Why Am I Fasting?

People fast to improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Two weeks ago, a new series started at my church. The series, called “Make Room,” explores how some religious practices can help you make room for the Holy Spirit in your life. The first topic was fasting, and our lead pastor specifically challenged the congregation to consider 21 days of fasting and prayer. This request resonated with me, but I still can’t say why.

In simple terms, fasting is the process of abstaining or reducing some food or drink for a period of time. There are many different ways to fast that range from complete abstinence to a voluntary elimination of some category of food. For instance, the Catholic practice of giving up a food category during Lent could be considered a fast as could the Muslim practice of not eating or drinking from dawn to dust during Ramadan.

I listened to Pastor Dave describe the history of Christian fasting. However, something odd happened to me when he talked about the reasons to fast… I blanked out. After the sermon, I asked Julie to repeat the reasons he cited, and I quickly forgot them. I then turned to the internet and did some reading on spiritual fasting.

Interestingly, I couldn’t recall the salient points of those readings either. I am a professional student who has spent a lifetime memorizing random groups of facts, but I couldn’t remember a couple of them presented in a seron. Why is that? My conclusion is that I’m being compelled to fast for another reason. Not everything in life fits into a set of bullet points.

Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

What kind of fast should I do?

Simply stated, I should do a fast that I have a reasonable chance of completing. I can’t go 21 days without eating food, in fact, my past history suggests that I can’t go several food-free days without becoming severely hypoglycemic.  

I also know that if I only allow myself only a single meal per day, it is likely that I’ll binge eat during that meal. If I eat an entire Thanksgiving Day sized meal, am I fasting? Probably not.

I have gone on bizarre diets through the years in weight loss attempts, and I don’t do well eating only a single category of food, like fruit. In fact, such efforts caused me to transition from my usual sweet self (my personal opinion) into an angry SOB. Making my loved ones miserable seems counter to an exercise done to promote a better spiritual life.

Many years ago I decided to try a bread and water fast. This was likely because I had romanticized the 1918 Eric Enstrom photograph “Grace.” I spent several days eating white bread and drinking water. I found that I was hungry, but I could no longer bear to eat dry bread washed down with incipit tap water. The fast was a failure as all I could focus on was what I would eat after I ended that torture.

Based on the above knowledge, I devised a fast that should work for me. During the workweek, I will continue my custom of eating three times a day. However, for two of those meals, I will only have bread and a non-caloric drink. I made some 100% whole wheat loaves that should be more nutritious than the store-bought stuff. I’m allowing myself to use calorie-free toppings (sugar-free jellies) on the bread as I have difficulty swallowing dry foods. For fluids, I’ll drink non-caloric drinks such as water, tea, and coffee. One time a day (likely lunch), I’ll eat a “basic” meal. For instance, a bowl of soup.  

I made some 100% whole wheat bread, which should be more nutritious than the store bought stuff.
My plan is to have only bread and non-caloric drinks for two of my meals.
Soaking beans for a basic bean soup.

On the weekends, I’ll have a bread meal once a day, along with two small and simple meals. I think that this flexibility is essential for me as a lot of my social connections over weekends involve “breaking bread” with someone. 

Prayer and meditation

I define prayer as a conversation with God and meditation as a practice of quieting my mind to become more spiritually aware.  

Currently, I do these practices during quiet times during the day, such as my early morning walks. I am curious to see if the quality of my efforts will change with the addition of fasting.

My church has offered to send daily Bible verses via email during the fast, and I have signed up for them. They also have a little video vignette (sort of a mini-sermon) component on these verses. I find the combo much more helpful than just reading a couple of lines of scripture and trying to interpret it myself. 

The problem

I feel compelled to fast, but I’m not sure why. Further, I can’t remember the part of the sermon where the pastor talked about this. I have concluded that I can’t remember his bullet points because they don’t apply to my particular reason for fasting.

As I start my fast, I am trying to open up my mind to elucidate why I am doing this process. This is what I have come up with so far:

Why fast?

It is an act of discipline.  

It is a willingness to commit to do something and to continue to do that thing despite the lack of a guaranteed return. It is a statement that announces that I am more than my physical needs while also admitting that my physical needs and spiritual needs are not separate but connected.

It is an act of sacrifice. 

The word sacrifice seems to carry a negative valence and conjures up images of pain and torture in my emotional mind. However, my thinking self understands this term differently. Sacrifice is giving up something for a more significant cause. A sacrifice can be material, such as giving money to the poor. It also can be emotional, as in sitting with a friend during a difficult time. When I sacrifice, I realize that I am not the center of the universe.

It is a way to delay gratification

As a child, I had little, and any luxury item that I possessed was acquired through hard work and diligent saving. This process caused me to value those things. In my current instant gratification world, many things that were once valued now have little value. With a credit card and the internet, it is possible to meet any need 24 hours a day. I can stream a movie at will, or order a pair of shoes at 3 AM. Also, I can eat at any time that I wish as my pantry and fridge are overflowing. Delaying eating despite being hungry is another form of delayed gratification that forces me to be grateful for the food that I eat.

It deemphasizes food

There was a time that I was obsessed with food, and my life revolved around my next snack. Thankfully, that changed several years ago when I gave up eating concentrated forms of sugar. I believe that what I really had was an addiction to sugar, and that addiction drove me to seek it in any way available. It is great to be freed from sugary snacks. With that said, I would like to deemphasize food further. My fasting plan is basic and straightforward. It is designed to provide edible meals that are routine. I know I will eat, but I don’t have to think about what I will eat.

It is a way to have increased awareness of the world around me

Like many, I love a big hearty meal. After I’m done feasting, I find myself lethargic and somewhat self-absorbed. I believe that the converse is true when I eat less. The discomfort that is caused by hunger makes me more alert and aware. That alertness makes me feel connected to the people and things around me.

It is a way to put worldly things in their place

I don’t consider myself ascetic, and anyone who has seen my Amazon shipments would agree. However, I firmly believe that reliance on worldly possessions for a sense of worth or fulfillment is a recipe for an empty and hollow life. A fast is a way to simplify my life and indirectly place less emphasis on “stuff.”


These are the rationale that I have come up with for my desire to fast. Yet, I’m uncertain that they are the right reason(s). As a scientist, I am driven to understand the “whys” of everything. However, I may never find the true “why” of why I feel compelled to fast. It is also possible that I will discover the reason, but that awareness will happen at some point in the distant future. Naturally, I have a secret hope that I will be guided in a significant life direction because of fasting. However, I accept that this likely won’t be the case. Every event in life doesn’t translate into a transparent process with a definable outcome. At times it is vital to act not out of mechanistic rationality but out of faith.

Happy trails!

Mike

Here is the audio link for this post: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/why-am-i-fasting

Slow Down

I write this at the start of a new year and a new decade. Today is Saturday, January 4th, 2020. It is 2 PM, and so I’m not at my usual Starbucks writing post. Instead, I’m sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in my home study. On my legs sits my lap table, with its cushioned bottom and bright blue plastic surface. On the lap table is my MacBook with its defective keyboard. It is a computer recalled by Apple, but one that they refuse to fix because I purchased it from a third party. The house is quiet, as only William is home. He is in the family room and busy doing his own thing. My sole contact with him today was to ask him how he was feeling, as he is recovering from a cold. “Better,” was his reply.  

Julie is at work in her new office space. Will and I helped her move a few days ago. It was there that I pulled out my back. Although improved, it is still quite sore, and I find that the padding of my comfortable recliner provides better support than the mesh back of my rolling desk chair.  

I awoke a little before 4 AM today, but I hit the snooze bar a few times before I got up. While I was in bed, my back felt normal. However, it felt tight and sore as soon as I went from a horizontal to a vertical position. After dressing, I went outside and brushed a light dusting of snow off of my 11-year-old blue Honda Fit. Twelve minutes later, I was in the drive-through line of the Dunkin Donuts on New York Street. “Medium black, and a medium with cream,” I announced into the speaker. I recognized the responding voice as the Hispanic man who usually works that shift. Despite my using a different vehicle, he knew me. When I reached the window, he was ready with my coffees in a carrier, and his terminal out to accept my Apple Pay. We wished each other a good day and drove the three additional blocks to Tom’s house.

Tom was waiting for me, and in his customary fashion, he put his finger to his lips, warning me to be quiet as the rest of the house was sleeping. I always find this humorous, as he is much louder than I am. I gave him his black coffee and sat next to him on the long bench that he uses as a desk chair. Tom is always researching something, and we chatted about his latest discovery before we started to write this week’s post for his construction blog. I had already uploaded a bunch of photos that I thought would be useful. With his approval, we started the composition, which was on repairing a sunroom. I have a love of construction, and after years of listening to Tom describe the process, I can usually compose a post that only requires a few revisions. With edits complete, I published the post to his website, and then linked it to Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, and Instagram.

“Do you want to go to breakfast?” Tom asked. “Sure,” was my reply. I was assuming that we were going to go to Harner’s, a pleasant and cheap breakfast joint in Aurora. So I was surprised when he turned onto I88 and headed into the city. He was taking us to our favorite breakfast spot, The Palace Sandwich Shop. There we were greeted by Brandy, the waitress who asked how we were doing and how Tom’s son, Charlie, was. Tom said that Charlie was excellent and recalled the time when Charlie, at age 5, punched George, the restaurant’s owner, directly in the…let me just say below his stomach. On a previous trip to the restaurant, George told Tom that he would never forget Charlie because of that event.

I ordered two eggs over easy with bacon and a fruit cup. Tom ordered the Western Skillet. Our conversation continued, jumping from topic to topic as we talked about politics, movies, real estate, and food. With breakfast complete, Tom generously paid the bill. Brandy wanted to take a picture of Tom to place on the restaurant’s Instagram feed. He held his hand in front of his face and so the photo only showed his hand and me standing in the background. It is doubtful that I’ll make the Instagram cut.

Back in the car, our conversation continued. I started to offer unsolicited advice, and at one point, Tom called me “dad” in a genial tone. Back in Naperville, he wanted to show me a neighborhood that he is thinking about. Tom feels that his house is too big for three occupants, and he has been considering moving to a smaller dwelling. We drove up and down the streets of this pleasant neighborhood to get a vibe for the community.

I returned home to a quiet house and went up to my bedroom to find Julie just finishing a shower. She was getting ready to go to work. She left, and I was left in a quiet house.

I had productive plans, but my sore back continued to bother me, and despite taking a double dose of Alieve, it was tight and tender. I watched YouTube videos until I reached my saturation point and then headed downstairs to the kitchen. In the fridge, I found the pizza box from the Lou Malnati’s pizza that Julie ordered the day before. It was a deep dish spinach pizza with a butter crust. I put two slices on a little aluminum tray and popped the tray into our toaster oven for 8 minutes. Hot and crispy, the pizza served as an excellent lunch. 

Which brings me sitting in my overstuffed leather chair, looking out at the snow, typing, thinking. Soon Julie will return home, and we will plot a course for the rest of the day.

I’m sure many of you are wondering why I am writing about such an ordinary day. There is a part of me that would like to answer that question by stating that no day is average or typical. There is another part of me that would like to say the opposite, that today was indeed ordinary. My stream of consciousness is moving me in the latter direction, so I think I’ll go there with today’s post.

In the past, I was always busy, and I always felt like I didn’t have enough time. However, I have been fortunate as of late to have time, and with time I have discovered an entirely new dimension to life. I find a particular joy in the fact that the Dunkin Donuts man and Brandy, the waitress, know who I am. I celebrate that I can spend long periods with my friend, Tom, and never get bored. I have the time to look forward to when Julie will return home. If she is excited and wants to do something, that would be great. However, if she is tired and crabby, I’m OK with that too.  

Since I have allowed myself to slow down colors seem more vivid, sounds are sharper, tastes have become more intense. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time, I feel like I’m experiencing it more naturally. I am more connected and grounded to the world around me.  

I have stopped asking myself the question, “What will I do when I grow up.” I’m no longer frantically seeking my next career. Instead, I’m trying to listen to my heart, and I’m trying to allow God to act through me. That latter point is a bit scary, as I’m a bit of a control freak. However, when I stop trying to control everything around me, stuff happens. I have become ever more aware that my talents are best utilized on a small, one to one scale. I always thought that I had a higher and more grandiose purpose, but now I embrace the above reality.

I feel moved to slow down enough so I can see the next steps that I should take. My current back issues have forced a further slowing, and so I embrace the pain as it allows me to listen to thoughts with greater clarity. 

If I can’t be a good father, husband, friend, or customer, can I be anything authentic? These roles define me. They are not roles that take me away from my life’s mission, they are my mission. I feel that additional tasks and drives will present themselves as long as I keep myself open, willing, and authentic.

In a day, I will start a modified fast, which will consist of one meal a day with bread and water for the other two. I hope to continue this plan for 21 days as I pray and meditate to open myself to the will of God. I can assure you that the thought of me giving up control to anyone is a frightening thing to do. I will try to use the support of those people who love me as I attempt this difficult challenge. I know that I will need to continue to slow down and “be.” I’m not expecting a radical transformation. To be honest, I don’t know what to expect. 

My retirement has been different from what I initially envisioned. It has become more personal and rich. I wish I could describe this to you in a more elegant fashion, but the words to do so escape me. However, dear reader, I am not static, I am definitely moving forward.  

Peace

Mike

Here is the audio reading of this podcast: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/slow-down

Christmas Past, Christmas Present

Christmas Past, Christmas Present

I savored the trinity of holidays when I was a kid. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This triple threat commenced with the relatively unimportant Halloween, then moved to the more significant Thanksgiving, and culminated in the ultimate holiday, Christmas. 

I have both good and bad Christmas memories. Still, my overall reminiscence of the season was one of excitement and joy. I enjoyed school, but the idea of getting two weeks off from it at the height of winter was exhilarating. However, it seemed that the week that preceded winter break expanded to infinity, moving ever slower as each day inched towards the holiday weekend. 

The first few days off of school were magical, and all possibilities appeared to be within my grasp. I could stay up, I could sleep in, I didn’t have homework to weigh me down, and school seemed like a lightyear away. 

Christmas Eve celebration took place at my grandparent’s walk-up flat on Chicago’s West Side. I didn’t like going there as it smelled strongly of garlic and BenGay. Worse, everyone spoke in Slovak, a language that I could neither speak nor understand. However, Christmas Eve was different, as all of my cousins were in attendance. The family was packed into the tiny place as we laughed and celebrated. My grandmother was an excellent ethnic cook, and we dined on her Christmas cabbage soup, which was accompanied by homemade rye bread, kolacky, and yeast coffee cakes filled with sweet poppy seed or fruit fillings. The kids would be relegated to a makeshift table in one of the bedrooms that was adorned with mismatched plates and bowls. Before we started our meal, a thin host like wafer would be passed among us. Each of us would break off a piece, which we dripped in honey and ate. I’m unsure of the significance of this wafer, which was called Oplatki. I thought it had something to do with Holy Communion, but that is just my conjecture.

Sometime after 11 PM, we would put on our coats and go to Assumption BVM Catholic Church for Midnight Mass. This was an ethnic church, and so the service was in Slovak. The place would be filled with parishioners, and once again, my nose would be assaulted by the smell of garlic, this time punctuated by the pungent odor of mothballs used to prevent insect destruction of  the congregations’ wool dress coats. It was not uncommon for one of my siblings to start to laugh, and like a wave, their mirth would spread to the rest of us. Each child desperately trying to stifle their sacrilegious giggles. Of course, that was impossible, and the more we tried, the more we laughed. Although we were met with angry glares, I remember those incidents with full satisfaction.

After services, we returned to my grandparents’ house for another meal. Our Christmas Eve dinner was meat-free, but our 1 AM meal was not. I don’t recall everything that we ate during that meal. Still, perogies and a delicious Slovak sausage called Droby stand out in my memory. My grandmother would bake the latter with bacon until both the bacon and sausage casings were crisp and delicious. Stuffed to our limit, we would then pile into our respective cars and return home. Christmas Eve was a day where a young kid could stay up ridiculously late without being scolded by a parent. 

Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were the only times that we ate in our dining room, and they were also the only days that we used our good china. Our china consisted of thin white porcelain dishes that had a silver ring around their edges, and an outer margin decorated with pink roses. I thought it was very fancy. Typically, we would eat our meals at our old Formica kitchen table using worn melamine dishes, so eating in the dining room was very special.

My mother would make a massive feast for Christmas Day. We would start off with a small glass of tomato juice and some canned fruit salad and then move onto the main course, a full Thanksgiving-style meal plus dumplings, pork roast, and Polish sausage with sauerkraut. There would be more kolache and yeast coffee cakes. Also, there could be a pie, cookies, nut cups, date bars, and other delectables.  

My two maiden aunts always celebrated Christmas dinner with us. So we weren’t allowed to open presents until dinner was over. This could be agony for me as all of my friends opened gifts either on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. 

Despite having a pile of presents under the tree, the actual number of gifts per person was small and mostly unremarkable. Usually, the best gifts went to my parents’ Godchildren as my folks didn’t want to seem cheap to the other relatives. I often bought my gifts from the Spencer Catalog, a mail-order house where you could get fabulous items for $1 to 3 dollars. Most of the gifts that I received were functional and not very inspired. However, there were a few standout years that I remember.

I started to listen to the radio when I was in early grade school. I would tune our old Aiwa kitchen radio carefully to pick up far off cities as their amplitude modulated signals ebbed and flowed with the shifting ionosphere. Discovering these hidden signals was seminal in broadening my overall view of the world around me, and I wanted a radio for my very own. Christmas was approaching, and I remember telling my mother of this fervent wish.

That year, my mother decided to wrap presents early, and to prevent package prodding, she used a “secret code” to identify whose gifts were whose. This didn’t stop me from investigating the wrapped packages, and I found one rectangular box that was just the right size and weight for a little tabletop radio. I could hardly wait for Christmas.

Christmas arrived that I was given my present to open, it was THE box! I started to carefully rip the wrapping paper, which revealed the word “Westinghouse.” Holy cow, I was really going to get a radio! I now tore off the rest of the paper and literally started to shriek, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I really wanted this, thank you!” My mother had a puzzled look on her face, and took the box from me. “This is for your brother.” She had read the wrong code, and I got the wrong gift. True story. Later, as a teenager and adult, I collected radios of all sorts, eventually owning dozens of them… I’m sure this is only a coincidence.

When I was in 6th grade, my oldest sister Carol married. That Christmas, she gave me a little wrapped box for my gift. It was so light that I thought it was empty. I opened the box to find a note, that note led me to another note, which led me to another note. Eventually, I found myself outside of the house, marching down the street to my sister and her husband’s car. The trunk of the sedan was partially open, and sticking out of it was a huge rectangular box. The box had a little piece of a scrap of paper taped to it that said, “For Michael.” I was utterly bewildered. I started to rip a corner off the box only to find metal parts inside. I tore the box further, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Carol and Bob had bought me a bicycle. My current bike from my parents was a cast-off from one of my cousins. It was so old and worn that I couldn’t even turn the crank arm, and so it sat in the garage unused. Now, I had a brand new, bright red bike! It also had a battery-operated headlight and a package rack on its back fender. I had never received such a generous gift, and I was utterly overwhelmed. My eyes filled with tears as I tried to pull it out the trunk of the car, but my young body didn’t have enough strength. I looked up to find Bob and Carol standing next to me, and with one pull, Bob lifted the box and carried it inside of the house. I rode that bike for many years and even wore out multiple sets of tires on my travels. That Christmas was the best Christmas ever. 

My early Christmases all followed the same prescribed formula. All of my family would gather, and the same rituals were followed every year. There was stability and predictability during the holiday during those times. The routine felt good.

On Christmas Eve, we attended the 5 PM service at Community Christian Church and then immediately headed to our final Christmas party at my nephew Tommy’s house. Since I get up at 4 AM to walk, I was ready to leave the party once the clock chimed nine.

Julie and I both agreed that we would have a low key Christmas Day this year. After attending a variety of pre-Christmas get-togethers, our introverted selves needed some time to recharge. Our two remaining kids were in agreement with scaled-down Christmas plans, and we all relished the idea of staying in our PJs as long as we wanted to on Christmas Day. For many years our family has been somewhat fractured on Christmas, as my oldest daughter was typically unable to travel and celebrate with us. However, this year things would be even worse. My second oldest was now in the Peace Corps and serving in Africa. Not only would we not see her, but we weren’t even sure if we would hear from her due to connectivity uncertainties. 

On Christmas Day, I kept my early walk tradition, but the rest of the family took their time to rise from bed. Julie was the first one up. She poked her head into my study to wish me a “Merry Christmas” and then headed into the kitchen. Soon I heard the whir of our coffee grinder and then the electronic beeps of the oven as Julie programmed it for 350F. She had assembled an overnight egg dish the day before, and she was getting ready to bake it for our Christmas brunch. 

She brought me a cup of coffee, and we chatted for a moment before she returned to the kitchen. Slowly Grace and Will emerged from their respective bedrooms. It was time to open presents. We had texted Kathryn, our Peace Corps daughter, and she said she would try to call us on Christmas morning. That is if she could set a good enough internet connection. As we started to open our gifts, Julie’s iPhone rang. It was Kathryn calling on WhatsApp. She had a good enough wifi connection for a video call! She was able to stay online until we completed our openings as we chatted with her and showed her our presents. It almost seemed like she was with us.

That evening we changed things up by going to our first ever Christmas Day movie. We all enjoyed, “Knives Out,” a who-done-it mystery. Then after a day of rest, we traveled to see our oldest child, Anne. She had an appointment in Normal, IL, and we decided to meet her and our grandkids at a restaurant there. We ate, talked, and laughed as we opened presents and took pictures. Another non-traditional meeting for us, but it was great none-the-less. 

I write this on New Year’s Eve. Our non-traditional Christmas celebrations are behind us, as we face not only a new year, but also a new decade.

I did enjoy the routine and traditions of Christmas past. However, it was not possible for my family and me to have a classic Christmas in 2019. What were my options? I could have demanded that all of my kids be present, but that would have been ridiculous. I could have sulked and felt sorry for myself, but that would only make the situation worse. I choose option three, to not only accept the change but to make the most out of it. By being flexible, I was able to have contact with all of my kids during the holiday. I had an enjoyable Christmas Day punctuated by a first, a Christmas Day movie. It was all excellent. 

It is easy to get locked into a rigid holiday tradition, which can serve as a point of disappointment or conflict if the exact requirements of that expectations are not met. However, such stiffness serves no purpose. I choose to be grateful for what I have instead of being resentful for what I don’t. 

Happy holidays,

Mike

Here is the audio link to this podcast: http://psychiatricsecrets.libsyn.com/christmas-past-christmas-present?fbclid=IwAR2PR7F3Jxb_oXIP0bJm7GbaV_tbWLIGcZiXGC2F5K-Qts96CWUAMHisdhM

The Clown Car

We were already running late; we had a seven hours drive ahead, and I was feeling a need to get going. The family would be away for only three days, and we had gotten good at packing light. However, each of us wanted to have our space-occupying suitcase.  

I started to pack Rosie, our red Ford Flex. First went the suitcases. On top of them, I carefully placed Tupperware containers that held the snowman cupcakes that Grace, Will, and I made. We had decorated them the night before by piping buttercream icing on vanilla cupcakes and making snowman heads out of marshmallows. We then added mini M & Ms for buttons and pretzel sticks for snowman arms. They were attractive, and I wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be destroyed on the long trip to Minnesota. I found a nook next to the Tupperware for Julie’s Almond Pound Cake. She found the recipe for this dessert in a church cookbook 25 years ago, and it has become a Christmas staple in our house. Next went a bag of Christmas gifts. On top of the entire assembly, I placed four pillows, one for each of us. We would be sleeping at the Peterson’s, and I thought that having something familiar would add a little comfort. 

Grace, Will, and I made snowman cupcakes.

When I drive to Minnesota in the winter, I like to be prepared, and so I tossed in two sleeping bags on top of everything. The bags were tightly wound like Swiss Roll cakes but squishy enough so I could squeeze them into two tight spots. Next, I added additional emergency travel items. Finally, I put our car-food bag in the front passenger seat. The car-food bag concept is Julie’s contribution to our family travels. This time it contained various chips, pretzels, and a few sweet treats for interstate munching.  

I went back into the house and ground Dunkin Donuts beans and made a pot of coffee in our Braun drip coffee maker. I poured coffee into my reusable Starbucks travel cup and some into my little S’well thermos. Now back in the car, both items found spots in front seat cup holders.  

car-food

I started the engine and pressed the on-screen buttons on the Flex’s control panel to adjust the heat. I activated the fan button, and nothing happened. I reset the car’s computer and tried again…nothing! I had just replaced the heater’s fan, and it was malfunctioning again! We could not drive the Flex to Minnesota for Christmas without a working heater. It would not only be uncomfortable, but it would also be unsafe. Our other travel-worthy vehicle, Violet, the campervan, was not a possibility as she only has two seats, and we had four passengers. The prospect of seeing our family for Christmas was looking grim. 


Cars don’t hold much romance for me, but at times I have succumbed to their advertised hype. When I grew up in blue-collar Chicago, most people drove used American-made cars, Fords, Chevys, Plymouths, and the like. However, there was a house in my old neighborhood that had two Mercedes Benz sedans parked in the back. A friend told me that these were luxury cars and very special. Somehow that message has stayed with me into my adulthood. 

I usually buy functional cars; however, there have been a few notable exceptions. When I finished my medical residency, I bought a speedy Mustang convertible. It was a fun car in good weather, but utterly treacherous with the slightest bit of rain or snow. After a few years, I sold it for something more practical, a Ford Explorer. Other rational cars followed the Explorer, that is until I turned 50. 

By that time, I was an established physician, and there was a part of me wanted to show off my success. I had an urge to buy a Mercedes, but it seemed like a wholly wasteful purchase. I delayed my desire for over a year, but I finally could not resist my childish wish. I bought a hunter green Mercedes sedan with a tan leather interior. I remember the feeling that I had when I drove out of the dealer’s lot. A blue-collar kid from the south side of Chicago has arrived! I felt like the world was watching me and giving me a nod of respect. Despite knowing that my feelings were ridiculous, I held onto them. Why? Because they felt good.

In reality, a Mercedes is just a box on wheels, and my hunter green one wasn’t a very reliable box at that. The car made frequent trips to the dealership for repairs that ranged from disconnected door handles to defective computerized displays. In the beginning, these repair trips were OK, as I would always get a new loaner Mercedes to check out. However, this joy ended with the conclusion of my warranty. Post-warranty it wouldn’t be uncommon to bring the car in for a simple oil change and leave with a $1000.00 repair bill. My Mercedes went from being a classy status symbol to a financial anchor around my neck. 

Fast forward to 2008. I was in the process of getting a new job in far off Rockford, and I wanted a car that was both reliable and economical. My radical move was to buy a Fit, Honda’s smallest and cheapest car. I can’t imagine that many people trade in a luxury car for a Honda Fit, but that was precisely what I did.

As compact cars go, the Honda Fit is very…compact. Its tiny engine sips gas at 40 MPG, and its small interior tries to eke out extra space with fold-down seats. At 6’3,” I fit into the driver’s seat, but I wouldn’t call the experience spacious. 

The Honda commuted me for many years to my Wheaton private practice and my job in Rockford. The 80 mile trip to Rockford could be treacherous in bad weather, and so I had equipped the little car with all of the survival basics, jumper cables, a first aid kit, a sleeping bag, a change of emergency clothes, and even a towing strap. Being a solo traveler gave me plenty of packing space despite the car’s diminutive dimensions.  

I loved the Honda and thought it looked attractive, but others felt it was too tiny for a man of my size. One case in point was my brother-in-law. He referred to the Fit as my “clown car.” The title referencing the tiny autos that are used as circus gags. A clown car would pull up in the circus’ center ring, and from its claustrophobic innards, six or more clowns would emerge. How they packed them in there, I will never know.

Five years ago, I drove my daughter Kathryn from Chicago to the University of Arizona in the Fit. We had pushed down the rear seats, and with precision packing, the Fit successfully transported the two of us and all of Kathryn’s college belongings to her freshman dorm at the U of A. 

I was solo on the trip home, and the roads were plagued by an enormous amount of road construction. New Mexico was especially bad, and the highway would frequently transition from double lanes to a concrete barrier single channels. Large signs would announce, “Construction Speed Limit Strictly Enforced,” at the start of these channels. So I would set my cruise control to the appropriate speed limit to avoid getting a ticket. 

I was driving through one of these construction channels in the middle of New Mexico. Suddenly, I had a strange feeling of danger overtake me along with a physical tingling feeling at the back of my neck that forced me to look up and towards the rearview mirror. What I saw horrified me. All I could see in my rearview mirror was the giant grill of an 18 wheeler. The truck was so close to me that I was invisible to the driver who was gaining on me. If I had not looked up at the very moment, the 18 wheeler would have run over me in the next 30 seconds. I could not escape the lane as the road construction channel was cordoned off. Honda Fits are not known for their powerhouse acceleration. Still, I had no other option, so I stomped on the accelerator. The car started to pick up speed but at an agonizingly slow rate. By this time, I was sweating, and it felt like my heart would jump directly out of my chest. I looked up and saw that I was now going slightly faster than the truck. I was pulling away. 

Eventually, I cleared the barriers and pulled into a different lane. I looked back to see the truck in my rearview mirror. He was staying far behind me as he was now aware of what almost happened due to his distraction. 

That incident stayed with me, and for some time, it felt like a PTSD experience as I would go into a near panic when I was surrounded by trucks on the expressway. I had to overcome my fear as I needed to drive the Fit to Rockford every week. So I eventually convinced myself that driving it was safe. However, I never took the Honda on long road trips after that, as it was just too stressful, and I was too fearful.

Cars don’t age well, and over the 11 years that I have owned the Fit, it has gained a bit of rust, and its paint has seen better days. Now with almost 130 thousand miles, the Fit has become our spare/kid’s car. It remains a perfect “around-town” vehicle despite its loss of beauty. I now mostly drive Violet the van, and we have the big Ford Flex for our other needs.

Our 11-year-old Honda Fit is showing her age.

“The heater/defroster fan isn’t working. It would be dangerous to take Rosie to Minnesota.” I announced in a solemn tone. I scanned the living room to witness a sea of wide eyes and dropped jaws. “The fan sometimes comes on when you drive her a little bit,” Julie offered. “That’s not reliable enough. What if we were stuck in a storm on the way and had no heat or defrost air.”  

It was clear that everyone was very disappointed. What were the other options available? The only reasonable one at that late time was to drive the Fit. And although a solution, it was a pretty terrible one.

The Fit is fine for a lone driver, OK for a single passenger, but miserable for four adults that included two males who are both over 6 feet tall. Also, we had luggage, presents, food, and emergency items. I checked the weather for Minneapolis, which indicated that on our commuting days, the temperatures would be above freezing. We could probably forgo our emergency gear.  

I mentioned the possibility of taking the Fit on the 7-hour journey, and there was a general nod of agreement. All of us unloaded the Flex and loaded the Fit. We left behind many items, but the hatch area was still very tight.

I also had to face my fear of driving the Fit on a long interstate trip full of 18 wheelers. I did my best to implement some self-CBT, took a deep breath, and plopped myself into the driver’s seat. Julie sat opposite me, and the kids each took spots in the tiny second row. We were off.

There are some desolate stretches along the way.

To keep ourselves sane, we took a few extra rest-stops on both the destination and return trips. I wanted to be as alert as possible, so I made sure that I drank my coffee. I keep my attention high when faced with construction zones, and made sure that we had plenty of gas. These were all small things, but they helped ease some of the stress.

Stopping at a random restaurant along the interstate.
Having a full take of gas gave me a sense of security.
Interstate rest areas allowed us to stretch our legs.
I always have to check out rest stop vending machines despite the fact that they typically contain the same items.
We like to stop at Culvers for our mid-trip meal. Nothing says love like cheese curds.
Culvers chili and a half-eaten bag of cheese curds.

The trip was challenging, but we accomplished our goal because we faced our problem with a realistic and positive attitude. None of us complained; we all did our respective jobs. So why didn’t we just cancel?

Simple…

If you want to do something, you find a way.

If you don’t want to do something, you find an excuse.

Those two lines give you our answer. You may want to think about them the next time you need to make a decision, or wonder what another person’s real motivation is. 

Safe arrival to our family in Minnesota.

Happy trails,

Mike

Sh*t happens, a letter to my kids.

Dear Anne, Kathryn, Grace, and William,

There have been times in my life when I felt that I couldn’t catch a break. Things were not going my way, and sometimes it believed that I had no way out. These dark times could last anywhere from a few hours to longer than a few months. Some of these traumas were due to my actions, and others felt like they were random acts. During these later experiences, I often felt like I was being punished for some unknown offense. Being a problem solver, I would do my best to come up with solutions, and sometimes I succeeded. However, there were other situations where the right answer could not be found. Although I couldn’t always find answers, I could still learn from my experiences. 

I thought I would share with you some of the lessons that I learned from hard times.

If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger (most of the time)

My graduate school days were a time of growth. The main project of my thesis was to purify and characterize an enzyme found in bacteria. To do this, I initially relied on conventional procedures and the advice of my graduate advisor. Despite trying many different variables, I could not successfully isolate my enzyme from all of the rest of the bacteria’s cellular proteins. When I returned to my advisor for help, she would tell me to try again, but the results were always the same. I knew that I was doing my procedures correctly, and so finding a solution seemed hopeless.

I was in the university’s science library late one night reading journal articles. I hoped that I would locate a new technique that would solve my problem. All of the articles seemed useless, and I found my thoughts wandering. I decided to clear my mind from everything I had read. Once I freed myself from those limitations, I started to have other opinions. Those thoughts cascaded into an avalanche of ideas. Eventually, I came up with a novel way to approach the problem that was the opposite of what I had been told to do. That opposite way worked and was a crucial step in the purification of the enzyme that I was isolating. The trauma and frustration of my failures forced me to think outside of the box, and in the process, I became a better scientist.

Sh*t Happens

The purification of the above bacterial protein was a long and tedious process. After working for almost a year, I was ready to scale up production so I could obtain enough protein to run my characterization experiments. The build-up to the final step of the purification took weeks. I had to grow massive amounts of bacteria, lyse the bacterial cells, and go through many steps to remove impurities from the lysate. At times I was sleeping at my office desk as I had to run some of the procedures overnight. The final step of my purification involved a technique called chromatography. The chromatography needed to be run in the lab’s walk-in cooler. I set up the purification on Friday afternoon with the expectation that the process would run through the weekend. 

Finally, I would have enough of the enzyme to start the second phase of my research! I rushed back to campus on Monday morning and immediately went to the cold room. When I opened the door, I was met with a blast of hot air! The cold room had malfunctioned, and it was a balmy 90 degrees inside. The enzyme was destroyed.  

Naturally, I felt sorry for myself, and it took me a few hours to re-face the problem. Since I had to redo the entire experiment, I decided to streamline some of the steps that I developed, which turned out to be a good thing. A few weeks later, I once again faced the cold room, but this time I achieved my goal.  

Sometimes you do everything right, but things still go wrong. Your only choice is to pull yourself off the floor, re-evaluate the situation, and, if warranted,  start over again.

Turn a disadvantage into an advantage

As humans, we love to put things into categories, and one of our favorites is whether something is good or bad. I would like to challenge this categorization. 

As you know, I have brain processing issues that I describe to others as dyslexia. This definition only loosely defines what happens in my head, but it is understandable to others, which is why I use that term.

The reality is that (at least by my observation), my brain works differently than most “normal” people. I get confused by letters (an h looks like a b, and so on), I have difficulty seeing the space between words, and the lines between sentences in a paragraph. I have trouble memorizing random strings of numbers or remembering definers, like a person’s name. 

My processing issues don’t stop there. It has become clear to me that the way that I think is different from the way that most people think. My natural way of thinking is not linear (although I have taught myself how to think in a sequential pattern). I see aggregates of ideas that connect with other aggregates of ideas. I tend to see connecting points between things that on the surface seem to have no connecting points. In my way of thinking, everything is joined to everything else. The way that I process information is hardly efficient in a 2019 “cause and effect” world. Most people would think that my brain (your mom has called it autistic-like) would be a significant disadvantage to me. It certainly has made some parts of normal life more challenging. However, my unusual thinking has advantages. Since I see connections and patterns everywhere, it is often easy for me to understand concepts that others may find challenging. Chemistry is no different to me than cooking. Immersing myself in learning web design is no different than immersing myself in a novel, and so on. By embracing my brain, I have been able to take a potential disadvantage and turn it into a definite advantage. There is bad in good things and good in bad things. How you view something can make a difference. 

We all make stupid mistakes

A few years ago, I was in our basement, and I noticed that one of the air returns ducts was disconnected. I reached up to reattach the duct, but it was just out of my reach. I needed to be a foot higher, and I looked around the basement to find something to stand on. An old kitchen chair caught my eye. The chair had found its way to the basement as one of the legs was partially detached. I thought that I could carefully balance myself on the broken chair and fix the errant air duct. For some reason, this seemed like a brilliant idea, even though a step ladder was only 20 feet away. I carefully positioned the broken leg and climbed on the top of the chair’s seat. I extended my arm, and just as I reached my most vulnerable position, the chair collapsed, causing me to hit the hard concrete floor with great force. The wind was knocked out of me, and I felt dazed. My foolish actions resulted in having a sore back for weeks and an ability to predict changes in the weather for months. I would like to say that that was the last stupid thing that I have done, but that would be a lie. However, I am now much more careful when it comes to choosing something to climb on. I did learn from my wrong actions.

You will do stupid things in your life. Learn from them and don’t repeat them. 

Relationships don’t always work out, and that’s OK.

It is hard for me to give you a specific example here as I don’t want to tell a tale that involves another person. However, I can tell you that I have made mistakes with relationships in the past. When I was younger, I tended to find people who needed me to take care of them. In my mind, I felt that I was a good person and a true friend. However, I now believe that there was a more sinister side to my actions as I think that low self-esteem was at play. I was finding people who needed me as this made me feel worthy. Unfortunately, these relationships were one-sided and not equal partnerships. Besides, once a dependent person realized that their needs were not being utterly met by me, they became angry and resentful. Over time I came to understand that these types of connections were not good for me, and I now form bonds with healthy peers instead of needy dependents. Although I have been hurt, I now know that I don’t have to stay in bad relationships. Recognizing what a bad relationship is has shown me what to look for in a good relationship.

Keep your eyes and ears open

My medical school class had over 140 students, each one selected for being at the top of their respective classes. We had some students who viewed their success in terms of their performance compared to their classmates. These kids always sought to get the highest scores on every exam. In one particular case, the student’s efforts were so stressful to her that she had to drop out of med school. 

I saw med school as a tool to achieve a goal. That goal was to become a physician. If I got a 95% on an exam and someone else got a 98% it made little difference to me. We were both going to be MDs at the end of 4 years. My more balanced approached paid off, and in the end, I got the degree that the poor super-achiever did not. You can learn from an observed trauma just as much as one that you personally experience. Keep your eyes and ears open and let others teach you not only by their successes but also by their failures.

Many things happen in our lives, and some of those things may upset or hurt us. However, every event can be a learning experience that you can use to become a better and stronger person.

I love you!

Dad

The Long Drive

I opened the pantry door and selected a Trader Joe’s forever grocery bag that was decorated with bright swatches of colors. My eyes moved up towards Julie’s snack bin, where I grabbed a few bags of savory treats. I knew that I wouldn’t eat most of the snacks, but I like the security of having them with me in readiness for a Heartland hurricane or a Great Lakes tsunami. It is good to have a plan B, even when it is entirely unnecessary. My next stop was the refrigerator to secure a couple of bottles of Kirkland water. The bottles were left over from a prior camping adventure, and I was glad to give them purpose.

I pressed a button on our fire engine red Breville coffee grinder, and its LCD panel sprung to life, “Grind Level 44, Grind Time 26 seconds,” it read. I pressed the same button again and was greeted by the whine of the machine’s burrs as they converted roasted beans into ground coffee. Twenty-seven seconds later, the coffee was in the basket of our Braun coffee maker. A few minutes after that, it found its way to my reusable Starbucks travel cup and the small S’well thermos that the kids gave me for Father’s Day.

I always bring lots of snacks on a road trip, even with the knowledge that I probably won’t eat them.

Now in the car, I pressed the Google Map icon on my iPhone and tapped in the address of my daughter’s dormitory. My mission was to retrieve Grace from university, an eleven-hour round trip. The drive from Naperville to Ohio is mostly through the state of Indiana. It is an uninspiring trip. Still, I am grateful that the expressways are dotted with numerous small towns and refueling stops.

I moved into thinking mode, one of my favorite alone activities, and I started to process theoretical problems and scenarios as the miles clicked by. After a few hours of driving, I got a call from Tom, reminding me to stay alert on the road. I was grateful for his concern and expressed the same to him; he was about to drive to Wisconsin on a mini-vacation with his family.

My driving continued in an external silence as I pondered more questions, some relevant, but most trivial. It was now 12:30 PM. I was only mildly hungry. Still, I was transfixed by the number of restaurants listed on the blue information signs as I approached the exit for Layfayette, Indiana. One placard caught my attention, “Chick-Fil-A,” and I decided to stop for lunch. I exited on to a county highway and started to scan both sides of the street, but after 3 blocks, no Chick-Fil-A could be found. I decided to cut my losses and pulled into a Burger King. “I’ll have one of those Impossible Beef Whoppers,” I thought.

As I started to chomp on the synthetic burger, my iPhone rang. This time it was Julie checking on me. We talked a bit as I ate and told her of my drive. In return, she described her day at work. She would be home after 5 PM, but I wouldn’t arrive back in town until 10 PM or later.

It was time to get back in the van, and I once again filled my time with thoughts, now mixed with a little NPR, and a phone call to Nancy, my sister. I tend to tell myself that these types of trips are shorter than they really are. By the time I reached Indianapolis, I had falsely convinced myself that I was close to my destination. The miles dragged on. I munched on some of the chips that I brought, stopped for gas, and sipped coffee.

The last 25 miles to my daughter’s college are on rural roads. It is a zig zaggy experience that would completely befuddle me without the power of GPS. I started to send updates to Grace via Siri’s voice transcription. “Thirty minutes ETA.” “I’m in town, get ready.” “I’m 5 minutes away, where do you want me to park?” I can’t see the small texting print on my Apple watch without reading glasses, so my auditory efforts have sometimes resulted in ridiculous messages. I could only hope that no matter what they said, Grace would interpret their meaning correctly.

Soon I was illegally backing into a spot next to her dorm’s garbage dumpsters. With fingers crossed, I pressed a button to activate Violet Van’s emergency flashers and hoped that I wouldn’t become a towing victim. Thankfully, Grace was quick to come to the car, and we were off.

The university is always impressive on approach.

Although more fatigued, the return trip home was my reward. As I have said in previous posts, I enjoy my 4 children. I spent some “talk time” with William when he returned from his college the night before, and now I would have that same privilege with Grace.

Our conversation was lively as it jumped from topic to topic. Her final exams, some updates on her friends, national politics, and so it went.

My recent conversations with my kids have shown a subtle change. I have always felt that I have had excellent communication with my children, and I have ever tried to be respectful of their opinions. However, our interchanges now seem different. We are moving towards a peer level of conversation. I love this transition, but it does have its pitfalls. For instance, a driver rudely cut me off, and an expletive unconsciously left my lips. I’m usually more mindful of such behaviors when I’m with my kids, and I was surprised by my impulsive actions. I did apologize to Gracie, who seemed unfazed.

Soon it was time to refuel both the car and the riders. I pulled into a Pilot station, and we were dazzled by the enormous array of dining options. We elected Subway, as we have always found these joints to be relatively standard and safe when traveling.

Grace ordered a turkey and cheese sandwich. She always eats her sandwiches extremely plain and so I was surprised when she had the worker add some toppings. When I innocently brought my observation to her attention, she gave me a quick glare, and I instantly knew that I crossed an etiquette line. “I’m sorry, did I just embarrass you,” I said in earnest. “Yes,” was her reply. The faux pas now forgotten, we moved on. I ordered ham and Provolone on a toasted bun and added just about every free topping that was offered. By experience, I know that the meat portions at Subway are skimpy, and I have learned to boost the sandwich’s contents.

I maximize my Subway sandwich by adding anything, and everything free.

Now back in the car, our conversation continued, more out of the joy of reconnecting than anything else. Soon we were singing along with children’s songs streamed from Spotify. When we were tired of that activity, we each took turns picking artists that we enjoyed. My Frank Sinatra paired her Jon Bellion, my Sarah Vaughn countered her Lizzo… and so it went.
Before I knew it, I was pulling into our driveway, tired but happy.

Dear reader, most of life’s activities are routine, and many people view such tasks with dread or boredom. Yet, there is interest and excitement in all things. The trick is to find the uniqueness in every event and to celebrate it. An 11-hour drive could be a mind-numbing bore. However, it could also be an adventure. A time to catch up on the news, think, see new sites, ponder new thoughts, and to connect with people who you love.

Do you have tasks, activities, or events coming up in your life that you are not looking forward to? If the answer is “Yes,” I would ask you to use your creativity to focus on the positives of those experiences. Turn your lemons into lemonade.

The Crawl Space

I moved into my home on Sunnybrook Drive in 1989, over thirty years ago. I purchased it for one sole purpose to give my daughter a stable and secure environment. I bought a four-bedroom, two and one-half bath dwelling for myself and my daughter, who visited me every other weekend. Overkill, you ask? I’m am a person who gets confused in chaos, and in my home, I had more than enough space to have a place for everything and to put everything in its place. 

In 1993 I married Julie, and we decided that we would start our married life together in my house. This made the most sense as she was busy getting her Ph.D., and my house was move-in ready. Julie brought to the marriage the contents of her old apartment, including a few boxes of things that we had no use for but were too “good” to throw out. These boxes served as the nidus of growth in the hidden part of our home, known as the crawlspace.

You enter the crawlspace from our basement, climbing into it from the furnace/utility room. It is a large, hollow area situated directly below the family room. The floor of the crawlspace is a hunk of very rough concrete and the short height of the room forces exploration on your hands and knees. This uncomfortable experience is made worse by looming joists and ventilation ducts that seem to be pleasured when you bang your head on their hard surfaces. The crawlspace tends to be more humid than the rest of the basement. Dark, dank, and dusty; its only redeeming value is that it is hidden from view. 

Over time boxes entered the crawl space, and once in, they never left. Our family grew from three to six, and with each child, there were clothes to save, and toys to box. Both Julie and I stored full sets of old heavy outdated luggage. I had a complete set of china that found a home there when our wedding dishes replaced it. Boxes of school notes, old textbooks, VHS tapes, and personal journals were tossed there. An end table, an electric “wonder oven,” a deconstructed shelving unit, kids Halloween costumes, broken tools, and an endless sea of Christmas decorations.

The Christmas decorations deserve special mention. For many years I would buy Julie a special Christmassy gift at Christmas. Porceline villages, giant snow globes, fancy nativity sets, and more. I also had a habit of purchasing super tacky animated Christmas novelties to surprise the kids. There was the talking Chrismas tree, the Jazzy Santa, and the dancing snowman, to name a few. All of these items found their way to the crawl space keeping company with boxes of ornaments, wreaths, lights, and our bulky fake Christmas tree. Julie didn’t like or display my Christmassy surprises, which achieved permanent residency in the crawl space. The kids did enjoy the Christmas novelties, but their poor construction combined with the damp crawl space warranted their quick deaths. Once in the crawl space, they joined other useless items creating our very own island of misfit toys. After thirty years, the island was bursting at its metaphorical seams.

My coping strategy was simple; I pretended that the crawl space didn’t exist. However, every time I replaced the furnace’s filter, I had to confront this delusion. I would glance at the area and quickly turn away, ashamed. However, even a glance would force a feeling of urgency in me that I needed to do something, anything, about the mess. I countered that urgency with the reality that I didn’t have the time to tackle such a project. I was working two jobs while trying to be a good husband and parent. That was what I could do. 

In 2019 I retired; I no longer had two jobs. In 2019 our youngest child entered college; our kids were grown. It was time to deal with the crawl space.

Julie had no interest in being a co-cleaner, and I can’t say that I blamed her. The thought of spending countless hours crawling on hands and knees was not my jam either. I knew that I needed to approach the problem differently. Those boxes, bags, and loose items had been squatting in the crawl space for years; they didn’t need immediate eviction. 

I developed a simple and nearly painless strategy. Three times a week, I would go down into the crawl space, and each time I would remove one item. That item could be a garbage bag of loose things, a storage box, or a single larger item. Each session would last (at most) 10 minutes, and once I completed my goal, I made a conscious effort to pat myself on the back. This also meant that I only had three additional items to take out in the trash every week, making Julie, the sanitation worker, and me happy.

I started this process several months ago, and I have been faithful in its execution. Initially, it seemed like I was making no progress, then the chaos of my actions made the space look worse. I knew that this would be the case, and I pushed forward. Now, several months later, I still have a way to go, but I can see progress. I hope that I will regain crawl space order in the first quarter of 2020. With that reality, there is also the awareness that the empty spaces could serve as a magnet for future clutter. I will need to be vigilant to continue to keep the crawl space clutter-free.

Life can be like my crawl space, chaotic, and full of unwanted things. Full of habits that no longer serve a purpose, but you can’t seem to discard. Packed with relationships that hamper you and hold you back instead of propelling you forward. When life is full of such clutter, there is no room for progress as all energy is used to maintain the status quo.

When humans face severe problems, most want rapid and easy solutions. We buy silly potions that promise miracle results or go on radical exercise programs that are abandoned as enthusiastically as when they were initiated. We quit unrewarding jobs without a back-up plan. We run from one relationship to another, seeking someone to make us feel complete only to find that we take ourselves with us. 

Most significant problems are not solved quickly or easily. It can be overwhelming to contemplate making a change when dealing with a substantial issue. However, it is often possible to make small changes in a dedicated and consistent fashion. Initially, it may seem like your efforts have no impact, then things may even seem a bit worse, but eventually, you will see the fruit of your labor. Just as in my crawl space, it is essential to remain ever vigilant to not fall back. 

Accept responsibility and approach change with a discerning eye. Your best life is ahead.

I hope to have the crawl space cleaned out by the first quarter of 2020.

Traditions

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. 

Thanksgiving Day 

Breakfast: 

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).

Supper: 

Sandwiches, salads, sweets.

Friday

Breakfast

Ham and Egg Strata (sort of a bready souffle), OJ, coffee, hot rolls, sweetbreads/coffee cake, oranges.

Lunch

Homemade cream of turkey soup (one of my specialties)

Sandwich fixings and dessert 

Dinner

Stuffed pasta shells, tossed salad, garlic bread, dessert.

Saturday

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.

Making sure that the turkey is 165 F.
One of two tables set for Thanksgiving.
Joining hands to give thanks.
I’m in charge of making the Thanksgiving dinner.
Food served buffet style.

Am I Prejudice By Design?*

My parents were raised in a Chicago Slovak neighborhood, in a city of ethnic neighborhoods. They lived in a place where you could converse in Slovak, shop in Slovak stores, and attend a Slovak Catholic Church. Adjacent to the Slovak neighborhood was a Polish neighborhood where similar services were available but in Polish instead of Slovak. These countries touch each other on the European continent but are separated by state borders. Similarly, old Chicago neighborhoods touched each other but were separated by cultural borders. People were expected to marry someone from their religion and cultural background, which is precisely what my parents did.

During the first half of the last century, women were told that they were incompetent to hold positions of importance. Nevertheless, women performed a vital role during WWII by working in responsible positions. The war would not have been won without their efforts. However, after the war was over, they were expected to adopt their prior limited roles. 

During World War II, propaganda was used to unite US citizens. One method of propaganda was to create grotesque caricatures of our enemies. Especially notable were those of the Japanese where the physical differences between Asians are whites were so exaggerated that the Japanese looked more monster than human. 

I was raised in a neighborhood that was mostly blue-collar, mostly Catholic, and completely white. When I was a child in the 1960s, there was a great fear of blacks. A fear justified by stories of violence and immorality. We were led to believe that the integration of our neighborhoods would result in them becoming ghettos. This fear played out in the high school that I attended, which was ripe with racial conflict and violence. That violence was a product of our fear, but we were led to believe that it was proof of our false conjectures. 

Unlike my parents, my generation melted more into the American fabric. My wife is Swedish and was raised in a Protestant tradition. My siblings married spouses who were Irish, German, and Polish, respectively. Our parents believed that it was necessary to marry their kind. However, my generation found that “our kind” had more to do with values rather than ethnic heritage. 

My colleague Glenn was a Psychiatry resident whom I trained with during the 1980s. He attended a prominent pharmacy school in Iowa before he decided to seek a career in medicine. He told me of an experience that he had with a college roommate. One day his roommate asked Glen a favor, “I never met a real Jew before, can I see your horns?” His roommate was completely serious.  

While attending medical school at Northwestern, I became friends with a kind and thoughtful fellow student named Todd. We never talked about religion, that is until one day. On that day, this smart and kind man told me in earnest that he knew that the Pope had a massive arsenal of weapons hidden in the basement of the Vatican. “Someday, the Pope will give a secret signal, and all Catholics will rise up and attempt to take over the country,” he told me sincerely. I was glad that I did not tell him that I was Catholic.

My friend Tom, who grew up in Poland, said that homosexuals were hated and rejected there. He was taught that the gay agenda was to convert straight children into a gay orientation. As a child, he had a genuine fear of this group based on this lie.

Our highest officials tell us that all Muslims are terrorists and should not be given the same rights and privileges as others in our society.

I am writing this post from Starbucks, where I have a direct view of the street. Outside I see a Hispanic woman wearing a safety vest and wielding a leaf blower. She is working purposefully as she cleans the sidewalk that I will be walking on in a few minutes. I am told that the people of her race are lazy, drunken criminals. It does not appear that she got that memo.

What is the common link between all of these diverse groups? The common link is that in some minor way, they are different from the group in power and that these differences are enough for denial of their human rights.

In nature, other organisms exhibit destruction based on differences. Advanced species like chimps wage war on other chimps, as do lesser species like meerkats. Ants and bees, destroy insects from other colonies. Lions, bears, and even horses kill the offspring of other males. 

Plants, including walnut and pine trees, secrete agents that prevent competitors from growing near them. Other plants go a step further by secreting chemicals that directly attack the roots of living neighbors, killing them.

Some researchers feel that the distrust of others has a genetic component. However, others believe that distrust is entirely a learned phenomenon. I am in the first camp, as the traits of trust and distrust would seem critical for the survival of early humans. If primitive humans had an inherent mistrust of individuals who were different from them, it could provide a survival benefit.

Let me digress. Have you ever fallen in love? Think back to one of your high school crushes. The object of your affection could likely do no wrong. Their flaws were minimized, and their strengths were magnified. You probably had an intense interest in their behaviors and a strong desire to connect with them. Most adolescent crushes last from weeks to months. Most “post crush” individuals wonder why the former object of their affection has suddenly developed clay feet.

A chemical storm in your brain causes a crush that clouds your judgment and artificially emotionally connect you to your love interest. Why would your brain play such a trick on you? Stated, this emotional closeness can lead to physical closeness. In other words, your brain is setting the stage for you to procreate. Humans prize their intellectual capabilities, but many of our actions are based on primitive instinctual drives.

It can be assumed that during our early evolution, resources were scarce, and mortality was high. Having a more significant piece of the resource pie would ensure a higher rate of survival, and one way to have more pie for yourself is to take someone else’s piece. This presents a problem. We are social animals who are more successful when we work in groups. Therefore, if our only drive was to selfishly secure resources for ourselves,  we would lose the significant benefit of working with others. Thankfully, we have other inherent characteristics that balance this drive, including empathy, compassion, and a desire to connect. It is fashionable to think that these characteristics are taught, but in reality, they are baked into us. However, they can be strengthened by teaching. Our connecting forces balance our self-serving forces. This yin and yang combination has enhanced our ability to expand our species and thrive. 

Although Homo Sapiens have been on this planet for around 200,000 years, our modern societies have only existed for 6000 years. Complex societies present their own problems and require additional solutions. As thinking creatures, we have developed social norms and established laws. Mechanisms from etiquette to governmental rule help humans work together in harmony.

In a perfect world, our innate drives combined with external forces (such as laws) would give us a utopian-like existence. However, we do not live in a perfect world. It is all too easy to channel suspicious feelings to others whom we perceive as different. The more significant that difference, the easier the alienation. Color of skin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, and physical characteristics are just a few of the ways that we can separate ourselves from others. However, in modern society, it is challenging to denigrate someone on such facts. Instead, negative attributes are added to justify our emotional feelings. This group is lazy, that group is dirty, etc. 

Individuals and groups have intuitively used our fear of “different” in weaponized ways for millennia, and their manipulations have resulted in societies accepting and even celebrating tragedies from wars to mass genocide. Sadly, it is easy to see these weaponized forms of hate being applied in our present day.

This condemnation of particular groups can be partial or complete. During World War II, propaganda against the Japanese was so successful that little was said when Japanese Americans had their property seized and were locked up in camps. 

Partial condemnation allows an individual to continue to serve society while their rights are restricted. Blacks were allowed to do manual labor, cook, and care for our children, but were denied all human rights. Women were allowed to raise families, but were not considered equal to their spouses. 

Such actions keep power in the dominant group, but at a high cost to both the dominated and domineering. Increasing a pool of talented individuals allows for more meaningful and more varied solutions, as well as higher productivity. For instance, the US became an intellectual power when working classes were allowed to gain a higher education via the GI Bill. A whole country is a healthy country. 

Why is it that we continue to experience prejudice and the denial of human rights, and why do these behaviors seem to be on the rise? These actions give the group in power short-term gain. Unfortunately, we are in a time when it appears that leaders are more interested in what they can get in the next few years rather than what would benefit all (including their offspring) over time. As our society becomes further fractionated into very rich and very poor groups, it becomes easier for those on top to identify those on the bottom as being different, and not as worthy. Extreme wealth provides a second set of rules making some wealthy people feel that they are not only above the law but also above any consequences,

The solution to the above problem is disarmingly simple but extraordinarily difficult to implement. Groups that are determined to be different need to be accepted as similar.  

When connected with marginalized groups, most people tend to see more similarities than differences. However, forced clumsy immersions can have the effect of worsening discrimination rather than helping to heal. Our leaders need to model a behavior of tolerance, and our laws need to reflect true equality. We need to see positive models of different types of people in media, social media, and in our daily lives. Traditional ethical bearers, such as religious leaders, need to emphasize acceptance of all as a central core of their teaching. Intolerant behavior needs to be squarely addressed. Hypocrisy must be met with truth in equal force. 

One of the most powerful influencers of our basic drives is social modeling. Therefore, our society must demonstrate the full acceptance of individuals who may be perceived as different. Our current model rewards people who commit criminal acts while demonizing non-conformers who live ethical lives. This must change.

Groups in the majority fear loss. Loss of power, loss of prestige, and loss of influence. However, the healthiest societies are those that maximize the talents and skills of all of their unique members.

As humans, we have to accept our primitive beginnings, but also aspire to be higher than what those traits drive us to do. 

*This post represents my personal opinion.

Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault

It all started when my wife, Julie, returned to the paid workforce. My kids had been used to home-cooked meals, but her lack of time had them dining on fast food, delivery pizza, and frozen entrees. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting a family cooking day that I labeled, “Cooking With Dad Thursday.” My goal was to provide my kids with more than a meal, I wanted to teach them how to cook and have them experience the fellowship of sharing a group-made meal.

The task was multi-faceted. We would plan, shop, cook, and clean up together. Each cooking Thursday culminated with a Facebook post where I would upload a photo of the plated and completed meal. Naturally, I tried to present our dishes in their most favorable light on Facebook. I would always ask my kids, “Reality or Facebook reality?” when I posted the photo in an attempt to emphasize that most things that you see on Facebook are highly curated. Another effect of posting the picture surprised me; friends started to post pictures of their homemade meals. Also, “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” spawned a mini-movement of others preparing real food from scratch.

I grew up eating great food. My mother magically threw things together in the most delicious ways. She didn’t teach us how to cook, but she did write down some of her recipes in a ledger style notebook, which was passed to my brother when she died. Her musings provided her with the information that she needed to remember a recipe but they were incomprehensible to anyone else.

Most of the “Cooking With Dad Thursday” recipes originated from conventional sources. Standard cookbooks like “The Betty Crocker Cookbook,” and “The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook” provided some inspiration, but most of my recipes were procured and printed off of the internet. I have always felt comfortable cooking, as the process is a form of practical chemistry. I have been making meals for decades and can interpret a list of ingredients quickly. Most of the recipes that I selected had to conform to the tastes of my kids and also be essential enough to teach a particular cooking technique. 

Many of the dishes were well-liked by my children and warranted saving, but where? The answer came early in the form of an old and somewhat beaten up school folder from my son William’s elementary days. Its bright orange color made sure that we wouldn’t lose it; all that it needed was a little updating. With a black marker, I scratched out Will’s name on its front, and in a bold and sloppy script, I wrote “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault.” The folder was neither super-secret or a vault, but reality should never stand in the way of a creative process. During any Thursday meal, I would ask the kids, “Is this dish worthy of saving in the vault?” If the answer was yes, I would toss it in the folder. One checkmark indicating pretty good and two checkmarks noting that the dish was excellent. 

Nowadays, my kids can make anything from a savory lasagna to 6 loaves of 100% whole wheat bread. However, they are in college and beyond, causing “Cooking With Dad Thursday” to become a school break activity.

When a door closes, a window opens. With our new empty nest status, Julie and I had to negotiate who would be the meal preparer. In an egalitarian fashion, we decided to split the duty. I’m now the Sunday chief, and so “Cooking With Day Thursday” has evolved into “Simple Sunday Supper.” Julie is a more adventurous eater than the kids, and so I can revisit the culinary memories of my past, including soups, stews, and casseroles. However, she has banned peas from the list of acceptable ingredients. 

My new routine often starts with an internet search for a potential meal candidate. Once printed, I check our larder to see what we have in stock. I’ll highlight any needed purchases directly on the recipe, fold it, and stick it in my pocket to serve as a shopping list. I dislike large stores, and so I’m fortunate to have a little grocer called “Fresh Thyme” just a few blocks away. Although limited in selection, they have all of the basics plus a good meat counter and an excellent fruit and vegetable section. It is a short and easy trip for me to buy any needed ingredients, and the store’s limited selection prevents me from overbuying.

I have also taken over the weekly house cleaning, which I do on Sundays. It is a bit of a balancing act when it comes to time management. However, I’m getting good a juggling these tasks and cooking is hardly a hardship. 

Yesterday I made Italian sausage and lentil soup garnished with a little sour cream and served with chewy ciabatta bread. Total cooking time in my Instant Pot was 25 minutes, and it was the perfect dish for a frigid fall night. Julie gave me a thumbs up on dinner, and so I marked the recipe with two checkmarks. Where did I save it? In “Dad’s Super Secret Recipe Vault,” of course!

The folder is now over two inches thick. It has been loosely divided into categories such as “stovetop,” “oven,” and “Instant Pot.” In that old and now worn-out folder resides years of recipes and memories. It may not have the charm of my mother’s handwritten cookbook, but it is wholly legible and clear. I hope that someday one of my kids will want the collection, and perhaps they will teach their children using some of the recipes that we so lovingly made. The vault may serve as a new tradition as well as a vehicle for my kids to tell their kids about their crazy dad and the food adventures that were spent together.

Traditions don’t have been elaborate, they just have to be. What traditions do you have? 

The old repurposed orange folder.
The vault is over two inches thick representing many dozens of cooking adventures.
I usually post an ingredient shot. Why? Because I think it looks nice.
Last Sunday’s meal. An Italian sausage, lentil soup with chewy ciabatta bread.

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.