There are things in life that you think will have a big effect on you or be of great importance, but end up mattering very little. When you’re a kid, the world is full of them: monsters under the bed, what your parents are fixing you for dinner, what colors are your favorite. As you grow up a little bit, the labels on these weighty matters of great import change, but the underlying self-importance that colors them does not. Gone are monsters and in their place are SAT scores, whether that person likes me or likes-likes me, and any number of strong, deeply held opinions on the Star Wars prequels. If you have a kid, you’re exposed to a whole new dimension: breast or bottle, cry-it-out or not, home care or day care?

We go through life wrapping ourselves in these questions, these opinions, that are honestly and passionately held – sometimes for very good reasons – that we think will define us and be the crux on which we pivot.

And often (usually?), they do not.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve gotten to see quite a few friends and family approach and pass the great milestone of turning 40, most of them with grace and charm. Seeing this, and being suitably impressed with my own grace, charm, and emotional control, I lumped the big 4-0 in with all those things that seem like they matter but really don’t. I assured myself that I wouldn’t be sucked in to the cliche of feeling old or over the hill. That 40 is just another number and would feel no different than 39, 38, or any of the ones that came before. I knew that it wasn’t something that needed to be a big deal and that I’d likely sneer at it as my birthday passed me by.

Well, that birthday is tomorrow. I’m down to the last hours of my 30’s. And I am freaking the f*ck out.

We’re told our whole life that 40 is old, aren’t we? It’s the punchline of jokes. We see black party hats, streamers, balloons, and yard signs all emblazoned with giant white numbers, like a taunt. Forty-year-olds are who high schoolers mock and roll their eyes at. At my first job out of college my boss was thirty, which I remember thinking was “old”, and he was a full decade younger than I am today.

I think my problem is that I’m having a hard time de-identifying myself with being a thirty-something. Thirtysomething is a great age to be. Old enough to have learned poise, tact and professionalism, but young enough to be hip, flexible, and capable of reinventing yourself if you need to. Thirtysomethings are still in many ways explorers out on a ship at sea. Eventually, all explorers need to bring the ship in to the shore, find a quiet piece of land, and build a cabin. I feel like someone (me? society? the man?) is telling me I need to do that now. I don’t feel ready.

So, for now, I’ll do the only thing I can. Wrap myself in a warm blanket of friends and family wishing me well and telling me that 40 is one of those things that is no big deal and ultimately doesn’t matter. And maybe I’ll even believe them.

But I’m not done with being an explorer just yet. I’m not content to retire to my cabin and turn my back on the sea. There are things to learn – about the world and myself – and so much good work to do before I’m done. So if I’m going to let myself feel like 40 matters, I’m going to make it matter in the best way I know how. This is the year I commit myself to blending together poise, tact, professionalism, capability, flexibility, and the vigor of youth. I will focus that on doing not what-you’re-supposed-to-do-as-you-get-old, but on the things that I want to do. The things that inspire me. The things that make me feel young.

If I ever do get old, I want it to be with my hand on the tiller and with salt spray on my face.



We spent some time with friends this weekend, one of whom was nice enough to ask how my writing here has been going. I was ashamed to admit the truth, that it had been a long time (checking… checking… 6 months!) since I last put pen to paper. Or, in this case, chocolate-stained fingers to keyboard. Part of the problem is motivation. It’s not like I’m an air traffic controller, but my job is busy. And sometimes stressful. And I’m finding those two things take root like weeds in the garden of my creativity (I know, and I’m sorry) and choke off any attempt to grow a worthwhile crop, as it were. Add to that a 3 year old who is adorable, energetic, stubborn, curious, playful, and who has no desire to let dad have 30 minutes to himself at the computer. Most days by the time the kid is asleep I have barely enough energy to stumble over to the couch and surf reddit while a dvr’ed show is playing.

So, while I’m gettin’-it-done at work and while I’m enjoying my son’s toddlerhood, the blog posting schedule takes a hit. But, and here’s the extra fun part, sometimes I do have the motivation, and do have the free time, aaaaand…..  that’s usually when I slam right in to a solid stone wall of writer’s block. I want to write, I have time to write, I just can’t think of anything to write about.

Which is what happened today.

It’s happened before. If it’s been six months since I last posted, I’d bet there were at least a dozen times that I’d wanted to write something but couldn’t find anything to say. But today I came to the realization that I can’t be the first person to face such a challenge and there had to be an online blog topic generator out there. So, being the advanced degree holding, intuitive, resourceful, can-do type of guy I am, I googled “blog topic generator”. And, wouldn’t you know, there is one.

The site asks for three keywords and provides a list of five potential blog topics. I settled on three words that I’m the most familiar with these days, “father”, “son”, and “husband”. The resulting suggestions were…  interesting. I suspect I may not be the generator’s target audience.

So I won’t use each suggestion as its own separate blog post, but no reason I can’t list them here and see if the generator…err…generates any interesting content. My suggested blog topics are:

TOPIC #1: Why We Love Father (And You Should Too!) Right off the bat, this makes me think this topic generator is more geared toward a product, or an industry trend… of which I am neither. I don’t think. You should love me as a father because I try. I try so hard. And sometimes get it right. Not always though. Last week we were playing baseball out in the back yard, which mostly consists of Matthew hitting the ball off the t, running to the corner of the yard, diving to the ground, and telling me that the Packers just scored a home run. I decided two things: a.) that I wanted to play, and b.) that I was going to wow that little dude with my baseball prowess. Sorry, t-ball “prowess”. So, after a spirited 10 minute discussion, I convinced my three year old to give me a turn. Concerned for his safety, I made him stand well back from the t. Then I made him take a few steps to the right so he’d be well out of the way of my forthcoming homer. I dramatically pumped the bat a few times, swung away, and beaned my perfect, innocent, and guileless little man right in the arm. Left a for-real little welt and damaged our relationship for an eternity, until I remembered we had Swedish Fish in the kitchen. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, you should love me because, even when I fail spectacularly, I do so by swinging for the fences.

TOPIC #2: The History of Son Well, frankly, I don’t think that’s any of your business. Let’s just say that when a daddy loves a mommy very much, they quit their jobs and move to Vermont so the daddy can go to grad school for a few years. Then, when grad school is over and jobs have been found in the metro Chicago region, the mommy and daddy buy a house which, I think, comes with the baby? Isn’t that what the escrow is all about? (I admit I may not have a good handle on the definition.) Hoping the movie ‘Storks’ can set this all straight for me.

TOPIC #3: The Worst Advice We’ve Ever Heard About Husband Wow. This one was surprisingly hard to answer, even smart-assedly. I really haven’t gotten much in the way of husbandly advice, good or bad. One notable exception comes from my father in law, who could teach all y’all a thing or two about being a good dad and, I presume, a good partner. Soon after Emily and I got engaged (maybe the same weekend?) he told me the three sentences I needed to remember for a healthy relationship. They are: “You’re right, dear”,  “I’m sorry, dear”, and “I have no strong opinion about that”. And he was right! Those are three powerful additions to your arsenal. So bad advice, I guess, would be the opposite of that. I guess you would call that “Trumping” your way through a relationship.

TOPIC #4: 10 Myths About Son 

  1. Since he stayed up late/played so hard/is so tired, he’s going to sleep in.
  2. Since you made him eggs and sausage, he’s not going to also ask for cereal. And then a cookie.
  3. He’ll understand why he can’t have a cookie at 6:30am.
  4. He’ll eat everything on his plate.
  5. It will take him a while to learn how to use an iPad.
  6. He’s so young, I shouldn’t have to disable one-click purchasing just yet.
  7. He totally understands that I can’t read his mind.
  8. I’m a full grown man with reasonable control of my emotional faculties. A random “I love you” from him can’t reduce me to tears.
  9. He won’t turn me in to something of a Paw Patrol expert.
  10. My life would be just as complete without him.

TOPIC #5: What Will Son Be Like In 100 Years? Well, to start, he will be 103 and will probably like easy mac and baked beans exactly as much as he does today. He will have lived through World Wars 3 and 4, have made, lost, and remade at least one fortune, and may have even been on the front lines when humans rallied together to throw back the invasion of the lobster people from Zeta Reticuli IV. Regardless, I hope my 103 year old son has a long and happy life and remains surrounded by those that love him. That’s all we can ask as a parent, yes? If he can leave his part of the world a little better than he found it he’ll have done his part. I flatter myself in the hope that I’m not screwing him up so much that those things are beyond his grasp. I would encourage him to waste no opportunity, especially at 103, to tell his story to anyone and everyone who will listen. Tell them of his life, tell them of me and his mom. Tell them of his home and his loves and losses and challenges. Tell them of his successes. Who are we but our stories? My prayer is that my 103 year old little boy has one hell of a story to share when he’s done.

Well, that’s it. Good on ya, blog topic generator. I asked for, and you provided, a path through writer’s block. You have awkwardly yet adequately done the job that was assigned to you.

Just like a certain would-be writer I can think of.


This past Wednesday was the monthly-ish meeting of the book club that I’ve weaseled my way in to.The club started with a group of Urban Planners, so it’s called the Chicago Urban Planning Book Club. We read books about Urban Planning, or Chicago, or the intersection of the two. Or really, anything that’s tangentially related to either. We also drink beer and eat an irresponsible amount of calories, so that’s obviously part of the appeal. But the books and the conversation are interesting too.

For this meeting, we ready Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s look at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and turn-of-the-century Chicago, of Daniel Burnham and his influence on not only the fair but on architectural theory and urban design, and on a transformative moment in American history.

This month I lucked out, because I’d read the book not once, not twice, but three times before. Just because. Because I’m a huge nerd, I suppose.

Burnham and the other Exposition planners decided on monumental buildings of white, electrically lit, of large scale and classically influence. They were laid out in a logical, efficient, yet picturesque manner. The fair itself was kept clean and safe, with ample opportunity to learn or become cultured, or find a meal and relax. For Americans used to dirty, unsanitary, dark, and unsafe cities (and, for that matter, for rural Americans still immersed in an agrarian lifestyle) the Exposition presented something of a transcendent moment. Here was America not as it was, but as it could be. The means to that end were easily within reach. A newer, brighter, better future was close at hand.

For those who saw it, understood it, and believed it, that must have split their life in two. Everafter, their lives were made up of what they saw before the fair and what they believed after the fair. Larson pulls two good examples of this: L. Frank Baum was so enraptured that he shifted the color slightly and turned the White City Emerald. And a young Walt Disney would listen to tales told by his tradesman father of the time he helped to build a gleaming palace surrounded by a picture-perfect city. Years later, old Walt would adopt the same model in building his Magic Kingdom.

Fascinating stuff, and it got me thinking about the transformative moments in my life. What moments, experiences, eras have I lived through that do a good job at splitting my life into before and after? Here are four, right off the top of my head. I’ll list them chronologically because any other ranking would be unfair. Interestingly, they’re all related to the definition of family. They are:

  • 1988, My parents get divorced. Maybe my first lesson that life is shades of grey. Learned that “family” isn’t a definition in a dictionary, cannot be imposed by others. Family is what you choose to make of it – family is defined by you, on your terms.
  • 1995 – 1999, The College Years. Forty eight months of self discovery. Get your head of the gutter, I’m talking intellectually and emotionally. I discovered in the most profound sense who I was. I applied the lessons of the self defined family and surrounded myself with one hell of a group of foster brothers and sisters. That new family gave me confidence.
  • November 2002, My cousin is killed. Learned about all the things left undone and unsaid when those you love are taken unexpectedly. Learned not to take Family for granted. (Am still struggling to apply this lesson.)
  • Sometime between 2003 and Today. Met Emily, dated Emily, fell in love with Emily. Proposed. Planned. Wed. Somewhere in there, although I cannot pinpoint the when of it all, I learned about the commitment to family. That there comes a point where you learn that you have to live your life as much for another as you do for yourself. That selfishness can only go so far. That you need to give of yourself. And that it will be immensely rewarding. I’m not perfect, but I do try awfully hard. I imagine this same lesson will become even more important if there are ever any mini-Mikes running around.

Transformative moments need not be good or bad. But they are always eye-opening. The result is a smarter you, a more savvy you, a more complete you.

Daniel Burnham’s perfect city never came to pass, but in striving toward that goal, I’d argue that he and his followers made a better America. And individually, we might not always be able to perfectly apply the lessons of our own transformative moments, but as long as we make the attempt, I think we’ll leave ourselves – and the world – a little better off.