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Birthdays, Love, And Sugar-Free Cake

Birthdays, Love, And Sugar-Free Cake
Sugar-free birthday cake

Many years ago I was standing in a very long line. It was the condolence line of my cousin’s husband’s wake. He was only 50-something, tragically killed by a very malignant cancer. Dee’s husband, John, was a successful realtor and a larger than life figure. He was a very large man, with an equally large and jovial personality. He was an extrovert who seemed to know everyone in the western suburbs of Chicago. People liked him.

We waited well over an hour to offer our condolences to my cousin, as the number of mourners was so large that they were overflowing into the parking lot. I stood in line making small talk to the people around me; I was struck with many emotions. Naturally, I was devastated for my cousin and her family. I also felt bad for her deceased husband who was finally starting to reap the rewards of a life of hard work. Ashamedly, I also was feeling sorry for myself.

I have said in other posts that I am relatively shy and an introvert. I form very deep connections with people, but the actual number of connections is small. As I stood in line, I imagined what my wake would look like. Instead of a room overflowing with people I imagined a room of empty chairs. I viewed my worth in what services that I could do for others. I felt that when I was no longer able to provide a service, I would be forgotten, like dust in the wind.

I now discount that belief, but I do think that some residual effects partially fuel my desire to find a second career now that I am retiring. I am a Spiritual person, and I believe that God is active in my life when I allow Him to be. I just celebrated my 65th birthday, and He has been showing me the genuine connections that I do have with people.

He has been allowing me to see that my worth transcends my ability to do things for others. My worth is based on my intrinsic self. The essence of who I am as a person. My strengths, but also my flaws. I am an imperfect person who is always trying to be perfect. The last few days have reminded me that people care about me, warts and all.

Sunday morning my siblings gathered for breakfast at Butterfield’s restaurant. They shared memories of me as they wished me a happy birthday. Later that afternoon my wife and kids went on a photo taking excursion with me. They sat for hours in the car as we drove to Woodstock, IL. No one complained. Sunday night my daughter Kathryn called from Arizona and wished me a happy birthday. Monday I saw my oldest daughter Anne, her partner Chris, and my grandkids. They happily sang along when the waiters at Giordano’s pizza belted out “Happy Birthday To You.”

My friend Tom says he doesn’t believe in celebrating birthdays. Despite this Tom was at my house at 5 AM on my actual birthday day bringing me my morning coffee. He drove in the pouring rain to The Palace in Chicago and bought me breakfast. Afterwards, we took the long way home which allowed us to observe the various and ever-changing neighborhoods of Chicago. I love doing stuff like that. After the neighborhood drive, I was taken on a tour of Berland’s House of Tools. Berland’s is the ultimate toy store for power tools. I love power tools, and Tom has been promising to take me there for over a year. Up and down the aisles we went as he explained to me the various saws, drills, and presses. More coffee, more activities, more conversation; there was even an interesting photography project for me to shoot added into the mix. It is a good thing that Tom doesn’t believe in celebrating birthdays; I was completely overwhelmed by his non-celebrating!

My daughter Grace arrived home from school at 4 PM and immediately started to bake me a sugar-free birthday cake, despite the fact that she was overloaded with homework. My son volunteered to clean up the baking mess. My wife came home from work and made me a homemade dinner of cornflake chicken, mac and cheese, and grilled asparagus. As we sat at the dinner table my family, each told me something that they loved about me.

Add to all of this cards, ecards, emails, text messages, phone calls, and Facebook birthday greetings. I was overwhelmed, and I am still basking in the glow of feeling very much loved and cared for.

I keep striving to be significant. God keeps telling me that I am significant. I am significant because I am who I am. Unique not only because of my talents but also because of my many imperfections. Lovable because of both. It is easy for me to love, I am slowly (but surely) allowing myself to be love. It feels pretty darn good.

I Need To Reflect And Listen

It Is Difficult For Me To Inconvenience Others

It’s 2 PM on Tuesday, and I get a text reminder from my daughter, Grace. “Don’t forget that you are picking me up after school. You need to be on time.” I respond, “I know, I’ll be there at 3:30.” I then receive a screenshot of an earlier text message with the time 3:10 circled. This level of insistent confirmation is not typical for Grace, and it signifies how important it is for me to pick her up exactly at 3:10. I respond, “I’ll be there.”

Once home she only has minutes to change into more formal attire; I drive her to a swanky benefit where she will be one of the speakers.

I return home to put on a suit coat and tie and return to the benefit about an hour later. There is my little girl, once the toddler who was afraid to go down a flight of stairs. There is my high school student standing in a receiving line smiling and talking to shakers and movers. The mayor, the superintendent of schools, the head of the park district, the list goes on. Soon she is speaking to the entire group, recounting stories and statistics on the benefits of positive role models for teens, and the intrinsic importance of connection with others. My pride in her is overflowing as she answers questions from the audience with the authority and humor of a seasoned pro.

My role is very minor, as a guest of the event. I don’t enjoy attending formal functions. As an introvert, even this limited part tends to exhaust me.

However, dear reader, you would never know that I was an introvert at the event. I am social and engaging. I go up to people I don’t know, introduced myself, and start conversations. Such behaviors are not natural for me, but long before I became a psychiatrist, I was an observer of human behavior. I know what to do, and how to do it. After many benefits, professional meetings, cocktail parties, and other such events, I can pull it off, but it is an energy draining effort.

The event brings to the forefront one of the main issues that I continue to deal with as I try to transition from my doctor position, where people came to me, to a position where I have to go to people.

My issue isn’t making superficial contact with someone; it is my inability to ask them for something. Time to talk to me, a moment to allow me to take their picture. This is difficult for me to do.

As a problem solver, I know that there are some patch fixes. Having a wingman with me makes it easier to engage someone on a deeper level. Using an intermediary person as a go-between could be useful. However, I have a way to go.

Wednesday night, Valentine’s Day, I am sitting across the table from my wife, Julie. We are at Pepe’s, an inexpensive Mexican restaurant that we like. I tell her that I’m disappointed with myself for not making the progress that I had hoped to make. “I just don’t know what to do or how to do it.” I discuss with her my difficulty with inconveniencing others. How I don’t want to bother people with my demands. She suggests that I talk to our pastor, as he is the consummate connector. It is a great idea, but it would require me asking him for help. I chuckle to myself. I put the idea on the “likely possible” list. I tell her that I still feel that I need to do something that will have a greater impact in this world. As I start to process what I’m saying we both explore my life. When I try to do grand things they are marginally successful. It is clear that I have made the biggest impact when I am interacting one to one with someone. This is the case not only in my professional life but also in my personal life. I reflect.

Saturday morning and I’m sitting in my friend’s Tom’s office working on a project. After about an hour he asks me if I want to go to Harner’s restaurant for breakfast. At the restaurant, I talk to Tom about my dilemma. “Tom, I want to change the world, but I seem to be a one on one type of guy.” Tom listens. I start to reminisce how in the early days of our friendship I tried to help him with his home remodeling website. Tom and I are great at bouncing ideas off one another, and I remember how much I enjoyed learning about the construction business as we redesigned his web pages. Another one to one interaction with someone. An interaction where both parties continue to benefit. I reflect.

Tomorrow I’ll meet with my siblings for breakfast. I have already been in contact with several of them about the get-together. We are looking forward to seeing each other and sharing our lives.

Later in the day my wife and kids have agreed to go with me on a photo road trip. We will travel to Woodstock, Illinois, about 1 hour away. They have promised to be patient with me and to not complain about my constant stops to shoot pictures. I’m am excited about the adventure and the company. I reflect.

My birthday is in a few day; it will be one of those big milestone ones. Dear reader, I am in a period of transition. I continue to wait for my “big inspiration,” but I am starting to see a different path. Perhaps my next direction will be on a smaller scale. I am trying to be still, quiet and to listen. I hope this will cause me to gain greater clarity. I’m trying to look at my past and learn from both my successes and my failures.

Life is interesting. Every day I face a new reality sculpted by the experience from the days before. Perhaps it will be my children who will be the ones with the big ideas. One foot in front of the other. I reflect.

Grace giving her talk.
I need to be quiet and listen.

The Naperville Snowpoclypse, The Aftermath

The news channels buzzed for days. Colleges and school closed. I arranged to work from home, and my wife rescheduled to delay her workday. The snowpocalypse was upon us, and then it was gone.

There is a strange excitement that happens when you inject a small element of danger into a situation. The operative word is “small” as real danger brings with it panic and anxiety.

Our snowstorm was well predicted, and it was easy to plan. The entire family was together in the safety of our home. We had shelter, food, and a good internet connection. I elected to walk in the morning, but I had all of the necessary gear to do it. The kids were in communication with their friends via various group chats. Julie was able to talk to her patients on the phone.

I worked from my basement video studio instead of driving to Rockford. This involved some planning and the problem solving of some technical issues. Planning and problem solving, things that I am expert! My plans worked out well, and I was able to connect to both campuses via my video link.

Last night the weather had cleared enough so I could drive my son Will to his friend Joe’s house. My friend Tom asked me to come over and help him refinish his kitchen table. The roads were a bit slippery, but nothing that an experienced driver couldn’t handle. I had the fun of playing with his high-end power tools, as we sipped tea and swapped stories.

Yes, the Snowpocalypse made us change things up a bit, but the crisis was more akin to a Disney adventure ride rather than a disaster. We were fortunate to be able to arrange our lives, but I’m sure there was some tragedy that happened during the storm. There always is.

Huge piles of snow created by plows and blowers.
Crews work in pre-dawn to clear the sidewalks.

This morning I woke early, dressed and headed out for my walk. I meandered and viewed huge piles of snow created by plows and snow blowers. As I approached my downtown, I could see crews busily getting sidewalks ready. It will be business as usual in a few short hours. Computer, phone, and a book at the ready, I sit in Starbucks sipping coffee and typing this post. A post reflecting on the adventure of the Snowpocalypse; as I type I am grateful that it was just an event, nothing more.

Starbucks coffee, computer, book and a view.

Life is what we make of it. I like to avoid disasters. I am not a crisis-oriented person. In the case of the Snowpocalypse, a little thought turned a storm into an exciting adventure ride.


Whom Do I Love?

The word love is a word that has tremendous meaning and significance, and at the same time, it is so overused that it has no meaning or significance.  We think we know what love is, but how can that be the case when it means nothing? Love is a conundrum.

People would tell my parents that I was kind as a child.  I believe that statement was, and is, true.  But kindness isn’t love.

As humans, we announce to the world that “We are in love!” An emotion so powerful that it takes rational thinking away.  But being in love isn’t love.

I love pizza.  But pizza isn’t love.

Dear reader, when I was younger, I felt like I couldn’t love.  I cared about people.  I tried to be a good person.  I tried to do the right thing.  But, I didn’t love. Like many of my deficits, I accepted this imperfection and moved on with my life.

Over time I became more aware of who I was, and it was then that I started to understand why I couldn’t love. I discovered that my inability to love was based on a personal decision.  The decision determined in my subconscious. It was decided by me but without my conscious awareness. You see dear reader, to allow myself to truly love someone would make me vulnerable.  I could become subject to someone’s control. I could be hurt.  I could be manipulated.  I could be used. I saw love as a weakness, not a strength, and there was no room for weakness in my life.  I would not let anyone get close enough to me to have access to my soft underbelly.

In the place where love should have resided there was a hollow spot. It was in an area deep inside of me.  A region occupied by other deficits.  My lack of spirituality, my feelings of personal shame, my fear of being different. A zone well protected, and well hidden from others.  In my young life, I emphasized my strengths and buried my weaknesses.  It was the most efficient way to move forward.

Such a strategy can only carry one so far, and so I started to fill those empty spot.  Slowly and carefully for most, except for the love deficit.

I regained my ability to love in one day.  That day was January 27, 1983.  The day that my first child, Anne,  was born.  Something that was completely unnatural and foreign to me became completely natural and familiar.  The ability to love was always inside of me.  It was just hidden so deeply that I had no awareness of it.

I now love freely.  I celebrate my vulnerability.  I view my ability to love as a strength, not a weakness.

So what is love? The best definition that I have found was written by a tentmaker in a letter a long time ago.  It follows:

Love is Patient

Love is Kind

Love Does Not Envy

Love Does Not Boast

Love is Not Proud

Love is Not Rude

Love is Not Self-Seeking

Love is Not Easily Angered

Love Keeps No Record of Wrongs

Love Does Not Delight in Lies But Rejoices With the Truth

Love Always Protects

Love Always Trusts

Love Always Perseveres

Love Never Fails

I am imperfect in my ability to love, but I ever strive to closer approximate this standard.  So, whom do I love? Those whom I love know it by my intent and actions.

At The Lorraine Hotel, Fifty Years After Martin Luther King’s Assassination

I debated about writing this post. I thought about writing it, then discarded the thought.  I thought about it again.  Even now, I write it with trepidation. I’m writing it because I know that if I don’t I will continue to think about it.  It will become an earworm.

I don’t want to come across as a privileged white male writing about the poor oppressed blacks.  I don’t want to seem as if I am pandering about their great struggle in the way that some closet condescenders do.  Those folks who join with their “brothers,” but do so with a hidden air of superiority.

I don’t even want to write about Martin Luther King on Martin Luther King Day.  Instead, I want to write about feelings, specifically my feelings.

I traveled to Memphis with my friend Tom and his son Charlie to tour the Gibson guitar factory.  It was a long ride from Chicago, but we are good travel companions.  We arrived early Sunday afternoon.  Tom had been to Memphis before and wanted to stay at the Peabody hotel, which is directly downtown.  It is a beautiful place with the classic styling of the 1920s. We settled into our room.

After a bit, we ventured into an unseasonably cold Memphis evening and walked the short distance from the Peabody to Central BBQ for dinner.  I was impressed with my slab of ribs, my friend Tom’s more discerning palate was not. From Central BBQ I could see the old sign from the Lorraine Motel.  Dear reader, if you don’t recall this is the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at in 1968.  The motel and adjoining buildings are now the National Civil Rights Museum. We decided to go to the museum on Monday, which was Martin Luther King day.

I was already struck with a racial divide in Memphis.  Our hotel’s occupants were mostly white, the staff was a high percentage black.  The blues bars patrons were often white, but the main performers were often black. This is not some political statement, it is just an observation. An observation that struck me.

On Monday we stood in a moderately long line at the Civil Rights Museum. The line moved quickly.  Due to the holiday, the entrance “donation” was reduced to $5.  My calculation was that the attendees were about 95% black.  I did not feel out-of-place.  I was met with smiles and nods from both staff and fellow visitors. There was clearly a, “we are so pleased you came,” feeling.

I entered a long room that contained a civil rights art exhibit.  I was struck with one piece that seemed to be a combination of abstract art and words.  The art had a high relief that gave it power.  It made me want to stare at it.  In the background, I could hear a grandmother talking to her young granddaughter.  She was carefully explaining to her the meaning of each picture while she deftly wove in just a little bit of history to reinforce her narrative. She wanted the little girl to remember.  She wanted her to learn.

I moved into another room, this one crowded with people. In the middle of the round room was a docent.  Talking with a loud clear preacher style oration, he recounted the history of slavery.  How colonists first tried to enslave the Native Americans, then indentured servants from Europe, finally Africans. Africans proved the best as they were purchased as property, and thereby couldn’t work themselves towards freedom.  He spoke of the first country to abolish slavery (Haiti) and the last one (Brazil).  He noted that children born from slaves were automatically the property of their owners.  As property, they could be used for whatever purpose the owner wished. They could be sold and taken away from their parents without notice or consequence. He said that the plantation owners were some of the wealthiest people in the country; their fortunes based on this labor model. I moved on.

I stopped at an old 1950s style bus and entered at the back door.  I looked at photos of black people crowded and standing in the back, while front seats were empty.  An audio recording of a bus driver barked orders: “Get on back. If you don’t give up your seat I’ll have you arrested!”  I moved on.

I came upon a Greyhound bus from the 1960s.  It was a wreck with its aluminum roof burnt into eerie shards. The bus contained black “Freedom Fighters” ambushed by a hate group. The bus had been set ablaze. I moved on.

I looked at the balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. I moved on.

Dear reader, I remember these events as a child.  I remember the hate that whites felt towards blacks.  I remember my fear that blacks were going to hurt me.  My belief that they were somehow inherently corrupt, bad, and dangerous.  I can’t even say where I got those fears, but I know that they were common in the blue-collar Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.

I don’t exactly remember when my prejudice left me, but it was a long time ago.  I believe the process was gradual.  I know that it involved interacting with African Americans.  I remember being fearful in high school.  I remember that during two different high school years two black teachers reached out to me.  They seemed to think that I was special and unique.  I was worth their time and energy.  I was worth taking under their wings.  They told me about their families, confiding in me their dreams. They encouraged me.  They told me I was meant to do more. I was here to do more.  I wanted to believe them.

I always knew that I was different, odd, and unlike others.  I thought different was something to be ashamed of.  I was ashamed of being me. Why was I born the way I was?  Why couldn’t I have been like everyone else? Those teachers also knew what different was, in me they saw a special kind of different.  I was unique and one of a kind. Rather than a thing to be avoided and rejected, they saw me as a person to be celebrated and cared for.

The teachers were just the start of my transformation from prejudice.  This essay is not about the black struggle.  It is about people who are judged based on  irrelevant trivial but identifiable attributes.  Human beings who are rejected, hated, punished, or worse based on characteristics that they have little or no control over.  Skin color, religion, political belief, gender, sexual preference, ways of thinking, body size.  Name your poison.

How is it possible for us to convince ourselves that there is justification for such actions? Yet, we do so easily and without apology.  We find the bad apple in a group and use them as our reference.  We remember the facts that support our hypothesis and ignore the data that rejects it. We evoke God and say we are doing His work when we exclude or torture others.  We are God’s people, we shout. The “others” are not.

Yet, it is so clear that diversity of all types makes a nation stronger.  It brings new energy, new ideas, new solutions. Excluding groups does the opposite.

Will it ever be possible for humans to identify with each other based on an individual’s worth and character instead of nonsensical and unproductive biases?  It has been 50 years since the death of Martin Luther King.  There have been changes and shifts in our world, but in some ways, our anger and prejudices have just moved to new groups to fear and hate.

…In the background, I could hear a grandmother talking to her young granddaughter.  She was carefully explaining to her the meaning of each picture while she deftly wove in just a little bit of history to reinforce her narrative. She wanted the little girl to remember.  She wanted her to learn…



KISS- Keep It Simple Stupid!

Saturday morning, 3:40 AM, and my alarm goes off, I hit the snooze bar for an additional 10 minutes, I get up.  Dressed, I go downstairs for an apple with peanut butter and a cup of strong coffee. I noodle on the computer for a bit and glace at the clock.  Time to put on my coat and start the drive to Tommy’s.

I arrive at his house it is 5 AM. I know that it is OK to come in without knocking, and I do so.  Tommy is in his study, behind his huge desk.  I pull out my computer, he is already on his.  And so another Saturday morning starts.

We chat, do a little work, examine some changes that he is making on his revised website, chat some more.  Tommy says, “Do you want to go to breakfast?’ “Where?” I ask.  “Where else,” he responds.  I know that he is talking about the Palace, a breakfast joint in Chicago, over 30 miles away.  “Sure.”

As we drive into the city Tommy comments on how clear the sky is, and we decide to make a detour to the lake to see the sunrise.  Tommy is a little boy in a middle-aged man’s body.  I completely get him, a little boy is hiding in me too.  Time for an adventure!

It is freezing, but the adventure is great fun.  Then fantastic omelets at the Palace; then home.

My daughter Grace left me a sticky note stuck on my phone.  “Dad, if you see Tom today can you borrow a C-clamp from him.”  Grace is trying to make her own oboe reeds and needs to use a C-clamp to properly secure the reed’s thread.  Tom is happy to lend me a C-clamp, but I forget about it due to our breakfast adventure.  Grace and I go to the Ace hardware in search of one.  Along the way, we chat and laugh.  Grace is astounded that the Ace has free sandwich cookies and popcorn for its patrons on Saturday.  She grabs both, I take a cone of popcorn.  “Are you sure we can just take them?” she asks.  “Sure,” I tell her.

Julie returns home after seeing a couple of patients and asks me if I want to go for a walk.  Dear reader, by now you know I love to walk. “Yes,” I say.  We walk to our little downtown and then past it as we meander along the river.  We talk about our kids, noting how proud we are of them.  They are getting older and we celebrate their increasing independence and grieve over it at the same time.  We are now at the backside of the strip mall where my Starbucks resides.  The little boy in me returns, and I’m determined to find a secret way to get into the Starbucks without having to go all of the way around to the front entrance.  I try opening many backdoors, most are locked.  Finally, I get into the back of the Penzey’s spice shop and feel victorious.  I saved at least 3 steps!

A quiet evening follows, supping on a grilled cheese sandwich and Amy’s Curried Lentil Dahl Soup. I then meander into my study with a 40-quart black garbage bag.  I glance over at my oak rolltop desk and roll my chair up to it.  My goal is to go through two of the seven drawers.  My desk is jam-packed full of junk, I have always been too busy to clean it out.  Old cell phones, calculators that don’t work, outdated prescription pads.  Ninety percent of the contents are tossed.  I find some treasures; rewards for my efforts.  A family reunion photo from 1995, some photobooth pictures of me from an unknown year.  A recipe for French Silk pie from Julie, before we were married and before she became Dr. Julie.  

Then a little TV, but I bore quickly.  I open a book on WordPress and I start to thumb through it, my concentration betrays me and I close it. The remainder of the night ends pleasantly.

Dear reader, for me this was a perfect day.  I spent time with people that I love.  I did silly things.  I ate good food.  I organized a couple of drawers and found a few forgotten treasures.  Is there any way that I could have had a better day? I really don’t think so.  So many of the pleasures of life are free, or nearly free.  I am grateful for Saturday, I am counting my blessings.

Me, year unknown.
Family reunion picnic 1995.
From Julie, before she was Dr. Julie.
Winter sunrise on Lake Michigan.
Chicago skyline at dawn.

There Are No Emergencies For Those Who Are Prepared.

There are no emergencies for those who are prepared. If you started to say that slogan in front of my kids, they could complete it, as they hear it often from me. It is true… to a point. So many emergencies happen because a situation isn’t thought through. This applies to all facets of life, from work projects to interpersonal relationships.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. There are times when unforeseen variables enter the picture. However, many of my “emergencies” have happened because I was in a hurry, or too lazy to set up a situation appropriately. The time that I decided it would be safe to stand on a chair with a known broken leg would be an example of both poor planning and laziness. An extra 5 minutes of effort would have avoided several weeks of recovery pain as a result of crashing down onto a very hard concrete basement floor.

The above mantra also works when you want to sustain a behavior. I know that I feel better when I get some exercise every day. Going to the gym gives me the best workout, but walking offers me many more practical advantages. Walking allows me to pray and meditate. Walking is something I enjoy. Walking means that I can stop and get a cup of coffee. Walking means, I can stop and write (as I am doing right now). Walking, there is a good chance that I’ll see my friend, Tom.

There are potential pitfalls to walking as I’m no longer in a controlled environment. The three deterrents to walking for me are very hot weather, freezing weather, and precipitation in the form of rain or snow. In most cases, these are not insurmountable barriers. Over the last few years, I have been refining my waking “gear.” Warm weather gear is easy, wear less. Rain gear requires a little more planning; a good umbrella, “duck” type waterproof shoes, a light rain jacket. Cold weather presents more challenges. This morning I checked the iPhone weather app. It was -12F (-24 Celsius) outside! It would have been easy for me to stay in bed. It would have been easy to say, “I’ll walk tomorrow.” In my case putting things off can become a pattern, one day becomes two, two becomes three.

For Christmas, I asked my wife to get me a few items. UnderArmour thermal tights, a long sleeve t-shirt, and one of those “bank robber” face masks. Wearing these types of clothes are not particularly pleasant for me. They are very tight and remind me of my obese days. However, to accomplish a goal, you need to do those things that will most likely yield success. I walked yesterday without the UnderArmour, and by walk’s end my legs were burning in pain from the cold.

The rest of my cold weather gear sounds like an advertisement for a clothing catalog. Wool socks from REI, Columbia hiking shoes, heavy duty pants from Duluth Trading Company, a Woolrich flannel shirt, a Cabella down coat, Carhartt gloves. Add to this outfit a face mask, and a long scarf. There are no emergencies for those prepared! Out into the environment, one foot in front of the other.

The walk to Starbucks was still cold, but very manageable. I do not fear the return walk home.

Sometimes no amount of planning is sufficient to avoid a problem. A sudden storm appears when you are in the middle of nowhere. Your computer’s hard drive corrupts when a report is due. The person that you are trying to solve a problem with is erratic or irrational. Yes, there are times when there are emergencies for even the prepared. However, they are much less frequent. Learning to plan for situations and events also help you cope when things do go awry. Your mind is in a problem-solving mode, and you are primed to explore reasonable solutions.

I know people who prepare little. In fact, I would say some of them are comfortable with the chaos that poor planning yields. They live on the edge when it comes to their spending habits. They choose conflict over peace. They blame rather than solve. They deal with unnecessary emergencies. In the process, they waste their own energy and the time and goodwill of those around them. The power that could be moving them forward in life is expended to just keep their dysfunctional status quo.

It is not my goal to judge such individuals. I can only state that this is not my preferred behavior. Planning and preparation may take a little more time in the short run, but yield less “forest fires” to put out in the long run.

So, with UnderArmour, down coat, and wool socks I will venture back home. Some may make fun of me for being “too OCD.” Others may think me too controlled, and therefore not very exciting. They are all welcome to their opinion. A nice walk will reward me despite the fact that it -12F outside. When I get home, I will carefully take off, fold, and put away my cold weather gear. It will be waiting for me when I get up at 4 AM tomorrow.

Scarf, mask, hood. Ready for -12F.
Writing today’s blog. Coffee at the ready.

The Discarded Party Hat

The Discarded Party Hat.

Yesterday was New Year’s Eve; I had no intention of staying up until midnight. My alarm is set to 3:40 AM and I’m too old to function on a couple hours of sleep.

Last night Julie asked me if I wanted to watch a movie and I said, “Sure.” We clicked on a movie called, “Detroit,” and I paid the $3.95 rental. The movie is a fictional account of people impacted by the Detroit riots of 1966. It was violent and disturbing. At 10 PM I told her that I didn’t want to start 2018 with this memory. The TV was turned off.

Three-forty AM, my clock radio clicks on to BBC news and I immediately hit the snooze bar. I force myself to sit up in bed to escape my warm blanket. Eventually, I dressed and stumbled down the stairs. Into my pockets goes my wallet, glasses, and iPhone. On my wrist, I strapped my Apple Watch. I checked the temperature, -8F degrees.

It is my custom to send a morning text greeting to my friend Tom. I had surmised that he would probably be sleeping in on New Year’s Day, but I like wishing him a good morning. I tap out a “Good morning, Tommy,” and hit send. As expected, there is no return text. I make sure that I have a cup of coffee at home because I know that Starbucks was opening late today. My walk would be a circle route without any stops.

Flannel shirt, sweater, ski mask, scarf, gloves; time to hit the streets.

My walk is completely to myself. New Year’s Day, 5 AM, -8F below zero… no surprise that even the early morning joggers are in bed. I love the privacy.

Instead of praying or meditating I just think about random things. I circle my Starbucks, which is closed and completely dark. I find a lone party hat in the street. Made of cheap cardboard, it looks ridiculous in its synthetic pretentiousness. Last night it was proudly worn by an excited bar patron. Now it has become trash.

If you have been reading my posts you probably have noticed something about me. I tend to pool information and compare things. I see connections between things. That cardboard hat went into a pool. It was the pool of things that we think are important that are not. That pool not only contains objects, it also has a place for goals, relationships, and desires.

I thought to myself, “How many times have I worked on a goal that made no difference in my life? How many times have I argued over some point with a relationship that turned out to be completely unimportant? How many times have a wanted something that in the end provided no real benefit to me?” I’m sure the answer to all of the above questions is many.

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but on this quiet and cold morning, one was given to me. I want to spend my time and energy in ways that have meaning to me, and with healthy people who love and support me. I have a right to my opinions, but it is OK for others to have different ones. I want to move towards people and things that make me grow positively, and away from those who make me feel bad for who I am. I don’t want my life to be like that party hat; something that looks good from a distance, but cheap and phony close up. When I review 2018, I want to see myself in a more positive place, not a more negative one.

Happy New Year dear readers. Wishing you a meaningful life in 2018.

The discarded party hat.

Prejudice and Jello Salad

Prejudice and Jello Salad.

Thanksgiving break and my daughter Kathryn is preparing to leave the U of A and come home to the Upper Midwest for the holiday.  “I’m looking forward to my mother’s Jello salad,” she tells her western friends.  “What’s Jello salad?” they query.  

Back in Illinois, she relates the above. Kathryn explains that her friends know what Jello is, it is the salad part that is confusing. I guess that makes sense as Jello salads are still only popular a few places: the Midwest, the South, and Utah.  In other regions of the country, Jello salad is mostly forgotten.

To gain a better understanding of contemporary feelings around Jello salad, I turned to YouTube’s query function.   Up popped a number of videos, most of them created by millennials.  In one video a couple makes a simple Jello salad and then warm the mold too much when they try to release the Jello.  Out comes a slimy mess.  They make disparaging comments on how gross and disgusting Jello salad is.  Another channel makes a classic lime Jello salad that has mayonnaise as one of its ingredients.  “I can’t get past the mayonnaise,” the host says as she twists her face. Still another channel has two hosts sitting at a desk, news anchor style. They don’t bother to make anything; they just show Jello salad recipes scanned from magazines from the 1950s.  Laughs, gagging noise, and other disgusting sounds erupt from them in forced humor.  The implication being that these are some of the most disgusting foods that they have ever seen. I am saddened.

If you are over 50, you probably have some recollection what a Jello salad is. Let me give the rest of you a brief history of Jello.  Jello is a brand name for gelatin, an animal product that is derived from processing collagen that is abundantly found in connective tissue.  There are records from the 1500s where the wealthy ate gelled foods served up in fancy molds.  In the middle 1800s techniques were developed to create a gelatin powder, and shortly after that Pearle and May Waits combined the powder with flavorings and sugar to create Jello. At the turn of the 20th century, Jello’s popularity skyrocketed with clever advertising that also features recipes that combined Jello with other food ingredients.

In some ways, Jello was one of the original fusion foods, as it allowed homemakers creative license to combine Jello with all sorts of things, both savory and sweet.  The mixture could then be poured into a mold, and the resulting dish would be not only tasty but also beautiful. Countless Jello recipes combine Jello (often lime flavored) with vegetables.  These are one form of “Jello salad.”  However, it is easy to broaden the definition of salad. There are recipes for tuna and chicken Jello salads, and a multitude of recipes for sweet salads that combine fruit and a wide variety of ingredients like marshmallows, cream cheese, or whipped topping (Cool Whip). In the spirit of a tossed salad, many recipes have a little mayonnaise in them. Although it may sound disgusting, mayonnaise adds a creamy goodness that tones down the sweetness of the Jello in a good way.

Jello was often served in my 1960s home.  Sometimes plain as a snack, or with fruit cocktail suspended in it.  My mother would make Jello salads for special occasions, always of the sweet variety. Typically, they would be poured into her prized Tupperware mold that had a quick release top for easy salad removal.  Although my mother made a variety of Jello salads, she is most remembered for a classic Lime Jello that blended cream cheese, cottage cheese, and pineapple into a green delight.  This signature salad is now brought to family gatherings by my niece “Kat,” and it has become her signature Jello salad. My wife fondly recalls her mother’s “Under-the-Sea” Jello Salad (Lime Jello, pears, cream cheese and a touch of cinnamon).  My sister-in-law is famous for her Eggnog Jello, and my wife’s signature Jello salad is a layered concoction that has a graham cracker crust, a cream cheese/Cool Whip layer, a Cranberry Jello/mandarin orange layer and a top Cool Whip only layer.  Julie’s salad is made in a 9 x 13 pan, and it is cut into squares for serving.

Many of the above concoctions may sound dessert-like, and indeed there are many desserts that use Jello.  Pies, parfaits, and poke cakes are just some that come to mind. So what is the difference between a Jello salad and a Jello dessert?  Often, not much.  A salad is served with the meal; a dessert is served afterward.  If it was molded, it was a salad.  If it looked like a dessert, it was a dessert.  I know that this is a weak convention, but that is the way it is.

A homemade Midwestern celebration (not catered) will likely have Jello salads.  This is not the case for a fancy dinner.  Despite millennials disgusting grunts, many Jello salads are lovely.  Like a good pot roast, they don’t claim to be haute cuisine.  But like a pot roast, they can be delicious and satisfying.

When I was researching contemporary views on Jello salad I was struck with the bias that so many younger people had against it. That bias was formed by lack of experience, lack of understanding, and preconceived notions.  People were willing to write off Jello salads because they didn’t conform to something that was familiar to them. YouTubers who sell their channels by trying to be sophisticated and hip were happy to discount something that was outside of their comfort zone. Strong negative judgments were formed with little and in some cases no objective evidence. They hated Jello salads because of their ignorance.  The salads were different, and different was terrible.  

Our views on Jello salads are not that different from our views of people.  Often if we are familiar with them, we are willing to accept and even embrace them, flaws and all.  However, if they are different from what we are used to it is easy to come up with biases and conclusions about them that can be negative and demeaning.  

Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion; it is so easy to judge the label and not the person.  May I suggest that you make a nice Jello salad today and serve it up with an open mind.  You may find that you think differently about it.  Perhaps you could also experience a person who is different from you; you may find them sweet and delightful.

Our well-used recipe!
Jello salad at a family party.


Ice On The Road!

Ice On The Road!

The basement bonus bedroom was dark and quiet.  Julie asked me, “What time is it?”  I looked over at the little nightstand and touched my Apple Watch to activate it.  “Nine-ten,’ I said.  “We have to get up!” she exclaimed.  

Our Thursday morning was already starting late.  We had hoped to leave Minnesota early and avoid the predicted snow.  I quickly got dressed and headed upstairs where I was greeted by my in-laws, and our hosts the Petersons.

The large granite island in the kitchen already had breakfast laid out in a buffet style. Yogurt, frozen berries, fresh fruit, homemade granola, juice, an oatmeal bake.  I spooned up some yogurt and tossed onto it a large scoop of frozen fruit. I grabbed a couple clementines and headed to the side counter for the coffee maker and a mug of strong black coffee. I sat at the big rectangular table and chatted with my relatives, as Julie came up the stairs and headed for the coffee. Grace appeared, followed by Kathryn.  Will was still missing, and so I sent Grace down to rouse him awake.

Breakfast now done, we repacked the car.  It was 10:30 AM and Julie reminded me that we had promised Will that he could go to Ragstock at the Mall of America. Ragstock is a hip Goodwill type of store that Will likes. The chain is Minnesota based, and there is no Illinois outlet.  

I hate malls, but the trip to Ragstock was part of Will’s Christmas gift. The five of us piled into the Flex, and I dialed in the M of A on the car’s GPS touch panel.  

The Mall of America has a  Tim Hortons. As we passed it, I told the family, “After Ragstock I get coffee.”  I wanted a little Timmy’s out of the deal.  The family agreed.

Shopping and coffee completed, we got back into the car and drove towards the parking lot ramp.  I could feel the Flex slip and slide.  “Oh crap,” I thought.  We were 8 hours away from home, and the roads were icy.  We entered the expressway, which was moving at a snail’s pace. Despite the slow speed, there were cars in the ditch.  I pressed the wash button on the car’s wiper control dial and heard the whir of the pump; no windshield washing fluid appeared.  My windows were starting to salt up from the road spray, and the windshield was turning a pebbly opaque.

Car slipping, poor visibility, no place to stop.  We moved on because it was the only option.  Eventually, I was able to pull over and clear the ice from the wiper cowl.  I could now get washer fluid on the window, but only from the passenger side nozzle.  Some of that fluid would mist over to the driver’s side giving me a 1-inch swatch to peer out of. Double crap!

Into Wisconsin, we traveled and saw more vehicles in the ditch.  Some looked like they just ran off the road, others squashed and belly up.  We saw two semis abandoned; the second one was partially off of a bridge.  Police prowlers with their Mars lights ablaze were everywhere. I could feel my jaw tightening as I consciously tried to stop grinding my teeth.  I positioned my torso to the right to increase my view. This caused my back to stiffen up.

A December trip to Minnesota is always a game of chance. Sometimes we have clear sailing, at other times we face white outs and black ice.

On past trips, we have spent nights in random hotels in unknown towns, and even ate our Christmas Eve dinner at a truck stop.  As the family’s main driver I do a minute to minute risk analysis.  The tipping point is usually determined by my stomach.  When I feel that it is in a permanent knot I know it is time to find refuge.

Yesterday’s trip was right on the edge but never crossed over the line, so I kept on driving.  As we were about to exit Wisconsin, the windshield fluid ran out.  Luckily, there was an exit ahead.  I felt smug because I had an extra gallon of wash fluid in the car.  I popped the hood, but I couldn’t figure out how to release its safety hatch. A wave of panic hit me with enormous force as it was injected with the stress of driving over 300 miles in abysmal conditions. I put on my “doctor” hat and forced myself to calm down.  “Think logically.  Give yourself a few seconds to gather yourself. Your panic is preventing you from accomplishing a simple task,” I told myself.  With my terror down a few notches, I pulled out my iPhone and typed in, “How do I release the hood latch on a Ford Flex.”  The 4th result on the search page gave me the required answer.  Up went the hood, in went the fluid.

As we crossed the Wisconsin/Illinois border I pressed the windshield washer button for what seemed like the millionth time.  Holy cow, both jets now worked, I could see out of the entire window!

I drove the final 100 miles back home.  The road was less slippery, my windows now clean. The remaining trip was not stress-free; it was less stressful.

Dear reader, I write you today to remind you to be prepared when you drive in adverse conditions.  We had proper clothing, blankets, food, and washer fluid.  Yet I didn’t pre-check the window washers, and I didn’t even know how to completely unlatch the car’s hood.

When traveling in winter, dress appropriately, have an ice scraper, and a cell phone with you.  Do this even if you are going a mile down the street to your grocery store.  Remember, to use common sense, and trust your gut.  Slow down in slippery conditions.  Stay home, turn around, or seek refuge if you feel that it is too dangerous to drive.

Will we drive back to Minnesota next Christmas?  Probably, but we will have food, sleeping bags, gloves, and anything else that I can think of to keep a stressful situation from turning into a dangerous one. Of course, I will check the windshield wipers.

Happy winter you ol’ Midwesterners! The rest of you don’t know what you are missing.

A little Timmy’s to soften my dislike of shopping malls.