This is one of a set of letters to my children. These letters will not be in series; instead, I will write them as I am moved to do so.
I was raised to show respect to adults and to submit to their wishes. I never liked conflict, and this combined with my childhood training resulted in me subjugating my needs and wants for those of others. I came to understand that when people ask me for something, they were telling me to do something. “Can you do this for me,” was really, “Do this for me.” If someone asked me to do something for them, I did it, even if I didn’t want to, or didn’t have the time. Helping people when I didn’t want to made me feel like a martyr instead of a hero.
I recognized this problem, and I tried to actively change my behavior in high school. When I started refusing requests, people were not very happy with me; they were used to getting their way.
When someone asked me to do something that I didn’t want to do, I would say that I was sorry that I couldn’t help them, and then followed that statement with a reason or reasons why. This often resulted in the individual picking holes in my excuse as they tried to convince me that I could still do the task at hand. That wasn’t difficult because many of my reasons were quickly fabricated to “Let the other person down gently.” At times my, “No,” would stand, at other times I would give in.
Requests could range from something as simple as someone wanting to hang out, to more complex tasks that could require days or even weeks to accomplish. My refusal skills were moving in the right direction, but I had a long way to go.
An event happened when I was a 1st-year medical student that changed how I approached this issue. I had been attending Northwestern for a few months and was invited to go to a meeting. At that meeting, many committees were looking for people to sit on them. A 4th-year med student saw me and approached me. She seemed very excited and happy to see me, but I had a strong impression that she was playing me. With great enthusiasm, she told me about a committee that she was on. I listened to her, and it became clear that she was looking for someone to take over her position so she could get out of it. The committee held no interest for me. Worse, it met almost weekly and involved a lot of work outside of its scheduled meetings. If I agreed to join, I would be committing my time for the next four years.
Finally, she popped the question and excitedly “invited” me to join the group. I knew that I didn’t want to do it, and my mind started to race to come up with some reason why I couldn’t. I could not come up with a reason, and on some level, I knew that any reason would quickly be countered by the 4th-year as her goal was to get rid of her responsibility.
I paused for a moment and then looked her straight in the eye. “No, I am not interested,” I said. “Why not, this is a great honor,” she replied. I continued to look at her and made an effort to smile, “No,” was what I repeated and walked away.
I have to say that I felt enormous guilt and anxiety after my refusal. My heart was racing, and I was concerned about what this 4th-year could or would do to me as her position of power (in my mind) was exponentially more significant than mine. She represented an adult, and I was once again a child. It was physically and emotionally painful to walk away, but that discomfort started to dissipate by the next morning. By the end of the week, it was gone entirely.
That simple, “No,” saved me from years of pointless work. It also taught me that I didn’t always have to give someone a reason why I didn’t want to comply with their wishes.
Kids, over the years, I have made an effort to continue to do many things for other people, but I now do those things as a choice rather than out of some false sense of obligation. There are times when I will do something mutually beneficial to both parties; I relish these win/win situations. There are other times when I don’t benefit, but what is asked from me is small, and it has little impact on my life. Still, there are other times when I may not want to do something that also requires a lot of work, and I do it anyway. When I help someone by choice, it is a beautiful feeling. I know that my intentions are sincere, and this knowledge gives my efforts meaning, and value. When I refuse a request, it is also done with thought. Yes, I may upset someone, but they can likely find someone else to do their bidding. I understand that I can’t solve the problems of the world.
Refusal skills are essential in all areas of life. Friends that want you to do something that goes against your values. Job expectations that are unreasonable. Relationship demands beyond your comfort zone. If you have a stable connection with someone refusing to do something will not hamper that connection. If your relationship is based on a house of cards, it is better to know that too.
I want you to be generous and giving adults, but I would never want you to abandon your values or sense of self because of outside demands. Always be true to yourself and your values.
Freddie Nietzsche has referenced the impact of life’s difficulties in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, but with that said I do have the ability to turn something negative into something positive.
I have mentioned my dyslexia in the past, but I think it deserves re-referencing here. As some of you know, I was unable to read in second grade. My teacher told my parents that she thought I was very bright and attributed this inability to poor vision. My parents took me to an optometrist who prescribed a very weak eyeglass prescription. I guess optometrists have to make a living.
My 7-year-old expectations were dashed when I put on the specs only to discover that I was as illiterate as before. The fear that my parents would be angry at me pushed me towards a solution; I created my own method to make sense out of the jumble of random symbols that my mind was seeing. I feel that my alternative way of reading has given me an advantage. I may read slower than many, but I have superior comprehension. Beyond comprehension, I appear to have an excellent ability to understand the subtext and sub-connections in a written piece. My reading difficulty turned into a reading advantage for me.
I apply this concept to other aspects of my life; most recently to the subject of backpacking.In a past post, I wrote about my trip to Glacier National Park, and how it had a life-altering impact on me. A subplot in this post centered around backpacking.
I enjoy day hiking, but I declined an offer from my friend, Tom to backpack with him. Tom is an inexperienced backpacker who challenged himself to hike in the backcountry armed only with knowledge from YouTube videos, and a healthy cash donation to REI.
His 4 day/3 night trip turned into a 6 day/5 night experience due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and physical exhaustion. Despite these barriers, Tom succeeded in his quest and enjoyed the experience. Further, he feels that he bonded even closer to his son, as they had to work together to accomplish their goal.
I am happy for Tom’s accomplishment, but I am also grateful that he brought me a wealth of information on this topic. I had thought a lot about backpacking and read extensively on it, but third-hand data can only yield so much real-world details. Through Tom’s narrative, I was able to get an up-close understanding of the experience. What were the primitive campsites like? How did he go to the bathroom? What would he change in future hikes? What were the positive things about the experience? What gear did he wish he brought? What equipment that he brought was unnecessary? It is one thing to watch a YouTube video from an athletic 25-year-old backpacker, it is another thing to listen to a 52-year-old guy’s first time out. Tom’s story gave real context that allowed me to visualize myself in his situations.
My personality is such that I get enjoyment from learning information and skills. As a new area of interest, the topic backpacking offers both opportunities. Additionally, my solo day hiking trips revealed something about myself that surprised me. Despite being a loner, I very much wanted to share my experiences with someone else, and I wanted to do that sharing in the first person.
I already had a sleeping bag, and I decided to buy an inexpensive lighter weight tent. Other small purchases followed: a blowup pillow, Smartwool socks, a better headlamp.
My next phase was to try out new behaviors in a controlled environment. I set up my little tent in the living room, unrolled my sleeping bag, and climbed in for a nap. Success!
Setting up my backpacking tent in my living room. Making sure my sleeping bag fits (and taking a little nap).
When Tom came off the trail he gifted me all of his Mountain House freeze-dried food with the statement, “I’ll never eat that stuff again!” I have eaten MH on occasion and found it reasonably palatable. However, Tom ate Mountain House for all of his meals, and quickly became sick of his soft and lukewarm diet. I would likely have a similar reaction, and so I have been exploring other simple backpacking meals. In fact, I have created a few homemade “freezer bag” meals that my official tester (my daughter, Gracie) said tastes better than the commercial stuff.
Trying to rehydrate pasta and my own dehydrated veggies. Rehydrating commercial freeze dried veggies. Making my own freezer bag meals that will be compared with a MH meal.Thanksgiving dinner in a freezer bag. Just add hot water and wait 10 minutes! My meal rehydrated.
The next phase of my experiment will be to attempt a backyard sleepout. I’m curious if I’ll be able to stand up straight after sleeping on the hard ground all night. Pending the weather forecast, I will likely do this in the next few days.
So, will I backpack? Unfortunately, I have run into some pitfalls in advancing this process. My goal was to do a three-night hike with Tom next summer when he travels to Yellowstone National Park. When I mentioned this to him, he was receptive but informed me that he was thinking about a 5-6 night adventure rather than a 3-night trip. This long trip would not be wise for me based on several factors. Tom is younger than me but in similar physical shape. Despite drinking a lot of water, he became dehydrated, and due to the sequelae of electrolyte loss simple movement became difficult for him. It is also clear that he became physically depleted after day three of his hike; this was his energy limit based on his level of physical conditioning. Any additional days became ordeals for him to conquer rather than enjoy. I would likely have a similar experience. Lastly, the way that he coped with this exhaustion was to lengthen his trip, advancing his adventure from 4 days to 6 days. This expansion would be multiplied with a more extended trip. For instance, a 6-day trip could turn into 9 or 10 days. Based on all of this, it would be foolish for me to consider such a long hike. I did suggest to him that we go on a few short local overnighters, which would allow me to check out my ability in situ, but as of this moment, he isn’t too interested.
What about other options? It would be great to hike with my son, Will, but he has no interest. Julie has never expressed a desire to go backpacking. My other kids are busy with their lives, friends, and activities.
I am starting to explore the option of an organized club or Meet Up group, but I wonder if the cohorts would be too advanced for me. I have even pondered finding someone on Craigslist, or some other public forum. What would I say in an ad? “Wanted a middle-aged or older guy who has never backpacked who would like to go backpacking with someone equally inept.” For some reason, I don’t think I would get a lot of takers.
At this point, I am enjoying learning about a new topic and testing out new skills. If this hobby advances further, all the better. With that said, I believe that learning new things is always useful, even when the knowledge doesn’t have an immediate practical purpose. Seemingly specific information can often be generalized. For instance, my ability to develop decent freezer bag meals is directly related to the many years of hotel room cooking that I did when I worked 2 days a week in Rockford.
My goal is to enjoy the journey and not negate the process by only focusing on the end game.
Today I told you about my backpacking transformation, but the same techniques can be used when dealing with much more difficult problems. In fact, these rules also apply to other issues, even trauma. There are several factors necessary to turn an unwanted experience (a negative) into one that is desired (a positive).
1. Understand the process.
2. Explore the pitfalls.
3. Practice the behaviors.
4. Evaluate if the overall outlay of time and energy are justified.
This methodology works, and so I thought I would pass the tips on to you.
I like routine, so these early weeks of retirement have been confusing and a bit scary for me. My life roles are changing, as our my time obligations. I am in a metamorphosis, but it is still unknown if I’ll emerge from my work cocoon as a butterfly.
My title of doctor has always garnished a certain level of respect from others, and over the decades I have gradually assumed that being treated respectfully was the norm. I know that many individuals don’t have such privilege, and my change in status has subjected me to people that demonstrate a lack of relational humanity. These experiences have been disturbing, but empathy building for me.
Case in point, dealing with Medicare.
Medicare charges good earners a significant penalty/surcharge based on that individual’s previous income tax (This surcharge is called an IMRAA fee). At the beginning of this year, I had to decide on my Medicare insurance plan, and I made that decision with the help of an insurance broker. I chose to contract with an Advantage program based on my general good health and the fact that we also needed to secure additional insurance for the rest of our family. Advantage plans tend to be less expensive than regular Medicare and they include Part D at no additional cost, or so I thought.
Based on my 2017 income tax Social Security charged me a substantial penalty for Part B of my Medicare insurance. I understood this and made my first payment last month. I then received notice that I was going to be penalized for not having Part D insurance when I turned 65 last year. I didn’t have Part D coverage because I had insurance through my employer. This typical scenario seemed to be incomprehensible to our government, and I had to fill out forms and provide proof that I was not trying to secretly defraud the USA…Gads!
Monday morning I received my April bill for my Part B. I opened up the envelope to find that it was over $200 more than last month. I was confused as it seemed like that Social Security placed me into even a higher penalty category, and besides, they were charging me for Part D. I immediately called my new insurance provider, and the customer service rep could only suggest that I call Medicare directly. I placed my call to Medicare and got the usual, “Due to the high volume of calls…” message with and a warning that my wait could be a long as 15 minutes.
I was on hold for almost 30 minutes before Latisha picked up. The name Latisha means joyful and happy, my customer service representative definitely did not fit that description. Latisha was outright rude, and her demeanor was accusatory and condescending. “We know how much money you are making because we are directly connected to the IRS,” she barked. She offered no information on how to appeal such a decision, or why I was now being charged for Part D. It was an alarming call which gave me insight in how people can be treated when the customer service agent has ironclad job security and no repercussions for callous behavior. After being subjected to her abuse, I said to her, “Latisha I want to inform you that I have agreed to take a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this call at which point I will clearly state how you have been treating me.” I could hear a bit of anxiety in her voice, and her outright condescending manner softened slightly. She is a person who should not be working with seniors.
Unfortunately, I am now stuck with a huge Medicare monthly payment and no known recourse at the moment. It disgusted me the way she treated a senior, and I can only imagine how she intimidates less secure callers. With that said, I was not about to let her rudeness dominate my emotional well being that day.
Tuesday morning at 4 AM my friend, Tom pulled up in his white Ford Flex. I donned my coat, slipped out the door, and climbed into his passenger seat; off we went. Tom stopped for gas and then pulled into a Dunkin Donuts and got both of us coffee. We were on an adventure as he was driving me to a favorite breakfast diner which was over 2 hours away in Wisconsin. His generous gift of time was a continuation of my 66th birthday celebration. After a delicious omelet, we traveled the 2 hours back home. Our trip symbolizing friendship and our willingness to take care of each other.
Now back home I had to deal with a concept new to me, open time. I have been busy most of my adult life, and I have always had to deal with a lack of unstructured time, not an abundance of it. There were things that I could do, but they were wants not needs. I started to feel guilty, as I now had free time while my wife, Julie had to work. In the past I identified with overworking, and in many ways my constant drive to accomplish things gave me validity. I tried to think of some major project to work on; I resisted that urge. I felt tired, and I decided to take a short nap. Thirty minutes later I awoke feeling refreshed.
I decided to tackle a fun project: How to interface my computer to a two-way Amateur radio. As is usual with such projects things didn’t go smoothly, but eventually, I was able to solve the connection problem and program the radio. There was a particular joy in having the time to approach the problem, take a break, and then resume. In the past, I would have focused on how to solve the problem as efficiently as possible. My new project timeline turned this activity from stress producing into fun. For me, there is nothing as exciting as learning something new.
After my radio adventure, I had another urge to be productive in an effort I to justify my lack of paid employment. Guilt was on the rise. The house was reasonably tidy, as I had cleaned it on Sunday. I put a few dishes away and swept the kitchen floor. It was then time to meet my sister, Nancy.
I pulled up to Panera Bread at 6:59 for my 7 PM meeting and met Nancy in the parking lot. We were restarting our weekly creativity night after a brief break caused by mutual travels and an unwanted upper respiratory infection.
Nancy was upset at the beginning of our meeting. Her feelings precipitated by a disappointment perpetrated by an acquaintance. This led to a conversation about people who we can depend on. For both of us, the number was small but reasonable. In the end, we concluded that we were both fortunate to have people in our lives who we could depend on, and even though our close connections didn’t consist of legions, their numbers were indeed more significant than what many others have. I suggested to her that she focus on those people who care about her rather than wasting energy wondering why a random unimportant person failed her.
We proceeded with our meeting of conversation and study as I munched on a half of a Cuban sandwich and a cup of chicken noodle soup. I was happy to re-initiate our weekly get-togethers as I enjoy spending time with my sister. It felt good to have this structure re-enter my week. At the end of the meeting I said to her, “Nancy, I have no idea what to write about this week.” She offered a few suggestions, but none of them rang true. I decided to write about my present state of mind, and that flow of consciousness is what I am inking on paper now.
This Wednesday morning I found myself questioning if I should go on my morning walk. It was raining, and I was still tired from my previous day’s adventure. Lacking a defined work schedule when I woke it took me a few moments to realize that it was Wednesday, not Saturday. I forced myself up and meandered to the bathroom to prepare myself for the day.
I located an umbrella and headed out the door. When I reached Starbucks, I ran into an acquaintance who had picked up his coffee and was heading out the door. “You’re late today,” he said in a joking manner. “Yeah, I guess the rain slowed me down,” I responded.
I procured a Tall Veranda and found my usual table at the front of the store. Out came my computer and earbuds and I started to type this post. I rarely know what I’ll type when I start this process, I just sit and let my fingers do the talking.
Tom and I had spent a lot of time together on Tuesday and I didn’t expect him to be at Starbucks today as he was working on a project that was geographically in the opposite direction of the coffee shop. Since I anticipated his absence, I had planned my morning accordingly. Tom used to have a habit of pulling away from me when he got too emotionally close. I am familiar with that pattern of behavior, as I have been known to do the same thing. However, we have both become more secure in our friendship and this pattern is now rare.
Some of the morning coffee regulars came up to me and engaged in conversation. Kathy stopped by to congratulate me on my full retirement and told me of a ski trip that she just took with her husband. John came up to me to also congratulate me on my new status. He is an executive for a large corporation who is dealing with the immense stress of being in such a position. We chatted a bit about my new life and his current work situation. I then continued to write this post, but soon it was time to return home.
I now sit at the Ram dealership as Violet the van’s instrument panel has been flashing me a request to have her oil changed. So here I am in the dealer’s showroom finishing this random post of an ordinary few days in the life of a retiree.
I have been awash to so many feelings over these last few days. Anger, at being treated as a non-person by Medicare. Guilt that I am not longer filling every moment with work for pay. Sadness, at my changing status from doctor to citizen Mike. Peace, as I am no longer responsible for the lives of others. Confusion, over what to do with my new found free time. Euphoria, over having free time to be confused over.
I am becoming aware of a need to expand my horizons. I much prefer having intense relationships with a few people rather than causal relationships with many. However, it would be unreasonable for me to expect those currently close to me to completely replace the social connections that I had garnished from my worklife. My experience this morning at Starbucks suggests that there are people out there who would be fine with spending time with me, and that the major limiting factor in this social regard is me.
My siblings have their own lives, my kids are busy with school and friends, my wife works, my friend Tom has a construction business to run. So where do I look to expand my horizon? I don’t necessarily need additional intense relationships, but I should probably explore more casual connections. Clubs, volunteering, social groups, all are possibilities. I am awash with both fear and excitement, and I’m OK with having both feelings. Onward, one foot in front of the other. Every day is a new adventure and offers the potential for personal growth.
“Do you want to do it?” I thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I think so. You only live once, right?”
My campervan was mostly complete, and I had already had taken it to Colorado and Missouri on separate trips, but those trips were during warmer weather.
Tom’s son wanted to go camping sometime in January, and Tom was inviting me along. This would be more of an experience than an actual trip, and we would be spending only one night in the cold. The destination, Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. Tom has a fondness for Devil’s Lake, it is a beautiful park; its centerpiece being the lake which is surrounded by high bluffs.
After Christmas Tom told me that he decided to go up on New Year’s Eve. I had a concern about this date as I thought that many services could be closed, but it sounded exciting and fun. Besides, we had unseasonably mild weather, so how bad could it be?
The other concern was my homefront. I knew that Julie wouldn’t mind me going on a camping trip, but on this one, I would be away from her on holiday. With that said, I’m usually in bed by 11 PM on New Year’s Eve. I’m hardly a party animal. I asked for her thoughts she said she didn’t mind it if I went.
My friend Tom had to work the morning of the trip, and he suggested that I go up early to secure a campsite. Tom imagined a party like atmosphere with the campground filled to the brim with happy campers excited to bring in the new year, and he wanted to make sure that we had a spot. Only one of the park’s multiple campgrounds is open year round, and that one didn’t take reservations.
Traveling the 3 hours to Baraboo WI solo was not an option for me. In the summer of 2017, we traveled separately to the same campground. I got turned around and wound up at a different site at the opposite end of the park. T-mobile cellular service at Devil’s Lake was almost non-existent, and it was nearly impossible for me to reach Tom. He had arrived hours earlier with both his son and my son. Eventually, we connected which is when I found out that all of the campgrounds were full. Exhausted from a full day of work and a drive to Wisconsin, I loaded William into my car and drove 3 hours home. It was not a warm and fuzzy memory.
I still have some finishing touches to do on my campervan, but it is functional. However, I had removed most of its storage boxes, as we were in the process of building out a large container that would reside under the camper’s platform bed. I debated if I wanted to return the contents to the camper. After all, I was only going for a day. At the last minute, I tossed the bins into the van. “Better safe than sorry,” I thought.
We left together, me in my campervan and Tom and his son in his 4×4 Dodge Ram dually. It was around 35 F, and it was lightly raining. We started our drive north, and the rain got progressively worse. I kept looking at the outside temperature readings on my Promaster’s dash. Thirty-five degrees, then 34F, then 33F, then the dreaded 32F. Thirty-two degrees, the point where rain turns to sleet. Thirty-two degrees, when the wet pavement turns to black ice. Initially, the van seemed to handle the change in conditions, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
We turned off the Interstate and onto a county road. Google maps said we had about 26 miles to go until we reached the park. By that time the sleet had turned to snow, and it was coming down hard. We were on a 4 lane road (two lanes per direction) that was winding up a hill. I could see that Tom was having a bit of trouble as the back of his truck was wiggling. I could feel that my traction was also slipping. There was no option, so we moved on.
As we turned a curve, the traffic suddenly slowed down to a near stop. In the middle of the right lane was a sedan with its flashers on. I thought that the owner was having car trouble, but I wondered why he had foolishly stopped directly in the middle of the right lane. I drove a little further and saw another car in the right lane, its flashers blinking. Then another, and another. The higher I drove up the hill, the more cars I saw parked in the right lane. I could see Tom’s truck ahead. He was moving forward, but his Ram has 6 tires of traction. The sedan in front of me was lurching forward, sometimes sliding sideways, sometimes almost stalling. I could feel my traction failing, and I started to panic as I imagined having to spend the night in my van as it sat directly in the line of traffic. By some miracle, I made it up the hill, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The road narrowed to a single lane, and the snow continued to fall. It became impossible to determine if I was in the correct lane. I made a conscious effort to stay in the tire tracks that Tom’s truck made, using his four rear tires as my personal snow plow. I was in the middle of nowhere, it was getting dark, my van was struggling, I was feeling sick to my stomach. My doctor’s training has made me good at handling crises, but I was still feeling the stress. I willed myself to move forward.
Tom pulled into the broad entrance to Devil’s Lake State Park, and I followed. The road past the entrance went down at a steep angle and instinct told me that I should stay put. I told Tom that I was not going down. He felt that his 4 wheel drive could do the job and said that he would make the loop drive to explore the park and then come back to pick me up. He gave me an alternative route to the campground, just in case. Time ticked on, and I thought about the possibility of staying put at the entrance for the night. That option would certainly be better than getting stuck in the middle of a road.
Tom returned and said that my van would not have made it down and back. We took the alternate route to the campground. We traveled another quarter mile and took a right turn on an unplowed road with a slight incline. I could see that Tom traction was struggling again and I could feel my van straining. The only way I was able to move forward was by running my engine at 30 miles per hour. This constant acceleration moved the van at a jerking 5 miles per hour. I prayed that I wouldn’t have to stop as I knew that I would not be able to move forward again.
Although we only traveled a few blocks on that road, it seemed like miles. I’m glad that Tom was so familiar with the park, as I would never have seen the entrance to the campground. He pulled in, and I followed. The campground was completely empty, and its roads were unplowed and deep in snow. I thought, “Find a spot close to the entrance,” but he continued to drive as if he was looking for the perfect campsite. He eventually stopped, and so did I. When I tried to move forward again it was clear that I was stuck. Stuck in the middle of the road in an empty campground, and it was definitely getting darker.
I signaled Tom, and he said that he would loop around the campground and come up on my rear. I wasn’t sure what his plan was, but I was grateful that I wasn’t alone. He got back into his pickup and drove out-of-sight. My mind moved into solution mode, and various ideas and contingency plans flooded me in multiple data stream. I wondered if I could rock myself back then forward. I tried to back up, and surprisingly I was able to do this. However, I could not move an inch forward, as the road ahead was on an incline.
I got out of the van and scanned my surroundings. Despite the heavy snow, I could see the boundaries of level places, which were intended for the camper’s cars. I made some quick calculations and came up with a crazy plan to back up my van several hundred yards in reverse and then turn into one of the almost invisible parking slots. If successful I could take that move into a three-point-turn and point my van in the opposite (and downward) direction towards the campground’s entrance. I felt that I had nothing to lose.
I could feel my tires slipping as I started the backup, but I continued. I made another mental calculation and decided that I should be close to a flat spot and quickly turned my wheel to the right as I wanted to keep my momentum. The van tracked into a parking spot, and I had a sigh of relief. After a 10 second pause to catch my anxious breath I shifted the gear selector into drive and gently pressed on the accelerator. The van moved forward!
I was now going downhill and towards the entrance to the park. Tom was nowhere in sight. I could finally see the entrance, and then I saw Tom. He had been delayed because he got stuck and almost slid into a tree.
We were committed to camp, and frankly, we had no other options. Tom pulled into a spot, and I asked him if he would park my van next to his truck. I was exhausted and didn’t need any more challenges.
Tom had brought a wheelbarrow of firewood in the bed of his pickup, and he set about the task of starting a fire with a Bernzomatic torch. While he was doing this, I spotted the sites power pole and wondered aloud if the juice was still on. “They use GFI outlets, why don’t you check,” Tom said. I walked over and lifted the heavy metal shroud that covered the outlets. A tiny green LED blinked back at me. Being a good Eastern European type I had brought enough food for at least two days, now we also had power. I was jubilant. I opened the back of the Promaster and started to search the storage boxes that I had tossed in as an afterthought. Yes, here was the 30 Amp power cord, and there was the 30 Amp extension cord. In another box, I found the $18 little black electric heater that I bought at Walmart months earlier. I called Tom’s son to be my gopher, and in about 5 minutes I had AC power in my camper. I plugged in the little heater and turned it on. The temperature was quickly dropping outside, and I wanted to capture every BTU that I could.
Tom was busy setting up a tripod stand to hold the cast iron Dutch oven that he brought. In it, he had chunks of steak, onions, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. The fire was now blazing, and he was adjusting a chain that was supporting the Dutch oven. Lower into the flame for hotter, higher away from the flame for colder.
We had food, electricity, some heat, and a fire. I was content and my panic from earlier in the day had washed away. I was now in my 12-year-old boy mode and was feeling like a great explorer in an unknown wilderness. I asked Tom’s son if he wanted to go on an adventure walk with me. He did, our main discovery was that the pit toilets were unlocked! Now we could definitely weather the storm. I had a down coat from Cabela’s, my rubberized Bog boots, and a new pair of fancy Gordini gloves that Julie had given me for Christmas. On my head sat a red stocking cap. Over the hat was my jacket’s hood. The fire plus my outfit kept me surprisingly warm.
The three of us stood, then sat around the fire talking. Despite being an introvert, I have no problem talking to Tom for hours. With that said, I can’t honestly remember much of what we were talking about. That’s the way it sometimes goes with best friends, the contact is more important than the context. At one point Tom decided that he was going to pick up a bottle of wine to help me relax after my harrowing drive. Although I initially protested his plan, I eventually gave in. I am not much of a drinker, and Tom doesn’t drink at all, but he got into his dually and drove to a local gas station that had liquor service. I had seen a plow go down the street in front of the campground and I was anxious to get a road report. If anyone could navigate in the snow, Tom could with his 6 wheels of traction.
Tom return, and I opened the bottle with my Dollar Store corkscrew. I bought it for a $6 camper supply “buying frenzy” several months earlier. I poured some wine into a stainless steel camping mug and took a sip. We continued to talk. Eventually, it was deemed that Tom’s stew was done and he pulled the Dutch oven off the fire. I contributed some paper plates, bread, salt, and a black garbage bag. Not much of a contribution, but at least I felt the I was doing something.
There is nothing quite as delicious as hot food when you are standing out in the cold for hours. I felt like I was dining at a 4-star restaurant. I ask for and received seconds.
Tom’s son was starting to fade and wanted to go to bed. Tom set up a bed in the back seat of his truck’s cab and off he went. Tom and I continued to talk for several more hours as even a single glass of wine can turn me into a philosopher. At some point, I started to talk about the existence of God. Eventually, we both felt the need to call it a night. Tom set up a place in his truck for him, and I fluffed the blankets in my camper van for me. My Walmart heater was definitely warming the van, and I was grateful, as I knew that it was going to drop to 19F during the night. Bedtime, 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve.
I can’t say that I slept perfectly, but I did sleep reasonably well. The morning came, and I could hear Tom’s diesel running. He started his truck at 2 AM, as the cold was beginning to make his feet numb. It was time to break camp. The firewood had done its job, and all of it had been consumed. Without the fire, we would have never have been able to spend hours the night before standing in the freezing cold
“Breakfast?” Tom said. “Of course,” I replied. It was now the moment of truth. Would the Promaster be able to navigate the snow and drive out of the campground? Tom backed it out, and then I climbed into the driver’s seat and shifted the gear selector into drive. I lightly, but purposefully, pressed the accelerator and the van moved forward. Down the snowy path I went. Soon we were back on the road that had been so treacherous the night before. However, it was now plowed and sanded. Off to Baraboo.
There is a little breakfast joint in Baraboo that resides in an old diner. The diner building was once located somewhere in New England. Apparently, it was disassembled and stored for decades in a warehouse in Ohio. It was discovered there and reassembled in Baraboo, piece by piece. The inside of the restaurant is in a classic diner style, replete with green vinyl upholstered booths and an abundance of chrome. We have eaten there in the past, and I knew that they served a hearty breakfast.
We pulled up to the diner, and I was happy to see that it was open on New Year’s Day. Inside we found an open booth, which was easy as only one other table was occupied as was one chair at the counter. Tom and his son went to wash their hands as the waitress came over. She reminded me of Flo, from those Progressive Insurance commercials. The back of her T-shirt proudly proclaimed, “Body By Bacon.” I knew I was in the right place. Tom and his son returned, and we placed our orders. Both of them ordered omelets. I went for eggs over easy and sausage links. By the time our order arrived, I was well into coffee, but I had to consciously control my consumption as I would soon be on the road. I didn’t want to have to stop every 30 minutes. We confidently noted that we were the very first people to use a campsite at Devil’s Lake State Park in 2019. We did this with the vibrato of Lewis and Clark explorers.
With our bellies once again full it was time to start the journey home, and after a few directional missteps, we were on the newly plowed and salted Interstate heading south. Tom called me and noted that he was going to exit as his son wanted to explore the sporting options at Cascade Mountain. I wished him well and drove on.
I made a call to Julie to let her know that I was safe and heading home. I traveled the rest of the trip in silence and entertained myself with memories of the last 24 hours. I was grateful that I brought the right clothes, enough food, and the right van equipment to weather the storm. I was thankful that I had traveled with my friend, Tom. He thought to bring some things, I remembered others. Together, we had enough.
The nausea of the drive in had long passed, and the pleasure of the trip was present in my mind. I don’t think I would have gone if I knew that I would have had to travel in a snowstorm, but that was behind me, and I was left with the sweet memory of a crazy camping trip where only three people filled a huge campground with their adventurous spirit. It was a great way to start the New Year and to kick off my impending retirement.
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.
The questions start in November and continue well into December. “What do you want for Christmas?” A query posed to my kids, to my wife, and to me.
When I was a child, this was an easy question to answer. I had very little and had many wants. Unfortunately, family finances were limited growing up, and receiving my desired gift was in no way a certainty.
We opened presents after dinner on Christmas day. This time was chosen so we could include my two maiden aunts, who ate Christmas dinner with us. Most of my friends opened their gifts on Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning, and waiting until 7 PM on Christmas Day seemed like a cruel eternity. This delay also heightened my anticipation for what I could possibly receive.
One Christmas I asked for a radio. That year my mother decided to wrap presents early, and she used a “secret” code to identify the gift recipients in an effort to prevent prying eyes. Unfortunately, she forgot the system by Christmas and had to use other, less than perfect, identifying skills.
She handed me my present and I took it with great anticipation. The size of the box was right, the weight of the box was within specs. I was very excited. I opened my present and burst into a, ”Thank you, thank you,” cry. Under the wrappers was a box that contained a Motorola AM table radio. I wanted something a little more sophisticated, but I was overjoyed getting this approximation. I looked at my mom and saw a disturbed look on her face. “Michael, that radio is not for you. It is for your brother, Tom.” I handed it over to him. There was no radio for me that Christmas.
During my post-divorce/pre-remarried period it was common for me to get little or nothing at Christmas. Yes, there were those times when I was dating someone, and we would exchange gifts, but there were other times when I was “single” and alone. I no longer had the desperate wants of childhood, but I still felt sorry for myself.
I have been re-married for many years, and with this union, I am assured to receive Christmas presents. Early in our relationship, we would shower each other with extravagant gifts. When we had kids we scaled back on our gifts, putting more effort into their presents. Over time, we also scaled back on those gifts.
Gone are the days when Christmas morning meant getting a pair of desperately needed shoes, or a new winter coat. We buy things as required year round. If my kid’s phone goes down I don’t expect them to wait 6 months to get a new one.
Every year my wife and I talk about scaling back further on our purchases, and we have had some success in that endeavor. Yet, we still can buy each other gifts that are forgotten as soon as, “Thank you,” leaves our lips.
This is possibly the point in the post where you may think that I’m going to say that in a moral cleansing effort I have decided to donate all of my gift money to charity. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the case.
We do give to charities, and we also participate in a gift mart where we buy gifts for kids less fortunate than ours, but we still plan on buying gifts for our kids and each other.
After many years of not having anything to open on Christmas day, I want a present or two. It symbolizes to me that someone cares enough about me to make an effort to do something for me. In fact, we encourage our kids to give gifts, not only to their friends and siblings but also to us. It is vital for them to learn that their lives should be more about what they can do for others, rather than what stuff that they can get for themselves.
Through the years I have received many cherished gifts from my children. A red marble from William sits on the desk in my study, a piece of homemade pottery from Kathryn adorns my Rockford office, and a decorated flower pot from Grace serves as my pen and pencil holder at the Ware Center.
Back to the question that I posed in the first paragraph of this post. Since we have few wants, it can be challenging to find a gift that is meaningful to its intended recipient. It has also been vital for us to acknowledge that we are individuals, and we need to be respectful of each other’s desires.
A few years back my wife felt that as a family we should give each other experiences instead of gifts. That sounds great, but the kids and I wanted things to open on Christmas. A favorite gift for me is the gift of time. In other words, taking over one of my household chores for one or two cycles. This kind of gift would be meaningless to my kids, but they, in turn, would appreciate homemade cookies made by one of their siblings. What I’m saying is that it is important to include everyone’s feelings when making a global decision about holiday gift giving. You may think that donating the family’s gift money to charity and spending Christmas Day dishing out food at a local shelter is a fantastic idea. However, your spouse and kids may feel differently. Consideration in everything.
I do feel that gift giving has gotten out-of-control in many families. It makes no sense to go into debt to buy things that you absolutely don’t need. At the same time gift giving is a national tradition during the holiday season. The secret to success is a balanced approach and a doable budget. This balance/budget idea should be extended beyond our immediate families. I have talked to many a patient who was sick with financial worry after buying expensive gifts for relatives because “It was expected.” A frank discussion at Thanksgiving can preserve both your mental health and credit rating. Most extended families are grateful to move from debt spending to a simpler and cheaper option, such as a grab bag or white elephant gift exchange.
As I have already said, few people remember the gifts that they receive a month after getting them. However, most will remember time spent together. Having a happy and low-stress holiday returns the true spirit of that day. Imagine opening up your January credit card statement with relief, instead of dread.
So what did I asked for Christmas this year? I requested a good wool blanket for my campervan’s bed. A quality blanket is something that I would not likely purchase on my own, but once owned I would gratefully use it for years to come. It is lovely to be remembered at Christmas, and it is terrific to be toasty warm when camping on a frigid morning.
I started doing it 25 years ago, as a request from my wife. I initially took on the job out of brash self-confidence, but it now has become an annual tradition. The job? Roasting the Thanksgiving turkey.
I woke up at 6 AM on Thanksgiving Day. A late morning for me as I’m usually up by 4 AM. I went to bed the night before at my usual time, but I was quickly joined by my wife, and minutes later three of my kids appeared at my bedside. Two of them had been away at college, and there was still a need to connect and catch up. Even Mercury, the cat, made her way to our bedroom. The conversation delayed my sleep, which in turn stalled my wake time.
I took my walk downtown but didn’t stop for coffee as I had things to do. Back home I plugged in our 25-year-old Nesco electric roaster and preheated it to 400 degrees F (205 C). I went out to the garage, which was serving as a temporary refrigerator on this frigid morning. We had brined our 18-pound turkey overnight in a slurry of herbs, salt, and water. I now had the task of draining off the water without spilling it all over the floor. Drained, rinsed, patted dry, it was now time for the turkey to get a butter bath in preparation for its roasting.
The remainder of the morning consisted of a familiar pattern of cooking, directing helpers, and cleaning up one task before starting the next one. Daughter Kathryn, Grandma Nelson, and Aunt Kathy peeled a mountain of potatoes, Julie ran back and forth serving many roles, Will and Grace helped set the tables, Aunt Amy did finishing touches. Together we were a team with a clear goal to get dinner on the table by 2 PM. There was no sitting down for me from the start of cooking to the saying of grace.
We have made the same dishes for Thanksgiving every year for the over 25 years that we have been preparing this dinner for Julie’s side the family. It is a celebration of starchy, high-fat foods, punctuated by sugary desserts.
Turkey, dressing, whipped potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn casserole, green bean casserole, gravy, cranberries, herring, jello salad, rolls/butter, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie… and I am likely forgetting something. Thanksgiving dinner is not for the faint of heart, it is a calorie bomb designed to put any eater into a prolonged food coma.
This year our dinner was smaller, with only 15 attendees. Our nephew was in Rome. Two nieces and their spouses, my brother-in-law, and sister-in-law were elsewhere. At grace, we acknowledged and prayed for all of them.
We have long used a buffet style of serving the meal, always starting the food line with my wife’s parents and ending with Julie and me. Our wedding china makes its yearly appearance, as does various other serving dishes, some are antique depression glass, others simple 9 x 13 Pyrex dishes.
It is almost a requirement to try each food. Many of them are doused with a coating of gravy, and the resulting meal resembles a stew rather than a variety of separate dishes. Diving into all those carbs can be heavenly, but after the plate’s half-way point, the food becomes a potent sedative. Despite meal participant’s acknowledgment that they are bursting at the seams, most opt for dessert.
Conversation is lively during dinner, we catch up on each other’s lives. I have noticed a lack of political discourse over the last few years. A wise move as guest’s beliefs range from conservative to liberal. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever changed their political view during Thanksgiving dinner.
Every year we go around the table stating what we are thankful for. A beautiful affirmation of the blessing that we all are given. One thing that I’m grateful for is that some of the guests usually pitch in during cleanup duty. Despite my efforts to “clean as I go” there are still mounds of items after feeding so many people. The serving dishes alone fill the dishwasher.
Dinner tasks completed, exhaustion sets in. This year I gave myself 30 minutes to lie down to rest and digest my food. Post nap, Julie and I elected to go on a walk, and we were joined by family and guests as we meandered on the Riverwalk to downtown. The holiday lights were lit making our journey Christmas festive.
The rest of the evening was filled with TV sports, conversation, and games. At the end of the day, I asked Julie, “Do you think the food was good?” She replied, “It was great!” For some reason this affirmation of my cooking allowed me to relax and fall asleep.
Many of our guests are from out of town. They arrive on Wednesday and leave on Saturday. However, those additional meals are easy in comparison to Thanksgiving dinner.
Friday and Saturday fly by and before I know it our last guest has left. Another Thanksgiving concluded.
Why is it that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday? Despite the looming specter of Black Friday, Thanksgiving has remained a non-commercialized event. It centers on spending time with people you care about and sharing a meal with them. I cherish each aspect of the day, from the morning conversation to the after-dinner walk, to the post-meal activities. Thanksgiving is a celebration of connection and a time to reflect on those things that we are grateful for.
We live in a society of want. We feel deprived because we have last year’s computer, or that we are wearing last season’s color. As I write this, I’m sitting in a warm house, and I’m sipping on a nice cup of tea. In the next room, I can hear Julie talking to a friend from New York on the phone. Son, William, is playing a video game. Both of my college-age daughters have texted me that they have safely returned to their respective schools. My oldest daughter and her family are back at their home in central Illinois. Life is good.
I always feel happy at Thanksgiving. I know that this is due, in part, to the fact that I am focused on gratitude rather than dissatisfaction. I don’t need to eat a starch laden turkey dinner every day, but I do want to be thankful daily. I want to celebrate my life, and I want to focus on my “haves” rather than my “have-nots.” Dear reader, please join me and celebrate your daily thanks.
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.
I grew up in the 1960s, and at that time Halloween was a minor holiday celebrated by young children. My costumes were usually homemade and pieced together from existing house items. A favorite resource was our kitchen closet, which was never pruned of its contents and therefore it was a treasure trove of costume building materials.
I would often adopt the persona of a hobo. I would find a worn flannel shirt and a beat up fedora in the closet and paint on a pseudo-beard with a piece of burnt cork.
Costumed, it was then time to meet my best friend, John, for our trick-or-treating adventure. Our goal was to get as much candy as possible, with our journey ending when the street lights came on. Once home I would pour out my bag’s contents onto the living room carpet and start my sort. If I had gone to enough houses, there would always be a few full-sized candy bars, and these would be my most prized finds. I was guaranteed to have a lot of mini-candy bars and other cellophaned sweets. Naturally, I would have random Many Janes or peanut butter kisses, so disliked by me as they were usually rock hard and inedible. And then there were the items that would make a direct trip to the garbage can: apples, homemade popcorn balls, loose candy corn. These items were considered dangerous as some maniac could possibly alter them with razor blades or injected rat poison. This urban myth fueled by the annual TV news story of kids having their candy x-rayed at a local hospital for pins, razors, and shards of glass. As far as I know none of the above were ever found, but I wasn’t going to die by biting into a poison apple, and so I willingly tossed all suspicious items.
Sorting done, it was now time for hiding. Seven of us lived in our small Chicago bungalow, and hiding spaces were scarce. Despite my efforts, it wasn’t uncommon to find the best candy treasures missing by the next morning, stolen by my older brothers. With limited recourse, the only option was to move on and focus on the next big holiday, Thanksgiving.
My Halloween adventures abruptly stopped in the 5th grade when a crabby lady loudly shamed my friend John and me for being, “Too old to trick-or-treat.” It was time to move on.
For many years Halloween was insignificant. I would attend an occasional Halloween party, but that was about it. This latter fact changed when I started to date my wife, Julie. Together we experienced what we now refer to as the Chinese take-out incident.
Twenty-seven years ago Julie came over to my house on Halloween, and we decided to order Chinese carryout for dinner. I had in my possession a giant magnum of very high-quality champagne. It had been gifted to me by a friend the prior Christmas. I have to confess that I know little about champagne and that I’m a pretty lightweight drinker. However, I knew that champagne does not improve with age, and so I decided to uncork it for our Halloween feast.
We sat at the kitchen table noshing on Mongolian Beef and potstickers while we drank the champagne, served up in paper cups. I couldn’t detect much alcohol in the beverage which tasted a bit like apple cider, and I kept on pouring out drinks because I knew that its fizzy goodness would be gone by the next day. No sense wasting it!
Every 30 seconds the doorbell would ring. Initially, Julie or I would go to the door. However, in short order, we were both rushing to the door to hand out candy. With each paper cup of champagne, our food seemed more delicious, our conversation more fascinating, and the costumes more amazing. Who knew that Halloween could be so much fun! Unfortunately, the joy faded and was replaced by headaches and significant malaise. That evening I learned that champagne and carbonated apple juice are two very different things.
Years passed, we married and had children. It was time for new traditions. When my kids were younger, there were the requisite trips to Bengston’s Pumpkin Farm, which seemed to get even more commercial and expensive with each passing year. Then there was pumpkin carving day. Each of our kids would tell me what kind of face that they wanted on their pumpkin and I would do my best to create it. In the early days, I did all of the carvings, but each child was expected to eviscerate the slimy innards from their respective fruit. I always seemed to carve just a day or two too early, and by Halloween, our masterpieces were gooey messes.
My kids made mostly homemade costumes, not by need, but by choice. Sometimes they would dig through our box of dress-up clothes, at other times we would go searching the Halloween store for the right wig or grease paint. I recall one Halloween when I was covered with red spray paint, the result of the Lego costume that I made for Will. One of my favorite memories is walking with my kids as they went door to door. Although I stayed on the sidewalk, I was still able to relive my own Halloweens from days gone by.
Just like me, they would pour their bounty on the living room floor and sort. The girls were especially happy with this protocol, as William didn’t eat chocolate. In addition, he was the youngest. Four mini Snickers for a single Twizzler? Will was delighted to make the trade. Where I came from a “want” model, my kids live in a “plenty” one. Their candy would sit on the floor for days until I would set a strict limit. I have to say that my anger was tempered by their generous gifts of Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, two of my favorite candies.
As I write this my oldest daughter has a family of her own, the next two are in college, and my William is almost 18. This year there was no Pumpkin Patch, no Carving Day, No costume creation, no Halloween walk, and indeed no champagne.
Instead, we sat around the kitchen table eating Chinese carry-out, having fascinating conversation, and running to the door to see the kids dressed up in their amazing Halloween costumes. Some traditions come, some traditions go, but it seems like Chinese Halloween is here to stay.