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Happy Birthday to Me

Today, I turn thirty. The big 3-0. It sounds so weird to say. I’ve been identifying as a twenty something for nearly 15 years now. What’s next?

A lot, hopefully. In retrospect, I’ve had a chance to experience some wonderful things in the past 30 years. Also some less wonderful things. At various times I’ve been called son, grandson, great grandson, student, honors student, scholarship recipient, graduate, depressed, patient, terrified, refugee, carpetbagger, musician, freak, athlete, friend, lover, boyfriend, exboyfriend, fiancé, groom, husband, homeowner, champion, marketer, writer, curator, account executive, vice president, award winner, unemployed, founder, confused, overjoyed, excited, exhausted, overworked, underpaid, unfeeling, autistic, gracious, downtrodden, reverent, TJ, Thomas, Tommy Jay and now Tom.

I guess it’s true that we are all actors on a stage, in our time playing many parts.

In the style of legendary hockey writer Elliotte Friedman, here are some reflections on 30 years, with a look to the next thirty.

  1. What a time to be alive. Seriously, the world has changed so much since I was born. Don’t believe me? Just look at the advance of technology. Did anyone in 1985 (besides maybe Steve Jobs) honestly think there would ever be driverless cars? Or buttonless pocket supercomputers? Or internet fueled commerce with packages delivered by autonomous drones? Even George Jetson had to drive his own hovermobile to push buttons at his giant computer wall, dropping off the wife at the Space Mall along the way.
  2. If you want to get a true sense for any era, look at the cartoons of the time. They reflect the hopes, dreams and values of a collective society. It’s why Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are essentially wearing whiteface. It’s why The Smurfs and Transformers were built to sell toys. Ever think about what ours say about us?
  3. Can we set a better cut on who is a “Millennial” please? There’s no way I share a similar worldview as someone who’s currently 18. Let’s all agree that anyone who was too young to remember 9/11, the defining moment for a generation, is not in this generation.
  4. I’m totally going to be one of those seniors who’s always starting sentences with “In my day, we used to have to…” I can hear it already. Pieces like this won’t help stave that transition off, either.
  5. I may very well look back one day and with my own “Forrest Gump” story to tell. Having experienced two of this century’s most notable moments (9/11, Katrina) first hand, and being extremely impacted by a third (financial crisis), sometimes I wish history would pick on someone else.
  6. I’ll never forget being in school on 9/11. Faculty wouldn’t tell us anything, even though one of my teachers had recently left his job at the World Trade Center observation deck and knew many who died that day. I eventually found out on the computer in the library. The Southern State Parkway was closed to all except emergency traffic, so our bus drive on the Ocean Parkway to get home, where you could see that column of smoke rising from the horizon clear as day. As soon as I got home I called my parents at work to see if they were safe. Thankfully, they were.
  7. Even more thankfully, my parents are still a part of my life. Not everyone can be so lucky when they get to 30.
  8. I miss you, Kathy Ronan. I’m sure your actual family does, too. You always made me feel like I was a part of your family as you babysat me for nearly half my life to this point though. Thank you for everything. I’ll never forget you.
  9. If I had some advice for a 15-year-old me, it would be to stay the course, stop worrying about everyone else and focus on what makes you who you are. There’s a reason everything seems so weird right now. It will become clear to you later. Once it does, the world will unlock and things will get better. You just have to get through this part right now and move on to the next. Trust me, it will be worth it.
  10. A few notes on Katrina: I was fortunate enough to have evacuated during the actual storm. Four months after the storm had passed, my Dad and I are drove in on I-10 from the west watching New Orleans grow bigger as the setting sun shimmered off of countess blue tarped roofs. When we got off the highway at Carrolton Avenue, it was chaos. None of the traffic lights worked. Every store in that area was boarded up. The roads were somehow worse than they ever had been. I turned to my Dad and said “I can’t do this. It’s like a war zone.” I was right, but the war was internal.
  11. The battle waged on for 5 years as I contributed to one of the largest reclamation projects in American history, never really sure whether or not New Orleans would ever be a real city again. When the Saints took the field for their 2005 “home opener” at Giants Stadium, I cried. At the time, no one was currently inhabiting New Orleans (The city was still under a mandatory evacuation as it sat under feet of water). Here they were, though, the team representing our nowhere place, as if it were a post-apocalyptic landscape with this one artifact of a better time, suiting up and taking the field for all of us, uniting Katrina refugees from around the country. They lost that game miserably. There would be bigger wins ahead.
  12. My neighborhood did take on about a foot and a half of water. I know this because of the line of muck residue left on the washing machine in the garage. The one on the dryer was diagonal because it was floating. I never washed it off as long as I lived there so it could be a constant reminder of what had happened, and a benchmark of how far we had come.
  13. Looking back now, I may not have been in the “Katrina Class,” nor was I in the first class after the storm, still I look at my Tulane degree from that perilous time as a badge of honor.
  14. I didn’t end up leaving New Orleans until 2010, three full years after earning my degree. In that time, I was able to experience the highest highs (the first girlfriend, winning the Super Bowl, graduating college) and the lowest lows (Katrina, long-term unemployment, urban scavenging). Not a bad way to spend your 20s, for better or worse. I’m proud to have called New Orleans home.
  15. It’s amazing how little moments stick with you for a lifetime. There are the things no one remembers except you. They were passing interactions to others yet impacted you in some substantial way. Being intimidated by a well-meaning checkout lady. Drinking alone in a crowded bar. Realizing that the person you’re dating isn’t the one. These moments add up to a cumulative psyche, which defines who you are, how you see the world and how you act in it.
  16. There’s no need for me to be embarrassed about anything I’ve done in the past. Not the Rollerblading Guitarist. Not my Tampa Bay Rays fandom. Not the girls I’ve dated. None of it. I did everything for a reason. It might not have been a good reason. It still made sense at the time. So I embrace the sum total of my experience. It’s all gone in to making me who I am today, and will be tomorrow.
  17. Anytime you use the word “but” as a conjunction in a sentence, it completely negates everything said in the clause preceding it. Think about what you actually mean the next time you use any of these phrases:
    • “I know, but…”
    • “Yes, but…”
    • “You’re right, but…”
    • “I love you, but…”
  18. Why don’t more Millennials get married? It’s the Paradox of Choice. This is a generation that has been told from an early age that the possibilities are endless. You can be and do and have anything you want. Aspiring for anything less than the best is failure. When something is just short of perfect, there’s always another option. I can assure you my marriage isn’t always as perfect as it looks online. It’s still the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
  19. In my experience social media is at best a show of the positive aspects of any given person’s life and at worst the destruction of the human experience and construction of an alternate reality. By allowing an individual to curate the form they present to the world, we remove ourselves from the faults of humanity and get one step closer to a robotic future.
  20. Social media lets us downplay the mistakes, amplify what makes us different and present what we want to highlight as the “best form” of ourselves. In reality, we’re so much more than that. Yet none of our followers, connections or “friends” ever sees that side. This leads to an inflation of a false sense of self, which has implications on people on the other side of the screen who feel they don’t measure up. Our fake selves have real implications.
  21. Autism in severe cases is a horrible thing that ruins lives. Mild autism, though, can be a very adaptive trait that helps people cope with living in a less personal world. At least, I’d like to think it’s beneficial for a data-driven digital marketer. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing a rise in it in our culture.
  22. There are exactly two kinds of people in the world: parents and children. The designations are mutually exclusive. Once you become responsible for another human life, you cease being a child and are forever a parent. One is not better than the other. They’re just different.
  23. Already being a husband and homeowner, that transition seems to be the next thing on my list. And it’s terrifying to me.
  24. I have no idea what kind of father I’m going to be, and I think that’s the idea. It’s easy to make predictions and say what you want to do, to have a strategy and approach you want to take. Once you really get to it though, strategy goes out the window. You don’t know how you’re going to react in that situation until you’re in it.
  25. Callous segue to marketing, where it works the same way. A strategy is good to have. Forecasting is essential to success. Still, once you get out there and start executing, what happens will almost never match what you planned. How you react makes all the difference between success and failure.
  26. Everyone stop hating on advertising. Companies who advertise pay millions of dollars to subsidize websites, programs, magazines, movies and more. Without advertising, everything would cost a lot more money. Do you want to live in that world? I don’t.
  27. And for any business that are afraid of advertising, just know that it really works when you do it right. No company has ever gone out of business because it advertised too well. All the campaign did was expose a weak business strategy. That’s not on the campaign; that’s on your company.
  28. No one should “do what you love.” That devalues work. After all, if you love what you do, why do you need to get paid for it? You should do what you’re interested in. You should definitely do what you’re good at. And you should always take pride in your work. The world will recognize your talent and respect you for it. Plus, you’ll get paid better. Don’t work for love. Work is for money.
  29. Last generational comment: My parents and my wife’s parents all work for wages. They’ve lived comfortably and were able to raise us with a modicum of stability. That type of career stability no longer exists. That’s why I saw fit to start Digital Pudding, not solely for my own integrity, also because the path to success as a wage earner has been blocked off. I’m doing what I need to do to be successful now. It’s far less stable, and it can be terrifying owning and running your own business, yet it’s the way the rules of the game have changed. Adapt or die.
  30. Sometimes, things just don’t make sense. Part of being human is figuring as much about life out as you can, always learning more and solving problems as they come up. The day you stop learning is the day you start dying. With that said, no one ever has anything really figured out, including myself. Once you understand that no one really knows what they’re doing, the world isn’t so scary.

TL;DR Version

Life hasn’t always made sense. It’s the sense you’re able to make from the chaos that matters. Thank you.

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