Category Archives: risk taking

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

On Vandwelling, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My new cargo van.
My future home?

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.

Terry’s Story: Building A Guitar Museum

This is the story of Terry, and his 40-year desire to create a school and museum so he can share with others his love of stringed musical instruments.

I enter Terry’s music store, and he is pouring over an ordering catalog. He writes down items in a spiral notebook and then places a call to his music house’s customer service representative. From what I can tell he is ordering guitar strings, guitar tuners, and perhaps a pick-up or two. Terry is 65 and does all of his ordering the old school way, as he doesn’t own a computer.

After about 10 minutes he invites me to sit in a chair towards the back of his La Salle, Illinois store, which is called “The Guitar Junkyard.” It is a shop filled with every imaginable type of guitar and stringed instrument. Guitars are hanging from the walls, the ceiling, and on racks. Old looking one, new looking ones, fancy ones, handmade looking ones. Guitars are everywhere; they visually represent his life of collecting.

Terry always loved music, but as a child, he didn’t think that this would be his life. Terry was raised in the affluent Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. He went to Iowa State University in Ames because his parents expected him to go to college, but he always felt that he was more of a “hands-on” type of guy. Like many teenagers, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in. His choice was based on rules of elimination. English was crossed off because he didn’t like the rigid rules required. Meteorology was eliminated because of the excessive chemistry load. He was left with an anthropology major. He had been playing the guitar since he was a child, and so he decided on a music minor. Terry considers himself an ethnomusicologist, based on these areas of study.

In 1972 Terry taught himself the banjo. In 1974 he joined a bluegrass group in Ames as a banjo player, The group was locally successful. Terry was now working as a carpenter, and the band served as a nice counterpoint.

A good friend was managing a music store in Ames. He called Terry with a request to run the store for him for a couple of weeks as he had a family emergency and needed to travel out of state. Initially, Terry was reluctant; he had no business knowledge. His friend convinced him that it would be easy, and it would only be for a short time. This would be a turning point for Terry.

The friend never returned, and Terry was given the store manager job. The owner arranged to have someone train Terry on the business side of the store, and he was off on a new and unexpected career. Terry adjusted to his new job but found it too slow-paced. He started to buy junk guitars for the sole purpose of learning how to fix them. Eventually, he became an expert guitar repairman. Terry specifically refers to himself this way as opposed to calling himself a luthier. Terry had a steady job and was playing music on the weekends. His wife had advanced herself too, eventually earning a Ph.D. Life was good.

For every up, there is a down. After two years the store owner decided to close the Ames store, and Terry was out of a job. Around this time his bluegrass band was starting to fall apart. Once again, things were changing for Terry.

With a small bank loan, he started his music store, which became a successful enterprise. Around the same time, he was approached by another band, “The Warren County String Ticklers” to play the guitar and sing. Terry was a busy guy, running the store during the week and playing gigs at night and on the weekends. The Ticklers were popular locally leading to TV appearances on Iowa Public Television. Life was once again excellent, and it was about to get better.

Illinois Public Television was in the process of putting together a show for Jethro Burns, of Homer and Jethro fame, and they need a band for him. Through their Iowa TV connections, the Ticklers were chosen for the job. The show, called “Country Music Hall,” was a success and the band started to tour with Jethro. County fairs, state fairs, TV appearances, and more. Terry was traveling with an “A” level performer, and he was having the time of his life. His store was thriving, his wife’s career was advancing. Terry was on a successful fast track.

Life started to unravel by the mid-80s. Jethro Burns became ill and had to leave the tour for an extended period, and various members of the Ticklers were abandoning the band for various reasons. Although Terry loved working in the band, he was tired of the band life. Set-up, tear-down, fast food, long hours. It was exhausting, but more importantly, it kept him away from his friends, wife, and son. “About 3% of musicians become professional, but only about 0.1% reach a level of enough success where they can have a pampered life on the road.”

His wife got a job for the Department of Agriculture, and the family left for Washington DC for a three-year commitment. Terry left an employee in charge of his store, which quickly went from making a profit to being in debt. At one point he had to return to Iowa for two months, to save his business. “I found a drawer of bounced checks and people said that the shop was often closed during business hours. Apparently, my employee was making more money at the local pool hall than at the music store.”

Eventually, his wife’s Washington job ended, and she returned to Iowa State University. Terry’s shop was in the green, but this phase was also short-lived and a new twist that was about to happen. His wife’s university job ended, and she had to find a new one. One of her job offers was in Illinois, close to her family who lived in the LaSalle area. Terry packed up his shop and moved it to LaSalle, where it remains today.

All of this time Terry was collecting guitars and other string instruments. He says, “I only need one of each type.” Unfortunately, there are countless varieties to be had. Construction techniques can differ, body shape can vary, ornamentation can change. “When I make money I don’t pay myself; I buy another instrument.” This explains the expansive number of instruments in his shop.

Terry says that he has wanted to create a museum and teaching center for many years. The building that he rents for his store is for sale, and Terry is in the process of buying it. He envisions a museum on the first floor and his music store on the second.

Most of his instruments are not collector quality, but they all tell a story. He would like to allow people to play them and experience their differences. Also, he would like to share some of his talents. As a professional performer, he understands that there is more to playing on stage than plucking an instrument. He envisions a center that teaches the art of performance. As a self-taught guitar repairman, he plans a teaching program that could train future instrument fixers.

He would like to create a foundation to manage his museum and collection. His eventual goal would be to be the director of instrument repair. “I could leave the running of the place to someone else.”

Will Terry succeed in his quest? The outcome is unknown. He has the instruments, and he will soon own the space. He feels that he will have enough capital to make the fundamental changes needed to turn his shop into a museum. What is less clear is if he can draw enough people to LaSalle, Illinois to sustain the museum. He is very close to Starved Rock State Park. A park that gets over 3 million visitors a year. He is thinking of ways of attracting those visitors to his museum which he plans to call, The String Instrument Museum for Preservation, Luthiery Education” or SIMPLE. He wants to use the tagline, Music is SIMPLE.

Terry is 65, but he is still dreaming. Sitting in a rocking chair is not in his plans. He has wanted to establish his museum since his college days, and he is now a few steps closer to achieving his goal. His concept is novel, a place to showcase a diverse collection of string instruments, rather than one that displays museum-quality pieces. He wants to bring his type of music appreciation to the general public.

At the end of the interview, I asked Terry if he had any life regrets. “Are you sorry that you didn’t continue in anthropology, or as a professional musician?” After a long and thoughtful pause, he just said, “No.” Terry is right where he wants to be.

I wish Terry well in his plans and his future.

In life there are many ups and downs. It is how we view these twists and turns that determine our life satisfaction.

Terry’s music store:
The Guitar Junkyard
1049 8th St
LaSalle, IL

If you would like me to write your story, click here.

Terry
A massive collection.

What A House Fire Taught Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Bad things can happen for no reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Kuna Kampout

Traditions are customs, activities, or believes that are repeated over time. They can seem trivial to those who are outside the group, but they are essential to the individuals inside of it. Traditions offer a sense of security, belonging, and stability to participants. They sometimes serve a higher purpose, or they can be significant based on their merit. In our family, the Kuna Kampout is a tradition that extends to the greater group of my siblings, cousins, and their respective connections. It occurs once a year at a state park in Michigan, typically early in June.

My cousin, Ken, reminded me that the first Kuna Kampout happened in 2002 and was the result of a conversation that I had with him at another family event the year earlier. We were talking at the Clans Christmas get-together called Droby Fest (named after a Slovak meat/potato/rice sausage). I was telling him how much I enjoyed camping, and he had the idea of having a summer campout.

As a child, most family activities were done en masse with all relatives. Birthdays, First Communions, Confirmations, Christmas Eve, Easter; we would all gather, eat, play, and connect. However, our family expanded over time, and it became more and more challenging to host these large events. Our parties transitioned from extended family get-togethers to immediate family get-togethers.

On the Kuna side of the family, this change occurred when I was in high school. Suddenly, the only times that I saw my cousins were at weddings and funerals. I was young, and my life was busy; I didn’t think much about the change.

For the next 20 years, it was unusual to see my cousins as most of the weddings had already happened, and funerals were, thankfully, rare. In the 1990s my sister was talking to my cousin at a funeral, and together they came up with the idea of a fall reunion picnic. I was given the job of making the invitation flyer, and so started a series of major and minor get-togethers that have continued ever since. Our family is lucky to have my cousin Ken and his sister Kris, who have become our event planners. They are instrumental in keeping our family traditions alive.

Within the tradition of the Kuna Kampout are embedded sub-traditions. My nephew’s late night group hike. My cousin’s baked over coals pineapple upside down cake. A campfire sing-along accompanied by my bad guitar playing. However, the main reason we get together is to talk, eat and reconnect. It is over these three activities that we recommit to each other.

I am very fortunate to have nice relatives. No one gets drunk and violent. No one makes snide remarks. No one needs to brag their way to synthetic superiority.

For traditions to continue, they need to be flexible. I had to be flexible to attend this years camp out, as all of my immediate family could not attend. I had a choice to stay at home, or go solo. I decided to push myself and go to the event.

Being an introvert I like the security of having my immediate family around me, but instead of focusing on what I wasn’t getting I decided to ponder what I was getting.

The advantages of going to the camp out solo were:
It would be much easier to pack.
I would be able to spend more time with my cousins.
I could determine what activities I wanted to do.
I would challenge the guilt that I feel over doing things for myself.
I could try vandwelling.

These last two points were of great interest to me. I always have had a sense of obligation that somehow dictated that doing things just for me was bad. This is a ridiculous belief, but it is one that I hold. Over the last few years, I have gone on a couple of small trips with my friend Tom. However, the Kampout would be my first solo event. I want to write about people across America, and that will involve traveling by myself. This solo excursion could be a step in that direction.

Going solo would also allow me to try vandwelling. I am a big guy, but I have a big car that has fold down seats. The rear space is enough for a sleeping bag, and the ability to sleep in the car on a road trip would make any solo travel immensely more affordable. Another step towards my goal.

I am happy to say that I accomplished my goals. It rained heavily on the night of the campout, and sleeping in my car was an advantage, as many of the tent dwellers were soaked the next morning.

In review, this is what this year’s Kuna Kampout gave me. I kept a tradition and grew a little closer to my relatives. I broke a tradition, by traveling solo, and grew a little more personally. Lastly, I tried something new, vandwelling, and grew a little more adventurous.

Dear reader, explore and celebrate your healthy traditions, but feel free to modify or eliminate repeated behaviors that prevent you from moving towards your goals. Celebrate the relationships in your life. There is no better time than right now to let those around you know that they are your priorities.

My home away from home.
Vandwelling.
Playing the guitar
A smaller, but enthusiastic group this year.

My Birthday Party And Other Stuff

Sunday was the day; I was not only excited, but I was also very anxious.

Julie, my wife, had been planning my birthday party for months. Although a competent person, she feels insecure when it comes to planning big events, and so she also had the jitters.

Luckily, the morning started with a fun distraction. My friend Tom came over and we “sailed” the “Mary Ann” 5 miles down the DuPage River. It was the maiden voyage for my $80 estate sale canoe. The adventure was great fun, but it also demanded a second shower for the day as I was soaked in river water.

By mid-morning my daughter Anne and her family arrived. My grandkids, Sebbie and Diana, were the perfect distraction.

Two hours before the event Julie and my two youngest kids left me to set up the party. Julie had secured a room for the event that was big enough to accommodate everyone. However, there was still much work to do.

My introvert anxiety now on the rise, I started to pace. As the party time approached, I asked Anne and her family to go to the event so I could have a little time alone.

Twenty minutes later my daughter Grace was at the door, acting as my chauffeur. I was instructed to lap-carry my sugar-free birthday cake, as Julie was afraid that it would have melted if she had brought it earlier. We entered the parking lot to find Julie standing there. “You can’t walk into the party carrying your birthday cake. There are already people here waiting for your arrival!” I handed her the cake, took a deep breath, and entered the building.

Now inside I could see others coming through the window. I marched up the stairs and into the room where my party was being held. Julie and the kids had signs, balloons, and other symbols of celebration. Trays of food were set on tables; smiles were set on faces.

Friends and family had put themselves out for me. They were there to wish me well. Several hours later my party was over. I felt great but exhausted. However, the best gift was yet to come.

Now home, Julie handed me a scrapbook with a cover made by my son William. I opened it to pages of memories. Weeks earlier she had asked the invitees to write her with memories of me. The first pages contained letters from her and the kids. I was overwhelmed. Then other messages and notes. There seemed to be a general theme, which I will likely write about in a future post. There was so much love in the letters that I was barely able to get through a single one without tearing up. It was the best gift that I could have ever received.

We all live busy lives. It would have been easy for my guests to have sent their regrets. It would have been simple for them to claim to be too rushed to sit down and write a paragraph or two about me. It is a “what about me” world where everyone is more concerned about themselves than others.

There are times when someone has to decide to either give of themself or to withhold of themself. In this situation, people gave their time to come to my party. They gave their creativity to write down their memories of me. Did they do these things because I’m so awesome? No, they did these things because THEY are so awesome.

I once read that integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is looking. They could have done nothing. They could have justified their actions because they were too busy with their own lives. They didn’t say, “What has Mike done for me lately?” They didn’t calculate the cost of their actions vs. the gain that they would receive. They didn’t ruminate over petty slights that I may have caused them in the past. They just did what they did because it was the right thing to do, and they did it with joy and kindness in their hearts. This is what I felt when I attended my 65th birthday party, and this is what I felt when I read my book of memories.

There is no greater gift than to allow the people in your life to love you and to love them in return. Thank you party guests, thank you memory book writers. Your actions say so much more about you than they do about me. With that said, your actions touched me deeply, made me feel closer to you, and allowed me to see how truly wonderful you are.

Wonderful folks
Sugar-free cake!
tearing up with emotion

A Forest, A Lone Tree

A block and a half away is the DuPage river and its paths.  As I enter the commons that abuts the river I have two choices, I can turn right or I can turn left.

Turning right takes me down a cobblestone path that leads to downtown Naperville.  Along the way, there are luxury houses, colorful fountains, covered bridges, and public sculptures.  It is beautiful but in a scripted way. Every bend of the path carefully calculated to be the most aesthetically pleasing. However, turning left takes me to a different reality. The reality of a preserve called McDowell Grove.

I turn left. Within minutes of walking, I am on a gravel path that winds through forest and prairie. The path takes me under a railroad trestle, then under a highway, then past a dam.  Soon I am walking among trees, then through an open and wild prairie. A prairie not unlike prairies of the past. Low and rolling, buzzing with life as if to spite the long lingering winter.

I walk carrying an old camera.  My Canon 7D slung over my shoulder on a strap that transects my chest.  That strap designed to counter its gravid 820-gram weight.

I looked to the right and then to the left as I explore photographic possibilities. I have been on this path a hundred times, but I always find something to peak my creative interest. I enter the prairie and force my vision to the right. In front of me stands a lone tree surrounded by tall grasses.  Behind me is a forest of-of trees, each member huddled closely together.

My mind floods as it starts to compare and categorize the two visual experiences. What are the advantages of being a lone tree?  What are the advantages of being a tree among many in the wood?

My thoughts generalize and regroup.  What are the advantages of being in a group?  What are the advantages of being apart from a group? I pull my camera from my hip and press it against my cheek. I squint into the viewfinder and compose.  Click, click, click. I take three shots shifting my field of view slightly with each. I slide my camera back onto my hip and continue walking. Although I move forward my thoughts remain on the trees.

My thoughts generalize and regroup again.  Now I am focusing on my children and the lessons that I have taught them. Those lessons both directed and inferred.  Lessons of ethics. Lessons of integrity. Lessons of justice.

I realize that there are many paths in life, I reflect that I have tried to instill in them the values that will allow them to become strong and honorable adults.  Values that places ethics before gain. Values that place integrity before popularity. Values that place justice before complacency.

My thoughts shift back to the trees.  In some ways, those that stand together are protected.  Protected from the wind and the frost. The tree that stands alone does not have those protections, so it must become strong and resilient on its own.  For its efforts, it gets to grow freely, without pressure from its neighbors to conform. However, to grow freely doesn’t mean that it will grow well. Other factors determine this.

Most trees grow together in forests, but an entire forest can be destroyed by the single lighting flash of a thunderstorm. After such a disaster the lone tree is the one that survives, that continues to grow, that ultimately determines the new direction for its species.

My thoughts shift back to my children. I see them as trees standing in a prairie.  Not bending to those around them. Growing strong and able to battle the wind and the frost. I hope my lessons will help them grow well.  However, I can only plant a seed, they will grow as they wish. I cannot determine this.

Standing alone in the prairie.

 

Meeting With Pastor Dave and WordPress

I accept the fact that I’m an introvert, but that acceptance wasn’t always the case.  Before I understood this aspect of my personality, I used to be self-critical of my behavior.  I would see people around me on the move. They would socialize with one group, and then another.  They had 5 or 6 “best friends.” They would form “close” connections based on their personal monetary or career needs.

I would think to myself, “Why is it so hard for me to socialize in these ways?  If I could be more like them I could…” I felt that there was something wrong with me.  

I can’t recall the actual moment when I realized that I was an introvert, but I do remember that it was a great relief to understand why I behaved the way that I did.  It was affirming to view this aspect of me as a positive trait; part of who I am.

With that said, there are times when introverts have to play the part of an extrovert, and I am able to put on a coat of sociability when necessary.  However, since this isn’t my natural demeanor, it can be exhausting. Usually, I manage these energy expenditures carefully. An extroverted activity followed by some private time.

As I have written many times, I do like people, and I do enjoy interacting with them.  However, I need my personal space to recharge. I am not energized by large groups; I am depleted.  It is a rare day that I would deliberately schedule multiple social interactions. One of those rare days was yesterday.

At 1 PM I had a scheduled meeting with my pastor.  I belong to a large non-denominational church, and I was meeting with its co-founder, Dave.  I had set up a meeting with him weeks earlier. The meeting was based on my “leave no stone unturned” philosophy of life.  Other than that, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to happen at the meeting. I knew that in some abstract way I was trying to move forward on the “next aspect of my life” thing.  Pastor Dave is a smart guy who takes charge of his world, but beyond that, I knew little about him.

The morning of the meeting met me with dread.  “Why would he want to meet with me? He is too busy.  I am using up his valuable time.” And so the tapes played.  I understand the historical reasons for these thoughts, and I do not let them stop me.  However, they are still distressing.

I returned home from my morning walk and briefly discussed my concerns with my wife, Julie.  She was busy getting ready for the day, and I tried to respect her time limitations. I drove over to my friend Tom’s house and also voiced some of my fears to him.  It is a good thing for me to share my irrational fears with people that I’m close. This is a relatively new behavior and a healthy one.

Soon it was time for me to go to the church and my anxiety returned full force.  I reminded myself. “He is only going to spend 30 minutes with you. It is not that much of an imposition.”

One PM arrived, and I found myself seated in a medium sized room at a large round folding table.  In walked Pastor Dave. I started to talk, not knowing what would come out of my mouth in the next second.  I assumed that Dave did this sort of thing multiple times a day, but he told me that he was more involved with the vision of the church and that he enjoyed the chance to do something different.

Our conversation continued well past 30 minutes.  At the hour point, his assistant stuck her head into the room to remind him “about that call that he needed to make.”  I’m sure that this was the standard protocol when she sensed that a parishioner was taking up too much of the pastor’s time.  I immediately started to grab my coat, but Dave put his hand up indicating that he wanted to continue to talk. He recommended a couple of books that might be helpful to me, and also suggested a life assessment that he found personally useful.  Ninety minutes into the meeting we ended with a prayer. I didn’t feel like I wasted his time, it was a nice feeling.

Shortly after I arrived home, I drove my daughter, Grace, to a meeting.  In my mind, I imagined returning back home. I would take a long shower and put on some loungewear. I would immerse myself in a project and I would consider having a glass of wine.  Then, the reality hit me. I had signed up for a MeetUp group on WordPress, and it was running from 6 PM to 9 PM that evening.

Part of me wanted to bail out of the meeting, but I also wanted to go.  Fears crept back in as I imagined that I would sit in a room of WordPress experts. Would I be wasting their time?  Would I look foolish or stupid? I had only been learning the software for about a month and felt very much a newbie. Dear reader, I will not allow my fears to determine who I am.  I put on my coat, plugged in the coordinates into my phones GPS, and drove to the meeting.

I found myself in a classroom with about 40 other people.  Time to put on my extrovert cloak. With a smile on my face, I introduced myself to the three people seated around me.  Soon we were engaged in a nice conversation. The formal part of the meeting consisted of a speaker talking about a major revision that was about to take place on the WordPress platform.  To my surprise, I understood what he was talking about and could see the implications of the upcoming changes. There were groups members who knew more than I did, but it seemed that I knew more than some others.  The meeting ended, and I said my goodbyes to my new acquaintances. I was happy that I went.

In total exhaustion, I returned home.  Julie was reading a book in our bedroom, but wanted an update on my day, especially on my meeting with the pastor.  I briefed her as best as I could. It was then time for my long-awaited shower. Extra hot, extra sudsy. I let the water run on my back as it relaxed my tense neck and shoulders.  The day was over.

Dear reader, we are who we are.  I believe that we all have strengths and weaknesses.  I accept the fact that I am an introvert, and I have used this knowledge as an advantage, rather than considering it a disadvantage.  I am a great independent learner, I am never bored, I come up with wonderful ideas when I am by myself.

However, there are times when I need to reach beyond my introverted self if I wish to move forward.  Sometimes the uncomfortable option is the right option. Some actions can be hard, but worthwhile. I feel that for me it is important to respect my personality, but still challenge it with reasonable risk-taking.

If we are unhappy, it is easy to blame our unhappiness on circumstances or other people.  However, it is our responsibility to make any change. We can’t expect others to usurp that responsibility.   I encourage you to gently step outside your comfort zone today and gain a little more control over your life.  Who knows where it will lead you.

My Mega Church

 

Taking Pictures In The Bathroom

Taking Pictures In The Bathroom.

My original plan had me walking Tuesday morning at 5 AM.  My friend Tom was going to pick me up at 7:30 AM and take me to do a photoshoot of a recent remodel job that he completed. Monday night I received a text message from Tom, “Can you help me with my computer?  I’ll take you to breakfast.” “Sure,” I replied. An adventure with Tom trumps walking.

At 4:50 AM Tom pulled up in front of my house.  I put my coat on and headed out the door. Once inside the cabin of the car I was greeted by a friendly hello and a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee.  We headed into the city meeting rush hour traffic. I was grateful that Tom was driving; traffic makes me crazy.

At our favorite breakfast joint, The Palace, Tom chided me to order “Something decent  this time.” I have been making an effort to be conservative in my ordering, and this unannounced change had clearly been picked up by him.  I went with a veggie omelet. Tom pulled out his MacBook Pro and I fiddled with it and solved his technical problem. I have never had a computer class, but I seem to have an ability to understand computers.  Sometimes the answers to a computer problem will literally flash in front of me. I guess this talent would be classified under the category that my wife refers to as my autistic brain.

Off to the suburbs and the photoshoot.  Tom had several appointments Tuesday morning and so I shot solo.

The remodel consisted of a kitchen and two bathrooms.  He had put a lot of thought and energy into the project and was rightly proud of the outcome. He wanted me to digitally capture when he was seeing for his portfolio.  

Dear reader, there are few architectural shoots that are more difficult than a bathroom.  Consumers see glossy photos in advertisements, but they don’t realize that these images can be bathroom “sets,” and not the real thing.  When a pro shoots a real bathroom the room is sometimes partially deconstructed to allow for proper shooting angles.

Bathrooms are small, and to give photos the illusion of a larger space it is necessary to use a wide angle lens along with a camera capable of using such a lens to its greatest advantage. Wide angle lenses add a tremendous amount of distortion to an image. Objects towards the corners of the lens spread out and tilt in very unnatural ways.

Lighting is difficult when shooting a bathroom, a flash has to be carefully directed to avoid washing out closeby surfaces. Even using existing lighting presents its own problems of unwanted reflection and exposure blowouts.

Reflective surfaces, like mirrors and glass shower doors, are everywhere.  It isn’t considered professional to see a photographer in the mirror of a finished photograph! Doors open into spaces, blocking the room view.  The list of issues goes on and on.

When we view a bathroom in person we are able to take in the whole experience. Our brain makes a composite image out of many scanned images. Unwanted objects are filtered out, holes are filled in.   The camera can only see the room one section at a time which highlights, not hides, flaws.

Door removal and room modification were (obviously) not an option, the best I could do was to try to emphasize creativity, rather than absolute accuracy.

I mounted a borrowed 16-35 mm L series lens on a Canon 5D and positioned myself in the room looking for the best angles… I started shooting. High shots, low shots, inside shots, outside shots, this angle, that angle… click, click click.  A quick scan of the camera’s LCD screen to make sure I was in focus. Another scan to make sure that I wasn’t being reflected in the glass shower door. Click, click, click. It took me hours to shoot the two remodeled baths and the kitchen.

When I arrived back home I loaded the images into my computer.  A tweak in the overall contrast, a little more exposure here, better white balance there, and so it went.  I have some perspective correction tools that reduced some of the most egregious optical distortions, but I’m am hardly a Photoshop expert.  I don’t have the ability to create a geometrically accurate image, or the ability to perfectly clone out imperfections. Even so, I spent the rest of the day tweaking photos.

In the end, I felt OK with the results.  They were a little better than the last bathroom photoshoot that I did.  Hopefully, the next bathroom shoot will be a little better than this one. Although challenging, my project was also exciting.  I pushed myself to think differently, I became more proficient, not only with the photography but also the post-production work. I forced myself to use my own standard as a reference point.  That standard was not perfection.

Dear reader, I believe that last Tuesday’s photo shoot was actually a metaphor for how I approach life and its problems. If I have a problem I tend to believe that there is a solution to it.  I think about the potential issues and plan accordingly. I explore my solution specific strengths and weaknesses. I focus on potential pitfalls and possible workarounds for them. I face the problem and try to learn from both my successes and failures.  I correct my course as needed. I establish what is an acceptable outcome. Perfection does not exist, acceptable is the way to go.

I am not claiming that this method is the only reasonable one, but it generally has worked for me.  When I talk to some of my patients I can see how their problem solving is ineffective and at times causes them unnecessary stress and grief. Some people adopt the impulsive “ask forgiveness” model.  Some plan so obsessively that they never get around to tackling the task at hand. Some use the “I’ll worry about it tomorrow” option. Some feel that any outcome other than 100% is a failure, so they do nothing. Some utilize the, “It is not my fault, it’s your fault,” philosophy. None of these are congruent with happy life.

We are creatures of habit, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t adapt and change.  If you are unhappy with the way that your life is going explore what you can do to change it.  Be reasonable and take responsibility for your actions. Don’t blame others, become your own force of change. Sometimes the slogan, “Life is what you make it,” can be true.

Bathroom detail shot.
A beautiful bathroom.
Interesting angles.
A wonderful roll-in shower.
Bathroom detail shot.