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Money and Mike

 

I sit, computer open, word processor loaded.  I wait.  I can’t say that I’m waiting for great inspiration, I waiting for anything to get my fingers to move on the keyboard.  I try to quiet my brain, I try to access my subconscious. I think about my walk to Starbucks.  What did I see?  What did I think? What ideas were generated?   

Ahh… OK, something is coming in…

I feel that some chapters are closing in my life.  Some planned, others not. There is the retirement thing.  Planned and in process.  However, there are so many aspects of this process that were unanticipated.  At this late date, it feels like there are many loose ends.

I worry about my retirement, and that worry mostly centers around money.  I have planned for retirement. I have saved and invested.  Yet, this fear is prominent in my mind.  I have had the luxury of buying what I wanted for many years.  Yesterday a large flat box appeared on my doorstep.  It contained a particle board computer desk. Cost around $200.  The desk will replace one that is over 25 years old.  The former desk designed for the technology of the 1990s, not 2017.  My wife questioned me.  Julie, “Why did you buy a desk?”   Me, “I have two monitors at work that I’ll bring home. The current desk won’t hold them.”  Julie, “You have two monitors at work?” (rise in voice interpreted as critical of me).  Me, “Yes.”  Julie, “Well, what are you going to do with the monitor that you have now?” (somewhat higher rise in voice)  Me, “I don’t know, maybe I’ll use it in the telepsych studio.”  Julie, “hmm.” A simple transaction of words that happened over the course of about 30 seconds.  An exchange so simple that it did not require any additional thought. Yet, it impacted me.

“Doc, you are a psychiatrist. If the interchange bothered you, why didn’t you talk about your feelings?”  Dear reader, it is important to realize that we live in complex worlds.  If every interaction was deconstructed and parsed there would be no time for the process of living.  

Was Julie being critical?  Possibly, but possibly not.  She may have just been making conversation.  But what about her tone? She had just come back from the auto mechanic, a place where she feels out of place and inadequate. After 25 years of marriage, I understand that she tries to exert more control after situations where she feels less in control.  This was a trivial event that did not indicate a major problem in our marriage.

What was more important was my reaction to our conversation. I had to resist the urge to strongly defend the purchase of a $200 particle board table. My mind quickly came up with a variety of reasons why such a purchase was necessary.  Why I had made a wise and thoughtful decision.  Thankfully, I was able to shut down the process before the words left my mouth.

Everything in life can be a lesson, a learning opportunity if you allow it to be so.  Growing up with little, I wanted things.  I had to strongly justify any purchase, even when I was the person paying for the desired item.  With effort, I could get things, but there was always an undertone of foolishness.  “Do you really need that scientific calculator?” I would then have to justify why a college science major needed a scientific tool. The implication being that my purchase was somehow extravagant, selfish, and unnecessary.  

I have earned a good living and I have been able to buy most things that I have wanted at will.  I always had money to pay the bills, go on vacations, save for the future.  More importantly, I didn’t have to justify rational (and sometimes irrational) purchases.  It has been a tremendous relief for me. I can’t imagine returning to a life where I have to explain to someone why I bought a new T-shirt or a carton of sour cream.

So what is the bottom line, dear reader?  I will buy less because I will have less. However, I will not play the tapes of old.  My history has shown me that I have been a good steward of my finances.  My house is paid for, I have no debt.  I may purchase things that are unnecessary at times.  I may even regret some of those purchases.  However, I am who I am.  I won’t burden Julie with my past guilt about doing things for myself.  I won’t incorrectly interpret her comments based on my past history.  I will enjoy life.  

I expect the next few years to be a time of adjustment and a time of growth.  As stressful as it can be, I like the fact that I’m revisiting so many issues that I had thought long resolved.  It isn’t like I’m going back to the past, rather I’m refining past corrections and exploring new horizons.  Perhaps it is symbolic of the fact that I’m not looking at the end of my career, rather I’m exploring the start of my retirement. A good thing, I think.

 

Finding My Way Back To God

I started to randomly write this morning and this came out


I am one of those people who tends to find meaning in things. I was the guy in English class who the teacher would call on when they wanted someone to explain the meaning of an author’s metaphor. I’m pretty sure that my ability to see past the obvious is to due to what my wife (Dr. Julie) has referred to as my autistic brain.

“So Mike, are you trying to tell us that you are autistic?” …No, I am not autistic. I relate to others and I have too much self-awareness to carry that diagnosis. However, it is clear to me, and to those close to me, that my brain is wired a bit differently.

If pressed, Julie would redefine her statement and say that my brain functions differently. Most people tend to think in a very efficient linear way. A cause and effect way of thinking. “If I do this, then I will get that result.” It makes sense to think this way, as most of the world functions in a linear fashion. “1 + 1 = 2,” “I have to bake a cake before I can eat it,” “I have to study to do well on my exam.” This way of thinking is very useful because once you learn a rule you can generalize it and apply it to many other scenarios. “I have to bake a cake before I eat it. Therefore, I also have to bake bread before I eat it.”

My brain is not contemporary. Instead of thinking linearly I tend to think globally. I pool information. Information is placed in categories, and the same piece of information can reside in many pools. All pools connect with each other, the level of connection changes as required. When I solve a complicated problem I have to chug through massive pools of information. Connections between pools of data form and dissolve and reform again. Eventually, solutions start to appear. Solutions can be workable or unworkable. They can be reasonable or unreasonable. They may be possible, or not yet possible. It is interesting that people think that my solutions to problems are due to some sort of high intelligence. They are really due to a different way of processing information. I’ll call this type of processing relational processing. I see how things relate to one another rather than how they affect one another.

This way of thinking can be inefficient when solving simple problems, and so I have trained myself to think in a linear fashion. I envy those of you who do this automatically. After practicing this skill for more than a half of century I have gotten better at it, but I still feel like a “lefty” trying to use scissors designed for a “righty.”

Just like the thoughts and facts that interconnect in my brain, I have also come to the conclusion that we are all connected with each other and the universe around us. By what glue? Here you can fill in the blank with the term that you find most comfortable. “The cosmos.” “Mother Nature.” “The collective unconscious.” I choose to think of the binding agent as “God.” Why? Because God is the most logical solution that I can come up with. Are there other easier solutions? Of course! However, none are able to explain existence as well.

We lived in an ordered universe. Everything works together from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. We fantasize ourselves as masters of the universe because we have discovered a few odd facts in physic. With that said, we don’t even know if there are additional planets in the far reaches of our own solar system. The arrogance of ignorance can be intoxicating. When intoxicated it is easy to make decisions based on a limited data set. As a scientist, I can tell you that this happens all of the time. When I was growing up I was told that life could not exist without sunlight/photosynthesis. Therefore, planets that were too far from the sun could not support life. Then we discovered plenty of life at the bottom of our oceans in areas completely devoid of sunlight. These organisms used chemical sources of energy instead of solar sources to fuel their existence. Time to rewrite the science books.

So where am I going with all of this? Growing up my childlike concept of God was what I was taught in school. An old guy with the beard sitting on a throne made of clouds. My spiritual life was synonymous with my religious life. My religious life consisted mostly of rules. In my child’s mind, most of the rules were of the “do not” category. Long lists of commands that if broken would send me to directly to Hell. Miss Mass on Sunday? Hell… Eat meat on Friday? Hell… Have impure thoughts? Hell… Despite being a pretty good kid it appeared that I was going to Hell. The impure thoughts alone would probably land me in the deepest levels of damnation.

It was also evident that religious rules could be different depending on a person’s position or rank. Those enforcing the rules seemed to have absolution. Even common folk could get a dispensation. Meat on Friday = Eternal Hell. Meat on Friday with appropriate dispensation = enjoy, life is good. Additionally, most of the world’s population wasn’t Christian, so the rules said that they were all going to Hell. Unbaptised babies could not go to Heaven or Hell, they would go to Limbo. An all-loving God who is sending most of his beloved children to Hell? This confusing and contradictory information made me reject the entire concept of religion and (by association) the concept of a Higher Power. I did not have the sophistication to separate the two. Religion equaled God in my child’s mind.

I was raised Catholic, but I’m not bashing Catholicism. I am saying that the limited information (rules) that I was taught were incongruent with the evidence (data) that I was gathering. The hypothesis of “A loving God is active in our lives” had been disproven.

With God out of the way, I had to find another structure to hang my world on. I was already moving away from creative pursuits and embracing science. Science appeared to be the perfect foil to the above incongruence and inconsistencies of religion, and I jumped onboard. Unfortunately, science is extremely limited and completely insufficient to define many aspects existence.

With the frameworks of God and science removed as overriding explanations for existence, I was pretty much out of options. Science might explain how amino acids were formed, and how their sequencing made up DNA, but it couldn’t tell Michael Kuna what my purpose or significance was in this universe. Religion could explain my purpose and significance, but it did so by non-sensical rules and threats of eternal damnation.

It is a hollow feeling to view life aimlessly. I used science for the order that it could give me, I felt that was about as good as I could get. But good was not good enough, and so I started to explore other aspects of myself and my universe. I started to quiet my mind and listen to the background “noise” around me. I demanded God to show himself if he existed and if he gave a damn about me. No burning bush appeared. However, I did start to become aware of something, what it was I wasn’t quite sure. Something quiet and peaceful. Something that seemed to be part of me, but at the same time not. Strangely, I remembered similar feelings in the past. Sometimes during times of real crisis, these feelings would appear. Sometimes along with a solution to a problem that would just pop into my head. Sometimes the feeling would allow me to trust someone and let them into my life. Sometimes they would make me feel less alone when I felt that I had nowhere to turn. I had passed off these feelings as coincidence, random bursts of dopamine and nothing more.

As I opened my mind I became more in tune with this force. Sometimes it was so quiet that I could barely feel it, and at other time it became so insistent that I absolutely could not resist it. My life was far from perfect, but it seemed to be where it should be. I have come to believe that force is God in my life. A presence that was with me even when I completely rejected him.

Are my feelings just wishful thinking? Are they delusional, the product of a psychotic mind? You may believe what you wish. To me, they are more than real. But what evidence do I have? Is it even possible that something like God exists?

These are some of my thoughts:

-It is highly unlikely in our vast universe that life exists only on our little planet.
-It is impossible to believe that intelligent life only exists on our planet.
-It is impossible to believe that we are the highest form of intelligent life in the universe.
-It is impossible to believe that the only kinds of life in the universe must somehow resemble us. Intelligent life can take many different forms.
-It is extremely likely that there are forms of life are so advanced that they can directly interface with us if they so choose to.
-The above is logical, even scientific. However, it requires faith to believe that a superior intelligence is interacting with us and doing so with purpose.

So who is God? A guy with a white beard on a cloud thone? A collective group in intelligent life forms? A singular entity? The Trinity? Is God completely separate from the universe? Is he a creator who resides elsewhere, if so where? These decisions are important for theologians who make their living pondering such questions. They are less important to me.

I do believe that something greater than myself has guided me. At times my limited mind has been unable to comprehend why I’m being pushed in what seems to be the wrong direction. Eventually, that wrong direction turns out to be the correct one. Weird, but a good kind of weird.

Do I ascribe to any particular religious beliefs? I was raised Christian, and this is where I hang my hat. How good of a Christian am I? I’m still a work in progress. My global brain gathers information and finds relationships between random facts. It tells me that my experiences are not random, as they have a clear pattern. My brain also tells me that many of my pushes have happened because of a force outside of me.

My global thinking makes me look at large chunks of data, instead of tiny fragmented pieces. If the Bible is the inspired work of God, then I believe that it was written to be understood in totality. The New Testament is a book of important lessons, not a lot of fragmented phrases.

People find secret messages hidden between the lines of Scripture, not me. I’m also not one to build a whole faith or belief system on a couple of passages. It is too easy to misinterpret such things, and it is even easier to manipulate others with a fragmented “Word of God.” The basic concepts of the New Testament are those of love, peace, caring, inclusion, forgiveness, help, and acceptance. When a religion talks about exclusion, division, and rejection, I run. If you believe differently, that is your prerogative.

So where does science fit in with religion? For some odd reason people feel a need to exclude one from the other. I see no logic in this. In my mind, scientific facts and spiritual beliefs exist quite nicely together.

I continue on my journey. I await what God has in store for me. I pray that I can keep my mind open. I wish you peace.

 

Another Monday

Another Monday morning. I sit sipping my coffee at a little round table and listen to streaming music at the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue. Today’s playlist is pretty upbeat and happy.

The last few weeks have been interesting to me, as my thoughts have been in both the past and in the future… less so in the present. There is a famous slogan in Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “If you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future you are pissing on the present.” There really is no way to sanitize this phrase without losing its impact. If it offends you, I am sorry. I’m also sorry about what I am doing to my present.

My past has been front and center. It came crashing back when I watched the Vietnam documentary on PBS. Further pushes came from some events in the news, and an invitation to my 50th-grade school reunion. Conversely, my future is ominously present with my looming partial-retirement in a few months. A confusing time for an old doctor who should be in the here and now.

The strange thing is that I feel that it is important for me to be reflecting on both time spaces. Important, but it has been hard.

Digression…
You may recall that I was raised Catholic. For a large chunk of my adolescence, I oscillated from being agnostic to atheist. I rediscovered God kicking and screaming. Basically, He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I gave in.

Back to the post…
I find myself being in situations that are conducive to long conversations with people very close to me. People are bringing up topics completely out of left field. The strange thing is that they are exactly the topics that I should be talking about. I’m trying a new level of honesty with those that are close to me. A no holds barred honesty. I am finding words just coming out of my mouth with little preparation or thought. Something very unusual for me.

I am finding the process stressful, it seems more directed by my Higher Power than anything else. I worry that I will lose the people that I most care about in the process, but I also feel that I have no choice in the matter. This fear goes back to, “If you truly knew me, would you still care about me?” An ancient tape that I thought was long resolved. Strange that I would be facing such issues at 64.

Life is so interesting. You think you have the answers, but when you open up yourself you discover that instead of answers you have more questions. This post is not meant to be a cryptic, although it may sound that way. I’m just fascinated that I’m still pondering my existence at a point in time when others seem to have everything in place. As I retire my life is changing, but I am still looking for a purpose. Perhaps a new purpose.

I thought I had a plan of action, it seems like God may be pushing me in a direction. I’m uncertain if it is my original planned direction, or something completely different. I still don’t know what I will do when I grow up. So much for 24 years of formal education! Time to “Let go and let God.”

Thunder

Another thundery night.
The peals powerful, yet comforting.
I debate with myself.
An excuse to stay inside, for sure.
At 5 AM my iPhone beeps.
A text from my friend.
He warns me of the thunder and urges me to stay put.
He knows my obsessive ways.
I smile to myself, it feels good to be concerned for.
I debate with myself.
On ducks, on jacket, up umbrella.
One foot in front of another, I venture out.
The heavy air quiets the streets.
The thunder has scared away the joggers and dog walkers.
The streets belong to me this morning.
One foot in front of the other, thankful for today.

Splash!

(I started this post on Wednesday morning, 10/11/17)

I stayed up later than I should have last night.  My reason only partially rational, more because of my obsessiveness than anything else. I have always been an obsessive comparer, examiner, and learner.  I usually try to combine this aspect of my personality with tasks as a way to add interest, motivation, and energy to the project at hand.  This quirky quality has been part of my secret sauce of success. By joining an obsessive interest with a task I not only move forward on that task, but I also learn more about my interest du jour. Some may think of obsessiveness as a liability.  However, I choose to turn negatives into positives. If all you have are potatoes to eat don’t fret, empower yourself and learn how to make potato soup!

One of my goals, when I retire, has been to write more. A while back I decided that I was going to start that process before retirement as the more I would practice writing the better writer I would become (in theory anyway).

I felt I could be more motivated and more productive if I did some of my writing outside of my house.  The Riverwalk, the library, Starbucks, wherever.  Naturally, this idea created more obsessional questions. What device should I write on? Which software? When should I write?  As you can see I like thinking about trivial things.  In reality, I can’t shut down my brain; my ever running brain can sometimes be annoying at times, even to me.

I have been trying out various gadgets to compose on.  My iPhone, my iPhone with a folding keyboard, an iPad Mini.  Last night I dug through my gadget collection and came up with what I am typing on now, an 11” MacBook Air.  This may sound impressive until you realize that this is one of the original Airs, built in 2010 (now almost an 8-year-old computer).  I bought it when I would spend every Thursday night at the Rockford Holiday Inn. Now, I wasn’t even sure that it would power up, but I was determined to locate it and try.  I was up late finding the computer, its power brick, a bag to carry it in… well you get the picture.  All of the above was a poor excuse to stay up late.

Finally asleep, the rain and thunder came.  Boom, splash, boom… sleep interrupted.  At 3:40 AM my alarm went off and I felt like… well, death.  I hit the snooze bar once but I knew that I had to either give in to sleep or force my body upright. Although it looked terrible outside my feet were on the floor, face washed, teeth brushed.  

I have planned for inclement weather and I have waterproof “duck” shoes, a rain jacket, and an umbrella.  Those articles of clothing purchased after a different obsessive thinking process a few years back.  The goal then was to make sure that I wouldn’t have a reason to not walk in the mornings.  That planning has paid off many times; I may get damp, but I always have dry feet!

I am not saying that my obsessive planning should be the model for others to follow, it can be pretty crazy.  With that said I work with people all of the time who do no planning.  They impulsively make decisions with magical thinking.  They spend money that they don’t have and think that somehow that money will appear when the charge card bill comes.  They get involved in bad relationships on an impulsive attraction forgetting past disasters that were similarly motivated. They make major decisions, like quitting a job without acquiring a new one. Usually, these folks are resourceful and they seem to get by.  However, it is a pattern of short-term gratification followed by long-term stress. Sadly, they often continue to think that the next cycle of impulsiveness will solve their problems. Once again getting quick short-term relief followed by long-term misery. Over the long run even resourcefulness fails, resulting in tremendous financial stress, relationship stress and emotional stress.

It would seem that the best life solution for most people would be somewhere between obsessiveness and impulsiveness.  A place of balance.  However, we no longer live in a moderate world, we live in a world of extremes.  Absolute artificial boundaries where once lived gradations of options.

We are creatures of habit but we have the capacity to change.  Why not explore your patterns of behavior.  If you are getting unsatisfactory outcomes in your life it may be time to change.

   

Sitting in Starbucks and typing today’s post.

 

Facebook Reality

There are aspects of my work that I will miss, and aspects of my work that I am happy to leave. Talking to nice people fits into the former category, begging insurance companies to uphold their obligations falls in the latter category.

Yesterday, I was talking to a client. She is a nice lady who I have known for a number of years. She was recounting a recent trip back home, and she was surprised that the trip had gone well. You see, she comes from a large family of successful siblings. She noted to me that she typically feels like the failure of the family. She is a single mom, and all of her siblings are married. They seem to have charmed lives, financial wealth, fantastic kids… well, you get the picture.

I looked at her and said, “Let’s review your life.” She had a look on her face that suggested both surprise and concern. I reminded her the following:

You have successfully raised a wonderful daughter, on your own.
You have supported yourself for most of your adult life.
You own your own residence, in a nice community.
You are saving for your retirement.
You have friends that care about you and a daughter who loves you.
You drive a safe care.
… and so I went on.

I concluded by reminding her what a great success she was. She not only managed to take care of her needs but her daughter’s needs as well. Naturally, her life isn’t’ perfect. There are always areas of wants. Perhaps a little more money, a bigger place to live, a solid romantic relationship. However, her wants were insignificant compared to all of her successes.

As I was counseling her I was also thinking. Why is it that we are so programmed to look at other people’s lives through rose-colored glasses, and our own lives through dingy and dirty ones?

Of course, there are many reasons. One is the reasons is what I like to call Facebook reality.

I share stories with my patients if I think that they have therapeutic value. I’m not the stereotype blank screen of the 1960’s psychiatrist. I think it is important for them to know that I am like them, a real and relatable person.

This is the story that I told her…

A number of years ago I started to make dinner with my kids. My wife had returned to the paid workforce, and the kids were complaining about the switch from homemade food to frozen pizza and bagged burgers. I thought it would be both fun, and a learning experience to make real meals together. We would plan, cook, eat, and clean up together. This has been a wonderful family experience, and my kids have become competent cooks of real food.

Part of this new tradition is that I post a photo of our finished meal on Facebook. That food shot is taken before we sit down to eat. I prepare the plate carefully. I choose the nicest piece of chicken, the plumpest crescent roll, the most artful salad. I’ll usually take the photo at several angles, and I’ll pick the most flattering one. I then edit the photo. I crop out distracting elements, add a vignette, and do other things to draw attention to the food. It is only then that I post the photo under the title “Cooking With Dad Thursday.”

This ritual has become a somewhat of a family inside joke. It doesn’t show the burnt rolls or the piece of chicken where half of the breading has fallen off. It is reality, but a carefully crafted reality that shows only the best that we have to offer, and that best is shown in the best possible light.

I asked her if she was dealing with Facebook reality when she visits her family. Only the best pieces of her sibling’s lives are shown to her, and only in the best possible light. How easy it would be to feel like a failure if the only point of reference that you had was artificially perfect.

We see Facebook reality everywhere. The model with perfect makeup hawking a beauty product. The “real lives” of people on TV who live in multi-million dollar homes. The neighbor’s recounts of their fantastic exotic vacation. It is so easy to become dissatisfied with our truly real lives where we compare them with the Facebook reality of others.

I think it is important for all of us to remember how fortunate we are. How the positives in our lives usually greatly outweigh the negatives. Our lives were never meant to be perfect. We can choose to celebrate our blessings or choose to live in a cesspool of dissatisfaction and envy.

Breakfast for dinner
Only the best piece of chicken and the plumpest crescent roll.

Intermission

The first half of the performance had ended, and the lights in the theater came up. My wife Julie and I had just seen act I of “The Million Dollar Quartet” at the Paramount theater in Aurora.

It is the story of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and their interactions during a recording session at the famous Sun Records in 1956. The event was before my time, but I am still familiar with their stories and music.  That was not the case for Julie, as she was raised in a Time Life, “100 Most Loved Classical Music Compositions” kind of family. During the intermission I was explaining to her the various sub-plots of the play.

It was clear that the man in front of us was listening to our conversation.  After a minute or two he turned to us and flashed a big smile.  I’m guessing that he was around 80, but a healthy looking 80.  He had clear skin, sparkling blue eyes, and a very infectious smile.  

He started to talk to us. It was the effortless kind of talk that gently tests the waters of a new connection.

Not surprisingly, he started by asking a few questions.  Were we enjoying the show? Where we married? He then offered a little information about himself.  He was in the Army at the same time Elvis was in the service (1959) but he never met him.  He was Lithuanian, but spent his early life in Germany. He came to the states as a child. He lived in Genoa IL.  Then more question for us. Did we have kids? Did we live in Aurora? At some point he introduced us to his wife who was sitting next to him.  She was stylishly dressed, and also had an inviting smile.

Our conversation continued throughout the intermission and ended only when the second act lights dimmed.

When the show ended, we were not forgotten.  Our new friend made sure to say goodbye, and to wish us a good evening.  Both of us commented on how pleasant he was, and how we enjoyed our little interlude with him… and there was the problem.

Dear reader, the problem wasn’t this delightful man, or even our interaction with him.  Rather, it was my awareness of a skill that he had that I lacked despite my many years of training.

As I enter retirement one of my main goals has been to acquire a comfort level connecting with strangers.  I certainly know the protocol, but I have been unable to implement it.  My dear friend Tom connects effortlessly with strangers.  I have watched his behaviors and I have mimicked them.  If I have the security blanket of Tom with me I have no problem engaging with a new face. In fact, in most cases I am successful.  However, I can’t seem to initiate this behavior when I’m by myself.

Why is that, dear reader?  I believe it dates back to my early childhood when the message I received was that I was a troublesome burden when I asked questions or wanted attention.  Dear reader, my goal is not to constantly bash my parents, or to blame my problems on them.  I am an adult, and I am responsible for my behavior.  With that said, it amazes me that I can be impacted so significantly by the past.

Yes, I am an introvert, but that is not the issue here.  If a stranger engages with me I have no problem connecting with them.  In my professional life I am a professional interviewer, I don’t bat an eye asking a total stranger the most intimate of questions. I can lecture to an audience of 500 people without difficulty. Once I have established a connection with someone I have no problem re-engaging with them. Via this blog I am acquiring the ability to write about very personal parts of my life to a wide-open internet public.

Over the last few years I have taught myself the skill of making initial small talk with strangers.  The one to six sentence interactions that others do so effortlessly.  It has work for me, and the more that I do it the easier it becomes.  However, the ability to connect on a more substantive level has remained illusive.

You may ask, “Why is this a big deal?  You have gotten this far without this skill, why bother now?”  Dear reader, one of my goals is to connect with strangers outside the confines of my professional office.  I want to photograph them.  I want to write about their lives.  I am fascinated by the wonder of the common person.  When you get to know someone the common becomes uncommon.  The routine becomes unique.  The ordinary becomes extraordinary.  …but I am stuck.  Stuck with the burden of thinking that I am bothering someone by starting a conversation with them.  That there is something wrong about wanting to connect with them. Stuck with the fear that I am wasting their time.  I do not feel worthy.  I am back in my childhood.

At this point I will continue to push forward.  I will continue to try new strategies.  I will continue to take risks.  I will continue to pray for courage.  But, I am saddened by my lack of progress.

What can I do? One foot in front of the next. I have climbed many mountains in my life, this is just another one.  I already know that to accomplish my goal I will need the help of others.  Perhaps one of them will have the key to solving this issue. I am not one to give up.  I am not one to give up on myself.

Rain

I walked in the rain this morning.

A light rain, more annoying than preventing.

It did not prevent me from walking.

It did not prevent me from thinking.

It will not prevent me from going to work today.

It did make my walk less enjoyable.

It did make me feel less comfortable.

The rain will not stop me from moving forward.

Initially, I thought it would hinder me.

Now, I’m aware that it will shape me.

Today I will accept the rain, and realize that the sun will follow.

A Thousand Goodbyes

The rush to retirement seems to be moving ever faster.  A goal that was a million miles away now is approaching at light speed.  In December of 2016, I purchased tickets for the play “Hamilton” for a show date in September 2017.  That date, which seemed ridiculously far away, has now passed.  In July letters were sent to my referral sources, and to my patients.  I gave them almost 6 months of warning of my leaving.  That half of a year has now evaporated into two and a half months.  

I have slowly prepared for my retirement for over a decade.  Impossibly distant at one point, it is now looming… and I am confused.  I clearly want to move forward, but I am ever aware of what I am leaving behind.  In the past, I knew exactly how my life would change when I retired… now, I’m not so sure.  To appreciate the sweet, I must taste bitter.

My yesterday was a typical Monday.  At least typical for the last 30 years.  It was a long work day that started at 8 AM and ended at 8 PM.  The flow was the same, patient followed by patient, any free time filled with phone calls and paperwork.

But when is there ever a typical day?  Each one becomes unique when I am willing to pause and ponder.    Monday, October 2, 2017, a day of patient care, but also a day of goodbyes.  

It is now 5:59 AM Tuesday,   I’m sitting at a little round table at the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue and I am listening to straight-ahead jazz as I type this post on my phone. The distance from yesterday allows me the safety to bring my emotions forward.  I find myself tearing up.

I saw a fairly new patient yesterday.  He was the last new patient that I accepted, and I have only seen him a few times.  He underwent the loss of a beloved pet a few weeks earlier.  The safety of my office allowed him the protection needed to put aside his tradesman’s toughness and cry.  He was angry that those close to him were moving on and appeared less devastated in grief. I drew together the pieces of this tragedy, and showed him that those close to him weren’t trying to be disrespectful they were just grieving in their own way. Relief crossed his face.

A woman came in.  She desperately wants to have a significant relationship, but can never find Mr. Right.  Counselling her, I drew her back to her middle school years, a time when she was bullied mercilessly.  I connected that time to her current fear of being vulnerable, a light bulb flashes off in her mind. A routine connection for me, a completely new concept for her.

And then there were the goodbyes.

The women who clearly didn’t like me on our first visits now offers me comfort as she recounts her own retirement story.  Over the time that we have worked together we have gained an appreciation and respect for each other.

A lady that I worked with since 1993 sits down on my leather couch..  When I first started working with her she was crippled from relentless panic attacks.  Now, 25 years later, she coordinates care for 7 busy physicians.  She is the go-to person when disasters happen. We reminisce over the years.  “I never thought my life would turn out like this.  I am happy,” she tells me.  At the end of the session she hands me a card where she wrote that she was blessed to have me as her doctor and life counselor.  I am grateful that I didn’t read the note in front of her, as I would have been embarrassed to have her see tears running down my face.

A few months ago a long-term patient had sent in a “release of information” to have his records transferred to a new psychiatrist.  He was moving on to a new provider, my function no longer needed.  At the time I felt surprised by his actions.  I remember thinking, “Wow, after 30 years I can still misjudge someone.”   I had thought that I had made a significant and meaningful impact in his life, but it seemed like my assessment and his reality were misaligned.

I was surprised to see his name on my schedule yesterday.  Indeed, he had secured a new psychiatrist, and in fact he had a bridge script form his primary care doctor to last until that meeting.  There was no practical or functional reason for him to have an appointment with me. He had made the appointment to thank me and say goodbye. “When I first came to see you it was a very dark time for me.  I couldn’t see a way out.  Now I feel normal.  I no longer see you as my psychiatrist, I think of you as my friend.”  I held back more tears.

Another long-term patient entered.  I had worked with him since his late teens.  At that time he was plagued with depression and psychosis.  He now works in a highly technical field installing and programming complex industrial machines. He is a very smart guy. He showed me a photo of a beautiful wood carving that he created using a C and C machine.  He tells me, “Doc, I always wanted to be respectful of your boundaries.  Now that you are retiring I hope we can share more.”  I once again hold back tears and I reflect on how this former frightened teen has become a respected and incredibly nice man.

I ready myself for today’s workday. I have no idea what I will face.  Angry people?  Sad people?  Indifferent people? Thankful people? The clock keeps ticking, and I am awash with feelings of every type imaginable.

I know I must move forward, but I am acutely aware of what I am leaving behind.  Dear reader, I will continue to keep you posted on my journey.  Thank you for caring enough to continue to read these long, self-indulgent posts. I may be a psychiatrist, but I am also a person. Writing helps me share.  It gives me comfort to think that someone is listening to me.

Who Am I?

A cooler morning today. More fall-like, more in tune with the expectations of the season. When I left the comfort of my home I was met with 50 degrees of briskness. It felt right.

I don’t usually plan what I write about, I typically hope for some sort of inspiration. This morning my thoughts were cluttered, none able to gel into a ball of coherence that could be expanded into a missive.

If there was one theme it would be, “Who am I at 64.” I’m not sure beyond a laundry list of titles: father, husband, friend, doctor… none seem to define me very well, likely because many of them are in transition.

The other day I told Julie  of my inability to be. It is almost impossible for me to not be productive. I always feel an internal push to do something. I always have a need to justify my existence. I don’t attach a “good” or “bad” valence to this quality. With that said, there are times when I wish that I could just shut it off and be.

And so it is with my next chapter of my life. In two and one-half months I will enter phase one of my retirement. What will become of me?

In the 10 plus years of planning, I have held onto the idea of returning to my creative roots. Writing, taking photographs, teaching. As I approach phase one these goals start to seem like folly. I can certainly do them, but will they have any meaning if no one connects with them? I don’t think that this is grandiosity on my part. Rather, my practical mind sees little point in expending energy that doesn’t have a purpose.

Problems that I thought that I solved years ago present new. Should I travel for inspiration? How do I connect with strangers and convert them into friends? What should I write about? Should I pick commercially viable topics, or should I write from my soul? How much should I reveal about myself? How vulnerable can I be?

At the moment I am trying the “blunt instrument” approach. I take photographs, I write, I make videos, I do podcasts. I hope that one of these outlets will catch fire with me. That somehow the act of doing will show me the course to follow. That my actions will have meaning.

At 64 I still want to change the world. There is an urgency to this idea, combined with the reality of my life. If I haven’t changed it during the majority of my life how can I change it with the minority remaining?

To be honest with you dear reader, I’m not even sure what that change would be. The themes that flow through me today include: tolerance towards others, understanding others, the common core of humanity, our planet… the list goes on. I chuckle as I read my list. Still altruistic. Still a little boy trying to do something big. Still holding on to what the nuns said, “Michael, God has plans for you.”

My time is running out. I should have acted sooner. I should have been braver. I should have been stronger.

Dear reader, if you have read this entire piece, I thank you. My writings aren’t three sentences of inspiration. They don’t have the funny punch line of a meme. The don’t polarize you and force you on one side of the fence or the other.

When you read my writings you enter the mind of a common man who thinks and wonders, “Why am I here? Is success based on how many marbles that I have at the end of the game? How many friends have I acquired? How many papers that I have published? Sadly, this common man doesn’t know the answer to these questions, even after 64 years of thinking about them.

For now, I’ll keep hacking away with my blunt instruments, if only because I have no other tools at my disposal.