When Christmas Is A Disaster

Julie’s family is scattered all over the Midwest. We gather every Christmas, well except for last year.  Our arrangement is simple, we go to Minnesota for Christmas Day one year, and on following year we drive there on the week after Christmas.  This pattern has worked out well for us, as it has allowed us to celebrate Christmas Day in Naperville every other year giving us memories and traditions for both an extended family Christmas as well as a more Kuna-centered holiday.

We are Christians, and for us, Christmas symbolizes the birth of Christ and the inception of Christianity.  However, there are many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.  For them, December 25th holds importance for other reasons. I’m not about to weigh in on the level of that importance or to compare it to the religious importance of Christmas for Christians. Today  I’ll write about the aspect of family, and holiday expectations.

I am fortunate that both my extended family and Julie’s are reasonably mature.  It is unlikely that we will experience any of the outbursts or breakdowns that some families have during the holiday season.  If I had to come up with generic descriptors of our extended family members terms like nice, kind, and conflict avoidant would come to mind. That is not to say that individuals don’t have quirks, we are humans after all. 

Although we try to return to Minnesota several times a year to see Julie’s family we only gather in total twice a year.  Specifically, Thanksgiving (in Naperville) and Christmas (in Minnesota).  Those events span multiple days and are imbibed with a variety of traditions ranging from watching football and The Christmas Story on Thanksgiving Day to playing a variety of games on Christmas.  Each host family has customized their particular event with traditions whose repetition gives the get-togethers a sense of familiarity and comfort.

Naturally, the pandemic curtailed all large gatherings last year, and we had to forego our traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas socializing.  Julie, the kids, and I worked hard to make those days memorable, but they were different.  Also, my Minnesota sister-in-law and brother-in-law want to spend more time with their far-flung adult children.  In addition, it has become difficult for Julie’s parents to travel as they are now in their 90s.  These facts have ended our large Naperville Thanksgiving gathering, which leaves Christmas as the only holiday that draws all of her entire family together. 

It was with both excitement and trepidation that I approached Christmas this year.  Weather is always a concern when driving 400 miles northwest through Wisconsin in December. Bad weather during past travels has caused us to eat Christmas Eve dinner at a truck stop, and we have spent more than one night at a roadside motel due to ice storms.  

We have had unseasonable warm weather, and so I felt confident that our drive to Minnesota would be uneventful. That is until my brother-in-law, Mike sent me a news article that 50 miles of Interstate 94 were shut down due to an ice storm pile-up on the day before Christmas Eve.  Thankfully, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was able to clear the road the morning of our departure.

We arrived on Christmas Eve in time for a traditional Swedish dinner, which always includes a variety of desserts. After a lot of socializing it was time to retreat back to our hotel.  Christmas Day brought gift opening, games, movie watching, and conversation.  Our gathering allowed us to catch up on the happenings of various family members.  This year my brother-in-law and sister-in-law announced that they will be retiring soon, and my nephew said that he would return to the states after a 4-year work stint in England. 

Christmas is now the only time that Julie’s family gathers in total.
As in many families our Christmas tradition includes a special meal.
Games are part of our tradition. In the foreground, you can see family members playing some sort of block game and in the background, you can see my F-I-L and B-I-L working on a jigsaw puzzle.

I have always been proud of our younger generation, and it is delightful to see that they are now becoming quality adults.  If you have read my past posts you know that I think my kids are awesome.  The same can be said of my nephew and nieces.  We now have an additional bonus as two of my nieces are married and their spouses are equally considerate.  It was delightful that both of them made an effort to connect with Julie and me. 

Like many major events, our two-day Christmas celebration was quickly over, and yesterday we made the 6 hours drive back to Naperville with new memories to add to our collection of Minnesota recollections.

I feel fortunate to have not had to experience drama holidays.  However, I know that for some families Christmas get-togethers are a time of stress, crisis, and trauma.  Yet, many of those same individuals hold on to the idea that Christmas should be like a Norman Rockwell illustration.  This is while they approach the holiday with dread as they anticipate gift debt, or fights, or drunken behavior. Very high expectations combined with traumatic outcomes can result in significant holiday anxiety and depression.  It is for those individuals that I make the following suggestions.

Black Friday is named Black Friday as this is the date when many retailers’ books go from red to black.  Because of this, there is a tremendous push for consumers to buy. A variety of tactics are used ranging from changing social norms to guilt creation to get holiday shoppers to spend well beyond their means in an effort to have the perfect Christmas. In addition, advertisers manipulate consumers to believe that Christmas is all about getting and giving gifts.  My best advice to all is to reduce holiday gift-giving. It is nice to get a present or two, but excessive presents can turn a special memento into something meaningless.  In addition, who wants to spend months post-Christmas paying off gift debt?  You don’t have to be a pawn to consumerism. Tell others of your change in plans before Christmas so there are no surprises, limit what you spend to a set amount per person, and find items that fit that amount.  Treat gift-giving like any other expense, budget it.

When I was actively working as a psychiatrist it was common for me to treat patients who would report Christmas disasters.  In some instances, adult children would try to please their over-critical parents. In other cases, relatives would get into heated arguments or even fistfights over the most ridiculous things. In still others, spoiled children would sulk, isolate, or have tantrums. My patients would put forth efforts to have the perfect Christmas only to have the day crash and burn year after year.  To those folks, I would suggest that they change their game plan. In some toxic cases, this meant a need to establish a completely different tradition. In fact, I have suggested that some families go on vacation at Christmas time to avoid a family get-together.

In other cases, corrections can be made.  If Uncle Billy always gets drunk and abusive consider having an alcohol-free holiday.  If mom or dad is supercritical, consider alternatives to a traditional full Christmas Day.  Perhaps, an early brunch can get them in-and-out of the house so you can then spend the rest of the day in peace. What I’m suggesting is that you think outside of the box.  If this was some other event that didn’t involve Christmas would you modify it or eliminate it? If that is the case then apply those changes to Christmas.  Of course, there will be ruffled feathers, but in the end, you will turn a miserable event into a more pleasant one.

Christmas can be a time for family members to act out and exert their negative power on other family members.  Do you have a child who always wants to get into a fight on Christmas or a relative who refuses to come if some other relative is invited?  Those are sad situations.  However, they should be sad for the acting-out individuals, not everyone else.  Celebrate with those who want to celebrate.  Let the troublemakers stew in their own torment, but don’t let that pain bleed onto your Christmas. 

It is also important to set expectations for both yourself and those around you.  I like Christmas celebrations, but I don’t feel that they are life-changing events.  If the roast is burnt, or I get the wrong sized shirt… well there is always next year. The great thing about a repeating holiday is that it repeats. Also, I make it clear to those around me that the holiday can be stressful, and so we need to be cooperative and considerate towards each other.  I know that this latter point may not be possible for some families, but I also know that some families expect their Christmas to be a disaster, and that expectation contributes to its eventual outcome.

Conversely, it can be very difficult if you are alone during the holidays; so much of the advertising that you see involves joyful families.  These presentations can lead solo celebrants to a sense of failure, emptiness, and sadness. There are many options that can be employed to alter this trajectory.  However, the bottom line centers on creating your own tradition.  For some, this may mean cooking a special dinner and watching some holiday movies.  For others, it could be volunteering to help with a meal for the homeless.  For others, it could be establishing a Christmas tradition that includes friends in similar situations.  That could be anything from a game night, to a pot-luck or pizza party, to a full-on celebration including a Christmas meal and caroling. Creating a custom tradition that fits your needs can turn a downer day into a pleasant one.  

In all situations, it is important to adopt reasonable expectations. If you use advertisements and Christmas movies as your standards you will always be disappointed, as these are artificial constructs that are designed to manipulate either your pursestrings or your heartstrings (or likely both).  Instead, accept the day as it comes and it is likely that you will find aspects worth remembering.  Don’t be ruled by merchant manipulations, high personal expectations, or acting out relatives.   



We celebrated our “Kuna Christmas” after we got back home. My son loves our cat so his sister got him the “Cat Dad” hat.
Gifts don’t have to be expensive to be thoughtful and meaningful. Here, another cat-themed gift. Yes, our cat rules our home.
My daughter knew that I needed some work done on my computer so she gave me the gift of service. She arranged and took in my computer for repairs so I didn’t have to deal with the hassle.
Likewise, my other daughter knew that my 40-year-old waffle iron was on its last legs. I have a thing for Belgium Waffles.

More Self Disclosure-More Retirement Growth

This post contains self-disclosure.  If you are sensitive to such things, please be advised.

I don’t have a lot of difficulties talking about my inner feelings; I guess that comes from my years working as a psychiatrist. I know that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Growth is a journey and not an experience that ends at some arbitrary age, like 18, 21, or 65.  It is essential to acknowledge this fact, and it is imperative to recognize that learning about oneself happens on many levels.  In other words, it is possible to understand the same truth about yourself but to appreciate that fact in many different ways.

A common theme that has impacted me throughout my life has been the differing opinions of my childhood worth.  I have mentioned this conundrum in the past, and I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Oh God, here he goes again.”  I would have to agree with that assessment, but the topic seems pertinent to so many of my quirks that I have to revisit it.

The basic gist of this issue is that on one front, I was told that I was stupid, fat (ugly), lazy, incompetent, a POS, etcetera. At the same time, others said to me that I was intelligent, kind, reliable, and gifted.  As far as the ugly identifier is concerned, it seemed as if girls liked how I looked, but I have no other point of reference in this regard.  

Initially, I embraced the latter opinions, which allowed me to move forward.  Later, I intellectually accepted them based on available evidence.  However, emotions run deep, and the emotional aspects of early trauma can be challenging to reconcile.  I am an introvert, but beyond this, I am a person who moves very cautiously when forming connections with others.  A part of me wonders if I’m imposing on the other person, as this was a strong childhood message. Since teachers and others praised me for things I could do, I assumed that was my value. However, I have not let early experiences completely rule my life, and I have used the understanding of my past as well as current observations to challenge those skewed beliefs. 

As I have said above, I received the most praise for what I could do rather than who I was. Some of this centered on how I could think; some were based on aspects of my personality.  For instance, I’m reliable, a hard worker, and a good provider. I felt that these attributes gave me value to others. But in many ways, these things seemed like parlor tricks that I knew how to perform; they only represented a small part of who I was.

I would like to share a secret with you.  I have always had a fear that people close to me would abandon me if I no longer could perform for them. The image that comes to mind is an elderly Inuit being placed on an ice drift once they are no longer beneficial to their community.  I would like to emphasize that I didn’t experience this fear intellectually.  As a trained scientist, there was no empirical data to support this hypothesis.  My worries were on an emotional level.

It was impossible to challenge this emotional millstone during my working life as I was constantly producing, constantly giving of myself, and continuously making money. However, that all changed when I retired, and my lifestyle took a one-eighty. As I moved away from a lifestyle model that had given me so much success I had to face my greatest fear.  But how would I do that?

The following incident happened this morning.  Many may feel that it is trivial, but reality is written in trivial events. I could give similar examples from others close to me.  However, to do so would make this long post even longer and would not serve any additional purpose.  I’m writing about this incident as it is fresh in my mind, but it is no more significant than other lessons that I have experienced since I retired.

Last night Chicago was blasted with freezing temperatures with a low of 17℉.  I love experimenting and learning (my drugs of choice), and I decided that last night would be the perfect time to test out a Wabasto heater that Tom and I installed in Violet the campervan.  This particular heater is plumbed into Violet’s gas tank and is designed to lightly sip on petrol, which it combusts to heat her cabin.  I had already done some experiments with the Wabasto. I knew that the heater worked, but I had never used it in a real-life situation. So I decided that last night was the night, and I started the heater as I got ready to camp in my driveway.  The experiment was a resounding success as the cabin was a comfortable 61℉ throughout the night and into the morning.  This result proved that I could winter camp, even in a boondocking scenario. 

Getting ready to spend the night camping in the driveway.

My friend Tom has been incredibly busy as he has several projects on closing timelines.  I have been thinking of ways to help him, but I concluded that the best option was to simply stay out of his way.  In other words, I would give him space so I would not become another thing that he had to do.  When I say he has been busy, this is no exaggeration.  Yesterday, he started his workday before the sun was up and ended it at 10:30 PM.

At 6 AM this morning, I was greeted by Tom, who knew that I was spending the night in the camper.  He went out of his way to pick up some coffee and drive it over to me—a simple act of kindness that was utterly unnecessary but very much appreciated.  To me, it was a statement that said I was important enough for him to alter his insanely busy schedule.  It deeply touched me.

A cup of coffee filled with kindness.

As I stated earlier, I could give examples of others close to me who have shown their genuine care for me even though I can no longer produce for them. My interactions with those whom I care about are mostly routine. I try to be a good husband, father, sibling, and friend, but I no longer perform circus tricks.  I can only be me, the same me I was when I was age 5, age 10, age 25, or age 50.  The person me, not the scientist me, doctor me, photographer me, or insert title here me. To have those whom I love value just me is emotionally mind-blowing. It is also emotionally healing.  Another gift that retirement has brought.

I write this post as a personal reflection and primarily for my kids to realize that growth is a continual process.  In addition, I write it to emphasize the reality that at any age, we can always grow, learn, and become more whole as a person. We can challenge past false beliefs. So many individuals are uni-dimensional.  They view their life based on singular criteria. Perhaps it is their career, wealth accumulation, or possession and conquests. However, I am here to tell you that living such a life leads to a sense of incompleteness.  We are so much more than a single note; we are symphonies.  No one can conduct a symphony without hard work, practice, and introspection.  It is the same for our life symphony.  Every day gives us opportunities to expand and understand our complex selves.  As we know ourselves, we gain the knowledge to fulfill who we are. That growth is constant; it is not static. I hope this post encourages you to pause and pay attention to your inner soul and how you are either meandering towards or away from those core things that are truly important for your wellbeing.  Explore your career, relationships, interests, and life. What falsehoods do you refuse to let go of?  What realities are you neglecting to embrace? 



I thought I would add some photos of me from various points in my life.  Each represents a different season of my life.  My circus tricks change, but I stay the same.

Me at 4 years old already questioning the reality of Santa Claus.
I’m most likely in 7th grade in this photo.
As a teenager with Goddaughter, Jeannine, and fellow Godparent, Patti.
ID from my senior year at Northwestern.
As a young psychiatry resident. I have always been obsessed with technology. I thought it was pretty cool to have this gadgetry which I accumulated over a number of years.
Julie and I during our dating days.
Wedding day.
With Tom canoeing down the mighty DuPage in the canoe that I bought for $50. And yes, we both fell into the river.
My awesome family.

You Are More Than Your Job

I laid at a forty-five-degree angle in Dr. Anne’s dental chair as she used what appeared to be a mini-ice pick to scrape along the gum line of my teeth.  The pick sounded like chalk on a chalkboard, and I physically shuttered with each pass.

“Am I hurting you?”  Dr. Anne asked. With a mouth full of objects, I could only grunt a “No.”  This is the way that conversations go when talking to a dentist.  The doctor leads the discussion, and the patient’s only means of communication are facial expressions and meaningful grunts.  It amazes me that such primitive methods can pass any information. Surprisingly, it is not only possible but also relatively efficient. If I were a paleolinguist, I would imagine that language started similarly.  However, in that case, both parties grunted.

Since I was being chaired for a routine cleaning, there were moments when I could respond to her questions in a more verbal fashion. Naturally, these intervals were short, as she was soon back in my mouth scaping and scrubbing. I have known Dr. Anne for 30 years; she is my dentist and friend. So naturally, we always have to catch up on our respective lives, even in such awkward interactions as a dental visit. 

Dr. Anne comes from Eastern European stock, and because of this, we share a commonality in many of our motivations and values.  Specifically, we both believe that education combined with hard work offers the greatest likelihood for a successful and productive life. I agree that other equally valid constructs, such as ambition combined with a skill or trade, can also lead to a successful life.  However, for the sake of this post, I will focus on the education/hard work option as it is the most germane to today’s discussion. 

If you believe the above premise and wish to have a successful life, you will become as educated as possible and combine that education with long hours of hard work.  Such dedication requires focus and a lot of sacrifices, and most who choose this path will use psychological ploys to deal with the grueling efforts necessary to move forward. This is especially true for individuals in the health care field.  We will convince ourselves that our actions benefit not only us but also those whom we treat.  It is essential for us to feel that we are making a difference. As we put more effort into our craft, it is easy to identity our personhood by what we do rather than who we are.

Dr. Anne is a compassionate and caring person, and since I have retired, one of her main lines of conversation is to inquire about how I am doing in my new life. It is difficult to adequately express this metamorphosis in the short intervals between tartar removal, and so I will ponder such things in today’s post.

I believe that many individuals wish for a better life.  Sometimes they base their desires on fantasy. Without effort, they think they will become famous actors or strike it rich.  Others, like myself, take a more pragmatic approach.  Two consistent themes that teachers told me were that I was smart and approached problems in a wholly unique way.  In other words, I was able to develop solutions by thinking outside of the box. Beyond these positives, I was also saddled with negative attributes; I was poorly coordinated, blind in one eye, and overweight. Those negative did impact my self-esteem, but I would not allow them to determine me.

As a practical person, I felt that it was necessary to assess my strengths and weaknesses honestly.  My strengths were wholly my academic abilities. I thought I would be much more successful as a university professor than a used car salesman.  As some of you know, that was precisely my plan which I eventually subverted by going to medical school.  As you can imagine, such goals required dedication, devotion, and a willingness to delay gratification.  My life became an exercise in production, and I consistently produced something from good grades to diplomas.  As I moved up the ranks, my identity seemed to center on what I was producing rather than who I was as a person.  I was the kid who broke the test curves, or the college graduate, or the medical student, or the chief resident, or the attending physician. People knew me for these things, but I was and am so much more complex than a title or position. 

Also, I grabbed onto these identities as they were accessible identifiers of my personage.  I would rather have someone know me as the kid who broke the exam test curves instead of that fat, crossed-eyed, clumsy boy.  However, there has always been some rebellion inside of me. I rarely initially identify myself as a doctor when I meet someone as I challenge them not to categorize me.  I want them to accept the real me instead of placing me in the “doctor box.” I want people in my life who have depth and who can see my soul and care about me because of who I am, not what I am.  I don’t need shallow people in my life. I would much rather have a handful of friends who accept and value me for who I am rather than a thousand acquaintances who like me for what I do.

I was never worried about retirement as I’m a person who has many interests.  However, as my retirement approached, I found myself creating structured activities similar to work jobs.  I had plans and goals.  Although this sounds logical, it was entirely wrong for me.  I needed to choose a different path. That path is complicated, and I feel incapable of adequately expressing it in writing.  However, I will do a generalized post on some aspects of it in the future.  Today, I will touch on a tiny part of my retirement adventure.  This is the response that I would have given Dr. Anne if dental tools and a suction tube did not burden my mouth.

My life seems to be directed by two opposing forces.  I plan, problem-solve, and move towards given goals. It would appear that this has been a very successful strategy, but that would be a lie. The most impactful things that I have done in my life have occurred by other forces that seem beyond me.  When I quiet myself and listen to them, I am moved in a direction very different from what logic would demand.  I could give you many examples, but today I will provide you with one germane to today’s topic.

As many of you know, I am extremely close to Tom.  It is not unusual for me to see him every day, and he is one of the very few people whose presence I never tire of.  We are two individuals who are highly similar yet entirely different.  If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you also know that I abandoned my usual protected and shielded stance to pursue his friendship. Over many years Tom has become an integral part of my daily life, and I believe that we are both better because of it. 

Recently, Tom has been both blessed and burdened by an excessive amount of work.  This has converted my usually affable, curious, and kind friend into someone who is more stressed, irritable, and abrupt.  He tries to control his stress by curating his time only to include productive activities.  Although he is willing to spend time with me, it is clear that those periods increase his time pressures while not giving him the emotional break they were intended to provide.  To state this more simply, Tom needs some space.

Since he has become such an integral part of my life, you may think that such a change would be devastating to me.  I wholly admit that I genuinely miss my daily meetings with him, and I look forward to the time when his obligations are settled enough that we can resume our adventures.  However, it would make little sense for me to sulk over this reality when there are so many other options in my life.  

Two of the biggest gifts of retirement are the gifts of time and introspection. So now that I have some extra time, the question is, what do I do with it?  Of course, there are many productive projects that I could tackle, but there are other things that I could do that would grow me as a person. 

One of the things that I have learned is that there is a world out there that most ignore.  It is a rich world available for free that is often rejected in lieu of costly experiences that advertise excitement.  We are happy to pay large amounts of money to see a foreign sunset, while we ignore similar ones that we can view outside our kitchen windows.

Over the last few weeks, I have made a concerted effort to metaphorically “look outside my window.”  I’m an avid walker and hiker, and I have walked over specific local paths hundreds of times.  What would it be like if I viewed those experiences differently and made an effort to observe what was around me differently?  In addition, I always walk the same paths, yet my town is replete with trails, some of which I have never walked on in the 30+ years that I have lived here. Why not explore some of those?

I decided that to accomplish my goals, I would need to bring along two of my “friends.”  Violet, the campervan, would assist me in reaching those paths that were slightly beyond my normal walking radius. I would also bring along my Fuji X100S camera who would serve as my creative assistant. This relic of a camera is very “old school” and would require me to be deliberate in my photography. I thought that using the Fuji would make me more thoughtful in my actions.

The paths that I walk on are replete with beauty during spring, summer, and fall.  However, they can be bleak during winter.  This is especially the case when it hasn’t snowed.  The Midwest is flat, and most of the path’s scenery would consist of leafless trees and brown prairies.  Could I find the beauty in these things? 

As a photographer, it was equally important for me to capture images in a way that would represent how I saw the scene in my mind’s eye.  I would need to go well beyond the automatic settings of the camera if I had any hope of conveying this vision.

It is easy to appreciate a walk on a lovely spring day, but what does a winter walk bring?  In reality, it brings an entirely new experience.  Winter walks are walks of solitude. The paths are barely used and near-silent.  One’s perspective is different, as wide leafless areas offer previously unseen vistas. With inspection, so many things that could be dismissed become objects of interest. 

In the past two weeks, I have hiked on seven different paths, two of them completely new to me.   At first blush, all of the trails look very similar; they are completely different with observational effort. My creative challenge was to try to convey what I was seeing to someone else. How far I could push the creative envelope?  Will anyone understand what I’m trying to convey? 

Now, back to Dr. Anne. Without metal implements in my mouth, I would tell her that I have discovered entirely new parts of my psyche by de-emphasizing being productive and emphasizing being creative.  I have connected in a much deeper way to who I am.  In essence, I have become more human.  My approach may be counter-intuitive, but it has been successful—one of my thinking outside-of-the-box solutions.

Many of us believe that our purpose in life is to produce.  We are here to make a better society and planet.  Naturally, there is truth in that statement, but such a premise also has a dark side. If we are determined by our professional lives, we live a lie.  Yes, I helped people, but if I wasn’t there, someone else would have taken on that role.  The reality is that most of my accomplishments will be forgotten, and my life’s work will fade away in short order.  

I don’t want to discount my life as a doctor.  I am proud of what I accomplished, and I genuinely feel that I did good in this world.  However, I know that this one aspect of me is not the total me, but how do I discover who I am?  Sometimes, by walking on a winter path, camera in hand, eyes open to see what I didn’t see before. I believe that we know what our growth path is.  However, we often ignore that information. Outside forces like influencers direct us; at other times we are moved by our own ambition and drive.

I would like to end with a story.  There was a man who loved chocolate cake.  One day he decided that this was the only food that he would eat, and he set out to eat chocolate cake for every meal.  Initially, he felt that he was in control of his destiny as he had made such a directed decision.  However, over time the chocolate cake seemed less special, and he felt empty and confused.  At night he would dream of vegetables, but in the morning, he would discount those dreams and continue along his cake-eating path.  Now, eating the cake became a chore, and it no longer gave him pleasure.  He was burnt out.   He decided to do some introspection by randomly writing things on a piece of paper.  “Cake, carrots, peas, lettuce, hamburger, cheese, brussel sprouts…” and so it went. He never thought much about those foods before; why was he thinking about them now?  Then, it became clear to him.  Those unimportant foods were really very important.  Together, they enriched his diet and made it more complete.  Yes, he loved chocolate cake, but it was just one of the things that he needed in his life.  He felt that it would be difficult to go back to a normal diet as he had made such a big deal about taking control of his food life.  However, what were his options?  He was missing out on a full life by doing the same thing over and over again.  He decided that he would have to admit that he was wrong to gain what he was missing.  In the end, he won on several fronts, he gained what he had lost, and he realized that he was the one in charge of his life.  It was OK to change course if his current path was no longer getting him to where he wanted to be. He now knows that a slice of chocolate cake is good, but it is only part of what he needs.

Bon Appétit 


Here are some “creative” photos from my recent walks.

These grasses could be dead plants or rich golden foliage, depending on how you choose to view them.
A storm was coming when I took this shot. This poor tree seems to have been ravaged by past weather events.
Most of the time I had my walking paths to myself. Here we see a fellow visitor.
These plants are everywhere on the paths. According to a reverse image search, they are called teasels, and they are an invasive species in North America.
This river shot looks foreboding.
I created this shot to represent the cold bleakness of a Midwestern winter.
A tree at Lake Osborn, this one shot at sunset. More teasels in the foreground.
This is Mud Lake. If you turn your head to the right you see only nature. However, turn it to the left you realize that you are directly adjacent to an expressway. Sometimes it is all about where to place your gaze.
I exited a portion of one path to find this gas station. I love the way the railing flows into the gas station. I also love the gas station’s 1960s modern aesthetic.
Power lines over one of the walking paths gave the site an ominous feeling.
I wonder what the little boy in the photo is thinking?
A path that I have walked on hundreds of times, the RiverWalk in the town where I live.
Don’t you just love old signs?

Your New Camera May Be Causing You Unnecessary Emotional Stress

Lately, I have been graced by YouTube algorithms that have brought me videos on photography that have actually stimulated my creativity, rather than promoted a desire to buy the latest and greatest gear.  

A few years back I did a YouTube video where I stated that any intermediate or above camera made in the last 10 years was capable of doing professional work.  I would like to amend that stance to say that some cameras made almost 15 years ago are still capable of doing professional work as of December of 2021.  

Please note that I’m a photographer, not a videographer.  Clearly, newer cameras have become hybrid devices over this time span.  If you do video work your needs are best suited by cameras that are 5 years old or newer.

Camera manufacturers have improved their devices over time and a camera introduced in 2021 will have a host of features and improvements from those that were created even a few years prior.  Some of those improvements, like a tilting screen, may make your photography efforts a bit easier.  Some, like double card slots, appear to be a clever way to get photographers to upgrade to a more expensive camera body.  Other features, like high-megapixel sensors, not only urge the photographer to spend more money, they also increase the photogs emotional stress.

I live in a city with a very picturesque downtown that is a magnet for photoshoots.  In the spring and summer, its beautiful river walk is flooded with professional photographers shooting everything from bridal parties to graduation headshots. YouTube influencers would have you believe that professionals always have to have the latest and greatest camera, but the vast majority of these working professionals are using gear (often Canon and Nikon) that is generations old.  

Before COVID hit I attended two weddings.  One photographer was sporting a Canon 5D Mark III along with an original 5D.  At the other wedding, the photographer was using a Nikon D600.  Both photographers produced beautiful prints.  I specifically asked the Canon photographer if he was planning on updating his cameras, as there were new Canon offerings.  He replied that he was thinking about it, but his current gear was doing the job.  Why spend thousands of dollars when it is unlikely that you will have a significantly improved result? Professional photographers think of their gear as tools.  They know that a good image is based on composition and their ability to manipulate both the camera and the light. They only change their gear when absolutely necessary.

I have seen stunning professional wildlife pictures from a photographer using a 12 MP Nikon D300, and legendary photographs have been taken using cameras like the Nikon D3, and Canon’s 7D and 5D Mark II.  How is this possible?  It is possible because these are extremely capable cameras being used by extremely capable photographers.  

If these older cameras take great pictures, why is it that their images always look terrible when they are compared to newer cameras on YouTube? Influencers create unusual circumstances that illustrate the need to buy.  There is a reason that they have to magnify comparison images to illustrate their point. They promote the idea that a newer and more expensive camera will make you a better photographer.  I disagree with that point.

Influencers make their living by creating videos for YouTube; it is a full-time job.  They need access to the latest gear to stay relevant and to do so they need to have good relationships with camera manufacturers.  That is a fact.  It is unclear if they have additional fiduciary connections with these companies.  

Another phenomenon is what I call “Herd Think.” If a powerful influencer says you have to shoot in RAW, you need two card slots, or you must have an EVF instead of an OVF, other YouTubers start to parrot those statements.  To the viewer, these opinions become absolute truths. However, none of the above examples are absolute.  For instance, if SD cards were unreliable, all cameras would have a backup slot, but most don’t. So I researched the reliability of brand-name SD cards, which are highly reliable. Can a card fail?  Sure, but it is most likely that a failure will be caused by the photographer’s mishandling, overusing, or abusing the card. Good practices make it perfectly reasonable to use a camera with a single card slot. 

We are manipulated by unlikely what-if scenarios that urge us to buy expensive gear.  What if you have to shoot an event at the Olympics?  What if you need to print a wall-sized landscape image that will be viewed from 6 inches? What if you have to photograph a royal wedding in a very dark church?  These are situations that most professional photographers will never face. Additionally, those who did have to face similar challenges a decade ago were able to successfully do their job with the technology of the day; they used skill and planning.

Let’s look at the megapixel myth.  We are told that we need more and more megapixels, and we are often shown highly magnified images that demonstrate that need.  However, how many megapixels do you need?  A National Geographic level magazine cover needs around 6-8 MP; you can take a 12 MP image and crop 50% of it and still have a suitable file to print a magazine cover. A colossal billboard image needs around 2-6 MP (as you view it from afar). Many blog and webpage images are around 1-2 MP; big images take too long to load. Facebook compresses your uploaded images to around 2 MP. Images used for newspapers are also very low in their pixel count. They are often 75-150 dpi, so a typical photo would be less than 1 MP.  Before COVID I went to the movies and saw Apple ads that showed beautiful images taken from a 12 MP iPhone camera blown up on a giant movie screen. Around 15 years ago, I was part of a group photo of my wife’s extended family.  Each individual family received an 8” x 10” photo of the shoot, and her parents got an even larger print.  The photograph was beautiful, clear, and detailed.  At that time, the average professional camera had about 12 MP.  However, our photographer used a Nikon D40, a 6 MP camera. 

Just about any job can be done with a camera with 12-16 MP, as this is the typical resolution of 35 mm film.  In addition, the maximum resolution of most lenses is around 16 MP, often less.  People say that you need a high MP camera for landscape work.  Really?  Who views a wall-sized print at six inches? 

Yes, there are rare times when you need a greater pixel count, and those situations are best suited by a high MP camera and uber-expensive high-resolution lenses.  However, those situations are the exception for most rather than the rule. Of course, you can always rent a camera for once in a blue moon events.

How about dynamic range?  Newer sensors have a greater dynamic range than older ones.  However, those older sensors had a better dynamic range than 35 mm film.  Think about that.  

Burst rate?  Some new cameras can take images at a rate similar to what you would use when filming a movie.  They have also increased their focus accuracy.  However, older cameras like the Canon 7D Mark II were phenomenal nature and action cameras.  The Mark II was introduced in 2014 and could shoot at ten fps.  That hardly sounds impressive in 2021, but it did and still can get the job done.

I love photography, but most of my professional work has happened because people have seen my photos and have asked me to do a job for them.  Therefore, I do professional photography similar to most professional photographers: portraits, corporate shots, events, photos for the web, and the like. I also do a lot of work for a construction/remodeling company. So what types of cameras do I use?

For portraits, headshots, completed home remodels, and events I use a DSLR.  I mostly use a Canon 5D Mark IV.  I certainly could use a lesser camera, but I like the Canon’s tank-like build. Also, I have all the accessories needed for just about any job. The 5D Mark IV has impressive battery life, and add-ons like speedlights shoot forever before I need to recharge them. An additional benefit is that the camera looks professional. This gives me a shooting edge as people are more likely to respect me and my requests when using it. A big camera gives me the authority to control my subjects, allowing me to produce better results for my clients. 

I also love the Canon for its easy-to-use control surfaces and some of its software features. I rely on the 5D Mark IV’s excellent internal HDR capabilities when doing real estate type shots. The camera has several HDR modes and also saves the original bracketed images.  In many cases, I can use the camera’s generated HDR image, but if I don’t like it, I can process the bracketed images in software to get the photo I want.  This one feature alone is a massive time saver as some jobs require dozens of HDR images.

I should note that I also have a 5D Mark III.  If I didn’t have the Mark IV, I could do everything I needed with the Mark III, which has a similar feature set. 

I also shoot images for a weekly construction blog.  A blog topic could be something like, “How to install a toilet.”  In these situations, I have to be invisible to the crew working in a very tight space.  Here I tend to use small cameras that I can easily pocket and maneuver. For over a year I used a tiny Panasonic GM series camera.  That is until its consumer-level lens fell apart.  Consumer-level cameras are simply not built for that amount of use. However, the camera’s size and image quality were perfect for my needs.

I love to take street, nature, and landscape photography, and I often combine this interest with my love of walking and hiking.  In such situations, I must have a lightweight camera, and the one that I have been most recently using is the Canon M6 Mark II, which is easy to control, small, and lightweight.  I am fond of one of its more modern features, the tilt/touch screen.  With that said, I could undoubtedly take photos without it.

You may think that I’m an old curmudgeon who resists all new technology.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I believe that new cameras are excellent; in fact, I own several of them, including a Canon R6.  I’m just saying that in most instances, an older camera will serve you quite well, and you will save a ton of money.   Influences tell us that we need gear that exceeds $10,000 to be a pro. However, you can buy a used camera body and a couple of excellent used lenses for under $1500 and produce professional work. 

To make a point, I would like to tell you an illustrative story.  Two neighbors both need new cars.  The first one buys a top-of-the-line, brand new Mercedes S-class for $110,000.00. The other neighbor opts for a 5-year-old, low mileage Toyota Corolla for $17,000.00.  

Both neighbors use their cars for the same tasks, traveling a short distance to work, driving the kids around, and doing household jobs, like grocery shopping. The Mercedes looks nicer, has better gadgetry, and has a cushier ride.  The Toyota Corolla wins when it comes to a monthly car payment, operating costs, and insurance premiums. In the above scenarios, both cars perform equally well.  They both get the job done, but the Mercedes costs over six times as much. This same analogy applies to having the best camera vs. one that does the job. In the end, the results will be similar as long as the photographer has taken care.

Enter the Fuji X100s

I have been viewing videos of people praising earlier versions of the Fuji X100 series.  I have an X100s  in my camera collection, and I decided to rediscover it. The X100 series has some clear limitations.  It has a fixed lens, and many early models were slow to focus (especially in low light).  However, the series is loved for its classic styling and hands-on controls.  Additionally, street photographers like it because it looks non-threatening.  I took the camera on several of my walks to see if I loved it or hated it.  

My initial impression was that I didn’t like it.  I disliked the fact that I couldn’t zoom in. In addition, I had to make a lot of manual adjustments to get the image that I wanted.  I had to think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. It felt different from the cameras that I had become used to.

It was clear that I wasn’t getting the most out of the camera, so I decided to watch some training videos on the camera and its controls.  I especially like one by “Billy, The Fuji Guy”  I recall mumbling to myself, “Oh, that’s cool” and “So, that’s how you do that,” while watching the video. I went on another walk with camera in hand with my new knowledge.  Something interesting happened; I started to engage with both my camera and the environment differently and in a much more enjoyable manner.  

I had to move in close to get the shot that I wanted.  Indeed, at times I needed to crouch down.  I felt like I was more connected to my subject.  “Oh, I can get it to focus better when I do this!”  “Hmm, it’s fun to use the split-screen to focus.”  “Wow, the built-in ND filter does come in handy.”… and so it went. In short order, I went from disappointment in the camera to enjoying the camera. I had to think about what I was doing, and I had to be deliberate in my actions.  I wasn’t just a robot taking “spraying and praying” shots. I took fewer images because I had to think more about my actions, but I liked the photos. The experience was fun.

Now, I’m not saying I would use this camera for sports photography.  However, this little camera can easily accomplish shooting street photography, vacation photos, nature images, and even landscapes. In fact,  its supposed weaknesses are really its strengths.

So is the opposite true?  Can a camera’s strengths really be its weaknesses?  Let’s do a little thought experiment. Take a modern camera with a high megapixel count, phenomenal auto-focus, and a blazing burst rate.  Add to this what influencers tell us what we need to be successful, things like many multi-thousand dollar lenses, a high-end camera bag, and the very best accessories.  Naturally, you are going to shoot in RAW because you have been told that real photographers always do this.

You decide to devote the following weekend to photography and drive to a nearby national park. Unfortunately, your camera plus all of those expensive lenses make a pretty heavy package.  You want to hike on some difficult trails, but you are afraid that you will damage your equipment if you drop it.  Further, your pack is so heavy that you can’t bring along necessary things like extra water or a first aid kit. 

Luckily, there are photo opportunities on the easy paths.  You take advantage of your camera’s burst rate when photographing animals and birds.  You return home exhausted but smug because you were sporting the most expensive camera in the park. Your back hurts.

Now the real fun begins.  On past trips with your older, slower, 18 MP camera, you would have a couple of hundred shots, but you have taken thousands with your new super-fast 50 MP camera.  The RAW files are enormous, and your computer slowly struggles to process them. You need to sort and rate the photos, but with a 30 fps burst rate, many look nearly identical, and there are so many shots to assess.  Oh, the images are in RAW, so you need to spend time adjusting all of them to make them look right. Many hours later, you finish processing the photos, and you need to take a couple of ibuprofen tablets to stop your pounding headache from all of the screen time. 

Yes, you have a lot of lovely photos, but what to do with them?  Post them on Facebook, of course. However, this time you are not going to post ten photos, as you did with your old camera; you will post over 100 photos.  You wonder why no one comments about them until someone tells you that they felt overwhelmed just looking at all of them.

The above example may be exaggerated, but not by much.  Spending money that you don’t have, carrying around expensive equipment that you don’t need, taking so many shots that editing them becomes a nightmare; all of these things are not only stressful, but they also remove some of the creative joy of photography.

I’m not telling you that you should avoid buying new and excellent equipment.  Instead, I’m telling you to think about what you are buying and to examine what you will be using the camera for.  Do you really need a three thousand dollar lens when you are mostly doing portraits?  It is likely that a lower resolution lens will be more flattering in those cases. For me having a smaller, lighter camera is more beneficial when I’m taking landscape shots than having a full-frame camera with a ton of megapixels. In fact, I’m not sure why you need massive megapixels for landscape work, to begin with. Why is pinpoint detail so important?  I think landscape photography is all about composition and lighting. Outside of a YouTube video, who will examine a wall-sized landscape at two inches?  About a year ago, I read an article from a professional photographer who traveled to a city to take some architectural shots for a magazine. He chose to use a Sony RX100 camera as he needed a tiny camera.  That camera has only a 1” sensor, but the resulting images printed in a glossy magazine were beautiful.  Stop listening to influencers; they are there to sell you stuff.

In conclusion, it is more important to know your equipment and practice your craft than having the latest and greatest kit on the block.  RAW files, thousands of images, super expensive equipment, and other things that we believe will make us better photographers can have the opposite impact. They can limit our vision, dull our skills, and strain our time and pocketbooks. Even more importantly, dealing with thousands of huge images can lead to unnecessary stress. Be realistic in your expectations and deliberate in your actions, and you will be a joyful photographer. Happy shooting!



The following shots were taken with the Fuji X100S, a camera that was introduced at the beginning of 2013.  This is a 16 MP camera.  The photos were shot as JPEGS and were processed in DxO PhotoLab.  Some of the images were cropped, in others, I applied filters. The shots are from three locations, the town that I live in, and two local forest preserves.  These images were further reduced to around 2 MP so I could upload them to my WordPress website. No stress was involved in taking these photos, instead, they were a lot of fun to shoot.

In The Midwest, We Eat Casseroles

Growing up food was always a central part of any celebration, and that tradition has continued with my family.  It isn’t that we require elaborate or exotic fare on holidays. Rather, certain dishes have been associated with certain events, sometimes without rhyme or reason.

We always dine on carry-out Chinese on Halloween, several of my kids expect that I’ll make my “Rainbow Cake” for their birthdays, and no Thanksgiving would be complete without sweet potato casserole. 

Sometimes we celebrate our family Christmas on December 25, and sometimes we will celebrate it the week before or after Christmas day.  We travel to Minnesota every year to be with Julie’s family for Christmas, but we typically open our immediate family’s gifts at home in Illinois. 

On the day that we celebrate our immediate family’s Christmas, we have a mid-morning brunch with items that bake in the oven.  We can smell the food’s tantalizing aromas as we ooh and aww over our presents.  

The foods that we eat have no particular continuity, but they have become our Christmas brunch tradition.  There is always coffee, tea, and orange juice.  In addition, we have crackers accompanied by cheeses and sausage-type meats. Both Julie’s and my ethnic cultures eat pickled herring, and that will also be on the menu, as well as freshly baked cinnamon rolls.  However, the star of the show is a breakfast casserole that we call, “Egg Dish,” which is what many people would call strata or a layered casserole in the style of savory bread pudding. 

I recall this being a “new” recipe in the 70s or the 80s, and it was fashionable to make it for  Sunday brunch.  Apparently,  it was originally created in the early 1900s, although that dish was somewhat different from the overnight casserole that we associate with the name today.  

Midwesterners love casseroles, and Julie’s mother, Avis made this egg dish for a brunch that she hosted for us during our wedding weekend. Egg dish has had an integral part in our lives from the beginning of our marriage!

Simple to assemble and easy to make, its only barrier is that you have to refrigerate it overnight before baking, as this allows the egg and bread mixture to properly co-mingle.  Once in the oven, it tends to puff up into a delicate creamy texture.  I think of it as a Midwestern souffle. Not fluffy or pretentious, but rather delicious, practical, and savory.  

This recipe makes a big 9 x 13 pan, so it is best for larger families or gatherings.  The leftovers microwave well the next day (in individual portions) and are acceptable to eat the day following that. After two days most of the charm has left the dish and any remnants are best left for the bin.

Julie’s Egg Souffle

  • White bread
  • Butter
  • 10 beaten eggs
  • ½ t dry mustard
  • 1 t salt
  • Splash hot sauce (we like Frank’s)
  • Pepper to taste
  • 2 ½ C milk
  • Shredded cheese (cheddar works well)
  • Ham chunks (can be omitted for vegetarians)
  • ½ of an 8 oz package cream cheese cut or torn into bits
  • 2T chopped green onions

Lay bread slices in the bottom of a greased 9 x 13” pan, then butter and tear bread into chunks.

Mix eggs, milk, and seasoning in a separate bowl.

Sprinkle cream cheese bits and shredded cheese over bread.

Sprinkle on green onions.

Sprinkle on ham chunks (the size of diced carrots).

Pour over mixed liquids.

Cover and refrigerate overnight. 

Bake at 350F 50-60 minutes or until lightly brown.

Let it sit for 5-10 minutes before cutting.

Mike Kuna

More Than A Walk In The Park

Today started like many of my days.  The alarm went off and I stumbled into the bathroom to clean up.  Then downstairs to grind beans for the family’s morning coffee.  As usual, I measured the amount of grounds by eye, then reconsidered and spooned off a teaspoon or two. I know from past experience that overfilling the coffee maker’s basket results in a countertop flooded with grounds and hot water.

I looked out of my little study’s window to check the weather to determine if I could still wear my slippers outside, as I needed to move one of our cars off the driveway.  I wondered if the neighbors saw me doing this in my bedroom attire. Then a task here and another there, and my morning was over.

I expected to visit my friend, Tom after lunch. He had to cancel so I move to “Plan B,”  but I ran into another roadblock, and that option had to be abandoned.  Desperate times call for desperate measures-it was time to freestyle!

The day before I dug out my 10-year-old Fujifilm X100 camera. I hadn’t used it for years, yet it is one of those cameras that I would never consider selling.  The X100 was created during a time when cameras were becoming ever more sophisticated and automatic.  This camera’s designers took the opposite stance and it was deliberately modeled to mimic 35 mm film cameras from the 1950s.  It is a beautiful device that has a fixed lens and a slew of manual dials. Photographers love it or hate it, depending on their sensibilities. I love it, and I always wonder why I leave it to languish on a shelf.

My beautiful Fuji X100 was modeled after film cameras from the 1950s.

I am fortunate that I have many local forest preserves that give me endless joy.  Today, I wanted to try a place that was just a bit different and so I decided to drive to the southern part of my town to a large preserve with multiple winding paths.  These paths are usually filled with bikers and horses during the summer months, but I knew that they would be empty on this cold November day.  I grabbed my X100 and hopped into Violet the camper van for the 10-minute ride. My goal was simple, I was going to do a little hike and take some photos.  Prior to going I researched the preserve and decided to take its Kestrel path.  I added an additional side path to turn my hike into a 5-mile walk. The paths at this preserve are both wide and flat making such a trek “a walk in the park.”

A more difficult issue was what to photograph.  This particular preserve is mostly trees and fields and doesn’t have notable features even in the summer.  Now, the trees would be barren and the grasses would have already gone to seed making the site less photogenic.  My plan was to go and to see what inspired me.  Indeed, I was surprised by what I eventually discovered.

I did photograph the twisted branches of leafless trees, and the golden deadness of grasses that had lost both their chlorophyll and vitality.  However, I was more struck by the preserve’s close proximity to high-tension power lines.  Giant towers crisscrossed the paths, and when you walked under them you could hear the buzzing and cracking sounds of thousands of volts coursing through the tower’s copper veins.  I decided to shoot a number of them as a contrast to the peaceful, yet lifeless forest below.  Compose, focus, snap…compose, focus, snap…compose, focus, snap…and so it went. 

I continued my walk and saw a toppled tree. I then saw another, and another, and then a whole field where the crowns of many trees were gone as if they had been ripped off by some giant hand. An uncomfortable feeling settled inside me as it seemed as if some monster literally drove down a path destroying dozens, if not hundreds of trees, and everything else along the way.

Suddenly, the realization hit me that I was looking at the remnants of the path of a tornado. In fact, it was likely that I was visiting the path of the tornado that devastated Naperville last June. Our neighborhoods have been cleaned up, but this forest remained in its post-apocalyptic state. Witnessing the devastation made me feel small and insignificant.   

If I looked ahead I saw a forest preserve in its peaceful winter slumber.  If I looked above I saw the mighty human-built towers that carry the electricity that allows me to use this computer, make my morning coffee, and sit cozily and warmly in my study’s overstuffed chair.  If I looked to the side I saw toppled trees from several seconds of nature’s fury.  How strange to be standing in a place where it seemed that we are conquering nature, only to witness nature conquering us. 

I remember commercials and other advertisements from my childhood that touted our superiority over the planet.  “Better living through chemistry,” one of them proclaimed.  Now we have oceans choking on plastic, aquifers poisoned with pesticides, and the devastation of rising global temperatures.  We are such short-sighted little creatures.  So full of ourselves, and so self-centered. We want to believe that we are powerful, but it only takes a few seconds for nature to put us back in our place.

I thought I would share with you some of the photos that I took today in three parts.  The first part consists of the pleasant and quiet path that I walked on.  The second set of photos are powerlines-I think that they look alien for some reason, and the third group shows some of the devastation left from Naperville’s June 20th tornado. Come along and keep me company, won’t you?



A country road takes me to the forest preserve.
Sleeping trees and grasses welcome me on my path.
The path was both wide and level.
I spied this little pond on my journey.
For some reason, these plants remind me of wheat ready for the harvest.
Fallen oak leaves.
Prarie, water towers, and power lines. Nature and humans collide.
These towers create their own electrical superhighway.
When you walked under the towers you could hear the electricity coursing through their copper veins.
This tree was literally snapped like a twig by the tornado.
This tree had its bark ripped off by the high winds.
Dozen of trees with their crowns ripped off.