Category Archives: family traditions

Baking Macarons With Gracie

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?

Tools of the trade.
Learning how to pipe.

Christmas In Cold Minnesota

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.

Why I Write A Christmas Newsletter In 2018

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.

Happy holidays, and Merry Christmas dear readers.

My first digital camera, the Kodak DC 40. Purchased in 1996.
Writing this year’s Christmas newsletter.

Droby Fest 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was a funeral…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts On Christmas Presents

The questions start in November and continue well into December. “What do you want for Christmas?” A query posed to my kids, to my wife, and to me.

When I was a child, this was an easy question to answer. I had very little and had many wants. Unfortunately, family finances were limited growing up, and receiving my desired gift was in no way a certainty.

We opened presents after dinner on Christmas day. This time was chosen so we could include my two maiden aunts, who ate Christmas dinner with us. Most of my friends opened their gifts on Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning, and waiting until 7 PM on Christmas Day seemed like a cruel eternity. This delay also heightened my anticipation for what I could possibly receive.

One Christmas I asked for a radio. That year my mother decided to wrap presents early, and she used a “secret” code to identify the gift recipients in an effort to prevent prying eyes. Unfortunately, she forgot the system by Christmas and had to use other, less than perfect, identifying skills.

She handed me my present and I took it with great anticipation. The size of the box was right, the weight of the box was within specs. I was very excited. I opened my present and burst into a, ”Thank you, thank you,” cry. Under the wrappers was a box that contained a Motorola AM table radio. I wanted something a little more sophisticated, but I was overjoyed getting this approximation. I looked at my mom and saw a disturbed look on her face. “Michael, that radio is not for you. It is for your brother, Tom.” I handed it over to him. There was no radio for me that Christmas.

During my post-divorce/pre-remarried period it was common for me to get little or nothing at Christmas. Yes, there were those times when I was dating someone, and we would exchange gifts, but there were other times when I was “single” and alone. I no longer had the desperate wants of childhood, but I still felt sorry for myself.

I have been re-married for many years, and with this union, I am assured to receive Christmas presents. Early in our relationship, we would shower each other with extravagant gifts. When we had kids we scaled back on our gifts, putting more effort into their presents. Over time, we also scaled back on those gifts.

Gone are the days when Christmas morning meant getting a pair of desperately needed shoes, or a new winter coat. We buy things as required year round. If my kid’s phone goes down I don’t expect them to wait 6 months to get a new one.

Every year my wife and I talk about scaling back further on our purchases, and we have had some success in that endeavor. Yet, we still can buy each other gifts that are forgotten as soon as, “Thank you,” leaves our lips.

This is possibly the point in the post where you may think that I’m going to say that in a moral cleansing effort I have decided to donate all of my gift money to charity. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the case.

We do give to charities, and we also participate in a gift mart where we buy gifts for kids less fortunate than ours, but we still plan on buying gifts for our kids and each other.

After many years of not having anything to open on Christmas day, I want a present or two. It symbolizes to me that someone cares enough about me to make an effort to do something for me. In fact, we encourage our kids to give gifts, not only to their friends and siblings but also to us. It is vital for them to learn that their lives should be more about what they can do for others, rather than what stuff that they can get for themselves.

Through the years I have received many cherished gifts from my children. A red marble from William sits on the desk in my study, a piece of homemade pottery from Kathryn adorns my Rockford office, and a decorated flower pot from Grace serves as my pen and pencil holder at the Ware Center.

Back to the question that I posed in the first paragraph of this post. Since we have few wants, it can be challenging to find a gift that is meaningful to its intended recipient. It has also been vital for us to acknowledge that we are individuals, and we need to be respectful of each other’s desires.

A few years back my wife felt that as a family we should give each other experiences instead of gifts. That sounds great, but the kids and I wanted things to open on Christmas. A favorite gift for me is the gift of time. In other words, taking over one of my household chores for one or two cycles. This kind of gift would be meaningless to my kids, but they, in turn, would appreciate homemade cookies made by one of their siblings. What I’m saying is that it is important to include everyone’s feelings when making a global decision about holiday gift giving. You may think that donating the family’s gift money to charity and spending Christmas Day dishing out food at a local shelter is a fantastic idea. However, your spouse and kids may feel differently. Consideration in everything.

I do feel that gift giving has gotten out-of-control in many families. It makes no sense to go into debt to buy things that you absolutely don’t need. At the same time gift giving is a national tradition during the holiday season. The secret to success is a balanced approach and a doable budget. This balance/budget idea should be extended beyond our immediate families. I have talked to many a patient who was sick with financial worry after buying expensive gifts for relatives because “It was expected.” A frank discussion at Thanksgiving can preserve both your mental health and credit rating. Most extended families are grateful to move from debt spending to a simpler and cheaper option, such as a grab bag or white elephant gift exchange.

As I have already said, few people remember the gifts that they receive a month after getting them. However, most will remember time spent together. Having a happy and low-stress holiday returns the true spirit of that day. Imagine opening up your January credit card statement with relief, instead of dread.

So what did I asked for Christmas this year? I requested a good wool blanket for my campervan’s bed. A quality blanket is something that I would not likely purchase on my own, but once owned I would gratefully use it for years to come. It is lovely to be remembered at Christmas, and it is terrific to be toasty warm when camping on a frigid morning.

A snowy winter.
Christmas tree near downtown.
Christmas lights downtown.

Thanksgiving Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Family Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Children Go Off To College

The hotel was geographically close, but it still took almost 40 minutes to get to our destination as we had to transit on rural roads. We were then met by road construction when we arrived. I always feel uncomfortable when I’m not familiar with my environment, and road construction makes that unfamiliarity more intense.

A turn here, a detour there; finally the parking garage. Once out of the car we followed the herds of people as they meandered towards the middle of campus. We arrived at the student center where most of our meetings were scheduled. A large red brick building in a classic Georgian style. It was time for college orientation to begin.

Grace will be my third to go off to college, and it has become more difficult for me with each child. When my oldest daughter went to school, I had three little ones still at home. My next daughter had already been away at a magnet STEM boarding high school before she left for college. It was still tough to see her go from a campus that was 20 miles away to one that was over 1000 miles away.

My Grace has been at home for the duration, along with my son Will. My last two kids have liked doing things with me, and we continuously have turned small events into adventures. A trip to Walmart can become an exploration, making dinner together can serve as a time to bond and laugh. Since my wife returned to the workforce (she would correct me at this point telling me that I should say “paid workforce”), We have often been like three musketeers. Naturally, as they have gotten older, their friends have taken up more of their time, but we still do things together. Being with them is a total pleasure for me.

Now, my Grace will be 5 hours away by car. Indeed a doable trip on a weekend, but not around the block.

I remember going to my college orientation many years ago. It was an information only experience. I went with my friend John, who was also attending the same university. No parents, no sleepover in a dorm room, no team building exercises.

When I turned 18, I was considered an adult. Currently, we define people in their 20s as “emerging adults,” who still need parental support. College orientation is now designed to ease fears. Providing information is secondary, as all of that information is on the university’s website.

We attended sessions with my daughter, and apart. The two-day affair included her spending a night in a dorm room, while we returned to our hotel. A harbinger of things to come.

I am fortunate to have kids who are motivated and dedicated. I know my daughter has all of the skills needed to have a successful college career. I am overjoyed that she is moving forward. I am intensely sad that she is leaving. At times my mind goes in crazy directions. “What if she marries someone locally and doesn’t return to Illinois?” “What if she decides that her dad isn’t the fun adventurer of her youth and just a boring old man to be avoided?” “What if…”. I understand that these thoughts have no place in my mind, but they are present anyway.

This is a problem that modern parents face. A hundred years ago our children would return home with their spouses to work on the family farm. When I was growing up in Chicago, it was common for family members to buy houses on the same block. Now, our children may live in another city, state, or even country. This fact of life made only slightly more tolerable by the innovations of FaceTime, texting, and Facebook.

Our goal as parents is to help our children become successful and independent adults. This is my goal, but like most things in life, an independent child is a coin that has two sides.

My kids are transitioning from precocious but dependent children to mature and independent adults. In our conversations, they now explain things to me. In our adventures, they fully contribute. In our chores, they are equally responsible. This is the way it should be. Is it wrong for me to want this for them and also to want them to think of me as their father who is there for them? Who can pick them up when they fall? Who has wisdom that they not only need but want? I hope that they will continue to comprehend how significant they are to me, and how very much I love them.

Each day brings me new experiences and new things to learn. At whatever level that I am allowed, I will maintain my connection with my children. They may be striving towards their future, but that doesn’t mean that they have to give up their past.

On Father’s Day

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I am a father of 4. If you are not a dad, you may consider the holiday a “Hallmark holiday.” An event designed by businesses to get you to buy things. If you are a dad, you probably understand that it is more than that.

Established over a 100 years ago it was an attempt by a daughter to honor her dad, who raised six children on his own. Her initial success was moderate at best, and after many years, she abandoned the concept as her life moved on. She eventually returned to the idea in the 1930s and started to promote it anew. This time retailers were on board as they saw the advantage of a day that could mean additional gift purchases. In 1972 President Richard Nixon officially declared it a national holiday. Although used by the business world to hawk products, it also can be an excellent way to celebrate the father or father figure in your life. Father’s Day celebrations don’t have to include expensive gifts and commercial greeting cards!

For many years my wife traveled with my kids to Minnesota on Father’s Day to spend time with her family. Unfortunately, I had to work and was home alone. I don’t believe in letting other people control my happiness. It was important to my wife to be in Minnesota, and so she was. However, I could still make the day significant for me. I started to go on “great adventures” with my sister Carol. We would get into my car and drive in a random direction. We would stop anywhere that looked interesting, to explore. We would culminate our exploration by discovering a random local restaurant. Some were great, some less so. Either way, it was wonderful fun. I have delightful memories from those “Father’s Day” celebrations, as does my sister. In the last few years, Julie has not traveled on Father’s Day weekend, and I have shifted to a more traditional celebratory day.

I have become older and more sentimental so Father’s Day has become ever more significant to me. My family has risen to the occasions and Father’s Day gets the same treatment as any other significant family day from birthdays to Mother’s Day.

For these special days, the celebrant is typically honored with a meal of their choice. Frequently of the homemade variety, sometimes of the restaurant kind. My tastes run pretty basic, and I asked for chicken, mashed potatoes, and a salad. I also asked for a sugar-free dessert, as I gave up eating large quantities of sugar some years ago.

Last Father’s Day I was promised a new BBQ grill, as our current one is over 27 years old. The old grill now has two speeds, burn and not hot enough. I have replaced many of its innards over the years, but it is just too worn out to repair further. Cooking on it is like solving an advanced math problem. You need to calculate relative hot and cold spots on the grill and then move your food around to make sure one piece isn’t chard while another is raw. Life happens, and the grill never came. However, this year my wife informed me that a new one was ordered and was coming in the next two weeks. Yay!

My daughter Grace searched the internet and found a recipe for a sugar-free apple pie. My son William wrapped some gifts. Both Grace and William made me cards with the most beautiful sentiments inside. My wife made me dinner. My daughter, Anne, called in her greetings. My daughter Kathryn, who is studying abroad in Moscow, texted hers.

For me, it was a perfect day of celebrations. Yes, I was delighted to get the grill, but that was a minor part of my happiness. The majority of my good feelings came from the fact that people were willing to recognize me and expend effort to make me feel special. Some words written on a card, a phone call, a dinner, time together. Efforts that said that I was important enough to them for them to take time out for me. This is what mattered and this is what made the day awesome.

It takes so little to make someone feel special. In fact, I think it takes more energy to do the opposite. What does it take to wish someone a good day? What does it take to write a sentence or two in a celebratory greeting? What does it take to recognize someone for a job well done? Very little. So many times people will say that they are too busy to do these simple things. Too busy? Really? Likely not.

A gift of your time or goodwill is typically reciprocated by the receiver. Yes, there are “users” out there, but they can be quickly sniffed out. The Golden Rule has been around for over 2000 years. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Why is it then that we see the Golden Rule ignored everywhere from our personal lives to our government? Practice it today; play it forward.