Category Archives: Good relationships

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?

Vandwelling As A Metaphor

I reread this post, and it seems to be mostly a self-reflection, which may be uninteresting to read. I’m going to publish it anyway as one of my goals has been to become more open and transparent to others.

————————————–

This morning I sliced up an apple and smeared some peanut butter on it. I carried it, along with my cup of coffee, to my study and sat in my broken desk chair. I powered up my computer, clicked on YouTube, scanned the splash screen, and chose a video from vandweller, Robert Witham. In the video, he talked about why he decided to move into a van when he was 40. His wife had died after a heroic battle with cancer, and he had to face his own mortality. He realized how short life was, and he asked himself if he was living his life, or waiting for some unknown time when he would do so. This is a question that I have been asking myself.

If you read my blog, you know that I’m building a campervan from a cargo van. I will make significant progress in that endeavor this weekend when I drive solo to Colorado and have the bed and kitchen insert installed by Wayfarer Vans. After next week my campervan will be functional, and about 80% completed. The rest of the project will move slower, as it will rely on my limited construction skills and my friend Tom’s limited free time.

If you like to connect dots, you may assume by reading the first two paragraphs that I’m about to abandon my home and family and become a vandweller. That is not the case. In reality, the van serves as a metaphor for my life as it is now evolving. Let me explain further.

It would have been easy for me to have given into my less than perfect childhood and settled for a life of pipe dreams. It is reasonable to assume that I could have gotten a factory job while regretting what, “could have been.” However, I felt that was not my life’s script. Even as a child I believed that I could, and should, do more.

Wishes are only that, and I believe that I am where I am because of many things, including luck, and the grace of God. I feel incredibly fortunate, so why am I continuing to expand my horizon? The answer is simple, like most people I still have unresolved issues and goals. I do not want to be a person pondering a list of regrets when I draw my dying breath.

I’m not into spectator sports, I don’t play golf, I find games and competitions frustrating. These activities are often where men bond and form friendships. My lack of these interests and abilities contributed to my belief that I didn’t have much to offer to a potential male buddy.

Conversely, as a psychotherapist, I have worked with men from every economic and educational level. Time and time again I have been able to make solid connections with my male patients, who are more than willing to talk about topics ranging from their spiritual beliefs to their feelings and fears. The fact that I don’t know the latest sports score has no bearing on our connection.

My childhood self felt that I had little to offer a male friend because I wasn’t sporty, but my adult self had proof that I could connect in a significant and meaningful way. Childhood beliefs can be compelling, even when confronted with contrary data. However, I refuse to be defined by my irrational self, and in the last few years I have attacked this erroneous belief and pushed forward.

Most of the significant relationships that I have had in my life have been with women, who generally sought me out, and seem to value me for who I am. However, I really missed not having a best male friend. Someone to do guy things with. Over three years ago I asked Tom if he would be my friend, and we have become best friends. His friendship has been a tremendous blessing. I can honestly say that it has been life changing for me.

Lately, I have been trying to expand my friendship circle. With that said, it is hard for me to be vulnerable. When I reach out to someone, my old tapes say “Don’t bother them, they really don’t want to spend any time with you.” This makes it difficult to put myself out there. But when have I ever stopped doing something because it was difficult? My experience tells me that practice makes difficult things easy. I’m still waiting for the easy part, so I guess I need to practice more.

Though much of my adult life I was obese. Stress, lack of exercise, poor diet, terrible sleeping patterns, they all conspired to cause me to believe that I could never lose weight. Through many different avenues, I have lost a considerable amount of weight and have become more fit in the process. Another goal.

I am very grateful that I had the ability and opportunity to pursue a career in medicine. If I had to do it again, I would. The benefits of my profession are numerous, but there are also some drawbacks. A doctor’s professional life is all-consuming. You are always on, you always have to place the needs of others before your needs. Being a physician is not a 9 to 5 job, it is a 24/7 dedication.

This dedicated style has seeped into my marriage and family life. I have a wonderful family, and I feel a strong compulsion to take care of their needs. I have tried to be a good provider, parent, and husband. However, I have not always been very good at taking care of myself. In fact, I placed my physical and emotional self-care somewhere below the needs of our cat. For instance, I continued to add work hours to my schedule, although my health was in decline. My life was a repetitive cycle: work, home, eat, sleep.

I love to learn and to compensate for my lack of self-time; I would become an expert on things that held my interest. This usually involved obtaining items to study and understand. These pursuits would temporarily appease me. However, they didn’t have an impact on the root cause of my problem. Things cannot take the place of emotional needs.

I continue to learn, teach and create. However, I’m now trying to pursue these interest in the context of healthy growth. You see some of that effort in this blog where I attempt to be honest about what is going on with me in a public forum. Why is that important? Because it is another way of me announcing to the world who I am. Take me as I am, I will no longer be a chameleon who changes colors to please those around me.

Some of my new life goals have been to find greater personal balance. This balance includes developing significant connections with others, regaining my health, recognizing and respecting my own needs, redefining my creative side, and the list goes on.

Will I accomplish all of my life goals? Other goals are more difficult, and I don’t feel that I have the ability to solve them on my own. These goals reference the most profound aspects of who I am. Because of their complexity, the only way that they could be achieved would be by direct intervention from someone other than myself, or by God himself. Either solution would be a miracle. I have already witnessed miracles in my life, but I need to accept that fact that these goals may never be met.

The van conversion symbolizes my ability to do something for myself. The process involves spending money on myself. It involves giving myself time. When completed the campervan will serve as a physical portal that will allow me to learn more, teach more, expand my writing and photography, meet new friends, and challenge other false beliefs.

My first adventure will occur when I drive to Colorado this Saturday morning. During that trip, I will try out some of my recently acquired vandwelling skills. I am anxious for Saturday to come.

Robert Witham’s video rang true to me when I viewed it this morning. I’m 65 years old. If I don’t attack my goals now, when will I? There is no time better than the present.

Dear readers, what are your life goals, and what are you doing to achieve them?

Addendum: I started writing this post on Tuesday morning, and it is now Wednesday morning. In the interim, a new friend that I met at Crater Lake National Park emailed me noting that he would like to keep up our correspondences. I then went to Starbucks and ran into Ed, a nice guy who stops for coffee now and again. He mentioned that he wanted to catch up with me before he heads out to his vacation home and that he would stop by again on Thursday to do so. All these years I was afraid to reach out my hand of friendship because I thought it would be rejected. Perhaps I was the one rejecting.

Robert Witham’s Vlog Post

The Family Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy’s Story: Life As A Caregiver

Life doesn’t always turn out the way that you expect it to. This is the story of Kathy.

Kathy sits across from me sipping a herbal tea, at 71 she is active and tells me that she is going dancing after our interview. Kathy has been a widow for 4 years, and she is trying to adjust to her new life.

She met her husband at a dance when she was 19. He was the older brother of one of her friends, and after the dance, he got her phone number from his sister.

Dave asked Kathy out on their first date by posing her a question. “If you can tell me the color of a red pencil, then you can go out with me.” She liked her husband Dave because he was smart, funny, and a little sarcastic. “I got tired of the sarcastic part pretty early on, and I let him know that.” Dave had a significant limp from a bout of childhood Polio. He was born before the advent of the Polio vaccine and contracted the disease as a baby. Growing up he worked hard to compensate for his handicap by regularly working out in his homemade basement gym.

On the surface, Kathy felt that they were dating casually. However, six months into the relationship she ended a connection with another man. Clearly, there was a part of her that knew that there was something special about her future husband.

She was still in school, and Dave returned to college studying at Lewis University. Kathy recalls a letter that he sent her around their 3 month anniversary. In the letter, he thanked her for the brownies that she made him and told her that he would also like some cookies. Although humorous, that simple comment foretold of things to come.

They had little money, and it took them 6 years to save enough to get married. Dave eventually became a special education teacher, and Kathy taught elementary education, both for the Chicago public schools.

They saved and bought a home on a large lot in the country. They traveled a bit. They raised a family. This was the American dream of the 1980s. Dave loved to eat. In fact, Kathy says that he was obsessed with eating. Dave started to gain weight and went from thin to morbidly obese. Along with his obesity came diabetes. Along with diabetes came diabetic neuropathy. Along with diabetic neuropathy came immobility. He was already limited by the aftermath of his polio, but his neuropathy made him disabled. It became difficult for him to walk or maintain his balance. This made it hard for him to contribute in a meaningful way at home.

Slowly, but progressively, more and more of the home tasks fell on her. This is how she describes a typical morning in those days:

“I would get up at 4 AM and walk the dog. Then I would throw clothes in the clothes washer, and empty the dishwasher. In those days I made a lot of oven breakfasts, and so that would be cooking. After breakfast, I would get my kids ready and drive them to school or the sitters. Then I would go to my full-time teaching job.”

Kathy was feeling tired and stressed. Despite this, she put one foot in front of the other and pushed forward. “I didn’t think about it, I just did it.”

Dave’s condition continued to worsen and his doctors came up with a new diagnosis, Post Polio Syndrome. Post Polio Syndrome is a syndrome that occurs many years after a person has contracted Polio and it is characterized by muscle weakness, fatigue, and pain. Dave went from using crutches to being a wheelchair user in 1996. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to get out of the house, and once out he could only go to handicap accessible locations. This was not only difficult for him but his entire family.

Kathy continued to push forward, but her life was becoming further limited, and she was avoiding social gatherings because of the enormous difficulty in transporting Dave. Her world was closing in.

In 2009 she started to notice another change in Dave, he was beginning to stutter. Dave was a bright and inquisitive individual, but now his logic seemed way off. Simple things, like learning how to use an electric wheelchair, were beyond him. He was complaining of vision problems, although his eyes tested OK. He had trouble writing. In 2011 an ophthalmologist examined him and thought that he may have Parkinson’s Disease which can be confused with another illness called PSP. Dave was seen by a Neurologist who did an MRI of his brain. That test showed an unusual hummingbird pattern which is the classic sign of PSP or Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a disease that destroys part of the brain. This explained the stuttering, lack of coordination, problems with logic, and the fact that Dave had gone from being a nice person to a nasty one. Dave started to show a lack of empathy, and at the same time, he was becoming progressively needier. If Kathy was out of his sight for a moment, he would bang on the walls or call her cell phone to get her attention.

She now had caregivers coming in, but they were only present 3 hours a day. “Sometimes that was the only time I could sleep as Dave would often be up at night.” Another symptom of PSP is dementia. Kathy’s situation was similar to someone who had a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease. It was a tough time. She had discovered a Facebook group for PSP caregivers, and that served as a lifeline for her. “Connecting with other caregivers, I started to understand that Dave’s behaviors were due to his disease.”

The course of PSP runs from 6-15 years, and on August 17, 2014, Dave passed away at home.

Kathy spent much of her marriage taking care of Dave, and through the process became ever more isolated from the outside world. A part of her wanted to live, to experience, to explore. In many ways, she was like a person who had been released from prison after spending 20 years in confinement. She had a desire to move forward, but her life had been so structured that she didn’t know how. “My friends in the PSP group talk about this. That first year is go, go,go. It is like you are trying to make up for all of the years that you couldn’t do anything. You move forward, and you make mistakes. I joined a dating site, but I didn’t understand that there are predators that lurk on these sites. Let’s just say that I got hurt.”

Kathy continues to move forward, but at times it is difficult to know what forward is. She is starting to do things for herself. She travels more, she has joined a gym, she is taking dancing lessons, she casually dates, she learned how to swim, she learned how to ride a horse, she is a regular at a senior MeetUp group. Despite this she is lonely. She has gone from being a caregiver to being free. However, being a caregiver was her identity. She has lost her identity.

“I decided that it was time to talk to someone who could help me figure out where I go from here. I need to accept that fact that I may never have another partner. I need to be happy with myself.”

Kathy says that she is still a work in progress. She continues to expand her experiences, but at a less frantic pace. She is enjoying her friends, family, and grandkids. She continues to learn and grow.

We never know where life will take us. Every day is a gift. Good days have bad in them. Bad days have good in them. It is our task to extract what good that we can from every day, as we will never be given that day again.

Kathy is a heroic person who is trying to live by that philosophy. I wish her well.

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Kathy

When Children Go Off To College

The hotel was geographically close, but it still took almost 40 minutes to get to our destination as we had to transit on rural roads. We were then met by road construction when we arrived. I always feel uncomfortable when I’m not familiar with my environment, and road construction makes that unfamiliarity more intense.

A turn here, a detour there; finally the parking garage. Once out of the car we followed the herds of people as they meandered towards the middle of campus. We arrived at the student center where most of our meetings were scheduled. A large red brick building in a classic Georgian style. It was time for college orientation to begin.

Grace will be my third to go off to college, and it has become more difficult for me with each child. When my oldest daughter went to school, I had three little ones still at home. My next daughter had already been away at a magnet STEM boarding high school before she left for college. It was still tough to see her go from a campus that was 20 miles away to one that was over 1000 miles away.

My Grace has been at home for the duration, along with my son Will. My last two kids have liked doing things with me, and we continuously have turned small events into adventures. A trip to Walmart can become an exploration, making dinner together can serve as a time to bond and laugh. Since my wife returned to the workforce (she would correct me at this point telling me that I should say “paid workforce”), We have often been like three musketeers. Naturally, as they have gotten older, their friends have taken up more of their time, but we still do things together. Being with them is a total pleasure for me.

Now, my Grace will be 5 hours away by car. Indeed a doable trip on a weekend, but not around the block.

I remember going to my college orientation many years ago. It was an information only experience. I went with my friend John, who was also attending the same university. No parents, no sleepover in a dorm room, no team building exercises.

When I turned 18, I was considered an adult. Currently, we define people in their 20s as “emerging adults,” who still need parental support. College orientation is now designed to ease fears. Providing information is secondary, as all of that information is on the university’s website.

We attended sessions with my daughter, and apart. The two-day affair included her spending a night in a dorm room, while we returned to our hotel. A harbinger of things to come.

I am fortunate to have kids who are motivated and dedicated. I know my daughter has all of the skills needed to have a successful college career. I am overjoyed that she is moving forward. I am intensely sad that she is leaving. At times my mind goes in crazy directions. “What if she marries someone locally and doesn’t return to Illinois?” “What if she decides that her dad isn’t the fun adventurer of her youth and just a boring old man to be avoided?” “What if…”. I understand that these thoughts have no place in my mind, but they are present anyway.

This is a problem that modern parents face. A hundred years ago our children would return home with their spouses to work on the family farm. When I was growing up in Chicago, it was common for family members to buy houses on the same block. Now, our children may live in another city, state, or even country. This fact of life made only slightly more tolerable by the innovations of FaceTime, texting, and Facebook.

Our goal as parents is to help our children become successful and independent adults. This is my goal, but like most things in life, an independent child is a coin that has two sides.

My kids are transitioning from precocious but dependent children to mature and independent adults. In our conversations, they now explain things to me. In our adventures, they fully contribute. In our chores, they are equally responsible. This is the way it should be. Is it wrong for me to want this for them and also to want them to think of me as their father who is there for them? Who can pick them up when they fall? Who has wisdom that they not only need but want? I hope that they will continue to comprehend how significant they are to me, and how very much I love them.

Each day brings me new experiences and new things to learn. At whatever level that I am allowed, I will maintain my connection with my children. They may be striving towards their future, but that doesn’t mean that they have to give up their past.

I Screwed Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Father’s Day

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I am a father of 4. If you are not a dad, you may consider the holiday a “Hallmark holiday.” An event designed by businesses to get you to buy things. If you are a dad, you probably understand that it is more than that.

Established over a 100 years ago it was an attempt by a daughter to honor her dad, who raised six children on his own. Her initial success was moderate at best, and after many years, she abandoned the concept as her life moved on. She eventually returned to the idea in the 1930s and started to promote it anew. This time retailers were on board as they saw the advantage of a day that could mean additional gift purchases. In 1972 President Richard Nixon officially declared it a national holiday. Although used by the business world to hawk products, it also can be an excellent way to celebrate the father or father figure in your life. Father’s Day celebrations don’t have to include expensive gifts and commercial greeting cards!

For many years my wife traveled with my kids to Minnesota on Father’s Day to spend time with her family. Unfortunately, I had to work and was home alone. I don’t believe in letting other people control my happiness. It was important to my wife to be in Minnesota, and so she was. However, I could still make the day significant for me. I started to go on “great adventures” with my sister Carol. We would get into my car and drive in a random direction. We would stop anywhere that looked interesting, to explore. We would culminate our exploration by discovering a random local restaurant. Some were great, some less so. Either way, it was wonderful fun. I have delightful memories from those “Father’s Day” celebrations, as does my sister. In the last few years, Julie has not traveled on Father’s Day weekend, and I have shifted to a more traditional celebratory day.

I have become older and more sentimental so Father’s Day has become ever more significant to me. My family has risen to the occasions and Father’s Day gets the same treatment as any other significant family day from birthdays to Mother’s Day.

For these special days, the celebrant is typically honored with a meal of their choice. Frequently of the homemade variety, sometimes of the restaurant kind. My tastes run pretty basic, and I asked for chicken, mashed potatoes, and a salad. I also asked for a sugar-free dessert, as I gave up eating large quantities of sugar some years ago.

Last Father’s Day I was promised a new BBQ grill, as our current one is over 27 years old. The old grill now has two speeds, burn and not hot enough. I have replaced many of its innards over the years, but it is just too worn out to repair further. Cooking on it is like solving an advanced math problem. You need to calculate relative hot and cold spots on the grill and then move your food around to make sure one piece isn’t chard while another is raw. Life happens, and the grill never came. However, this year my wife informed me that a new one was ordered and was coming in the next two weeks. Yay!

My daughter Grace searched the internet and found a recipe for a sugar-free apple pie. My son William wrapped some gifts. Both Grace and William made me cards with the most beautiful sentiments inside. My wife made me dinner. My daughter, Anne, called in her greetings. My daughter Kathryn, who is studying abroad in Moscow, texted hers.

For me, it was a perfect day of celebrations. Yes, I was delighted to get the grill, but that was a minor part of my happiness. The majority of my good feelings came from the fact that people were willing to recognize me and expend effort to make me feel special. Some words written on a card, a phone call, a dinner, time together. Efforts that said that I was important enough to them for them to take time out for me. This is what mattered and this is what made the day awesome.

It takes so little to make someone feel special. In fact, I think it takes more energy to do the opposite. What does it take to wish someone a good day? What does it take to write a sentence or two in a celebratory greeting? What does it take to recognize someone for a job well done? Very little. So many times people will say that they are too busy to do these simple things. Too busy? Really? Likely not.

A gift of your time or goodwill is typically reciprocated by the receiver. Yes, there are “users” out there, but they can be quickly sniffed out. The Golden Rule has been around for over 2000 years. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Why is it then that we see the Golden Rule ignored everywhere from our personal lives to our government? Practice it today; play it forward.

Shari’s Story: Living With Autoimmune Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shari