The occasion of one’s birthday is always a time, however brief, for reflection and taking stock of where you are. This past weekend saw the start of my 46th year on this Earth, and I have a lot to be happy about and celebrate but it’s also the start of a comeback.
There is always room to improve and make better. If you’re not striving for something better at all times, then things fall into disrepair and a sad, atrophying stasis. The search, the striving is the goal and the state of being everyone needs. Merely getting by doesn’t cut it.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy some time to relax and be grateful for what you have, but if you’re not happy about something, then change is a must.
And like everyone else, there are things I am not happy about. I am very lucky in that I have my health and a lucid mind and can get a start on turning things around. But things have been in a bit of a rut: I go to work, I come home and eat and put kids to bed, I answer more work emails and fall asleep trying to get something done. I wake up early the next day and do it again.
One glimmer of light in all this is creativity. If I can get something creative done, I can have some peace of mind, and right now I am preparing for a show at the end of October.
Having young children and seeing how quick life can move can be both terrifying and encouraging. It seems like just yesterday I was welcoming the first of our children into the world; the older of our kids will be five in January and they are well versed in navigating the parental politics of our household for their own advantage.
But seeing how fast life moves doesn’t just mean that our youthful days are left in the dust, it means we can create new things for ourselves quickly as well. Less than a decade ago I was living alone with not many prospects for career advancement or a family life. Now I have three children and a well-established career in public relations. In a few years, I can be in a different place; the pace of change is fast, which means we can put ourselves on a better path quickly.
So often we look back on things with regret, and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone. We will always, and I can tell you million times of how true this is: we will always regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.
So no matter where you are or how bad things seem or how off the rails the life you imaged is, don’t worry or spend too much time looking back on past mistakes. Start doing things to set things right again. You won’t be sorry. It’s never too late.
Go for it.
If hell exists, it borrows heavily from New York City in the summertime. The unescapable humid heat that is magnified on the sidewalks and amplified in the subways, the crowded aggravation of our crumbling infrastructure, and the general unrest that foments rage where there might normally be annoyance or resignation, are the central ingredients of our sulphuric summer stew.
New York goes into its Independence Day holiday in the midst of one of its heat waves. The general state of the country only adds to the humid misery, with half the country protesting and demonizing the other half at light-speed intervals, new Internet outrages generated almost by the hour. It’s a dizzying spiral downward in civil discourse that fuels a blanket disgust made more maddening by temperatures that bake an already exhausted brain.
This work week is interrupted by our Independence Day holiday on July 4. Imagine putting up with all the outrages of national politics today but without air conditioning and in wool clothes, and you’ll see why the colonies revolted. In New York City today, our country’s divided politics are writ large across the city. People who once enjoyed vibrant conversation on the state of affairs skip such conversations; it doesn’t pay to engage in civil discourse, even on a personal level.
This week we will get through our work week, hoping it will be easier with so many people using the holiday for vacation. The trains will be a little less crowded, the traffic a little lighter and the sidewalks will be blazing hot but not quite as mobbed. Tourists will walk downtown past where George Washington was inaugurated (New York City was America’s first capital).
Sometimes, even though I appreciate air conditioning, I have a moment when I leave a heavily air conditioned building and feel a sense of relief and satisfaction at feeling the blanket of humid heat cover me when I step outside. It is good to feel the real world on your skin, to embrace reality no matter how unpleasant, because that’s what we are destined to do.
That is part of our story. New York gives its residents all four seasons at full blast. You will be hot, you will be cold, you will feel the full force of nature’s fury and blessings, sometimes within the same month. On the first day of Spring, New York City had a snowstorm. I would have gladly endured many more if it meant we would be spared the stifling heat of the summer months, but I knew better than to think we’d have such a lucky trade.
The crucible of summer in New York makes for stronger New Yorkers and spurs our innovation, our creativity, and our own more quiet revolution. Some of us will “embrace the suck” as the military puts it, and barrel through the overheated times with a gimlet eye towards the future.
Our destiny means we move through this overheated season with a desire to embrace the heat, to dive into the fevered truth that others work hard to avoid or shout down. The hot weather will pass, and we cannot huddle in the air conditioning forever. We have nothing to do but have pride in ourselves as New Yorkers and live summer to the fullest.
This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.
There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the Queens Botanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.
After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.
There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.
While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).
Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.
Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.
Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.
We’re doing something right.
I was at a conference for work where people were going to be talking about important things that could affect my job, the line of business I work for, and the company I work for. I had to be there for certain speaking panels and a regulator’s speech. I had to take copious notes and report on what was said. I needed to be there to talk to any journalists that might be asking questions of our company’s executives.
I work in corporate communications. I like to think I’m good at my job, or at least have a good work ethic and honestly try to do my best. It was after lunch and I was loading up on coffee to make sure I stayed alert. Since I had consumed enough caffeine to give an elephant a heart attack, I really wanted to try to get to the restroom between two panels that I had to be present for.
To my luck, the program at the conference added an extra speaker between these sessions and I saw this as my chance to head to the bathroom. As the conference organizers asked us to stay for this speech, I was darting out of the conference room to get to the men’s room.
Outside the auditorium, closed-circuit televisions were broadcasting what was happening inside, and I saw that I had walked out on a young teenager who was recovering from a horrible form of cancer. People in the lobby watched the young man on television recount his struggle to live a normal life while fighting a horrible disease.
I stopped for a minute to listen, feeling like the worst kind of corporate monster for walking out on the most heartfelt talk of the entire event. But nature, and my need to be back in time to take notes on the next panel, called, and I continued with my plan and made it back to the auditorium with just enough time to not miss the required discussion.
Cody Strong for a Cure is a charitable organization that helps support children with cancer and their families and raises money to fund research into pediatric cancer. I missed a brief talk by the inspiration for the charity, Will Cody, who is thankfully in remission after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia two years ago.
After priding myself on having good priorities and not being blinded to the truly important things in life, I had become the indifferent monster I had always despised. I consoled myself in that I had already donated to the charity raffle at the event, using all my raffle tickets on the prize for a free trip to a Rangers game (I didn’t win).
There are times when life gives you a punch in the gut that reveals how unimportant so much of what we think about is, and our carefully tended self image comes crashing to the floor in a jumble of jagged shards. This was one of those times. No matter what was said or done at the conference that affected my job or the company I work for, none of it amounts to jack shit compared with a child stricken with a terrifying illness.
I stayed up late that night typing up my notes for work, and I have no idea how many people read them. One of my colleagues said I did a great job with them, but they will always be stained with a dark self-knowledge. At some point in our lives, we see a side of ourselves that we despise.
It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.
We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.
There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.
From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.
My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.
When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.
I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.
If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.
While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.
A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:
“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”
New York City is such an intense and captivating force that New Yorkers must all leave their beloved Gotham from time to time for areas more peaceful and serene, places where the air is cooler and the pace of things slower. City life is an immense trade-off. We have the greatest art and culture in the world but must endure great hardships, annoyances, and inconveniences. It’s this crucible that makes our standards so high and our quest for excellence so unforgiving.
These past few days have found me on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a beautiful beach community that is best visited after Labor Day, when the summer season is considered officially over. Plenty of other people have had this idea also. So the island is not a ghost town but can look that way at times if you turn down one of the quieter streets. The restaurants are starting to board up for the fall and winter or have at least cut down their summer hours.
Long Beach Island is one long excuse to sit and marvel at the beach and ocean. It is a thin, string-bean like island that is geared towards renting to or selling to people coming here for the summer. It floods easily and the oncoming series of hurricanes that are lined up to punch the United States now are on the top of everyone’s mind.
While this end-of-summer escape is welcome, the travails of life remain. This time of year especially, the days around September 11, are times when we are reminded about the fleeting nature of our very existence and the fact that life commands us to enjoy every moment.
This awareness does not all have to come in tragic form. I formed a habit of quickly taking photos of the sand castles I help my children build, because before long one of my daughters will crush them quickly without hesitation. She is not yet four years old yet she is a destroyer of worlds. She has not yet grasped the value of leaving something behind that is beautiful in part because of its vulnerability. It is more fun for her to feel that collapse of the cool, wet sand under her feet.
Long Beach Island is a place where you will miss out if you don’t take the time to walk along the beach at night and enjoy the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean. It is where the best thing to do is to sit on the sand under an umbrella and attempt to clear your mind of everything. The beauty of the landscape belies the chaotic, violent, and tragic nature of our lives, which is why we seek to surround ourselves with beauty as much as possible. The world will hand us enough ugly all our lives.
In a few days my family will return to New York City, which has now been rebuilding for more than 16 years since the September 11 attacks. A whole new generation of New Yorkers are alive who did not know life before that day. Our responsibility, among many, is to give this generation an appreciation of all that we have given them as family and all that we have built as a people, because it could very easily not be here tomorrow.
Nine years ago, I met some of my family at the airport and took to the skies to get to Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion was my aunt Alice’s wedding to Dave Siewert. The wedding was outdoors in the summer. Despite it being one of the hottest days of the year, it was a breezy and pleasant afternoon and everyone had a great time.
Because they lived far away, we didn’t get to see Alice and Dave very often, so whenever they were in town it was a special event. When they were visiting for the holidays, a group of us met in midtown Manhattan the day after Christmas so Alice could take Dave to a Broadway show. Normally I avoid the heavily tourist parts of midtown like the plague, and even more so around the holidays, but my Aunt Alice is no ordinary visitor, and this is where she wanted to take Dave.
A few years ago Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and not given more than a few months to live. It was a raw deal by any measure. He and Alice had already had their share of medical woes together including heart disease and a previous bout with cancer.
He lived years longer than his doctors expected, and he didn’t waste a minute of time. Dave refused to let his diagnosis define his life other than to spur him on to live more of it. He and Alice headed west and went on some epic road adventures.
Family and friends followed Alice and Dave’s adventures through social media. They posted their amazing photos of the places they visited and Alice wrote wonderful accounts of their time together. The last time I saw him, which was, sadly, at a family funeral, he appeared in good spirits. He had grown his hair out long. Doctors had told him his hair would fall out from the chemotherapy but it hadn’t yet.
The medical news didn’t get better. There were multiple setbacks with treatments that didn’t work or that had to be stopped. But Alice and Dave continued to travel and enjoy the beauty of the American West. They would take a weeklong trip and then be back for treatment before hitting the road again.
This past weekend, family scrambled to get flights to Madison, Wisconsin for Dave’s memorial service. The family tracked his health through Alice and when it looked like things were nearing an end, some of my aunts caught the first flights they could to be there.
While he had been in deteriorating health, Dave never stopped living. He was getting out and about and riding his bike whenever he could. He faced death with a grace, dignity and determination that serves as a great example to the rest of us.
It is easy to talk about death and the brave ways you want to face it. We often think of it in terms of facing a violent threat or hurtling headlong to a dramatic end. It’s impossible to know how we’re going to really face death, because it usually confronts us in a quiet doctor’s office or in front of people who know us and all our faults and frailties.
Dave showed us that even though we can’t control when and how we will die, our end can be one of our own making if we have the courage to do so.
I count among my many good fortunes having a strong family that is fast to mobilize for one another in times of need. Dave has kept us to a very high standard and demonstrated how to live life with unlimited strength. With his love of life and ability to face death with unimaginable courage, Dave Siewert made my family better, and we owe him a debt of gratitude.