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On Dyslexia And Backpacking

Freddie Nietzsche has referenced the impact of life’s difficulties in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, but with that said I do have the ability to turn something negative into something positive. 

 

I have mentioned my dyslexia in the past, but I think it deserves re-referencing here. As some of you know, I was unable to read in second grade. My teacher told my parents that she thought I was very bright and attributed this inability to poor vision. My parents took me to an optometrist who prescribed a very weak eyeglass prescription. I guess optometrists have to make a living.  

 

My 7-year-old expectations were dashed when I put on the specs only to discover that I was as illiterate as before. The fear that my parents would be angry at me pushed me towards a solution; I created my own method to make sense out of the jumble of random symbols that my mind was seeing. I feel that my alternative way of reading has given me an advantage. I may read slower than many, but I have superior comprehension. Beyond comprehension, I appear to have an excellent ability to understand the subtext and sub-connections in a written piece. My reading difficulty turned into a reading advantage for me.

 

I apply this concept to other aspects of my life; most recently to the subject of backpacking.In a past post, I wrote about my trip to Glacier National Park, and how it had a life-altering impact on me. A subplot in this post centered around backpacking. 

 

I enjoy day hiking, but I declined an offer from my friend, Tom to backpack with him. Tom is an inexperienced backpacker who challenged himself to hike in the backcountry armed only with knowledge from YouTube videos, and a healthy cash donation to REI.  

 

His 4 day/3 night trip turned into a 6 day/5 night experience due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and physical exhaustion. Despite these barriers, Tom succeeded in his quest and enjoyed the experience. Further, he feels that he bonded even closer to his son, as they had to work together to accomplish their goal.

 

I am happy for Tom’s accomplishment, but I am also grateful that he brought me a wealth of information on this topic. I had thought a lot about backpacking and read extensively on it, but third-hand data can only yield so much real-world details. Through Tom’s narrative, I was able to get an up-close understanding of the experience. What were the primitive campsites like? How did he go to the bathroom? What would he change in future hikes? What were the positive things about the experience? What gear did he wish he brought? What equipment that he brought was unnecessary? It is one thing to watch a YouTube video from an athletic 25-year-old backpacker, it is another thing to listen to a 52-year-old guy’s first time out. Tom’s story gave real context that allowed me to visualize myself in his situations.  

 

My personality is such that I get enjoyment from learning information and skills. As a new area of interest, the topic backpacking offers both opportunities. Additionally, my solo day hiking trips revealed something about myself that surprised me. Despite being a loner, I very much wanted to share my experiences with someone else, and I wanted to do that sharing in the first person.

 

I already had a sleeping bag, and I decided to buy an inexpensive lighter weight tent. Other small purchases followed: a blowup pillow, Smartwool socks, a better headlamp. 

 

My next phase was to try out new behaviors in a controlled environment. I set up my little tent in the living room, unrolled my sleeping bag, and climbed in for a nap. Success!

Setting up my backpacking tent in my living room. Making sure my sleeping bag fits (and taking a little nap).

When Tom came off the trail he gifted me all of his Mountain House freeze-dried food with the statement, “I’ll never eat that stuff again!” I have eaten MH on occasion and found it reasonably palatable. However, Tom ate Mountain House for all of his meals, and quickly became sick of his soft and lukewarm diet. I would likely have a similar reaction, and so I have been exploring other simple backpacking meals. In fact, I have created a few homemade “freezer bag” meals that my official tester (my daughter, Gracie) said tastes better than the commercial stuff. 

Trying to rehydrate pasta and my own dehydrated veggies. Rehydrating commercial freeze dried veggies. Making my own freezer bag meals that will be compared with a MH meal.Thanksgiving dinner in a freezer bag. Just add hot water and wait 10 minutes! My meal rehydrated.

 

The next phase of my experiment will be to attempt a backyard sleepout. I’m curious if I’ll be able to stand up straight after sleeping on the hard ground all night. Pending the weather forecast, I will likely do this in the next few days.

 

So, will I backpack? Unfortunately, I have run into some pitfalls in advancing this process. My goal was to do a three-night hike with Tom next summer when he travels to Yellowstone National Park. When I mentioned this to him, he was receptive but informed me that he was thinking about a 5-6 night adventure rather than a 3-night trip. This long trip would not be wise for me based on several factors. Tom is younger than me but in similar physical shape. Despite drinking a lot of water, he became dehydrated, and due to the sequelae of electrolyte loss simple movement became difficult for him. It is also clear that he became physically depleted after day three of his hike; this was his energy limit based on his level of physical conditioning. Any additional days became ordeals for him to conquer rather than enjoy. I would likely have a similar experience. Lastly, the way that he coped with this exhaustion was to lengthen his trip, advancing his adventure from 4 days to 6 days. This expansion would be multiplied with a more extended trip. For instance, a 6-day trip could turn into 9 or 10 days. Based on all of this, it would be foolish for me to consider such a long hike. I did suggest to him that we go on a few short local overnighters, which would allow me to check out my ability in situ, but as of this moment, he isn’t too interested.

 

What about other options? It would be great to hike with my son, Will, but he has no interest. Julie has never expressed a desire to go backpacking. My other kids are busy with their lives, friends, and activities. 

 

I am starting to explore the option of an organized club or Meet Up group, but I wonder if the cohorts would be too advanced for me. I have even pondered finding someone on Craigslist, or some other public forum. What would I say in an ad? “Wanted a middle-aged or older guy who has never backpacked who would like to go backpacking with someone equally inept.” For some reason, I don’t think I would get a lot of takers.

 

At this point, I am enjoying learning about a new topic and testing out new skills. If this hobby advances further, all the better. With that said, I believe that learning new things is always useful, even when the knowledge doesn’t have an immediate practical purpose. Seemingly specific information can often be generalized. For instance, my ability to develop decent freezer bag meals is directly related to the many years of hotel room cooking that I did when I worked 2 days a week in Rockford.

 

My goal is to enjoy the journey and not negate the process by only focusing on the end game.

 

Today I told you about my backpacking transformation, but the same techniques can be used when dealing with much more difficult problems. In fact, these rules also apply to other issues, even trauma. There are several factors necessary to turn an unwanted experience (a negative) into one that is desired (a positive).

 

1. Understand the process. 

2. Explore the pitfalls. 

3. Practice the behaviors. 

4. Evaluate if the overall outlay of time and energy are justified.

 

This methodology works, and so I thought I would pass the tips on to you. 

 

Peace

The Bear Chronicles

When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.


The offer was made in 2017, but I had to decline.  My friend, Tom had asked me if I wanted to go backpacking with him and his son, Charlie.  He had just come back from the remote Glacier National Park located in the west corner of Montana, and he wished to return in 2018 for a backpacking adventure. The trip would be a father/son experience as I would bring along my son, Will. 

The idea sounded exciting and appeared to be a great way to bond with Will, but he wasn’t interested in going, and the idea of spending a fortune on backpacking equipment without him didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me.  As luck would have it, Tom had to postpone the trip until this year, and during that interim, some things in my life had changed.

The main change being the purchase of an empty cargo van in the spring of 2018, and its eventual transformation into “Violet” my campervan. Violet’s design was the culmination of over twenty years of owning different campers.  I knew what I needed, and more importantly, I knew what I didn’t need to make a van conversion work for me. That conversion process started in the fall of 2018 when I had Wayfarer Vans insert a prefabricated interior into her.  That project added a bed, ceiling, walls, floor, and a kitchen counter to her interior. After that work was done, Tom and I spent several months customizing her further. We added three-hundred watts of roof solar panels, a vent fan, swivel front seats, LED ceiling lights, a custom storage compartment under her bed, a 12 volt Dometic refrigerator, and other refinements that turned a generic campervan into a travel companion with a personality.  She was christened with the name Violet as her interior cushions had a cheerful purple/violet color.  

My empty cargo van.
Empty van converted to Violet the campervan.

I had already taken her on a variety of short trips to Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Also, I traveled to Arizona to gather my graduating daughter’s possessions from the U of A.  During that trip, I sampled four national parks along the way, turning an ordeal drive into an enjoyable event. Those trips confirmed that my planning had paid off. Violet was not only roadworthy; she was very liveable.  

Tom and Charlie would travel to Glacier in Tom’s Ford Flex whose cavernous interior could easily be converted into sleeping quarters for the two of them.  I would follow them in Violet. In the ensuing two years, I decided that I didn’t want to spend days in the backcountry. While Tom and Charlie were backpacking, I would do day hikes where I could ponder and take photos.  It seemed like a plan.

I approached Julie about this idea months earlier, and on the surface, she was supportive.  However, I could sense an undertone of more ambivalent feelings. I convinced myself that clairvoyance was not in my job description and moved forward with my plans.

There wasn’t a lot to do to get Violet ready.  I did have her oil changed, and I gave her a good bath.  However, most of my camping gear was still in her storage bins from my Arizona trip.  I even kept some of the shelf-stable food in her cupboards, as it made no sense to unpack them only to repack them a few weeks later.

Everything was going according to plan until my aspirations were interrupted by, of all things, YouTube. YouTube’s algorithms are a closely guarded secret, but they do seem to have an uncanny ability to predict a viewer’s interest. I wasn’t explicitly looking up National Parks or hiking trips, but I started to get video suggestions on both.  More concerning was the fact that I was also getting a multitude of “killer bear” videos. These videos chronicled the terrible dangers of being in bear country, what to do if attacked by a bear, and the number of people in national parks who disappear never to be seen again.

Each ensuing video seemed to be more dramatic and made me more frantic.  There was the video of the trained “movie” bear who killed an actor with one bite.  There was the video of the happy hikers confronted by a mountain lion. And there was a video of a bear peeling a door off a sedan to obtain the food treats inside.  One video advised:  

“If a bear attacks, lie on your stomach and play dead. Don’t let him flip you over as he will eviscerate you. If he is starting to eat you, no longer play dead and fight him with any method at your disposal.”  

Fight back if he starts to eat you?  I ordered the largest can of bear spray that I could find.  More importantly, I began to develop a real concern that I was about to travel to a dangerous place, as Glacier has a healthy population of both black and Grizzly bears.

A few days before the trip, I pulled out a large plastic storage bin that I keep under Violet’s bed. That box contained some packing cubes in which I would stuff my clothing, one for socks, one for underwear, one for pants, etc.  It was warm in Illinois, and I was only going to bring shorts, but at the last minute, I tossed in a pair of jeans to be on the safe side. 

I needed to buy some snacks as well as some fresh food, and so I shopped for a half-gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a packet of Oscar Mayer turkey cold cuts, a block of cheddar cheese, a case of water, and some chips and nuts.  I also bought a bottle of Jack Daniels. I usually don’t drink hard liquor, but I did have a drink in the evenings when I was traveling to Arizona, and I enjoyed it. Having a whiskey drink had a “manly/Indiana Jones” quality about it. I thought about buying some cigars, but I can only be so manly, and to be honest with you, the smell of cigar smoke makes me sick.

The night before the trip I powered up my Dometic chest-style fridge so it would be cold when I transferred my groceries from the house fridge into it the next morning. I returned my now filled clothing box, and I loaded a case of water into Violet’s “garage” area along with my Kloss carbon fiber travel guitar. Our plan was to leave Monday afternoon after Charlie’s guitar lesson. I had taken trips with Tom, where we traveled in the same car, and we did well together; I was hopeful for a pleasant trip to Glacier.

Decades before I had “caravaned” with my sister Nancy and my brother-in-law Mike.  During those trips, we had CB radios in both vehicles, and we were in constant communication. I found it fun to travel in tandem with them. Traveling in this manner was different with Tom.  There was little car to car communication, which left me in an alert mode so I could anticipate Tom’s next driving action. Also, he is a more aggressive driver than I am. Lastly, Tom likes to wait until the low gas warning light goes on before he looks for a gas station.  I want to top off my tank before the gauge registers one-quarter. This later habit of mine was amplified in the wilderness of North Dakota and Montana where one could drive 100 miles before finding the next gas station.

There were many miles where we were the only two cars on the road.

I already had a fear of bears, and I was now dealing with the concern that I would run out of gas on some desolate highway in the middle of nowhere. The only solution was to come clean to Tom about my fears, and with my confession, he agreed to stop for gas more frequently. Strike one on my tough and manly persona.

It is over 1500 miles to Glacier National Park or almost 24 hours of driving. My wife Julie and my daughter Kathryn helped me load audiobooks from the library on my phone, which I could then play via Bluetooth on Violets sound system. Also, I could use my trucker style “Blue Parrot” headset to take and make phone calls. Lastly, I did have a cell signal on most of the highways, which allowed me to use Spotify.  Despite all of this connectivity, I spent the majority of my time thinking, and I tried to use some of this unstructured space to quell my bear-phobia.

Since 1967 there have only been ten deaths due to bear attacks at Glacier, and there are typically only two incidents of aggressive bear events (maulings) per year at the park.  The chances of me being killed by a bear were tiny. I used these statistics in an attempt to appease my concerns, but I was still unsettled. I further analyzed my feelings, and I discovered that my “bear anxiety” was in part masking other feelings, principally my guilt for going on a fun adventure while my family remained at home. 

The first two travel nights, Tom, Charlie, and I boondocked. In other words, we camped in unauthorized and unimproved places.  The first night at a beautiful rest area in Minnesota. The second night in a gravel parking lot in Sand Springs, Montana, a town that consisted of a single building that contained a little store, restaurant, two gas pumps, and post office.

Boondocking at a beautiful rest stop in Minnesota.
Boondocking at desolate Sand Springs, Montana.
We were full of excitement and anticipation at this breakfast restaurant in North Dakota.

Sand Springs is about 360 miles, or about 6 hours away from St. Mary, which was our port of entry to the park.  When we left Sand Springs, I knew that we would be at Glacier by mid-afternoon that day.

Bored, I decided to troll for local radio stations.  I switched on the radio and pressed the scan button. Within seconds a voice crackled through:

“Glacier National Park officials say a man who disappeared on July 8 is still missing, and the trail he’s believed to have hiked on is now closed due to aggressive grizzly activity.”

Mark Sinclair, age 66, left his car at Logan Pass unlocked, and with his dog inside.  He never returned, and it is speculated that he was taken down by a Grizzly. At 66 he was exactly my age, was this a warning? My bear fears flooded in.

As we drove further north towards the Canadian border, the temperature got progressively colder, and it started to rain. It was a freezing, miserable rain, and I was grateful that I had packed a pair of long pants. 

We arrived at St. Mary, which was less of a town and more of a small conglomerate of buildings.  A place whose only purpose was to serve the needs of park goers. Two gas stations, a tiny grocery store, a couple of restaurants, and a few motels comprised the entire town. We turned left off Highway 89 and onto the Going-To-The-Sun road, and we entered the park.

Despite the cold and the rain, the initial views were spectacular and inspiring.  Although I was tired, I was awestruck, and my bear fears subdued. Glacier National Park has almost no cell coverage.  However, there is limited Verizon coverage for a few miles in from St Mary. I adjusted my T-Mobile phone so that it could make calls over wi-fi, and I switched on my prepaid Verizon hotspot.  I would be able to communicate with Tom, who was in the car in front of me, for at least a few more miles as we tried to locate a camping spot.

We bypassed the visitor’s center and went directly to the Rising Sun campground, about 5 miles west. Tom noted, “Last time I was here there were campsites open in the hard-sided (no tents) portion of this campground.”  Unfortunately, when we went to check that the entire section was closed due to aggressive bear activity. My bear concerns were on the rise.

“Mike, go to the visitor center, and I’ll check out some of the other campgrounds,” Tom said.  Tom drove off and traveled beyond the little Verizon bubble around St. Mary. I busied my time watching the park’s introductory video, and talking to one of the park rangers. “How serious do I have to be about bears?” I asked. “We have had a lot of bear activity this season.  I would advise hiking with others and making lots of noise. Don’t forget to carry bear spray.” Her comments didn’t reassure me. I looked at a notice on the center’s bulletin board which warned not only of bear activity but also mountain lions. Next to it was a flyer with Mr. Sinclair’s photo. “MISSING Mark Alan Sinclair.  Last seen Monday, July 8 at 2:30 PM on the Highline Trail.” “Crap,” I thought, this is not helping.

I reconnected with Tom who excitedly told me that there were open campsites at the Many Glaciers campground, about an hour away from St Mary.  An available campsite was fantastic luck, and we started the trek to Many Glaciers. We turned left out of the park on highway 89 and headed north.  We then took another left onto Many Glaciers Road for the long drive to the campground. The Many Glaciers Road was in terrible shape, riddled with huge potholes, and at times it seemed to dissolve into the gigantic Lake Sherburne below.  After we entered the campground, it became apparent why there were campsites available. A large red sign read:

WARNING

No tents, tent trailers, or sleeping on the ground allowed in this campground.  High Bear Frequency.

There had been two separate bear incidents in July at the campground, the last one requiring the rangers to “haze” two bears who refused to leave.  This caused park officials to ask all tenters to depart, which opened up their campsites. “Crap again,” I thought. But at least we had a campsite.

I talked to the camp host, Rae, who found us a spot, and then I went to the campgrounds kiosk to fill out paperwork and to pay my fee.  I have a National Parks Lifetime Pass, and so the nightly rate was only $11 for a beautiful site. We were staying for 8 days, but Tom was paying for half of the bill.  $44 for eight days of camping, perhaps my luck was changing.

“Are you sure that we can camp here for eight days?” I asked Tom. “Sure,” he replied.  We parked our vehicles, and I went to place the receipt on the campsite’s post. I looked down at the post and saw the word “reserved,” and my heart sank.  Just at that moment, Rae came by doing her rounds. “Can we have this site for eight nights?” She rose a single finger to indicate that it was for one night only.  We explained our situation and the fact that Tom and Charlie were going backpacking in the wilderness. Rae nodded and said she would see what she could do, but there was no certainty.

That night I could barely sleep.  It was raining outside, and something or someone kept bumping up against Violet.  My GI system was going hyperactive, but I didn’t remember where the bathrooms were, and there was no way that I was going to leave the safety of Violet and enter the black void of the night. I started to feel responsible not only for myself but also for Tom and Charlie, as if I had to solve the camping problem on my own.  Where could we leave Tom’s car? Could I camp outside the park? How much did the motels cost? Did they have rooms available? I had many questions, but no internet access to explore solutions.

At 7 AM the next morning, I heard Tom’s engine start-up.  He was going back to St. Mary to secure backpacking permits for Charlie and himself.  I didn’t go out to wish him goodbye; I was already beat.  

After they left I heated some water to make coffee and I cooked some oatmeal to which I added freeze-dried blueberries.  My breakfast was OK, but my stomach wasn’t into it. I started to read through the materials that the park gave me. Where were the other campgrounds?  If I paid the nearby Swiftcurrent motel a fee could I leave Tom’s car in their parking lot? The questions continued.

The nearby and very sweet Swiftcurrent Motel.

I felt tired, dull, and queasy, but I decided to walk around the campground to get a lay-of-the-land.  Just as I was opening Violet’s cargo door, I saw Rae approaching with a note in her hand. She saw me and happily told me, “I arranged everything.  I placed you in a different campsite for the next seven days. I already put the sticker on the site, and it is yours.” A massive wave of relief came over me, and my queasy feeling was instantly reduced by at least 50%.  Through her kindness, we got past a major hurdle. “Rae, you are the queen of the park. I am so grateful for your kindness,” I told her with sincerity.  

Our initial beautiful campsite.
The campsite that Rae found was was also great!

On Tom’s return, I told him about my sleepless night, my worry, and Rae’s incredible thoughtfulness. “Mike, I never would have left you alone with this problem.  We would have figured something out together,” he said. I knew that he was right; I tend to take on all burdens by myself, a habit that I’m am trying to break.

“Do you want to hike to Iceberg Lake?” Tom queried. “I guess so,” I replied.  I grabbed some snacks, a dehydrated Mountain House Turkey dinner, and a liter of water, shoved them into my Osprey day pack and headed to the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan trailhead. The temperature was cold, perfect for hiking, and although tired much of my crazy worry had passed.  We entered the trail and started our uphill climb to Iceberg Lake, so named as it typically has snow icebergs floating in it even in the summer.

The scenery was spectacular, mountains, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and meadows filled with wildflowers.  Everywhere I looked was a postcard picture and I took many photos even though I realized that they would never compare with what I was witnessing in person.

Spectacular scenery.
Everything was so beautiful.
Wildlife was everywhere.
Hiking the path to Iceberg Lake. Note the beautiful Bear Grass (Lily) flowers.

As we continue to walk, it started to rain again, and that rain eventually turned into snow.  I dug into my pack and pulled out my hoodie and put it on. We ultimately reached Iceberg Lake and paused to take in its surreal beauty.  It was late July, yet that lake had vast slabs of snow in and around it. Tom set up his Jetboil, and we each reconstituted our meals. Me with my dehydrated Turkey Dinner, Charlie with Chicken and Dumplings, and Tom with Teriyaki Chicken. At our feet, fat marmots cajoled us and begged for food, not unlike Mercury, the cat back home.  We didn’t feed them as we had been warned too many times that such generosity is harmful to wild animals. Eventually, the marmots wandered off to a family less concerned about following the rules.

Eating Mountain House free-dried food at Iceberg Lake.

Hiking downhill was harder than going uphill as my big toes kept smashing into the front of my Vasque hiking boots.  We meandered back towards the trailhead, and I was once again dazzled by the scenery, which included vast stands of flowering bear grass, a prairie lily with towering white blooms. Our 10-mile hike was almost over as we were about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. Directly in front of us was an object that was half-way into the path.  At first, I thought it was a black boulder, or perhaps the trunk of a burnt tree; neither consideration made a lot of sense. A second look revealed the object’s true identity. Ten feet in front of us and entering our hiking path was a huge black bear! Surprisingly, I didn’t panic; I fell back on my doctor in crisis training. I slowly pulled out my bear spray and snapped off the safety on the trigger.  I held the can in my right hand at about hip level as I started to call out, “Hey bear, hey bear,” to let him know that we were humans. Tom and Charlie also had their bear spray at the ready as we stood motionless and tried to appear non-threatening.  

The bear paused and looked at us.  After about 10 seconds he slowly waddled first parallel to our path, then away from us.  I breathed a sigh of relief, but I was also aware that it seemed like bears were everywhere at Glacier National Park. 

We celebrated our hike with a trip to Kalispell and a stop at “Famous Dave’s” rib joint. I have to confess that every muscle and every joint in my body seemed to be sore, and even getting out of the car was difficult for me. I took a couple of Motrin with the hope that I would be my old self by the next morning.

I wasn’t sure how I felt after the bear encounter.  In some ways, it confirmed the fact that there were bears everywhere, and that they were not afraid of humans.  However, all of us, including the bear, acted reasonably. I went to bed exhausted and slept like a rock.

On Thursday I woke up to Tom knocking on Violets side window.  He was frying up bacon and asked me for the eggs that I brought on the trip.  With them, he made a bacon and egg scramble, which I relished along with a hot cup of strong coffee.  

Tom was repacking his huge backpack with clothes, food, a medical kit, and other necessities. “Where is your compass?” I asked. “Hmm, can’t find it,” Tom replied. “You can use mine,” I said. “Take my battery pack, and don’t forget your trail map,” I said. “Yes, father,” Tom replied and flashed me a grin.  

Tom agreed to purchase an InReach satellite transceiver before the trip, which I programmed to work with his iPhone.  The InReach radio transmits directly to the Iridium satellite constellation of 66 active spacecraft, which are about 500 miles above the earth. Since I also had a device, we had to ability to send simple text messages to each other even though we had no cell coverage.  

I called on my experience as an amateur radio operator and established a nightly communications net with Tom.  I used the visual imagery of the points of a triangle to outline the three daily steps that he needed to do. My litany was as follows:

First Point: At the start of your daily hike turn on the InReach’s navigation function and have it transmit your current position every 30 minutes.

Second Point: When you arrive at camp, turn off navigation to conserve your batteries.

Third Point: Between 7-8 PM contact me via the device,

By using this simple protocol, Tom’s position was tracked (in case of emergency), and as a net controller, I could stay abreast of any particular needs or problems that he was having.  Without the satellite radio, none of this would have been possible.

The tiny InReach satellite communicator.

Everything that could be done for the hike was done, so we piled into Violet, and I drove north to the Glacier/Waterloo International Peace Park, which is yards from the Canadian border.  Our destination was the Belly River trailhead, which was the starting point of Tom and Charlie’s 45-mile hiking journey. “Why don’t you hike with us a little bit, it can be your hike for the day,” Tom said.  Never one to ignore a good idea, I agreed.

Getting ready to hike the Belly River trail.

This path was completely different from the Iceberg Lake trail.  Dark, lush, wet, and very green. It sloped downward making hiking almost effortless. It’s beauty compromised by the legions of mosquitoes that were as big as horse flies and just as aggressive.  The hiking was so easy that I got caught up in the moment and I continued past my initial turnaround point; eventually, I bid my farewell to Tom and Charlie, and I turned back the way I came. 

Now going uphill, I became aware of just how far I walked.  In the stillness, I felt very alone, and a disappointment came over me as I was once again filled with concerns over bears and mountain lions.  Every 60 seconds, I called out, “Hey bear,” and snapped my carbon fiber trek poles together to make a cracking noise. At one point I saw a stand of tall shrubs move as I heard loud grunting. “Hey, bear.  Just passing through bear,” I said in my most convincing voice. 

By now, the temperature had risen, and the canopy of trees acted like a Saran Wrap cover keeping the humidity high on the forest floor.  I was sweating bullets. A couple of hikers approached me; I stepped out of the way so they could pass as we exchanged pleasantries. The brief interaction re-grounded and calmed me for the remainder of that journey.

On my way to the campsite, I stopped at the “Two Sisters” cafe for a ridiculously expensive hamburger that was also too salty.  I then returned to my campsite and contemplated being alone. I grabbed a cold bottle of Kirkland water and started to sip on it as I ran various options through my head.  It couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t explore the park further, so I knew that I had to push forward despite any fears. I reached for the packet of information that I received when I entered the park; my goal was to come up with a list of potential solo hikes.  I grabbed the pile of pamphlets, maps, and newsletters; out fell a glossy flyer with a bold headline, “Be Bear Aware!” The second item was: 

“Avoid hiking alone.  Most bear attacks have occurred with single hikers.  If possible hike in a group of 4 or larger.”  

I was a solo hiker who was already fearful; I didn’t need to see this. I thought about making myself a whiskey and coke to calm down, but it seemed like too much work.  Instead, I fell into deep despair. I had an urge to turn the key on Violet’s ignition and drive home, but I had a responsibility to make sure that Tom and Charlie were safe.  Besides, I was in possession of his car. If it had to be moved, I was the only one who could do it as he was literally in the middle of nowhere. Without the internet, I couldn’t check facts and research options.  I was mad at myself for being a wimp, but all of the evidence that I had supported my feelings. With no immediate options, I temporarily escaped by falling asleep for almost two hours.

When I woke up I had a new conviction.  I would come up with a workable, and hopefully, an enjoyable solution. I was at one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I was determined to experience it positively. The question was, how would I do it.

I’m a shy person who was taught at a very early age to believe that if I engaged someone before they engaged with me, I would be an unwanted imposition on them.  Intellectually, I knew that was not the case, but in the past, I didn’t possess a model to change this behavior. My friend, Tom is very friendly, and I have been teaching myself the art of successful interaction by watching him and modeling his behavior. I was already walking up to random people and starting a conversation at Glacier, and I was pleasantly surprised at how kind and receptive most folks were to me.  However, to turn around my situation at Glacier, I would need to up my game and move from simple interactions to the dreaded task of asking someone for something. If you have read other post from this blog, you will recall that as a child I was typically shamed and humiliated when I asked for help, and my resolution to this angst was to become wholly independent of others. Although I have changed this behavior with people that I trust I certainly have not done so with people who I don’t know. I bit my lip, and I told myself, “Follow the pattern of behavior that you have seen.  Accept that rejection and humiliation may occur. Assume that you will have enough successes to offset any negative interactions. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one.”  

Months before the trip I had purchased a large volume on Glacier National Park, but I never read it.  I now pulled it out and studied its contents. I decided that I would go on a significant hike every day, and the determination of that hike would be based on its overall popularity. This statistic would make these paths the ones most traveled by others.  I reminded myself that bears maul only a tiny number of hikers, and mountain lions attack less. I convinced myself that being proactive and reasonable would place me in the majority category of happy park goers, rather than the minority group of those attacked by bears.  I was not about to let my fears stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

My hike the next morning was to the old Ranger station at St Mary, and then on to the Beaver Pond Loop.  I walked the mile from the visitor’s center to the trailhead, but by accident, I entered at the exit of the path, not the beginning of the loop.  This not only meant that I was hiking mostly uphill, but all other hikers would be walking away from me, not along with me. As I started the path, I was met with a yellow warning sign noting caution due to recent bear activity.  I swallowed and moved forward. Much of the forest in the Beaver Pond area had been burnt in a wildfire giving the landscape an exotic look and feel. However, the absence of shade had a pleasantly unexpected consequence; the entire forest floor had become a sea of wildflowers.  Pedals of dark yellow, ultramarine blue, deep coral, and pungent pink surrounded me with both their visual beauty and fragrant smell. At one point I saw fresh bear scat on the trail. I couldn’t go back, so I went forward.

The old St Mary ranger station.
The forest floor was covered with wildflowers.

That evening I went through my usual routine of making dinner and tidying up the campervan.  However, I also incorporated modifications of activities that I usually would enjoy at home. I studied by reading all the printed material at my disposal.  My Glacier National Park book, handouts from the park services, and even an instructional manual. I took the time to become better at operating my hiking GPS unit.  I turned on my old Grundig 350DL worldband radio and listened in to some international shortwave stations. I then tuned the FM band. The only stations that I could receive on FM were from Canada.  I found CBC1 at 101.3 from Lethbridge, Alberta, and felt comforted by its NPR-like programming. I listened to downloaded music and the audiobooks that Julie and Kathryn had kindly set up for me the week before.  I was enjoying myself; I was starting to feel like my old self again.

At 7:05 PM, I received a text message from Tom, “The scenery is spectacular. You should have hiked with us.” I responded by wishing him safe travels. I then turned off my transceiver and went back to my other activities.

The next day I hiked to St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, the most popular hike in the park.  Putting my plan in place, I made a deliberate effort to say hello to everyone that crossed my path.  I also asked several people if they would be kind enough to take my picture. This action resulted in smiles and pleasant interchanges.  The falls were spectacular, and despite another bear warning sign, I felt comfortable hiking due to the number of people around me. While hiking the path, I found a large flat rock that overlooked a small waterfall.  I took off my Osprey pack and pulled out my bottle of water along with a whole wheat and peanut butter sandwich. Sitting on the rock, I savored the beauty of my surroundings and was surprised by a sense of awe and joy.  It was a good feeling.

I asked strangers if they would take my picture as a conversation opener.
I sat on a rock and ate my whole wheat peanut butter sandwich.

My evenings continued along with my recently developed solution, and my sense of aloneness evaporated away.  My pace slowed to meet my more limited demands, and I continued to feel a sense of peace.  

My nightly contacts with Tom continued, and over the days he informed me that his three-day hike was becoming a four-day hike, then a five-day adventure. Tom and Charlie were unable to cover the 45 miles in the time that the ranger had given them.  They were also altering their plans by taking a somewhat longer, but flatter trail. I was grateful that his movements were tracked and that we could communicate. If I didn’t have those communications, I would have demanded a search and rescue operation when they didn’t return at the designated time. The InReach communicator had made an enormous difference.

The next day I hiked to Redrock Falls and Bullhead Lake.  I kept alert and saw what appeared to be a nice family hiking ahead of me.  The family consisted of a mom, a dad, and several adult children. I approached them, “Hey guys, I’m a lone hiker, would you mind it if I hiked along with you?”  “Sure,” replied the mom. We started walking and entered into an animated conversation. I usually don’t tell people that I’m a doctor, and I certainly don’t tell them that I’m a psychiatrist as I don’t want to intimidate them.  However, this mom got that information from me in short order. “What kind of doctor are you?” I called upon one of my other board certifications and told her, “I work with people who have addictions.” At that point, a big smile crossed her face, and she said, “I’m a nurse, and I’m in recovery!” She then noted, “My husband is an addictions counselor, and he is also in recovery.” We continued to talk and had lively conversations on SPECT scans, ACEs, nutritional therapy, and a variety of other exciting topics.  She introduced me to her son, who had just been discharged from the Marines. She said, “He is a photographer,” which is another one of my great passions. With him, I talked about image sensors, lenses, and all of the other things that only photographers care about. It was a delightful hike filled with beautiful sights and pleasant conversation.

I ask a Marine to take my photo at Bullhead Lake.

That evening Tom texted me outside our 7-8 PM time. “This mountain is kicking my ass,” He wrote.  Later he sent, “I’m cramping all over.” I wrote him back, “Tom, you are severely dehydrated you need to up your fluid consumption right now.”  

The next morning I decided to hike the beautiful Lake Josephine, and then take the path to Lake Grinnell to see the Grinnell Glacier.  Sitting at the edge of Lake Grinnell, I pulled out my snack, a peanut butter Clif bar, and I started to much. Another fat marmot approached me, and like the one at Iceberg Lake, he began to beg for a chuck of my bar. “No way marmot.  You are supposed to be wild, go find some acorns or something,” I told him. A couple came up to me, laughing. “That guy was after our food too!”

On my return trip and I had a few random conversations with fellow hikers.  I came upon a young family with two boys who appears to be around 10 and 12 years old. “Hi there, would you mind if I hiked with you?” I asked. “Sure,” was the reply.  The family was from Southern Illinois, and they were heading to Yellowstone after their stay at Glacier. I entered into a long and delightful conversation with the dad.  At one point, we hiked up an incline, and I was exhausted. “Hey guys, I need a little break, and I’m going to rest for a couple of minutes. Thank you for walking with me and safe travels” The dad replied, “Well if you are going to stop, then we are going to stop too.” We paused for a bit, and then started our walk and talked again.  We exited the trailhead, and I thanked them for their company and bear protection. Smiles and handshakes were exchanged.

Facilities on the Lake Grinnell path.

Directly to the right of me was a park bench, and on that bench was Victor, a man who was camping next to our site. “Victor, do you mind if I sit with you, I’m exhausted.” Victor nodded, and I sat down and wholly downed my flask of water. Victor was a quiet man, but with a little encouragement, he started to talk.  He told me that he had retired early from his job as an overland trucker, and he was now living only on social security. “I need to go back to work. I don’t have enough money. But I need to lose some weight first.” He noted that he was from Great Falls, Montana, which was a few hours southeast of the park. There were no mention kids, and his shy demeanor left me with the impression that he had been single all of his life.  We chatted for about 20 minutes, and I then continued my walk back to the campground.

The text message from Tom that evening revealed that he was exhausted.” Initially, he was going to use the park shuttle system to get back to the campsite, but those plans changed with his new exit at Packer’s Roost, which was several miles west of his designated extraction point. I would be picking him up. “Bring four large bottles of Gatorade, preferably lime.” He wrote.  I had already had purchased a care package for Charlie and him, two real Cokes were chilling in my fridge, and I had a pack of Oreos for Charlie, and some banana bread for Tom. “You got it,” I replied as I made a mental note to pick up the sports drink on my drive back to the parks main east entrance.

The next morning he contacted me to confirm our plan.  I drove the hour from Many Glaciers to the St. Mary Visitor Center, stopping at a gas station to pick up four large bottles of Gatorade.  The gas station didn’t have lime. Instead, they had red and blue drinks. Not knowing what the flavors were, I purchased two of each and stuck them under my sleeping bag in an attempt to keep them as cool as possible as my little fridge was already full.

I knew that I would be waiting at St. Mary, but I wanted to pick up Charlie and Tom as quickly as I could as they were clearly at the end of their endurance. Still, it would take me over an hour to travel over the narrow and winding Road-To-The-Sun from St. Mary to their extraction point.

Hours later, Tom messaged me that they were at the trailhead, and I started my drive along one of the most beautiful roads in the US.  Eventually, I spotted them waving their hands and looking very bedraggled. Charlie gave a little cheer when I gave him the Oreos. Tom set about drinking three large bottles of Gatorade and a coke; he was very thirsty.  Charlie said, “Uncle Mike, we don’t have to go on another hike today, do we?” I replied, “Today is a day of rest.”

Tom bedraggled and dehydrated after I picked him up at the Packers Roost.

Afterward, I asked Tom about his backpacking adventure. “It was very hard at times, but I feel that it was a success.  Charlie and I worked as a team, and we got through it.” He said, “When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. I remembered that elephant thing you talked about a long time ago, Mike.  You said that handling a big problem is like eating an elephant; you do it one bite at a time.” Tom said he thought about that saying with each step he took up that “ass-kicking” mountain.

I smiled to myself; I worked through my issues using things that Tom taught me, and he worked through his problems with something that I taught him.  I guess that is the benefit of a good friendship; you are stronger because of each other.

Some good resides in bad things, and some bad lies in good things.  That is the way life is. When you don’t have any other options, the only option becomes the best one. If possible, try to make lemonade out of your lemons; if this is not possible considering tackling your problem, “one bite at a time.” 

Our last meal in Glacier before we started our long drive home. Tom and Charlie are as good as new after some food and fluids.

Peace

A cat teaches Dr. Mike how to be a friend.

It is 5 AM, and the house is quiet. I sit and type on my computer’s keyboard. I’m subtly aware of another presence in the room. Now, something is brushing my leg. I look down to see my friend, Mercury, the cat. Her jet black fur shines, and her golden eyes stare up at me. She is motionless. Suddenly and silently, she leaps onto my lap and finds a comfortable spot. Soon I’m scratching behind her ears, and she is purring.


I continue to examine the whys of how I relate to others. I’m discovering that some behaviors that I felt were intrinsic to my very core are likely artifacts from past experiences, while others seem to be central to my person. As I learn more about my own behavior, I have discovered that some of my unsuccessful attempts at friendships were the direct result of my own actions.

As I have mentioned in many other posts, I am an introvert. In a simple explanation, I enjoy people, and I like spending time with them. However, prolonged social interactions (especially in large groups) are energy-draining for me, and when I am faced with those situations, I require alone time to regroup and recharge.

I also have behaviors that I have unconsciously learned that can keep me emotionally distant from others. When I was a child, it was not OK for me to ask for help or assistance. My early attempts at this were often met with comments that I was wasting parental time or that my requests were impossible to fulfill and therefore, unacceptable. At the same time, I would be given a conflicting shaming message that I should be able to complete the task myself. Pretty confusing for a kid.

That confusing message fueled me to become a better problem solver. As a child, I would retreat and solve the “impossible” problem on my own in the hopes of getting approval. The approval was still withheld, causing my pride to turn that need into anger, which had the dual effect of stopping me from asking for help while becoming ever better at figuring things out for myself. In the end, I was left with the belief that I could only trust and depend on myself, and that asking anyone for anything would result in me being humiliated and shamed.

As I became more competent and independent, I started to pursue different interests, including science, as I was no longer constrained by outside expectations. Being smart in school garnered me praise and recognition from teachers and other adults. I wanted attention, and now I had a way to get it.

Like most strengths, this skill set had a flip side, I saw my value to others in what I could do, rather than who I was as a person. Also, I inadvertently found friends who viewed me as someone who could do things for them, which further strengthened my belief that my value in life was to produce. Unfortunately, this meant that I tended to form one-sided connections where I was giving, and others were receiving. These lopsided relationships of benefactor and recipient had additional ramifications, which could result in the recipient becoming resentful rather than grateful. If someone wanted my help, I was more than happy to give it to them… but often more than what they wanted.

Dear reader, I recognize this problem, and I have been working on it for decades with success. However, changing a core part of myself has not been easy. I initially started this process back in medical school by setting limits on those who wanted me to be on committees or do other acts of service of which I had no interest. Besides, it was also reasonably easy to set appropriate limits with patients. I have always strived to provide the best possible care, and proper care means ethical boundaries. It is not the job of a patient to make me feel better about myself.

I have always had reciprocal relationships with my sisters. This was easy as we were all raised in the same household, and so we are all helpers rather than individuals who ask for help.

I have worked hard to have a mutual relationship with my children and in my marriage, and I continue to redefine these roles as my wife takes on more of the family breadwinner responsibilities, and my kids transition from teenagers to adults.

After decades of effort, I thought that I had finely tuned my ability to take on extra tasks based on choice rather than obligation. However, a very significant outlier in this part of my life was the psychiatric clinic that I co-founded. In that setting, I found myself taking on more and more responsibilities as I always pushed myself to do things. The examples abound and ranged from teaching myself web design to save the clinic the cost of having a professional create a website, to spending months designing to what amounted to a customized electronic medical record for clinic professionals to use. I initially gained some kudos for my work, which made me want to work harder, but that praise ebbed over time. This reduction in acknowledgment had the paradoxical effect of making me want to work even harder to regain the attention that had waned. It was a vicious circle.

I remember one incident where I had to update everyone’s staff photo for a website revision. By that time, I had enough photography experience that I was capable of doing pro-level work. In other words, I took pretty good pictures.

I recall using my own funds to buy additional (and expensive) equipment for the shoot, as well as spending my evenings organizing and gathering my existing photography gear. Beyond this hunting/gathering, I also studied portrait poses, set up a temporary studio in my home to perfect my lighting, and even did practice photos with my kids.

This photo update was at the request of the professional staff, as their prior photos were becoming dated. Since most of the staff wanted a new picture, the activity became a mandatory clinic expectation.

Weeks before the shoot, the staff was informed that I would be taking their pictures on a designated Saturday, and they were required to sign up for a 15-minute block of time on that day.

On the morning of the shoot, I arrived very early and brought one of my kids along as an assistant. We went through the tasks of hauling equipment and setting up gear that ranged from multiple mono lights (flashes) to backdrops. I even bought a portrait stool for the occasion, as I wanted to be able to pose individuals in the most flattering way possible.

The first staff person was very late, and this was only the start of the issues of the day. Some people scheduled a block of time but then scheduled patients during that same time. Others didn’t show up at all, which forced me to go through the whole setup process for them on a separate weekend. Some staff acted as if they were doing me a favor, instead of the other way around. Some seemed annoyed and put upon.

I had staff members asked me to make prints for their personal use after they saw their initial images. I did this for them at my own expense. Besides, I spent many hours retouching photos. Pimples vanished, bloodshot eyes became clear, and old wrinkled skin was smoothed out. The headshots looked great (not just my opinion). In the end, not a single person thanked me for my efforts, including those individuals who wanted me to print up personal photos. Apparently, they had gotten so used to me tackling projects that my efforts had become expected.

I write the above as an example; it was not an isolated incident as I was always doing elaborate projects for the clinic that ranged from writing the clinic’s policy and procedure manual to creating/hosting/producing a weekly audio podcast that showcased the professional staff while also providing clinical information to listeners.

Dear reader, the fact is that I was equally to blame for this lack of praise and recognition. A dynamic was established similar to other scenarios in my life.

I am grateful that I can learn complex skills, but it still takes work. Superficially, it looks like most things are easy for me. Give me a job, and it will get done. However, what people don’t see is all of the background efforts, which is why I wrote the above example in such detail. A staff member’s exposure to the photoshoot was only 15 minutes, and no one was aware of all the pre and post work that was involved. Besides, I now believe that most felt that this was something that I really wanted to do, which likely led some of them to think that they were doing me a favor. Who was the person who established that dynamic? Me!

The requests to do additional tasks never really ebbed, and the stress of working so hard as a business partner and full-time physician started to cause health consequences with me. Because of my health issues, I decided to leave my partnership and gave my colleagues over 2 years of notice of my intentions. During that process, I slowed down my frenetic activity and had time to explore why I was working as hard as I was. It became clear to me that I was once again trying to prove my worth, this time to my partners. The clinic had become a metaphorical family for me, and my partners represented my two brothers who I was never able to achieve a close relationship with. Without realizing it, I was hoping that if I worked hard enough, they would accept and value me. Leaving my partnership was the only reasonable option at that time, and I was grateful that I dared to do it, and I was thankful that I had the understanding to learn from it.

Dear reader, that process happened when I was in my late fifties. Growth and change is a lifelong process.

At sixty-six, I am now knee-deep in the most challenging part of this personal change; the core issue. I have always been cautious of close male friendships, the reasons in total for this are beyond the scope of this post, but some of the significant factors have been already discussed above. My past unsatisfactory strategy was to keep male friendships at arm’s length. If I kept a male friend at a safe emotional distance, I felt that they couldn’t hurt me or shame me. However, a number of years ago this changed with my connection with my friend, Tom. I like helping Tom, but Tom also likes helping me. When we started our friendship, I made a personal decision to be completely honest and transparent to him, and that I wouldn’t turn into a chameleon. Instead, I would simply be myself in total. I would do things for him because I wanted to, not because I felt that I had to. I would show him not only my strengths, but also my many weaknesses, fears, and imperfections. The result? We typically connect with each other on a daily basis, and I believe that we both would agree that we are the best of friends.

Part of my growth journey involves admitting who I really am in a public way, as it forces me to be honest with myself about my flaws. I also know that some of my kids read these writings, and I want them to know me as a person who strives to improve. Lastly, I write this for all of those who feel that they can’t change the trajectory of their lives. I have been working on this one aspect of my personality for 50 years and have made good progress. However, I still have work to do in this area. I did not fail in my past efforts in this regard. Instead, those efforts have served as a foundation to build my current changes. We live in an instant world, but those rules don’t apply to changing a complex behavior.

Some of you may think that a medical doctor with three board certifications and professional life of helping people should have perfect control of his own emotions. I would challenge such an idea as naive. I’m not a one-dimensional cartoon character, I’m a real person who will continue to improve myself as long as I am cognitively able to do so.

For those of you who feel that you are too old to change your life, I’m here to tell you that your belief is rubbish. For those of you who think that intricate behavior patterns can be replaced with one magical step, a single self-help book, or a potent pill, I am here to tell you that is bullshit. Those things can start a process of change, but if your goal is to make a significant behavioral change you need to accept that it is a continual process that involves effort and honesty.

Improving your life is like peeling an onion. You get through one layer, only to face another one. Having to deal with the next layer of behavior does not mean that your first efforts were in vain.

When I tackled the above issues, I started with the most comfortable situations first, setting limits with individuals who I didn’t have an emotional investment with. I then extended it to patients, who I was invested in, but whom I knew that it was in their best therapeutic interest for me to retain my connection with them in as professional way as possible. I then moved to progressively more challenging situations over the last 30 years. This last decade of change has had me deal with situations that were at the core of this issue. Understanding my actions at my clinic helped me find some peace with the lack of connection that I had with my brothers, which then helped me form a genuine friendship with Tom. Investing in my friendship with Tom crushed my false beliefs that I am unworthy of such a connection.


Sitting at my computer, typing, and petting Mercury, the cat. Her warm softness makes me happy. She seems to be equally delighted with me. I’m not doing anything productive for her, she isn’t doing anything productive for me. Yet, we are content with each other, our bond established in our mutual desire to be together, and nothing more. However, it is more than enough.

Mercury, the cat.

How To Survive A Family Vacation

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.

Be realistic

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.

Cooperate

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.

Be Flexible

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.

Give In

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.

Find Humor

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.

A beach scene from one of the few sunny days.
Eating out at a nicer restaurant.
Sampling local cuisine.
Congaree National Park. Beautiful, but we got soaked!
Exploring is free and one of our favorite activities, but watch out for Alligators! BTW, we actually saw one on this walk.
National Donut Day happened during our trip so we had to stop to get our free donuts.
Me hamming it up at the Coke museum… and, no I didn’t buy myself a onesie.
Yes, it rained A LOT!
Getting ready to watch a movie “in 4-D” at the Coke museum.

The Parade Has Passed Me By.

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.

Julie securing a viewing spot from a parade 10 years ago.
My daughter as a proud flag bearer from her junior high days.
Empty chairs securing a spot for 2019 parade attendees.

Start Cooking And Start Saving Big

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.

Teaching my kids to cook has been a real joy.

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.

A general cookbook is worth the price.

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.

Small electrics can make your job easier.

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.

Make sure that you have the ingredients before you start cooking.

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.

Taco Tuesday!

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.

Soup is a perfect combination food. Our Thanksgiving turkey carcass made enough soup to feed an army.

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.

Cheap, time intensive, delicious!
Delicious crepes!

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.

A piece of fruit with peanut butter is a lot more nutritious than a bowl of sugary cereal.

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.

A delicious meatless meal.

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.

Just the right amount.

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.

It’s easy to bake muffins that will cost a fraction of what they would at a bakery.

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.

Cooking from scratch is not as hard as you think.

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.

Cooking in a hotel room without a kitchen.

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.

We make our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco roaster.

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!

Dear readers, let’s get cooking!

How To Instantly Save 20% On Your Grocery Bill

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.

Walking in a -52F (-47C) Windchill

Monday-Temperature 35F, Windchill 26F

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.

Wearing my usual cold weather garb.

Dressed for -24F

The Highly Selective College Myth And The Terrible Student Loan Crisis

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.
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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.

September Song

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

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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.

Dear reader, celebrate today!