The family vacation is an important rite of passage. Often viewed with great anticipation, even a simple trip can involve significant investments in both time and money. Therefore, it can be disheartening when activities or attitudes don’t go as planned.
I have been told that I’m easy to travel with, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to adjust my actions and behaviors over the years, as have the rest of my family. Here are some things that the Kuna family does to maximize vacation enjoyment. I hope that you will find these tips useful for your next family adventure.
Understand your fellow traveler
I am the guy that likes to pack a week before a trip. My wife is more freestyle and prefers getting ready the night before. When it comes to packing, we respect each other’s position, but our different behaviors impact us in other ways.
I find crowded and fast-moving airports confusing and stressful. Add to this the fact that at 6’ 3” flying is uncomfortable for me, and you can understand that my stress and irritability build the morning of a flight. My wife is more relaxed in these situations and sees nothing wrong arriving at the airport “just-in-time” or less. In the past, our conflicting attitudes could create tension at the start of the trip, which usually resulted in me becoming progressively more tense and quiet, and Julie becoming more critical of my lack of engagement.
This changed some years ago when I fessed up to her about the anxiety that airports and flying cause me. Now, instead of two people acting out their frustrations, we cooperate. I make a concerted effort to stay in the moment, and Julie makes an effort to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I still don’t like flying, but I now have an ally instead of an enemy the morning of our flight.
Do you anticipate your vacation months before it actually occurs? We do, and such anticipation can make it easy to become unrealistic with plans or expectations. Our family trips often involve 5 people, which makes even simple activities complicated and expensive.
It is unrealistic for us to spend $350 per person ($1750/total) to take a Grand Canyon helicopter ride, but we can certainly enjoy the park ranger talks, hike the trails, and have lunch at one of the park restaurants. This philosophy extends to less extravagant activities. We don’t go to novelty wax museums or other low-value/high-cost events. However, we will do activities that are unique to the location, such as going to the top of the Seattle Space Needle or touring the Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona. Our rules of engagement are understood by all family members, and I can’t think of a time when someone had a fit because we didn’t do a low-value activity.
We attempt to be economical with our accommodations. Our preferred vacations are campouts, as we are all nature lovers. However, we have also had many trips that involved hotel stays. We view a hotel room as a place to sleep, and our priority is on clean as opposed to luxury. We value hotels that offer family-friendly amenities such as an in-room fridge and a complimentary breakfast. We will go to a fancy restaurant or two on a trip, but these visits are considered bonuses. We celebrate a great dinner, but we can also enjoy hotel room PB and J sandwiches.
Imagine 5 adults traveling. Person A may want Chinese food, but person B wants Mexican. Person C is ready for the next adventure, but person D wants to linger at a current activity. We have found peace with the simple idea that it is OK not always to get what you want. We try to live by the concept of majority rule, but when push comes to shove either Julie or I have the final vote.
Expect The Unexpected
Things don’t always turn out the way that you want them to, and sometimes things go terribly wrong. We have blown car engines on trips, and have had other mechanical disasters. Several years ago, our accommodations got screwed up, and the 5 of us were expected to stay in a cabin that had only a single bed. Although we try to be proactive, sometimes even the best plans fall apart. We don’t expect our vacations to be perfect; instead, we focus on the positives of the trip.
Reward Effort And Behavior
In the past, I did most of the driving, but more recently, I have been sharing the driving with Julie. On our most recent trip, we faced a horrific thunderstorm as we drove on the congested expressways of Atlanta. At times the downpour was so torrential that it was impossible to see the car in front of us. Julie was driving, but I tried to do what I could to relieve her stress. When we safely reached our destination, I announced to the family that we should give her a round of applause for her skillful effort. Acknowledging her validated her stress and gave her temporary hero status. Costs of making her feel better, completely free.
On the same trip, we also faced rain when we toured Charleston, SC. Charleston is a beautiful and historic city, and we were hoping to spend a lot of time exploring. However, the rain prevented much of this. We shifted our visit to indoor activities instead. Although hardly ideal, we still got a flavor for the town and enjoyed our stay.
A vacation is just a vacation. Practice the art of generosity, and both you and your vacation mates will be happier. During most holidays, there are things that I may want to do that may be different from activities that someone else may wish to. My solution? I tend to give in to the other person’s wishes. In a hyper-assertive and self-absorbed world, this may seem weak. However, imagine that all parties practice generosity. When we tally up our adventures at the end of a trip it usually turns out that we all got to do the things that we really wanted to do. When everyone cooperates, everyone benefits.
Find Joy Everywhere
There is a lot of joy to be found beyond the exclamation points of a trip. A beautiful sunset, fragrant flowers on a walk, engaging public art; there are enjoyable experiences everywhere. Finding hidden joy initially takes practice, but if you make the effort you get a lot of happiness in return.
Our return flight from Atlanta to Chicago was scheduled for 9:30 AM. We had to return a rental car, check our bags, and go through TSA. We knew that we had to be up and out very early. To give us a little more time, we decided to find a room close to the airport for the night before our flight. Hotels close to airports are typically pretty expensive, but Julie found one that was only $80/night. Fortunately, the room was clean. Unfortunately, there were other compromises, including the fact that anyone who used the bathroom faced the real possibility of being trapped there, as the bathroom door was defective. We all had a good laugh when someone got stuck, which evaporated any frustration (all parties eventually escaped!). Laughing at minor problems turn dissatisfactions into funny family stories.
Respect Each Other
Most of my suggestions focus on mutual cooperation and team effort, but it is also OK to be an individual on a family trip. My kids are older and responsible, and so universal participation isn’t required. Julie and I did several couple walks, and when possible, I let the kids sleep in. My “jam” may not be theirs, and that is OK.
Understand Financial Constraints
Despite being conservative, our 7-day vacation for 5 cost us over $3000 (airfare, hotel, food, car rental, activities). However, it could have been a lot more expensive if we ate out more, stayed at more expensive hotels, or did additional activities. By having an active conversation, we all work together to keep cost reasonable. We know to not go for the most expensive item on a menu, and we don’t feel the need to buy a souvenir at every stop. By being clear about finances, we avoided credit card shock on our return and kept our vacation memories sweet.
No vacation is perfect, but by following some simple rules, most family trips will become a fond rather than a painful memory.
Julie used to be the initiator, then it was me, then we tried to do it together. However, those days are now over. What was once so important has become unimportant. I guess that is the way life is.
3:45 AM I wake up and stumble to the bathroom and dress, I groan. I open the bedroom door to head downstairs, and I’m greeted by Mercury, the cat. She looks up at me, gives me a quick meow, and proceeds to scamper down the stairs. Her friendly welcome is really a ploy to get her morning treat. She succeeds.
After a check of social media, I’m out the door and walking to Starbucks for my 3.5-mile morning walk. It’s Memorial Day and the early morning is peaceful due to the lack of work traffic. As I get closer to downtown Naperville, I become aware of the hidden activity there. A police car blocks an intersection here, cone barriers are placed there. The city workers have been busy during the early morning. The city workers are getting ready.
It is now 5:30 AM and I’m walking down Jackson Avenue on the side of Nichols Library. The sidewalks on both sides of the street are lined with empty lawn chairs of every design and color. Interspersed between them are old blankets and sheets that claim other patches of sidewalk and curb. The residents of Naperville are securing their spots for the annual Memorial Day parade that starts at 11:30 AM. If you live in Naperville, you know that it is imperative to claim your viewing space early or risk being relegated to standing at the back of the sidewalk.
The Naperville Memorial Day parade is an enjoyable event, and likely similar to thousands of other celebrations that are simultaneously occurring across the country. Some watchers come to enjoy the spectacle. However, most attend to be supportive of someone who they know who is marching.
When I was active in the YMCA Adventure Guides (then called Indian Princesses) program with my two young daughters, we often marched in Naperville parades. When my kids started in middle school, they continued to march via their school’s bands.
In the beginning, Julie would be the one to get up very early to set up our bag chairs at the edge of the sidewalk. As the years went by I became the chair placer. Then over time, we both would go to mark our parade viewing territory.
Part of our attendance was due to the holiday celebration, but the primary reason for showing up was the excitement of glimpsing our kids when they proudly passed us playing some popular march. At the instant of their appearance, we would stand, clap and scream their names. Although they claimed embarrassment by our uncouth actions, they also seemed pleased with their moment of recognition and stardom.
My kids are in now college and beyond and their Memorial Day mornings are spent sleeping in rather than marching; with their change in behavior has come ours. The local parades that had been so important to us in the past have become unimportant.
When I was a young child, one of my absolute favorite activities was watching Saturday morning cartoons. Then it became unimportant. As a teen, my collection of LPs were played until their vinyl was so worn that the records almost became transparent; now their music is just a trigger for nostalgic memories. I can recall a desire to buy a bigger house, something that I absolutely would not want currently. I can remember taking on professional positions and responsibilities to advance my career; now, I celebrate my abundance of unstructured retirement time.
So many aspects of my life that seemed irreplaceable became replaced by other things, which in turn were changed out for still others. Life is not a static photograph; instead, it is a dynamic movie that twists and turns throughout time. It is a river that carries you down a journey.
Some people fixate on a part of their past and are forever trying to relive or return to that time. The middle-aged man who recalls his glory days in the military, or the former cheerleader who wishes to return to her popular past. Two examples of countless more.
There are also the “if only” people. These folks ruminate over a past misstep. “If only I would have married my high school sweetheart.” “If only I would have finished my college degree.” “If only…”.
Dear reader, we are precisely where we should be on our life journey. However, if we want to be somewhere else, we need paddle ourselves in that direction. We can enjoy our memories from our past successes, and we can learn from our past mistakes. However, to expend large amounts of time or energy in fruitless activity is a waste of both.
Last night my family and I streamed the movie “The Commuter,” a terrible movie. We all laughed at the lousy script and ridiculous premise. The experience was akin to a bunch of friends sharing a fun evening together. I smile when I remember their parade days, but I would never trade this present to return to the past.
As a kid, I didn’t give up Saturday morning cartoons, I traded that time for something else. I didn’t attend a parade on Memorial Day, but I connected with my now adult kids in a way that was just as enjoyable.
To live in the past prevents me from celebrating my present. Each day is precious and is never to be repeated. Together, Let’s look at what we have instead of what we don’t have. In reality, the parade didn’t pass me by, I was the one who moved on.
In the year 1900 less than two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010 more than fifty percent were. Less than one-third of all families will sit down together for a meal more than 2 times a week. Forty-six percent of Americans eat their meals alone.
Research has shown that people who cook/eat at home are happier, eat fewer calories, and consume less sugar than those who eat out. Eating as a family improves family communication and cooperation. Children feel more emotionally stable when their family eats together at home.
Preparing your food at home can save significant money. If you use a restaurant delivery service, you may be paying up to five times the cost of making the food yourself. The simple act of bringing your lunch, as opposed to buying your lunch can save the average person up to $2000/year. Even fast food dining is significantly more expensive than making your meals from scratch. Food prepared at home can be customized to your particular needs, and cooking simple meals is not only delicious; it is easy.
With so many reasons to cook why is it that so many people choose to eat out? Lack of time seems to be a significant factor. If you work more than 35 hours per week, you are less likely to cook: if you have a long work commute you are also less likely to cook. In addition, the less you cook, the less likely you are to cook. This latter fact may be due to lack of skill, confidence, available staple ingredients (an empty pantry), or cooking equipment.
Julie was our main chef when the kids were younger. She eventually returned to the paid workforce, and our dinners were transformed from homemade to frozen pizza, fast food, and delivery. Our kids were in an uproar, as they sorely missed home cooking. After some thought I took on the cooking challenge with one caveat, I would not do it alone, I would also teach my kids how to cook, and this is how “Cooking with Dad, Thursday,” started.
I have to admit that I had some initial fear about returning to the kitchen, and it did seem overwhelming in the beginning, but I eventually got my sea legs. What seemed difficult soon became second nature, and it has been fantastic fun to cook with my children. We plan our meals, shop, prepare, and clean up together. Over the last 4 years my kids have become both confident and competent in the kitchen.
It is important to remember that cooking becomes more comfortable over time. With experience, you understand what to look for when you prepare a dish. Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts don’t go as you had planned.
Here are some suggestion to help you transition from being a meal buyer to a meal creator. The ideas below can benefit you if you are cooking for one, or an entire family.
Buy a basic cookbook Why buy a cookbook in a world of internet recipes? General cookbooks are full of information for a new or returning cook. They define cooking terms (do you know the difference between mince and dice?). They educate you about the different cuts of meat. They show you what to look for when a dish is done, and much more. Also, their recipes are pretty foolproof, and they generally use readily available ingredients. I like the general cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker.
Follow the recipe When you are just getting back into cooking, try to follow the recipe for the best results. Once you get comfortable with cooking, feel free to substitute, add, or omit as you see fit.
Have the right equipment You only need basic equipment to cook just about any dish. In my next post, I’ll explore that equipment, and I’ll also look at small appliances that could ease your workload and speed up your prep-time.
Gain cooking skills. Practice is the most critical factor here. For additional understanding read your cookbook, watch YouTube videos, or ask your mom (or dad).
Have the ingredients When you start to cook, you may become discouraged with the lack of ingredients that you have on hand. Purchasing your initial stockpile of staple items like spices, flour, oil, and sugar all at once can make it seem like cooking at home is more expensive than going out to eat. However, it is important to remember that you are stocking up. Staple items go a long way and make many meals. Buy only the basics at first, and build your larder a little at a time to reduce sticker shock.
Start simply Instead of immediately committing to making three meals a day, seven days a week, start slowly. Commit to cooking one or two days a week. Or consider only making breakfast at home, or packing a lunch every day. As you gain confidence and efficiency expand your cooking commitment to other days or meals.
Have a plan To arrive at a destination, it is always best to know where you are going. Devise a workable meal plan. One option could be to eat a particular category of food based on the day of the week. Taco Tuesdays, Pasta Thursdays, Soup Saturday, etc. Having a little structure makes weekly planning much more manageable.
Understand yourself Can you eat the same thing for lunch and dinner? Can you eat the same meal 4 days in a row? Know your personal preference, so you don’t waste food. If you hate eating the same thing several days in a row freeze your leftovers for a future meal. If you can eat the same food every day, make a big batch one day and reheat and relax on the other three.
Divide and conquer You can save money by baking an entire chicken, but only if you don’t eat the whole bird in one sitting. When I was a resident physician, I had almost no money. I had to make every penny stretch, and I had a minimal food budget. I didn’t have the money to prepare food in quantity, but in those days there weren’t any cookbooks out there for single people. However, there were some books for cooking for two. I would make a double meal portion and immediately split the second half of it into a Tupperware container that would go in the fridge. The next morning I took that half to work for my lunch. I had a great meal that not only saved me money, but it took almost no time to prepare.
Don’t leave leftovers in the fridge with the idea that you will eventually eat them, plan ahead. Consider dividing up your leftovers in microwaveable containers. Some can be refrigerated for successive days, other portions can be frozen. Consider other uses for your leftovers. That leftover roasted chicken can be portioned off for a casserole meal, and its carcass could serve as a base for a soup to be served at another time.
Save money with combinations Just about every culture has delicious ways to stretch meat. Soups, casseroles, stews, and stir-fries are just some examples. You should try to employ these foods in your meal plan. They are easy to make, ingredient flexible, and soul-satisfying. Some of my absolute favorite meals growing up were combination foods.
Learn the art of the sandwich A cheese sandwich is OK, a grilled cheese sandwich is yummy, a grilled cheese, ham, and tomato sandwich is a dinner.
Consider breakfast for dinner Breakfast food cooking is easy and straightforward. There is no reason that you can’t have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner, or homemade waffles, or French Toast. My kid’s absolute favorite meal that Julie makes is Swedish pancakes (crepes). Making them is labor intensive, but dirt cheap.
Consider alternative breakfasts Sugary cereal in a bowl is… well, it is crap. You can eat anything for breakfast, including yesterday’s leftovers. Some simple, cheap, and quick options include: quick oatmeal (not instant) made by the bowl in the microwave in under two minutes, or apples with peanut butter, or toast with peanut butter and banana, or scrambled eggs (which can be done in a cup in the microwave if you are making a single portion), or homemade muffins or quick bread… and the list goes on.
Make meat a condiment Meat is costly, and we all probably overeat the stuff. You can reduce the amount of meat that you use in a combination dish and still have a great dinner. Hamburger is the perfect meat stretcher as it can be combined with other ingredients to create meatloaf, meatballs, and a hundred different dishes.
Consider meatless meals I grew up Catholic, and in the day we weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. This never posed a problem as my mom had dozens of delicious meatless recipes that ranged from mac and cheese to homemade mushroom soup. Consider making one or two days a week meatless. You will have a more varied diet, and save some money.
It is OK to substitute once you have a little cooking experience Don’t have noodles? Toss in rice, or broken up spaghetti into your homemade soup. Out of fresh vegetable for your casserole? Consider using a bag of frozen. No one is the boss of you!
Ponder having a prep day A lot of people who regularly cook will prep on Sunday. They may prepare a big pot of something or a large casserole that they can serve for several meals the following week. Conversely, they may freeze some of it, so they have a stockpile of food at the ready. Others will prep up ingredients that can be combined into many different dishes. They may brown hamburger, or cook up chopped vegetables to use during the week as a base for other recipes.
Use it up Before you go shopping, shop your fridge and pantry first. Plan your meals on what you have. If something is still good, but nearing the end of its prime make sure that you cook it and not waste it. Items like somewhat stale bread can be converted into breadcrumbs, croutons, or French Toast. Overripe bananas can be quickly turned into banana bread. Softening veggies can be tossed into a soup or stew.
Avoid portion distortion Know what a regular portion/meal is and try to stick to that amount. You will not only save money, but you will be healthier.
Learn how to bake Baking is simple and rewarding. Don’t pay $3 for a muffin or cupcake, make them for pennies. When I stopped eating concentrated forms of sugar a few years back, I stopped eating muffins. However, I missed them, and so I found a variety of excellent muffin recipes that were no sugar added. I would make a dozen and freeze them. In the morning I would take out one or two and give them a quick zap in the microwave. They tasted like they were just baked and I had my muffin fix.
You can make cookies and freeze them in portion sized ziplock bags. You can also freeze the raw cooking dough in cookie-sized balls on a cookie sheet. Once frozen place the balls in ziplock bags. Take out what you want and bake… instant goodness.
I read a post from a mother who would make triple batches of cookie dough which she would freeze into cookie balls. Every day, when her son came home from school, she would take out a few and bake them in a toaster oven. Her son had freshly baked cookies every single day. I’m sure that she was mother of the year in his mind.
Consider cooking entirely from scratch at times Sometimes it is clearly cheaper and/or more flexible to make a dish entirely from scratch. Sometimes it is just more convenient to use some prepared foods in your recipe (like condensed soup), and the cost difference isn’t that great.
Find your comfort level. However, the advantage of thoroughly cooking from scratch lies in basic ingredients. If you have flour, you can make cakes, cookies, gravy, bread, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, muffins, and dozens of other things. If you have a cake mix you can just make a cake (yes, I know that you can mod cake mixes… but, hopefully, you get my point).
Singles, be kind to yourself If you are a solo eater, it has been shown that singles who eat out tend to lack core nutrient foods like vegetables and fruits. Do yourself a favor, and start cooking!
As I mentioned above, I cooked most of my meals when I was a single medical resident. I found ways to streamline the cooking process, and I think that I ate better than most of my more affluent cohorts. I learned a lot of tricks to accomplish my cooking goal. If I needed a little hamburger for something, I would defrost and crumble a frozen hamburger patty. I became a competent crockpot cook. I found that I could cook surprisingly good food in a microwave (no kidding). I would make extra of inexpensive accompaniments, like rice, and use them in future dinners so I could save prep time. Solo cooking doesn’t have to be a drag.
No kitchen, no problem! I’m trying to reduce my grocery bills because I’m retired, and would prefer to spend my money on other things. However, for many spending less on food isn’t an interest, it is a necessity. If you are on a limited budget, you may also have a compromised housing situation. You may be renting a room, or live in a makeshift basement apartment. Perhaps you reside in a tiny studio flat that only has a mini-fridge and a microwave. You can still make your own food using the cooking equipment that you have or by purchasing some inexpensive small electric appliances.
A while back I read a blog about a woman who lived in a very tiny NYC studio. She didn’t have a kitchen, but she did have a few very inexpensive appliances. She had a hot plate, a small rice cooker, a coffee pot, a toaster oven, a dorm style fridge, and a small microwave. Her building’s wiring was so old that she could only run one appliance at a time or she would blow a fuse. She would typically make enough food for 5 days in one sitting.
On the particular week of her post, she had tofu scramble with sautéed onions and peppers for breakfast. She pre-cooked the vegetable and portioned out the tofu so she could quickly fry up a daily hot breakfast. For lunches, she premade a mock tuna sandwich filling, which she then loaded onto her bread on the morning of use. Her dinners that week consisted of a homemade stir fry accompanied by rice. Five portions of her stir fry were divided into Tupperware, as were 5 portions of cooked Jasmine rice. Lastly, she made a pot of coffee and stored it in her fridge for a daily morning cup. She had a very tiny sink in her bathroom (and no kitchen sink), so she washed her dishes in the shower. Her example may be extreme, but it does illustrate that if you have a will, there is a way. She was able to eat vegetarian, shop at Whole Foods, and stay on budget.
Small electric appliances make it possible to cook for one, or a crowd. Every year I cook our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco Roaster, and we have anywhere from 15-20 people for dinner. Using the roaster frees up our oven for all of those yummy side dishes.
Mindset matters If you think of cooking as drudgery, it will become drudgery. Find the cooking style that works best for you. Listen to music or a book on tape while you are preparing food to make the time fly. Prep with someone and turn cooking into social time. Celebrate the fact that you are eating fewer preservatives. Think of cooking as a job where you get paid (by saving money) instead of paying out more cash for cold carryout. You won’t need to work that second job because you will be spending less.
Reassess You may come up with a great plan, but a theory is different than practice. If something doesn’t work, feel free to change it.
Progress not perfection As I have said in previous posts, we are not perfect, and we don’t live in an ideal world. Any changes that you make are good. If you go from always eating out to making dinner two nights a week (even if one of those nights is leftovers), you will save money. If you go from always buying lunch to packing a lunch, you will save money. Just do something!
Monday night, at 8 PM, and I scan the kitchen. There is one, another one over there, I find more in the fridge.
A couple of over-ripe bananas, and a soft tomato on the counter. A few slices of dried out delivery pizza, and a half-filled Tupperware container of homemade soup in the refrigerator. On the fridge’s door, I spy some milk that has gone bad. I take a look in our bread bin and come across a third of a loaf of very stale bread.
I gather my waste together for disposal. The milk carton gets washed out for recycling in mostly an ecologically symbolic gesture. The other items find their way into the garbage. Perfectly good food turned into waste. Do I feel bad or guilty about this waste? Sadly, no. I’m so used to throwing out food that my weekly kitchen purge yields about the same amount of emotion as cleaning the toilets.
On average Americans waste about 20% of all the food that they purchase, or almost a pound of food a day. This is in a world where about 800 million people are chronically hungry. In fact, the amount of food wasted in the US could feed 2 billion. That is a sobering number. Also, wasted food consumes 30 million acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of water to produce.
In general, all farming has an impact on the environment. Food waste has increased by 50% since 1974, and in fact, food waste now accounts for 19% of landfills. This organic material decomposes to produce greenhouse gasses that have a direct impact on climate change.
There is no good reason to waste food, yet I do it week in and week out. For me, there are a variety of reasons. Sometimes I will impulse buy an item and not like it. Other times I’ll make too much of something and grow tired of eating it. I’ll leave leftovers in the fridge because I have a taste for something else. I’ll forget that I bought something. The list goes on.
When I was actively working as a doctor, I didn’t really think about the cost of groceries. Now that I’m retired I am trying to change my food behavior. Eliminating food waste would put thousands of dollars back into my pocket every year. Money that could be spent in better ways.
I know that there are many simple things that I can do to achieve this goal. I should think about what food we have in the house to eat, as opposed to what I have a “taste” for. I should break meal stereotypes. Who says I can’t have leftover soup for breakfast or waffles for dinner? A cheese end can be added to a frozen pizza instead of being tossed. Stale bread can be made into French Toast. A soft tomato can be tossed into a pot of chili. These no efforts steps can go a long way in drastically reducing what food I discard.
Altruism can sometimes elicit a change in behavior, but cold hard cash is often a more powerful motivator. I would urge you to consider your food waste. A little planning and a slight change in behavior can help pay for a vacation, start a rainy day fund, or pay down a credit card bill.
I woke up at 3:45 AM to find that we had a snowfall during the night. The temperature was about 35F; not impossibly cold. I put on a scarf, my red stocking cap, ski gloves, and donned my Cabella down coat. On my Bogs boots, I strapped on a pair of YakTraks ice cleats and headed out the door. Off I went on my 3.5-mile round trip walk to Starbucks.
I had discovered YakTraks a few years back, and they have allowed me to walk much more securely on icy sidewalks. We have had strange weather in the Midwest with warm rainy days followed by freezing cold. These juxtapositioned temperatures have resulted in a lot of very slippery sidewalk ice, which is even more dangerous when it is hidden by freshly fallen snow. I have had a lot of near falls in the last month, which is why I have become increasingly dependent on the YakTraxs.
The weather reports had all been warning about an upcoming Arctic Blast that was scheduled to hit Chicago on Wednesday. They spoke of the lowest temperatures in Chicago’s history and cautioned everyone to stay inside.
I decided to walk on that Wednesday, despite potential temperatures below -20F. I felt that I could face the cold safely if I prepared adequately. My overall goal is to try to walk most days, and through the years I have purchased gear to handle most any weather. I’m hardly a risk taker, but I like to push the envelope and challenge myself.
I did a mental inventory of the things that I already had at home that would be useful for the trek, and went on a hunt and gather mission in my closet. I looked for a pair of glove liners, but I found my old trooper hat instead. I located a good flannel shirt and my Naperville North orange hoodie. In my sock drawn I grabbed two pairs of heavy socks. I planned on wearing jeans, but I knew that they wouldn’t be warm enough on their own. I clicked on Amazon and found an inexpensive, but recommended pair of thermal underwear and ordered it. I popped for the extra $3 next day delivery charge. At the same time, I ordered a pair of inexpensive ski goggles. In past winters I discovered that frigid cold wind would really burn my eyes and I was unsure what -20F would do to them. With accessories gathered or ordered I felt up for the challenge.
Tuesday-Temperature 0F, Windchill -26F
Another day to get up at 3:45 AM, Same gear as Monday, same walk. On my return I made a horrible discovery, I lost my YakTrax cleats on my left boot. That explained why I was slipping so much! I checked the driveway and looked down the street for the rubbery, spikey band. It was nowhere to be found.
I left mention of my intentions of walking the morning of the Arctic Blast on Facebook and received many responses from friends and family advising me to reconsider my plans. Most said that my actions were foolish and a few offered an alternative, like taking a nice walk in at the mall.
My son William seemed especially concerned and clearly wanted me to stay home. My wife Julie said that it wasn’t uncommon for her to walk to school in sub -20F temps in Minnesota, “They never closed schools.” Spoken like a real Swede! With that said, she was not without concern as she showed me where she kept her stash of hand warmers.
I checked Amazon, and the soonest I could get a replacement for the YakTraxs was the following Monday. I checked the websites of local stores to see who carried ice cleats and headed out to buy a pair. First Walmart- sold out. Then Dick’s- sold out. Then Home Depot- sold out. Then Ace Hardware- sold out, but the Ace manager did say that they had a different brand that was still in stock. Those cleats consisted of a small rubber band that was held onto a boot with a flimsy sheet of velcro. Being the only option, they were the best option, and I bought them.
Wednesday-Temperature -24F, Windchill -52F
I woke up at 3:45 and noticed that the house seemed colder than usual. Everything was silent and dark. I had stacked my clothes on the chair in the corner the night before and grabbed them in the dark, so as not to wake Julie. I dressed in the bathroom.
Thermal long sleeve T-shirt, thermal long johns, two pairs of socks, flannel shirt, heavy jeans, hoodie.
I went downstairs and checked the weather on the computer as I drank a half cup of coffee and ate an apple with peanut butter. Then it was time to complete my preparation.
Down coat, face mask, trooper hat, ski goggles, scarf over my nose and mouth, coat’s hood over everything. Into my gloves, I placed the hand warmers that Julie shared with me.
I had set up a chair in the hallway to make it easier to put on my Bog boots. I had already attached the new ice cleats, and they were sharp and seemed like they could damage the floor, so I wanted to be able to get the boots on and be out the door in a single step.
I opened the door and faced the elements. I have discovered that when you leave the house on a cold day you temporarily take the house’s heat with you, and for the first 30 feet or so it didn’t feel cold at all, but then it hit me.
I had dressed so well that it felt like a typical cold day and I started to walk. Some sidewalks were freshly shoveled, but even these had a thick layer of ice on them. Within 4 houses I began to notice that my feet were really slipping and I almost fell a few times. I looked down at my boots, and even in the dark, I could see that both my ice cleats were missing. It was time to problem solve.
The most sensible option would have been to return home. However, I absolutely didn’t want to do that as I had prepared so well and I really wanted to challenge myself. Staying on the sidewalk was a no go. Every few feet I found myself almost falling. It was dark, and just about everyone was indoors. If I fell and lost consciousness, there was the real chance that the snow that I fell into would melt and negate all of my carefully planned layers. The possibility of freezing to death at -52F is real. Walking on the sidewalk was not an option.
My brain moved into problem-solving mode. I could walk on the grassy, snow-covered lawns, but the snow was too deep, and I would surely get wet. The streets, being dark asphalt, retained more heat and thereby were less icy. I usually don’t like walking on the streets because of the possibility of getting hit by a car, but it was a reasonable option, and it would allow me to continue my journey. I elected to do it.
My face, trunk, and feet were all pretty warm, but my legs were starting to feel the burn from the cold. My ski goggles were definitely helping, but they were beginning to ice up in a way similar to a car windshield on a frosty day. The ice started at the top of the goggles, and with each block, it expanded down a bit.
The cars on the road were few, and I was grateful for the limited traffic. A middle-aged couple in a minivan stopped and asked me if I needed a ride; I told them I was thankful for their kindness, but I was OK. My walk continued. A few blocks later I saw a compact car stopped dead in the middle of the road a block ahead of me. I was concerned that something was wrong. I approached the vehicle and saw an older man sitting in the driver’s seat; I asked him if he was OK. He said he was waiting specifically for me, and that he would be happy to drive me anywhere I needed to go, “It’s too cold for you to be out.” I thanked him for his kindness and moved on.
I entered Starbucks, but I was unrecognizable due to my getup. I waved to the barista and said hello. She recognized me and rewarded my walk by upgrading my coffee. Initially, I had the entire coffee shop to myself, and I set up my laptop and started to write. My friend Tom showed up to visit and commented that his diesel pickup started without a hitch. I was amazed as I thought a diesel required some sort of heater to keep its fuel from turning into Jello on freezing cold days. He went off to his worksite, and I redressed for the walk home.
It was now light outside, and there was more car traffic. A man in his 30s driving a BMW was very annoyed with me (edging close to me with his car) because I was taking too long to cross an icy street, and this delayed his left-hand turn. I wasn’t about to speed up my efforts so he could arrive at his destination 3 minutes earlier.
The return trip seemed colder, but also quicker. I decided to walk down Jefferson instead of my usual Jackson as I thought that the roads would be less slippery. As I crossed the DuPage River, an old Chevy pulled up alongside me. It was full of young Mexican guys, and I guessed that they were going to work. The window on the passenger side rolled down, and I saw a youngish man with a concerned look on his face. “Sir, can we offer you a ride somewhere?” I told them that I was only two blocks away from my destination. I thanked them and sent them on their way. I arrived home feeling triumphant. I honestly felt like I had just scaled Mount Everest.
My actions were not foolish, they were careful and calculated. The safest option would have been to stay in bed. The possibility that I chose did have some risk, but it was not reckless. I like the idea of pushing myself because when I do that, I grow. The lessons that I learned on other cold day walks served me well on this freezing day. No information is ever useless, you just need to know when to apply it.
I gained more information on that freezing day. Out of the four encounters that I had with drivers, three of them showed me how good and wonderful strangers can be.
For my 50th birthday, I gifted myself with a real doctor’s car, a Mercedes. When I pulled out of the dealer’s lot, I felt like I was the king of the world. After a month of driving my new car, I realized that it was just another box on wheels.
The house lights dimmed and my eyes focused on the panel of experts sitting at a long table. The host introduced each member, starting with the representative from our local community college, and ending with a counselor from the University of Chicago. She represented all of the “highly selective colleges.” It appeared that the panel members were positioned in a classic good, better, and best order.
You may be wondering what a highly selective college is. A selective college is one that accepts less than half of its applicants, and a highly selective college is a college that accepts less than one-third of its applicants. I attempted to determine who coined the selective and highly selective terms, but I was unsuccessful. However, these names have the ring of a good advertising campaign slogan.
A school can become a selective or highly selective simply by refusing more applicants. The Washington Post in an October 2017 article listed some of the ways that colleges become selective and highly selective. One way is to buy the list of names of individuals who have taken the ACT and SAT college admission tests, and to then market your school directly to those students, even when your college has no intention of ever accepting them. This not only reduces the percentage of individuals accepted, but it also provides revenues to the college via application fees. A second technique is to use multiple applications cycles, like early decision.
As an example, Vanderbilt University filled 54% of its freshman positions via early decision rounds. In other words, only 46% of first-year slots were available for the majority of the applicants, thereby reducing the percentage of students accepted. It is unlikely that applicants accepted by early decision will be offered merit scholarships, as they have agreed to a binding commitment to attend. The college has them and doesn’t have to worry about the student getting a better offer elsewhere. This makes it more likely that a higher percentage of these students will come from affluent families who can afford to pay full tuition.
You may hear statistics that promote the benefits of attending a highly selective school. In a 2010 article, the New York Times cited a study from the RAND corporation that showed strong evidence that graduates from highly selective colleges did very well. The study looked at participants who had graduated ten years prior and found that individuals who attended highly selective colleges made 40% more income than individuals who graduated from the least selective colleges. On face value, it would seem that highly selective colleges possess some “secret sauce” for success. However, isolated statistics rarely tell the full story. Students from highly selective colleges are often very motivated and enter college as excellent scholars. In addition, they can be more affluent and thereby have greater social and business connections. Graduates for the least selective colleges can be at the opposite end of the success spectrum.
A 2017 Atlantic article revealed that when students with similar SAT scores were compared there wasn’t a significant difference in overall earning between highly selective and less selective colleges. Factors that have a more direct impact on someone’s earning potential include the type of degree (engineering vs. social work) and the individual’s drive, talent, social skills, and motivation.
You may also have heard that 30 of the top 100 CEOs from fortune 500 companies come from Ivy League schools. This sounds impressive, but note that 70 of the top 100 CEOs did not. And let’s not even talk about university dropouts like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Do graduates from highly selective colleges have higher job satisfaction? A Journal of Labor Research article states the opposite. Highly selective college graduates were less satisfied with their job than individuals from less selective schools.
The subgroups that did seem to show a positive financial benefit from attending a highly selective college included individuals whose parents did not have a college degree, as well as blacks and Hispanics. The article speculated that these students benefited from the networking and connections that they made at their universities.
Highly selective colleges are typically more costly than other schools. Harvard’s 2015 average annual cost for a student was $64,400.00, compared to $24.673.00 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Both schools offer excellent educations, but a year at Harvard is almost three times as expensive. Many universities offer some financial need aid, but highly selective colleges typically do not provide academic merit scholarships.
The pressure to get into a highly selective school can be enormous and can be both internally and externally generated. I have known students who felt that they would be a failure if they didn’t get into the highly selective school of their choice. Parents sometimes use their child’s college acceptance as a personal point of pride, as well as a license to brag. High schools loudly celebrate when one of their students is accepted into a highly selective school. Parents talk about giving their kids the “college experience” as if going to an institution of higher learning was akin to a ride at Disney World. All of these factors contribute to the myth that a degree from such an institution is magical, which it is not. In my work life, i have talked to parents plagued with guilt because they didn’t have the resources to send their child to the school of his/her choice. It should be noted that the student’s choice often had little to do with academic reasons and more to do with setting, and social life.
A 2018 Forbes article headlined that the price of college is increasing almost eight times faster than wages. A 2012 report from the Huffington Post cited that the cost of a college degree has increased 1120% over the last thirty years. These numbers apply to all colleges, but highly selective institutions (as stated above) are the tuition leaders. There are many factors for these outrageous increases. However, a significant factor has been the increase in “easy money.” Students can take out almost unlimited secured and unsecured student loans, as can their parents (Parent Plus loans). This surplus of cash has allowed colleges and universities to raise their tuition and fees to unprecedented levels.
College loans have become big business, and lending benefits both schools and loan institutions. Sallie Mae was under the control of the government, but in the 1990s a private lender bought the Sallie Mae name for five million dollars. The new private Sallie Mae has been reported for unethical practices, but many parents associate the name with secured government loans and assume that their child will be treated reasonably and fairly.
Student loan debt is currently at a staggering 1.5 TRILLION dollars and rising. There are countless stories of student and parents who signed for loans, later noting that they had no idea what they were doing at the time. Students get not only subsidized loans but also unsubsidized ones. If the borrower can’t pay back the loan due to hardship, it may temporarily go into forbearance. This may sound like a good idea to the student, but it isn’t.
If a loan is in forbearance, it continues to accrue interest. That interest can then be added to the principal of the of the loan in a process called capitalization. There are cases where a loan has almost doubled from its original value. Imagine that you borrowed $60,000.00 and later discovered that you now owe $100,000.00. For lenders, the more money you are in debt, the more money they make. The government guarantees many student loans, so if you don’t pay them back, they will get that money from the US treasury. There is little incentive for companies to work with borrowers.
Forbes in a 2018 article noted that student loans are now the 2nd highest consumer debt, behind mortgages. The average debt per student is a staggering $37,172.00, but this only tells part of the story. Over two million students owe over $100,000.00, four hundred and fifteen thousand students owe over $200,000.00, and there are currently one hundred students who owe over $1,000.00000 in student loans.
It is easy to blame students for the loan crisis, after all, they signed on the bottom line. However, the massive scope of the problem suggests that the blame also needs to be placed on lenders and colleges, as they did not inform students and their parents adequately. Many students approach college decisions emotionally. They sign for loans with the perceived idea that they will make good money after graduation, and that they will have no problem paying the loan back. Yes, students need to be responsible, but so does both the lender and the college.
Many college students study majors that do not provide a path to a high paying job. Also, many students who start college never obtain a degree. Both student and Parent Plus loans cannot be eliminated by bankruptcy. This law was enacted in the 1970s with the industry citing a 20% student loan default rate at that time. However, only a tiny fraction of that default rate was due to students filing bankruptcy. A student loan debt is yours for life and it will impact everything from your credit score to your ability to get hired.
When a person stops paying a loan, it continues to grow with little chance of forgiveness. Search, “Dave Ramsey, student loans” on YouTube, and you will find the story of a teacher who owes $160,000.00, and dentist who owes over $1,000.000.00 in student loans. Couples that marry enter that union with their combined student loan debt, sometimes making it impossible for them to live independently.
We have a generation of graduates who are often underemployed and hopelessly in debt. They can’t buy a new car or purchase a home. They wonder if they can ever afford to have children. These are the young adults who did the right thing, they delayed their lives and got an education. Now they feel betrayed. Their financial insecurity impacts all of us and has a negative impact on the US economy.
Colleges are run as big businesses and employ those same marketing techniques as fortune 500 companies. It is essential to approach higher education as a consumer, rather than a student. It is crucial to squarely examine the cost to benefit ratio when making any college decision.
It is ridiculous to think that everyone should go to college; there are other paths to being successful in life. I know of many individuals who are skilled tradesmen. These people do very well financially. As bonuses, their earnings started after high school, and they have zero school loan debt.
When a college degree was less expensive, it made sense for some individuals to obtain less marketable degrees. Students were encouraged to pursue their passion and to broaden their horizons. However, college is becoming a trade school; a place where you gain a marketable skill. It makes no sense to saddle yourself with $100K of student loan debt for a profession where you will only be making $30K a year. Passion for an area of study can run cold when you can’t afford to put food on the table.
College is supposed to prepare you for life. However, massive debt cripples you. To circumvent the debt problem students and their parents need to be creative and think outside the box. Applying to a college because you liked the look of the campus, its sports complex, or its location makes little sense in today’s market.
Consider a community college for your first two years. English 101 and Math 101 are pretty much the same wherever you go. You may get more personalized attention at your local school.
Explore any scholarship options. Merit scholarships can be given by outstanding schools who want to attract the best and brightest to their institution. If you are a top student, it is nice to be the big fish in a little pond.
Strongly consider the cost-benefit ratio of your chosen major.
If you choose a low paying major, think carefully why you are doing this, and have a clear idea on how you plan to make a living that includes paying off your student loan debt.
For-profit online schools often have high tuition and a low graduation rate.
Your community college may offer the same certificate program that a private school provides at significant savings.
Realize that many interesting sounding careers have few job openings. You may want to become a music recording engineer, but good luck in finding a job in that field. Check job availability before you start a degree or certificate program.
Choose the best school THAT YOU CAN AFFORD, rather than the best school that accepts you.
Consider attending a commuter school to save thousands on room and board fees.
It is likely that you will need to take out a loan. Stick with government subsidized loans, and set a limit to the total amount that you will borrow throughout your degree. Don’t use loans for everyday expenses.
Use online calculators to understand what your monthly payments will be.
Understand loan terms, such as forbearance, un-subsidized/subsidized loans, and capitalization, and know how these terms impact your loan.
Schools and loan companies are looking out for their interest, not yours. Accept this fact and approach any offers accordingly.
Consider a certificate program instead of a baccalaureate degree, if appropriate. Community colleges offer many such programs.
Consider a trade. A practical skill combined with ambition and a little business sense can make for an excellent life.
I currently have two daughters in college. The oldest of the two attended IMSA, which is considered the top math and science high school in Illinois. Also, she was a National Merit Scholar. This latter fact granted her free college tuition at some colleges and universities. When we met with her guidance counselor, we were surprised when the counselor informed us that the majority of the school’s National Merit winners did not take advantage of free tuition, opting to set their sites on selective universities. I am thankful that my daughter bucked this trend and she is now completing her degree in Chemistry and Russian at an excellent state school.
My other college student was accepted at Vanderbilt and Washington University, both selective schools. She is also an accomplished student, but neither school offered her any merit-based money. However, many other colleges and universities did offer her money based on her academic performance. She is currently attending a wonderful Midwest university, majoring in Public Health. I am so grateful that they will not have the burden of tremendous debt that many students face. My graduating daughter is strongly considering applying to the Peace Corps. She would not have this option if she were facing the repayment of massive student loan debt.
Dear readers, it is essential for all of us to explore our dreams. However, the wise person makes this discovery sensibly and thoughtfully. Happy school hunting, and please share this post as I believe that the information it contains can help many parents and students who are facing the challenge of college.
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