It all started when my wife, Julie, returned to the paid workforce. My kids had been used to home-cooked meals, but her lack of time had them dining on fast food, delivery pizza, and frozen entrees. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a family cooking day that I labeled, “Cooking With Dad Thursday.” My goal was to provide my kids with more than a meal, I wanted to teach them how to cook and have them experience the fellowship of sharing a group-made meal.
The task was multi-faceted. We would plan, shop, cook, and clean up together. Each cooking Thursday culminated with a Facebook post where I would upload a photo of the plated and completed meal. Naturally, I tried to present our dishes in their most favorable light on Facebook. I would always ask my kids, “Reality or Facebook reality?” when I posted the photo in an attempt to emphasize that most things that you see on Facebook are highly curated. Another effect of posting the picture surprised me; friends started to post pictures of their homemade meals. Also, “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” spawned a mini-movement of others preparing real food from scratch.
I grew up eating great food. My mother magically threw things together in the most delicious ways. She didn’t teach us how to cook, but she did write down some of her recipes in a ledger style notebook, which was passed to my brother when she died. Her musings provided her with the information that she needed to remember a recipe but they were incomprehensible to anyone else.
Most of the “Cooking With Dad Thursday” recipes originated from conventional sources. Standard cookbooks like “The Betty Crocker Cookbook,” and “The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook” provided some inspiration, but most of my recipes were procured and printed off of the internet. I have always felt comfortable cooking, as the process is a form of practical chemistry. I have been making meals for decades and can interpret a list of ingredients quickly. Most of the recipes that I selected had to conform to the tastes of my kids and also be essential enough to teach a particular cooking technique.
Many of the dishes were well-liked by my children and warranted saving, but where? The answer came early in the form of an old and somewhat beaten up school folder from my son William’s elementary days. Its bright orange color made sure that we wouldn’t lose it; all that it needed was a little updating. With a black marker, I scratched out Will’s name on its front, and in a bold and sloppy script, I wrote “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault.” The folder was neither super-secret or a vault, but reality should never stand in the way of a creative process. During any Thursday meal, I would ask the kids, “Is this dish worthy of saving in the vault?” If the answer was yes, I would toss it in the folder. One checkmark indicating pretty good and two checkmarks noting that the dish was excellent.
Nowadays, my kids can make anything from a savory lasagna to 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. However, they are in college and beyond, causing “Cooking With Dad Thursday” to become a school break activity.
When a door closes, a window opens. With our new empty nest status, Julie and I had to negotiate who would be the meal preparer. In an egalitarian fashion, we decided to split the duty. I’m now the Sunday chief, and so “Cooking With Day Thursday” has evolved into “Simple Sunday Supper.” Julie is a more adventurous eater than the kids, and so I can revisit the culinary memories of my past, including soups, stews, and casseroles. However, she has banned peas from the list of acceptable ingredients.
My new routine often starts with an internet search for a potential meal candidate. Once printed, I check our larder to see what we have in stock. I’ll highlight any needed purchases directly on the recipe, fold it, and stick it in my pocket to serve as a shopping list. I dislike large stores, and so I’m fortunate to have a little grocer called “Fresh Thyme” just a few blocks away. Although limited in selection, they have all of the basics plus a good meat counter and an excellent fruit and vegetable section. It is a short and easy trip for me to buy any needed ingredients, and the store’s limited selection prevents me from overbuying.
I have also taken over the weekly house cleaning, which I do on Sundays. It is a bit of a balancing act when it comes to time management. However, I’m getting good a juggling these tasks and cooking is hardly a hardship.
Yesterday I made Italian sausage and lentil soup garnished with a little sour cream and served with chewy ciabatta bread. Total cooking time in my Instant Pot was 25 minutes, and it was the perfect dish for a frigid fall night. Julie gave me a thumbs up on dinner, and so I marked the recipe with two checkmarks. Where did I save it? In “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault,” of course!
The folder is now over two inches thick. It has been loosely divided into categories such as “stovetop,” “oven,” and “Instant Pot.” In that old and now worn-out folder resides years of recipes and memories. It may not have the charm of my mother’s handwritten cookbook, but it is wholly legible and clear. I hope that someday one of my kids will want the collection, and perhaps they will teach their children using some of the recipes that we so lovingly made. The vault may serve as a new tradition as well as a vehicle for my kids to tell their kids about their crazy dad and the food adventures that were spent together.
Traditions don’t have been elaborate, they just have to be. What traditions do you have?
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.
My birthdays have become important markers for me over the last few years. Their significance is less about my ever growing age, and they are more about a reflection of my previous year and a projection of my future one.
Last year I retired from private practice, but I continued to work 3 days a week for Rosecrance in Rockford. I also turned 65 and had a big party. Julie had asked me if I wanted a celebration get-together and she was surprised that despite my introvert nature I said yes. It was a most significant day as guests took the time to write remembrances of me that are now part of a scrapbook for my children and grandchildren.
Last year gave me two additional days of free time a week that I had initially planned to use in a concerted effort to improve myself and change the world. Reflecting one year later I did not change the world last year, but I did improve myself, just not in the ways that I initially envisioned.
Goals, like learning a foreign language and improving my guitar skills, fell by the wayside. Learning a language seems almost impossible with my poor auditory discrimination. It is likely that I will eventually focus more on my guitar playing, but I’m just not feeling it at the moment.
As far as changing the world is concerned, I think my grandiosity got the better of me. I believed that I could focus my passions for photography and writing, and combined these passions with my knowledge of human behavior to create a product that would have some sort of impact. I’m reassessing this goal, but not my passions.
It appears that my impact on others is much more significant when applied locally, rather than globally. This is something that should have been obvious to me as this has consistently been the case throughout my life.
I continue to write, and I believe that my overall writing has improved throughout this year. However, it is unlikely that I will be nominated for the blog hall of fame. I write now for the pleasure of writing, and to leave a chronicle of my life and ideas for my children and grandchildren. If my words impact a reader, all the better.
My photography has continued and is flourishing. I am doing a tremendous amount of architectural photography for my friend, Tom. Other photo opportunities are also presenting themselves, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be the contracted photographer for a Daddy/Daughter dance and a 50th wedding anniversary church service and reception. I have to say that I love the variety of doing different types of photography. Each presents its own kind of planning and method. My photos won’t be on any magazine covers, but I’m getting tremendous pleasure creating them as I think that they are serving a purpose higher than my own self-serving pleasure.
I feel most at peace in nature, and one of my goals has been to give myself the ability to experience the outdoors in the most cost-effective way reasonable. I don’t want the barrier of money to stop me from getting out among the trees. I am pleased to report that I am moving forward on this goal. Last summer I purchased a bare cargo van, and I have been in the process of converting it into a useable camper for one or two. Such a vehicle opens up many cost-effective possibilities for discovery. Last summer I had the initial interior shell installed by Wayfarer Vans in Colorado Springs, and since then Tom and I have been outfitting the van with vents, solar panels, and many other refinements. I now have a fully self-contained off-the-grid camper at the ready. I have already used it to travel on a few small trips and in May I will use it to meander to Arizona. Later in the summer, I will mount a trip to Glacier National Park. I am hoping that these trips will not only be soul cleansing, but they will also give me a chance to do more landscape photography. In addition, I am interested to see how my writing will change when I’m surrounded by pine trees instead of concrete.
I am doing things that were not part of last year’s plan. I’m learning more about construction; something that I enjoy immensely. I am also picking up a hobby that I abandoned over 15 years ago, Amateur Radio.
You may recall from previous posts that I have always loved radio, and as a grade school kid, I was building complex radios to exploring the airwaves. My private psychiatric practice was located by a lot of technology companies, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to treat scientists and engineers. In 1999 I had some knowledgeable experts warn me about the uncertainty of Y2K, and I eventually took them seriously. I felt that it would be important, not only for my family but also my local community, to have a way to communicate in a scenario where traditional communication lines were down. The apparent solution was Ham Radio, and I set myself a goal to obtain my radio license. In short order, I got a Technical Class license, then a General Class license, and finally the coveted Amateur Extra license. In my typical compulsive manner, I explored and bought radio equipment and practiced the art of using that equipment to make over-the-air contacts. My primary interest was in long-distance communications, but my small suburban lot didn’t have space for a proper antenna. Add to this reality my very long work schedule and the responsibility of raising young children, and I abandoned the hobby after about 3 years. I felt that I would never return to it.
I mentioned that I am planning a trip to Glacier National Park this summer, which has no cell coverage. Julie will remain at home during this trip, and I was thinking about ways to keep in touch with her. I explored the tools at my disposal, including my Amateur Extra license. In many ways traveling to a remote location is similar to having your community communication grid go down. No phone lines, no internet, no cell service. Ham radio could provide a communications solution. Unfortunately, Julie doesn’t have an amateur license, and so it would be illegal for the two of us to communicate over their air. However, there are options and the one that I plan to deploy is called Winlink. This is a protocol that allows the sending and receiving of email over the Ham radio bands. The recipient gets an email via their email client and can respond to that email just like they would any other email.
I have not been active in Amateur Radio for almost two decades, and I have forgotten much of what I had formally learned, so I’m now in the process of giving myself a crash course in electronics, radios, and communication law. You may think that my efforts are unnecessary and excessive, but that is the way I roll. I love learning and growing in knowledge.
Last week I had a much quieter, but equally lovely, birthday. Last Thursday Rosecrance also had a retirement reception for me. It was wonderful to be recognized, but also a bit sad as I’ll be leaving people that I have become fond of.
This week I will work today and tomorrow. This Friday my work life as I know it will be over. Some of my current activities may eventually fade from interest, but my life history tells me that there will always be new interests to take their place. Every day has become a new adventure and soon every day will be a Saturday for me.
Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?