For years I have been obsessed with him. His youth. His 32-inch waist. The gorgeous lemon of a black pick-up truck he could not afford but bought anyway, the downpayment made by a credit card with an interest rate that nearly matched his age. His hairline. His twentysomethingness. The way the world was laid out in front of him (or at least appeared to be).
I close my eyes and see the distinct jawline. The easy tan that comes when you’re unmarried, you live in south Florida and your biggest concern on a given day is which beach your post-work (and pre-Happy Hour) run will be.
The image I have ingrained of the 26-year-old Will Graves is a photograph I never purchased (I was too cheap) during a 10K in Naples, Florida. I am in the best shape of my life, having used the no longer legal boost of ephedra to drop 30 pounds in six months. I’m wearing a long-sleeved white running shirt, black shorts, sunglasses and have somehow made running look easy.
It was a fleeting moment. A snapshot that seemed to perfectly encapsulate — well, until they invented social media (and blogs!) — my own insipid vapidity. And yet I still see him out there on the road, when I’m slogging through the miles that once came so easy. I’m angry with him for his aimlessness, his ego-centrism and his absolute inability to give a damn about anything not directly in front of his face.
Hello me, hold this while the 41-year-old version of yourself kicks your ass and escorts you out. It’s time for you to go.
For the better part of 15 years I have been chasing that image for reasons I can’t quite explain. My whole childhood I was fixated on being “cool” even though I never quite got there. Too short. Too skinny. Too nerdy. Too obnoxious. Too loud. Too insecure. Too …. something.
My friends put up with it. The people I tried so desperately to impress largely ignored it. Yet the drive to reach some far-off, totally subjective goal never wavered. It only gained momentum as I “grew up.” And it had its merits. I found out I was a pretty fun drunk. I found out I could occasionally get pretty girls to talk to me (no, really). I found I was pretty comfortable at a keyboard telling other people’s stories (and occasionally my own).
There were downsides too. I got busted for DUI when I was 27 (later dropped to reckless driving). I pretty much betrayed (repeatedly) any woman who trusted me. I did little to develop any sort of long-lasting friendships because hell, I was on the way up baby and you, well, you weren’t. I had only a vague awareness of self-respect, my moral compass’ default setting placed somewhere between “whatever is expedient” and “oblivious.”
God, what a flipping tool.
And yet, for too long I’ve let the pursuit of being that clueless kid define me. I’ve found myself apologizing to him for letting myself get out of shape in my mid-30s. For transforming 7-minute miles into 9-minute miles. For turning 155 pounds into 190. For trading the quest to Become The World’s Best Writer Of All Things At All Times Just Ask Me And I’ll Tell You for steady, productive and responsible work with the World’s Largest News Organization. For switching irresponsibility for responsibility.
Enough. E … flipping … nuff.
The truth is, my DadBod kind of rocks. It’s solid. It’s real and best of all easy to maintain. My job allows me to pick the most important thing going on in my section of the world on a given day and go write it the way I want (well, within reason). I have two unbelievably brilliant children, a 4-year-old daughter who squeezes me so sincerely every day it’s all I can do to keep from crying. I have a 6-year-old son who is already picking NCAA brackets with his dad and shouted “Yes!” when I told him me and mommy were going to coach his T-ball team.
Mostly though, I have Ellie. Amazingly. Confoundingly. Still. From the day she walked into the newsroom in 2001, the intern with the dimpled smile and a self-possession I still envy (she knows who she is, always has), she has always been the best thing about me, the best thing for me even though I have tried — with borderline catastrophic consequences — to convince myself otherwise.
We’ll be married 11 years this summer. I like to make public jokes every June on our anniversary “if you had X years in the pool, sorry, you lost” yet in the beginning if you’d asked me I’m not sure I would have pegged us to make it this long either.
Actually “us” isn’t fair. I mean “me.” I struggled to see a long-term future, because that’s not simply how I worked. I wrote in the column where I proposed that my biggest concern was hoping I could make next month’s car insurance payment while she worried about where we would be in 10 years. It came off as funny. It also happened to be true. Idiotic, but true.
I have tested her in ways that I would not wish on my worst enemy and yet she has stuck around, sometimes against her better judgment. Our marriage is not perfect, but it’s tough as hell. And as we begin our second decade together, it’s stronger than ever because of her patience, her loyalty and the way she keeps challenging me to be a better version of myself. I’m trying to be more mindful of doing the same for her.
Two years ago this week I began treatment for cancer. She sat there during the early days and did her work quietly (and off the clock) while I let the drugs drip into my arm. She spent most of that spring and summer as Mom and Dad while I laid on the couch popping meds and watching “Mad Men.” I’m healthy now. The cancer is under control. There’s no reason I can’t live indefinitely, though in some strange way it’s helped make me a better person, a little smoother around the edges, a little more sincere.
Actually, that wasn’t the cancer. That was Ellie. And she deserves the husband and father I am now, not the 26-year-old who thought he was Hot Bleep because he had a truck, a column and all of his hair.
So guess what kid? You’re gone. Take your tan, your flat stomach and your whatever is within arm’s reach worldview and get the hell out of here. Your time is up.
As the great American poet Jay-Z once said, “I got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain.”
She doesn’t want me to be cool. She doesn’t want me to be famous. She just wants me to be me (though she’s probably prefer a version hat doesn’t make old man sounds so much, but hey, compromise is part of marriage, right?)
So Guess what kid? I win. You don’t. Thank God.