I looked at the map and tried to find the most remote place on earth that seemed habitable. In my mind, that place was Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Vast and distant, it seemed to be the perfect spot. There I could be separated from the stress of negative interactions. I would pack all of my possessions with me. Books, electronics, scientific equipment, radios.
On Baffin Island, I would build a warm and secure cabin to protect myself from the elements. On Baffin Island, I could be myself.
Baffin Island was the mental place where I would go to as a child when I was feeling stressed or judged by the world and its people. This is where I would mentally travel when I was sick of acting a role so I could be accepted.
The power of a child’s fantasy is derived from the reality that it is not bounded by the constraints of logic. It is free-flowing with its only requirement being that it satisfies the needs of its creator, and Baffin Island was my fantasy. I knew that I was a loner, an introvert, a person who was happiest in his own thoughts. A person who was delighted to be left alone.
The preparations started months earlier, although I wasn’t sure what I was preparing for. I wrote pages of lists, watched dozens of YouTube videos, and mentally solved thought problem. I dug through my old camping gear, I gleaned gadgets from my electronics collections, I constructed things with the expert assistance of my friend, Tom.
I have come to believe that these actions were part of a greater coping strategy to deal with my internal anxiety. This statement seems strange, as I don’t consider myself to be an anxious person. I always could restructure my cognition, and when I face a stressful situation, I call upon that fundamental skill to calm myself and move forward. Yet, all of my preparation seemed to have a psychological motivation.
I also admit that I felt guilty about my plan to leave, but logically, I knew that I was adding only a few days to an already established trip. My feelings spawned out of causal comments that Julie said to me since I retired. “Did you have fun today?” She would ask when she got home from work.
I felt guilty that I had indeed had fun. A happiness based on no longer being responsible for the lives of others. A delight based on having the ability to do as I wished for once. I felt guilty that I was enjoying my freedom when she had many years of work ahead of her. I fully acknowledge that my interpretation of her comments was filtered by my personal assumption that the sole purpose in life was to produce.
The reason for my trip to Arizona was so I could clean my daughter’s college apartment and haul back the material contents of the last 4 years of her life. This act was productive, contributing, and even laudable. However, taking a few extra days to visit National Parks along the way was not. Logic told me that my actions were completely acceptable. I claim to be driven by logic, but I am actually ruled by my feelings, and those feelings made me feel guilty.
A psychological solution to my guilt appeared in the form of focused thriftiness. I decided that I would do whatever I could to reduce the cost of the trip and that somehow this action would justify those extra self-indulgent days. I would stay at National Park campsites. I would sleep and cook in my camper van. I would resist the temptation to buy unnecessary things. The thrifty strategy subdued my guilt, but that emotion was soon substituted with another even more ridiculous concern.
By coincidence random videos appeared on my YouTube homepage, most centering around bear attacks. There were instructional videos on how to protect yourself from maniacal bears. There were videos describing tales of loss of limb and life by grizzlies. There was even a video showing a bear using its massive claws to rip through a car door as quickly as one would poke a hole into a taut sheet of aluminum foil.
After watching a number of these videos, I told myself that enough was enough. I reminded myself that millions of people visit National Parks in any given year, and actual bear aggressions impacts a tiny percentage of those patrons. However, just to be on the safe side, I bought a canister of bear repellent and vowed to not smell like bacon when I was in bear country.
My trip preparation continued in earnest. I scoured the pantry for suitable camper food, and I made purchases of Knorr Sides and Spam Singles at the local market. I gathered my photography equipment. I filled my packing cubes with clothing. I put new batteries in my flashlight. There was nothing else that I could do, yet I continued to feel unsettled, and I didn’t understand why.
On the day of my departure, I found myself stalling to leave. Eventually, I pulled myself into my campervan’s cabin, buckled my seatbelt, and turned on the ignition. My solo trip was about to begin.
One mile became ten, ten became one hundred. I dug into my car food bag and munch on chips, mixed nuts, and Smart Pop popcorn. I calmed, but I still couldn’t understand what was really troubling me.
I traveled in external silence, thinking. I thought about making a helpful YouTube video for van dwellers. I plotted out the destinations of my trip. I remembered the contents of my cargo bins. And so it went.
My friend, Tom, would call to check on me, and I was happy about that. I would call Julie, and I was grateful that she seemed glad to talk to me, as I know she dislikes taking on the phone.
A conversation with one of my sisters here, a text message from one of my kids there, an encouraging Facebook comment or two. I was clearly looking forward to these interactions, and I was surprised how critical these touchpoints were for a loner like me.
I have never wanted masses of friends. I have never wanted to be popular. Such scenarios seem more exhausting than exhilarating. However, I cherish a small group of people. Those individuals represent my “Priorities,” and I will do whatever I can to make sure that I am there for them. However, traveling alone illustrated a second purpose to these relationships. Traveling alone had shown how imperative it is for me to be cared about by those who I care for. Traveling alone focused me on the reality that I need people in my life, and that it was the thought of separation from them that was the cause of all of my pre-trip anxiety. I find it curious that it is so easy for me to love, yet so difficult to imagine that others love me.
I don’t want to be cared for because of what I can do for someone, I have spent my life doing that. I don’t want to be included in a social circle only because I am entertaining, funny, or a good listener. Instead, I want to be loved and accepted for who I am. I want to be missed when I’m not around, and I want to be the source of excitement when I return on the scene.
During much of my life, I gained the acceptance of others by being whoever that person wanted me to be. Now, I want someone to see my soul and feel that I am good enough.
It brings me joy to comprehend that those people who I love also love me. As I write this, I am astonished by this realization, and eminently thankful for it.
On one phone call during my trip, Julie asked me if I was having a good time, and I told her, “Yes.” There are many positives when traveling solo. I set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time as I wish to do an activity. I can stay up as late as I choose, or go to bed as soon as I desire. These are wonderful things.
However, I did miss the lack of a traveling companion to share the wonders that I saw. Someone to be mutually amazed at the magnitude of the Great Sand Dunes, or to collectively wonder about the lives of the ancient Pueblo. I wanted to share a new sight, or a sunset, or conversation around a morning cup of coffee with someone that I care about. All of those activities seem sweeter when done with someone who you love.
This great adventure was an exercise in aloneness and was a success, but not the success that I initially imagined. Yes, I am perfectly competent by myself, but this trip illustrated to me how much I need others in my life, not to do for me, but to care for me. I am an introvert, but I’m not a loner.
As a child, I wanted to live on an island in isolation. As an adult, I realize the I am not an island unto myself. I still have much to learn about myself. Life lessons are everywhere. All I need to do is to stop and listen.
This is part two of my series on reducing your grocery costs.
I returned to cooking regularly a couple years ago. A few years before then I decided to make dinner for two of my kids. I found an interesting recipe on the internet, and I planned some side dishes. I went to our local Jewel grocery store to buy my ingredients. The dish required unusual olives, special spices, and choice meat. I also bought bread crumbs, fresh vegetables, and Parmesan cheese for a side dish. I purchased salad fixings, French bread, and a frozen appetizer. The grocery bill was about $85, and I recall thinking at the time, “Wow, we could have gone out to dinner for this price!”
I had always thought that making food at home was less expensive than going out. However, my above experience seemed to prove me wrong.
Is it less expensive to eat out? I consulted with multiple sources when I was writing this post, and the consensus is clear. It is significantly less costly to make your own food than to eat out. This fact is true whether you are eating in fine restaurants, or buying fast food. Also, in many, but not all cases making food from scratch is less expensive than buying it partially prepared.
So why was my dinner so expensive? The recipe that I chose used a lot of ingredients that were exotic and expensive. Items, like one use spices and other unusual ingredients, were purchased and their remains were never used again. Instead of seeing what things we already had that could be substituted, I went out and bought everything new.
I think the above is a common problem for people who think of cooking as a special occasion event. However, if you do a little planning, you can save significant cash by cooking at home.
In my last post, I talked about saving over 20% of your food cost by not wasting food. In this post, I’ll explore ways to reduce your grocery bill directly. I’m sure that you have heard some of these ideas before. My effort is to put them together in one convenient post.
As humans were are imperfect. We don’t need to be perfect shoppers to save money. Pick and choose from the following tips that fit your own personality and style. Feel free to add and subtract from these suggestions. Remember, any positive change in behavior will yield more money in your pocket, and it is better to make a few lasting changes than to attempt radical changes that you won’t sustain over the long run.
To coupon or to not coupon? That is the question. My wife sometimes uses coupons, but I rarely do. Yet, coupons can be a useful way to stretch your grocery dollar. It makes the most sense to save coupons for items that you regularly use. Use a paper clip to secure them to your grocery list, so they are at the ready.
Cycle your way to savings. Grocery stores rotate sale prices on food items in a 6-week cycle. If you can learn about your store’s sales cycle, you can save some extra cash. Non-perishable items are easy to stock up on. You don’t need to buy a case of pasta sauce to save money, you can still benefit from just buying an extra jar or two when they are on sale.
It’s OK to be at a loss. A loss leader is a sales strategy where a store will actually lose money on a food product in the hopes of attracting customers who will come in and then buy other more costly items. Sometimes a loss leader may be constant, like an always low price on milk or eggs. Customers may think that the other foods in the store are at bargain prices and transfer their grocery shopping to that store.
Sometimes loss leaders are temporary or seasonal. I recently went to the store to buy corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, and I was happy to find great prices on most of the items needed to make that traditional dinner. If I had chosen to do so, I could have picked up another bargain corned beef brisket to pop in my freezer for a later date.
Become avoidant. A surprising amount of floor space in a grocery store is utilized for non-food and junk-food items. Products like dish soap and garbage bags can usually be found cheaper at big box stores. Junk foods like chips, soda, and other snacks can occupy more floor space than staple items, and their purchase can quickly escalate your check out bill. If you don’t go down an aisle, you can’t buy the things in that aisle.
Take a kiddie holiday. If possible, shop without your kids as they secretly work for grocery stores, and will do anything possible to get you to buy things that you don’t need.
Never wear a “growl” fit when you go shopping. If your stomach is growling, you will buy more. Never go hungry to the grocery store!
Pen your grocery dreams. One of the most important things that you can do to save money is to write a shopping list and stick to it. Studies have shown that if you do this, you will spend much less. If you are like me, you won’t be in the embarrassing situation of going to the store for a gallon of milk and returning home with $100 of groceries and forgetting the milk!
Using a list forces you to check your onboard house supplies. Using a list makes you do at least some meal planning. Using a list protects you from impulsive purchases.
All rules don’t apply to you. Certain processed foods can actually be less expensive than some unprocessed foods. Frozen vegetable and frozen fruit can be significantly cheaper than their fresh versions. In some cases, they may be more nutritious as they are quickly processed and haven’t spent long periods degrading in a warehouse or on a shelf. Canned fish is much less expensive than fresh fish. Canned vegetable, including canned tomatoes, can also be real bargains.
However, you still need to be a savvy shopper. Basic frozen kernel corn may be downright cheap, but your price advantage could disappear when you opt for the same item upscaled with butter sauce or other additions. Stick with the unadulterated version for the best price and the greatest flexibility. Another great thing about frozen produce is that you can use only what you need, and reseal the bag for another day.
Back to basics. Some fresh vegetables and fruits and always good values. Bags of Russet Potatoes, broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, green cabbage, bagged spinach, and butternut squash are usually economical. Bananas, oranges, frozen berries, cantaloupe, kiwis, and apples can also be good values.
I love Honeycrisp apples. Unfortunately, they cost about $3 a pound where I live. I did a Google search to find apples that are similar to Honeycrisp, and several other varieties popped up. One of them was Fuji apples, which happened to be on sale for $0.99 a pound at my local market. In other words, they were one-third the price. Are they as good as Honeycrisp apples? No, but they are not bad either.
Staples-that was easy! Flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other stables are inexpensive. You should have them on hand as they are the foundation of many meals. Beyond the price, I find little difference between the house brand and the name brand.
Other essential items like milk and eggs are real bargains at most stores. Dried pasta is often a dollar a box. Foods like oatmeal, rice, and dried beans/lentils are super values. Although canned beans are cheap, dried beans are more economical. Cook them in a slow cooker overnight and portion/freeze them for future meals.
Say cheese! Cheese is a beautiful addition to many dishes. Check prices, but you can usually save money by buying it in a block and cutting/shredding it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is usually dryer, less flavorful, and has cellulose added (think wood) to prevent it from clumping in the bag. If you love a particular type of cheese, consider buying it at a warehouse club. My friend, Tom loves Gouda and buys a big wedge at Costco for roughly the same price as a little slice at the grocery store.
Where’s the meat? One great way to save on meat is to eat less of it (more on this in a later post). Beef is usually the most expensive meat, followed by pork then chicken. You can sometimes save money by cutting up meat yourself. A whole chicken can be less costly than the sum of its parts, but make sure you check the price per ounce first. Remember, it is often possible to substitute one meat for another.
On a recent shopping trip, I picked up a package of turkey lunch meat for my son. One pound was over $5. Thirty feet away was a freezer case filled with frozen turkey breasts at $2.50 a pound. It is easy to put a thawed turkey breast in a crock-pot and let it cook on low for 5-6 hours (or until done). Some of the breast can be carved for sandwich meat, some cubed for a salad or an easy stir fry, some can be shredded for bbq chicken sandwiches, and so forth. Freeze what you won’t consume in few days in meal-sized portions.
I just watched a video where a woman purchased a ham for less than a dollar a pound. In 17 minutes she cut it up into 11 potential meals for her family. She had slices for sandwiches, cubes for main courses, crumbles (remnants) to add to eggs, and the ham bone to make a bean dish. Each meal size portion was sealed in a Zip-Lock bag, and all of the bags were kept together in a larger Zip-Lock bag. By immediately portioning out her food she assured herself that none of it would go to waste.
The above technique can be applied to any other “bulk” purchase. I bought a large package of chicken thighs in preparation for making homemade soup. Half of the chicken was kept in the refrigerator for the soup, and the other half was frozen for a future meal. Total time for me to split the chicken up? About 3 minutes.
Bulk up Many stores now have aisles of bulk food where you can buy the exact amount of an item that you need. Also, prices can be less, and you avoid a lot of random packing. These aisles are great for singles or couples who often have limited space, limited money, and limited time.
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink? Water is good for you, and it is free! You don’t need to buy exotic sounding bottled water that has its true origins in a municipal water supply. If you don’t like the taste of your water consider using an inexpensive filter to de-funk it.
According to a 2016 US Department of Agriculture study, Americans spend more money on soft drinks than any other food item. People may be drinking less soda, but they have replaced it with special waters, and other expensive non-alcoholic drinks. In this category, I would also include a lot of fruit juices, which are basically sugary flavored water. Giving up pop could save you over 7% of your yearly food bill!
Store crazy. Where you shop can have an impact on the overall cost of your groceries. Where I live, we have costly stores (like Whole Foods and Standard Market), expensive stores (like Jewel) and less costly stores (like Aldi, Walmart, and Costco). Baring a discussion on quality differences, if you want to save money shop at a less expensive store.
You can save money even if you shop at only one store, especially if you get to know that store’s sales cycles. However, you may save even more money by shopping for the best values between two stores. In our area, a local greengrocer chain (Fresh Thyme) offers great produce, which is often on sale. Costco is fantastic if you want a bargain broasted chicken, large quantities, or convenience foods like a stack of frozen pizzas. Walmart and Aldi are the places to go for cheap basic groceries in more normal sized quantities.
Be agnostic…brand agnostic. You may like the taste of a particular brand. However, if you stretch your taste boundaries a little, you can save big money. We sometimes used condensed mushroom soup as a base ingredient in casseroles and slow cooker meals. Campbell’s Mushroom soup is an economical 0.99 cents a can, but the Walmart version is an incredible $0.50 a can. When all the other ingredients are added, no one will know that you went with the house brand.
I eat an enormous amount of peanut butter. I buy large jars of the house band at around seven cents an ounce. The brand name versions range from nine to thirteen cents an ounce, and the gourmet premium peanut butter is an astounding fifty cents an ounce! I’m sure the gourmet brand tastes better, but not seven times better.
Expand your vision. Grocery stores place more expensive items at eye level and cheaper items above or below eye level. If you want an in instant bargain look up or down.
One ounce at a time. Packaging is often deceptive, and a box’s size is not a reliable indication of the volume of its content. Most stores will list a price per ounce (or unit) of a product which allows for easy cost comparison. If your store doesn’t do this just use the calculator function on your phone. Divide the cost of the item by the total ounces. Lower is cheaper.
Best value and cheapest cost have different meanings. Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the best. I recently bought a very inexpensive dishwashing liquid. It smelled good and was nice and thick. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a perfect job cleaning, and I had to use almost triple the amount to clean the same number of dishes as I would have used with a better product.
When I was growing up, I recall my father buying an entire case of an off-brand canned spaghetti. In those days I liked the Chef Boyardee stuff for lunch. The off brand that he bought was absolutely terrible, and I wouldn’t eat it (which is saying a lot). It would have been much better to have just waited for a sale on the brand name.
Spice up your life. The use of herbs and spices can turn a mundane dish into a memorable one. However, spices can be expensive. You can often find a better price by buying the same seasoning in the store’s ethnic aisle. Likewise, ethnic stores can be an excellent resource for spices. Avoid buying spices in a giant container from places like Costco. Will you really use all of that nutmeg? Spices in bags can be significantly less expensive than the same quantity in a cute little bottle.
Learn to substitute. Fresh spices taste great, but you can certainly use dried ones with good results. Remember that dried spices are more concentrated, so only use about ⅓ the amount that you would use for fresh. You don’t have Italian Seasoning? Use some Oregano. Out of garlic? Substitute some garlic powder (not garlic salt).
Spice/seasoning combination products are often more expensive and more specialized than individual spices. If possible, stick to the basics for greater flexibility and cheaper costs. Do you really need to buy cinnamon sugar when you can make it in about 2 seconds, and for next to nothing?
We’ve got an app for that! Some apps will find coupons, determine which store is selling an item at the lowest price, and keep track of your grocery list. You can use your web browser to check a store’s weekly ad, so you know what is on sale before you walk in.
Is bigger better? I always thought that buying in quantity saved money, but that is often not the case. Buying in large quantities tends to make me use more, waste more, and eat more.
How many times have I bought a large box of something only to find that I didn’t like it. My wife, Julie is quick to remind me of my warehouse store purchase of some abysmal breakfast sandwiches that languished in our freezer until I finally threw them out.
Sometimes a bigger item may actually cost more per ounce. At other times it may be the same cost as a more convenient smaller size.
There are times when buying in bulk can be a good idea. Do you eat rice every day? Are you a regular baker? Is cheese a central part of your meal life? If you are going to use it, why not save a few bucks by buying in quantity.
Dig deep. Stores bring the oldest products to the front of the shelf, for obvious reasons. If you want your food items to be the freshest (and last the longest) reach towards the back.
Become a member of a secret society. Stores follow protocols, just like any other business. Perishable items that are nearing their expiration date are usually purged on a store-specific schedule. Learn this secret time and save big.
Yesterday’s bread is often discounted early the next morning. Meats and produce nearing their expiration date can be deeply reduced in price. Use them in a day or two, or freeze for future use.
Most stores have a clearance section for items that they are trying to offload. You can find great bargains here but use some caution. There is a reason no one bought that peppermint flavored Spam.
Oh, you impulsive you! Your grocery store wants you to buy, and they would love it if you purchase high margin items. We have all stopped to grab a free sample. An item that can taste delicious in a tablespoon sized sample may be less impressive when you get home and try to eat a bowl of the stuff.
Stores use music, colors, posters, eye-catching end-caps, and just about anything else that they can think of to get you to buy more. Resist!
Portion distortion When tourists visit the US from other countries, they are often shocked at the huge portion size of our meals. We associate supersizing with value, but is that really the case? Eating regular sized meals not only save money, but they are also healthier for you. Buy less and save more.
It’s not a fast, it’s a feast. If you are desperately low on cash, your main grocery buying goal should be to achieve basic nutrition at the lowest possible cost. However, most of us have a little extra money to spend. If you feel that you can’t get by without some soda or chips, buy less than you usually would and build a “treat” cost into your budget. Consider snack alternatives. Homemade popcorn (not microwave popcorn) is super cheap and tastes much better than the old stuff they sell in bags.
Be as flexible as a Yogi. We eat 21 meals a week, they all don’t need to be Pinterest perfect. Substitute and experiment, within reason. Fusion taco bars have sprung up in my town, their selling point is the use of unusual, but tasty ingredients placed in a taco shell. Substitute shredded cabbage for lettuce? Why not. A sauce instead of cheese? OK. Leftover pot roast instead of ground beef? Sure.
Every meal doesn’t need to be nutritionally balanced as long as you meet your daily requirements during the rest of the day.
By allowing yourself to be flexible, you open yourself up to a new saving horizon.
I am hardly perfect when it comes to grocery buying, but I am genuinely trying to become a better grocery buyer. Why don’t you join me and adopt a couple of the above suggestions to see if you can become a more savvy shopper?
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.
At 6:20 PM I exited the house and pulled myself up and into my freezing Ram Promaster campervan. I switched on the ignition and started my drive to Panera Bread on the other side of town. It took me about 15 minutes, and the van was still cold when I arrived. Once inside I used the restaurant’s kiosk to order a diet coke and a bowl of squash soup. The restaurant was busier than usual, and my favorite booth was already in use. I sat at a corner table instead. My sister Nancy arrived, and we sat, talked, and ate. This was our weekly creativity night. A time to catch up on each other’s lives and to focus on our writing.
The meeting concluded, and it was time to come up with a writing topic for the next week. I was dry of ideas. Nancy thought of a few for me, but none of them rang true. We Googled “interesting writing topics,” but the suggestions seemed trite, and not very interesting.
With a shortage of ideas, I decided to fall back on me, and the odd way that I approach life. I’ll call this piece “Simple, Complex Mike.”
I’m one of those obsessive people, who really enjoys his obsessiveness. I tend to become interested in something which then starts a sequence of events of learning, experimenting, and doing. This sequence can vary depending on the circumstance, but it is consistent enough to identify it as a pattern.
You may think that this “scientific” approach to life was developed when I was a microbiologist (Ed note: I was a scientist before I became a medical doctor), but it has been with me since birth. My wife, being a conservative Swede, didn’t understand this aspect of my personality and for many years and it was a source of endless frustration for her. I become obsessively interested in a topic, and part of that interest involves comparing things to understand their similarities and differences. I have multiple cameras because I like to explore their pros and cons. I know many ways to make a pie crust. I am comfortable using a variety of computer operating systems. The list goes on.
In most cases, I discover that similarities exceed differences in any given area of interest. A fact that I also find interesting. I have a small room in my basement full of various objects because of this comparison obsession. Julie has gone from complaining about my “junk” to merely shaking her head. This is one of the great things about knowing someone for decades, you start to accept the person for who they are instead of trying to change them into something that you think that they should be.
I see these same behaviors in my siblings, although they are expressed differently. We are all just a little bit crazy but in a harmless way. It must be a genetic thing.
My recent obsessive “energy” has been spent on my van to campervan conversion; its actual construction almost complete. One of the final stages is to convert the open space under the platform bed into a more usable storage area. I had some ideas about this, and I asked my friend, Tom, for his construction expertise. Tom, being a creative guy and general contractor, developed a grander and more comprehensive vision, and my garage is now filled with plywood slabs that are waiting for the next phase of construction. He is currently working 7 days a week, to completes a major project, and I am especially grateful for any bit of time that he can find to help me. However, since he is often busy I now have time to think about other things. I always have a “Plan B” at the ready. In this case, my brain has switched from storage construction to van kitchen completion.
I have been camping all of my life and have owned travel trailers. Based on this it should be easy for me to come up with a simple cooking system for the van. However, that is not how my brain works. In my mind, this is an opportunity to learn more about cooking systems and methods. I’m sure that some of you are shaking your heads and muttering, “Dr. Mike you have too much free time on your hands.” This may be the case, but I have always approached life this way, even when I was working 80 hours per week.
The question at hand: Can I use free solar energy to cook my food? This question has pushed me to learn about solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, amp hours, efficient appliances, and so on. You may be thinking, “Just get a camp stove and be done with it!.” That is a good suggestion, and it may be my eventual decision. However, my brain exercise is as much about learning as it is about implementation. It is exciting for me to acquire new knowledge and to pass on that knowledge on. In this case, I’ll probably produce a video to help other new campervan builders.
You would be right in surmising that many simple issues turn into complex problems for me because of this. That is true and OK by me, as solving problems is one of my favorite activities. You may also be confused by the fact that I’m building out a very simple campervan. A place of simplicity that is spare when it comes to material objects. Welcome to Dr. Mike’s bipolar world. I have these two very different sides. One pole creates complexity when it isn’t necessary. The other pole pushes for simplicity and eschews complexity. You may think that these converse positions pull me apart, but in reality, I’m quite comfortable with this duality.
Simplicity is the counterpoint of my self-imposed complexity. An emotional island to travel to for some mental R and R.
My van is simple, its contents are spare. The interior of my Promaster is considerably smaller than the square footage of my master bathroom. I have 2 pots, and I pan. One sleeping bag and an extra blanket. A few basic tools. Yet, it is enough. It is enough because my needs change when I’m vandwelling. My life becomes simple, and make do with what I have. When I camp I never feel deprived, instead I feel blessed. My behavior calms. I slow down. I savor simple meals and simple pleasures. Nature gives me peace.
As humans, we tend to categorize the people around us quickly. It is so easy to judge someone by their appearance, demeanor, or vocabulary. We put individuals in slots that determine not only what we think of them, but also how we treat them. Have you ever given someone you initially rejected a “second look” only to find a remarkable and faithful friend? Conversely, have you been dazzled by someone only to discover that they were empty, self-centered, and self-serving?
We are all complex and simple at the same time. The way that we express these poles vary from individual to individual. However, if you insist on judging a book by its cover, you will likely deprive yourself of many wonderful relational adventures.
I am fortunate to have the title of doctor. Those six letters instantly give me a level of status and acceptance. This is in contrast to young Michael, the kid with one pair of pants who had to sleep on the back porch. However, Doctor Mike and little Michael are the same. My drive to learn is the same. My caring for others is the same. My quirky personality is the same. How is it then that people treat me so differently just because of a title?
I believe that we need to not only accept others for who they are, but we also need to love them for who they are. Does someone have a different political belief than you? Are they a different race? Do they have a different sexual orientation? Are you judging them because of these things? If so, you are depriving yourself. You are demonstrating your limitations, rather than theirs.
I spend my time comparing and contrasting things, and in the end, I almost always discover that those things that I compare are more similar than different. Similarities are necessary for continuity, but in differences, I find new ideas and more creative ways to think. Similarities may make me comfortable, but differences make me grow.
Let’s celebrate our similarities and differences. I ask you to love me based on who I am. In turn, I will do the same to you.
Stumbling downstairs I greeted Mercury, our jet black cat. She meowed an acknowledgment and followed me into the kitchen. Her affection a guise for her true motives, the acquisition of a treat. Her goal met, she looked up at me in a thank you glance and sauntered off to perch herself on top of her favorite comfy chair.
Sticking a K-Cup into my Bunn single serve coffee pot I pressed the brew button. Hot brown liquid squirted into my Smoky Mountains earthenware mug. With each sip, I became more alert and focused.
Grabbing my old brown leather messenger bag I shoved my MacBook into it. I knew that I would not be seeing my friend, Tom, for coffee, and for an alternative activity, I stuffed several articles on Medicare into the bag’s back compartment. I have to admit that I had been avoiding reading these articles, as the fear of making a catastrophic health insurance mistake had immobilized me. However, it was time to take my head out of the sand and move forward.
Heading out the door I was instantly smacked in the face by a blast of cold, wet air. I glanced up to the streetlight in front of my house to see a fine mist silhouetted against its bright backdrop. For an instant, I thought about returning for an umbrella, but the mist looked light, and my red Columbia jacket has a weatherproof hood. As I walked the mist turned to rain. I continued to move forward.
Greeted by a friendly, “Hello,” I entered Starbucks and ambulated to the counter to order a Tall, Veranda. It was then time to coordinate my Medicare articles with their corresponding websites. One YouTube video offered a fee Medicare guide, and I signed up for it, an action that I regret, as their salesforce called me at least a dozen times.
It was election day, and I determined that I would walk to my polling place from Starbucks. Unfortunately, the rain had increased in ferocity. My jacket had reached its saturation point, and the dampness now enveloped me.
At the polling place, an unknown elderly lady election judge recognized me. “You are Doctor Kuna! You delivered my Mary! She announced this to several other officials around her. I could not place her, but I surmised that I possibly treated her in the distant past. I smiled and quickly moved away as I didn’t want to get into a conversation that would reveal that I was a psychiatrist, not an obstetrician. Her private life was hers to keep.
Back home, I contemplated taking a hot shower but elected to drip dry instead. On the computer, I watched a few videos from Dale Calder, a retired man from New Brunswick. I stumbled on his videos by accident, and find his slow and deliberate style peaceful and engaging. He often records his videos from a tiny micro cabin and chats with his viewers while he makes comforting meals on a wood stove. He has a quality about him that makes me feel like he has invited me into his cabin for a cup of tea and quiet conversation. I value his Zen-like “appreciate the moment” way of living.
Watching his videos inspired me to explore camping cooking, and I pulled out my little butane stove, the one that I bought at H-Mart over a decade ago. I then assembled my 20-year-old Coleman camp oven. If Dale could make shortbread on a wood stove, certainly I could do more than warm up a can of soup on my little burner.
I elected to make breakfast and decided on blueberry pancakes, as I had a small clutch of dehydrated berries left from a previous camping adventure. Flour, egg, baking powder, salt, milk, melted butter, each item was measured then mixed in a big red melamine bowl. Last went in the blueberries, and my yellow slurry instantly turned a bright purple.
I lit the butane stove and placed on it my 10” GSR camping fry pan. If I was going to do camping cooking, I was going to use camping equipment! I heated oil until it popped with a test drop of water and then poured in three pancakes. I only made a small amount of batter, and the job was quickly completed in two runs. A pat of butter, a smear of sugar-free apricot preserves, and a squirt of sugar-free syrup, breakfast was served.
Encouraged by my success, I placed the Coleman oven on top of the stove and lit the fire. I mixed another batch of batter, this time for sugar-free muffins. Fingers crossed, I set the muffin tin into the Coleman.
As my muffins baked, I searched the basement for my GoPro video camera. I located it and contemplated how I might use it in a “Saving Savvy’ video that I was thinking of making. The muffins continued to bake as I searched for my tripod and audio recorder. My nose informed me that they were done. Success, and a perfect complement for the vegetarian lentil soup that I was planning for lunch!
Guilt overtook me as I looked out at my front lawn, which was covered with a thick carpet of leaves. My next door neighbor has a meticulously kept lawn, and the wind was blowing my leaves onto his grass. I really despise raking leaves, and so I decided to turn my task into an experiment. Learning something new always makes a dull job more interesting. The question: “What is the best gadget to remove leaves, rake, blower, or lawn mower?” Each section of the lawn was tackled by a different method. The result: Mowing was the fastest, while raking gave the best overall results. I knew that this was no great discovery, but it kept me at the task, and I finished the job.
A few more random jobs ebbed away the rest of the afternoon. Will returned home from school, followed by Julie coming from work. I sat with them as they supped on a dinner of leftovers: spaghetti, bits of turkey breast, and reheated crescent rolls. I nibbled on some of the turkey but deliberately avoided a full meal as I was having dinner with my sister later in the evening.
At 6:45 I hopped into the Promaster and drove 15 minutes to Panera Bread. Nancy had already arrived, and I sat down across from her as I waited for my order of squash soup. It eventually came, and I sipped it while I caught up with the news of her family. I have been meeting with my sister every Tuesday night for the last few months. We are both writers, and our meeting’s purpose is to mutually support each other as we try to improve our writing skills. Beyond this function, it is wonderful to regularly meet with Nancy, as we genuinely enjoy each others company.
By 8:30 our meeting had concluded, and it was time to head back home and to the pleasure of a long, and scorching hot shower. Julie and I chatted a bit, and the day concluded.
All in all, a wonderfully average day.
Dear reader, you may be asking why I am writing about my day. There are several reasons. The first is that I am ever trying to appreciate being in the here and now. The day that I described above is never to be repeated. To dismiss it would be a negation of 24 hours of my life. Although typical, the day was filled with learning new things, experiencing new things, connecting with others, and doing productive work. How often have I ignored such days, as I focused on vacations and other spectacular outlying experiences?
I am making an earnest effort to celebrate each event and every connection. I am getting better at this effort. This improvement was not caused by a significant life event; instead, it was seeded by the ticking of time. When I semi-retired in January, I felt an urgent need to do the next big thing. Over the last 11 months, I have come to realize that life isn’t about the big stuff, it is about all things. Happiness can be found by appreciating and savoring every experience. Making breakfast becomes an adventure, raking leaves an experiment, meeting with my sister a growth experience, taking a hot shower a pampered luxury. Everything has significance. It is crucial for me to focus on this truth, instead of discounting a typical day as just something to get through.
I am uncertain if my writing and photography will ever reach a broader audience. However, it gives me pleasure to think that you have taken the time to travel on this journey with me. Along the way, I hope that you will also open your eyes and your heart to all of the experiences that you are given on a daily basis. One step in front of the other, moving forward together, not alone.