I look at this picture, which was taken a couple of months before I began my senior year of high school, and I think, boy, what a knucklehead.
The summer of 1988 was a scorcher in my part of the upper Midwest, and I liked to go on my daily run around mid-afternoon, which typically was the hottest part of the day. I also liked to run without wearing a shirt or sunscreen. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes, which in this case was a brutal sunburn a couple of days before an appointment to have my senior pictures taken at a local studio.
My mother wasn’t particularly happy about me exhibiting poor judgment, especially considering she was shelling out a significant chunk of change for pictures that not only would be in our relatives’ living rooms, wallets, and purses, but also on display for future generations to see in the pages of the high school yearbook. One of the studio employees told me I looked like a lobster before she began applying powder to my face very liberally. As you can see, it didn’t completely have the desired effect. Even now I think I could have camouflaged very well with the stop sign that was down the block from my house.
I dug out this photograph nearly three weeks ago when the big thing to do on Facebook was to show off your senior picture as a way of honoring members of the Class of 2020, who have seen what should be an important, memorable time in their lives wiped out by the coronavirus. Not to turn this into a Chevrolet commercial from 20 years ago, but I hear Bob Seger and my mind takes me back to the tail end of the Reagan era when I look at this picture. I was like a rock. Maybe a lightweight rock like pumice – I was 5-foot-7 and maybe 140 pounds soaking wet – but a rock nonetheless.
Today is my 49th birthday. The 17-year-old in the picture who was excited about what lay ahead in 1989 and beyond is now a middle-aged man wondering how the hell he’s one year away from being eligible for full AARP membership.
Thirty-two years ago, my eyes were fixated on what I was certain would be my future: a college degree, a career as a sportswriter at a major metropolitan newspaper that would give me all the plum assignments, a nice apartment, an even nicer car, and maybe a wife, but probably life as a bachelor. I can envision my eyes going full Marty Feldman if Kirk, Version 2020 – a few pounds heavier and sans hair – went back to the 80s and told young whippersnapper me what his future held:
“You’ll leave behind your career in print journalism.”
“You’ll own your own home.”
“You’ll get married, and it will be the best thing you’ll ever do.”
“You’ll have a son with severe Autism who also is nonverbal. Raising him will be difficult, but you’ll do a good job.”
Who’s been out in the sun too long, old man?
Sometimes you don’t end up where you expect you’d be in life, and you feel like Bugs Bunny wondering why you didn’t take that left turn at Albuquerque. I’d pictured a very different life – certainly one that wasn’t too complicated – for myself once I hit middle age. I found out over the years that adulting is much harder than it looked at 17. But you figure it out along the way.
I realized in 2010 that after 20-plus years working in some capacity as a sports journalist it was best to leave behind the profession I’d pledged allegiance to the minute I first walked into the sports department at the local newspaper the weekend before I started my senior year in high school. I had no new job to go to and no idea what my next job would be when I walked away, but I knew I would be all right. Transcribing city government meetings and occasionally working for a local estate sale company won’t help me upgrade my Toyota Corolla to a fancier ride, but I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing.
I realized that owning a home that comes with it – next project: trying to fix a leaky sunroom roof – is much better than living in an apartment where you sometimes can hear almost everything your neighbors are talking about and doing.
I realized after meeting Cindy that taking a chance with someone on a blind date doesn’t always have to end in disaster. I’m not the easiest person to live with, and maybe John Gray was on to something about women being from Venus. But I can’t imagine life without Cindy.
And I realized how happy I am to be Nolan’s father.
The thought of raising a special-needs child would have had me curled up in the fetal position underneath the covers for a week when I was a teenager. I was the guy who thought he had no business being a father. I always took a deep breath when someone encouraged me to hold a baby and counted the seconds until I could pass it back to its parents. I silently rooted for parents to smack their kids if they acted up in the grocery store. Hell, I did a shitty job helping mom take care of my disabled father. Why would I want to reproduce?
Every day has been an adventure at our house, especially since the covid chaos erupted in March and Nolan is finishing the school year with me handling the teaching duties. Tuesday alone brought urine and fecal accidents, yelling, tears, and son giving dad a hard forehead to the cheekbone. But I know today could bring a 14-year-old who is willing to sit at the kitchen table and do his schoolwork and giving me big smiles and hugs.
Maybe my life didn’t turn out exactly the way I thought it would, and I think that would have disappointed me at 17. But if I could, I would tell that kid that he would grow and mature, and he would be pretty happy with the person he eventually would become today.
That is, after I strongly suggested he start using sunscreen.