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.
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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I moved to the far western suburbs of Chicago 30 years ago. Many things in my life have changed since that move. I married 25 years ago. I had three more children. I purchased a house. However, there is one thing that I did before all of the above that has remained to today. That one thing is my retirement camper fund.
I have a pool of money that I established over 30 years ago. The fund amount is sensible, but not tremendous. It has served as my “dream fund,” a fund to build a dream on.
When I approached my retirement, I started to think in earnest about that money and how I would use it. I have the heart of a country boy, and I am the most content when I am in nature. My spirit has always gravitated out west, and I am drawn to places there. Would I want to move there permanently? The truth is that I want to live close to where my kids are. For me, relationships trump scenery. However, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to spend extended periods of time exploring the National Parks and other scenic wonders.
My ease with the outdoors offers me the advantage of doing these explorations relatively cheaply. I have a senior pass for the National Parks, and I have camped my entire life. I have owned campers in the past, so I have a good idea of what I need when it comes to creature comforts.
If I camp for more than a few days, I need to be in something that keeps me off the ground. I am also a “compartment” kind of guy, and I like the idea of having most of the things that I need at the ready and organized. I don’t mind cooking, so I need some sort of ability to do that. Naturally, I need a way to charge my camera, phone, and other gadgets.
With proper ventilation and a 12-volt fan, I can likely survive without AC. My last camper had a bathroom, but I never used it. It was more straightforward to use the campground’s provided facilities. Refrigeration would be helpful, but I’m teaching myself how to make real meals using my own dehydrated foods and off the shelf products. I can’t go for an extended period eating only granola bars and beef jerky.
What I have discovered from my years of camping is that I don’t need a lot to thrive. At home, I am a gadget lover because I like exploring innovation. However, on the road, I practice KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).
The primary goal of my retirement fund was to purchase some sort of camper. Pop-up, trailer, RV? I have toyed with all of the above, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.
My fund is not generous enough to buy a new RV, but I could afford an older C class. They are the best RV value, but they are big and bulky. I would likely have to tow a car, a hassle that I don’t want to do.
A pop-up could be a solution, but do I really want to constantly setup and teardown at 65?
I looked at trailers, and they seem to be an (almost) perfect option. However, there is my backing up problem. Dear reader, I understand the mechanics of backing up a trailer, and I am able to back one up. However, I need a backing up guide. If my wife is with me, I can get my camper where I want it.
You may remember that I am dyslexic. This problem impacts my senses of position and space. It is challenging for me to conceptualize where a trailer is relative to its tow vehicle. When I back up a trailer by myself, I have to continually get out of the car, visualize where the trailer is, back up a bit more, and repeat. It is very frustrating. I marvel at my friend Tom’s backing up ability. I have been with him many times when he had to back up a considerable construction trailer; he is a real pro. He has offered to teach me his tricks, but I will always have my spatial problem.
My needs have also changed over the years. I started to seriously look at options two years ago . At that time I felt that I needed something that would sleep my entire family, as our favorite vacations had been grand camping adventures. However, we have not had a big family campout for over three years. Even overnight campouts are limited, as my kids now have lives of their own.
It is sad for me to think about the end of our big family camping trips. However, when a door closes a window opens. If I accept this reality, I also can refocus my efforts on ways to camp that allow travel for one or two.
A “Class B” camper comes to mind. These are tricked out vans that offer all of life’s conveniences in miniature. Full kitchens, bathrooms, built-in entertainment systems. However, they are costly, and many of their luxuries (like the bathroom) are not needed by me.
For the last year, I have been talking to my friend, Tom, about building out a cargo van. He is willing to help, and he has the skills that I lack. At one point he found me an old mini-bus that could be converted, but I was too chicken to pull the trigger. Even with Tom’s expert help the conversion process could be lengthy and daunting.
Every camper option seems doable,, but I always find something to keep me from moving forward. That is until this last week.
I stumbled on a YouTube video from a company that makes a modular system for the Dodge Promaster van. This is a relatively inexpensive cargo van that boasts a “tall” version that has an interior height of over 6 feet. Their system locks modules into floor tracks, and the whole interior is easily removable. The kit includes the floor, wall and ceiling panels, a platform bed, a simple kitchen, and a seat/storage box. The best thing is that it can be installed in 2 hours.
Cargo vans have only two seats, but for those now rare family trips, we could use a second transport car, and a tent for other campers. If needed, I could sell my current car and use the van as my primary vehicle. I am moving into retirement, and my transportation needs are simple.
I mentioned the option to Julie, and she seemed reasonably receptive. We have been married for a long time, and we no longer find it necessary to “make our points” with each other. Well, at least most of the time.
Dear reader, I’m not sure where this will all lead me, but I’m pretty excited about it. Tom said he would go with me to check out some Promasters at the local Dodge dealership, and I have sent an email to Wayfarer Vans, the company in Colorado who makes and installs the conversion kit. This option seems like the right balance of convenience and price. Say a little prayer for me so that I make the right decision.
When I started writing this blog, I talked about traveling to National Parks to photograph and write about them. This could bring me one step closer to that dream. My plans have moved slower than I initially expected, but they are definitely moving in the right direction. Fingers crossed.
Our time on this planet is short. I have spent my life in service of others, and it is still hard for me to think about my personal needs. I can’t always do what I want. However, I don’t want to draw my dying breath considering, “Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I experience that? Why didn’t I try that?” Dear reader, I am working hard to live my life to its fullest. You never know what tomorrow brings.
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
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.
I sit in my car and wait. My daughter is inside her teacher’s home having her oboe lesson. I hear the sounds of a small gas engine, likely a lawnmower. It drones in the background. The temperature, a pleasant 67 degrees. It is damp due to recent rain. On my lap is my trusty lap table. On that table is my iPad. I type.
Another Monday in my retirement. It started with me donning rain shoes, rain jacket, and umbrella. As usual, I walked to Starbucks. I was surprised to see Tom’s truck already in the lot, as I’m typically the first to arrive. He was inside drinking coffee and polishing off an unknown snack; probably a scone.
Donovan, the barista, poured my tall cup of Veranda as soon as he saw me enter. I grabbed it and sat down next to Tom and started our Monday review.
Tom didn’t go to the Blues Festival as he had wished, due to yesterday’s rain. I did go on my breakfast walk with Ralph, despite the rain. We checked an auto-posting problem for his website, talked about our kids, sipped our coffee. And so the conversation went. Tom asked me if I had time to go to Roselle with him and I did a quick calculation, as I needed to drive Grace to her lesson. A few adjustments were made, and off we went.
Back home I did a minor project, and now I sit waiting in the driver’s seat of my red Flex. I don’t like to be unproductive, which is why I brought my gear with me.
Sitting, typing, occasionally looking out the car’s windows to a slowly changing scene.
Now a senior man in bib overalls is mowing his grass directly across the street from me. The mower’s growl replacing the noise from the more distant one that droned earlier.
I seem content with my new found slower pace, but at the same time, I’m slightly restless. I continue to feel that I need to be doing more, accomplishing more, being more. This is countered by the reality that I am doing things, just not at the pace that I had originally set for myself. I grant myself forgiveness for the reduction in my output.
As I sit, I notice that I am feeling grateful, and I’m not sure why… let me think. Grateful for living in a good community, Grateful for friends and family. Grateful for my health. Grateful that I still have the wonder of a little boy inside of me.
My mind drifts again. What would it have been like if my grandparents had not immigrated from Slovakia? Likely, I would not exist. But what if I did? Limited education, limited opportunities, a limited life. I wonder if I would have made the best of it. It seems to be in my nature to view things in a positive way. I think that I would have been OK.
Some people think that they can fix their lives by being somewhere else. In some cases this is true, but in most cases, it is not. After all, we take ourselves with us wherever we go.
I drift again. I wonder what is in store for the rest of the day. I guess life is a box of chocolates. I’ll bite in and see what I get.
Five PM on Friday before my birthday party finds me seated in my car departing Rockford, Illinois. I turn right on South Alpine, then left on US 20, then right on Interstate 39. I’m now locked in for my 90-minute drive back to Naperville, back to home.
My iPhone automatically connects to the car’s Bluetooth audio system. I hit the quick dial button on my Flex and dial up my sister, Carol. I often talk to Carol on my long drive home from Rockford.
Carol has favorite subjects that typically center on politics and food plans. However, in a 90-minute drive, there is always time for other topics. On this Friday we talk about kids, various weekend plans, and my upcoming 65th birthday party. Curiously, she brings up a memory from 60 years ago. What makes this memory unique is that it doesn’t represent a milestone or major event. Instead, it is a simple memory that generally would be lost to time. Making this recollection even more surprising is the fact that it is also a memory that I distinctly remember. It is the memory of my sister’s slumber party.
I travel back to the late 1950s. Back to my Southwest Side Chicago home. The old bungalow desperately in need of repair, the one with broken furniture and worn carpeting. My sister is having a slumber party with several of her girlfriends from college. The house is cleaned to the best of its ability; snacks are at the ready, clean sheets are on the beds. I am there as a five-year-old boy, and I serve as a diversion for the 20-year-old guests. We are playing hide-and-seek in the house. I laugh with one of them as she finds me hiding behind a shirt in a tiny closet. The next day I hear my sister recounting the get-together to my mother. She tells her how this guest commented on what a kind little boy I was. I find the description of me upsetting. Even at the age of 5, I know that my family prizes intelligence above all. In my child’s mind, I wished that Carol’s friend reported that I was smart, not kind.
Kindness didn’t seem like much of a prized quality; it was just who I was. Why wouldn’t I be kind? Everyone can be kind; this attribute didn’t make me unique at all. Being smart, that would make me special. Being smart would make my father more interested in me. Kindness felt like a weakness. A person who could be taken advantage. Someone who was not tough. Another one of my defects. I couldn’t imagine my father putting his arm around my shoulders as he announced to our neighbors, “I’m so proud of Michael, he is so kind.”
Fast forward to late 2017 and my impending retirement from private practice. My office staff had contacted my referral sources and my patients and asked them to write a memory about me. My referral sources commented about my diagnostic skills and the quality of care that I delivered. Their overall theme was that I was smart.
However, my patients saw me in an entirely different light. Almost universally they commented on the fact that I listened to them, didn’t judge them, and was kind to them. Clearly, the most important qualities that I possessed for them. These were patients who I brought back from suicidal depression, severe psychosis, and life-disabling anxiety. Their comments were not about my expertise in psychopharmacology. This seemed irrelevant or at least expected. What was most important to them was that I was kind to them. A quality that was lacking in other relationships in their lives.
Fast forward to last week and to the gift that my wife gave me. She had also “commissioned” a memory book. This one created from my friends and relatives letters.
I am now back home from the party, and she presents me with my memory book. The first letter is from her. She recounts memories from the past. Our marriage, the birth of our kids, other events. Woven into her recollections is a theme. She notes how kind I am. I start to read the letters from my kids, and a similar tone is indicated. That theme carries through the other letters and cards in my memory book. The memories are different, but the description of kindness remains the same. As I read, I reflect on my kids. They are all brilliant, but they are also very kind. I am so proud that they are kind. I tear up and I fill with emotion.
Dear reader, I am fortunate to travel in circles of smart people. Smart people are interesting, they are quick thinking, and fun to talk to. I like intelligent people, and I enjoy being around them.
Some smart people do great things with their intelligence; some do nothing with their intelligence. Some smart people use their intelligence to help others; some use their intelligence to take advantage of others. Some intelligent people are kind, some intelligent people are mean and spiteful.
We can all strive to learn and grow, but you either have an innate intelligence, or you don’t. Kindness is universally accessible to all. It is entirely free and takes little effort. Being kind makes you feel good. Being kind makes others feel good. In a kind world everyone benefits. So why is it that people choose to be unkind? Why is it that we prize “reality” TV shows where we enjoy seeing others being humiliated or shamed? Why is it that we love to brag to others that we have more than they do when their envy contributes zero to our lives? Why is it that we choose to hurt when it would be just as easy to be caring and supportive?
For whatever reason, the people around me think I’m a kind person. Now at 65, I have come to understand the importance of what my sister’s friend told her 60 years earlier. Kindness does matter, its importance equals or exceeds intelligence. What would you prefer, a kind and loving parent/spouse/friend, or a brilliant but mean and spiteful one?
Dear reader, I would like to challenge you today to make an active effort to be kind to those you encounter. Kindness matters.
Dear reader, I need your help. If you help me, your actions will also help you.
I want to document the lives of people. This process would involve writing their story and taking some photos of them. I’m interested in telling the story of regular people who have had extraordinary experiences. Extraordinary is a confusing modifier, so let me explain. I would like to write about stories that changed the direction of someone’s life, either for good or for bad.
Most of us would say that having a child causes a monumental change in a person’s life. But what about the person who had to deal with a child’s serious illness, or perhaps the person who had a severe illness as a child? Did these experiences significantly change the trajectory of their life?
How about someone who fell into a career path, only to find out that it was their life’s calling? How about the person whose career path almost destroyed them?
Do you have a passionate interest that has impacted your life? Are you driven to change the world, no matter how small? Have you changed your ways (good or bad), and how did that impact you? Did you make a significant career change that was surprising to those around you? Did some random event transform your life? YOUR LIFE MATTERS. YOU HAVE A STORY TO TELL.
I would want to explore one storyline with you, which would likely take several hours of your time. Also, I would spend some time with you to take some photos.
I would write up your story and post it on my blog along with some of the photos that I shot. I’m doing this as a proof-of-concept for a possible book, which could include your story.
Who will know who you were 100 years from now? I look at old photos of relatives, and I don’t even know their names, let alone their story. What would it be like to personally touch a future relative? What would it be like for them to know just a little about who you were? What would it be like to have someone distill a pivotal part of your life into a cohesive narrative? What would it be like to have high-quality photos attached to that story? Images that would transform written words into a real person to the reader. Not just random cell phone snapshots, but pictures that were taken with the expressed purpose of making your story real.
I am a professional interviewer. I am a writer. I shoot photos professionally. There are folks with lesser skills who would charge you to do what I’m offering to do. Your story is worth telling.
If you are interested, here are some more details:
My initial effort will be limited to 5 stories (5 individuals). If you have an interest in me doing this for you, please don’t wait or hesitate.
I will decide whose stories that I document.
For this round, I will travel up to two hours (by car) from my Chicago area home.
Naturally, you will need to allow me to post/publish your story and photos. (I know, obvious)
I will make my written narrative and select photos available to you for your archives.
Email me at SPAMmike_kuna@hotmail.com (remove the word “SPAM” in the email address). In a paragraph or two tell me about your story. Don’t let yourself or your story disappear with the passing of time.
Let me know if you are interested.
PS If you are further than 2 hours away from Chicago, write me anyway. Although my initial efforts are limited geographically, I absolutely will consider expanding the scope of this project in the future if there is enough interest.
Dear reader, I believe that everything we do in some ways connects to other aspects of who we are. We show our true selves in our everyday actions. Things that seem unrelated are often related if you look closely enough.
In this post, I explore how the process of building web pages has also taught me about how I relate to people. This is less of a stretch than you may think. Let’s start…
My adventure in creating websites started around 15 years ago and was directed more by need than want. In those days I was a partner/owner of a medium sized psychiatric practice. With my two partners, I had built the practice into a thriving enterprise.
Most of our business was generated from former clients and referring professionals. However, we knew that we needed a website, as it was becoming a common instrument that new clients used to find their next care provider.
I come from a blue-collar background, which inherently makes me a do-it-yourselfer and cost-conscious. I was already heavily invested in creating marketing and advertising materials for the practice and had been doing everything from brochure design (remember paper?) to head shots of the staff.
It was only logical that I build the website. To hire someone to design even a simple one would have cost thousands of dollars, as well as countless hours of committee work to write copy, and approve design concepts. I felt that I had the potential to do the necessary tasks: photography, copy creation, design, deployment. However, there was a problem, I had never designed a webpage, I had never taken a computer course, and I had never written a single line of HTML. In hindsight building a complex website was an insane thought. People spend years learning this stuff. What was I thinking?
Naturally, it was a massive project that was complicated by the fact that I had to learn everything on the fly. Initially, I tried to go the easy route by using the hosting company’s template-based web designer. I wrote two entire versions of the clinic website with that program, but it just couldn’t handle a site as complex as the one the I envisioned. I recall spending an entire Saturday trying to upload a few more pages to the site, only to have it repeatedly crash. Finally, I realized that I would have to go beyond the limitations of this easy software and use something more sophisticated. That moment was sickening to me, as it meant that not only would I have to learn an entirely new software package, but I would have to recreate every single page of the website again.
This process was occuring in my almost non-existent “spare time.” I created extra working time by removing needed sleeping time. I know my partners had no idea of the hours that I put in. They assumed that I was able to build a site during my lunch break. For months most of my evenings and weekends were spent staring at a computer screen. Sure, my lack of knowledge made easy things more difficult, but there was also the reality that I was wearing all of the creative hats. It was overwhelming.
The more sophisticated software that I settled on was from a British company called Serif. It was graphically based and similar to the page layout programs that I had used for paper publications. The familiarity offered me a small degree of confidence. However, building an interactive multimedia website is very different from placing photos and print on a physical page.
Eventually, I got the hang of it and created seven redesigns of the clinic site over ten years. It wasn’t too long before friends started to ask me if I could help their small businesses and build a website for them. This is how I became a web designer/content creator.
In 2015 my friend, Tom, asked me if I would write some copy for his small business website. He had paid someone to do the total creation of the site, and he wasn’t pleased with it. “I don’t think that the website represents me very well.” He told me. “Sure,” I said. I was eager to repay a favor that he had recently done for me.
Tom is a smart and creative guy who has a sense of style. Initially, I thought that he was overly critical of his site. I assumed that a professional would know all of the tricks to creating a visually appealing and engaging experience. It was then that I looked at the web pages. His site was an example of “you don’t always get when you pay for.” Cluttered, poorly written, lousy clipart, encyclopedia length boring content that was likely copied from elsewhere. It was not good.
“Tom, why don’t you let me build a new site for you?” The words came out of my mouth without thought. “I can’t let you do that, I don’t want to take advantage of you,” Tom replied. Suddenly, I found myself convincing him that it was OK, and a good idea.
Like most projects, it was much more complicated and time-consuming than I initially thought. Despite being a lot of work, it was fun and I felt good helping my friend. I was proud of the way the new website turned out. Simple, clean, beautiful!
Fast forward to 2018. Tom had been doing some marketing research and decided that his site would be more searchable if it was created using the WordPress PHP format instead of the simple HTML of the site that I wrote. He even found someone willing to port my created content to a shiny new WordPress site. So, what did I do? I took a look at the prototype site and saw a different vision. Once again I was asking my friend if he would mind if I would make some “adjustments.” Some of this may be grandiosity, some reality. I know Tom very well, and I have some understanding of his business. Two pieces of knowledge that his WordPress colleague didn’t possess.
Dear reader, you are reading this post on my WordPress blog site that I created several years ago. It was a straightforward creation that involved a few mouse clicks. I set it up with no knowledge of WordPress in about 30 minutes. On the other hand, Tom’s site is a very complicated bonafide website that is loaded with all sorts of content. I was telling him that I could improve his site and I didn’t even know how to modify a single page in WordPress. Why do I do such crazy things?
As you know by now when I don’t understand my behavior I ponder and try to figure it out. This is what I came up with:
I love learning new things, and I love intellectual challenges. Despite being slow going, there is a genuine thrill when I figure out even a small aspect of a new puzzle. Knowledge is my cocaine.
I have pride issues. I put a lot of energy and effort creating content for his original website. I want my work in a setting that adds to it and doesn’t detract from it.
I show that I care about someone by doing things for them. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words.
I want to justify Tom’s friendship with me. I want to give him a good “return” on his investment in our connection. This realization was a surprise. In reality, I know that Tom connects with me as much for my imperfections as my strengths. I don’t need to prove my value to him, and I honestly feel that he would like me just as much if all we did was to hang out with each other. In fact, Tom is also a helper who is more comfortable taking care of, rather than being taken care of.
This need to be valuable to my friend stems back to a time in my life when I felt that I had little value. The, “I am not worth anything,” part of my life. This likely is also a reason why I did all of the extra work for my former clinic. It was a way to prove that I was worthy of my fellow doctor’s time and attention.
I am a protector. I have a strong maternal side to my personality. When I feel close to someone, I am constantly trying to make sure that they are safe and that their needs are met. I can guarantee that my friend does not need my protection. He is physically stronger than I am and has survived most of his life without my sage interventions. Luckily, Tom seems to understand my motives and tolerates my actions. He is happiest when his business is thriving. I want to make sure that his website does as much as it can do to help his business thrive. For whatever reason, I think I hold the key to making his website the best that it can be.
Conversely, my protective trait drives an immediate family member crazy. They view it as me trying to control them. In reality, I’m just trying to make sure that they have everything that they need. However, I do understand their annoyance, and I have tried to modify my behavior.
These are some of the reasons that I came up with, but that is enough writing for today. Hopefully, this post will get you thinking about how the unrelated parts of your life that are actually related to each other. Connect the dots and learn just a little bit more about yourself! Have a great day.