Looking for the Helpers

His name was Aaron Feis. He was the school’s assistant football coach and a security guard.

His name was Scott Beigel. He was a history teacher and the cross country coach.

In a moment of terror and fear, they were heroes.

Of the many somber and angry posts that fly around the Internet after tragedies like yesterday’s Florida school shooting, the most comforting to me is always a quote from Mr. Rogers. In his inimitably calming way, he encourages us to “look for the helpers” as a way of finding something hopeful in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

Unfortunately for us, the number of times we need to look for the helpers seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Something’s gotta give, and I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, so for now let’s concentrate on the helpers again.

This tragedy’s helpers are Aaron and Scott — and I’m sure they represent other school staff members and police officers who acted as heroically as they did, but whose stories have not yet been retweeted as widely.

Aaron Feis and Scott Beigel

These people are heroic not just for their actions, but also for their poise under pressure and their choice to combat the ultimate act of hatred — murder, with the ultimate act of love — self-sacrifice.

The alarming number of school and church and concert shootings leaves me imagining myself in these situations. It’s hard to ride a public train to work without pondering what would happen if someone started shooting at it or on it. It’s hard to work across the street from one of the most famous skyscrapers in Chicago without thinking about what would happen if there were a terrorist attack. It’s hard to comprehend sending my beautiful daughter to school in a few years knowing that a shooting could happen anywhere that a troubled kid has hateful ambitions and access to weapons.
It’s terrible to admit, but the world is becoming a scarier place every day, and we should all wrestle with the question: What would you do?
Would you run for the exits? Would you try to hide? Would you play dead? Would you be a human shield for your family members and friends? Would you shield the strangers around you? Would fear paralyze you? Would adrenaline take over? Would you live or die?

I’m not sure I can say how I would react in such a situation. But Scott and Aaron answered these questions in an instant, under the most extreme conditions. They chose to give their lives to save the kids around them who were entrusted to their care. Tonight, some parents are hugging their children who would otherwise have been murdered. Tonight Aaron and Scott’s families are grieving, but I hope their grief is also mixed with healthy doses of admiration and pride. On Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, these men showed us the purest form of selfless love — laying down their own lives so that others might survive.

Even when it’s not a life or death situation, we need more helpers like Scott and Aaron, who put the needs of others above their own.

We all need to be more helpful.


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Three Years After Chemo: A Look Back at the Toughest 6 Months of my Life

It’s almost the third anniversary of the day I started chemotherapy. It has been three years since chemo went from being something that my grandfather did when he was losing his life to lung cancer…to being something that I had to do to save my own.

It lasted for six months.

When I think about the enormity of that experience and its defining effect on my biography, it’s hard to believe that it can be fully encapsulated in a short hyphen between January 2015 and July 2015. That’s only half a year. That’s shorter than a pregnancy.

But when you’re pumping poison into your veins on a bi-weekly basis, you start to measure time differently.

You’re measuring the time between lying on the floor on a mattress in the living room and going back to lie down in your bed. (Healthy folks call that a “day.”) You’re measuring the time between weekly oncologist visits. You’re measuring the time between meals you’re forcing yourself to eat. You’re measuring the time between when you start to feel a little bit better and when you have to go back for more poison.

I was dealt the cruel hand of starting out with a treatment plan calling for three months of chemo that suddenly evolved into six months somewhere around the middle of the first three. Time seems to move a lot slower when you think you’re halfway done with something and it turns out that you’re further back than where you were when you started.

When other people find out you had chemo, you get instant credibility. You must be so strong. So resilient. It’s unimaginable having to go through that. They can’t believe you actually did it.

Chemo 10 of 12. No eyebrows is a great look.

The distance from the chemo experience and the relative lack of reoccurence scares in its wake has led me to sometimes rewrite the narrative in my mind. I think back to how it “wasn’t really that bad” and that maybe I don’t even deserve to claim the vaunted title of cancer survivor, with all its rights and privileges and instant respect. There are so many others who have it so much worse and are fighting so much harder. But that’s no way to honor my own struggle or the struggle of anyone who battles cancer. Chemo is chemo. We were all worthy opponents and we are now blessed and thankful survivors.

But heroism and strength aren’t exhibited simply by doing something that you’re forced to do. It’s the way you endure it that defines you, and there’s something about cancer — for all its wickedness — that seems to bring out the best in its victims.

You are a cancer survivor long before you can actually claim to have survived cancer. Chemo puts you in survival mode.

No matter how much time has passed, there are things about chemo that I will never forget. Dreading the appointment all morning. My wife coming home early from work to join me for the treatment. Putting the chemo parking pass on our dashboard so we could park right by the hospital door. The distinct smell of the waiting room, where insipid daytime television droned on, oblivious to all the sick and worried people watching there. Being the youngest person — by a mile — in that waiting room.

Accessing my port for my first chemo treatment.

Unbuttoning the first few buttons of my shirt so the nurse could access my port for the day. The smell of the disinfectant solution applied to my port before they inserted the needle. The unpleasant pressure and pinch of the needle entering the foreign lump on my chest just above my heart. Watching the vial of blood fill up and knowing I wouldn’t get woozy like I did when they drew from my arm. Getting my port flushed and cramming animal crackers into my mouth to hide the taste of the saline.

Settling into our chemo room and putting the pink pillow behind my head on the less-than-comfortable recliner. Debating whether we would get the nice nurse or the cranky nurse. Getting the cranky nurse. The first round of painkillers and anti-nausea medication that sometimes had weird side effects that almost made me nauseous. The impossible-to-fight feeling of drowsiness that would overtake me. Drifting in and out of a weird sleep to the sounds of the “Arrested Development” episode that we watched on my laptop as a distraction.

Awaking more fully when it was time for the nurse to switch out the IV bag. Getting up to pee and dragging the IV stand behind me. The nauseating metallic taste of the “red devil” component of chemo that the nurse had to manually and all-too-slowly push into my IV line. Desperately munching more animal crackers and wondering how I got to this point and how I could possibly keep doing this.

Enduring the short drive home in a semi-nauseated, completely exhausted state. Collapsing into bed without knowing what time it was or what time it would be when I awoke. Finally waking up and feeling a tad more human. Hearing my wife making dinner in the kitchen, but knowing I wouldn’t really want to eat any of it.

I did that 12 times. I’m not sure if that sounds like a lot or a little, but it certainly felt like enough.

Now that I’m healthy, it’s easy to sometimes feel a disconnect from the person who went through all of that, even though it changed me forever in so many ways. I see the fading scar on my neck from my surgery and on my chest from my port, and I feel like someone who was abducted by aliens. In this case, the bodysnatcher was cancer. The scars help me know it wasn’t just a dream.

There was undeniably so much good that came out of this experience, and I think of that often. But when I reach the anniversary of various stages of my cancer fight, it’s important for me to remind myself of these grittier details and memories.

“Remission” too often means being remiss in my pledge to never take my good health for granted again.

And neither should you.

Living Lean in 2018

The start of a new year is the perfect time to start shedding the fat in your life…and not just around your waist.

Do you ever think about how much time you waste on a given day? Now compound that into the wasted time of weeks, months and years. If you really examine the way you spend your days, it’s both astonishing and shameful.

How much of your time do you spend doing things that are productive and how much is just spent on distractions or relatively meaningless activities to which you have somehow assigned increasing (and unearned) value?

Guilty as charged. As I considered New Year’s resolutions, I thought a lot about self-improvement and how much time it would take to actually implement some of the things that will make me the person I want to be. My mind immediately defaulted to my usual excuse: I’m so busy. How can I possibly find the time to work these new habits into my life and routine?

A bit more soul-searching led me to realize that before I can implement any new habits, I first need to break a bad habit.

For years, I’ve been perpetuating a lie to myself that I am a good steward of my time.

Spoiler alert: I’m not.

So Job #1 is conducting an honest audit of my free time and figuring out why it disappears so easily and what I’m spending it on. Then I can move on to setting goals of how I actually want to spend it. Then I can make a realistic plan about how to accomplish those goals. So let’s give it a whirl. Hopefully it will be time well spent.

What are you doing?

It’s a basic question, but it’s worth asking if you’re trying to figure out how you’re wasting your time. For me, the answer is probably “looking at my phone.” Much as I hate to admit it, this device that can add so much to my life when used properly more often than not simply takes and takes.

In the past, I’ve made a concerted effort to use it less when I’m in the company of other people (to varying degrees of success), but I’ve never thought much about the importance of putting it down when it’s just me. With every swiped refresh of my social media feeds, I waste another five minutes that easily turns into 10 or 20, as a video or article intrigues me.

You could argue — and, oh, how I’ve tried — that some of this content is enriching. I’m catching up on the doings of old friends or reading about current events. While that is sometimes true, I’m more likely watching an Honest Trailer or reading something about a new movie that’s coming out.

This has gotten particularly monstrous when I’m about to go to bed and engage in what I mentally call one last check. I cycle through each of my drugs — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, work email, regular email, etc. — and willingly fall down whatever rabbit hole lies in my path. Now that I’ve switched to a Pixel, I’ve started swiping to the right to get my customized newsfeed of content — an AI-powered stream of stories that computer algorithms think I would be interested in. And am I ever!

via Wait But Why (you have to read this)

When my bloodshot eyes finally begin to bother me, I realize that I have been sitting in my darkened bedroom staring at the screen for sometimes as long as 45 minutes — wasting my precious sleep time and coming away with little more than bits of trivia that I won’t even remember by the morning. (Seriously…I have no memory of what I read last night.)

A few nights ago, I was startled awake by the sound of my one-year-old daughter crying in her room. I had completed my one last check and had been asleep for about 15 minutes. I groggily picked up my phone to check out the video baby monitor and make sure she was OK. Reassured that all was well, I couldn’t help but notice a notification and spent the next 10 minutes doing one more one last check. I have a problem.

Combined with my multitudinous social media fixes and the ensuing daytime rabbit holes, this is not an insignificant amount of time being wasted almost every single day. This has to stop.

What do you want to do?

Now comes the fun part. If you had unlimited time, what would you want to do with it? It’s frustrating that I don’t realize how much time I’m wasting until after I’ve wasted it, and I don’t think about how that time could be so easily reallocated when I wistfully ponder how busy I am and how impossible it is to accomplish some of my dreams and goals.

So what am I hoping to do? Well, I’m going to start with three wishes, Aladdin-style.

I want to exercise regularly. I want to write daily. I want to (re)learn Spanish.

Exercise has been a nearly annual New Year’s or Lenten or summer commitment, er, intention of mine for as long as I can remember. Par for the course, I eventually fall off the wagon and never seem to find the time for regular exercise, even though I have plenty of time to stay caught up on the weekly melodrama of This Is Us.

Thanks to some good genes, I’ve been blessed to be able to eat pretty much whatever I want and not worry too much about significantly tipping the scale. Thanks to my advancing age and a few bad genes, spending my days sedentarily sitting in a cube is adding to both my gut and my risk of hypertension. I’m a proud Dad, but I am in no rush to continue developing a Dad Bod or missing out on a few extra years of life because of poor health choices. It’s time for some regular exercise (and some portion control!) to help whip me into shape.

Writing is a skill and a passion that I have enjoyed from a very young age. It’s also a muscle that grows weak from disuse. Writing Instagram captions and witty tweets is a far cry from taking her to sea in a Medium-length blog post. My numerous blogging outlets have stalled recently due to my quote-unquote lack of time and my quote-unquote writer’s block. These are both excuses that I’m hoping my new time-sensitive zeal can overcome.

Brushing up on Spanish just seems like a challenging, useful idea. It would benefit me professionally to speak the language (or at least be a bit more fluent) and it would do my brain some good to be actively learning something again. Besides, maybe my one-year-old will learn to speak it with me! I started using Duolingo last January and it lasted for about a month and a half. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I once again excused myself from the commitment.

Stop doing what you’re doing and do what you really want to do.

Tim Urban, the genius behind Wait But Why, wrote a thought-provoking piece on how little time you actually have left with your parents and other loved ones by the time you reach your 30s. My musings here are greatly informed by what he wrote, but I am applying his sense of urgency to self-improvement rather than relationships. Tim said:

Priorities matter. Your remaining face time with any person depends largely on where that person falls on your list of life priorities. Make sure this list is set by you — not by unconscious inertia.

I’ve realized that much of my free time is gobbled up by similar unconscious inertia — or rather a conscious decision to waste time on something that leads to unconscious inertia. I desperately need to reclaim my free time, declare my priorities and accomplish my goals.

The other aspect of all this is that I need to pursue these activities in a way that is not detrimental to my relationships and responsibilities. I am a faithful husband, father and employee. Any extracurricular self-improvement must be relegated to “me time,” and not impinge on quality time or other pressing duties of daily life.

Fortunately, I have already identified several pockets of such time in my day that could be put to more productive use: my morning and evening commutes, my lunch break at work (which I really need to take with more regularity), and any time I choose to create by staying up late or getting up early (responsibly, of course).

All that’s left is to make a realistic plan and commitment to fill this time with the activities I described above. However, I believe the success of my mission hinges more on my ability to police myself from engaging in the time-wasting activities, so I can revert to something more productive during those times. I also need to be realistic about letting myself have some mindless free time — I’m not interested in a complete fast from social media and Netflix binges.

Well, I guess I got my writing in for the day. Even if I fail at this ambitious enterprise, at least I can say that this was my most long-winded New Year’s resolution.

Here’s hoping everything else about 2018 is a whole lot leaner. And if you’re embarking on a similar journey this year, buena suerte!

Acting Your Age: When Will I Feel Like A Real Grown-Up?

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 4.58.20 PM

Today I turn 35 — a number so foreignly close to 40 that I’m questioning its veracity before I even finish typing this sentence. I was born in 1982, which puts me in that confusing is-he-or-isn’t-he camp of “cusper” millennials who remember the eras when phones had cords and Facebook was just for college students. I feel too old to be on Snapchat, but not too old to understand the appeal. I feel too young to already be a decade into my career, but not too young to be in a managerial role commensurate with my skills and experience.

Mostly I guess I just can’t account for the passage of 35 years — especially the last 10. Time is flying, a condition that marriage and parenthood have only exacerbated. At this rate, it seems that I’ll be 50 before I know it. But when I am 50, I’m sure I’ll have no trouble knowing it.

For now though, I’m 35. As it is, I woke up this morning feeling roughly the same as I did when I was 25. Despite an unexpected and victorious cancer fight, I have no physical indications that the hill is approaching and I’m bound to go over it. Sure, when I look in the mirror, there’s a little less hair on top and a little more thickness around the middle than I’d like, but my daily activities are still blessedly unconfined by my advancing age. I can run. I can jump. I can accidentally sleep in an awkward position and wake up with minimal stiffness.

Physical abilities aside though, I sometimes feel like I’m still waiting for a switch to flip me psychologically into adulthood. I’m waiting for the secondary Pinocchio moment: When do I go from Real Boy to Bonafide Adult?

Now I’m well aware that I have been “hashtag adulting” for quite some time. I know this because whenever I see someone use that insipid hashtag, it’s usually describing some mundane activity that is par for the course of my everyday life and not something I’m compelled to brag about on social media. That kind of restraint is a sure sign of adulthood, right?

I also know that I’m not the youngest generation in the workforce anymore. When I walk into the office lunchroom and hear someone say that the food truck grub they’re eating is “straight fire” or that they are “low-key in love with the new Taylor Swift album,” I have no idea what they mean and little interest in finding out. I must be an adult — I’m officially out of touch.

When I pull up in the car that I’ve owned for several years to the house whose mortgage gets the bulk of my paycheck to greet my pregnant wife of three years and my one-year-old daughter, I guess I realize just how embedded in adult life I really am.

When one of my parents has a health scare or a knee replacement or a number that starts with 6 on their birthday cake, I realize that they are swiftly moving into the years when I will be taking more care of them than the other way around. It’s an inevitable role reversal that is decidedly adult.

But none of this makes me feel any older — it all just leaves me confused about where the time has gone and wondering if I need to start acting my age. And then I start wondering what that even means.

In some ways, I think social media is responsible for my inability to feel like a real adult. It has turned us all into perpetual 14-year-olds, snapping selfies as we pay our bills and raise our children. Maybe recent generations of adults are just more self-absorbed than their predecessors. Adults be #adulting, and we want the world to know it. If we pass a major life milestone (or even a mundane one) and we haven’t marked it with a commemorative digital record, did it really happen?

I used to joke disbelievingly in college about still being on Facebook in my 30s, sharing photos of my children. Well…been there, done that. And it doesn’t even seem so weird anymore. All of this leaves me wondering if perhaps adulthood is a myth and no one ever fully accepts the title of “adult.” Maybe even the “established” adults in my life are holding mental images of themselves as 20-somethings and experiencing the same confusion I am about where the time has gone — but they’re wondering where the last 30 years went, while I’m only questioning the last 10.

So if adulthood is a myth, perhaps what I’m really seeking is a worthier pursuit: maturity. Between marriage and children, I think the realities and responsibilities of maturity are slowly coming into focus for me — no matter how young I feel or how many social media posts I share each day. True maturity has less to do with playing the part of a “serious” adult who is too mature to participate in certain behaviors than it does with the ongoing recognition that life is more meaningful when you’re living it in the service of those around you — whether that’s your spouse, your kids, your family or your community. A life lived for others is a life well-lived. Maturity is recognizing your gifts and talents, and using them toward a purpose outside of yourself and your own self-interests. You can do all of that and still enjoy tweeting memes or live-streaming your daughter’s Saturday morning playtime on Facebook.

If my next 35 years are a similar blur to my first 35, I hope I’m looking back as one happily mature 70-year-old who left a wake of kindness, service and love — and who’s just fine with still not technically feeling like an adult. I wonder what the hashtag will be for my retirement party.

Childhood nostalgia live on stage with ‘Animaniacs in Concert’

I spent the past Saturday night watching two middle-aged men get onstage and do cartoon voices and sing songs for two hours.

Out of context, this might sound like a complete waste of time and money, but for me it ended up being one of the most rewarding evenings of entertainment I’ve experienced in a long time.

That’s because the men on the stage were both responsible — each in their own way — for providing me with hours and hours of joy throughout my childhood and also significantly shaping my sense of humor.

In a small theater with about 100 others, the minimalist stage was set with a pull-down movie screen and a keyboard with a bench. That was it. Two men emerged with headset microphones and proceeded to perform songs, tell stories and answer questions from the audience of adoring fans.

The man behind the keyboard was Randy Rogel, a writer and musician who evolved from crafting dramatic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series to penning the majority of the clever, catchy and side-splitting songs from the cartoon series Animaniacs. Joining him onstage was Rob Paulsen, a man whose vocal stylings reverberated through my TV set and etched their way into my psyche as Yakko Warner on Animaniacs and a host of other cartoon characters over the years.

In this relatively intimate setting, these men were able to immediately transport the audience back to those weekday afternoons watching the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot escape their water tower to create mayhem. Every time Rob Paulsen opened his mouth and Yakko’s voice came out, I was startled by the reemergence of the character before my eyes, er, ears. As a nerdy pre-teen watching the show in the 90s, I was completely enthralled. Paulsen’s Yakko stood out to me in particular as the model of quick-witted humor to which I aspired. I wanted so badly to be the smart aleck with a one-liner comeback for every situation, although I think the only real resemblance I had was the high-waisted pants.

As Randy Rogel told stories about the songs he wrote for the show, I thought back to the Animaniacs soundtrack cassette that my brothers and I played so frequently that I still know every orchestra hit and vocal inflection on every single one of the songs. Rogel and Paulsen also did an impressive live performance of “I’m Mad,” a song that was released as a short that played before the theatrical release of the 1994 animated film Thumbelina. My brothers and I, who had absolutely zero interest in Thumbelina, dutifully attended a showing just so we could see the Animaniacs short, but we got there too late and missed half of it! We sat through Thumbelina and waited for the next showing so we could catch the full four-minute song. That’s real devotion. I’m happy to report that more than 25 years later, Paulsen — who voices both Yakko and Dr. Scratch ‘n Sniff in the song — can still hit every note. And that’s even after a recent successful battle with stage III throat cancer! He’s a living legend.

As Paulsen and Rogel gleefully plied their musical craft onstage, I couldn’t help but look around at everyone else in the theater and see that the diverse group all had stupid smiles on their faces as they were equally transported back in time. In the front row, a guy a few years older than me had brought his three kids to see the show — the live action version of forcing your kids to watch DVDs of your childhood shows — but the kids were smiling as much as everyone else.

There is a timeless and innocent quality to Animaniacs, even though it was a subversive kids’ TV show that had tons of humor meant for adults supplementing the falling anvils that appealed to its youngest viewers. Although some of the references are decidedly dated (“while Bill Clinton plays the sax”), the absurdist humor, one-liners and general irreverence never gets old. So often when I revisit shows I loved in my youth, I get that warm and fuzzy sentimental feeling mixed with a realistic downer dose of “Why did I like this? It’s kind of terrible.” Not so with Animaniacs. I watched an episode when I got home from the event and laughed like it was 1994 again.

The show maintains its appeal because the humor was universal but not one size fits all. Even as you were enjoying the show on some level as a small child, you could grow into the ever deeper and funnier levels of the show’s humor as you matured. It was just plain clever.

The show spawned unforgettable characters and a host of catch phrases, but perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature was its original songs. The music and lyrics conceived by Randy Rogel are nothing short of genius. Aside from the most-remembered ditty in which Yakko recites the nations of the world (which Rogel revealed was the first song he wrote for the show as an audition for the chance to join the writing staff), there are dozens of songs that are brilliant in their comedic lyrical escapades. The songs are so good that they frequently stood on their own as segments of the show.

To this day, these songs continue to pop into my head at random times — and they’re always welcome.

It was wonderful to see that both Rogel and Paulsen are down-to-earth, decent human beings who love what they do and truly appreciate the support of the show’s fans. Someone asked Paulsen the inevitable question of “What’s the bluest thing you’ve ever said as one of your characters?” and Paulsen’s response surprised and impressed me. He basically said that he considers himself a steward of the characters he portrays and would never compromise their integrity for a cheap laugh or an extra buck. He told a story of recently being asked to sacrifice Yakko to the parodying wolves of Robot Chicken and turning them down, even though he was flattered by the offer. He said the characters mean too much to the fans — including a new generation of children — and he wouldn’t want someone to be disappointed by hearing something inappropriately bawdy coming out of Yakko’s mouth. That’s an incredibly refreshing sentiment in 2017.

It also gives me some reassurance that if the Animaniacs ever did make a comeback — Rogel and Paulsen could neither confirm nor deny any rumors, but they offered a glimmer of hope— the creators and talent involved would remain true to the original spirit of the show and not try to reinvent them or add an edge to get some press or ratings. (I’m looking at you, Muppets.)

If you are a fan of the show, I highly recommend that you be alert for an opportunity to see this show in one of its iterations. Paulsen said that sometimes it’s just the two of them with a piano and other times it has been staged with a full orchestra and the involvement of all three voice actors for Yakko, Wakko and Dot. I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a live reincarnation of one of the essential shows of my childhood.