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.

Halloween, And First Snow

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. 

Snow on the autumn leaves made them look like glistening ornaments.
The carpet of snow dampened the sound and made my walk quiet and meditative.
Downtown Naperville as I walk towards Starbucks.
Even my back yard looked like a winter wonderland.

A Frying Pan Teaches Dr. Mike A Lesson

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.

Ten years of grime gone.

Yet Another Family Weekend

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. 

Taking Grace out to lunch on her Family Weekend.
Taking Grace out to lunch.

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.

William showing us his campus.

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.

Making pour over coffee in Violet the van.

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.

The campus at dusk.
A little chapel on Grace’s campus.
The student center.

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. 

I love to camp.
Julie reading on Violet’s platform bed.

A Bachelor Again

Last Saturday night Julie hastily packed a single suitcase. At 7:30 AM, the next morning, she headed out the door, and with her leaving, I was suddenly a bachelor again. 

Julie was not exiting our marriage; instead, she was traveling to visit friends and family on a 3-day excursion.  

Eight years spanned the gap between the dissolution of my first marriage and the consecration of my second. During that period, I sometimes dated, and at other times I was single. However, except for those times that my daughter Anne was with me, I lived alone. I am a person who is comfortable being by myself, but at times my house felt empty. My marriage to Julie filled the house with her presence, and eventually, the presence of my three additional children. 

My family of origin was routine and typical for its time. My mother didn’t work outside the home, and my father was usually sitting in his comfortable chair by 4:00 or 4:30 PM. We never went on vacation, and my parents seemed to do everything together.

Julie’s family was different from mine. Her father frequently traveled internationally, and her mother worked outside the home. Her family had a cabin two hours north of Buffalo, and it was common for her father to spend time there away from his wife. Being apart from each other was normal.

Early in our marriage, I was devastated when Julie would go away without me. I took it as a personal affront that she didn’t want to be with me. It was usual for her to travel to her hometown during “Buffalo Days,” a local celebration. Buffalo Days are scheduled on Father’s Day weekend, which meant that her dad got to celebrate Father’s Day with Julie and my kids while I spent the day alone. 

The first time that this happened, I filled my time by feeling sorry for myself, but by the second year, I was prepared. I realized that it wasn’t Julie who was making me unhappy, it was me. To resolve this issue, I came up with a “Plan B,” I would celebrate Father’s Day weekend in my own way; I would turn this disadvantage into an advantage.

When you are married, you compromise. You abandon some activities and adopt others. There are many benefits to such a transition, but if you aren’t careful, it is possible to lose yourself in the giving process. Father’s Day weekend didn’t have to be a period of imposed sadness, it could become a time of rediscovery.

During Father’s Day weekend, I would be responsible only to myself. I would not have to compromise. What were some of the things that I gave up when I married Julie? I gave up going to movies that she didn’t like, which were mostly of the action genre. I gave up frequenting certain food joints, like White Castle. I pulled back on socializing with others. I abandoned a past activity of spending a given day researching an esoteric topic or learning a new skill. I stopped cooking foods that I considered delicious, but Julie thought were unhealthy.

With the above awareness, I decided to face Father’s Day weekend head-on. That Friday’s dinner consisted of a trip to White Castles where I feasted on a bag of Sliders, a jumbo box of onion rings, and a large vanilla shake. I paid for that indiscretion, but it was worth it. On Saturday, I deliberately woke up late. I then pondered on an esoteric topic until I reached my intellectual saturation. I willfully stayed in my PJs until the evening, at which time I changed into street clothes and took myself to a bad, but wholly enjoyable action movie. On Sunday morning, I fried up a half-pound of bacon and cooked three over-easy eggs directly in the bacon’s pool of rendered fat. I accompanied my bacon and eggs with buttered toast using white bread instead of our standard whole wheat. I ate my eggs, drank strong coffee, and listened to straight-ahead jazz, all at 10 AM in the morning. 

In the early afternoon, I picked up my sister, Carol. Carol asked, “Where are we going?” I pointed vaguely westward, “There,” I said. Off we went with no particular destination in mind. Our goal was to visit small towns along the way and to find an exciting restaurant to celebrate Father’s Day dinner. We both love these discovery adventures, and to this day, we enjoy reminiscing about them.

My Father’s Day plan was a success. A dreaded weekend became a weekend to anticipate. With a few thoughtful steps, I went from being a victim to being victorious. 

Julie and the kids now spend Father’s Day at home with me, and I love the happiness that this brings, but these new memories don’t discount my Plan B adventures.

I have been married to Julie for over 25 years, and the days of being traumatized by her absences have long passed. Also, I no longer feel a need to fill every away minute with activity. However, I have learned that I can have a lot of fun during those times when I am responsible only to myself. 

And so it was with last Sunday. I drove Julie to Midway Airport to catch her flight to Minneapolis. Midway Airport is west of Gage Park, which is the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. As you know from previous posts, I don’t have a lot of positive memories growing up. However, I still have a connection from that time and that place.

I turned my car east on 55th street and headed to my old neighborhood. The roads seemed much narrower than what I remembered. Gage Park has become one of the most dangerous communities in Chicago However, the blocks were tidy and well maintained. Eventually, I turned right on Richmond Street, made a left on 56th Street, and then a quick left on Francisco Avenue, which was the street that I lived on. There on the east side of the block was my former home. Some siding had been added to the second floor, a bay window had been installed, bricks had been painted, and pavers filled the space that had been formally occupied by broken and cracked concrete. My old house looked better than it did when I lived there 45 years earlier! I took it all in, and I drove on.

My old house (far right). Bad composition, but I was driving at the time.

My old neighborhood has a little shopping area centered at 55th Street and California Avenue. In the day you could buy just about anything that you needed there. Grocery stores, clothing stores, a dimestore, a branch library, beauty shops, a bakery, and even a little movie theater lined the streets. On my return visit, many of the original buildings were still there, but their occupants had changed. Colorful signs now announced a plethora of Mexican restaurants. However, a few old businesses continued, including the corner gas station and the “Hong Kong” Chinese restaurant. I took it all in, and I drove on.

Next, I drove by Gage Park High School. When I attended Gage Park, it was so dangerous they brought the police in by school bus. Once, the home of several thousand students, it now has less than 400 due to its undesirability. I took it all in, and I drove on.

Gage Park, not a place of happy memories.

I finished my adventure by driving by my childhood friend John’s former home on 59th Street and California Avenue. He had told me that the house had a major fire several years earlier, but by my visual inspection, it looked intact and occupied. Lastly, I went past the old Colony movie theater, a childhood mainstay for Saturday afternoon adventures. Its worn facade and closed shutters saddened me as the movie theater was one place where I did have happy memories. I took it all in and headed home.

The old Colony Theater, now shuttered and closed.

Now back home, my goal was to understand the implementation and use of off-camera flash triggering via RF transmission. I was also very interested to see if I could get two flashes of different manufacturers to coordinate with one another. I know you are thinking BORNING, but I found the process utterly fascinating.  

It was then time for a break, and I got into my car to pick up an overdue prescription for Julie. On the way, I received a text from my friend, Tom inviting me to come over. Of course, I was more than happy to comply. 

With a prescription secured, I headed to Tom’s house spending a couple of delightful hours there. Tom is a great cook and invited me to dinner and a bonfire. He didn’t have to twist my arm. 

I love bonfires.

On Monday, I did some architectural photography work. That afternoon I discovered that my relatively new and expensive Nighthawk WiFi router had failed. I spent the next few hours retrofitting an old castoff router that I had stored in the nightmare that I refer to as my basement. The job made more complicated by the many Google Nest devices that I had to manually reconnect one at a time. 

Tuesday, it was more of the same. Some photo-taking, some errand running. I ordered a new router on Amazon. I spent some time with Tom. I returned to my camera flash study and made some more progress in getting my odd couple flashes to talk to each other. 

I decided to make myself some potato pancakes, a dish that I last made over 20 years ago. Hot and delicious, I topped each pancake with a dollop of sour cream. “Better than steak!” I thought to myself.

During dinner, my daughter Anne called. She was having a difficult time. There was little I could do except to extend my support and to let her know that I love her. I felt helpless.  

I got the mail and discovered a letter from my son, Will. I plopped into my study’s giant leather chair and started to read. Just as I finished the last line, I was startled by loud banging on the window, which caused me to jump out of my chair. It was Tom and his son Charlie. Tom was clearly delighted that he scared me. His printer was busted, and he needed to use mine. We chit chat a bit as the document prints, but he is quickly on his way.

Tuesday ended with a hot shower and the Democratic debate. Soon I’m out for the night. At some unknown point, Julie arrived via Uber and life in Kunaland returned to normal.

When I reflected on what I did this weekend, I discovered that it was remarkably similar to Plan B that I concocted on that fateful Father’s Day. However, what took significant effort has long become a natural and effortless action  

You may be a situation where you feel challenged. However, I encouraged you to think outside the box and discover if you can turn that scenario around and develop your own Plan B. Changing behavior requires effort, but with enough repetition, what seems novel or even awkward becomes routine and easy. Take control of your life.

Oh, I also made some REAL popcorn, not the junk in a microwave bag… and I even had a glass of wine!


The (Almost) Free Secret To Happiness

We arrive at his college with anticipation. We had been talking to Will on the phone, but this would be the first time that we would see him in situ since we dropped him off at his dorm, which was over a month ago.  

We text Will as we approach, and he responds that he will meet us in the Domino’s Pizza parking lot. I’m grateful for this as parking would be difficult since Violet, the van is almost 9 feet tall. She doesn’t play well with parking garages.

Will is happy to see us and spends the day showing us his classrooms and sharing stories. I am proud of him and happy. I’m pleased that he is adjusting to college life, but I’m even more glad that he is a kind and gracious host. His mature actions turn Parents’ Weekend into a happy experience.  

Exploring Will’s college campus.

Julie had called about a hotel room, but the only rooms available were $300 per night. Instead, she booked a camping spot for $30, and we headed there after our day with Will. We arrived after 10 PM, but Violet, the van, is self-contained, and setting her up is easy.  

Violet, the van makes camping easy.

I pull into the campsite, and we get ready for bed. I have camped a lot in Violet, but this would be the first time that Julie will be spending the night, and we both wonder if two can comfortably sleep on Violet’s small and non-standardized bed.  

Will said that he would be happy to go to brunch with us on Sunday, with the stipulation that it would have to be after 11 AM. With the lack of a morning deadline, we sleep in. Upon awakening, I start my Gas One butane stove up. I place my $7 Walmart kettle on it and fill the kettle with a bottle of water. After a few minutes, the kettle’s whistling alerts me that it was time to make the coffee, which I do one cup at a time. Julie sips her coffee as she looks out of Violet’s large sliding door window at the green grass and trees of the campground. I ask her how she slept, “Fine,” was her reply. Her response signaling that we could take a more extended camping trip together.

Making coffee one cup at a time.

We decide to walk around the campground, which is quiet and serene. It abuts a calm lake dotted with small boats. The setting is idyllic. I feel the happiness that I always do when I’m camping. At peace, feeling the calm of nature.

The campground was idyllic.

It is 4:45 in the morning, and I drive 12 minutes to my friend Tom’s house. I pick up two cups of coffee at Dunkin Donuts on the way; one with cream for me, and the other black for Tom. He is already waiting for me, and we sit on his front porch and talk about everything from politics to the weather. Eventually, we pile into his pickup truck and run various errands. We continue our banter as we ponder an endless list of topics. We enjoy each other’s company. I am having a good time.

The main job of the day is to grind down the surface of a patio in preparation for a new coat of paint. This involves several machines, which are both expensive and very heavy. At one point, I operate one machine as Tom stands on it to add extra weight for higher grinding power. In between my labors, I grab my Canon 5D Mark IV and snap pictures of the process. These will be used for Tom’s website and blog. I enjoy learning things, and on that day I learned about cement refinishing. 

Learning how to refinish a patio.

That evening I return home and download the photos. My regular computer is in the shop, and so I can’t use my professional photo editing software. Instead, I have to make do with a consumer-level program on my backup travel computer. This is challenging as I need to extract every capability of the software to achieve an acceptable result. I find the process mildly stressful, but also exhilarating and fun. Another opportunity to learn and to be creative! Also, I know that I’m helping my friend Tom. Tom is always helping me, and it makes me happy when I can return the favor and help him.

It is Sunday, which is the day that I clean the house. I took this task over from Julie several years ago. I can’t say that I enjoy scrubbing toilets, but I do like having my living space clean and tidy. On completion, I pause and examine my efforts. My results give me a sense of calm, and I savor that feeling. 

During the afternoon, I get calls from my daughter Grace, and my daughter Kathryn, who is serving in the Peace Corps. It feels lovely to connect with them. I am so grateful that they want to talk and share with me.

Another one of my jobs is to make Sunday supper. I generally like to cook from scratch. I have a rough idea of what I want to make and research a recipe on the internet. With print-out in hand, I head to “Fresh Thyme,” a small grocery store near my house. For such purchases, I prefer going to a little store as I tend to get confused and agitated in larger and noisier establishments. “Fresh Thyme” is not only small, but it also has limited choices making decisions simple. I buy what I need and head home.

Going to a small grocer makes shopping easy.

That evening my dinner includes a salad, grapes, roasted carrots, steamed rice, and lemon chicken. I enjoy researching a recipe, creating dishes, and using a gadget (in this case, the Instant Pot). Julie said that the dinner was excellent…a bonus!

Sunday supper.

On Monday we watch a movie on my computer. I problem solve and figure out how to project the video from the laptop to the TV. I explain the process to Julie so she will have the ability to do the same in the future. Teaching and sharing information gives me joy.

Dear reader, you may wonder how all of these mundane examples relate to finding happiness. For me, they resonate with the core things that make me happy. The above scenarios have examples of me connecting with people who I care about. They demonstrate learning new things and the use of technology to expand my abilities. They illustrate different ways to be creative. They allow me to share my knowledge with others by teaching. They identify that I am most at peace in a tidy and organized space. They illustrate how I thrive in the serenity of nature.

These are the things that give me satisfaction in life. All of them are nearly free.

You may have a different set of things that make you happy. Explore your feelings and examine the common elements of those things that satisfy you. Look for the essence of these common elements. Perhaps you like to go dancing, but why? Is it the exercise, or the music, or the social interaction? A core essence is generic and can be found in many other activities and situations. Those other activities and situations will probably make you happy too.

Also, explore things that stress you and make you unhappy. Distill the essence of these activities and situations. Use this knowledge to avoid negative people and situations.

You may notice in my examples that I didn’t mention the many things that we are TOLD makes us happy. I didn’t say a big house, a fancy car, or other material things. I didn’t discuss popularity or celebrity. I didn’t cite designer clothing or elaborate beauty regimes. I feel that in some cases, these things can make us unhappy. Getting in debt over possession purchases is stressful. Trying to find happiness by seeking external approval can be a never-ending struggle. Attempting to feel better about ourselves by the clothing that we put on our backs or creams that we smear on our face is folly.  

Dear reader, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a beautiful house if you can afford it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make an effort to be liked, and I’m not saying that you should not have flattering clothes. What I am saying is that for most people, these things do not add to their happiness quotient, and when they try to substitute them for your core happiness elements, it can be dangerous. Happiness can not be found by running a credit card to its limit, and that package from Amazon will at best have a temporary, mood-elevating effect.

Discover the real core things that make you happy and pursue them. Listen to your soul instead of worshiping advertisers and influencers. Transcend commercialism to find your inner peace.

When Things Fall Apart

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

Life Lessons From A Bathroom Remodel

I believe that it all started with the toilet. I can’t say for sure as the process began well over a year ago, but the toilet hypothesis is the most logical. Let me give you some background information so you can make sense of this opening sentence.

My house was built in 1984, which makes it about 35 years old. Its style is what I would call standard suburban issue for its era. Two stories, four bedrooms, two and a half baths. I completely remodeled the upstairs bathrooms around 5 years ago, which incidentally is how I became best friends with Tom. He was the general contractor on the job.

My downstairs bathroom never got that love, although I did lamely attempt to update it around 10 years earlier. At that time, I was remodeling our kitchen and extended some of that work into the downstairs powder room. Its old dated oak sink cabinet was resurfaced with a cherry wood veneer, and a remnant piece of granite from the kitchen was added to the cabinet’s top. Due to the geometry of the granite piece, I had to use an odd round sink. The vanity never looked quite right, as the granite was too big for the tiny bathroom, and the sink was too small for the granite. 

Above the cabinet was a cheap, oak-framed mirror that covered a tiny medicine cabinet. Above the medicine cabinet was an old fashioned wall light that projected from an oak base plate. In an attempt to unify the mirror and light with the cabinet, I sanded down their old finishes and applied a cherry wood stain. The result of my DIY staining job? When my sister Carol saw it, she tactfully suggested that a lot of people were replacing medicine cabinets with mirrors. Lastly, I had the room painted in a faux finish that was trendy at the time but now is hopelessly dated. I never was very pleased with my remodeling effort, but it was good enough, and I put up with it.

The old contractor grade toilet was far from perfect, although I replaced its innards. Over the last few years its ability to flush wholly deteriorated. This was evident when someone unfamiliar with the unit used it and didn’t wait for a second flush. The next person in line could be met with a little surprise waving at them in the loo. This loo wave became so common that replacing the toilet became a high priority.

As you know, I have difficulty asking people to help based on childhood issues. However, I have been working on this. In fact, I have a small handful of individuals who I’m pretty comfortable requesting aid and assistance. One of those individuals is my friend, Tom.

My hypothesis is that I didn’t ask Tom to remodel my entire powder room, that level of imposition on him would simply be too high. I believe that I asked him to help me replace the offending toilet. However, the project slowly expanded. The ugly sink cabinet had a large warp along its bottom side panel, and it was decided to replace that unit. Naturally, the dysfunctional medicine cabinet and old fashioned wall lamp were on the chopping block, then the beat-up door casing, and equally worn base molding, then the faux finished wall paint, and so on. Within two weeks, my simple toilet exchange had spun out-of-control.  

I ordered the sink cabinet and the medicine chest a year ago, but they sat in my garage waiting for a sink. I wanted a basic porcelain top, as I thought it would look both lighter and cleaner in my very tiny powder room. Finding one proved challenging and required Tom’s personal connection at Kohler. The light and the faucet were ordered but had to be returned, and different ones had to be purchased. Other items, like a higher quality exhaust fan, were added at Tom’s suggestion. With a design plan and materials in place, the project began. This was when we faced real challenges. 

The original faucet had to be returned as it was not compatible with the sink. However, I do like the new one!

For clarity, sake, I use the word “we” lightly, as the bulk of the efforts were Tom’s. I was the guy who helped move things, found the pencil, located the level, and did other menial tasks. With that said, I still learned a lot during the project. Of course, I learned a construction technique or two. However, the bathroom remodel also served as a metaphor for life, and it is those life lessons that I would like to share with you today.

Life lessons from a bathroom remodel

#1 Assuming is not knowing.

It is possible to go to a big box store and buy a complete vanity set that has both a cabinet and sink. In the past, I thought that these units looked OK, but my taste has been corrupted by my friend, Tom. He has shown me the glaring differences between cheaply made vanities and cabinets of higher quality. As I mentioned above, it took me a long time to locate the type of sink that I wanted. However, there was a glaring problem. The sink was several inches narrower and about an inch wider than the cabinet that I purchased. I had assumed that these kinds of items were of standard dimensions. We did come up with a work-around (more on that later), but my assumption cost me both time and money.

I wanted an all porcelain sink, but it was the wrong size for the base cabinet.

How many times do we make assumptions in life? Perhaps we assume something about a person based on peripheral facts. “He must be conceited because he has a lot of money.” “She must not be knowledgeable because she never finished school.” Most people will likely deny such biases, but they probably affect them despite their protests. Assumptions can shrink our personal world.

#2 The Internet does not make you an expert.

I like watching YouTube videos and TV shows on home repair as they are entertaining. Their simplistic explanations make it appear that every home project is a relaxed weekend away. My friend, Tom, is an expert when it comes to many home repair tasks. Time and time again, I observed how “simple” tasks required additional knowledge, tools, and effort. 

I can remember instances as a doctor when a patient thought that they had more knowledge than me about a topic because they read something (often very biased) on the internet. I recall one middle-aged lady who I had been working with for over a year. I was surprised that she came to one appointment quite peeved.  

“Doctor, I want to be on Paxil, and I’m upset with you that you don’t have me on it!” I was taken aback as she was doing quite well. Apparently, she had seen a few commercials about Paxil (an antidepressant) which prompted her to click on their website. She was convinced that my medical degree, board certifications, and experience were overshadowed by her 30 minutes of “research.”  

I let her vent for a while, and then I asked her a few questions. “Do you remember that medicine that your first psychiatrist had you on?” I asked. “Yes, it was terrible,” she responded. “You couldn’t tolerate the side effects, and you didn’t find it to be very effective for your symptoms,” I said. “Yes, I have no idea why I was placed on such a horrible medicine, which is why I changed to you.” She said.  “That medicine was Paxil,” I informed her. Silence was her response.

Becoming an expert in anything takes time and energy. There is a difference between knowing information and knowledge based on training and experience. This is not to say that we shouldn’t question the experts around us. However, it would be ludicrous to think that I know more about construction than Tom, or that 30 minutes on the internet would turn a consumer into an expert in psychopharmacology.

#3 Measure twice, cut once.

Despite concerted effort, there were times that we made mistakes in our bathroom remodel. Sometimes it was because we “remembered” a measurement instead of writing down the number. At other times we bought the wrong item, and then we had to retrofit or replace it. 

In life, many problems can be avoided with just a little extra thought, and the examples for this are endless. A little planning almost always makes life easier. In life, think twice, act once.

#4 Many mistakes can be corrected, but always at some cost.

I mentioned that my vanity cabinet and sink were mismatched. This was a potential disaster as I couldn’t return the custom cabinet, and there aren’t a large variety of porcelain sinks available. Luckily, one of Tom’s subcontractors is an expert cabinet maker. He was able to trim the depth of the cabinet as well as its side panel. In addition, he cleverly used a piece of base shoe to optically widened the cabinet. Naturally, the fix cost me both time and money, but the problem was corrected.  

We all make mistakes, but the fewer mistakes you make, the easier your life will be. At times avoiding mistakes is as simple as becoming a better planer. For instance, if you always forget items when you go to the grocery store, bring a grocery list. At other times it is essential to look deeper into a pattern of behavior. Do you find yourself “falling” for the wrong type of person? You may need to carefully examine your selection process, and you would likely benefit from the help of an expert. In this case, a psychotherapist. 

I said that many mistakes can be corrected. However, some can’t.  In those cases you have to live with your mistake. Here radical acceptance can help.

#5 Listen to what people have to say.

Tom has told me stories where individuals went against his advice and then regretted their decision. From my professional life, I have had many incidences where individuals took their treatment into their own hands (and against my medical advice) by stopping meds, radically increasing meds, or trying bizarre “alternative” treatments . Their outcome was typically poor. 

It is OK to challenge experts. If we didn’t, we might still believe that the earth was flat. With that said, experts deserve our attention and respect.  

#6 Seek experts when you need an expert, but become more expert when you can.

A bathroom is just a room. It is the decorating touches that change it from a utility space to something that we can call our own. Despite its diminutive size, I wanted to give my newly remodeled space a personality. I chose a blue-grey paint as I desired a more contemporary color (grey), but I also wanted some continuity with the rest of the downstairs, which is a shade of blue.

I also wanted to add some art to the room and decided that one larger piece was the way to go. I determined that a group of objects in such a small space would look cluttered. In my mind bathroom art should be interesting, but not engaging. The powder room is a space where people spend a short amount of time in an active process. It is not an art gallery.

The problem was that I could not find anything that matched my requirements. I had a similar problem with our upstairs hall bathroom and solved that problem by creating the art myself. I have never had training in art, and I have never studied the mechanics of art. However, I do seem to have a sense of balance and design. Also, I like to do creative things.

Creating a piece of art would only cost me my time and a little money for materials. If my project turned out badly, I was not obligated to use it. With all of this in mind, I made the piece that now hangs above the toilet. I like the way it turned out, and I learned a thing or two in the process. 

My homemade “Loo Art.”

Many of our behaviors tend to be repetitive, and we can see these patterns in everything that we do. In the above post, I tried to illustrate some of the lessons that I learned from a bathroom remodel.  Lessons can be gleaned from just about any situation or interaction. Take some random event that you recently experienced and see what it tells you about yourself and the people around you.  

My tiny bathroom. Who knew that so much work would be required to update it.

A Letter To My Children: How To Predict Good Relationships

Dear Kids

Wouldn’t it be great if we had supernatural powers that allowed us to predict the future? We could evaluate a job before we ever started working there. We could explore the future loyalty of a friend. We could predict the reliability of a potential spouse.

Humans have craved such powers for millennia, and have gone to extraordinary lengths to attempt such prowess. Gypsi card readers, psychics, and Ouija boards are examples of some common efforts. Companies have made fortunes developing software that attempts to predict stock trends. Cryptic writings from mystics like Nostradamus have been dissected and their vague metaphors interpreted. Even YouTube is swollen with channels that predict everything from the next new feature of an upcoming iPhone model to the cataclysmic breakdown of society as we know it.

Predictors and predictions are popular, as they give us a sense of mastery in a world where certainty is typically met with an equal and opposite force called uncertainty. Predictions purport to give us a glimpse into the future and knowing that future can provide us with options. We can prepare, we can retreat, we can confront. The unfortunate reality with these predictions is that they are often wrong. So why do we believe them? Likely because they offer us the illusion of knowledge, and knowledge is power. 

Kids, there is a much more accurate way to predict the future, especially when dealing with your interpersonal life. It is a method that costs nothing but often ignored. Why is it ignored? Mostly, because as humans, we want simple solutions that allow us to continue with a situation or connection. We basically want to have our cake and eat it too.

In my work as a psychiatrist, I have witnessed many couples where one partner is the giver, and the other is the taker. I can recall one situation where a woman was married to her husband for many years. She was the one who soothed the kids. She was the one that professed love to her husband. She was the one that always forgave her spouse for his selfish and inconsiderate behavior. Her rationale for staying in the relationship was that she “knew” that deep-down her husband loved her and would do anything for her if the need arose. A significant crisis struck the family, and this woman became utterly overwhelmed. She needed her husband and desperately asked for his help. His response echoed their 25 years of marital history. Not only did he refuse to help, but he also blamed her for the problem. He then became upset with her because he wasn’t getting his needs met. Her relationship was built on the false idea that her husband would be available for her if she really needed him.  However, the long history of their connection foretold otherwise.

A famous saying from Alcoholics Anonymous is, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” When you have invested in a relationship, it is easy to accept a promise that, “This time I’ll really change.” In my years as a therapist, I was privileged to be included in the personal lives of thousands of patients. I witnessed countless times where people chose to ignore the reality of their situation as it was easier to hope that their friend or partner really meant it “this time.” This call and response may make both parties temporarily feel good, but how realistic is change fueled only by a promise?

If you want to predict the future, look to the past. If you have a friend who is consistently unreliable and selfish, expect this behavior to continue. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to continue to invest in this relationship, or are my time and energy better spent elsewhere?” If you are in a relationship that is fueled by constant crisis, blame, and anger consider reflecting on the reasons why you continue. 

Patients would often ask me a different “why” questions. Why is my partner violent? Why does my friend constantly lie? Why is there always drama with my co-worker? It is challenging to analyze someone in the third party; the more important question is, why are you putting up with them?

Sometimes the answer to this question is that you have no choice. You may be working with a difficult person, but other positive factors keep you in your job. In situations like this, it is best to minimize that person’s impact on you. However, there are many times when you may think that you don’t have options, but in fact, you do. However, change may involve a certain amount of work and discomfort. Parting ways with a toxic friend may also close a broader social circle. Leaving a pathological spouse may force a reduction in lifestyle. I would like to remind you that these realities may be unpleasant, but they are absolutely surmountable. Happiness is not measured by your number of Facebook “likes” or the square footage of your home, it is measured by a sense of meaning, belonging, and worth. Is the relationship that you are questioning enhancing these, or hampering these qualities?

If a person has promised to change the way that they interact with you, ask yourself, how? In many cases, a simple promise to change a long-standing negative pattern will become a broken promise. Such pledges of change can be an easy “get off my back” tactic. With that said, I have seen folks make a dramatic and significant change and improve their behavior, but typically this is with consistent, hard work. Bad practices are often generalized. If someone mistreats others but treats you well I would suggest that it won’t be too long before you are also on the B list.  

The good news is that this historical predicting is bidirectional. If you know someone who is a salt-of-the-earth person who treats others with respect and kindness, there is a high likelihood that they will treat you similarly.   

Kids, I know that you are wise and sensible, and I acknowledge that you have made good choices in your friendships and connections. However, I believe that we all face difficult situations in life. A friendship or relationship can start off great, only to have it slowly dissolved into a painful disaster. Don’t judge your connections with others based on a honeymoon period. People reveal their true self over time. 

It is also important to realize that we are all imperfect. A quality friend may hurt you or even fail you. However, when you look back at your history with them, you will find that the overall positives of the relationship far exceed any negatives. Relationships are not about perfection, they are about connection.

My pride in you and my respect for you are tremendous and overflowing.  


Your Dad

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.