Despite all of my efforts, I can still be a victim of my own imposed limitations. My personal flaws bother me.
I have been reasonably busy during my retirement year, and have grown in a variety of ways. I have been fortunate to use my photography skills to do work for others, and I wholly enjoy the challenges that those opportunities have presented. Every time I create something for someone else, my photography grows a little more. However, I am bounded by the expectations of the client. The constraints of the job limit my creative vision. There is another area of photography that I am drawn to. It is an area that has little commercial value.
I walk early in the morning, and sometimes I’ll spy lights on in houses that I pass. I always wonder, “Who is up in that house? What are they doing? What are they having for breakfast? Are they getting ready for work or school? What kind of work do they do?” The questions continue in my mind. I ask myself similar questions when I drive through small towns and villages. In each, lives are moving forward, some successful, others less so.
In the Midwest, many small and medium-sized communities are failing. Factories are abandoned; residents have moved to larger cities. Stores in the downtown areas are frequently closed or occupied by resale shops and bars. Houses are often in need of repair. These realities are especially evident in places ignored by interstate highways. Once vibrant communities slowly die, a process fueled by decreased populations and reduced city revenues. Each house, storefront, and building tells a story, and every one of them is fascinating to me.
There are other discoveries to be made on rural roads. Great barns, some shiny, others in ruin. Majestic parks, historical markers, and hidden vistas dot the landscape. All you need to do is to pause and look. Sadly, few do.
There is a little boy inside of me who is full of wonderment. I have been fortunate to have a few people in my life who share similar excitement when discovering those things that most others would pass on. These individuals have an inner child in them, and I am so very grateful that we have found each other.
However, I know of no one who has both the “wonderment quotient” as well as a love of photography. No one would find it interesting to go on a photo-taking adventure with me. Years ago, I joined a photography MeetUp group. However, the group expanded so rapidly that it ignited my shyness, and I stopped going. I much prefer more intimate experiences.
Who is stopping me? Me!
I want to visit small towns. I want to explore the countryside. I want to photograph images as I see them. Why have I been ignoring this need?
I am aware of how fear impacts my ability to do new things. I tend to overthink, and this can lead to “what if” scenarios, which can be immobilizing. However, I refuse to let fear stand in my way of doing anything rational. I will push past it.
Guilt also plays a factor. I have to admit that I feel guilty that I have so much free time. I feel guilty that I can do an activity on days when my wife works. Going on a day trip requires a level of self-indulgence.
Who is stopping me? Me!
I scanned a road map and determined that there were several towns on Route 64 that looked interesting. I could drive to them and back in a single day. I mentioned my plan to Julie, and she was OK with it.
I traveled last week, and I wholly enjoyed my explorations. Here are some of the photos that I took:
A few of the many doorways that I photographed. They all could tell a story.
A huge grain elevator in the middle of nowhere.
Old houses in need of some TLC.
An abandoned college campus.
A magnificent county courthouse.
Mississippi Palisades State Park.
I faced my fear and guilt and accomplished my goal. However, the experience wasn’t perfect. I was once again aware of the loneliness that I felt. A feeling that I wanted to share my experience with someone. “Look at that cool building!” “What do you think of that view?” “Would you shoot that barn from this angle or that angle?” A travel companion would have been icing on my exploration cake.
I am planning more photo day trips, and I’m also considering pushing my comfort zone further. I’m thinking about reaching out to strangers to see if there is someone who would like to go with me on a photoshoot day trip. I can’t be the only retired guy with both an interest and a camera. An additional bonus would be the sharing of travel expenses. However, the exact same barriers are preventing me from moving on to this new idea.
What if I’m not compatible with a new travel buddy? What if they don’t like me? What if they are an ax murderer? -OK, that latter point may be a stretch. I understand that if I experience a terrible match, it is only one day of my life. Indeed, a reasonable risk.
The second barrier is more significant for me. I am an intense person who forms emotional relationships. If you can deal with me, you will be rewarded with a true friend who will stand by you no matter what. I value a few strong relationships over dozens of weaker ones. I like relationships where I can be myself and not fear that I’m “too intense” for the other person to handle. These kinds of connections require a lot of work, effort, and time from both sides. If I developed a strong relationship with a new photo buddy, I would feel guilty that I was taking time away from my established connections. This may seem illogical to you, but it is an honest concern for me. Two good friends are not the equivalent of one best friend.
It is interesting that common themes stand as barriers from me to being completely true to my needs. Fear does play into my decisions, but I’m used to pushing past that feeling. However, guilt plays a more important function. Guilt that I’m having fun when someone else is not. Guilt that I’m being disloyal to those who I care for. Guilt that I don’t deserve to have as much success as I’m having. I can surmise why I have these feelings, but that doesn’t eliminate them. However, I believe that I can work through them on a case-by-case basis. It will be an interesting growth journey.
I can’t say if I’m going to try the photo buddy route, but I can say that I will absolutely go on another photoshoot day trip. There is so much to see, and with each discovery, I feel that I grow. I have never wanted to be determined by someone other than me. With that said, I don’t want to be determined by my self-imposed limitations. I want to base my life on what I can do, not what I can’t do.
“Do you want to go to Houston in January?” Julie said. “I guess, but why Houston?” I replied. Apparently, Spirit Airlines had a cheap fare to Houston, and Julie felt that it would be warmer than Chicago.
I had forgotten about the trip, and then it was suddenly upon me. We needed to leave the house by 3:30 AM on a Thursday and at 9 PM the night before I was frantically packing. Over the years, I have learned to pack both lighter and more efficiently. I keep a Dopp Kit ready to go, so all I had to do was to transfer the liquid items into a quart ziplock bag for TSA. Also, I packed a hoodie, some shirts, an extra pair of pants, my sleep ware, and of course, socks and underwear.
I have a camera case in the style of a backpack, which is my under-the-seat carry-on. Since I use the bag when I’m not flying, I made sure to dump out all of the pouches and pockets. Thankfully, there were no banned items. Into my backpack went a fully charged iPad, a minimal first-aid kit, sunglasses, lip balm, a battery bank with adapter cords, and a few packaged snacks for the flight. The front pouch of the backpack is padded for cameras. In it, I placed my small Olympus OMD EM10 camera with its kit lens, an extra camera battery, a 20 mm F 1.8 lens, and a few other camera accessories. I’m an avid photographer, but I don’t want to haul a lot of extra camera gear.
I usually wake up early, but that is not the case for Julie. Yet, she was a good sport, and we were soon on our way to OHare International Airport. Our gate seemed to be in a different state, but that is what you expect when you are flying on a budget airline. Soon we were boarded and waiting to take off. Surprisingly, the budget carrier’s customer service was pretty good. However, my legroom was terrible, and within about 30 minutes, I started to have leg cramps. I focused on the fact that the flight was only 2 hours; it was a long two hours.
One place that we wanted to visit was the Johnson Space Center/Space Center of Houston, and after a light brunch, we drove through the gates, paid our admission fees, and started our tour. We were approached by a tall black man wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the center’s logo. “Can I help you?” He asked. And with that, he gave us a detailed overview of what to see not only at the museum but also at the adjacent Johnson Space Center. He strongly suggested that we board the two shuttle tours as both of them would take us around the Johnson Space Center’s campus. One of the tours would allow us entry into the actual command center where the Apollo space missions were directed.
I was flooded with childhood memories. I grew up during the 1960s, and the space race dominated my thoughts during those years. That decade was a time of great American pride. There was a feeling that we could accomplish anything, figure out anything, do anything. I watched every single space launch and always held my breath when the giant rockets rose slowly and somewhat crookedly as they traveled up and beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
The 60s were a time when Americans feared that the USSR was going to invade our country and make us slaves to communism. Russia not only had launched Sputnik, the first satellite, it had also placed the first person in space. There was an honest concern that the US would be left behind.
However, on May 5, 1961, Alan Sheppard was strapped into a tiny Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket. He was sent on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight. The Russians had already placed Yuri Gagarin into a real earth orbit one month earlier, but there was a sense that we were still in the game. However, it wasn’t until February of 1962 that we successfully sent John Glenn into Earth orbit on top of an Atlas rocket.
As a kid, it seemed that each new flight offered a spectacular new accomplishment, and in 1965 NASA launched the first human-crewed Gemini capsule, which held two astronauts. Where the Mercury capsules were controlled on the ground, the Gemini capsules were piloted by the crew. The Gemini flights captivated me, and during these missions, astronauts walked in space, docked with other spacecraft, and did many other firsts (for the US) in preparation for an eventual lunar landing.
In 1967 tragedy struck the US when three astronauts were killed aboard Apollo 1. Its pure oxygen-containing cabin suffered a flash fire. Suddenly, my hubris shattered.
In future missions, NASA changed the atmosphere from pure oxygen to a less combustible atmosphere mix, and the number of flammable materials in the cabin were reduced. In October of 1968, Apollo 7 launched with a crew of three, and the country was once again moving towards its goal of landing a human on the moon. Which, of course, happened in July of 1969 with the flight of Apollo 11.
When the first crewed Mercury mission launched, I was eight, and when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I was 16. Only eight years and so much had happened. In1969 I had a summer job that started early. However, I made sure that I stayed up to see the fuzzy black and white TV image of Mr. Armstrong as his foot touched the moon’s powdery surface. How fortunate I was to witness one of the most momentous events in history!
The impact of the space program went well beyond a lunar landing. It was an inspirational program during an inspirational time. I had already been fascinated by the sci-fi B-movies. I had found a “mentor” in Don Herbert, the host of “Mr. Wizard,” which was a TV show that encouraged kids to do scientific experiments. However, the space program took me from fantasy and the ordinary to the extraordinary. Everything about it was real, yet it seemed unreal. NASA had the coolest on-board computer, the most fantastic space food, and a mission control center that seemed right out of the future. It inspired me to think beyond myself and to believe that I, too, could do anything. I was an American, living during the most fantastic time in history. I thought that the only thing that could stop me was me.
We boarded the shuttle and made the short trip from the Space Center of Houston to the adjacent Johnson Space Center. The tour guide telegraphed some facts along the way. The land was used for grazing cattle before it became one of the most famous places on earth. The buildings were designed to look like a college campus. The displayed Saturn rocket was the most massive rocket ever built, and so on. As we approached the Christopher C. Kraft Jr Mission Control Center, we were cautioned that the building was still in operation, and we were to remain absolutely silent during our time there.
We entered Mission Control and climbed over 80 stairs to the Apollo command center. NASA had spent millions renovating the room, which echoed a 60s vibe. The space was filled with built-in CRT consoles and huge viewing screens. We stepped into the observation room and took our seats. This was the same room that dignitaries and the press used when the actual flights took place. Even the burnt orange theater-style chairs were the original ones. Our guide started up a video that explained the significance of the room. Then it happened, the entire control room lit up. The computer monitors turned on and started to stream data. The giant screens illuminated showing flight paths and the grainy image of Neil Armstrong as he took his first steps on another world. It felt like I had been transported in time. My heart started to race as I felt my excitement build. The same excitement that I felt on that July night in 1969 when I saw the first video transmission of a human being walking on another world.
As the space program continued, people lost interest. They grumbled that the cost was too high for too little. However, the price isn’t only measured in the gain of scientific knowledge, the discovery of new materials, or political bragging rights. An entire generation of children became interested in science because of these programs. They became computer designers, engineers, medical doctors, researchers, and pilots. I think it is impossible to determine the overall gain that our country made because of NASA and the space program.
The Johnson Space Center continues as a facility that now manages satellites as well as missions to the International Space Station. A new initiative, the Orion program, will return humans to the moon and eventually to Mars over the next few decades.
On the shuttle to the Johnson Space Center, I saw young children. I wondered if one of these boys or girls lives will change due to their visit? A future scientist, engineer, researcher, or astronaut? NASA isn’t a waste of taxpayer’s money, it is a substantial investment in our future. Just like President Kennedy, we need to summon our imaginations to comprehend this fact.
We arrived home with our arms full of packages and were met by a blinking light on the answering machine. I pressed the play button and heard Julie’s mother’s voice. “We won’t be able to drive to Chicago for Thanksgiving; your father is lost in Siberia.” The answering machine clicked off. That was the total message. We stared at each other in disbelief. What did we hear?
We decided to host Julie’s entire Minnesota family for Thanksgiving, and they would be staying at my house for several days. Although I kept a neat house, it was still the home of a bachelor, and I didn’t have many of the amenities that a traditional house would have. In the weeks approaching Thanksgiving I had been on a buying spree. I purchased new bath and dish towels, juice glasses, pot holders, a creamer, other kitchenware, bottles of shower gel and shampoo, new rugs for the bathrooms, and even a new rug for the kitchen.
I spent an absolute fortune on food and bought everything from fresh Ho-Ka turkeys to a giant shrimp platter. Since they would be staying for several days, I made sure that I had enough food for multiple breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
I polished my house from stem to stern. My linen closet was full, and my refrigerator was beyond its capacity. But it was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and the entire get-together had just been canceled by a one-sentence phone call. I was flooded with feelings. There was a relief knowing that I wouldn’t have to entertain a large group for three days. There was concern over what I would do with all of the food that I bought. And, there was significant worry about Julie’s father, who was lost somewhere in Russia. He said that he was going to Siberia to sell leather coats, or was it computer hard drives this time? Bob always seemed to be going to very exotic places to sell things. He had worked in Army intelligence and then the CIA in his younger years, and we used to joke that he still was a covert spy.
I was not yet aware of the understated way that Swedes communicate, and so I was utterly bewildered by Julies’ mom’s phone call, which appeared as casual as someone calling to say that they would be 15 minutes late.
How could we know if Bob was safe? Could we trace his credit card activity? Should we call the State Department? It was a national holiday, and it seemed like everything had shut down. We did what we could and prayed. Late Friday night, I received a fax from Julie’s dad saying that he was fine and had Thanksgiving dinner with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. I imagine that all of this sounds slightly fantastic. Still, it is entirely accurate, and it was the start of over 25 years of hosting Julie’s family for Thanksgiving.
Her family would arrive on Wednesday night and leave on Saturday morning. Julie and I would share the overall workload. Still, I was in charge of the Thanksgiving meal, including the preparation of the turkey. Thanksgiving has always been a lot of work, but with repetition, it has become routine. Our menus are always the same.
Freshly baked cinnamon rolls, various other sweets, coffee, mandarin oranges, OJ, cereal.
Dinner (2 PM):
Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, freshly baked rolls, corn casserole, jello salad, green bean casserole, cranberries, gravy, various add-ons, and pie. Julie’s mom usually brings a pecan pie, which we supplement with pumpkin pies and at least one other dessert. (Yes, it is a gut buster meal).
Sandwiches, salads, sweets.
Ham and Egg Strata (sort of a bready souffle), OJ, coffee, hot rolls, sweetbreads/coffee cake, oranges.
Homemade cream of turkey soup (one of my specialties)
Sandwich fixings and dessert
Stuffed pasta shells, tossed salad, garlic bread, dessert.
French toast, OJ, coffee, various cereals, various sweetbreads/coffee cakes.
Julie’s sister Amy kindly brings some of the desserts and we make the remaining ones.
Our Thanksgiving weekend is filled with lively conversation, football games on TV, card and board games, long walks, and lots of eating. Every year I look forward to her family’s arrival, and I immediately take a nap as soon as they leave. Hosting Thanksgiving has become a family tradition, but this is changing.
This year my two nieces celebrated Thanksgiving with their spouse’s families. My nephew stayed in London, and his dad (my brother-in-law) traveled there to be with his son. My daughter celebrated with her Peace Corp peers in Africa, and Karl’s brother Kurt spent the day with other relatives. This reduction in force eliminated some of our activities, like the giant Bunko game, but many of our usual pastimes continued.
Amy, my sister-in-law, told Julie that next year, she would have her own Thanksgiving in Minnesota as she wants to maximize the holiday time with her far-flung children. It is likely that Julie’s 90-year-old parents will celebrate with Amy, as will the rest of the family. However, we will stay in Illinois as it allows us to spend the most time with our kids who are in college and beyond. Next year our 25-year tradition will end.
I do have sadness over this, but I also wonder what our new smaller gathering will bring. I imagine that we will still have a giant, gut-busting dinner. My kids all look forward to their favorite dishes. However, we will undoubtedly pare back on the other meals. We may fill the weekend with new activities. Perhaps a family trip to the movies, or a ride to downtown Chicago.
Few things in life remain constant. Some traditions last longer than others but most eventually evolve or end. It is essential to respect tradition, but it is unhealthy to be a slave to it. A change can offer new experiences and new growth. We will always have the memories from past events.
In life, it is important to be flexible. We will try to use some of our old Thanksgiving traditions as a foundation for our new holiday weekend. Next Thanksgiving will be a new adventure.
Addendum: Julie read this post and wanted me to correct it noting that the changes for next year’s Thanksgiving are not written in stone and that our tradition could be continuing. I add this addendum at her wish and for completeness.
I heard the weather report on Tuesday. It would snow on Wednesday and Thursday. Not just a little dusting of snow, but 4-6 inches. I felt my heart sink. Thursday was Halloween, and it would be cold and snowing.
I always thought of Halloween as a fun holiday. A day to dress up, be creative, and a bit silly.
My involvement with the day has changed over the years. When I was single, I often worked late, so I was one of those houses where a doorbell ring yielded little for an expectant trick-or-treater. When Julie entered my life, either one or both of us were at home to pass out candy. Early on, we established the tradition of eating Chinese carry-out on Halloween. A habit that started out of chance, but is now has become an expected event.
The introduction of children to our family brought new traditions. I would carve pumpkins to the specific instructions from my kids, and Julie and I would help them realize their costume visions. One year Julie blew up dozens of purple balloons to turn Grace into a bunch of grapes, and I remember spending many evenings perfecting a costume for William that transformed him into a living Lego block.
Julie would pull a kitchen chair into the front hall so she could be close to the door to pass out candy. She especially liked seeing the little kids dressed up, so excited and fresh. I would walk with our kids, protecting them from imaginary danger. My reward was their company.
Our Halloween decorating was simple, a few candlelit pumpkins on the front stoop, and a giant blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn that I had purchased from the Dollar Tree. That monstrosity graced our home for at least a decade, although its internal lights ceased operation after the first 5 years of service.
As my kids aged their trick-or-treating became more independent, then stopped altogether. However, I could vicariously remember those pleasant days by passing out candy to the next generation of young candy seekers.
However, this year, Halloween was predicted to be very snowy and very cold. Even if the kids did come out, they would be sealed in coats and hats hiding their costumes and blunting their wonderment. With all of our kids out of the house, this functional cancelation of Halloween felt especially harsh. It was another life-change to deal with.
I discovered that it snowed more Wednesday night when I got up for my morning walk at 4 AM on Thursday. I have a morning routine set on my Google Nest smart speaker, which includes the weather. Bitter cold and more snow were the agenda. I cleaned up, got dressed, drank coffee, and prepared myself to face the snow and cold.
I stepped out of the front door, and I was met with a winter wonderland. The air was still and calm, and a thick carpet of snow lay on the ground. The trees had not yet shed their fall leaves, and these appendages served as landing pads for snowflakes that transformed them into glistening ornaments.
The snow had served as sound insulation, adding to the stillness of the morning and making my walk even more meditative. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of calm as I traversed the distance between my house and the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue.
Julie had decided to lighten her workday, so she would be home for the bulk of the trick-or-treaters. At 4 PM, I was ready for our transient guests with bucketfuls of candy that were placed in a massive orange bowl. Eventually, Julie came home, and we ordered Chinese food from Grub Hub; Pot Stickers, Brocolli Chicken, Spicy Tofu… enough food for the night and lunch the next day.
We decided to start another tradition and streamed a horror movie. Our first watch was “Aliens,” a movie new to Julie, but one that terrified me so much the first time that I saw it in 1986 that I checked the back seat of my Nissan Sentra when I left the theater. This time around, it was less frightening; muted by time and the much smaller screen of our family room TV.
Halloween concluded with only three groups of trick-or-treaters (less than 20 kids) gracing our doors. Yet, the day was a success.
Dear readers, as you know by now, I look at every event and experience as a potential tool for learning. I had an expectation of what Halloween was supposed to be, but the weather dashed that dream. However, Mother Nature didn’t take away, it gave. My morning walk was quiet, beautiful, and serene. Yes, there was a lack of trick-or-treaters, but that allowed us to start the new tradition of watching a scary movie. The day was different but no less pleasant or special.
I wanted to pass out candy as a way to revisit the time when my children were young, naive, and full of expectation. That didn’t happen, but instead, I was given new experiences combined with some of our old traditions. My Halloween symbolized my current life, build on the foundation of the past, but changing in an unknown way. My current life direction is not that different from the expectations of my children in the past. I, too, await with excitement to see what tricks or treats will be placed in the bag that I call my life.
I looked in the sink, and it caught my eye. I had observed it many times before, but I had ignored it. Now, I felt different. I wanted to do something.
There, among the suds and water, was our ten-inch frying pan. The pan that I bought over ten years ago when we switched to induction cooking. The pot that we purchased because our old cookware wouldn’t work on a stovetop that used an oscillating magnetic field instead of one that heated by a gas flame or an electric coil.
The pan had been shiny stainless steel the first time that I used it. It performed its job flawlessly, and I gave it little thought. It is easy to take for granted something that does its job well and without complaint. I suppose that is what I did with this pan.
Its interior was spotless, almost new looking. However, the pan’s exterior was an unsightly mess. After thousands of uses, its outer surface was covered in little spatters of burnt oil that had built up on its shiny surface, causing it to gain a streaky bronze-like appearance. Beyond this bronzing, there were significant blackish marks on the base of the pan that appeared like someone had drawn them with a fat black permanent marker.
The pan’s thousands of cooking cycles each took their toll. Each cycle adding another droplet or two of burnt oil to its surface. Each cycle further bonding the older stains into the metal. A soapy sponge or scrubby did not eradicate these blemishes. Our dishwasher’s efforts were folly. The pan was wholly functional beyond its ugly exterior. The only options were to live with its unsightliness or to replace it.
I was moved to clean it. I adjusted the water to a scalding hot, and I squirted more dish soap into the sink. I pressed the scrubbing side of a sponge against the tarnished metal, and with all of my might, I moved the sponge in concentric circles over the base of the pan. Over and over, I continued my efforts pressing so hard that my biceps ached. I agitated the surface of the pan to the point that thick creamy soap suds obfuscated it. I felt that surely I had made an impact. I rinsed the pan, and to my astonishment, it looked exactly as it did when I started. I double my efforts, and then tripled them, but to no avail. It seemed like the stains were there to stay.
I paused and thought. It appeared that I was approaching this problem like I had approached many issues in my life, with brute force. During my pre-retirement life, I had little time to ponder, and I had to solve problems in as an expedient way as possible. I aggressively gave 100% of my time to get a job done. I thought that I had to do things this way as there were always ten other tasks waiting. When you work like this, you can never celebrate what you have done; the work that you are doing on one task serves only as a delay from starting the next job.
Perhaps it was time to approach this problem differently. I reached under the kitchen counter and grabbed an old can of Bar Keepers Friend and a pillow of steel wool. I then sprinkled the Bar Keepers Friend on the stained surface and made a paste by adding a few drops of water. I walked away. After a bit, I returned with the steel wool and scrubbed the pan’s surface. When I found myself pressing with a painful force, I backed off with a deliberate effort and used a light circular motion instead. My arms didn’t hurt, and the movement felt meditative. I found myself humming in rhythm as I continued my slow and deliberate actions. A quick rinse showed some progress. I repeated my steps of letting the paste sit and then lightly scrubbing the surface, and with each repeating cycle, more of the decade-old grime disappeared.
Instead of continuing a pattern of actions that gave me a negative outcome, I approached the problem with thought and consideration. A gentler approach achieved my goal and left me energized instead of tired and frustrated. Understanding trumped aggression.
And with that, dear readers, I end this week’s post.
If you have had children in college, you are aware of the phenomena known as Family Weekend. A time to face crowded restaurants, sold-out football games, and inflated hotel room prices.
At this point in my post, I can hear some of you shouting back at your computer screens, saying, “Well, what about the children, Dr. Mike, you cynical SOB.” Dear reader, of course, we go for our children, but you have to admit that my opening sentences do have the ring of truth.
I have four children. Two have graduated from college, and two are presently attending college. I have gone to such weekends for three of my four children. My daughter, Kathryn, went to a college that was over 1,700 miles from our home, and it just wasn’t practical to go with my wife and two minor kids.
This year I attended two such celebrations. Earlier this month, I drove two hours to be with my son at his state university, and last weekend I drove five hours to go to my daughter’s school in another Midwestern state.
There is a tremendous amount of hype over these days, and we are typically inundated with flyers, postcard reminders, and emails. Despite knowing that hotels fill very early, we have a tendency to book late, which has resulted in us having to stay in hotels in other towns or pay the outrageous prices that such procrastination brings.
Family weekends always includes a football game. We commit to going to the game, but by the time we go to buy the tickets, they are sold out. There are a variety of other activities, and there is typically some performance by a celebrity, no matter how minor. We have a 50% hit rate when it comes to getting tickets for those shows.
My wife is our primary booking agent, and she was horrified to find that the only hotels available for my son’s weekend were $300 a night. Instead of paying that, she booked a campsite in a nearby county park for less than $30. I was delighted with her choice for several reasons. First, I love camping, which I especially enjoy in my homemade campervan, Violet. Second, this would be the first time that Julie and I would attempt sleeping in the van together. Thus far, I have only slept in Violet solo, and we weren’t sure if the two of us would fit on Violet’s non-standardized platform bed. We booked similar camping accommodations for my daughter’s Family Day weekend and the same reasons. The results of our sleeping experiments would determine the feasibility of the two of us going on longer adventures in Violet.
My friend Tom and I planned Violet’s buildout well, and traveling in her is a pleasure. She is self-contained, and solar panels on the roof power her house functions (roof fan, interior lights, fridge, etc.). The kitchen is permanently stocked with pots and pans and equipped with both a butane stove and a microwave oven. She carries her bedding, and her garage area holds outdoor necessities like a table and chairs. Going on a weekend trip is as simple as packing a change of clothing and raiding the house fridge for food to make a few simple meals. Since we would be taking our kids out for meals during their respective Family Weekends, the only foods that we needed to pack were some snacks as well as some freshly ground coffee for our wake-up cup.
I know that it would be more interesting to share dramatic stories of generational conflict or teenage angst, but the fact is that I have fantastic, wonderful offspring. They are smart, kind, considerate, and have great empathy. My pride in them overflows.
At both colleges, I witnessed kids walking with their parents with their heads down in utter contempt. I heard snarky comments from students and saw parents with exasperated looks on their faces.
During both of this year’s Family Weekends, our kids were gracious hosts. They smiled when they looked at us, and when we professed our love for them, they sincerely told us that they loved us back. They not only allowed me to hug them in public, but they squeezed me just as tightly. They didn’t seem bothered that we wanted to do things with them, and we were the ones who ended the evening because we were just tuckered out. They even were willing to go to Sunday brunch with us, delaying any activities that they had planned for that day. They are just fun to be with.
There is something that happens as your children age; they become adults. I know that this may sound obvious, but the actual experiencing of this phenomenon can seem oddly strange. I spent 36 years raising children (that is not a typo). In that role, I (along with my wife) was the caregiver, the decision-maker, the soother, the provider, the compromiser. These roles never end for a parent, but they do evolve.
As a parent, you start to see this transition when you realize that your kids have their own opinions, interests, and desires and that those attributes may be different from yours. Suddenly, you are aware that you are talking to them with the honesty of an adult conversation rather than with the protected and padded conversations that you had with them only a few years earlier. You start to notice that they are taking your feelings into account when they interact with you. You observe them making plans and charting their course. You note that they are keeping their responsibilities and honoring their commitments without your reminders.
When I saw these changes in my children, I was immensely proud, but also quietly sad and even a little afraid. When they were younger, they looked up to me; now we look eye to eye. I had the answer to all of their questions; now they give me answers. I had a feeling of security knowing where they were and what they were doing; now, I can only assume that they are making good choices. Raising children is a tremendous responsibility, but that work returned something to me worth any costs, that return is called “family.”
I am not saying that my children have become islands onto themselves. They still need my support, and they even ask for my advice. However, my contributions have become just one stream out of several that they use.
Julie and I put away money for our children’s education. However, there was no reasonable way that we could wholly pay for all of their college degrees. We are fortunate that our kids are smart and do well academically, which opened the door to merit scholarships. When it came down to college decisions, several factors were at play: the overall quality of education, the cost of education, and how the applicant (our kids) felt about the school. The financial goal was simple, scholarship funds + college savings = debt-free college degree. We would never expect our kids to go to a school that they hated. However, a school’s scenic location or a state-of-the-art fitness center were of minor importance. The kids made their own decisions, but they did have to deal with years of my ponderings on the positive impact of having zero college debt. This may seem too calculating to some who grade schools by climate, football teams, and ivy league pedigrees. Debt may be the inevitable price for many college degrees, but if it can be avoided, I think that it should be avoided.
Our William was somewhat reticent about his college choice; however, it ticked off all of the boxes. It was gratifying to have him tell us that after five weeks away, he liked his new school. He was mature enough to move forward instead of continuing to stay in a sullen place.
It was awesome to witness our kids acting rationally and maturely. Grace told us of her horrifyingly stressful midterm week with accuracy and also with some humor. When Julie said, “What can I do to help you,” Grace wisely replied, “Just listen to me and love me.” She let us know that it wasn’t our job to fix her problems; loving her would be enough.
I am a realistic man who knows that few things stay the same. I’m not expecting that everything will be rosy with my kids from now on. I know that we all have our ups and downs, but I feel that my children have the flexibility and resiliency to cope in today’s modern world.
For me going to Parent’s Weekend had little to do with football games or comedy acts. Parent’s Weekend was just another time to be with my children and to marvel at the miracle before me.
And if you are wondering about the camper sleeping thing, yes, we can both fit on the bed with a little artful spooning.
October 1st, 2019 was a day that will go down in infamy. OK, that is a bit dramatic, but it was a challenging day.
I had to be at Tom’s house at 5 AM as I was going to a job site to do a photoshoot. I had prepared the night before by getting out gear, charging batteries, and resetting my camera to its standard settings. After some coffee and conversation, we headed to the job location in nearby Warrenville.
I was shooting outside in a shaded area, and I knew that additional light would make a difference. Before I got out of the car, I attached the flash to my Canon 5 D Mark IV. I headed to the customer’s backyard and took some test shots without the flash, confirming that a flash would enhance the pictures and so I powered on my old but very reliable Canon 430 EX speedlite. I took a picture and did a quick look at the back of the camera to chimp the results. The photo was hopelessly over-exposed. I checked the camera settings to discover that it was not communicating with the flash; my flash was fried. The day was not starting well.
I returned home, and decided to tackle the hedges in front of my house. I am not a yard work kind of guy, and so I try to simplify these tasks as much as I can. Along these lines, I have a battery-operated hedge trimmer. I have a bunch of other battery-operated lawn gadgets that use the same battery packs which I had charged a week earlier. I slid in a battery and started to clip a large, and out of control bush. After about 30 seconds, the clipper stopped cold. I put in the second battery, and the same thing happened. The final battery acted similarly, crap.
I still have my original corded electric hedge trimmer, which I then pulled out. My long extension cord was nowhere to be found. I had lent it out to a friend, and it had not come back to me. I pieced together three smaller extensions, plugged in the old trimmer and pressed its power button. The gadget sprung to life, but after about a minute it slowed and stopped. Checking everything from the AC outlet to the extension cords proved that the problem was in the clipper, it was busted. With a sigh of remorse, I dug out my manual clippers and went to work on the bush, creating a massive pile of branches and leaves. I then went back into the garage to get a rake, so I could gather the mess that I had created. Within seconds the head of the rake fell off. Back in the garage, I found its spring-loaded retaining clip, which was so stiff that I couldn’t reattach it. How in the world did it fall off? Into the garbage the rake went.
I grabbed another rake and built a huge pile of leaves and branches. I returned to the garage to retrieve a paper grass bag that already had a small amount of chopped grass. I double-checked to make sure that the bottom of the bag was intact before I started to shove my newly cut shoots into it. I then carefully lifted the bag and carried it back to the garage at which point the entire bottom ripped open dumping dirt, leaves, stems, and partially decomposed and fermented grass everywhere.
Naturally, my hedge trimming took longer than expected. Now in a rush, I grabbed my computer bag and drove to the Apple store. This was my second visit to Apple this week as I have two computers that have keyboard recalls. As usual, it was a “hurry up and wait,” experience. Eventually, a young man named Jordan appeared. I explained to him that the keyboard on my MacBook was malfunctioning and that I was aware that Apple had a recall on this particular model. Jordan scanned my serial number into his iPad and shook his head. My MacBook had been bought as an overstock item, and because of this, it was sold “as-is.” If I wanted to fix it it would cost over $350. Apple produced a defective product but wouldn’t fix my computer due to a loophole; typical Apple.
I got back into my car and decided to go to Menards to buy a replacement electric hedge trimmer, some contractor bags, and a long extension cord. I always wander through Menards as I can never find what I’m looking for in that store. I meander to their food section where I buy a can of Progresso Cream of Mushroom soup. I am not sure why I buy groceries at a hardware store, but I often do. Now in the checkout line, I hand my items one by one to the cashier. The store’s checkout counters are tiny. Finally, I hold up the large box for the trimmer which she scans. I then place the box back in the cart. The clerk looks at me with a raised eyebrow and in an exaggerated movement cranes her head towards my cart. She queries, “I suppose you also want that can of mushroom soup?” There it was stuck behind the hedge trimmer box. Yes, I say sheepishly as I imagine being hauled away for soup thievery. I simultaneously wonder how I missed the can and why I was buying it in the first place. I leave the store with my head hanging low.
On my way back home, I remember that we had some Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza leftovers. A vestige from entertaining our friends John and Barb over the weekend. Easy to reheat and tasty; finally a little break in my day of fails! Unfortunately, under the foil, I find a piece of crust and a tiny trimming from a larger piece. I sigh and heat my subpar dinner in the microwave.
Over the last few months, I have episodically gone down to my basement with a black contractor bag; my goal being to remove at least one bag of junk for the garbage, or for a Goodwill donation. I feel that every bag removed is one bag closer to a clean space. On such an adventure earlier in the week, I had noticed that the dehumidifier wasn’t working. I cleaned the unit’s filter and readjusted its dials in a hopeful effort.
With a black contractor bag in hand, I went down to my basement; its mustiness confirmed that my dehumidifier repair efforts were in vain. It appears that I’ll be spending another $250 bucks at Menards this week. I make a mental note, “Avoid the soup aisle.”
I did a review of my day and decided it was time to call it quits. I took a long shower, put on my PJs, and went to bed. Time 8:30 PM.
Dear reader, I think we all have had days like this. Nothing truly terrible happened; no lives were lost. However, when I’m having such a day, it feels like I’m being attacked by a swarm of mosquitos —irritating, annoying, joy sapping.
I don’t believe that there is any particular significance to these days. I feel that they are just the product of random occurrences. However, they are still troubling and tiresome. In my mind, the best thing to do when faced with such a situation is to accept and surrender. That is exactly what I did.
I write this post on October 2, 2019 at 6 AM. A day for a new beginning. A day to buy a new dehumidifier
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.