These Are the Good Old Days

I recently happened upon this magnificent post by Michele Weldon, my one-time college journalism professor, two-time work colleague and all-time fellow cancer survivor.

The piece is remarkable in its poignancy and enviable in its prose. I read through it a few times–and even though Michele and I are not that close in age–her words really resonated, shocking me into a renewed sense of gratitude for my current moment in life that has lingered long after I closed the tab on her essay.

One image Michele offered hit me particularly hard in the taking-my-life-for-granted department:

I am the old lady in the lap lane … I swim in the same pool where I took my three children when they were young and never seemed to get tired; now I wonder how many laps I have left in me.

While I don’t swim, I immediately applied this haunting passage to my own life and the things I do with my kids. I could suddenly see myself walking the two blocks to the beautiful park by our house on a sunny summer Saturday, pulling my two beautiful kids behind me in the second-hand Little Tikes wagon our neighbor gifted to us. I could see myself idly checking my phone as I pushed my kids in the swings, preoccupied with thoughts about a work project and impatiently wondering when it would be nap time so I could take them back home and finally get some time to myself.

I didn’t hear the question my three-year-old daughter was trying to ask me until she raised her voice in frustration to ask it a third time. I didn’t notice that my one-year-old son was smiling up at me as he laughed with each thrilling sway of the swing. This outing had become a time-killing necessity, not a joyful bonding moment. I was embodying the kind of father I swore I’d never become–unengaged, unaware and ungrateful.

I didn’t notice the elderly man sitting on the park bench, wistfully taking in the Rockwellian scene of a father spending quality time with his two children. In this revery, I’m that guy, too. I’m the old man in the lap lane–walking ever more slowly the two blocks to the park where I spent so much time with my kids. There were times when I didn’t appreciate it enough in the moment, but there were even more times when I did. All of those times are enough to bring a tear to the old man’s eye, and to this younger man’s eye as I think about that scenario.

I am grateful for Michele’s essay as a pause button in the midst of my seemingly chaotic life to force me to realize anew that these are the good old days. This chaos is what I was created for and what I have craved.

When Theresa and I were dating, one of us said that we would look back on that time of our relationship as “a real Golden Age.” We meant this in all seriousness at the time, but we have since frequently laughed at the remark, as time has proven its arrogance and inaccuracy. Despite the temptation to view those unencumbered, carefree, dopamine-fueled days as the summit of our association, the reality is that there have been countless better times since we got married. And these are the times that I want to fully invest myself in so that when I really do become that old man on the park bench, the single tear on my cheek is full of joy and not regret.

I don’t fear the reaper of the lap lane–I know I’ll be there eventually. My greatest fear is the sin of preoccupied apathy–robbing myself of truly experiencing special moments, memories and interactions because I’m simply not present enough or too wrapped up in my work, my stress and myself to even notice the specialness anymore.

There is no denying the seasonality of life. It’s what we unknowingly signed up for. You don’t get the thrill of the rollercoaster’s drop without first taking the arduous journey up the long hill of the track. But it’s as important as it is difficult to try to admire the view as you rise, to enjoy the excitement of the descent and to bask in the afterglow when the rollercoaster is back in the station. There’s value in all of those stages, and we miss the point of the ride when we fail to recognize that.

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This Is Where I Used To Live

I wrote my first blog post in a while over at Dad Has A Blog, and that got me doing the kind of reflective life pondering that usually leads me to post over here on my (also somewhat abandoned) “regular” blog. I knew it was meant to be when something happened today that flipped my nostalgia switch into overdrive.

There I was minding my own business at work when I got an email from Redfin. Now even though my real estate fortunes are fairly locked up in a 15-year mortgage on a house that I’m in the process of remodeling, Redfin still sends me friendly missives every once in a while. These are usually updates on how the value of my three-bedroom home is decreasing and the value of the two-bedroom condo I sold on Redfin five years ago is skyrocketing and now somehow worth more than I paid for my house. I’m not sure if this is supposed to fill me with regret or make me want to sell my house, but it’s mostly just making me hate Redfin.

Today’s message did not provide another helpful update though. It just reiterated the sale price of my condo and listed a bunch of other recent sales and listings in the area. This got me wondering how much condos in that complex were actually going for these days, so I scrolled down to look at the recent listings. I saw one that was listed for quite a bit more than I listed mine.

Unit 307. Wait a minute. 307? That’s my unit!

Instantly, someone cued the Barenaked Ladies in my head:

It was back on the market! That meant there were probably fresh photos of the current interior! I could virtually break into the old apartment!

Pathetic or not, this was the fulfillment of a longtime dream for me. I’d been wondering since I sold the place what the new owner would do with all the aesthetic decisions I had made. Being the first time that I ever lived away from home, I poured some money, sweat and personality into the place. My place.

Before moving in, I spent many weeknights there cleaning things and painting things and filling it with necessary new things to make it my home. I spent a lot of quality time at Home Depot. I cleaned every inch of every appliance, cabinet and countertop. I chose colors and repainted every wall. I had new carpeting installed. I had a tile entryway installed. I tried to fix a toilet. Then I hired someone to replace a toilet.

When the eventual new owner first toured it, I remember him looking at my blue-walled Cubs bathroom and muttering something about that being the first to go. Would my light purple Northwestern bathroom suffer the same fate? I remember his real estate agent coming back a second time to measure the dining room to see if his moose antler chandelier would fit in the space. I remember asking her if she was serious. She was. I believe the word she used to describe it was “impressive.”

I never expected to sell it as quickly as I did. According to my vague life plan, this was going to be my place for a while. And those brief years when it was my place were vital for my formation into the independent, self-sufficient and less selfish person that I have become.

The place is also inextricably linked in my mind to the courtship of my wife. Living on my own and having a condo meant my first sustained foray into the dating world. I remember preparing dinner in my kitchen for various would-be sweethearts–my specialty was baked salmon and green beans–only to have things end with the usual disappointment.

Then I met Theresa, and the memories get a lot better. I vividly recall the excitement of my phone buzzing on my nightstand with a new text from her. Or the first time she came over for dinner–yes, it was salmon–and we died of laughter afterward while watching a Jim Gaffigan stand-up special on the loveseat in my living room. Or that time that I didn’t think I would be seeing her one night and she texted me to look out on my balcony, where she was smiling below in the parking lot. Or the time we sat on the couch and she showed me her favorite engagement ring styles.

We threw some great parties here, watched a lot of movies here, practiced swing dancing here, played a lot of board games here, had a lot of fights here (especially after board games), and just spent a lot of time here. This is where we fell in love. We affectionately refer to this era as the Dopamine Days, and they are forever linked to this condo.

So I was very excited to see what had become of a place that has such a special place in my heart and memory.

See for yourself:

If you like his better, don’t tell me. Sing it, Ladies:

Why did you change the floor?
Why did you paint the wall?
Why did you swap appliances?
I see no moose here at all.
This is where we used to live.

When Rounding Thirty Becomes Pushing Forty

Seven years ago yesterday, I started this blog to chronicle the approach of my fourth decade of life. My internal premise was that momentous things might happen over the course of those 10 years, and I would want a way to commemorate them for real-time analysis and future perusal.

Turns out, I bet on the right decade. Each year of my 30s seems to have featured something unexpected or new: the purchase of a condo, my first serious relationship, an engagement, the purchase of a house, a job change, a wedding, a cancer fight, and the birth of my daughter.

This year, as I marvel at how I am now entering the second half of that momentous decade and contemplate the fact that this blog’s name is no longer technically accurate, I realize that my 36th year was no exception to the “big changes” theme of my 30s.

And I feel like 36 is the year that I finally grew up.

As recently as last year, I was writing about how I didn’t feel like my advancing age was befitting of my mental, physical and emotional state. If anything could swiftly flip that switch to “adult mode,” it would be the events of the past year: the birth of my second child, an unexpected layoff, an intense job search and the start of a new job.

Over the past few months, I have found myself feeling more responsible and indispensable both personally and professionally. There are more people counting on me. There is more riding on my decisions. There is less room for selfishness. There is a greater need for collaboration. This goes for work projects, child-rearing and marriage maintaining.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with the past and the present–heck, that’s what this blog is all about–but I find myself thinking a lot more about the future now. The unrelenting onslaught of big life changes over the last seven years has finally taught me one overarching lesson: good or bad, no stage of life lasts forever and you’re not the one in control.

That sounds trite–and probably obvious–but when I’m engaged in the daily grind, it’s easy for me to forget. My two-year-old daughter will always speak in delightfully broken English. My six-month-old son will always need to scream himself to sleep. My family and friends will always be around. My coworkers will always be my coworkers and my job will always be my job, until I decide it’s time for me to move on.

These are the lies that I’ve convinced myself of. These are the lies that punch me in the gut when unplanned change rears its ugly head, or time marches on and life evolves. Change is the truth that demands perspective, animates life and inspires gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, I love the fact that my birthday lands right before Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas season–a time to annually renew your spirit by taking holistic stock of where you’ve been, where you’re going and who you’re going with.

If the last year has shown me anything, it’s that the word “change” can be a synonym for “blessing.” I’m convinced that everything that happened to me in the first half of my 30s–good or bad, fun or sad–happened for a reason that was later made obvious to me or eventually will be.

There’s no doubt that the next half of this decade will be just as unscripted as the first. But if I’m doing this right, I’ll view the present with a renewed passion and the future with a grateful hope.

I hope you will, too.

Four Years in Our House

Four years ago today, I moved into my house. In that time, it’s safe to say that I have fulfilled the cliche and turned this house into a home. 

I remember the first time I pulled up to it — back when it was still just a house. It was one of those fluffy snowy days in Chicago when the flakes are falling furiously and beautifully and the accumulation is swift. My then-future in-laws had endured the weather to drive up from southern Indiana to check out this house’s potential to be a home for me and their daughter. We weren’t yet engaged, and I already owned a condo in another suburb. My longterm visions had us getting married eventually and her moving into the condo with me, where we would save for a house and move out whenever the timing worked.

But when a family friend offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a house in the suburb where I grew up — 10 minutes from my parents’ house — it was too good not to investigate the possibility. The friend was not listing the house, so I hadn’t even seen any prettified, wide-angle real estate photos of the interior, just the Google Street View exteriors, via my limited Internet stalking of the property.

I can still remember exploring the largely empty rooms for the first time with my girlfriend — what an odd word to use for her now — trying to picture a future together in rooms that have since been filled with our furniture, our thoughts, our feelings, our offspring and four years’ worth of memories. As I wandered around the basement, growing more fond of the house itself and my imagined version of that future, I remember praying that my Mr. Fix-It father-in-law wouldn’t find any devastating structural dealbreakers. I also remember being silently grateful for my Can’t-Fix-A-Thing self that the house was recently flipped with a new paint job and new appliances. I liked this house.

The house ultimately passed the test and has been silent witness to so many momentous and mundane moments of my life ever since. I asked my wife to marry me in the living room. I jokingly carried her through the front doorway on our wedding night.

We have played countless board games in our dining room. We have watched hours of television and worked through countless fights on the living room couch. We have hosted outdoor parties and built a shed in our backyard

I slept off the effects of chemotherapy in our bedroom and spent six months working remotely from the confines of this house. We keep adding new mementos to our Chicago Cubs bathroom. We have hung wedding photos and baby photos everywhere.

We have passionate debates about if or when we should knock out the wall between the living room and the kitchen.

Our guest bedroom turned into a nursery where I rock my daughter to sleep every night. My Northwestern University-themed office room turned into the guest bedroom. The office-turned-guest-bedroom is now transforming into another nursery, where I’ll rock my son to sleep. The house is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our home.

Our unfinished basement holds memories of our past stacked against the walls. It stores our bikes during the winter. It hides some still unused wedding presents. Most excitingly, it holds the promise of the future evolution of our family. There are new rooms still to be created that will be the setting for even more memories to come.

We’ve crammed so much life into this house in four years.

It’s our home.


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

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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.