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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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.

9/11 Never Really Goes Away…Nor Should It.


The hashtag #NeverForget, a seemingly cliche sentiment that is trotted out every September 11th without fail, is also just a truthful description of my feelings about that fateful day.

I will never forget. Even if I wanted to, I can’t forget.

Having spent the past few days in New York City for the first time and staying in a hotel that was about a block from the 9/11 Memorial, my memories of and emotions about the events of that devastating Tuesday were more palpable than they usually have been in the subsequent 16 years.

For my work with Catholic Extension, I was traveling to the Big Apple with a group of about 35 religious sisters. Even in a city that’s seen it all, many people stopped to take photos of our caravan as we roamed the streets of New York.

I arrived a day before the sisters and explored the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, which included all of the new World Trade Center structures and the memorial. As I walked the streets, I wondered how many of the businesses I passed were there in 2001. How many of the people walking and working around me had experienced those acts of terrorism firsthand or knew someone who had died? How did they even begin the physical cleanup process, much less the emotional one?

I have read so many accounts of the chaos in the streets after the planes hit — as the buildings swayed precariously and bodies fell from the sky. I have seen hundreds of photos and video of everything covered in dust — including people who walked around in an astounded, confused daze after their workday or New York vacation had taken a turn for the horrific.

I had nightmares about the attacks and the haunting images of people jumping from the burning buildings for months after September 11th — and I had no direct connection to anyone who lived through or died from the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did…or what it continues to be like.

The effects of 9/11 continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Even while I was in New York, there was a headline about a ferry captain who saved hundreds who just died of cancer related to the toxins released by the collapse of the buildings — like so many others who lived through the experience only to tragically die from it years later.

The memorial itself is beautiful and moving. Two separate square fountains take up the footprint of the twin towers, with water flowing endlessly downward into a square hole in the middle of the base of the structures. The outer edges of the squares are enscribed with the names of everyone who perished: office workers, firefighters, police officers, tourists — I even saw a reference to the unborn child of one of the victims who was pregnant. Loved ones commemorate the birthday of their beloved deceased by placing white flowers on their name. There were several flowers on display yesterday.

The sisters — all from Latin American countries — prayed a rosary next to one of the memorial fountains. A young sister from Puerto Rico — who couldn’t have been very old when 9/11 occurred — seemed particularly moved by the experience and led a beautiful prayer asking for God’s grace on the victims and their families and for mercy for the people who commited the atrocity.

Of all the exciting attractions that I wanted to experience in New York, this was one place to which I always felt called to make a pilgrimage. The experience reminded me anew of why I will never forget — and why we can’t.

In Praise of Longer Days

When you live in Chicago, Mother Nature wages a winter-long competition between cold and darkness to see which can break you first.

While I despise the cold, I know that my real enemy is the darkness. You can always warm yourself up eventually, but there’s no way to make the sun emerge during Chicago’s winter hallmark: endless weeks of dreary gray skies. There comes a point each year, as I trudge to the train station in frigid darkness after work, that I wonder if it will ever be 80 degrees and sunny again — and realize with despair that we are still at least four solid months away from that warm reality. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, even if you only have a mild case of it.

But then there are days like today — a random Tuesday in late February — when cold and darkness both stay their hands. We are graced with unnatural 60-degree temperatures and an even more important reminder that spring is on its way: sunlight that lasts beyond 6 p.m.

There is something indescribably important about leaving work before it’s dark outside. Since childhood summers, the dying of the light has always represented a sort of sadness — the day is over, the fun has ended, it’s time to go inside. When you end your workday without the opportunity to see the sun setting in the sky, it feels more like your life in the cubicle has robbed you of a day you’ll never get back. If there’s at least a shred of daylight left when you emerge from your occupational cocoon, you’ve won.

I love these brief weeks before our clocks even do us the favor of “springing ahead,” when the sun lingers in the sky and ends its workday along with me. This evening I strolled through the beautiful streets of downtown Chicago with a spring in my step that matched the spring in the air.

The majestic Second City skyscrapers are extra magical when the sun has slipped down below their massive height — so the tops of the buildings are still brightly illuminated and reflecting the dying embers, but the street below is cast in shadow with an orange glow burning brightly above it. I board my train, and the sun and I race home together. The orb creeps ever closer to the horizon as I speed toward my evening plans.

As I arrive home in the gloaming — which has lasted a bit longer each day this week — I can feel the page turning. Soon the days will stretch and the warmth will increase to allow me to come home and eat dinner outside on my back patio, or go for a well-lit run, or take my daughter to the playground down the block.

The mere thought of it begins the annual healing process of the scar tissue earned from shoveling the driveway and scraping windshields and walking in the darkness.

The days are getting longer. Every day, there is more day to seize.


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A Brief Lesson in Humility

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You’re not humble enough. And neither am I.

I ran into a friend on my commute home this evening, who told me a story about one of his friends. This simple story was an instant lesson in humility.

My friend is a lawyer, and his friend — let’s call him Alex for the sake of this recounting — is also a lawyer. But there’s something else you should know about Alex: He has cerebral palsy.

I’m sure those two facts alone are enough to make you pause and reflect on all the challenges he had to overcome to embrace that vocation — and how relatively easy your path has been to get to wherever you are right now.

Alex’s life is a daily exercise in humility. Imagine being the person who holds up the train every morning so that the ramp can be employed to get you aboard. All I do is complain that the train is late. Imagine going to lunch with a friend and having to ask that friend to physically help you to use the restroom. Sometimes I wonder if I would even have the humility to be the helpful friend.

If you struggled daily against such overwhelming physical challenges since the day you were born, how would you be different? Would you complain as much about the petty daily annoyances that often seem so difficult and important in the moment?

If it was a physical struggle to get from Point A to Point B, I think my whole perspective would have to change. The challenge of doing simple things like getting on a train or having to wonder if a new location is handicapped accessible would probably force me to embrace the beauty of the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. Someone smiled at me.

The humbling part is that I don’t have such challenges, and yet I am usually unwilling to pause and recognize the blessing of the simple or the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. I have to stand on the train, but I am blessed to be physically capable of standing on the train.

It’s always a good time to be reminded of something that Alex proves every day: Our only real limitation is our inability to embrace what we do have.


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