Job expectations that are unreasonable. Relationship demands beyond your comfort zone. If you have a stable connection with someone refusing to do something will not hamper that connection. If your relationship is based on a house of cards, it is better to know that too.
I want you to be generous and giving adults, but I would never want you to abandon your values or sense of self because of outside demands. Always be true to yourself and your values.
I like routine, so these early weeks of retirement have been confusing and a bit scary for me. My life roles are changing, as our my time obligations. I am in a metamorphosis, but it is still unknown if I’ll emerge from my work cocoon as a butterfly.
My title of doctor has always garnished a certain level of respect from others, and over the decades I have gradually assumed that being treated respectfully was the norm. I know that many individuals don’t have such privilege, and my change in status has subjected me to people that demonstrate a lack of relational humanity. These experiences have been disturbing, but empathy building for me.
Case in point, dealing with Medicare.
Medicare charges good earners a significant penalty/surcharge based on that individual’s previous income tax (This surcharge is called an IMRAA fee). At the beginning of this year, I had to decide on my Medicare insurance plan, and I made that decision with the help of an insurance broker. I chose to contract with an Advantage program based on my general good health and the fact that we also needed to secure additional insurance for the rest of our family. Advantage plans tend to be less expensive than regular Medicare and they include Part D at no additional cost, or so I thought.
Based on my 2017 income tax Social Security charged me a substantial penalty for Part B of my Medicare insurance. I understood this and made my first payment last month. I then received notice that I was going to be penalized for not having Part D insurance when I turned 65 last year. I didn’t have Part D coverage because I had insurance through my employer. This typical scenario seemed to be incomprehensible to our government, and I had to fill out forms and provide proof that I was not trying to secretly defraud the USA…Gads!
Monday morning I received my April bill for my Part B. I opened up the envelope to find that it was over $200 more than last month. I was confused as it seemed like that Social Security placed me into even a higher penalty category, and besides, they were charging me for Part D. I immediately called my new insurance provider, and the customer service rep could only suggest that I call Medicare directly. I placed my call to Medicare and got the usual, “Due to the high volume of calls…” message with and a warning that my wait could be a long as 15 minutes.
I was on hold for almost 30 minutes before Latisha picked up. The name Latisha means joyful and happy, my customer service representative definitely did not fit that description. Latisha was outright rude, and her demeanor was accusatory and condescending. “We know how much money you are making because we are directly connected to the IRS,” she barked. She offered no information on how to appeal such a decision, or why I was now being charged for Part D. It was an alarming call which gave me insight in how people can be treated when the customer service agent has ironclad job security and no repercussions for callous behavior. After being subjected to her abuse, I said to her, “Latisha I want to inform you that I have agreed to take a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this call at which point I will clearly state how you have been treating me.” I could hear a bit of anxiety in her voice, and her outright condescending manner softened slightly. She is a person who should not be working with seniors.
Unfortunately, I am now stuck with a huge Medicare monthly payment and no known recourse at the moment. It disgusted me the way she treated a senior, and I can only imagine how she intimidates less secure callers. With that said, I was not about to let her rudeness dominate my emotional well being that day.
Tuesday morning at 4 AM my friend, Tom pulled up in his white Ford Flex. I donned my coat, slipped out the door, and climbed into his passenger seat; off we went. Tom stopped for gas and then pulled into a Dunkin Donuts and got both of us coffee. We were on an adventure as he was driving me to a favorite breakfast diner which was over 2 hours away in Wisconsin. His generous gift of time was a continuation of my 66th birthday celebration. After a delicious omelet, we traveled the 2 hours back home. Our trip symbolizing friendship and our willingness to take care of each other.
Now back home I had to deal with a concept new to me, open time. I have been busy most of my adult life, and I have always had to deal with a lack of unstructured time, not an abundance of it. There were things that I could do, but they were wants not needs. I started to feel guilty, as I now had free time while my wife, Julie had to work. In the past I identified with overworking, and in many ways my constant drive to accomplish things gave me validity. I tried to think of some major project to work on; I resisted that urge. I felt tired, and I decided to take a short nap. Thirty minutes later I awoke feeling refreshed.
I decided to tackle a fun project: How to interface my computer to a two-way Amateur radio. As is usual with such projects things didn’t go smoothly, but eventually, I was able to solve the connection problem and program the radio. There was a particular joy in having the time to approach the problem, take a break, and then resume. In the past, I would have focused on how to solve the problem as efficiently as possible. My new project timeline turned this activity from stress producing into fun. For me, there is nothing as exciting as learning something new.
After my radio adventure, I had another urge to be productive in an effort I to justify my lack of paid employment. Guilt was on the rise. The house was reasonably tidy, as I had cleaned it on Sunday. I put a few dishes away and swept the kitchen floor. It was then time to meet my sister, Nancy.
I pulled up to Panera Bread at 6:59 for my 7 PM meeting and met Nancy in the parking lot. We were restarting our weekly creativity night after a brief break caused by mutual travels and an unwanted upper respiratory infection.
Nancy was upset at the beginning of our meeting. Her feelings precipitated by a disappointment perpetrated by an acquaintance. This led to a conversation about people who we can depend on. For both of us, the number was small but reasonable. In the end, we concluded that we were both fortunate to have people in our lives who we could depend on, and even though our close connections didn’t consist of legions, their numbers were indeed more significant than what many others have. I suggested to her that she focus on those people who care about her rather than wasting energy wondering why a random unimportant person failed her.
We proceeded with our meeting of conversation and study as I munched on a half of a Cuban sandwich and a cup of chicken noodle soup. I was happy to re-initiate our weekly get-togethers as I enjoy spending time with my sister. It felt good to have this structure re-enter my week. At the end of the meeting I said to her, “Nancy, I have no idea what to write about this week.” She offered a few suggestions, but none of them rang true. I decided to write about my present state of mind, and that flow of consciousness is what I am inking on paper now.
This Wednesday morning I found myself questioning if I should go on my morning walk. It was raining, and I was still tired from my previous day’s adventure. Lacking a defined work schedule when I woke it took me a few moments to realize that it was Wednesday, not Saturday. I forced myself up and meandered to the bathroom to prepare myself for the day.
I located an umbrella and headed out the door. When I reached Starbucks, I ran into an acquaintance who had picked up his coffee and was heading out the door. “You’re late today,” he said in a joking manner. “Yeah, I guess the rain slowed me down,” I responded.
I procured a Tall Veranda and found my usual table at the front of the store. Out came my computer and earbuds and I started to type this post. I rarely know what I’ll type when I start this process, I just sit and let my fingers do the talking.
Tom and I had spent a lot of time together on Tuesday and I didn’t expect him to be at Starbucks today as he was working on a project that was geographically in the opposite direction of the coffee shop. Since I anticipated his absence, I had planned my morning accordingly. Tom used to have a habit of pulling away from me when he got too emotionally close. I am familiar with that pattern of behavior, as I have been known to do the same thing. However, we have both become more secure in our friendship and this pattern is now rare.
Some of the morning coffee regulars came up to me and engaged in conversation. Kathy stopped by to congratulate me on my full retirement and told me of a ski trip that she just took with her husband. John came up to me to also congratulate me on my new status. He is an executive for a large corporation who is dealing with the immense stress of being in such a position. We chatted a bit about my new life and his current work situation. I then continued to write this post, but soon it was time to return home.
I now sit at the Ram dealership as Violet the van’s instrument panel has been flashing me a request to have her oil changed. So here I am in the dealer’s showroom finishing this random post of an ordinary few days in the life of a retiree.
I have been awash to so many feelings over these last few days. Anger, at being treated as a non-person by Medicare. Guilt that I am not longer filling every moment with work for pay. Sadness, at my changing status from doctor to citizen Mike. Peace, as I am no longer responsible for the lives of others. Confusion, over what to do with my new found free time. Euphoria, over having free time to be confused over.
I am becoming aware of a need to expand my horizons. I much prefer having intense relationships with a few people rather than causal relationships with many. However, it would be unreasonable for me to expect those currently close to me to completely replace the social connections that I had garnished from my worklife. My experience this morning at Starbucks suggests that there are people out there who would be fine with spending time with me, and that the major limiting factor in this social regard is me.
My siblings have their own lives, my kids are busy with school and friends, my wife works, my friend Tom has a construction business to run. So where do I look to expand my horizon? I don’t necessarily need additional intense relationships, but I should probably explore more casual connections. Clubs, volunteering, social groups, all are possibilities. I am awash with both fear and excitement, and I’m OK with having both feelings. Onward, one foot in front of the other. Every day is a new adventure and offers the potential for personal growth.
Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?
In the Kuna household the Christmas season brings more than sweet treats and gifts, it brings my two college-aged daughters back to Naperville. For a few short weeks, our family is reunited, and family seems as it should be.
Our Kathryn returns from her college in the Southwest, our Grace comes back from hers in the Midwest. It is always exciting to see how they have changed, but it is more rewarding to witness that deep down, they are the same beautiful people that left us in the fall.
Old traditions, like Cooking With Dad Thursday resume and new traditions form. This year our Kathryn introduced us to “The Great British Baking Show,” which she reports as popular among her peers. She convinced Grace to watch it, then Julie, then me, then Will; we were all hooked.
The show is of the reality TV variety with a format that consists of 12 amateur bakers who are challenged with three difficult tasks and then judged on their efforts. All of the contestants are very experienced bakers, and to make things interesting, they are given short time limits that push them to be as productive and efficient as possible. Under such pressure, the results range from outstanding to disastrous. In reality TV tradition, one baker is eliminated every week, and one gains the exclusive title of, Star Baker. The difference between this show and a typical Food Network contest is that everyone is civil. The bakers help each other, and the leaving baker gets hugs instead of insults.
Kathryn returned to school, but Grace’s holiday continued, which opened up the opportunity for the two of us to have an adventure or two.
“Dad, let’s make Macarons,” Gracie said. After a moment I responded, “OK, but I don’t think that I ever tasted one.” “That’s OK, we can figure it out together,” commented Grace. Not that many years ago I didn’t even know what a Macaron was and when they started to become popular, I thought that people were talking about Macaroons, the sweet soft coconut lump cookies that you can buy in the cookie aisle; now we were going to make them! Grace was quick to find an “Easy Macaron Recipe” on the Internet, and I said that we could give it a shot after lunch.
When I was growing up one of my favorite memories was sitting with my mom and watching The French Chef on Saturday afternoons. I liked the fact that I was doing something with my mom, but I also loved the way that Julia Childs approached cooking. She was precise and scientific in her approach, and her methodology was something that I could admire. She did things for a reason, and she understood what that reason was. My mom never made a recipe featured in the show, but I have used the cooking knowledge that I gained from viewing it my entire life.
“Let’s look at the recipe,” I said. We were lacking in a number of the things necessary to complete our task. “Almond flour, I wonder where we get that,” I said. “Let’s try the Jewel,” Grace responded. “We also have to get some pastry tips and a sieve. Hmm, it says that the eggs have to be room temperature. I remember that from watching, The French Chief. I also remember that we can’t use a plastic bowl when we beat the egg whites because even a trace of oil will prevent them from forming peaks,” After a few more moments of pondering I said. “Let’s go shopping!”
We figured that the closest place that would have special baking equipment was Michael’s, and that was our first stop. We found the baking aisle, and we were confronted by a wall of pastry tips, coloring gels, and silicone baking mats. Neither of us knew what to buy. I decided to go with plastic pastry tips, as they were less expensive and I wasn’t sure if this macaron experience would be of the “one and done” variety. In addition to our piping equipment, we opted to get some food coloring gels to use instead of regular food coloring as it seemed more bake-worthy for such an exotic treat.
Our next stop was the Jewel. We entered the baking aisle, and I was astounded to find that they actually had two different brands of almond flour. I have been down baking aisles hundreds of times, and I have never seen this stuff. I guess my brain has always been in selective filtering mode. We went down another aisle and I grabbed an overpriced sieve.
Now back home, and I was on the hunt for the Kitchenaid’s whisk attachment. I found its hiding place in a bottom cupboard, and we assembled our tools and ingredients for the task at hand. With 4 eggs reaching room temperature we decided to reconvene in 30 minutes.
Step-by-step we followed the recipe, and although we had never made macarons, instructions are instruction. “Let me show you how to fold the flour into the egg whites without deflating them,” I instructed Gracie; another lesson from Julia Child. I added what seemed to be a tiny dot of blue coloring gel, and the cookie dough became the color of denim jeans. Note to self: food coloring gel is potent stuff!
We did our best to pipe out the batter into neat circles, but it was clear that our “star” tip was inadequate for the task. Since we had no other option, we pushed forward hoping for the best, but willing to accept the worst. Into a 300F oven our little cookies went, then cooled, then filled with buttercream icing.
They certainly did not look like the ones we saw on TV. They tasted OK, but we wondered if they tasted like macarons, as neither of us had ever eaten one before. The next day Julie answered the latter question by purchasing 3 cookies, each a different flavor at the Standard Market. Those cookies looked perfect, and they had just the right amount of filling. I was shocked that she paid almost $5 for three of them, and did a quick mental calculation on what a dozen would cost. At least we now had an idea of what macarons should look and taste like. Five dollars was the price paid to acquire information to improve our next macaron bake.
Yesterday I was driving Grace back to college. As we drove we talked through a research paper that she was reading on a mutation of an adenovirus strain. Reading a research paper is not that different from reading a recipe. In both instances, you needed to know the lingo first before you can understand the content.
She is going to participate in a research project next semester and she will be doing lab research on adenoviruses. I told her that baking and running experiments are very similar. Methodology and accuracy in both are critical if you want to get reproducible results. “Learn your protocol, refine your method, and repeat. That’s all there is to it.” I advised.
My friend Tom often teases me when I ask him why he is using a specific tool, or why he is approaching a construction project in a particular way. “Mike, this is useless knowledge for you, you will never use it.” I feel that all knowledge can be useful or useless. It is up to the end user of that knowledge to determine its utility. I have never acquired a piece of information that I felt was useless. It is all useful, I just haven’t used it all yet!
Julia Child helped me be not only a better baker but also a better research scientist. Understanding science has made me a better cook. Circular, no?
In 1961 we lived in a neighborhood called Gage Park. Gage Park is a blue-collar community on Chicago’s Southwest Side that consists of small, tightly spaced bungalows that are placed on narrow lots in tidy rows.
Like most Chicago neighborhoods we had our own busy shopping streets, which were located down the alley from our house. They consisted of two blocks along 55th street which were bisected by California Avenue.
Grocerland Foods, Wooley’s Five and Ten, the Cinderella Beauty Shop, Reck’s Hardware, Amoco Gas, Walgreens Drug Store, the Pixie Shoppe, plus restaurants, a branch library, and, of course, several bars. This type of local shopping is typical for Chicago, which was built on the neighborhood concept. You could buy anything that you needed without the benefit of a car. It was common for my mother to send me to the grocer to buy food for dinner, or for me to walk to the branch library to research a school topic.
My sister Nancy was in the 7th grade at St. Clare De Montefalco school in 1961 and spent a lot of her free time hanging out with her girlfriends. On a fall day, she was walking with two of them westward on busy 55th street towards California Avenue. Suddenly she heard screeching tires and honking horns. She looked up to see a jet black creature running across the street, clearly terrified and confused. She looked again and saw that the little beast was a puppy. She went into rescue mode.
The three girls coaxed the puppy to them and hatched a plot. This little puff ball needed a home. Nancy’s friend, Nancy Klimczak was the first to claim her. She pleaded her case to her mother, but it fell on deaf ears. They moved on to their backup plan.
My mother was in our kitchen wearing the mom uniform of the day, a housedress. For those of you who are unaware a house dress is a casual dress that is often in a small floral pattern. It is structureless, loose fitting, and has ample pockets making it both comfortable and practical. A housedress is usually pulled on over the head allowing a mom to get dressed in 10 seconds flat.
My mother was cooking dinner, and I was sitting at the kitchen table watching her work. I was eight years old at the time.
Nancy entered the kitchen through the backdoor. She appeared to be in a panic. My mother looked up at her and Nancy started to speak in a rushed, compelling way. “She would have been killed if we didn’t save her. She is so cute, and she is only a puppy. She looks hungry and afraid. Can we keep her?” “Absolutely not!” my mother said. We had several attempts at adopting strays, and they all had been disastrous. I recall one instance of my mother chasing a crazed dog who was running in circles around our dining room table.
Nancy moved into tears mode. “Please, Please! I’ll use my allowance to buy her dog food. I get up early every morning to let her out. I’ll walk her every day. You won’t have to do anything. You won’t even know that she is here.” My mother could not resist my sister’s tears. “We can try, but that dog is on 90-day probation, and she has to stay in the basement, she is not allowed in the rest of the house! If anything happens, she goes…understood?” Nancy replied, “Of course, thank you! You won’t regret this.”
With my mom’s OK the little puppy became part of our family. In 24 hours, her domain went from the basement to the entire house. Sweet and smart, she was easy to love, and she had only one bad habit, barking. When anyone would approach the house she would start a rapid staccato, “Wow wow wow, wow, wow,” until she felt that the perimeter was secure. My father hearing this said we should call her Wowser and the name stuck, at least temporarily. Soon Wowser became Bowser, a boy dog name for a girl dog.
Bowser grew to be a medium-sized dog, black with a white chest and some white markings on her nose and paws. Being a mutt, her lineage was unknown, but she appeared to be part Border Collie and part Cocker Spaniel. She instantly bonded to my mother, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear my mom shout “Bowser!” because she had once again tripped over her.
Bowser’s passion was chocolate, and we often gave her little pieces of the tasty stuff. This was before anyone knew that chocolate could kill a dog, and thankfully Bowser was never worse for her indulgences. If I wanted her to come running all I had to shout was, “Chocolate,” and she would soon be at my side. In those days you could find chocolate scented dog toys, including ones that were rubberized versions of favorite candy bars.
In high school, my sister Nancy was dating a boy named Jim Brown. At Easter, Jim gave her her very own Easter Basket. This was a first as at our home we all had to share one basket, and my two brothers usually got all of the good candy. We were heading out to church, and Nancy decided to hide her basket under the bed, and away from my brothers. When we arrived back home, we were all confused as we saw shredded silver foil all over the house. Suddenly, Nancy screamed; Bowser had found her basket and proceeded to eat its entire contents. The foil was from Hershey Kisses’ wrappers that were licked completely clean of any chocolate residue.
Once when we were camping my mother tied Bowser to a small folding table and then went to the camp’s community bathroom. After a short time, she heard shouts coming from the other stalls. The source? Bowser had found her way into the bathroom and was dragging leash and table. Being a logical dog, she was going stall to stall to find my mom, much to the chagrin of other women who were using the facilities. Once found, Bowser was at peace. My mother commented “That dog!” but she was charmed by her efforts.
It is human nature to think that our kids and pets are the smartest, and I felt Bowser was pretty quick. She seemed to understand complex language. Bowser loved my mother, but hated baths. She was resting under an end table in the living room when my mother sweetly called to her from the basement. “Bowser, where are you?” Bowser tore through our shotgun-style house towards the basement stairs which were located at its back. I was next to the stairs when she arrived, and in a flat monotone I said to her, “She is going to give you a bath.” Bowser stopped dead in her tracks, turned around and ran back under the table. I was amazed that she understood what I was saying. My mother was less amazed by my actions.
Although Bowser’s primary loyalty was towards my mother, she had plenty of love to go around. For me, she was my family connection. My siblings were doing their thing. My parents were older and had already raised four other kids. Bowser was my friend and confidant. When I was having a bad day, she would sit with me. When I needed someone to talk to, she would listen. When I was cold, she would warm me up. The bond that I felt for her was great, and that bond continued as long as she was alive.
I was away at college, and my parents said that they were coming up to see me to take me out to dinner. This was highly unusual, and I was pretty excited. They also told me that my two maiden aunts, Mary and Lill, were coming along. I liked my aunts and I was amazed at my good fortune.
My parents arrived with my aunts, and we all went out to eat at “The Junction,” a family-style restaurant decorated in a train theme. Just as the food arrived my mother blurted out, “We put Bowser down.” My father must have noticed the horrified look on my face and started to spurt justifications, “That damn dog couldn’t hold her urine. Her breath smelled terrible. Mike Lawler (my brother-in-law) held her when we took her to get the shot, and he said her breath made him sick.” Dear reader, these are not the right things to say to someone who just lost one of their very best friends.
I was trapped. My parents knew that I wouldn’t make a scene with my two aunts present. That is why they brought them along. However, it was a terrible time for me. I couldn’t express my grief. I couldn’t express my anger. I couldn’t eat. I had to make polite conversation. I was dying inside.
I remained upset about that incident for years, but I couldn’t understand why. Deep down I knew that Bowser was old and that the quality of her life was no longer good. She was a proud dog, and I am sure that she was embarrassed by her inability to control her bodily functions.
Eventually, I figured out why I remained so upset. Once again, other’s feelings were more important than mine. My parents wanted to do the right thing by telling me, but they didn’t want to deal with the aftermath of their disclosure. On some level, I understood this and gave them exactly what they wanted from me, no grief, no anger, just polite conversation. They got to go home feeling like they were good parents, I once again had to deal with my sadness alone.
Events like this have strongly impacted me, but not just in a negative way. Knowing my feelings made it possible for me to understand the feelings of others. Recognizing my hurt allowed me to build on my empathic skills. Having such a strong bond with an animal helped me understand that connections in life don’t have to make logical sense to be relevant and important.
We learn by our victories, but we grow by our disappointments. I will never put my children in a position where they feel that they can’t express their anger to me, and so in some way, the restaurant incident made me a better parent.
Every day we are given lessons, we can choose to learn from them, or we can choose to ignore them. I am learning every day.
By the way, I believe that my sister honored her doggie obligations for less than a week. Bowser was fed, and cared for by my mom. No surprise, I know.
I could see the outline of the Minneapolis-St. Paul skyline from my window seat as the plane banked to the left. The year was 1989, and I had just finished taking part II of my Psychiatry Board exam at the Hennepin County Hospital in Minneapolis. I felt that I had done well, and I was feeling a sense of relief. This was my first time visiting the Twin Cities, and I remember thinking that this visit would be not only my first but also my last. There was no reason to return. December 1991, I packed two suitcases into the tiny back seat of my 1988 Mustang GT convertible. My Mustang had a brilliant white body, accented by a dark navy blue ragtop. She was sleek, sexy, and very fast. The GT drove like a dream on dry pavement, but it could be treacherous with the slightest bit of snow. This latter fact concerned me as I was about to embark on a 450-mile trip up north. I started the car’s engine and rotated the heater knobs to warm the cabin and defrost the windshield. I reached over the passenger seat, grabbed my yellow window scraper, and started to hack the ice and snow off the windshield. I waited for the car to warm up before going back into the house to get my girlfriend. I was already feeling anxious. She was also feeling nervous, but we were both playing it cool. Soon we were whizzing down I-88, then I-39, then I-90. We made random conversation and tried to appear calm. Our hidden anxiety evidenced by our frequent detours to interstate rest-stops. I would have to stop, then she would. Our suddenly overactive bladders were providing a window into our inner emotional state. We had started dating in July, and a few months later she had asked me to travel north to spend Christmas with her family who lived in a rural town outside of the Twin Cities. I had given up on all dating for almost two years before that July. I had decided that the whole courtship process was too stressful and I had made a commitment to myself to live a single life. I was happy with my choice, but I also felt like something was missing. I met her at a random meeting one week before she was to leave our workplace to return to graduate school. We sat next to each other at that meeting, and we started to chat; a week later I asked her out on a date… now we were driving to Minnesota. The drive was long, the air was frigid cold. We drove through the Twin Cities and got onto Highway 55, traveling west towards the town of Buffalo. My heart was beating faster as we drove down the narrow road, past farms and frozen fields. Finally, we arrived at Buffalo, the county seat of Wright County. A town of 10,000 surrounded by Buffalo Lake, Lake Pulaski, and Deer Lake. Julie’s parent’s house was on Buffalo Lake. We pulled up a large circular driveway at the back of the house. There were cars already parked, we were not the first to arrive. There was no need to knock, and Julie opened the back door and walked in. I followed with my suitcase and a large gift basket that I brought as a hostess gift. We were greeted with welcomes and hellos. Everyone was excited to see Julie and curious to meet me. I was satisfied with smiles and the smell of dinner cooking in the oven. I’m naturally shy, and I quickly donned my more social alter ego. A smile on my face, I moved forward boldly. The day consisted of polite questions, good food, and parlor games. At some point, Christmas gifts were opened. Julie’s father, Bob requested that she play a piano duet with her sister Kathy. They dutifully banged out a few Christmas carols. At some point, Julie and I walked to Buffalo’s downtown, which was only a block away. At the town’s grocery store Julie ran into several residents, all of them wanting an update as they looked at me with questioning eyes. At another point, Bob loaded me into his old Lincoln and drove me directly onto Buffalo Lake. As a city boy, I was confident that we would plunge to our deaths believing that the weight of the car would crack the ice beneath its wheels. It did not, and I lived another day. That night the temperature dropped to -19 F, I got ready to go out and warm up the Mustang to make sure that it would start the next morning. Julie’s brother-in-law, Karl quizzically looked at me, “Why are you starting the car, it is only -19?” I was definitely in Minnesota! Despite my shyness, I soon felt comfortable and fell back into my real personality. Julie’s family is very Swedish, and I’m Eastern European by heritage. Some of their customs were different than mine, but I was more aware of our similarities rather than our differences. I wondered how many men she had brought up to Buffalo through the years. I found out later that I was the first, and only one. Today is December 25, 2018. I write this post from Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. I arrived here yesterday with Julie and our three children. Running late, we traveled directly to Faith Covenant Church, My sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s home church. There we met the rest of the family as we celebrated Christmas Eve with a candlelight service. After church, we returned to their home. We had interesting conversation, good food, and played games. We caught up on each other’s lives. This morning we opened gifts, ate more, talked more, and played more games. As I write this some of us are reading, some are playing the board game, “Risk,” two are finishing the construction of a Christmas present, two are completing a jigsaw puzzle, I am writing this post. Today I learned that Oregon produces the most Christmas trees, and the dentist elf in the TV special, “Rudolf The Red Nose Reinder,” name is Hermie. Knowledge is power! I have been traveling to Minnesota for the last 27 years, not only for Christmas but for other events too. I have long lost any anxiety when visiting my wife, Julie’s side of the family. After all of these years, her family is my family. In 1989 I thought that I had completed my one and only trip to Minnesota. Twenty-nine years later I have been here over 100 times. Dear reader, life is full of surprises.
When I was growing up our dining room table served many essential functions, and most of them didn’t involve eating. Yes, we did serve Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner in the dining room, but that was about it for our culinary experiences there.
During normal times the table was a repository for coats, packages, and books. It is where I did my homework every night in grade school. It was where my mother would be up all night typing my brother Dave’s college term papers. And it was where we wrote out our Christmas cards. I know my mother was the family’s principal card writer, but I have a vague memory that my father was also involved.
Our dining room table was in the Duncan Phyfe style, and it was huge, old, and dusty. It had a sheet of glass on it that protected its non-Formica top and gave it a cold and hard feeling when touched. Around it was 6 creaky chairs. The rectangular dining room of our 1920s bungalow held the table along with an equally old and ugly spindly legged buffet. Kitty corner from the buffet was my mother’s sewing machine, housed in a boxy imitation mahogany cabinet.
My mother bought the machine at Goldblatt’s department store on a special where the machine’s “furniture” cabinet was thrown in to sweeten the deal. The device was made in Japan at a time when this did not mean quality. It was a constant source of frustration for my mother who always complained that its tension mechanism was too tight.
Early in December the dining room table would be cleared of its holdings and repurposed with boxes of greeting cards, rolls of stamps, and sheets of return address labels. A long evening followed with my mom (and possibly my dad) signing and addressing dozens of cards. We didn’t have self-stick stamps or address labels in those days, and I would usually be employed as the licker.
We tended to buy off-brand of cards as Hallmarks were too expensive. The card’s style varied from year to year, sometimes religious, sometimes Santa-ish. My mother’s goal was to get the most beautiful cards at the most reasonable price.
I would sit and watch her expertly sign and address each card, amazed with her neat and precise handwriting. My handwriting was terrible, so bad that a nun once tried to humiliate me by making me write my assignments on control paper. That is the multi-lined stuff that primary level kids use to make sure that they correctly spaced their uppercase and lowercase letters. I remember watching my mom write while thinking to myself., “When I grow up I’ll have neat and precise handwriting too.” Well, I grew up and became a doctor, and those stories about doctor’s handwriting are all true, sorry nuns.
Christmas cards were a big deal in the 1960s, and they had to go out on time. To have them arrive after Christmas would be insulting to the receiver. Some of our relatives were in better financial positions than us. From them, we would receive cards with their names printed instead of handwritten. At the time I thought that this was the height of class; as a kid, I was easily dazzled.
We didn’t receive many Christmas newsletter, but my married sisters did. Generally, they were perceived as a tacky vehicle to brag. In fact, in those days there was a counter movement of letter writers who deliberately and humorously wrote newsletters that dramatized all of the bad things that happened to them in the previous year.
My wife, Julie is from Minnesota, and it is common practice with her family and friends to include a photocopied newsletter in their Christmas card. I enjoy reading these newsletters which chronicle everything from the births and deaths to the successes and failures of the sender’s family. I especially like the ones from Ag families that document the year’s crop yield, or the latest livestock venture. As a kid, I thought names printed on Christmas cards were good, and newsletters were bad. Now I feel the opposite. Maturity does these things.
In the 1990s I started to write a Christmas newsletter every December. In those days I was into desktop publishing, and these skills were the perfect foil for my holiday writing aspirations. Early on I decided on an “all inclusive” format that would include at least one photo, a written year in review, and a recipe. I have kept that format to this very day.
I bought my first laser printer for newsletter printing, and then my first color laser printer. To get the best photo I purchased my first digital camera in 1996. My Kodak DC-40 retailed for $1000, but I got it at the bargain price of $800. Incredibly primitive by today’s standards it took photos at a maximum resolution of 0.4 MP (less than one-half of a megapixel). Most new cameras have a resolution of 24 MP to 50 MP, which contains 60 to 125 times more image detail then my original camera, Despite the Kodak’s limitations it was the start of my obsession with digital cameras and digital photo editing. I find it interesting that the primary task of writing a Christmas newsletter could improve my both my desktop publishing skills and my technology skills as it also spawned my interest in digital photography. One little twist in your life can lead to many turns.
Over the last few years we have received fewer and fewer holiday cards, and it seems that the trend of sending them is becoming passe. Besides, Facebook has made the yearly update style of a Christmas newsletter somewhat obsolete. Based on these facts I have thought about stopping the practice of writing one. However, after some deliberation, I have decided to continue the tradition. However, I may deliver future copies in a more limited manner.
I have come to realize that I don’t write “Christmas Time” for others, I write it for my family. A copy of each year’s letter is saved in a special Christmas book that will be handed down at the appropriate time. The letters have chronicled our lives in pictures, words, and recipes. It gives me pleasure to think that grandkids, who may never know me, will read my words and make Julie’s recipes. I hope that these newsletter and other things that I’m creating will allow them to know me on a personal level, instead of just viewing a blurry photographic image of me.
I know that it is essential for me to be remembered by my family, and the best way that I can do this is by my writing and photography. Why is it important? I’m not sure, but I know that it is important, and that is enough reason to do it.
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.
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.