Category Archives: Good relationships

Baking Macarons With Gracie

In the Kuna household the Christmas season brings more than sweet treats and gifts, it brings my two college-aged daughters back to Naperville. For a few short weeks, our family is reunited, and family seems as it should be.

Our Kathryn returns from her college in the Southwest, our Grace comes back from hers in the Midwest. It is always exciting to see how they have changed, but it is more rewarding to witness that deep down, they are the same beautiful people that left us in the fall.

Old traditions, like Cooking With Dad Thursday resume and new traditions form. This year our Kathryn introduced us to “The Great British Baking Show,” which she reports as popular among her peers. She convinced Grace to watch it, then Julie, then me, then Will; we were all hooked.

The show is of the reality TV variety with a format that consists of 12 amateur bakers who are challenged with three difficult tasks and then judged on their efforts. All of the contestants are very experienced bakers, and to make things interesting, they are given short time limits that push them to be as productive and efficient as possible. Under such pressure, the results range from outstanding to disastrous. In reality TV tradition, one baker is eliminated every week, and one gains the exclusive title of, Star Baker. The difference between this show and a typical Food Network contest is that everyone is civil. The bakers help each other, and the leaving baker gets hugs instead of insults.

Kathryn returned to school, but Grace’s holiday continued, which opened up the opportunity  for the two of us to have an adventure or two.

“Dad, let’s make Macarons,” Gracie said. After a moment I responded, “OK, but I don’t think that I ever tasted one.” “That’s OK, we can figure it out together,” commented Grace. Not that many years ago I didn’t even know what a Macaron was and when they started to become popular, I thought that people were talking about Macaroons, the sweet soft coconut lump cookies that you can buy in the cookie aisle; now we were going to make them! Grace was quick to find an “Easy Macaron Recipe” on the Internet, and I said that we could give it a shot after lunch.

When I was growing up one of my favorite memories was sitting with my mom and watching The French Chef on Saturday afternoons. I liked the fact that I was doing something with my mom, but I also loved the way that Julia Childs approached cooking. She was precise and scientific in her approach, and her methodology was something that I could admire. She did things for a reason, and she understood what that reason was. My mom never made a recipe featured in the show, but I have used the cooking knowledge that I gained from viewing it my entire life.

“Let’s look at the recipe,” I said. We were lacking in a number of the things necessary to complete our task. “Almond flour, I wonder where we get that,” I said. “Let’s try the Jewel,” Grace responded. “We also have to get some pastry tips and a sieve. Hmm, it says that the eggs have to be room temperature. I remember that from watching, The French Chief. I also remember that we can’t use a plastic bowl when we beat the egg whites because even a trace of oil will prevent them from forming peaks,” After a few more moments of pondering I said. “Let’s go shopping!”

We figured that the closest place that would have special baking equipment was Michael’s, and that was our first stop. We found the baking aisle, and we were confronted by a wall of pastry tips, coloring gels, and silicone baking mats. Neither of us knew what to buy. I decided to go with plastic pastry tips, as they were less expensive and I wasn’t sure if this macaron experience would be of the “one and done” variety. In addition to our piping equipment, we opted to get some food coloring gels to use instead of regular food coloring as it seemed more bake-worthy for such an exotic treat.

Our next stop was the Jewel. We entered the baking aisle, and I was astounded to find that they actually had two different brands of almond flour. I have been down baking aisles hundreds of times, and I have never seen this stuff. I guess my brain has always been in selective filtering mode. We went down another aisle and I grabbed an overpriced sieve.

Now back home, and I was on the hunt for the Kitchenaid’s whisk attachment. I found its hiding place in a bottom cupboard, and we assembled our tools and ingredients for the task at hand. With 4 eggs reaching room temperature we decided to reconvene in 30 minutes.

Step-by-step we followed the recipe, and although we had never made macarons, instructions are instruction. “Let me show you how to fold the flour into the egg whites without deflating them,” I instructed Gracie; another lesson from Julia Child. I added what seemed to be a tiny dot of blue coloring gel, and the cookie dough became the color of denim jeans. Note to self: food coloring gel is potent stuff!

We did our best to pipe out the batter into neat circles, but it was clear that our “star” tip was inadequate for the task. Since we had no other option, we pushed forward hoping for the best, but willing to accept the worst. Into a 300F oven our little cookies went, then cooled, then filled with buttercream icing.

They certainly did not look like the ones we saw on TV. They tasted OK, but we wondered if they tasted like macarons, as neither of us had ever eaten one before. The next day Julie answered the latter question by purchasing 3 cookies, each a different flavor at the Standard Market. Those cookies looked perfect, and they had just the right amount of filling. I was shocked that she paid almost $5 for three of them, and did a quick mental calculation on what a dozen would cost. At least we now had an idea of what macarons should look and taste like. Five dollars was the price paid to acquire information to improve our next macaron bake.

Yesterday I was driving Grace back to college. As we drove we talked through a research paper that she was reading on a mutation of an adenovirus strain. Reading a research paper is not that different from reading a recipe. In both instances, you needed to know the lingo first before you can understand the content.

She is going to participate in a research project next semester and she will be doing lab research on adenoviruses. I told her that baking and running experiments are very similar. Methodology and accuracy in both are critical if you want to get reproducible results. “Learn your protocol, refine your method, and repeat. That’s all there is to it.” I advised.

My friend Tom often teases me when I ask him why he is using a specific tool, or why he is approaching a construction project in a particular way. “Mike, this is useless knowledge for you, you will never use it.” I feel that all knowledge can be useful or useless. It is up to the end user of that knowledge to determine its utility. I have never acquired a piece of information that I felt was useless. It is all useful, I just haven’t used it all yet!

Julia Child helped me be not only a better baker but also a better research scientist. Understanding science has made me a better cook. Circular, no?

Tools of the trade.
Learning how to pipe.

Dr. Mike Buys A New Cooker

I grew up in a 1920s style bungalow before living in such a house was chic. My parents moved into our Chicago home on Francisco Avenue in 1951 and did a minimal amount of redecorating at that time. Interestingly, most of that work actually destroyed some of the house’s natural charm. For instance, the living room fireplace and its two companion stained glass windows were removed to make that room more modern.

The kitchen had undergone the most basic of renovations then and remained the same until we moved to the suburbs almost 25 years later. The floor was redone in red and green tiles that were arranged in a checkerboard fashion, and one wall received “tile work” from its baseboard to its midpoint. The “tiles” were, in fact, a single sheet of linoleum that was molded into a yellow square tile pattern. An example of remodeling on a minimal budget.

My memories of the kitchen are from the 1960s, and at that point, the prior effort to update it just added to its hodgepodge appearance. By then the floor tiles were dull and broken, and the linoleum wall was aged and worn. Against that wall was a 1950s style chrome kitchen table with matching tube chairs. Its grey Formica top had the look of one from an old diner booth, with parts of the surface rubbed off after thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Above the table was a small cheap wall lamp, which was secured by a single screw 2 feet above the faux tiles. The room was illuminated by a bare circular fluorescent ceiling light that gave the space a cold bluish tinge. Directly across from the table was a white freestanding cabinet, its surface enameled steel. On top of the cabinet was an old Sunbeam Mixmaster that my mother used every day to bake the family a variety of treats. To the right of the table was a farm style sink with a built in drainboard. It was mounted to the wall and supported by two cylindrical porcelain legs. The old vessel had a worn down finish. Across from the sink was our single door Coldspot fridge and our Crown gas range, both purchased when my parents moved into the home in 1951.

The Crown range was a point of displeasure for my mother, who was a skilled cook and baker. My father purchased it without her approval, and it was apparently the lines “base” model. It was a 36” wide appliance finished in basic white. Its enamel backsplash featured a small clock in its center that had long ago lost the ability to keep time. The front of the range was split in half, but instead of featuring two side-by-side ovens, it only had one. The other side was for pot storage.

The top four burners were lit by two pilot lights, perpetually burning gas during a time when natural resources were cheap and endless. Its surface scratched by a past run-in with a steel wool pad.

Lighting the oven was not for the faint of heart as the operator had to turn on the gas, light a match, and insert the match into a little hole on the oven’s floor. Being late for even a second would cause a giant whoosh of flames and heat.

The over-temperature was always off by 25 degrees on the Crown, and we all knew to make the correct adjustment. Being the base model, its walls were not adequately insulated causing it to bake unevenly, which was my mother’s chief complaint, the other being the oven’s small size.

The stove had significant imperfections, but it worked. It was the heart of our kitchen, and the kitchen was the heart of our home. There was always a supply of fresh percolator coffee on the stovetop and some sort of freshly baked treat from the oven. Family, relatives, and friends gathered in the kitchen to sit on the old chrome chairs and sip, eat, and talk.

I bought my Naperville home in 1989, and I was fortunate that the prior owner left a stove and fridge. There was nothing wrong with these appliances, but I wanted something more modern, and after a few years I moved them to the basement to be replaced with expensive stainless steel ones.

The cheap appliances from my parents home never failed and never needed repair. Such was not the case of my shiny new appliances. The fridge received many service calls, and the gas stove’s burners lost their ability to be adjusted. After about 8 years both had to be replaced, which prompted a trip to the appliance department at Sears.

I had been playing around with a tabletop induction burner, and I was dazzled by its utility. I knew that I wanted that technology in my new stove. The salesman at Sears pointed me in the right direction, and after an hour of exploration I pulled out my charge card and made my purchases. A Samsung fridge with French doors and a Kenmore Elite range that had both an induction cooktop and a convection oven.

The Samsung fridge turned out to be a nightmare, it was so over-engineered that it constantly broke down. I replaced it with a similar model from Whirlpool last year. The ranged faired better and sealed my love for induction cooking. However, its oven was less reliable, and the unit had a catastrophic failure last month. The stove cost over $2500 when I purchased it 9 years earlier, and now it was heading for a landfill.

My shopping habits have changed in the last decade and with Julie’s OK I bought the new stove online from Costco, based only on pictures and reviews. Being so cavalier with such a significant purchase would have been unimaginable in the past.

On Monday a delivery man took away the Kenmore and installed our new GE stove. It is similar to the Kenmore, but it has few features added, and a few others were taken away. Its backsplash is filled with computerized controls; I now look at such functions as future repairs rather than modern marvels.

My kitchen’s appearance is very different from the one that I grew up in. Modern and efficient, it has every cooking convenience that a chief could want. Instead of a percolator, we have both a Bunn drip pot and a Keurig single serve unit. Instead of a Formica and chrome table, we have one made of real wood. Granite countertops and cherry wood cabinets sit in for my parents’ old enamel one. A deep under-the-counter stainless steel sink takes the place of my parent’s worn farmhouse unit. The recessed lights in the ceiling number 12, and give off a warm and welcoming glow. The floor consists of oak planks instead of worn and broken asbestos tiles. A fancy light fixture from Pottery Barn defines the dining space in place of the dimestore wall lamp that my parents used.

My kitchen is different from the one that I grew up with, but it also very similar. Despite 60 years of separation it still has to serve the same function as the one that my mother cooked in. It also serves the same social functions that my parent’s kitchen did. It is a gathering place for my family, relatives, and friends. There we eat, we talk, we plan, we play games, we entertain. I could comfortably live without our living room, but I would be lost without our kitchen.

Shiny and modern, my kitchen should be advanced in every way from my childhood one, but it is not. Although my parents had imperfect appliances, they worked for decades. Their oven may have been off by 25 degrees, but it never faltered beyond that value. The freezer compartment in their fridge may have been small and frosty, but we never worried that our ice cream would be melted.

My complex new appliances promise fancy advances, most of which I will never use. The new stove is more computer than a cooker. I had to read the manual twice just to understand how to set its digital clock. Yes, my fridge and stove are more energy efficient, but what does that really mean to me and to the environment when I have to replace a costly unit every 7 to 10 years. Planned obsolescence is good for manufacturing companies but bad for everyone else.

I live in 2019, not in 1950 and I have to accept the reality of early appliance demise. However, I can also celebrate advances that range from practical convection cooking to silly wifi connectivity. Our new stove has both, and to initiate it to our kitchen my daughter, and I baked 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. We were both pleased with how the new oven worked. However, you may want to check back with me 7 or 8 years from now as it is likely that I will once again be in the market for a new one. That is if it lasts that long.

Stop over sometime for a cup of coffee and some homemade bread with jam. The coffee pot is always on, and the conversation is always flowing. Some things never change.

A stove similar to the one that I grew up with.
My new stove is more computer than cooker.

Six warm loaves, right out of the oven.

Christmas In Cold Minnesota

I could see the outline of the Minneapolis-St. Paul skyline from my window seat as the plane banked to the left. The year was 1989, and I had just finished taking part II of my Psychiatry Board exam at the Hennepin County Hospital in Minneapolis. I felt that I had done well, and I was feeling a sense of relief.  This was my first time visiting the Twin Cities, and I remember thinking that this visit would be not only my first but also my last. There was no reason to return.

December 1991, I packed two suitcases into the tiny back seat of my 1988 Mustang GT convertible. My Mustang had a brilliant white body, accented by a dark navy blue ragtop. She was sleek, sexy, and very fast.  The GT drove like a dream on dry pavement, but it could be treacherous with the slightest bit of snow. This latter fact concerned me as I was about to embark on a 450-mile trip up north.

I started the car’s engine and rotated the heater knobs to warm the cabin and defrost the windshield.  I reached over the passenger seat, grabbed my yellow window scraper, and started to hack the ice and snow off the windshield.  I waited for the car to warm up before going back into the house to get my girlfriend. I was already feeling anxious.

She was also feeling nervous, but we were both playing it cool.  Soon we were whizzing down I-88, then I-39, then I-90. We made random conversation and tried to appear calm.  Our hidden anxiety evidenced by our frequent detours to interstate rest-stops. I would have to stop, then she would.  Our suddenly overactive bladders were providing a window into our inner emotional state.

We had started dating in July, and a few months later she had asked me to travel north to spend Christmas with her family who lived in a rural town outside of the Twin Cities. I had given up on all dating for almost two years before that July. I had decided that the whole courtship process was too stressful and I had made a commitment to myself to live a single life. I was happy with my choice, but I also felt like something was missing. I met her at a random meeting one week before she was to leave our workplace to return to graduate school. We sat next to each other at that meeting, and we started to chat; a week later I asked her out on a date… now we were driving to Minnesota.

The drive was long, the air was frigid cold. We drove through the Twin Cities and got onto Highway 55, traveling west towards the town of Buffalo.  My heart was beating faster as we drove down the narrow road, past farms and frozen fields. Finally, we arrived at Buffalo, the county seat of Wright County.  A town of 10,000 surrounded by Buffalo Lake, Lake Pulaski, and Deer Lake. Julie’s parent’s house was on Buffalo Lake. We pulled up a large circular driveway at the back of the house.  There were cars already parked, we were not the first to arrive.

There was no need to knock, and Julie opened the back door and walked in.  I followed with my suitcase and a large gift basket that I brought as a hostess gift. We were greeted with welcomes and hellos.  Everyone was excited to see Julie and curious to meet me. I was satisfied with smiles and the smell of dinner cooking in the oven. I’m naturally shy, and I quickly donned my more social alter ego.  A smile on my face, I moved forward boldly.

The day consisted of polite questions, good food, and parlor games. At some point, Christmas gifts were opened. Julie’s father, Bob requested that she play a piano duet with her sister Kathy.  They dutifully banged out a few Christmas carols. At some point, Julie and I walked to Buffalo’s downtown, which was only a block away. At the town’s grocery store Julie ran into several residents, all of them wanting an update as they looked at me with questioning eyes. At another point, Bob loaded me into his old Lincoln and drove me directly onto Buffalo Lake.  As a city boy, I was confident that we would plunge to our deaths believing that the weight of the car would crack the ice beneath its wheels. It did not, and I lived another day. That night the temperature dropped to -19 F, I got ready to go out and warm up the Mustang to make sure that it would start the next morning. Julie’s brother-in-law, Karl quizzically looked at me, “Why are you starting the car, it is only -19?”  I was definitely in Minnesota!

Despite my shyness, I soon felt comfortable and fell back into my real personality.  Julie’s family is very Swedish, and I’m Eastern European by heritage. Some of their customs were different than mine, but I was more aware of our similarities rather than our differences.  I wondered how many men she had brought up to Buffalo through the years. I found out later that I was the first, and only one.

Today is December 25, 2018. I write this post from Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.  I arrived here yesterday with Julie and our three children. Running late, we traveled directly to Faith Covenant Church, My sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s home church.  There we met the rest of the family as we celebrated Christmas Eve with a candlelight service.

After church, we returned to their home. We had interesting conversation, good food, and played games.  We caught up on each other’s lives. This morning we opened gifts, ate more, talked more, and played more games. As I write this some of us are reading, some are playing the board game, “Risk,” two are finishing the construction of a Christmas present, two are completing a jigsaw puzzle, I am writing this post. Today I learned that Oregon produces the most Christmas trees, and the dentist elf in the TV special, “Rudolf The Red Nose Reinder,” name is Hermie. Knowledge is power!

I have been traveling to Minnesota for the last 27 years, not only for Christmas but for other events too. I have long lost any anxiety when visiting my wife, Julie’s side of the family. After all of these years, her family is my family. In 1989 I thought that I had completed my one and only trip to Minnesota.  Twenty-nine years later I have been here over 100 times. Dear reader, life is full of surprises.

Thanksgiving Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple, Complex Dr. Mike

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.

Peace

My campervan’s very simple interior.
Best friend, Tom and a garage full of plywood.
The initial box that will eventually be partitioned into useable storage space.
Experiment: Can I successfully cook chicken using a 12-volt battery?
Experiment conclusion: Yes!
Experiment: Can I make a complex meal using a simple rice cooker?
Answer: Yes!

 

Lessons From A Simple Average Day

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.

Peace.

Feeling proud (and damp) after voting.
Camper blueberry pancakes with sugar-free preserves.
My 20-year-old Coleman oven seated on my camp stove.
Yummy sugar-free muffins, camper style.

Chinese Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

September Song

Oh, it’s a long, long while
From May to December
But the days grow short,
When you reach September.
When the autumn weather
Turn leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game.
September Song
M. Anderson-1938

———

We sit around the kitchen table. Julie, my wife. William, my 17-year-old son. Diana, my 3-year-old granddaughter. Sebastion, my 9-year-old grandson. Me.

In front of Sebie is a large stack of conversational cards. He pulls one and reads it. “If you could always live in your favorite season, would you?” We go around the table, and all participants answer, “No.” We agree that each season possesses its own magic. As we tire of one season, we are given the gift of a new one.

——–

I pick up my sister Carol from her apartment and drive to Arrowhead Country Club to celebrate her 80th birthday with a Saturday lunch. We talk, nibble, sip, and talk some more. “I have never been happier. This is the best time of my life,” Carol says in earnest.

——–

I walk to Starbucks in the pre-dawn. I pass by a tree, its leaves turning a golden orange.

——–

The fall of my life is upon me, the days are growing shorter. Time is accelerating.

Would I want to go back to any other time in my life? Childhood? Early adulthood? Middle age? I don’t think so. Each phase of my life had its advantages and its disadvantages. Each stage of my life added to my wisdom and to my appreciation of the gift of life. I don’t want to give up the present to live in the past.

There are disadvantages to being 65. I have more wrinkles on my face than hairs on my head. My stamina is a percentage of what it was when I was 30. My short-term memory is less acute than in the past. I am more inclined to take naps.

There are advantages to being 65. I care less what others think of me. I am less concerned with what I don’t have and more satisfied with what I do have. I realize that most happiness lies in small things: dinner with my family, coffee with a friend, learning new things, giving back.

In January I left my private practice of 30 years and gained perpetual 4 day weekends. As a person who likes to move forward, I had developed a productivity plan in anticipation of this change. That initial plan has been only partially realized. Frankly, I’m OK with my partial compliance.

I am writing, taking pictures, and converting a van into a camper for future adventures. I have made a weak effort to organize a basement storage room. I’m not practicing the guitar, and I have not started the process of learning a foreign language. I think that this latter objective may be on a permanent hold.

I am spending a lot more time socializing with people who I care about. I am stretching my introverted boundaries. I am learning about construction and power tools. I know that this last fact may seem odd for an old retired doctor, but I assure you that it is not. I come from a blue-collar background, but I was never mentored in the art of the Sawzall. One of the reasons that I gravitated to science was that it was an entirely novel discipline in my family, and somehow that fact made it OK for me to teach the subject to myself.

There is a joy in learning those things that I was so curious about as a child. I see the similarities between medicine and construction. Each discipline requires training and practice. Each discipline follows a specific methodology and is protocol driven. However, with building the fruit of your efforts is immediate and tangible.

I have spent much of my life goal-directed; focused on practical knowledge. However, I appreciate learning something that serves no personal purpose in my life. Learning for the sake of learning is my cocaine.

At 65 my world isn’t shrinking, it is expanding. I wake at 4 AM anticipating what that day will bring. What will I see on my walk? What will I write? What new thing will I learn? What projects will I tackle? What adventures will I have with those people that I care about?

The days may grow short in the September my life, but they are still days to be celebrated. Today I know more than I knew yesterday. I have connected with others more. I have done more. Each day is a gift, never to repeat.

Dear reader, celebrate today!

The American Dream: Have You Been Lied To?

Are you feeling overworked, and undervalued? Here are a couple of facts.

Fact #1: We have more leisure time than ever before. Life is good!
Fact #2: Fact #1 is a lie.

Mid-century prognosticators predicted that good times would lie ahead for the people of the 21st century. They believed that automation would make work more meaningful and efficient. It was predicted that work weeks would shrink to 15 hours, and leisure time would expand to fill the void. The United States, with all of its industrial might, would be at the forefront of this change, and its educated and skilled workers would benefit the most.

Data suggest that overall leisure time has increased in the US, and we are working less than we did a few decades ago. So, life is good, right?

Dear reader, do you have a job? Is your life easier in 2018 than it was in 1998, or is it harder? Do you feel that you have more free time, or less free time? Are you enjoying life more, or enjoying it less? I hope that your answers indicate a continued movement towards a positive and meaningful life. A life where you have time to do those things that you find personally satisfying and rewarding. However, for many of you, I doubt that this is the case.

Random statistics are like other generalities, they make great bullet points, but they only tell part of the story. Data suggest that our lives are better now than 50 years ago. We have less pollution, we live longer, our houses are bigger, we have more stuff. In addition, our lives have become more automated. We can order a new shirt with a click of a mouse. We can summon Alexis, Siri, or Google to start our favorite music playlist. We can cook a meal in minutes with the touch of a microwave button.

We have been told that to have a good life we need to become skilled and educated. We have been told that using our brains instead of our backs will give us lives full of meaning, and an abundance of leisure time.

So why are many of us stressed? Why do we feel that we have no time for ourselves; that we are on a hamster wheel frantically running but never moving forward?

Erik Hurst, University of Chicago economist, looked at leisure time and found that there are individuals in our society that have an abundance of leisure time and that this abundance makes them happy. However, they are not highly trained or educated. In fact, they are at the opposite end of the spectrum. A 2015 study found that twenty-two percent of undereducated males between the ages of 21-30 had not worked in the previous 12 months. These folks were typically living in a relative’s home (think parent’s basement), and they often filled their free time with cheap entertainment, usually video games.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were men who he referred to as “elite.” They were skilled and educated. Elite men had less free time than their fathers did. They often defined who they were by their work life, rather than other interest. They worked long hours and produced more than similarly skilled men in other developed countries. They did not rate as high on the happy scale.

I believe it would be reasonable to claim a similar outcome for elite women. More work, an extended workday, less free time, less happy. Many Fortune 500 companies expect their workers to work longer and to be more productive than previous generations. We can never escape work, as we are always accessible via our smartphones and laptop computers. A long commute used to be a time to listen to music or catch up on the latest sports news. Thanks to mobile devices our cars have now become our second office. Vacations served as escapes; now wifi and laptops help us to catch up on work emails when we should be catching rays.

We are stressed and tired, so we use services to supplement our energy gaps. We pay someone to watch our children, cut our grass, and clean our house. We go out to dinner or buy premade meals. We use our credit cards to procure an expensive vacation or buy an unnecessary item with the false belief that these things will make us happy. All of these behaviors cost us money, which means we need to work even harder.

Social media makes us feel that we don’t have enough. We see pictures of Jerry’s new car, Mary’s exciting trip, Bob’s bigger house. The visual images make us feel dissatisfied and want more. Our new purchases make us feel better, but only for a short amount of time. We live a bipolar life of working hard and playing hard. There is no middle ground. There is no balance.

Stressed, our normal life jobs become burdens. Routine tasks like helping our kids with their homework turn into annoyances. We ease our frustration by distracting ourselves with texting our friends or playing games on our phones when we should be focused on the task at hand. This multi-tasking disconnects us and we become less present, which makes us feel alone and lonely. Affairs, addiction, increased debt, compulsive eating, compulsive sleeping, compulsive buying, and other fixes serve as temporary ego patches that often result in long-term negative consequences.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, we continue this cycle with the magical thought: “If I only could make a little more money I would be happy” However, this is often not the case. Money is like heroin, whatever you make, you want a little more, and like heroin, cash promises much but delivers little.

So what is the answer, dear reader? Should we quit our jobs and move into our parent’s basements? For most, that is not the solution.

What do you really want out of life? Ask yourself, “Do I want”…

More time with my family? A safe living environment? Good health? A sense of real purpose? or Fill in the blank?

Are your actions consistent with your wants? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that making more money will automatically solve your problems.

Things that you may want to consider:

-Try to find a balance between work life and personal life. I have known some people who took lesser jobs or gave up careers, with a resulting increase in happiness and wellbeing.
-Realize that more stuff will not make you happy
-Practice being in the present.
-Designate times to silence your phone.
-Spend time with people who you love and cherish, and who love and cherish you.
-Avoid people whose connection with you is based only on what you can provide them.
-Develop a spiritual life.
-Connect with others in a meaningful and giving way. Consider helping someone for the pleasure of helping, without any expectation of a return for you.
-Realize that most of the things that we do are work, but the type of work can make a big difference not only in how we feel but also how others feel about us. I have heard many an adult talk glowingly about their parents. Beautiful memories of doing a project with dad, or baking cookies with mom (Feel free to reverse gender roles, if so desired). I have never heard an adult lovingly talk about an absent parent who bought them a new car on their 16th birthday. Further, I have never heard someone say, “My parents were awesome, they each worked 100 hours a week!”
-Write down a list of things that you are grateful for, and read it twice a day.
-Be thankful for what you have, instead of always thinking about what you want.
-Stop watching shopping networks; stop reading ad papers.
-Limit your time on social media.
-Leisure time is that time that we can devote solely to personal interests. It doesn’t have to be expansive when our lives are filled with other meaningful activities. Yes, those unemployed 21-30-year-olds may find happiness playing video games for 10 hours a day, but for most of us, a life of leisure would be unfulfilling. Consider leisure time like a desert. A bowl of ice cream can complete a meal. However, a diet of only ice cream would make most of us sick.

Life is short. Decide how you want to live it.

Dr. Mike

Rat race traffic.

My Crazy Solo 2000 Mile Car Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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