Category Archives: friends

Perseverance, Guilt, Childhood, And My Campervan.

Ninety-degree temperatures, 100% humidity, unforgiving sun; I baked. I had spent the morning with a friend under similar conditions as we destroyed the interior of my campervan with the hope of transforming her into something better.

Before the installing of the campervan insert, I had carefully run wires between post and pillar so there would be two electrical circuits available. One to power the yet to be installed exhaust fan, and another to electrify the proposed LED ceiling lights. These wires now covered by the plastic ceiling panels installed in Colorado just weeks before. It was now time to reveal them from their hiding place, and so the panels came down.

A 14 inch by 14-inch hole was cut out of her roof, an exhaust fan screwed into that gap. Huge solar panels were carefully bolted on. Another hole drilled into her roof’s center to carry the cables from those panels into her cabin. Yet another hole, almost 3 inches, was gutted out of her side to provide a place for an AC power connector. Interior side panels were removed to allow wiring access. Her beautiful kitchen was unbolted and temporarily abandoned in my friend’s garage.

Steps that should have been straightforward were difficult. My friend has all of the right skills, all of the right tools, and enough motivation to get the job done. To the best of my ability, I also did my job. Researching and buying products, watching YouTube videos, pre-testing, and pre-planning whenever I could. Yet, every step was hard.

As you know dear readers, it is difficult for me to ask for help. Asking for help in this situation was even more difficult, as such a request placed me in an especially vulnerable position. I do not have the skills, tools, or understanding to complete the project on my own, and once it was started it had to go to completion, there was no half-way. If my friend decided to walk away at any moment, I would be helpless. I do not like being helpless.

Naturally, I knew my friend would not walk away, but I had not placed myself in such a vulnerable place since childhood, and if you have read my previous post you know why.

The work continued with 10 individual LED lights bolted into the ceiling. To attach them properly each screw had to be individually cut with a grinder. I had previously tested all of the lights, but when I re-tested them in situ, they refused to illuminate. The screws that were so carefully cut were shorting out the LED’s circuits and had to be insulated. And so it went.

Despite my best efforts, I found myself transformed to a past time and prior role. I was no longer Mike, the doctor, I was was Michael the 9 year old. Old unwanted roles, high temperatures, lack of skills, and real problems conspired against me. I took my usual stance and soldiered on. This is a strategy that I have long practiced in challenging situations. I don’t give up. I don’t give in. I command my intellect to overpower my emotion, and I move forward.

The ceiling panels were re-bolted to the roof of the van, but even this task was difficult as some of the screws spun aimlessly, refusing to tighten. Why did everything have to be so difficult when I just wanted to get the project completed and to move on?

Add to this the guilt that I was feeling for imposing so considerably on my friend. He did not complain, but I had already consumed days of his personal time, and the end was not in sight. I thought I would let him know how appreciative I was by publicly announcing my gratitude on Facebook. But in honest retrospect, I think my actions were done in part to relieve my guilty feelings. I find it strange that I can willingly and joyfully help others, yet I cannot ascribe these attributes to those who offer a hand of help to me.

Now alone, I re-enter my van. Once beautiful, presently a mess of disarray. With me is my tester device. Made from a battery pack and fuse box, it stands at the ready. In my pocket is a multimeter.

I connect the wires that should power the LED lights and turn on the power. Only two out of the 10 lights illuminate. I connect the exhaust fan’s power supply and click on the remote control. It sits silent. I pull out my multimeter and set its controls to 50 volts DC. If all goes well, I should get between 10 volts to 20 volts registered on it when I touch the solar panel’s input cables. I press the sharp probe tips into the wires, and the meter records 1 volt.

A wave of desperation covers me. How is this possible? I have experimented with electricity since childhood. I have an advanced class amateur radio license. These circuits are simple, my planning was good, my friend’s work was flawless. Suddenly I’m enveloped by guilt. A pang of guilt from the distant past. A pang of guilt that tells me that all of these problems have to be my fault. That I am to blame. It was now time to approach my friend and admit this to him and accept my consequences. He, of course, tells me that my guilty assumptions are ridiculous.

I am persistent, and I don’t allow illogical thinking to rule me. Despite my guilt, I press forward, and we approached each issue methodically. The LED malfunction is traced to a faulty connector. I remove it, manually spliced the wires together, and 10 lights shine brightly. We test the fan’s electrical supply circuit, and despite being new, it is shorted. I piggyback the power wires from the fan onto the LED feed line, and the fan jumps to life. Each of the solar panel’s MC4 connectors are explored, and it is discovered that the final one in the chain is defective. Being a planner, I have a backup connector at the ready. It is replaced and the multimeter reads a stable 18 volts. From desperation to success, all due to perseverance. All due to not allowing my old and inaccurate emotions consume me.

Dear reader, most of my posts have a theme which is that we are continuously given life lessons, but most of us choose to ignore them. These lessons come in the form of projects, problems, our experiences, and our connections with others.

It would be great to say that the above experience transformed me. It did not. I will need to ask for this type of help many more times before I feel comfortable with that action, and I will likely succumb many more times to falling back into my childhood persona when I do take that risk. However, I now know that I can ask, I can receive, and I can survive. That is important knowledge.

The process also opened up new issues that I need to face, but isn’t that what life is all about? As they say, life is a journey, not a destination. I will never reach perfection, but hopefully, I will improve each time I challenge my false beliefs and inaccurate perceptions. Walk with me, please.

My Crazy Solo 2000 Mile Car Trip

How is it possible to be semi-retired and not have enough time? When I was working 60-70 hours a week, I found time for extra tasks. Apparently, that ability has magically evaporated.

As you recall from my other posts, I recently bought a Ram Promaster cargo van with the idea of transforming it into a simple campervan. I studied many conversion options, and I finally decided to go with a kit that could be installed in my Promaster in a couple of hours. The only problem was that the shop that installs these kits was in Colorado Springs, over 1000 miles away.

My busy retired schedule was already filled with chores, events, and tasks, but I still needed to find a block of time to make the long trip. Ideally, the drive could be a fun adventure if I had enough time to drive/sightsee and if I could travel with someone. Julie initially said she would be my companion, but she changed her mind because she felt that she couldn’t be away from home. My friend Tom has family and work responsibilities, and my kids work summer jobs. That summed up all of the people in my life who would want to spend days of their time sitting 3 feet away from me in a cargo van. Based on these realities I bit the bullet and decided to limit my total time away to less than 4 days and to travel solo.

Saturday arrived, and I drove over to Tom’s house at 5 AM to do our usual “solving the problems of the world.” I then came home to say my goodbyes, and to load my bare cargo van. Into its cavity went a gym bag of clothing, an air mattress, a sleeping bag, a throw pillow, a 5-gallon carboy of water, and a large duffel bag filled with food, cooking gear and a butane stove. With Google Maps as my companion, I was off on my adventure.

Mile after mile, hour after hour. I spent much of the first day of driving in silent thought. Tom had visited the Iowa Capitol building earlier with his son, Charlie, and highly recommended the free tour. I took his advice and had a two-hour layover in Des Moines. The capitol building is magnificent, and the tour guide was excellent. He also suggested a $10/night county campground on the western edge of Iowa which is where I spent my first night. For a sawbuck, I got to camp on a grassy site that was right on a river. I didn’t mind sleeping in my bare van, it felt like an adventure ala the boxcar kids.

Unfortunately, I had about 13 hours of driving the next day, which was both windy and raining. My Promaster acted like a sail in the strong wind forcing me to grip the steering wheel for the next 600 miles tightly. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted by the time I reached Colorado Springs on Sunday night. I had booked a room at the Hyatt, as I wanted to make sure that I would be up and alert for Monday’s big installation. I was so spent that I didn’t want to leave the room and so I heated up a can of Annie’s Quinoa, Kale and Red Lentil soup for dinner. After a hot and soapy shower, I crashed into bed.

The next morning I ate my complimentary hotel breakfast and headed off to Wayfarer Vans. There I met Ian, the company’s owner. He kindly lent me his personal car during the install, which allowed me to go to the Garden of the Gods state park. I hiked there among the wildflowers and red rock formations. By 1:30 PM the job was completed and I hopped into the driver’s seat for the very long drive home. I felt more lonely on the return trip, so I gratefully talked on the phone and listened to podcasts on Spotify.

Into the night I drove, thinking that every hour on the road would be one less hour the next day. I stopped only for gas and necessities while dining on gas station hot dogs and diet Mountain Dew.

At around 11:30 PM I pulled into a Nebraska rest stop. I spied the sign that limited stays to 10 hours or less. “Perfect,” I thought. I would be long gone before that. Instead of having an air mattress on a metal floor I now had a real mattress on a platform bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag wondering if I would fall asleep. Within moments my eyes closed and I drifted off to the diesel drone of the nearby tractor trailers.

The next morning I cooked up oatmeal and coffee in my new campervan, pulled myself into the driver’s seat, and continued my trip. Many hours later I arrived home. Once again exhausted, but very happy as I had reached my goal.

The trip served many purposes beyond my intended one. I tested my ability to drive for hours by myself. I put to use my camp cooking skills by preparing meals in the van. I explored my ability to entertain myself for days on end. I stretched my introverted self by talking to strangers. Overall, it was a successful trip, and one more step in my quest to go on the road to write and to take photographs.

Dear reader, I have a dream, and I am doing my best to achieve that dream. The overall results may be successful, they may be unsuccessful, or they may lie somewhere in the middle. I am OK with failing at my goal. However, I am not OK with never trying to achieve it.

In this world, we have external limits and obligations that prevent us from doing those things that we desire. However, it is the individual who often crushes their own dreams. Sometimes this is because of fear. At other times it is due to lack of ambition. Still other times it is due to being comfortable with the status quo. In this latter example, the person’s life is good enough, and they are willing to settle. I have never wanted to settle. Why should you? Ever forward, one step at a time.

Do you have goals and dreams? What are you doing to achieve them?

The Family Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Vandwelling, Part II

In my life, I have dreams, accomplishments, and disappointments.

I try to minimize disappointment by adopting three simple strategies. I can neutralize it. I can transform it from a disappointment into an accomplishment. I can merely accept it and move on. These are reasonable approaches that often, but not always, work.

There are problems that I need to act on immediately if I hope to have any chance of resolving them. However, sometimes a disappointment can convert itself on its own. In other words, it really wasn’t a disappointment; instead I was just misinterpreting the situation. Such a case is the case of my retirement fund.

Thirty years ago I established my retirement fund. No, I’m not talking about an IRA, I’m talking about an adventure fund. I put a chunk of money into an account as a seed, and I planned to add money to it on a regular basis until I had a sizeable nest egg. The fund was envisioned to establish some sort of retirement adventure plan. Perhaps I would purchase a second home in a beautiful location, maybe I would buy an ultra luxurious Class A RV. The designation for the fund was pretty open.

My savings plan never developed in the way that I wanted it to. Its value went up and down over the years, but the overall amount has remained mostly the same.

Over time the thought of a second home became more of a burden than a blessing, and after spending decades camping, I came to realize that I was happiest surrounded by nature.

My camping trips made me understand that I needed certain things to be comfortable. I wanted my bed to be off the ground. I wanted to have the ability to quickly access my gear so it would be at the ready for a spontaneous weekend trip. I wanted enough shelter to have a place to comfortably hang out in inclement weather.

I never used the onboard bathroom in my old camper, as it was a hassle to dump and clean the system. I never hooked up my camper’s kitchen, as I found it more enjoyable to cook on a picnic table. I never took advantage of some of my camper’s electronic features, like the cable TV connection, as I preferred the crackle of a campfire to the canned laughter of a sitcom.

When I started my search for the perfect camper, I was thinking in terms of 5 people traveling together. But that number quickly changed to 4 when I realized that it would be unlikely that my 21-year-old daughter would want to continue to take family camping trips with us.

Two years ago I bought a Ford Flex, which could tow 5000 pounds. I started to look at small campers/trailers that could sleep 4 and fell in love with a little Winnebago trailer called a Minnie Winnie. It was a marvel of compact design, and also light enough to be pulled by the Flex. However, something held me back, and I never bought it. My wife Julie is still working, which meant that I might be taking some solo trips, and the thought of backing up a trailer by myself created some anxiety in me. More recently, I have gained additional awareness. We have not gone on a family camping vacation for over 3 years, as we have traveled on other types of trips instead. It made little sense to build my plans of camping adventures based on accommodating a family. It made more sense to think in terms of one or two campers. I continued to look, but no option seemed right.

Time ticked on, and I tried to use the tool of acceptance. “I will accept the fact that I may never have another camper.”

My friend Tom also has a Ford Flex, in fact, his car was the inspiration for purchasing mine. Tom often travels with his son Charlie in his Flex, and he has developed a system to use it as a car camper.

His example got me experimenting with turning my Flex into a similar rolling home. With the back two rows of seats turned down I could fit nicely. An REI self-inflating mattress made a comfy bed, and the nooks and crannies of the vehicle served as places for gear storage. This system worked pretty well on several mini-trips, but it had its limitations. First was the hassle of converting and loading the car every time I wanted to use it. Second was the space factor. Yes, I had a comfy bed, but that was about it. If the weather was inclement, I was stuck outside. Third was the fact that this was strictly a solution for one person, no more. I’m well over 6 feet tall, and I take up a lot of space.

I had toyed with the idea of buying an old conversion van and modifying it. Tom had said that he would help me with the job, and as a general contractor, he has all of the skills and tools necessary for the task. However, I felt that such an extensive project would place an unreasonable burden on him.

The next part of the puzzle was solved by a random YouTube video that appeared in my “To Watch” feed. The video was from a lady who used a company called Wayfarer in Colorado Springs to install a simple modular conversion system in her Promaster City. Further searches led me to a video of the company’s conversion offering for a full-sized Promaster van. This modular kit could be installed in 2 hours and included all of the things that I would need in a home away from home. Just as importantly, it didn’t include things that I would never use, like an onboard bathroom. Of course, I was fearful, but I also felt excited.

Tom had found me a good deal on my Flex, and now he found me a good deal on a high-top Promaster. Two weeks ago I broke into my retirement nest egg and bought it. Today I’ll get a hitch installed for a bike carrier, in a few weeks I’ll have a couple of windows installed, and by the end of the month, I’ll have Wayfarer install their conversion systems. Tom and I will do the finishing touches (vent fan, shore electric, etc.). My dream is about to be realized!

If I had acted rashly, I would have made a mistake. By waiting, the disappointment that I felt transformed into the realization that an earlier decision would have been a wrong decision. I can park the new van in my driveway packed and ready to go. I can travel in it by myself with all of the necessary creature comforts. I can go on trips with Julie. I can caravan with Tom. The van is big enough for me to stand up in it. It has a comfy bed, lots of storage, and a simple, practical design. It is everything that I wanted, except I won’t have to spend several months building it out.

Time turned my disappointment into an accomplishment. I’ll post the conversion process as it proceeds. Life doesn’t have to be a struggle. Sometimes you just need to let life happen without trying to control every second of it. Dear reader, kick back and relax today and see what life gives you.

My new cargo van.
My future home?

On Living In A Cargo Van

I moved to the far western suburbs of Chicago 30 years ago. Many things in my life have changed since that move. I married 25 years ago. I had three more children. I purchased a house. However, there is one thing that I did before all of the above that has remained to today. That one thing is my retirement camper fund.

I have a pool of money that I established over 30 years ago. The fund amount is sensible, but not tremendous. It has served as my “dream fund,” a fund to build a dream on.

When I approached my retirement, I started to think in earnest about that money and how I would use it. I have the heart of a country boy, and I am the most content when I am in nature. My spirit has always gravitated out west, and I am drawn to places there. Would I want to move there permanently? The truth is that I want to live close to where my kids are. For me, relationships trump scenery. However, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to spend extended periods of time exploring the National Parks and other scenic wonders.

My ease with the outdoors offers me the advantage of doing these explorations relatively cheaply. I have a senior pass for the National Parks, and I have camped my entire life. I have owned campers in the past, so I have a good idea of what I need when it comes to creature comforts.

If I camp for more than a few days, I need to be in something that keeps me off the ground. I am also a “compartment” kind of guy, and I like the idea of having most of the things that I need at the ready and organized. I don’t mind cooking, so I need some sort of ability to do that. Naturally, I need a way to charge my camera, phone, and other gadgets.

With proper ventilation and a 12-volt fan, I can likely survive without AC. My last camper had a bathroom, but I never used it. It was more straightforward to use the campground’s provided facilities. Refrigeration would be helpful, but I’m teaching myself how to make real meals using my own dehydrated foods and off the shelf products. I can’t go for an extended period eating only granola bars and beef jerky.

What I have discovered from my years of camping is that I don’t need a lot to thrive. At home, I am a gadget lover because I like exploring innovation. However, on the road, I practice KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).

The primary goal of my retirement fund was to purchase some sort of camper. Pop-up, trailer, RV? I have toyed with all of the above, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

My fund is not generous enough to buy a new RV, but I could afford an older C class. They are the best RV value, but they are big and bulky. I would likely have to tow a car, a hassle that I don’t want to do.

A pop-up could be a solution, but do I really want to constantly setup and teardown at 65?

I looked at trailers, and they seem to be an (almost) perfect option. However, there is my backing up problem. Dear reader, I understand the mechanics of backing up a trailer, and I am able to back one up. However, I need a backing up guide. If my wife is with me, I can get my camper where I want it.

You may remember that I am dyslexic. This problem impacts my senses of position and space. It is challenging for me to conceptualize where a trailer is relative to its tow vehicle. When I back up a trailer by myself, I have to continually get out of the car, visualize where the trailer is, back up a bit more, and repeat. It is very frustrating. I marvel at my friend Tom’s backing up ability. I have been with him many times when he had to back up a considerable construction trailer; he is a real pro. He has offered to teach me his tricks, but I will always have my spatial problem.

My needs have also changed over the years. I started to seriously look at options two years ago . At that time I felt that I needed something that would sleep my entire family, as our favorite vacations had been grand camping adventures. However, we have not had a big family campout for over three years. Even overnight campouts are limited, as my kids now have lives of their own.

It is sad for me to think about the end of our big family camping trips. However, when a door closes a window opens. If I accept this reality, I also can refocus my efforts on ways to camp that allow travel for one or two.

A “Class B” camper comes to mind. These are tricked out vans that offer all of life’s conveniences in miniature. Full kitchens, bathrooms, built-in entertainment systems. However, they are costly, and many of their luxuries (like the bathroom) are not needed by me.

For the last year, I have been talking to my friend, Tom, about building out a cargo van. He is willing to help, and he has the skills that I lack. At one point he found me an old mini-bus that could be converted, but I was too chicken to pull the trigger. Even with Tom’s expert help the conversion process could be lengthy and daunting.

Every camper option seems doable,, but I always find something to keep me from moving forward. That is until this last week.

I stumbled on a YouTube video from a company that makes a modular system for the Dodge Promaster van. This is a relatively inexpensive cargo van that boasts a “tall” version that has an interior height of over 6 feet. Their system locks modules into floor tracks, and the whole interior is easily removable. The kit includes the floor, wall and ceiling panels, a platform bed, a simple kitchen, and a seat/storage box. The best thing is that it can be installed in 2 hours.

Cargo vans have only two seats, but for those now rare family trips, we could use a second transport car, and a tent for other campers. If needed, I could sell my current car and use the van as my primary vehicle. I am moving into retirement, and my transportation needs are simple.

I mentioned the option to Julie, and she seemed reasonably receptive. We have been married for a long time, and we no longer find it necessary to “make our points” with each other. Well, at least most of the time.

Dear reader, I’m not sure where this will all lead me, but I’m pretty excited about it. Tom said he would go with me to check out some Promasters at the local Dodge dealership, and I have sent an email to Wayfarer Vans, the company in Colorado who makes and installs the conversion kit. This option seems like the right balance of convenience and price. Say a little prayer for me so that I make the right decision.

When I started writing this blog, I talked about traveling to National Parks to photograph and write about them. This could bring me one step closer to that dream. My plans have moved slower than I initially expected, but they are definitely moving in the right direction. Fingers crossed.

Our time on this planet is short. I have spent my life in service of others, and it is still hard for me to think about my personal needs. I can’t always do what I want. However, I don’t want to draw my dying breath considering, “Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I experience that? Why didn’t I try that?” Dear reader, I am working hard to live my life to its fullest. You never know what tomorrow brings.

I’m learning how to dehydrate my own food.
I’m 6’2″ and I fit!
I want to photograph and write about nature.

I Screwed Up

It is easy to screw up, but it is more difficult to admit it. How can I grow as an authentic person if I don’t acknowledge my mistakes? It is not my life’s goal to be perfect, but I believe that I should learn from my errors. Unfortunately, I have found that it is easy to learn a lesson, and still repeat the same mistake. I think this is the nature of being a human being.

I woke up foggy and forced myself to place my feet on the ground. After a few moments, I stumbled into the bathroom. Once inside I issued a command to my Google Assistant. “Hey Google, good morning!” After a few seconds, she said, “Good morning, Mike!” then she recited the weather, told me my calendar appointments, and finally read me the news. On this particular morning, she announced, “Scattered thunderstorms today.” I took note and proceeded to get dressed.

At 4 AM in the morning, I am routine driven, as my ability to problem solve is compromised. The last thing that I do before my morning walk is to check the computer. A story caught my eye, and I became distracted. I glanced up at the time and realized that I was running late. On shoes, on ball cap, on jacket, and out the door, I bounded.

I was a few doors down the block when I realized that it was drizzling. I could have returned home for an umbrella, but I decided to continue forward. In my gut, I knew that this was the wrong decision. Because I was feeling lazy, I convinced myself that the rain was light and my cotton jacket would protect me.

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I am a planner and preparer. I’m obsessive, and solving problems gives me a degree of pleasure. When I committed to walk/exercise on a daily basis, I worked out many scenarios so I could accomplish my objective in most any situation. For rainy weather, I have a raincoat, waterproof shoes, an umbrella, and even rain pants. It is simple for me to don my rain gear, I was only a few houses down the block. Logic said “Turn back,” laziness said, “Move forward.”

I made it to the Starbucks and was only a little damp. Triumph! I thought. My friend, Tom, stopped by for coffee and we started to chat. He was also running late and was in a hurry to get to his job site.

We parted ways, and I started the 35-minute walk back home. The rain began in earnest, and with each block, it picked up in ferocity. I was becoming more soaked and uncomfortable. The cool breeze now felt damp and icy; I was starting to tremble. The only option was to continue to walk, so I moved forward.

By the time that I reached my front door, I was so wet that even my underwear was soaked. I was shaking and my jaw was chattering. Once inside I headed straight for the bathroom and washed off the cold with a long and steamy hot shower. Somewhat rejuvenated, I put on dry clothes and went to work.

Behaviors repeat themselves in both significant and insignificant ways. If I can learn from my minor mistakes, I can avoid more significant ones. There were many lessons that my screw up taught me. With a little thought, I could have left the house properly attired. With a bit of effort, I could have returned to my home to re-outfit myself. I could have challenged my problem of asking people for help and pressed my friend, Tom, for a ride. I could have called Julie when I was at Starbucks to request a pickup. Any of the above and I would have avoided getting soaked. However, once I started to walk back home I was compelled to complete my hike, as waiting around for a ride would have just made things worse. I could no longer solve the problem, and now I had to correct the outcome.

Here are some things that I learned from my rainy day screw up.
-I need to pay attention and stay on task.
-I should correct small problems before they become bigger ones.
-I should ask for help when needed. People who care about me won’t mind a little inconvenience if they know that I’m genuinely in need.
-If I ignore the first three rules and wind up with a problem, it is my responsibility to come up with a reasonable solution to that problem.

These rules are not only applicable to stormy days but also other life problems, both big and small. I need to be more mindful and aware. Fixing unnecessary problems is a waste of time and energy. At the same time, I need to accept that fact that I am human and I will screw up. Finding the balanced between these two poles can be difficult, but finding this balance is necessary to have a happy life. I want to avoid problems, but I don’t want to plan every scenario so wholly that I lose the joy of spontaneity.

Dear reader, are you a planner, or a fixer? Have you found the right balance in your life? What lessons did life teach you today?

The rain increased with every block that I walked.
So much rain that the river flooded my walking path.

Shari’s Story: Living With Autoimmune Disease

It is 7 PM on a Thursday, and I am seated across Shari, a 46 years old woman with shockingly red curly hair. This is her story.

Shari grew up in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Downers Grove. She showed exceptional creative talents at an early age and would entertain her parents with her complex stories about bunnies. There was something different about Shari, an old soul with an inquisitive mind.

Early intelligence testing gave a partial answer. Shari was a genius. Coming from a family of achievers, she was right at home. Shari was in the top two percent of her high school class, a fact even more amazing as she was involved in over 20 clubs/activities while she worked a part-time job. Despite her accomplishments, Shari always found the most peace in simple things. She deliberately choose the smallest bedroom at her parent’s home and shunned excessive possessions.

College was expected, and she applied and was accepted to the University of Illinois, a premier university. Always a storyteller, she decided on a rhetoric major. As a concession to her father’s fears of unemployability she also took courses in accounting. As in high school, Shari excelled at the U of I. She overloaded herself with classes, worked different jobs, and even became a resident advisor for her dorm. “I took six years of classes in 4 years,” she told me. Her academic achievements at the U of I were significant enough for her to be named a Bronze Scholar, one of the university’s highest undergraduate honors.

Despite her success, something was not quite right. Late in her college career, she became ill to the point of requiring hospitalization. Despite her academic success she felt stressed, instead of accomplished. “I raced to the top of the mountain, and there was nothing there.”

More studies followed at the University College of Cork in Ireland where she obtained a certificate in Irish Studies. Then it was time to get a real job.

What jobs are available for rhetoric majors? Not many, and so she accepted a two-day temporary position at Ace Hardware corporate doing routine data entry. When you are smart, you can generalize what you know and see the bigger picture. In Shari’s case, she was able to use her accounting knowledge to see errors in the data that she was inputting into the computer. She told her supervisor what she observed and went from a two-day temp worker to a full-time position on her first day. Shari was entering the corporate world.

One task led to another, and soon she was designing complex databases and doing statistical analyses for Ace. At the same time, a romance was forming in her life. She met her first husband when she lived in Ireland. He traveled to the US so they could check out the viability of their connection. When his visa ran out, she quickly decided to marry him.

Unfortunately, the relationship was doomed. Her husband couldn’t hold down a job, and would impulsively spend money. She would react by working harder to pay down their debt. Shari learned more programming languages, and soon was working on mainframe computers. A lucrative but time demanding job in pre Y2K.

Wanting to do the right thing it wasn’t uncommon for her to work late in the night and then bring home additional work. The stress of unnecessary debt, extraordinarily long working hours and a difference in values eventually took its toll, and her marriage ended. Raised in a strict Roman Catholic household, the divorce was devastating to her.

More jobs, more responsibility, more challenges. Shari was being pulled by two forces that were equal, but opposite in direction. A desire to have a simple life, and a wish to do an outstanding job in the corporate world.

Along the way, she met her second husband. He was resentful that Shari had a circle of friends and convinced her to move so they could start anew and be on an equal playing field. Where did they move? They moved from Chicago to Australia. In Australia Shari did what she does best, learn. She finished a Master’s degree in creative writing at the prestigious University of Sydney and then went to work at the university. Shari told me that she loved living in Australia, as everything she needed was within an easy walk. A simple life was what made her happy.

She traveled to India on holiday and became ill. She returned to Australia sick and very weak. She found herself working from home, as she did not have the energy to get dressed and travel to work. This went on for many weeks. Slowly, and with the help of medical professionals, she recovered. However, something had changed, something was wrong. Also, her second marriage was now failing, and another divorce was on the horizon. The prospect of a second divorce was sobering.

Shari continued to work at the University of Sidney, and her brilliance promoted her. She was given important projects and a team to work under her. One of her hires was a man named Jason. A person who barely said two words to her while they worked together. But more on Jason later.

With a broken second marriage, she decided to leave her life in Australia and return to the United States. She left behind true friends and the basic life that she loved.

Now back in the US she once again got jobs in business and IT. Learning new systems quickly, always seeing the bigger picture, always overworking. After 18 months she returned to Australia to visit friends and co-workers. Her former employee Jason was at one of her welcoming dinners. “He seemed different, more talkative and engaged.” By the end of the evening, they were holding hands. Four years later they married.

Finally, it seemed like things were going her way. She was married to the love of her life, she had a small and manageable home in Downers Grove, and she had a good job.

Stress was working overtime in the background as she continued to overwork. In the first year of her marriage, she was hospitalized with a bout of Ulcerative Colitis. She developed chronic anemia. In 2012 she was hit by a severe, unknown malady that left her twitching, and uncoordinated. She couldn’t think straight and had no short-term memory. She was in constant pain, and she was continually sleeping. She went from being able to see the bigger picture to not knowing if she let her dog out. It was a horrible time for Shari.

She sought medical attention and diagnoses were made. Autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune neuropathy. She started to do her own research and determined that one of her problems was Hashimoto’s Encephalopathy (HE), a diagnosis later confirmed by her physicians. HE is an autoimmune disorder that causes an inflammation of the brain and produces neurological symptoms because of that inflammation. Other related problems emerged, Lyme Disease, Possibly PANDAS (another autoimmune disease caused by a Streptococcus infection). The combination of stress and infectious agents were creating a one, two punch that was making her life unmanageable. Her body was literally destroying itself.

Shari fought back. Using her own research, novel treatments, and an expert medical team, a multi-modal treatment emerged. Thyroid replacement hormone, steroids, neuro-cognitive training. These have all helped improve Shari’s functioning. However, her health is still fragile. She takes one step forward, only to slide backward with the slightest stress.

Shari is a giving person, but she can become over-involved helping others. She willingly helps friends and family, but her actions can result in an exacerbation of her autoimmune illnesses making her non-functional for days. She would like to be a financial contributor in her marriage, but even part-time work can be too stressful. She struggles with her current lack of functioning, her poor memory, her fatigue.

She says that many doctors missed her diagnoses; they only reviewed simple lab panels and didn’t delve further. She wants to advocate for others who are dealing with undiagnosed maladies. At this time she is a health coach for a young woman who suffers from another chronic disease, but Shari wonders what her next step should be. She knows that it can’t be fueled by the obsessive drive that gave her success but contributed to her sickness. Her illness has forced her to re-explore what has consistently made her happy in the past, a simple, basic life.

Despite her illness, she is grateful. Grateful for the beauty and majesty of nature, grateful for her caring friends, grateful for her loving family, and most of all grateful for her soulmate, Jason.

Life is what you make of it. Sometimes it is more important to celebrate what you have than to constantly grieve over what you have lost. Rejoice in today as will never be repeated.

Do you have a story that you would like me to tell?  If so, click here for more information on this project.

 

Shari

What A House Fire Taught Me

Many people see events as separate dots on a timeline. This is not the way that I view things.  To me, everything connects to everything else. I believe that the world is continually teaching us life lessons, but most people ignore them. This leads me to the story of Mike and the builder.

My father was reasonably handy, but only repaired things under duress. Our house was in shambles.  Although we had a basement workshop, he didn’t teach me the arts of construction and repair. Mostly, he would just tell me to fix things. The results would often be poor, and I would hear about it.

I assumed that by some magic I should know how to do things without any teaching or experience.  This made me a self-starter. It also made me hesitant to tackle significant repair jobs.

I never lost interest in fix-it-up projects, and they still fascinate me today. Accomplishing a small repair can give me a sense of pride and joy.

If you have read some of my other posts, you are probably familiar with my friend Tom.  He is a general contractor, and we are the best of friends. We complement each other in our skills.  There are things that I know how to do that are helpful to Tom. There are things that Tom knows how to do that are helpful to me.  The fascinating thing is that many of the ways that we help each other are not by providing direct services to each other. Instead, we complement each other by our association.

Tom is acting as the general contractor on a home rebuild project.  A fire started in the garage of the home, and in 20 minutes it caused an immense amount of damage.  In 20 minutes the homeowner’s lives were changed forever. Their family was safe, but almost all of the contents of the home were destroyed.  Part of the house will need to be rebuilt entirely. All of the interior walls, floors, doors, and fixtures will need to be replaced. The roof, siding, and driveway will have to be reconstructed.

I have been documenting the progress of the repair with photographs.  This project has been done in short segments. However, recently Tom invited me to spend the whole day with him as he was having his carpentry crew do some significant deconstruction and construction of the house.

He picked me up in his dually from Starbucks, and we headed off to the Naperville site. The house was boarded up, and about one-half of the siding had already been removed. I pulled out my Canon 5D Mark III from my Manfrotto backpack, and I started to shoot.  Soon his crew arrived. A caravan of trucks and vans lined the street. Their contents contained carpenters ready to do battle with a house. This job was too big for one person alone.

Tom’s carpenters are experienced, and they scattered over the house without so much as a word from him.  Soon they were ripping down the remaining siding and pulling off the charred wood. The house started to disappear as pile after pile of burnt wood, siding, and other materials filled the driveway.  As the walls came down in the garage, I could see the destruction that the fire caused. It was sobering.

Tom was now coordinating their activities.  Soon we started a shuttle process. To the recycling center with the siding.  To the lumberyard for lumber. To the garbage dump to offload garbage. To the hardware store to get hardware.  To the grocery store to get water. And so it went.

Piece by piece the garage came down, one slice at a time.  Piece by piece a new structure started to emerge, one board at a time.  The new construction wasn’t rising from the ashes; the ashes had been swept away.  The new garage was rising with careful and methodical planning. The new space modified to improve on the old, but still on its familiar footprint.  A structure connected to the remaining beams that were healthy and strong.

There will be a bigger loft above the garage, better lighting on the adjacent porch, a concrete driveway to replace the melted asphalt one.  The new space will look similar to the old, but it will be better.

The effort will be immense, the cost high. In the end, the owners will have their familiar house back, but it will be improved.  Something good will arise from something terrible.

You may think that I’m am using this construction project as a metaphor. However, I would like to challenge that belief.  A metaphor is typically a word or phrase used to describe something which is not literally applicable. What if these life lessons were utterly relevant?  What if there was a cohesiveness that binds us to our planet and all of its occupants? Like laws of physics, these laws were also constant. If one understood these “laws of the world” he or she could apply them globally to improve other aspects of their existence. I believe that we can enhance who we are, what we do, how we feel. The world around us can be our teacher; we need to stop, look, and listen.

Here are just a few of the things that this house taught me:

-Bad things can happen for no reason.

-It is important to accept things that you have no control over.

-It is essential to take responsibility for those things you do have control over.

-Most events or situations are neither good nor bad. We assign these values artificially.

-We can take good things and make them bad.  However, we can also take bad things and make them good.

-When faced with a difficult task, things go better with friends to help you.

-The homeowners will have a better house once the construction is completed.  They will need to pay for this metamorphosis with discomfort, time and effort.  They will have to accept a certain amount of uncertainty. This is no different than making a change in a person’s life. Changing from an unhealthy place to a healthy one will require discomfort, time, effort, and uncertainty.

-At the recycler, we saw mountains of worn metal that will be melted and repurposed.  At the garbage dump, we saw broken cardboard boxes being prepared to be processed for future use. We also saw garbage that had to be discarded, as it was dangerous and toxic.

We may have parts of us that we think are bad, but with effort, we can make those parts good. Other parts have to be discarded, as they are so broken that they pose a danger to us.

-The fire destroyed some of the homeowner’s garden. For new growth to thrive, the dead plants need to be removed.  

Just like the dead plants we need to rid ourselves of bad habits, behaviors and relationships to make space for good, healthy ones.

These are just a few of the lessons that I learned from a burnt house and a general contractor.  Dear reader, look around you, life lessons are everywhere. Perhaps your clothes dryer is trying to tell you something.  Think I’m being ridiculous? Think again.

After the fire
Removing the bad to make room for the good
Rebuilding
Old metal will be melted and become anew
Some things are so toxic that they have to be completely discarded

 

Sitting In The Car Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear reader, what are you grateful for today?

Posting on the road.

Driving back home.

On Old Friendships

Weeks ago we set up the dinner date with Ralph and Anne, and our get together was finally upon us. Julie picked a new fusion restaurant in the River District that she thought didn’t take reservations. Since it was an easy walk from our house, we decided to hike to it early and secure a table for dinner. We would meet Ralph and Anne there. All went as planned with two major exceptions. The place did take reservations, and we didn’t have any.

The trendy hostess said it would be over  90 minutes to seat us at a table. Frankly, an hour and a half is just too long for this old doctor to wait for the privilege to eat a taco pretending to be something more exotic than what it is. We left the fusion joint and traveled down the street to the Rosebud, an Italian restaurant.

I have known Ralph and Anne for over 27 years. About 25 years ago Ralph and I formed a partnership with a couple of other docs and created Genesis Clinical Services, which is a psychiatric and psychotherapy clinic. Together we built the clinic into a successful enterprise. Ralph is more business oriented; I’m more of a creative type. During my tenure as a senior partner, I created the company logo, constructed the first computer network, designed our letterhead, and much more. I even taught myself web-design and built our multi-media website. I was very invested in having the place succeed.

Unfortunately, such efforts come at a price. I was working at the clinic, plus another job. On my “free time” I was immersed in HTML code and Photoshop. What was the actual cost for me? My health. I started to talk to Ralph and another partner (Steve) about my leaving the partnership about 18 months before I did. With that said, I don’t think either of them believed that I would give up all of the benefits of being a partner in a successful medical practice. They were wrong.

Partnerships are like marriages. When you get “divorced” feelings get hurt. Although I thought that I had done everything correctly, the actual separation was very traumatic. I was hurt, felt betrayed, felt angry. I think the same could be said of Ralph. To make matters worse, I had decided to stay with the practice. I went from being a top dog to a lowly contract worker. I did this because I thought it would cause the least amount of trauma for my patients. I felt that I could handle it, this was a miscalculation.

After the dust settled, I was determined to put my angry feelings behind me. I know that Ralph is a good person and I believed that he would not deliberately try to hurt me. The reality was that despite the fact that we had grown to 5 partners, Ralph and I did the majority of the administrative work. My leaving placed a significant burden on him. Early on I intellectually forgave him for his actions. A workable truce was established. Unfortunately, intellect and emotion are two separate things. I was still raw and hurting. The closeness that I felt towards Ralph was replaced by a protective shield. I was in self-preservation mode. He was likely in a similar place.

At times I would cautiously extend a hand of friendship to him, and at other times Ralph would extend one to me. Like most reparative situations our connection trajectory wasn’t linear, it was jagged. Despite our mutual trauma, we both saw the greater picture. We were good people who genuinely cared about each other. We weren’t willing to throw away our friendship based on an isolated disappointment. We started a deliberate plan of walking with each other. A time of talk and reflection.

I can’t say when my emotional forgiveness caught up with my intellectual forgiveness, but it was a while back. Thankfully, we are back to our “pre-trauma” friendship state.

And now back to the Rosebud…

I texted Ralph that we moved our dinner plans to the Rosebud, and in a few minutes, he arrived with Anne. Nods were exchanged, then hellos. We sat down to Italian food and a little red wine. Talk of career, kids, potential vacations. It was just a regular evening with friends. It was beautiful in its lack of uniqueness. As we parted Julie asked me, “Do you think that they had a good time?” I replied, “I think so, I know that I did.”

Dear reader, I am a person who does not need many friends, but I do need some friends. Like any other relationship, sometimes friendships go smoothly, sometimes less smoothly. I am glad Ralph and I saw the bigger picture, and that we were willing to reach out to each other until our connection was fully healed.

At the same time, I understand that this scenario is not always the case. In my 65 years, I have had long-term friendships abruptly end for no apparent reason. I have also had friends distance themselves from me because of a misperceived slight, despite efforts on my part to correct the issue.

I tend to have very long-term friendships, but even here I need to reassess my connections with others. In retrospect, I have friends who only contact me when they need something from me, or when the fancy strikes them. When they have been asked to put out a little bit of effort for me, they have better things to do. Are these real friends? Their actions say no, but I am still uncertain. Do I continue to invest in these friendships? Do I let the connection coast along until time or an event forces the relationship back into the atmosphere of reality; where the relationship will burn up and disappear? Do actively end them? I do not have an answer to such questions at this time, but I am pondering.

I do know that friendships come and go. Some are worth considerable effort to maintain. Some get effort that is hugely undeserved. I have people in my life who appreciate me for who I am, rather than what I can do for them. Of course, I am there for these people. The amazing thing is that they are also there for me. These connection feel true and intrinsically more satisfying than some of the “what have you done for me lately”relationships from my past.

Dear reader, honor your friendships. Tell your friends that you care about them. Be kind to your friends. Don’t waste excessive energy on people who are not willing to do the same for you. You have value and worth that is based on who you are as a person. Fill your life with people who you love, and who love you. Celebrate that you are loved.