The Best Days of My Life (So Far)

I recently turned 30. There’s no denying that it’s a milestone of sorts, and it’s prompted me to think back on some of the great life experiences that have brought me to this point.

So here is a list of some of the best days of my first thirty years, in no particular order:

  • The Day I met my Wife: Every romantic relationship is a kind of miracle. I sometimes think back on the years when I was single, and I remember thinking, “I’m never going to find someone,” and then one day, somehow, I did. I think about that sometimes – my wife and I have been married for three years, we’ve known each other for five years, and I still sometimes marvel at how unlikely it is that we ever managed to find each other. I’m very grateful to have her in my life.
  • Our Wedding Day: There’s a whole industry devoted to planning weddings, and you can read countless books and articles that tell marrying couples (mainly the brides) how to fret about the details, how to navigate the family conflicts and hurt feelings, etc., etc., but what no one ever tells you is how FUN the day will be. I really enjoyed our wedding day – that maybe sounds banal, but it’s true. I remember we got to a point all of sudden where all the stress and details and “is the caterer going to get here on time” and “is the cake going to be frosted correctly” all just dissolved away, and my bride and I were left to go through the journey of the event itself. It was truly an honor to look out at all the rows of friends and family who had traveled so far to be with us for the special day – that exact group of people will never again be together at the same place and time; it was a singular gathering of our closest loved ones.
  • The Day our Baby was Born: What a day. What a night. Our baby was born at 7:08 p.m., and I sent an e-mail to friends and family later that night saying, “My heart is full of gladness tonight – we are witnesses to the miracle of life, we are connected to all human kind.” All the old cliches applied in full force. We were connected that night to every other new parent who has ever held a new baby in their arms, across the globe, down through the centuries. It was a profound and moving experience.
  • Our Baby’s First Birthday: When our baby turned 1, it was a cause for a big celebration. I was so grateful that we’d managed to make it through a full year – changing diapers, wiping up spit-up, living on one income. So many things that I had worried about had turned out to be better and easier than I had expected. It was a beautiful spring day, we grilled chicken breasts and had chicken tacos and homemade cupcakes and limeade, and all three of our baby’s grandparents, two great-grandmothers, and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins were with us to celebrate at our house. It was just a perfect day, and I was so grateful for all of it.
  • My First Day in Paris: I visited Paris for the first time with my friend Fabrice – we took the train from Cologne to Paris, passing through Brussels. All of the standard compliments about Paris fit – it’s the City of Light, it’s the city of romance, the whole city makes you feel like you’re living in an Impressionist painting. I’ve been back two times – once by myself (again to visit Fabrice) and once with my wife (before we were married). I don’t speak French and I may never manage to learn, but I hope to make a few more visits to Paris during my life.
  • My first night in Japan: It’s been almost eight years since I arrived in Japan for a year on the JET Program. I still remember that first night so vividly – the neon lights of Shinjuku were bright as day; I could see my shadow on the pavement. The crowds were so vast; an ocean of humanity. Tokyo is the most populous city on Earth; I remember feeling that just by being there, I had drawn closer to the very pulse of the world. I was out of my mind with jet lag and could barely speak a word of Japanese, but  my life had never felt so completely my own – I was on a grand adventure in an undiscovered country.
  • My last day of high school: I still remember how good it felt to finish high school – not the graduation day itself, which was anti-climactic, but the last day of school; the last day of waiting for a bell to ring to grant permission to move to the next class, the last day of school lunch, the last day of risking detention for being late to an 8:05 class (I was often late – I’ve never been a morning person and I served several detentions, even as a senior honors student). Finishing high school felt like being paroled from prison – it was a day that I had hoped for and anticipated for so long, and finally it had arrived. It was the end of the petty tyranny of teachers and administrators, the end of the various indignities of being a high school student, the end of having to ask permission to use the restroom, the end of an age when you were always under someone’s supervision and control. Just being able to drive myself to Burger King felt like the pinnacle of freedom. My classmates and I were jubilant as we walked out of school that day – there were back slaps, fist pumps and chest bumps; my friend Trent was chomping on a cigar that he had managed to smuggle into school for the occasion. The last day of high school was definitely the greatest day of my life that I had experienced to that point so far. Of course, thinking back on it now, 12 years later, high school takes on more of a sheen of innocence; there are many worse things than to be a high school student in a house full of brothers and sisters, with good friends, with parents who love you.
  • College graduation: I always tell people, “I’m really glad I went to Rice, and I was really glad when it was over.” College graduation was a bittersweet but happy day for me; for most of my life growing up, I had really looked forward to college and now that it was ending I wasn’t sure what was going to come next. I knew that I was going to miss my college friends (and I did – for years) and thought that I would miss certain aspects of the college lifestyle, but my overwhelming feeling was that I was glad to be done and ready to move on to some other way of living. I have yet to experience anything in my working career that has been as challenging (some might say “punishing”) as what I went through as an undergraduate at Rice University. (Maybe I haven’t been working hard enough in my career.) Rice University was a crucible. It truly forced me to focus on the academic subjects that I did best in and cared about the most; despite years of accolades in high school, and a respectable two years at Iowa State, it turns out that I really wasn’t that great of a student at Rice. I didn’t graduate with honors or anything; I was just glad to have gotten my 120 credit hours and finished my single major in History (it seemed like everyone at Rice had at least two majors, usually in wildly different subjects – Biology and Sociology, for example). If our son wants to go to Rice someday, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it – not that we’ll be able to afford it anyway. (By the time our son is ready to go to college, private university tuition will probably cost $500,000 per year – and entry-level jobs will probably still pay about what they do today. But that’s a subject for another day.)
  • Random Others: Some of the best days of my life haven’t been the big milestones, they’ve been the quiet little days along the way, the ones you might not even notice at the time. I remember thinking on the 4th of July this year, sitting on my parents’ deck, eating some fantastic homemade potato salad, “is this going to turn out to be one of the best days of my life?” Driving home on dark Iowa highways, watching the fireflies flashing by at 60 miles an hour, playing guitar with my brothers on Christmas Eve, walking in the park with my wife, holding my hands out to catch the outstretched arms of our toddling baby boy – this is what the best days are made of. I’ve had a beautiful life – and there is still much to look forward to.

Life Changes

I’ve recently made a few changes in my life that have greatly improved my outlook on the world. They include:

  • Started waking up 45 minutes earlier. I’ve never been much of an early bird, but lately I’ve somehow managed to start my day at 7:15 a.m. (or even earlier!) I think the baby is mainly to thank/blame for this change – his sleep schedule pretty much dictates ours. Being up earlier allows me to change the baby’s first diaper of the day, take a more leisurely shower, and eat pancakes at the dining room table instead of scarfing a granola bar at my desk. I hope I can stick with this – I’d like to be more of an early riser.
  • Weekly meal planning. My wife and I have started sitting down on Sunday afternoons with a few cookbooks, and actually planning a whole week’s worth of meals. It saves time and money at the grocery store, and cuts down on those occasions when it’s 6:45 at night, there’s no food in the house, we’re hungry and distracted, and so we finally give in and call for takeout. We’re trying to run our household more like a summer camp – set a schedule, everyone knows what’s for dinner, and there are lots of amusing/annoying songs. (OK, I’m kidding about the songs.)
  • Going jogging every other day. My wife and I recently started a beginner’s running program. We started running 2 minutes at a time (with 4 minutes of rest) and now we’re running 3 minutes and then resting for 3, for a total of five cycles (30 minutes) at a time. Thanks to our awesome jogging stroller, the baby gets to join us. He seems to enjoy riding in his jogging stroller – he usually just sits there and plays with his favorite wooden spoon from the kitchen.
  • Coming home for lunch. I refuse to eat lunch in my cubicle anymore. Instead I drive home. It’s a bit impractical, but it’s forcing me to get outside during the day and get away from my work. If you can manage to do it, I highly recommend it.

That’s all for now. As soon as I discover some other positive life changes, I’ll let you know.

The Don Grant Teaching Award

It’s taken me a little while to get around to writing about this, but here it goes.

On May 1, I attended an awards ceremony at Iowa State University. The ISU Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering was introducing a new teaching award named in honor of my late grandfather, Don Grant (1919-2001), who taught industrial engineering at Iowa State from 1968-1988. (Twenty years after he retired, he is still fondly remembered at Iowa State.)

Don Grant

It was a big family gathering. My grandma was there, and a bunch of my aunts and uncles, plus a few of the other grandkids and cousins. It was a really nice occasion and I was glad to have been able to attend.

While the presenter talked about my grandpa and what he had done during his career, and how much he had meant to everyone, I couldn’t help it. I cried. I cried the whole time. I just sat there in my seat at the head table and quietly sobbed. (It hurts to cry like that, you know?)

I suppose there are a lot of reasons why it was such an emotional day for me.

For one thing, I really loved my grandpa a lot, and I wasn’t able to be there for his funeral. He died a few weeks after 9/11, while I was living in Japan, and I couldn’t bring myself to make the trip. At the time, we all thought that the world as we knew it was coming to an end. (Funny isn’t it, how many of those “the world is coming to an end” moments we’ve had in the past eight years?) So I suppose in a way I cried because I wasn’t able to be there when we buried him.

My grandpa was one of my closest friends in a way, at a time in my life (elementary school, junior high, high school – basically my entire childhood) when I often felt awkward and isolated. Some of my favorite times in high school were spent with him and my grandma; I didn’t go to my high school prom – instead, I spent my senior prom night visiting my grandparents. I used to play golf with  my grandpa during the summers – I would drive up to their house the night before and wake up at 6 a.m. (My grandpa liked to get in nine holes before it got too hot – we’d play nine holes and then go to breakfast at the Country House, a great family restaurant in Colo, Iowa.) I’ve never been an early riser but I always found a way to summon the energy to wake up in time for golf with my grandpa. I can’t remember the last time I played golf with him – I’m sure there must have been a “last time.” I suppose it’s good that I didn’t have that awareness as it was happening – that knowledge that this would truly be the “last time.” It would have been too painful.

I still miss my grandpa and I think about him a lot, especially now that I’m a father myself. I think of how much he would have enjoyed meeting my own baby son. I think of funny things that my grandpa would say around the dinner table, if he were still alive. (If he were still alive, he’d be 90 years old right now, and I’m sure he’d still be funny.) He was a witty, irreverent guy and had impeccable comic timing. It’s hard to recreate his sense of humor in writing – I suppose like so many things, you had to be there. (Whenever we went out for Chinese food, at the end of the meal he would crack open his fortune cookie and solemnly read aloud: “You are one heck of a guy.”)

I thought a lot about how my grandpa exemplified so many of the best aspects of his generation. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He grew up on an Iowa farm as one of two brothers, worked his way through college, stayed married to the same wife for over fifty years, raised six kids. He and my grandmother (who were white) used to attract gossip in 1950s Dallas because they would invite their black housekeeper and her husband to join them for drinks on Friday nights. (It was a very different time in America, but my grandparents did not remotely share the casually racist attitudes of so many of their contemporaries.) There is an engineering scholarship in my grandfather’s name at Iowa State that is designated to be given with first preference to an African American student.

I also cried, I suppose, because I’ve been feeling lately that I’m at a life crossroads. I’m almost 30 years old and I’m re-evaluating some things in my life, and I could still benefit from my grandpa’s wisdom and good humor. There’s been a fair amount of negativity in my life lately, and it was an emotional experience that day to so powerfully feel the memory of someone who did so many positive things for so many people. Speaker after speaker kept coming forward with stories about how my grandpa kept a violin in his desk to mockingly play when a student would start complaining about her classes, or how he drank Cutty Sark whiskey, or how he showed up on campus in 1968 wearing his distinctive Army-style flat-top (this at a time when most young men on campus had long hair), and people called him “the Drill Sergeant.” (My grandpa firmly believed that men should have short hair – and he wore that military flat-top for the rest of his life.)

I also thought about what my grandpa’s career represented to me, personally, and how different my own career has been. After he got out of the Army, he worked at Collins Radio (the company now known as Rockwell Collins) for 20 years, then went back to Iowa State to teach, and he stayed there for another 20 years. I’m sure those years had a lot of ups and downs, but in general he enjoyed his work and showed a lot of loyalty to his employers.

In contrast, my own career so far looks like a series of fits and starts. I graduated from college in 2001. I taught English in Japan from 2001-2002, then worked for the Governor of Iowa from 2002-2004, then at an ad agency from 2004-2006, and now I’ve been at my current job for the past three years. In only eight years, I’ve had four different jobs. What does that say about me, and what does that say about how we live now?

Of course, there are a lot of good reasons why people don’t stick with the same job or the same company for long anymore, and it’s good to be flexible, and there are a lot of good things about having a more mobile and dynamic job market. But haven’t we lost something as well? Haven’t we lost a sense of rootedness, a sense of trust, a sense of expecting the best from our institutions and ourselves? We’re all free agents now. We’re all becoming increasingly atomized. People have lost a lot of faith in our institutions – higher education, government, business, the media – they’ve all been compromised in various ways. I admire what my grandfather was able to do with his life, but I don’t think the same kind of life is possible for me, and there’s something very poignant about that. I think about the choices my grandpa was able to make when compared to the choices I’ve made; how do my choices measure up? What will I have done that will make people tell stories about me years after I’m gone?

I don’t have any good digital photos of my grandpa, but there’s one of him on the Iowa State Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering department Web site, teaching a class. You can tell it’s him by the flat-top.

Don Grant, 1919-2001. You were one heck of a guy.