The Best Advice I Ever Got

30 years

About this time 27 years ago, I was in a bad place.

On a late summer day in 1992, I came home from my job as a reporter for a suburban daily newspaper.

A job that filled my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. That met my insatiable curiosity and (somewhat cocky) need to be an information authority. That could lead to one day working for the Chicago Tribune and, maybe, writing books.

A job that put me above most of my college peers who’d started their careers at smaller dailies or weekly newspapers as is often the case for many new grads of nearly all smaller universities or those without “Columbia School of Journalism” in their titles.

A job I’d done so well that, in only my second year I was assigned to cover the second phase of a massive and infamous child murder trial. My work on that two-year-long story led my boss to call me his “Golden Boy” and to give me the city beat, the most prestigious in the newsroom. At 24 years old.

A job which defined what and who I was. Or, at very least, what and who my abundant ego imagined I was. As it does for many (most?) men, in a way that many (most?) women cannot understand.

And about an hour earlier, I’d been fired.

Not without cause, I admit. I screwed up. I made three mistakes in print, violating my boss’s “Three Mistake” rule.

That the errors involved several local major mucky mucks magnified their weight. Still, to be fair, I’d have been fired even if the offended parties had been much less important. My boss was at least consistent in that way.

In any case, I was spiritually decimated.

In a matter of a few ill-fated weeks, I’d apparently lost all the journalistic skills I’d honed. I’d forfeited any latitude all my achievements had bought.  A mistake was a mistake was a mistake. Errors were black eyes for the newspaper and could not be tolerated.

I’d lost my personal equilibrium. My confidence. My identity.

Worse, I was only three years married. Like many young couples we struggled and scraped, squeezing every penny, doing whatever magic we could to multiply them like Jesus’s fishes and loaves.

How could I face my wife? What would she think of me now that I had failed at the one thing at which I’d supposedly excelled? The foundation of my whole being?

Now, with the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, I know I didn’t need to worry.

My wife Kellie cushioned my crashing ego, consoling me as I sobbed angry, accusatory and fearful tears into her shoulder.

Then she (rhetorically) slapped me, hard.

She held both my hands and said, simply, “Take the weekend, feel sorry for yourself, then on Monday, go get a job.”

It was the best advice of my life.

It set me on a right path, forcing me to learn how to take the bad with the good, even (especially) when the Bad seems absolutely, unquestionably, impossibly insurmountable.

Life is filled with just such mountainous bumps. Yet each can be chopped down to size with candor, courage and a lot of hard work. Just put aside your ego and address the reality of the present rather than the myth of the past or the fantasy of the future.

In other words, get over yourself, get busy and get on with it.

It was a hard life lesson learned the hard way.

The kind of advice that exposed raw anxieties. Necessary, yes, and painful. But less stinging coming from someone who loved me enough to love me honestly.

Now, we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on September 16th.

And I thank Kellie for this and countless other examples of her pragmatic wisdom and guidance. This, perhaps more than anything short of our children has been her greatest gift to me.

Her ability to understand and sympathize, then find a way forward has steadied our rudder amid more Life storms than I can even recount.

I have witnessed these razor-sharp, hammer-blunt skills used coldly and effectively with nearly everyone in her life – our kids, other adults, even her employees.

Ironically, many of her staff, most of whom are barely out of their teens see her as “Momma Kellie” when she listens kindly to their complaints about this problem or that. They sometimes forget that they’re in the adult world now. They never realize that “Momma Bear” isn’t far behind when their young adult angst crosses the line into inappropriate nonsense.

I often say, with tongue firmly in cheek that I am very nearly perfect. So, Kellie’s approach to life is often frustrating in the moment.

Yet, with the grace of time and love, that moment usually passes, and I come to understand and (usually) even admit the rightness of her position.

I am not perfect.

Kellie is not perfect.

Heck, we are not perfect.

But we are perfect for each other.

We balance each other after all these years.

Kellie is that person who waits patiently in line at the Wal-Mart behind the guy with three shopping carts full of stuff in the 20 items or less aisle. I am the one who screams obscenities at the local coffee shop because I had to wait 10 minutes for my drink.

Together, we have suffered professional upheavals, financial hardship, health issues, parenting challenges and personal hurdles that would have killed many a lesser partnership.

In those times we cried together. Held the other close. Offered each other the support that can come only from the other half of one’s true soul.

We struggled through. We survived. We succeeded.

And then, when the clouds broke, we celebrated. Often with family and dear friends. But always, first and foremost, with each other. The kind of celebration that can come only with the other half of one’s true soul.

For any partnership to work right and well, the tears must be taken together with the laughter. That is the secret – if there is such a thing — to staying together 30 days much less 30 years.

Now we look comfortably toward Tomorrow, whatever it may bring.

Retirement? Soon, we hope, but probably not soon enough.

Travel? That’s our dream. Wherever our hearts take us, in a small camper, for weeks at a time.

Grandkids? As many as our kids will give us, whether two-footed or four. Every one of them will get whatever they want from Nana and Papa.

The point is, whatever the future holds for us, we will be holding each other.

Picking each other up.

Sharing a quiet Sunday morning cup of coffee.

Screaming with laughter.

What we know, and what we cannot yet imagine.

All that, and more.

Together.

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I wrote this poem for our wedding and share it now to mark our 30th anniversary. It is even more true today than it was all those years ago.

BETROTHAL

She is magnificent gift,

Serene, secure, intelligent, beautiful.  Like the beach, always there

to soothe the passion of the waves frenzied by storm after life’s storm.

Caress them, quietly absorb their unguided anger, unknowing fury.

And by taking, she gives.

Little by little, grain by grain.

Together

They pulse with life, discernible in their individuality.

Thankfully,

Always, always perfectly whole, becoming a part of each other, their

best elements combined, but never, never repressed.

Together

They prove the genius of compromise, the brilliance of compassion, the

rightness of forgiving.

Together

They leave no question, for those who still do, that God, and His love are real.

 

A Great Day for Art, Attitude, and Olivia

birthday  I wrote this for our youngest daughter Olivia on her golden birthday in 2006. She was a remarkable child, and is an equally-remarkable young woman today at 24 years old. 

This is available in my first book, “Chocolate Cows and Purple Cheese and other tales from the homefront.”

Happy birthday, Livie.

September 11 will always and forever be a happy day for me.

That sounds strange to most people, understandably, given the sad events now inextricably associated with the date.

But I don’t say it to shock or awe. Rather the day will be – is — special because it is our youngest daughter’s birthday – and more so this year because it is her golden birthday.

Ever since the attack, Olivia has had to endure the mostly-innocent, yet still-pointed questions and comments about her birthday that only kids can pose — along the lines that the day is somehow cursed, as is she, by extension.

But as we’ve told her, she came along six years before the tragic events that now identify September 11. So it has always been a special day –and for much happier reasons – for us.

Olivia was our planned child.

My wife insists that our eldest daughter, Emma, was an accident, the result of her forgetting to take her birth control during a very busy time in our young marriage. I figured my wife just figured it was time and didn’t bother to tell me. I no longer debate the point. Knowing when to give up an argument is the better part of valor in marriage.

Either way, the clock was now ticking, pun intended.

We believed that siblings born closer together (eventually) develop tighter bonds. So we decided to have our second child as soon as possible.

Circumstances dictated a planned C-section delivery. So we were able to literally schedule Olivia’s birth – in the hospital by 6 a.m., have the baby by 8 a.m., dad back at the office by 1 p.m. at the latest.

Olivia has been a child of just such precision ever since.

She is very literal, making it frustrating sometimes to do anything that requires the suspension of disbelief or the application of metaphor or symbolism.

Watching movies or television programs, listening to certain songs, etc. can become a chore as we have to explain that the actors are not the characters, or that the singer may not have really done all the things that the lyrics suggest.

And she loves math, which can be particularly and especially vexing for a writer-father whose life is dominated by the other side of his brain.

Still, Olivia is one of the most creative people I’ve met.

She has started more unique businesses than any five Donald Trumps – painting and selling rocks, making and selling origami animals, decorating and selling wooden plant stakes, creating and selling homemade salad dressing, cleaning cars for a fee. (The “selling” is key – like all entrepreneurs, this kid likes the smell of money…)

Likewise Olivia loves art. She has taken up painting and drawing of every kind – water colors, tempura, chalk, pencils, ceramic snowmen and fish and holiday ornaments with her great aunt.

Then like a water bug flitting across the pond of art, she jumped to origami. Our home looked like a paper factory hit by a bomb. Then this past spring, after watching the Patrick Swayze vehicle “Ghost,” she fell in love with clay, and took a park district pottery course.

Like most parents my wife and I have often marveled at the differences in our kids’ personalities. And like most parents, we’re often baffled. We raise them the same, we love them the same, we feed them the same, etc.

Yet they turn out so different.

Perhaps the reason (at least partly) lies in their own relationship. Being second-born often creates challenges that first-borns don’t understand.

And it probably didn’t help that our eldest, upon meeting her baby sister for the first time, identified her with the only living thing she’d met that was smaller than her – a dog.

As she saw her mom holding the baby, our first-born said, “Can I pet it?” Not “her,” but “it.”

Like all second children Olivia has worked ever since to carve her niche in our family in her own way. Whereas her sister’s presence is known by default of being first, Olivia has had to stake her claim in life through sheer confidence.

She is, if only in her own mind, right as rain, in every decision she makes, no matter how far off the beaten path. Attitudinally, she can be 10 pounds of attitude in a five pound bag. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Other times, it’s enough to drive a saint to sin.

But that can-do attitude, that confidence, that charisma, that vim and vinegar, has already brought her a long way. And, I suspect, it will carry her through life in ways that those who doubt themselves can only envy.

So on her special day, we wish Olivia a happy birthday. You are very special to us, and for more than just the date of your birth.