Category Archives: spending time with family

The Clown Car

We were already running late; we had a seven hours drive ahead, and I was feeling a need to get going. The family would be away for only three days, and we had gotten good at packing light. However, each of us wanted to have our space-occupying suitcase.  

I started to pack Rosie, our red Ford Flex. First went the suitcases. On top of them, I carefully placed Tupperware containers that held the snowman cupcakes that Grace, Will, and I made. We had decorated them the night before by piping buttercream icing on vanilla cupcakes and making snowman heads out of marshmallows. We then added mini M & Ms for buttons and pretzel sticks for snowman arms. They were attractive, and I wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be destroyed on the long trip to Minnesota. I found a nook next to the Tupperware for Julie’s Almond Pound Cake. She found the recipe for this dessert in a church cookbook 25 years ago, and it has become a Christmas staple in our house. Next went a bag of Christmas gifts. On top of the entire assembly, I placed four pillows, one for each of us. We would be sleeping at the Peterson’s, and I thought that having something familiar would add a little comfort. 

Grace, Will, and I made snowman cupcakes.

When I drive to Minnesota in the winter, I like to be prepared, and so I tossed in two sleeping bags on top of everything. The bags were tightly wound like Swiss Roll cakes but squishy enough so I could squeeze them into two tight spots. Next, I added additional emergency travel items. Finally, I put our car-food bag in the front passenger seat. The car-food bag concept is Julie’s contribution to our family travels. This time it contained various chips, pretzels, and a few sweet treats for interstate munching.  

I went back into the house and ground Dunkin Donuts beans and made a pot of coffee in our Braun drip coffee maker. I poured coffee into my reusable Starbucks travel cup and some into my little S’well thermos. Now back in the car, both items found spots in front seat cup holders.  

car-food

I started the engine and pressed the on-screen buttons on the Flex’s control panel to adjust the heat. I activated the fan button, and nothing happened. I reset the car’s computer and tried again…nothing! I had just replaced the heater’s fan, and it was malfunctioning again! We could not drive the Flex to Minnesota for Christmas without a working heater. It would not only be uncomfortable, but it would also be unsafe. Our other travel-worthy vehicle, Violet, the campervan, was not a possibility as she only has two seats, and we had four passengers. The prospect of seeing our family for Christmas was looking grim. 


Cars don’t hold much romance for me, but at times I have succumbed to their advertised hype. When I grew up in blue-collar Chicago, most people drove used American-made cars, Fords, Chevys, Plymouths, and the like. However, there was a house in my old neighborhood that had two Mercedes Benz sedans parked in the back. A friend told me that these were luxury cars and very special. Somehow that message has stayed with me into my adulthood. 

I usually buy functional cars; however, there have been a few notable exceptions. When I finished my medical residency, I bought a speedy Mustang convertible. It was a fun car in good weather, but utterly treacherous with the slightest bit of rain or snow. After a few years, I sold it for something more practical, a Ford Explorer. Other rational cars followed the Explorer, that is until I turned 50. 

By that time, I was an established physician, and there was a part of me wanted to show off my success. I had an urge to buy a Mercedes, but it seemed like a wholly wasteful purchase. I delayed my desire for over a year, but I finally could not resist my childish wish. I bought a hunter green Mercedes sedan with a tan leather interior. I remember the feeling that I had when I drove out of the dealer’s lot. A blue-collar kid from the south side of Chicago has arrived! I felt like the world was watching me and giving me a nod of respect. Despite knowing that my feelings were ridiculous, I held onto them. Why? Because they felt good.

In reality, a Mercedes is just a box on wheels, and my hunter green one wasn’t a very reliable box at that. The car made frequent trips to the dealership for repairs that ranged from disconnected door handles to defective computerized displays. In the beginning, these repair trips were OK, as I would always get a new loaner Mercedes to check out. However, this joy ended with the conclusion of my warranty. Post-warranty it wouldn’t be uncommon to bring the car in for a simple oil change and leave with a $1000.00 repair bill. My Mercedes went from being a classy status symbol to a financial anchor around my neck. 

Fast forward to 2008. I was in the process of getting a new job in far off Rockford, and I wanted a car that was both reliable and economical. My radical move was to buy a Fit, Honda’s smallest and cheapest car. I can’t imagine that many people trade in a luxury car for a Honda Fit, but that was precisely what I did.

As compact cars go, the Honda Fit is very…compact. Its tiny engine sips gas at 40 MPG, and its small interior tries to eke out extra space with fold-down seats. At 6’3,” I fit into the driver’s seat, but I wouldn’t call the experience spacious. 

The Honda commuted me for many years to my Wheaton private practice and my job in Rockford. The 80 mile trip to Rockford could be treacherous in bad weather, and so I had equipped the little car with all of the survival basics, jumper cables, a first aid kit, a sleeping bag, a change of emergency clothes, and even a towing strap. Being a solo traveler gave me plenty of packing space despite the car’s diminutive dimensions.  

I loved the Honda and thought it looked attractive, but others felt it was too tiny for a man of my size. One case in point was my brother-in-law. He referred to the Fit as my “clown car.” The title referencing the tiny autos that are used as circus gags. A clown car would pull up in the circus’ center ring, and from its claustrophobic innards, six or more clowns would emerge. How they packed them in there, I will never know.

Five years ago, I drove my daughter Kathryn from Chicago to the University of Arizona in the Fit. We had pushed down the rear seats, and with precision packing, the Fit successfully transported the two of us and all of Kathryn’s college belongings to her freshman dorm at the U of A. 

I was solo on the trip home, and the roads were plagued by an enormous amount of road construction. New Mexico was especially bad, and the highway would frequently transition from double lanes to a concrete barrier single channels. Large signs would announce, “Construction Speed Limit Strictly Enforced,” at the start of these channels. So I would set my cruise control to the appropriate speed limit to avoid getting a ticket. 

I was driving through one of these construction channels in the middle of New Mexico. Suddenly, I had a strange feeling of danger overtake me along with a physical tingling feeling at the back of my neck that forced me to look up and towards the rearview mirror. What I saw horrified me. All I could see in my rearview mirror was the giant grill of an 18 wheeler. The truck was so close to me that I was invisible to the driver who was gaining on me. If I had not looked up at the very moment, the 18 wheeler would have run over me in the next 30 seconds. I could not escape the lane as the road construction channel was cordoned off. Honda Fits are not known for their powerhouse acceleration. Still, I had no other option, so I stomped on the accelerator. The car started to pick up speed but at an agonizingly slow rate. By this time, I was sweating, and it felt like my heart would jump directly out of my chest. I looked up and saw that I was now going slightly faster than the truck. I was pulling away. 

Eventually, I cleared the barriers and pulled into a different lane. I looked back to see the truck in my rearview mirror. He was staying far behind me as he was now aware of what almost happened due to his distraction. 

That incident stayed with me, and for some time, it felt like a PTSD experience as I would go into a near panic when I was surrounded by trucks on the expressway. I had to overcome my fear as I needed to drive the Fit to Rockford every week. So I eventually convinced myself that driving it was safe. However, I never took the Honda on long road trips after that, as it was just too stressful, and I was too fearful.

Cars don’t age well, and over the 11 years that I have owned the Fit, it has gained a bit of rust, and its paint has seen better days. Now with almost 130 thousand miles, the Fit has become our spare/kid’s car. It remains a perfect “around-town” vehicle despite its loss of beauty. I now mostly drive Violet the van, and we have the big Ford Flex for our other needs.

Our 11-year-old Honda Fit is showing her age.

“The heater/defroster fan isn’t working. It would be dangerous to take Rosie to Minnesota.” I announced in a solemn tone. I scanned the living room to witness a sea of wide eyes and dropped jaws. “The fan sometimes comes on when you drive her a little bit,” Julie offered. “That’s not reliable enough. What if we were stuck in a storm on the way and had no heat or defrost air.”  

It was clear that everyone was very disappointed. What were the other options available? The only reasonable one at that late time was to drive the Fit. And although a solution, it was a pretty terrible one.

The Fit is fine for a lone driver, OK for a single passenger, but miserable for four adults that included two males who are both over 6 feet tall. Also, we had luggage, presents, food, and emergency items. I checked the weather for Minneapolis, which indicated that on our commuting days, the temperatures would be above freezing. We could probably forgo our emergency gear.  

I mentioned the possibility of taking the Fit on the 7-hour journey, and there was a general nod of agreement. All of us unloaded the Flex and loaded the Fit. We left behind many items, but the hatch area was still very tight.

I also had to face my fear of driving the Fit on a long interstate trip full of 18 wheelers. I did my best to implement some self-CBT, took a deep breath, and plopped myself into the driver’s seat. Julie sat opposite me, and the kids each took spots in the tiny second row. We were off.

There are some desolate stretches along the way.

To keep ourselves sane, we took a few extra rest-stops on both the destination and return trips. I wanted to be as alert as possible, so I made sure that I drank my coffee. I keep my attention high when faced with construction zones, and made sure that we had plenty of gas. These were all small things, but they helped ease some of the stress.

Stopping at a random restaurant along the interstate.
Having a full take of gas gave me a sense of security.
Interstate rest areas allowed us to stretch our legs.
I always have to check out rest stop vending machines despite the fact that they typically contain the same items.
We like to stop at Culvers for our mid-trip meal. Nothing says love like cheese curds.
Culvers chili and a half-eaten bag of cheese curds.

The trip was challenging, but we accomplished our goal because we faced our problem with a realistic and positive attitude. None of us complained; we all did our respective jobs. So why didn’t we just cancel?

Simple…

If you want to do something, you find a way.

If you don’t want to do something, you find an excuse.

Those two lines give you our answer. You may want to think about them the next time you need to make a decision, or wonder what another person’s real motivation is. 

Safe arrival to our family in Minnesota.

Happy trails,

Mike

The Long Drive

I opened the pantry door and selected a Trader Joe’s forever grocery bag that was decorated with bright swatches of colors. My eyes moved up towards Julie’s snack bin, where I grabbed a few bags of savory treats. I knew that I wouldn’t eat most of the snacks, but I like the security of having them with me in readiness for a Heartland hurricane or a Great Lakes tsunami. It is good to have a plan B, even when it is entirely unnecessary. My next stop was the refrigerator to secure a couple of bottles of Kirkland water. The bottles were left over from a prior camping adventure, and I was glad to give them purpose.

I pressed a button on our fire engine red Breville coffee grinder, and its LCD panel sprung to life, “Grind Level 44, Grind Time 26 seconds,” it read. I pressed the same button again and was greeted by the whine of the machine’s burrs as they converted roasted beans into ground coffee. Twenty-seven seconds later, the coffee was in the basket of our Braun coffee maker. A few minutes after that, it found its way to my reusable Starbucks travel cup and the small S’well thermos that the kids gave me for Father’s Day.

I always bring lots of snacks on a road trip, even with the knowledge that I probably won’t eat them.

Now in the car, I pressed the Google Map icon on my iPhone and tapped in the address of my daughter’s dormitory. My mission was to retrieve Grace from university, an eleven-hour round trip. The drive from Naperville to Ohio is mostly through the state of Indiana. It is an uninspiring trip. Still, I am grateful that the expressways are dotted with numerous small towns and refueling stops.

I moved into thinking mode, one of my favorite alone activities, and I started to process theoretical problems and scenarios as the miles clicked by. After a few hours of driving, I got a call from Tom, reminding me to stay alert on the road. I was grateful for his concern and expressed the same to him; he was about to drive to Wisconsin on a mini-vacation with his family.

My driving continued in an external silence as I pondered more questions, some relevant, but most trivial. It was now 12:30 PM. I was only mildly hungry. Still, I was transfixed by the number of restaurants listed on the blue information signs as I approached the exit for Layfayette, Indiana. One placard caught my attention, “Chick-Fil-A,” and I decided to stop for lunch. I exited on to a county highway and started to scan both sides of the street, but after 3 blocks, no Chick-Fil-A could be found. I decided to cut my losses and pulled into a Burger King. “I’ll have one of those Impossible Beef Whoppers,” I thought.

As I started to chomp on the synthetic burger, my iPhone rang. This time it was Julie checking on me. We talked a bit as I ate and told her of my drive. In return, she described her day at work. She would be home after 5 PM, but I wouldn’t arrive back in town until 10 PM or later.

It was time to get back in the van, and I once again filled my time with thoughts, now mixed with a little NPR, and a phone call to Nancy, my sister. I tend to tell myself that these types of trips are shorter than they really are. By the time I reached Indianapolis, I had falsely convinced myself that I was close to my destination. The miles dragged on. I munched on some of the chips that I brought, stopped for gas, and sipped coffee.

The last 25 miles to my daughter’s college are on rural roads. It is a zig zaggy experience that would completely befuddle me without the power of GPS. I started to send updates to Grace via Siri’s voice transcription. “Thirty minutes ETA.” “I’m in town, get ready.” “I’m 5 minutes away, where do you want me to park?” I can’t see the small texting print on my Apple watch without reading glasses, so my auditory efforts have sometimes resulted in ridiculous messages. I could only hope that no matter what they said, Grace would interpret their meaning correctly.

Soon I was illegally backing into a spot next to her dorm’s garbage dumpsters. With fingers crossed, I pressed a button to activate Violet Van’s emergency flashers and hoped that I wouldn’t become a towing victim. Thankfully, Grace was quick to come to the car, and we were off.

The university is always impressive on approach.

Although more fatigued, the return trip home was my reward. As I have said in previous posts, I enjoy my 4 children. I spent some “talk time” with William when he returned from his college the night before, and now I would have that same privilege with Grace.

Our conversation was lively as it jumped from topic to topic. Her final exams, some updates on her friends, national politics, and so it went.

My recent conversations with my kids have shown a subtle change. I have always felt that I have had excellent communication with my children, and I have ever tried to be respectful of their opinions. However, our interchanges now seem different. We are moving towards a peer level of conversation. I love this transition, but it does have its pitfalls. For instance, a driver rudely cut me off, and an expletive unconsciously left my lips. I’m usually more mindful of such behaviors when I’m with my kids, and I was surprised by my impulsive actions. I did apologize to Gracie, who seemed unfazed.

Soon it was time to refuel both the car and the riders. I pulled into a Pilot station, and we were dazzled by the enormous array of dining options. We elected Subway, as we have always found these joints to be relatively standard and safe when traveling.

Grace ordered a turkey and cheese sandwich. She always eats her sandwiches extremely plain and so I was surprised when she had the worker add some toppings. When I innocently brought my observation to her attention, she gave me a quick glare, and I instantly knew that I crossed an etiquette line. “I’m sorry, did I just embarrass you,” I said in earnest. “Yes,” was her reply. The faux pas now forgotten, we moved on. I ordered ham and Provolone on a toasted bun and added just about every free topping that was offered. By experience, I know that the meat portions at Subway are skimpy, and I have learned to boost the sandwich’s contents.

I maximize my Subway sandwich by adding anything, and everything free.

Now back in the car, our conversation continued, more out of the joy of reconnecting than anything else. Soon we were singing along with children’s songs streamed from Spotify. When we were tired of that activity, we each took turns picking artists that we enjoyed. My Frank Sinatra paired her Jon Bellion, my Sarah Vaughn countered her Lizzo… and so it went.
Before I knew it, I was pulling into our driveway, tired but happy.

Dear reader, most of life’s activities are routine, and many people view such tasks with dread or boredom. Yet, there is interest and excitement in all things. The trick is to find the uniqueness in every event and to celebrate it. An 11-hour drive could be a mind-numbing bore. However, it could also be an adventure. A time to catch up on the news, think, see new sites, ponder new thoughts, and to connect with people who you love.

Do you have tasks, activities, or events coming up in your life that you are not looking forward to? If the answer is “Yes,” I would ask you to use your creativity to focus on the positives of those experiences. Turn your lemons into lemonade.

In Life Some Things End…

In life some things continue, some things end.  This was what I thought as I packed Violet the van with food, water, and my clothes.  

I was getting ready for the Kuna Kousin Kampout at Van Buren State Park in South Haven, Michigan. I had ransacked our pantry for camper food: crackers, cheese, some odd pieces of bread. I complemented these supplies with items from the market: a pound of lean hamburger, a pint container of deli potato salad, and some bakery cookies to pass.  I packed light, bringing only a single change of clothes and my Dopp kit. The Kuna Kampout is only a two-day event.

Julie and the kids used to come to the Kampout, but their attendance has waned with the onset of competing demands for their time. I said goodbyes to my family and climbed into Violet’s front seat.  I knew that some of my cousins had been following my travels in Violet and so I made sure that she had a bath before I left. I wanted her to look her showroom best.

I don’t mind traveling alone as it is easy to get lost in my thoughts, but this internal entertainment lasts only so long, and by the time I approached South Haven I was eager to connect with others.  However, that was not to be the case.

I backed Violet into my site, making sure that her power port was in line-of-sight to the site’s electric hook-up. Setting up camp was as simple as plugging her into mains power.  My recent travels have been off-grid, and the possibility of unlimited free electricity for my microwave and heater seemed intoxicating. In reality, I left the heater in its Sterilite storage bin, and I used my microwave only to heat water for coffee.  I guess I am a creature of habit.

I didn’t see any familiar Kuna faces on my arrival, which surprised me.  My T-Mobile iPhone barely functions at Van Buren, but I was able to get enough signal to post, “At Van Buren and so far I’m the only Kuna here.” on Facebook. It was chilly, and I needed some internal warming, so I microwaved some water in which I added a heaping teaspoon of Nescafé Clasico instant coffee.   Porting some Etta James into Violet’s sound system, I sipped coffee and chilled. After about 20 minutes, I saw my cousin Ron and his daughter outside my door, and we exchanged greetings. Ron and his family were several rows over, which is why I didn’t initially see them. I walked to his site to acknowledge the rest of his crew and to admire his impressive set-up.  He has a large C class RV, and his site was carefully arranged with tarps and chairs. I oohed and aahed over his camper, and we sat and talked for a bit. I returned back to Violet, and within about 30 minutes of my return, his family wandered over to see her in person and reciprocated with their own oohs and ahhs.

Shortly after that, my niece appeared at Violet’s door as she saw my Facebook post. Her campsite was up the road, but far enough away that I  had initially missed her. After showing her Violet, I moseyed over to her site to enjoy her campfire and conversation.

So many of our regular campers were absent this year.  My sister and her husband canceled due to illness. My other sister, her daughter’s family, and my sister-in-law stayed at a local hotel.  Other regulars were absent due to obligations, and even the main organizer of the event, my cousin Ken was only present on Saturday, as he and his wife also stayed at a hotel this year.

This was the 20th year of the Kuna Kampout, one of several yearly events designed to keep the cousins connected.  However, with the absence of several key players, it felt different. As the afternoon wore on, it started to rain, a constant, steady rain. In the past, several of the Kampout’s participants would bring canopy tents which were latched together to provide an ample sheltered space to gather.  Unfortunately, those campers did not attend this year. Instead, we became a canvas of umbrellas and rain ponchos. Hardly ideal, but good enough.

Our dinner is usually a community event, but this year, we didn’t have the large grilling surface that we typically use.  My nephew, Tommy, offered up his small tailgate style propane grill, and with careful planning, we all had enough space to cook our food.  Part of the Kampout tradition is to bring a dish to pass. I gave away three of the 4 hamburgers that I made, as I munched on my sister-in-law’s gluten-free macaroni salad, and my niece’s cut-up fruit.  Such exchanges are the norm, and our combined efforts turn our personal meal plans into an eclectic feast. Eventually, the rain stopped, and we sat, ate, and talked into the night.

Yes, this campout was different from past ones. Some key players didn’t attend, and others stayed at hotels as it has become too difficult for them to tent camp. Initially, I had some sadness about this change, but I have since reconsidered.

The lower attendance allowed me to chat with some relatives who I rarely have contact with.  Despite the smaller crowd, the spirit of the campout was the same, as was the level of genuine friendliness and enthusiasm.  We managed with a small grill, our umbrellas, and a lot of real excitement.

It would have been easy to focus on the negatives of this year’s campout. However, when all was said and done, it was our attitudes that determined the tone of this experience. The campout was just as much fun as it had been in previous years. Those of us who were there wanted to be there; we wanted to connect with each other.  This year’s Kuna Kampout was a success and a delightful experience.

In life some things continue, some things end, and still, others evolve.  Was this year 20 of the Kuna Kampout or was it the first year of the Kuna Kampout 2.0?  Here is to 20 more years of burnt hamburgers, late night hikes, friendly smiles, and good conversation!

Looking out of Violet’s side door.
Wet campers.
Making coffee in the microwave.
My campsite.
Rain and umbrellas.
Eventually the rain stopped and we were able to have a campfire.