Mom | December 2, 1946 – June 29, 2020

My mother, Lynne Carol Kosterman (neé Johnson) passed away at the end of last June, in South Carolina. She and my father had moved there less than a year earlier into the first newly constructed house they inhabited in their 50+ years of marriage.

Yesterday we finally held a Celebration of Life for her in Madison, Wisconsin. We had to wait for my sister and her kids to be able to travel here from the UK.

My mother and I had a severely strained relationship for the last 20+ years. Something happened to her right around the time my first daughter was born and, despite many attempts at reconciliation, our relationship was never the same.

I’m sharing this eulogy because many people seemed to find it powerful and I think the practice I describe below could benefit from wider distribution and use. Let me rephrase that – PEOPLE could benefit from employing the practice.

Mom circa 1997. Shot on TMAX 400 (that’s film for you youngsters) with a Nikon N90 and a Nikkor 105mm f/2.5.

The Speech

Thank you all for coming. It is great to see so many familiar faces. 

You’d think COVID would have given me plenty of time to put this little piece together. Alas, old habits die hard. So, after procrastinating for months, I finally composed the basic outline of this speech sitting on the trunk of 200 year old fallen Douglas fir tree atop a large hill in Eugene, Oregon. It was a picture perfect 70º Saturday morning in July with crisp cyan skies. Dappled sunlight danced around me, filtered through the boughs of towering firs. Butterflies flitted in and out of the columns of light. Suddenly, a red wing blackbird shot by my right shoulder as it darted through the outstretched, entangled branches, always moving toward the light. “There she goes,” I thought.

Mom was barely 22 when she gave birth to me. I can hardly fathom being responsible for another human at that age, as I was having a hard enough time being responsible for myself at age 30, much less 22. For the first 20 years of my life, we had a typical mother / son relationship. Basically, I thought she was a pain in the ass. The next ten years were better. We had conversations. I was able to confide in her. It was she who convinced me to propose to Amy. While our marriage did not survive, it brought two amazing souls into the world for which I am forever grateful. Then, something happened to her a little over 20 years ago. To this day, I don’t really know what it was. Our relationship has been strained since then, vacillating numerous times between estrangement and reconciliation. She struggled mightily with myriad addictions over the years. And then she fell ill and passed away. While I might blame COVID for not allowing me to be with her at the end, that would be disingenuous at best. The truth is we were not on speaking terms at the time. I regret this.

Her five beloved grandchildren earlier this morning.

A couple years ago, one of Abby’s Countryside High School friends, Jessica Flanigan, was assisting me with some of my own health problems. She told me about a powerful practice called Ho’oponopono. It came back to me two weeks ago in Oregon and thought it eminently appropriate for this occasion. So what is it?

Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.

“Hoʻoponopono” is defined in the Hawaiian Dictionary as:

(a) “To put to rights; to put in order or shape, correct, revise, adjust, amend, regulate, arrange, rectify, tidy up make orderly or neat, administer, superintend, supervise, manage, edit, work carefully or neatly; to make ready, as canoemen preparing to catch a wave.”

(b) “Mental cleansing: family conferences in which relationships were set right through prayer, discussion, confession, repentance, and mutual restitution and forgiveness.”

In the late 80’s, a Hawaiian therapist named Dr. Ihaleakala (ee ha lay a kala) Hew Len cured an entire ward of criminally insane patients without ever meeting any of them or spending a moment in the same room with them. How did he do this? He healed them by healing himself using this ancient practice. How in the world can you heal yourself and have it heal others? Why would it affect anything “out there”? The secret is there is no such thing as “out there” – everything happens to you in your mind. Everything you see, everything you hear, every person you meet, you experience in your mind. So how exactly does it work? It works by reciting four short phrases which call four powerful forces – Repentance, Forgiveness, Gratitude and Love.

Here are the phrases to be recited:

I love you

I’m sorry

Please forgive me

Thank you

While the practice only specifies the need to simply recite these phrases, while I was sitting on that gently decaying trunk of a Douglas fir, it occurred to me that it might be useful to expound on each of these a bit, to clarify my actual intent behind each of them. And so, in honor of my mother’s memory –

I love you 

You are my mother. How can it possibly be otherwise?

I’m sorry

I’m sorry I did not get to a place of forgiveness and acceptance while you were still alive. 

I’m sorry I could not find a way to bridge the gulf that opened between us. 

I’m sorry for not accepting you for who you were.

Please forgive me

For the angry phone calls. 

For ignoring you when you needed help. 

For not being able to get to a place where I could hold space for you while you were here.

Thank you

For always being willing to step in and help, especially when it came to fixing up a house.

For love. There’s nothing like a mother’s love. I may not have been open to receiving it. It may not have come to me the way I wanted it to, yet it was there. 

For my creativity. 

For giving me what I needed, even if it might not have been what I wanted.

For doing the best you were able to do.

And now, in honor of Mom, I’d like ask you to join me in repeating Ho’oponopono phrases after me three times. 

I love you.
I’m sorry.
Please forgive me.
Thank you.

I love you.
I’m sorry.
Please forgive me.
Thank you.

I love you.
I’m sorry.
Please forgive me.
Thank you.

Rest In Peace, Mom.

Lost and Searching

And those of you who went to UW-Madison thought it was one of the colleges. It’s 2010, I’m in a pretty good depression. My photo lab business is going south fast, I’m living in a two bedroom house with a leaky porch that has likely been classified a “fixer upper since at least the mid-90s. There was definitely relief at being out of the marriage (which was also a fixer upper since at least the late-90s). The experiential therapy work I did at the Meadows was quite transformative, however the effects were wearing off. That said, I was able to go completely off my antidepressants at some point around 2010 / 2011. Given all the hell that was breaking loose in my life, this was a huge milestone as I had been on them for more than ten years. I am grateful for the Zoloft, yet in hindsight wish I had known about other, more effective therapies. Hindsight is 20/20. After a point, their biggest “contribution” to my life was really just a flattening out of the peaks and valleys. I wasn’t in that really dark place any more, however, I was really experiencing much in the way of joy either.

A quintessentially French neighbor of my sister’s | Fleurines, France | June 2010

By Thanksgiving week of 2010, the divorce was final and for a grand total in lawyers’ fees of around $10k between us. See what can happen when you don’t fight (and you don’t have any money to fight over)? At some point in 2011, I transitioned my clients to another photo lab in the western suburbs and negotiated a two year deal to pay out a portion of gross revenues. It wasn’t a ton, yet it kept the lights on and the rent (mostly) paid. My good friends, Steve and Lisa, invited me to share their studio / office space that was literally 100 yards from my back door and so I set up shop there and set about trying to figure out how to put my life back together. As if it ever was. 

I believe the foreclosure proceedings began sometime in 2010 or 2011 and I filed for bankruptcy in late 2011 (you read all about that fun in my inaugural blog post). I was booking some children’s lifestyle photo sessions under my “Inspired Impressions” brand, even flying to France to visit my sister and attempt to do some of this work at the same time. Because, let’s expand internationally when you’re barely making ends meet in your own back yard, right? Oy. I did create some beautiful images of some beautiful people over there. As I look back at my work, I do marvel at a lot of what I was able to capture. I was definitely working through my inner child conflicts as my work had a flow and a lightness that I find difficult to generate after pushing into the world of corporate photography. It’s as if I was giving myself permission to at least bear witness to the carefree nature of children at play and attempting to capture some of it in pictures. Perhaps this was to make up for what I felt was my own lost childhood. I did have some fun, yet between all the moves and the pressure of living with two self-medicating and one volatile parent, there was definitely an overall seriousness and vigilance that was required for survival.

Around the beginning of 2011, I began to dip my toe in the waters of dating. In hindsight, I really wish I had kept a journal or started the blog back then. I mean, holy shit, what bunch of craziness! Now, if it isn’t clear from what parts of my blog you’ve read so far, when I set my mind to something, I generally go after it hard. And dating was no exception. The first date I had was with a woman I met in the checkout line at the supermarket. Because, of course it was. We made a plan for me to come over and grill some steaks. As it turned out, she was really looking for somebody to help her fix stuff – computer stuff, mostly. Her “love language” was acts of service and I noped right the fuck out of that. After playing tech support specialist for the better part of the last 15 years, I’d had my fill. From that inauspicious beginning, I cast my net into the World Wide Web and online dating. By my count (I did keep a list of names strictly for posterity sake), I went on more than 20 dates in 2011 and at least another 20 in 2012. Some weekends I had two dinners and a coffee scheduled. I was on a mission, dammit, and it was exhausting!

My younger brother, Brady, shortly after he moved back from Martha’s Vineyard | Chez Baldy | November 2011

In late 2011, my younger sister encouraged my younger brother, who had been sober for five or six years and living on Martha’s Vineyard, to move. He was in a funk due in large part to the vicious cycle of living and working in a resort community. It was off-the-wall crazy in the summer, yet he did not partake and then come the off-season, things were slow, dark and dreary for months on end. He and I had effectively been estranged for many years, due in large part to his drinking and my completely and utter inability to even recognize it as the problem it was, much less deal with it. Based on my work at the Meadows, I reached out to him and suggested he could stay with me while he got his feet on the ground. Believe me, I was as shocked as anybody at my magnanimity. It was difficult going, as we were brothers, yet we were basically starting our relationship from scratch. I was thinking he might be with me for a month or two. Three years later he found a place of his own. We definitely still have our ups and downs in our relationship, yet this was a time of healing we both needed. It was also nice for he and my daughters to form a relationship. The fact that he is an incredibly talented professional chef was icing on the proverbial cake, as he whipped up gourmet meals on a regular basis and I made a point to get some pointers from him. I’m proud to say, I can chiffonade some basil like nobody’s business, thanks to him. So I got that going for me….

The person who encouraged me to dip my toe in the headshot waters! | Oak Park, Illinois | September 2010

I met my dear friend Steve when he became a client of the photo lab in the early 2000’s. He and Lisa’s photo studio was right behind Chez Baldy. He was in his 30th year as team photographer for the Chicago Cubs. Based on my work photographing kids and my dedication to improving my craft, he began entrusting me to cover jobs that he could not, due to his schedule. He was kind enough to send me to photograph events for the likes of Nike, MLB, Lululemon and others. This was instrumental in establishing my reputation as a professional photographer. (Turns out there’s a reason everybody wants to shoot for these big brands for very little pay!) Another dear friend with a career in big brand marketing, Lori, was the first to suggest to me that there might be a market in creating professional headshots for people for use on social media and that I would be good at it. Thank you, Lori and Steve.

Nike Fuel Band launch event | A New Leaf, Chicago, Illinois | February 2012

While I was very fortunate to have something of a mentor in Steve and many supportive people around me, I could barely muster the energy to work and I found all kinds of ways to sabotage any progress I might stumble into. There was a consistent drumbeat of negativity pounding away in my head, constantly reminding me of my “failures” and how I wasn’t good enough (for what exactly, I’m not sure). It’s a good thing the “Screen Time” app didn’t exist back then. I’m sure I used a measurable fraction of Reddit’s bandwidth back in the day. Talk about doom scrolling….

Separation Anxiety

Wherein we read about the fate of the best laid plans of a man

Alright, let’s get back to it, shall we? I’ve been suffering from a bit of writer’s block. When I last left you, it was September 2009. I had moved out of my house, separating from my wife of fourteen years. It was done without any planning at all and yet it was the right thing. Sometimes it takes the passage of time to see things this clearly, however. I slept on the floor of my photo lab in Forest Park for a few nights and began searching for an apartment. This was a trick because my cash flow was abysmal by this point. I had lost most interest in working, the lab was barely bumping along and I was getting hammered by the weight of the accumulated refinancing of my mortgage and a business credit line that was extended to at least $100k. Might have been $200k. Doesn’t really matter, as I couldn’t have paid it back if it was $2,000.

Chez Baldy in all it’s autumn splendor | Oak Park, Illinois | November 2011

A day or so after I moved out, we sat down and told the girls what was up. This was not at all a fun conversation. Nobody wants to hurt their children, and the loss of a nuclear family is a big blow. Our oldest, who was in fourth grade, understood immediately, while it took the youngest a minute. I’m not sure she fully got what was happening, but when everybody around you whom you love is crying, you generally cry too.

Despite the pain and chaos, I knew that separating was the right thing to do. I did not want my daughters growing up thinking what we had was a “proper” loving relationship. Because it wasn’t. And you can slice and dice that six ways from Sunday, looking for cause or a way to heal it, and the fact remains, we threw everything we had at trying to make it work. We did the best we could with what we had. It is even more clear, 11 years later, that it was the right decision. Sometimes two people come together for reasons other than to spend the rest of their life on this plane together. I will always be grateful that was the case with Amy & I. We created two amazing humans who were meant to come through us.

I managed to find a “charming” two bedroom over in Oak Park for $900 a month. It was on a very beautiful street. In fact, last fall they shot scenes for the series Fargo on the street. I’m pretty sure they did some serious CGI if they included “Chez Baldy”, as it was dubbed, in the final edit. It was a very tired Italianate two flat owned by a woman who was also feeling the pinch of the 2008 crash and was embroiled in foreclosure proceedings. It was pretty disgustingly dirty when I moved in. I’m very grateful to our longtime cleaning lady, Viola, for spending several to help me make it habitable. 

I won’t lie. Things were pretty uncomfortable at first with the kids. We encouraged them to feel whatever feelings were coming up and I did my best to talk to them about what was happening. Truth is, I wasn’t even sure. There’s no manual for this stuff. Amy read a bunch of books about babies during her pregnancy. Whenever something was wrong with our oldest, I ask her, “What does the book say?” She’d reply, “We don’t have a BOOK BABY.” I should have seen the foreshadowing here.

Art therapy I | Oak Park, Illinois | January 2009

Now that I was separated, I was free to go and visit my internet flame. A trip was planned. She was going to be at a conference in a city a few hours from her home. I flew down to accompany her at the conference. I was over the moon. This was going to be IT. Finally, I was going to be with the woman of my dreams and all was going to be right with the world! Soulmates, reunited. When I landed and she met me at the airport, I embraced her and kissed her and she sort of recoiled at the PDA. Hmmmmm. Strange, I thought. As we drove through her town (a small-ish one) she seemed unusually nervous and maybe even made me duck down at one point. Weird.

I was staying at a cottage owned by a friend of hers. We had a passionate romp and she left to go home as she still had two or three teenagers living there. The next morning, she called and said sternly, “We need to talk. I can’t do this. It’s not working for me.” I didn’t really understand yet I understood there was no sense in arguing with her. So, less than 24 hours later, it was back to the airport I went and flew home to wallow in the feeling of being very, very alone. Perhaps this was my rock bottom? My family was blown apart and even though I was as clear with myself (and her) as I could have been that I wasn’t leaving my wife for this woman, the fact that I had actually left my wife and now this woman had kicked me to the curb, was almost more than I could bear. In spite of the transformational work I had done at the Meadows, I was really, really depressed. I considered taking my own life.

Perhaps I can woo her back with my prolific prose, I thought. And thus began a cycle of desperate emails and texts. Pages and pages about how she was the one for me, it was meant to be, we were SOULMATES for God’s sake! I shudder to think of the time, energy and emotion that went into this. I was pretty pathetic, bordering on stalker-ish, in retrospect.

Around Thanksgiving, I stopped by the house of my friend Lisa’s mom’s, Anne. Anne is a great listener and very wise. I was lamenting the poor state of my life and said something about being so lonely. “Oh, woe is me!” I cried. And Anne said something which planted the seed that over time was fundamental to getting me where I am today. She said, “You aren’t lonely for that woman. You are lonely for yourself.” After what was a lot of initial resistance, I eventually came around to realize — at some level — she was absolutely right. I had no idea how to go about remedying this situation, but I determined I needed to do so. She recommended I see a woman named Maxine. 

Art therapy II | Oak Park, Illinois | January 2009

I like to describe Maxine as a combination therapist, coach and psychic who channels the spiritual entity St. Germain. She came into town from Georgia to visit her elderly mother every month or two and held private coaching sessions at a hotel in the western suburbs. It was refreshing to work with somebody outside the typical therapist model, which had been my only experience for the past 10+. Having somebody council me and suggest things to do instead of just reflecting my words back at me for 50 minutes was a whole new ball game. She said my adrenals were burned out and recommended acupuncture. I did several sessions and it was quite relaxing and gave me a little bit of energy.

The biggest problem was I had absolutely, positively no idea of what I wanted to do with my life and I was 100% tired of working, period. I had spent 25+ years trying to make ALL the money. I made a lot. I lost even more. I wasn’t particularly happy when I was making it and was less happy without it. At some point, a switch had flipped. Finally, I knew that just making money wasn’t the answer. Just having all the nice things wasn’t bringing me any closer to enlightenment. Don’t get me wrong — I am very grateful for having the opportunities I had and for earning a bunch of money. If I hadn’t I would always wonder if life would be better if only I had a lot of money.

Without the guidepost of money, I was not only rudderless, I was motor-less. It had been my “raison d’être” for more than half my life. It was what I watched my father strive for every waking day. It’s what fueled my mother’s life. It’s what I talked about with friends in college and later – how much we were going to make and how we were going to make it. If I wasn’t doing something that was going to earn me a lot of money, just what the fuck was I going to do? What was going to fill that hole? 

We Interrupt This Broadcast…

Many thanks once again to all who have taken the time to read and especially to comment on my posts. This whole big ball of yarn has been percolating for quite a long time (to mix metaphors). The manifestation has been more rewarding than I imagined. If you had told me a couple years ago that I would be putting all my “secrets” out on a public blog, I’d have given you my therapist’s contact info, because you would have been crazy. And yet, here we are.

Despite being regularly told I was a good writer by many people over the years, I had been clinging to the story that I wasn’t. This was likely a result of two formative incidents, both (unwittingly) perpetrated by my parents. The first was attending a semi-experimental open-plan elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin during the mid 70’s. In 6th grade, we moved to New Jersey and the English curriculum was quite a bit more challenging (maybe the walls and doors helped?). I remember my parents blaming the Madison school for my shortfall. The second was senior year of high school when I asked my dad to proofread an AP English paper I had written on Hesse’s Siddartha. I was very proud of it. It was, ironically, about “nirvana” (the concept, not the band; I’m older than I look). My dad thought it was a bunch of shit and freely and forceful offered this opinion. So, while I’ve known I was a pretty solid “business” writer for many years, I really did not hold a particularly high opinion of myself as a writer otherwise. Thank you for helping to know myself differently. Oh, also, I re-read Siddartha over the holidays and wow, what difference 35 years makes!

Alchemy | Augusta, Arkansas | October 2014

My good friend and business partner Johnny asked me the other day if I worried about a prospective photography prospect reading my blog. At one time, this actually would have been quite concerning, yet it is no longer. If somebody would read it and choose to not contact or hire me based on what I’ve written, then it is not likely we would have been a good match in the first place. So maybe it is a good filter…

He also suggested it might be useful to bring people up to date on my current mental state, given the darkness of some of the material (heck, we haven’t even gotten to the REALLY dark stuff yet!). So, here’s a bit of a spoiler — I’m fine — much better than fine most of the time, in fact. My purpose in all this writing is to take you through where I’ve been and how I’ve gotten to where I am now. It’s an age old story and yet I feel compelled to tell it – both to help me solidify the “reknowing” of myself and to show others what is possible.

I truly believe that we must shine the light on the darkness in our lives if we are going to evolve at the pace that will be required in our rapidly changing world. The shadow work I’ve done has had some of the most profound affect on me of anything I’ve done. As a collective we are currently witness to shadows being exposed across the entire spectrum of our civilization as a seen in the political unrest across the globe, the unequal effects of the pandemic and the challenges to the Patriarchy, among other events. It is painful in the short term, and so liberating.

Several have commented on my bravery in putting these things out there for public consumption. I am grateful for the acknowledgment. The interesting thing is that my fear of hitting “Publish” rapidly diminished after the first post, to the point where it is pretty much non-existent. And in that big empty space that opened up where fear once took up all the oxygen is a shit ton of freedom.

While I had originally planned to get to present time in my blog posts before making this announcement, I changed my mind. Drum roll, please… I’m thrilled to announce that I am hanging up my shingle as a Coach, a Guide, a “Spiritual Sherpa” (to use the term of a young man I have been mentoring for the past several months). To be clear, I remain firmly committed to my photography business. In fact, I’ve got a couple ideas about how to combine the two. I’ve always been a multi-tasking jack-of-all-trades Renaissance Man of sorts (software developer, sales rep, development engineer, product manager, digital photo lab owner, photographer, etc.). As a result of two weeks spent in Sedona on a personal retreat last month, it became very clear that I need an outlet where I can help people more directly and deepen my own spiritual pursuits. While meditating near Thunder Mountain, I was trying to think of what to call the new business and, in a flash of divine inspiration, I realized what better than to use “Reknowing”. In homage to my mother, who passed away last summer, I’ve incorporated the business changed the brand to “Re:knowing”. She loved beautiful things and started a business ten years ago repurposing vintage jewelry. She called it “Re:”.

So, if you or somebody you know could use some assistance navigating this crazy existence and “leveling up”, please reach out. I will be starting out with a very limited number of engagements, two of which will be “pay-what-you-can”.

Into the Abyss

2007 wasn’t all bad. It was that year that Karen, a dear friend, suggested I begin charging for my photography. Since before my kids were born I was fascinated with photography. Both my grandfathers were enthusiasts, but it was actually the late 80’s wave of black & white posters by Ansel Adams, Henry Cartier Bresson and others that really lit a match for me. Interestingly, in retrospect, it is clear to me that the camera was an ideal device to allow me to participate in life but also to keep me hidden so I didn’t have to fully engage, especially with my family of origin. 

Daughter Nº 1 (on film!) | Chicago, Illinois | Summer 2000

In particular, after the birth of my kids, my camera was my near constant companion. I loved taking photos of children while they were carefree and lost in play. Again, in retrospect, I was getting in touch with that fabled “inner child” with whom I had such a tenuous connection. Because I owned a photo lab, I was able to produce prints at very low cost (as long as you don’t count the overhead under which I was drowning!) and so I would make and distribute prints to the parents of kids I photographed at the park, birthday parties, etc.

At some point Karen said, “You need to sell these.” I told her if she sold ’em, I’d shoot ’em. So, in the latter half of 2007, Inspired Impressions was born as a partnership of sorts. With Karen handling the sales, I began doing “children’s lifestyle” photography, capturing children’s photos while they played at a park or in the yard or at the tennis club. I always insisted on having a babysitter with the kids, rather than the parents. It is much more difficult to capture the true spirit of a child with their parents around, because the parent(s) inevitably have in mind the shot that they want and the way they want the child to look at behave. As I was always very hands off, I found it very frustrating to watch how the parents would manipulate the situation in an attempt to control the outcome. I understand it and found it tiresome so I had a “no parent” rule. 

My first couple of paid sessions were late 2007 and thus my career as a “professional” photographer was launched. Now I had yet another distraction from running the lab. Perfect! 

Daughter Nº 2 (digital) | River Forest, Illinois | January 2004

Once again, most of the day to day details around these years are very blurry. We were in touch with my parents, reluctantly inviting them to major events and spending some holidays together. It was typically very strained. This matched well with the marriage, which was suffering the same condition. In early 2009, I was on the maximum dose of Zoloft, 200mg per day. I felt dull, tired and overweight, with the sex drive of a castrated eunuch (is that thing?). My psychiatrist also kept insisting that I had ADHD. (For the record, I do not. I have tested the drugs multiple times. I feel zero difference when on them). At some point I agreed to add 25mg of Wellbutrin to the mix, I think because the anxiety was creeping up. This shouldn’t have been much of a shock. I was up to my eyeballs in debt on the house and the business and was going to need a miracle to get out of it. There was a dearth of these in our household in 2009. 

At some point, I began experiencing constipation and some strange chest “going’s on”. I don’t even remember what it was – not pain, per se – yet something out of the ordinary – “flutters”. A full nuclear stress test was ordered (I think this cost the insurance company upwards of $3,000). I got shot up with some radioactive gunk and was ordered to walk (I think) on a treadmill as they increased the incline while monitoring my vitals. Fortunately, I had at least a summer of tennis under my (long) belt so I actually passed fairly easily. Somebody figured out it was probably the Wellbutrin, so that was discontinued. I also gave up the Adderall as it was useless. This was right around the time Amy’s parents took us all to Disney World. If you can’t be happy without antidepressants there, where can you be happy?

Shortly after our return, I got a message on Facebook from a woman I had met during my senior year of high school on a trip to Washington, DC (1987). After a platonic, enjoyable (and sober) several days hanging out in our nation’s capitol, that summer she had come to visit in Clearwater shortly after I graduated from high school. The first night we probably went to a party (if you recall, we had a few of those in high school) and she slept on the sofa in the living room. The next night, we saw a play at my old high school and went to the beach. Things then progressed quickly from purely platonic to quite steamy. Later that evening, I dropped her at her stepfather’s hotel room and I never saw her again. Interestingly enough, only a couple weeks prior to her contacting me, I had thought of her and was telling the story to a friend at a party. I now know this is called “synchronicity” and happens quite often, at least in my crazy-ass life.

Liam – one of the Images that lead to me photographing children | River Forest, Illinois | October 2004

Thus began an emotional affair over the internet and phone. Another distraction. A big, dangerous one. As an added bonus, this person actually knew my wife’s mother’s childhood best friend, as they lived in the same town. And Kevin Bacon thinks he’s got the market cornered on degrees of separation. Ha! 

Clouds do have silver linings, however. This woman was the one who recommend I attend a workshop at a facility called the Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona. She witnessed in me many of the same issues she too had struggled with over the years. She had attended what they call “Surviors I” an experiential therapy workshop that deals with the strong codependent behaviors that adult children of alcoholics often display. In late September, despite being damn near broke and without any discussion, I told Amy I was going to the Meadows to attend this $3,000 workshop. Our marriage was rapidly going off the rails. 

The workshop was my first truly transformational experience and set me on the course I’ve been following for the last 11 years. I came out of it with an experience of peace unlike I had ever known. I felt as though everybody I encountered was my best friend. It was truly remarkable. Prior to leaving and not knowing what to say, I had told my staff at the lab I was going to a non-specific “workshop” for a week. When I returned, I was transformed to the extent that Wendy, one of our great staff members, said she could tell I was changed as she saw me walk through the glass doors, which were at least 30 feet from her desk. I felt lighter, brighter and connected to everybody. Except my wife.

It was clear to both of us something needed to change, yet we were both quite competitive and determined to not “fail” at marriage (it was a little late, I’m afraid). Things were getting desperate. We had talked about separating prior to my retreat in Arizona and Amy wanted (rightfully so) to know what was up. I was caught between the experience of ostensibly being wanted by this alluring woman from my past and my commitments to my wife and daughters. This was truly tearing me apart, the “Survivors” experience notwithstanding. I began having rather severe back pains. I moved to the basement to try another bed (and put some more distance between Amy and I). These were very similar to the back pains and spasms I began experiencing for the first at age 17 when a girl who agreed to go to homecoming with me dumped me a week before the dance. She was beautiful, unavailable and appeared to be rich – she drove a brand new blue and silver Nissan 280zx. (Remember this, as it will come into play again some years later.)

One day a couple of weeks after I returned, Amy was (rightfully) wondering WTF was going on. Her spidey sense was tingling. She discovered my communications with the high school fling. For weeks I had been very careful. It seems my subconscious had finally given up and unwittingly (or so it seemed) let down the guard. 

At this point, I was given the option of going on a multi weekend couples counseling program or moving out. Since I had recently experienced a profound transformation, I decided that another retreat was probably a waste of time (and money we didn’t have) and would only postpone the inevitable. I moved out. I didn’t have a place to stay, so I went to the photo lab and slept on the floor on a blow-up mattress. It had a full kitchen. Interestingly enough, after the first night, my back pain was gone….

Note: this post has been ready to go for a couple weeks. I ran it by Amy and she (rightly) suggested I give the girls a heads up as to the contents as we had not ever discussed it with them. Given the oldest is nearly 21 and the youngest 18, it seems to be the right time. It wasn’t easy, but I did. They were both (seemingly) understanding and for that I am grateful. The “Affair d’Internet” is one of my top three regrets in life (and I’m not even sure I can name the other two), although in retrospect I now know it as the catalyst that was needed. We were stuck. Something had to give. I was in an emotional black hole. This woman shone a light that penetrated the vortex and gave me evidence that I COULD feel something again. The only problem was, I still hadn’t figured out how to generate this feeling for myself. I was far, far away from that.

On Therapy… Part V

The Lab gets moved. Cracks are appearing in many places. Fitness addiction to the rescue!

When we last left things, I was cruising along at 35,000 feet, metaphorically speaking, and I lost an engine. This happened in the form of a profound realization, around 2005-06, that no matter what I did, no matter how much money I made, how many gorgeous kids I had, how perfect of a house I lived in, my father wasn’t going to love me. Or, more accurately, was highly unlikely to express any love he did have for me in a way I could recognize and appreciate. 

The little girls | December 2007 | © Copyright Audrey Wancket

Business at the photo lab was stagnant to declining. The digital world was rapidly advancing and the massive paradigm shift that I had rode to success was passing me by due to my insistence on having my hands on everything and maintaining boutique pricing when the business was moving to commodity pricing. As it turns out the digital photo lab was more of a transitional phenomenon than an enduring one. Certainly there remain numerous and successful labs that produce physical output of images. At the time, we thought growing internet access meant people would order more prints since they could easily do so online. On reflection, and after an explosion in the number of handheld screens in use, the only reason people ever got prints in the first place is because nobody really wanted to watch an actual slide show and the only way to see the images on your negatives was to print them! The explosion of digital cameras and camera phones meant that our clients were beginning to feel the pinch as the barriers to entry were lowered and everybody became a photographer.

Memories of home life and raising the girls are pretty blurry. I was taking at least 150mg a day of Zoloft. We integrated ourselves into the Oak Park River Forest community, from newcomers to Dads N’ Donuts at the library to preschool. I know I was continuing with regular psychotherapy appointments and, of course, had to do monthly “med checks” for the Zoloft. This required driving into the city, parking and going to a 30 minute appointment with the prescribing psychiatrist. This was a royal pain in the ass and I resented it. Amy & I also may have done some couples work; I can’t remember. I tried EMDR and pretty much just fell asleep (my normal response to things that were confronting in some way).

I do have a particularly interesting memory from the summer of 2005, when I walked to Lincoln Elementary School to register our oldest daughter, Marguerite for Kindergarten. For some reason, I felt very odd walking into the school. A palpable fear hung from my body. I was sweating. I didn’t really know why. In hindsight, I think it was a bit of PTSD brought on by entering a total of six new schools from K-12 as my family traipsed around the country in search of the Holy Grail. Very interesting….

Once again, looking back we were essentially living on credit for a large portion of our recurring expenses. The Denial of this was strong, as I had been in this position several times before; or so I smugly thought. I had left college with a chunk of debt, despite earning more as a database consultant while enrolled than probably 99% of college students. I paid this off in two years. We ran credit cards up and paid them down. We took out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of loans to start and grow the business, paying them down as we went. Besides, the value of our house was practically climbing by the week. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometime in early 2007, we abruptly found out we needed to move the photo lab from it’s 5,000 square foot location in the West Loop, as our landlord had sold the building. The new landlord originally said we could stay and then changed his mind a month or two later, after we quit looking for a place. He wanted us out in six weeks. Hindsight being 20/20 I realize now I should have told him I’d move when I found a place. What was he going to do, throw me and all my gear out on the street? We found a place near our home in the village of Forest Park. The owners were contractors. They were rehabbing it. The move cost me several years of my life. The movers (Midwest Moving, yo) were atrocious. Somehow, with the help of a great staff, we made it. But it took a toll – financially, emotionally and psychically. 

In the winter 2006 / spring 2007, we decided to join the River Forest Tennis Club, a quaint little club that, despite Frank Lloyd Wright’s oversight of the construction, bears a passing resemblance to a German prison camp (no offense to Col. Klink). It was founded in 1905 and located in center of the south end of the village, and consists of a clubhouse, a pool and ten clay tennis courts. It’s quite traditional (whites required for tennis), yet the tradition is rooted in purpose and is member-run, which builds camaraderie and reduces snobbery (to a degree). Despite having worked at a country club in Florida with 27 clay courts for three years, I had barely ever swung a racquet, much less played a match.

Amy & I (aka “Butterball”) at the NASCAR-themed cocktail party we threw for the Tennis Club | August 2007

The membership selection committee put a premium on prospective members who played the sport. Our big joke was that Amy had lettered in tennis in high school. This was not a lie – she was the team manager! We ostensibly joined the club so the kids would have a place to learn to swim. And yet, something about the green clay courts beckoned to me. I took a couple lessons late summer before joining. During one, I was a 200+lb of sweating, swearing, hideously-out-shape, scarlet faced, gasping, 38 year old dad pretending he was Roger Federer as I scrambled around the court trying desperately to make contact with the many balls gently fed to me by the pert, glowing, eminently patient high school varsity star young woman tennis pro who was lucky enough to draw me for a lesson. I had to call it quits after 40 minutes when my field of vision began shrinking, as I feared for my life. Talk about almost being on the evening news for all the wrong reasons….

But… a spark was ignited somewhere deep within me. I liked this sport. After my rough start, sidestepping an ambulance ride, I began playing regularly, whereby “regularly” I mean, all the fucking time. After all, Amy had been after me to exercise, right? Between leagues, lessons and self-flagellating masochistic sessions against the ball machine, I was on those courts five to seven days a week. How could she be angry with me for not being home? I was exercising! I honestly hadn’t thought of myself as particularly competitive before the summer of 2007 (as should be clear from this series of essays, self-awareness was not my strong suit). Now, I wanted to be the absolute best player I could be and I was angry about it. Angry that I had never played in high school. Angry the ball didn’t go exactly where I wanted it to go. Angry that I worked at a country club and never set foot on a court. Angry that my parents fucked up my life! On the plus side, I dropped at least 25 lbs that year. The next spring, the club president (and one of the more sardonic members) compared my former self to the popular brand of turkey upon seeing me for the first time in my newer, slimmer form.

In the winters, I retreated to my woodworking shop and sound-proofed media room in our spiffy remodeled basement. After the renovation, I dropped thousands on some high end audio gear – anything to keep my mind occupied. You might be wondering how all this exercise and not spending much time with my wife was contributing to our marriage. The answer would be “negatively”. We basically existed as ships passing in the night. While I shared in the household activities more than the average 1950’s-era father, I do regret not doing more. There was little to no intimacy between us. I made sure of it by keeping as busy as possible. There were few, if any, outright fights, arguments or battles. It was more like a silent and growing insurgency was invading. How long would the center hold?

On Therapy… Part Quattro

The Days Are Long, the Years Are Short

In the last episode, we had just given birth to our second (of two) daughters, Adeline. To be perfectly honest, this time period is one of the fuzziest parts of my memory. Things with my parents were fairly tense, although we remained in contact. I was on at least 150mg of Zoloft for some period of time. My emotions were dull, I was putting on weight. Those of you who have had small children can probably relate to “helping” the kids finish the Mac n Cheese and hot dogs on a regular basis. Things at the lab were ok, but slipping (in retrospect). We had our biggest year right around when Addie was born and never did match that again. I lost Amy,  who was huge asset, at the office because she was staying home to be with the kids. I think she came in now and then, but I don’t remember. 

Roughly the site of the flame-out | DeltaQuest Imaging, Chicago, Illinois

A year or so after moving the photo lab to 3,000sf over on Fulton & May in the West Loop our floor mates, a small ad agency, folded. We took over the whole 5,000sf. I continued working long hours, something I wish I hadn’t done. Live and learn. One night, likely around the winter of 2004, maybe 2005, I was back at work after going home for dinner. It was the busy season – we did at least 60% of our volume in the last 40% of the year – and the tables and carts were piled high with prints in need of cutting, coating, mounting, packaging and shipping. Business was solid and yet not growing. As I walked around the lab, I felt a small sense of pride. I had done it. I had manifested the distinctive vision of what I had set out to create. Here I was, running nearly a $1m/year business in a vintage loft in one of the city’s up and coming areas. We were doing high end work for portrait studios around the country, in addition to printing for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox. I had a great wife and two beautiful healthy daughters and we lived in a 100 year old house that had been completely renovated (except the outside – sorry Bonnie Brae neighbors!) I should have been full to overflowing. And yet…

In my mind’s eye, I can recall nearly the exact spot I was standing that night, when I had the thought, “This is great, but none of it matters, because my father still isn’t proud of me.” And right there, something broke. I can’t describe it really, owing to the fact that I was only vaguely in contact with my emotions at that stage. Some part of me, an important part, stopped caring. But God forbid disclose it; at least not overtly (much better to engage in a lot of passive aggressive behavior). I’m not sure I even shared the revelation with my therapist. But let’s back up and look at that thought for a minute, with today’s perspective. Let’s “reknow” it, shall we? First of all, how did I know my father wasn’t proud of me? I’m sure he was quite proud of me. He just never expressed it in a way that I heard it. I bet dollars to donuts, he bragged to his friends about my accomplishments. Hell, he may have even said it to me (but I don’t think so) and I just didn’t hear it. Second of all, what if he really wasn’t proud of me? At the end of the day, why does it matter? By the way, this is not a new story by any means. I’m not breaking any virgin ground here. Willy Shakes was scribing this tale with his quill pen 400 years ago. But to me, at that time, earning two things – money and my father’s love and respect were sine qua non for me. These were the engines that drove my being. The first one had just flamed out. It was the beginning of the end of the life I had wanted since I was a teenager.

On Therapy… Part Tres

Wherein the inevitable move to the suburbs ensues and Baby Number Dos Arrives

When we last left the riveting life story of my intrepid self, we had just given birth to our first baby, the lovely Marguerite Mae, I had started taking Zoloft and I gave up alcohol after 18 years (I was 32; do the math – it ain’t pretty). We were living and working in the up-and-coming West Loop area of Chicago. We had it all – a baby, a rapidly growing business in an amazing rehabbed 1800’s timber loft, another gorgeous 1,700 square foot loft with a panoramic view of the city of Chicago and two BMWs (man I loved that car). And yet I felt… numb? disconnected? overwhelmed? All of the above. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was doing all the things!

Industrial Paint Mixing Vessel Lids | Carbit Paint Company, Chicago, Illinois | November 2013

I continued with my weekly therapy and monthly “med checks” with the psychiatrist. I still wasn’t exercising. I typically drove the four blocks to work; it’s hard to break the habits that were ingrained growing up in the suburbs. Sugar, combined with chocolate to form candy bars, quickly substituted for alcohol in the addiction department. Gotta feed the beast! I was torn between wanting to spend time with the baby and attending to the business where, due to my workaholism, I could always find something to do. A new baby puts a strain on any marriage and ours was no different. We were each doing our best to play our roles, although I know Amy was really struggling with the massive disruption to her life (the month long tuck-pointing project outside on our loft walls wasn’t much of a positive contribution either). Somewhere in there our landlords, who owned both loft buildings, sold to a condo company. So we bought our residence and moved the photo lab. The fun times continued apace.

Somewhere around this time, my mother really lost her marbles. To this day, I really don’t know what happened. It is quite likely that she suffered from bi-polar disorder for her whole life. It was never officially diagnosed but all the symptoms were there. She was often very depressed and she self-medicated by smoking a shit ton of cigarettes and drinking a lot of coffee and Coke. She and my dad liked to party as well. The apple don’t far fall from the tree. At one point, when I was a sophomore in high school, right after we moved to Florida, my dad sat us all down and excoriated us for not being “nicer” to our mother. Uh, Dad, ever hear of a mirror?

This completely bizarre “break” was likely a combo of menopause and the bipolar combined with 30+ years of marriage to a heavy drinker who lacked any ability to express his feelings in a meaningful way, unless it was rage. After Daughter Numero Uno’s birth, she really went sideways. To the point where Amy & I were concerned about leaving the baby in her care. On a flight to Kansas City, I vividly recall the having the revelation that my father had a drinking problem. It was if somebody whacked me across the side of the head with a 2×4 made of Truth. We finally decided, with our therapist, Billy’s counsel, to sever the relationship with them. This was a heart wrenching decision. The estrangement lasted about a year. During the reconciliation, I recall my father telling me he understood and that it happened because of my depression. Uh huh. Sure, Dad.

Just before our daughter’s second birthday, Amy was (understandably) itching to get out of the city. So we bought a house in River Forest, eight miles due west. It was, suffice it to say, a fixer-upper. Two years earlier and it would have been a bargain. We paid $500k and thought we could get by putting in another $60k, which inevitably became around $80k after I almost electrocuted myself on a mis-wired fixture and we realized how bad the wiring was. With the bathrooms gut-rehabbed, central a/c installed, the floors refinished, all new appliances purchased, and new paint throughout, we moved in on April 24, 2002 – our daughter’s second birthday.

River Forest is great place to live. We often refer to it as “Mayberry”. It’s a great blend of city and suburban living, with an annual Memorial Day parade that runs over a mile and draws thousands. However, I now had at least a 30 minute drive to and from the office. Running home for lunch was out. The good news is, the photo lab was still making good money, although, in hindsight, cracks were showing. So, I should be happy, right? Not so much.

About six months after moving in, we decided we couldn’t live with the layout of the existing kitchen after all aaaaand gosh wouldn’t it be great to have a finished basement? Thus began “Operation Money Hoover” (or should it be “Operation Money Dyson”?) which wound up sucking well in excess of $200k into its HEPA-filtered belly before it was finished. Oh, and wouldn’t this be a great time to embark upon a family expansion plan? Sure! My mother’s father died that summer, a which time we announced Amy was pregnant. Late fall 2002, the crew began demolishing the kitchen and basement, which entailed replacing all the three inch gravity fed heating pipes in the basement and removing the little servant staircase and switching the direction of the stairs to the basement. The path to renovator’s financial hell is paved with “We might as well…”

Deluded into thinking we could remain in the house during all this, after the third day of demo we were rapidly disabused of this notion. We decided newly pregnant women and 100 year old black dust hanging in the air isn’t the best combo if your objective is birthing a healthy baby. So we quickly found an expensive furnished rental with walls made of what might possibly have been origami paper two miles away in Oak Park. I honestly have blacked out the majority of memories of actually spending any time in that place. I do remember we woke to the neighbor’s alarm clock at 5:00am pretty much every morning. I’m not sure how Amy survived in the joint with a two year old, because we didn’t talk about it – or anything else really, but she did. She’s an amazing woman.

Resin Supply Pipes | Carbit Paint Company, Chicago, Illinois | November 2013

As the work on the house was drawing to a close, I decided I needed to make all the moldings to match the existing ones, because I was really good at distracting myself from important things such as running a growing business with six employees or spending time with my two year old. My grandfathers were both carpenters for their entire careers and my fondest memories are walking around on my Poppa’s workbench as a small child and making things. It’s in my blood. So I spent about $3,000 on a giant shaper and custom blades to cut the six or seven profiles needed for the three piece baseboards, crowns and window framing pieces. The place had to be perfect! No detail was too small. Later on, I would criticize myself for not thoroughly sanding the boards and for every imperfection.

One night in the middle March of 2003, as I was scrambling around installing molding in the basement, Amy asked me to make dinner for Maggie. I did and quickly returned to work. The construction was nearly done, although we had plywood for windows in the kitchen, dining room and basement and matching plywood countertops. A little while later, Amy said she didn’t feel so great. She called the doctor and I put Maggie to bed. I’m sure I trudged up there around 11:00 after Amy was already asleep and crashed. Wouldn’t want to have a conversation with my wife who was on the cusp of giving birth, would I?

At 4:15am or so, I heard Amy get up to go to the bathroom and asked what was up. “I think my water just broke.” That got my attention. Never underestimate the power of adrenaline to roust you from a deep comatose state. “Ok! Let’s go!” We hadn’t even packed a pair of underwear. “No,” she said. “I’m fine. It could still be awhile. I want to shower and have a cup of coffee. It might a couple days before I can do either.” I suggested we wake our amazing neighbor, Rita, who had agreed to stay with Maggie, and my mother, who was going to come down from Madison. Amy didn’t want to disturb anybody so early in the morning(!). Possessing the valuable self-preserving instinct of never arguing with a woman about to give birth, I assented. (The real story is that Amy’s favorite Ob/Gyn didn’t come on duty until later than morning.)

Not more than twenty minutes later, as she was stepping into the shower and I was fumbling around doing who knows what, I heard a blood-curdling scream come from the bathroom. There really isn’t a combination of letters that adequately express the noise I heard, so I’ll leave that sound effect to your imagination. “We gotta go NOW!!!

Somehow, I woke Rita, got Amy in the car and headed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, blithely passing at least three other hospitals with delivery rooms on the way where we could have (should have) stopped to squeeze out the munchkin. It was gray and drizzling and I think I hit 95mph on the Eisenhower, passing at least one police car on the way and yelling at my screaming wife, who was transitioning as we drove, that she better not have the damn baby in the car. Not my finest hour. I screeched to a stop in the front of the building and an off-duty nurse, who was leaving, accurately sensed that we might have a little crisis on our hands. She got a gurney. After showing up 8cm dilated and not giving birth in the elevator, the amazing Adeline Louise was delivered about twenty minutes after we pulled up out front.

One of the beauties of witnessing childbirth, especially when it is of your own offspring, is the incredible, unconditional love that washes over you. In this case, it even managed to push it’s way through the fog of 150mg + of Zoloft. And thank God for that because it topped up the fuel needed for my continued evolution and transformation, although it would take awhile to really ignite it.

As always, thanks for reading. Tune in next time for the march toward insolvency…

The Other “D” Word

I’ve had this one in the can for awhile. This seemed like an appropriate time for it to drop, as you’ve been quickly brought up to speed on the first 30 years or so of my evolution here and here.

Debt, Divorce and Drinking. The Triple Crown! I had my first alcoholic drink in New Jersey at around age 13. It was from a bottle of Southern Comfort my friend swiped from his folks. We drank from it in a tiny little fort we built from materials scavenged from construction sites into the side of a hill on the edge of a woods in an empty lot across the street from my house. You might wonder how or why I had any interest in continuing to drink after tasting that godawful swill. Good question. I guess I was committed to escaping. Or looking cool. Or something! Blech.

Venice Beach, California | January 2019

This wasn’t my first experience with a mind-altering substance. That would be the marijuana I smoked a half dozen times with a buddy in sixth grade in Madison. I made the “mistake” of telling another friend, who (thankfully) told his mother. I ended up attending three high schools. Half of freshman year was spent in Randolph, NJ, where I also attended seventh and eighth grade and where said SoCo was imbibed. Second half of freshman year found me in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, one of only four new kids in an insular school of around 500. It was hell. As an insecure preppy fashion plate wannabe who had the “But-I-was-popular-at-my-last-school” chip on his shoulder, I made little headway in a sea of kids dedicated to wearing jeans and work boots. I did manage to make “friends” with a handful stoners. That summer, I attended Brown Summer High School in Providence. On the 5th of July, after taking several shots of Jack Daniels at a party the night before, I was wicked (a favorite local colloquialism) hungover. I bought and slammed a large glass of cold milk in the cafeteria before class. What? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Turned out I actually rented the milk for all of about 45 seconds. Unfortunately for the custodial staff, I didn’t make it to the bathroom. My apologies to whomever had to clean that up.

Later that summer we moved to Clearwater, Florida where, mercifully, we remained until graduation. And where fewer people objected to my double popped collars. Remember the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High? This was only a mild exaggeration of my high school experience. By junior year just about everything revolved around parties and drinking. We didn’t smoke much weed and I never saw any hard drugs, but boy did we drink! Busch beer was typically around six bucks a case. Since I had a job and was a snob, I bought Heineken and Moosehead. Some nights, we would buy a couple cases of beer and drive around in my mother’s nine passenger Chevy Chase-Vacation-style station wagon. There were regularly crazy parties with 50 or more people piled into four bedroom houses. It truly was a miracle that nobody died.

I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, not exactly known as a bastion of sobriety, especially in the late 80’s. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was top five on Playboy magazine’s list of party schools. I know the library where I “studied” was named the number one pick-up joint my freshman year. I was in a fraternity. Hell, I was the social chairman for the house during one of the semesters that I wasn’t even enrolled in college. I think we went through a record 150 half barrels. I finally moved out of the house after three semesters. Fortunately, there was some small sliver of self-protection buried deep inside of me

When I was a product manager for Kodak, I was on the team working with the NBA. I distinctly remember being in the NBA box watching a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden with David Schreff, who was President of the NBA at that time, and being amazed that he didn’t drink. How crazy was that?

I had my last alcoholic drink nearly 20 years ago. I don’t remember the exact date. I do remember my first born daughter was around a year old and I was struggling mightily with a rapidly growing business, deepening depression and a marriage that wasn’t working particularly well for either of us.  After a couple of years of therapy, I finally “gave in” and decided to take an antidepressant – Zoloft. At some level, I knew my drinking was a problem. It wasn’t out of control, but it was definitely in the driver’s seat and looking to exceed the speed limit on a regular basis. Having a single drink was difficult; more often than not it became two or three. I was feeling the effects of a couple drinks several days later – groggy, sluggish and irritable. (Much later I realized I am gluten intolerant, which explains why I felt particularly shitty after a couple beers.) I was determined to be the best father I could be for my daughter and I knew having to claw through the fog of a hangover on a Sunday morning clearly wasn’t the way to do it.

Starting on an antidepressant seemed an opportune time to quit drinking. Why on earth would I spend all this money and time on therapy and drugs to not be depressed and then consume a known “depressant” on regular basis? Didn’t make much sense. So I quit. 

After the Rain, River Forest | June 2018

In retrospect, it really wasn’t that difficult, especially as I wasn’t physically dependent. For me, it was a choice. Amy, my wife at the time was a little wary, yet supportive. After all, drinking alcohol is tighten woven into our society. Social functions were a little fraught at first. Because we are such egocentric beings, I assumed EVERYBODY would know I didn’t drink and think I was strange. And wouldn’t that be TERRIBLE? After a couple of gatherings where I was repeatedly asked if I wanted a drink by the same people after politely declining and explaining that I gave it up, I realized nobody is really paying as much attention to me as I thought they were. Huh. How about that?

While I attended a couple of Al-Anon meetings in an effort to better cope with the effects of my parents’ alcoholism, I never was called to attend AA. I’ve had a harder time quitting chocolate (and debt) than I did drinking. And for that I’m grateful.

I’m fortunate that I am a social person by nature. I’ve moved so many times in my life (11 before age 15) that meeting and chatting with new people is second nature. I don’t frequent bars or many events with alcohol. When I do, I find it really interesting to watch how some people go from fairly quiet and reserved to loose, lubricated and loquacious after a couple drinks. Why can’t we all be like this all the time? Why the barrier? What is the barrier? Why is it OK to be this way when drinking but not when sober? Where does this fear originate? This is complicated but I think it is partly because we have been socialized in many ways to fear actually feeling our feelings – good or bad.

As an aside, I have to say, this whole “sober curious” trend that was gaining some traction pre-COVID gets my hackles up. On the one hand, I’m all for people socializing without the crutch of alcohol. On the other hand, the language is a problem (and our reality originates in our language). To me, “sober curious” implies that drinking is our default state. I wasn’t born consuming alcohol (or was I?). I understand how the Media needs to wrap things in some sort of theme, yet I find this particular theme ridiculous. When I go to a bar and don’t drink, it is not out of curiosity, it is out of self-preservation and a desire to show up as I truly am, not through some artificial filter that suppresses my fear and inhibitions. The nomenclature feels in some ways punitive or derogatory. “Ha! Look at that ‘sober-curious’ weirdo over there NOT slamming shots of Jagermeister! Oh, the humanity!”

In hindsight, there is nothing I regret about my decision to quit drinking alcohol. Sometimes, I suppose it would be nice (and perhaps a little less extreme) if I could enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. And then I think about how I am with chocolate (sugar, really) and I continue to choose to abstain. My spiritual evolution has definitely benefitted enormously. So has my evolution in my body. Not to be dramatic, however there’s better than 50/50 odds I would not be here had I continued drinking. So, thank you, small voice of self-preservation. Also, thank you Zoloft. There wasn’t much I enjoyed about our time together, but in the spirit of “reknowing” I can now see that you are what I needed to kick the liquor.

As always, thanks for reading. Tune in next time when we continue the slog up the slippery ladder of my life…

On Therapy… Part Deux

This is the second in what is a series of posts on this topic. The first post is here. Hang with me as I get through all this background info. It gets more interesting, I promise!

My first less-than-productive therapy session left a really bad taste in my mouth. It was a shame because, man, I could have used some assistance. The next several years were an absolute whirlwind (as if the first 25 hadn’t been). Less than six months after being named one of the youngest Product Managers ever in the Digital & Applied Imaging division of Kodak, I accepted an offer to move to New York City to work for a gray market film & paper dealer in Brooklyn who (unlike Kodak) saw the writing on the wall and wanted to move into digital. He put his money where his mouth was, pushing my salary (just) into six figures. Oh, Mr. Ego was ever-so-happy about that! It was also good and necessary, because living in a $3,000 a month apartment in Manhattan and paying a mortgage on a house in Rochester that took six months to sell burns a lot of cash, but then, I have a knack for that!

Sideview. Venice Beach, California | January 2019

That position lasted less than one (very stressful) year. I was recruited to be the VP Ops by some other ex-Kodakers for an event imaging start-up in Pittsburgh. Because why wouldn’t I want to repeat the patterns I learned from my father and jump to every job offered to me? I started that job in February of 1997. Amy very reluctantly followed me on Memorial Day. A week later, they shut our division and let everybody go (except the two guys who recruited me). Oh, and the president showed up in a brand new Cadillac on the day of the layoffs. Classy! We moved to Chicago on Labor Day, owing to the incredible resourcefulness of the late Neil Shaw, a former sales manager of Amy’s, who found us both positions with Danka Office Imaging. They had purchased our old division from Kodak. Recap 1997 – three jobs, three states, one badly tattered marriage. They said the grass is always greener on the other side. Until you have to mow it.

Though I was working as a Digital Specialist for Danka, the entrepreneurial bug I caught in college, where I started a computer consulting business, wasn’t out of my system. I began consulting for what was left of the group in Pittsburgh, traveling the country to install and train photographers on the new fangled digital photography systems. I was supporting a local, Chicago-based team for Danka. Imagine my surprise when I returned the call of a rep one day while I was in Spokane, Washington and he asked, “509? Where are you?” (This was the early days of caller ID and before the proliferation of cell phones where you took your number with you anywhere you went!) “Uh, uh, never mind that. How can I help?” I demurred.

This consulting, coupled with a contract to print a bunch of photos for a modeling consultancy, based on connection I made in New York City on the very day I had given notice to the Brooklyn guy, coalesced into what became DeltaQuest Imaging. I quit my job (again!) and launched the country’s first exclusively digital photo lab. I plunked down $30k (that was a lot back then, kids) and signed for $150k worth of equipment leases, rented a cool loft space next to where Wishbone used to be and we were off to the printing races! Eight months later, just as we were getting our sea legs under us and, more importantly – positive cash flow – we got a call from a US Attorney in Connecticut. They had just shut down the modeling consultancy (which, in hindsight, was pretty damn shady) that represented 85% of our revenue. Interesting times….

Due in large part to Amy’s strategic foresight and my connections in the world of digital portrait studios from whom we had been turning away business in order to service our “whale” we pivoted and began to actively court the portrait printing business. I had literally just told the guy in Pittsburgh the week before that I couldn’t take any more of his digital portrait studio referral business because I needed to focus on my big client! Humility, thy name is “We need to pay the rent”. That was a fun phone call. We dug in and turned the boat around within about a year. Timing is everything. 

The toll of my childhood, all the moves and the stress was beginning to make itself known on my mental health and our marriage. I’m still not sure how we made it through the three months in Pittsburgh. Mostly by not talking to each other, I think. Somewhere in here Amy reached out to Billy Kaplan of Housecalls Counseling. Back in the day he still made actual house calls. For therapy! Imagine that. This was pretty cool, all things considered. So Billy came over for an hour every week or two, ostensibly for couples counseling. At some point fairly early on, it was pretty clear (to everybody but me) that the best use of Billy’s time would be working with me directly. I mostly enjoyed the sessions with him. Not having him slap a label on me and try to force a prescription down my throat definitely helped. 

Right about this time, Amy & I decided, simultaneously, that we wanted children. This was a new and rather surprisingly development because we were heretofore adamant that we were going to remain childless, all the better to make all the money, buy all the things and travel to all the places. It also put us in a bit of a predicament. If you’ve been following along you may have noticed that I had a pretty full plate. This (conveniently for my as yet unknown but deep aversion to true intimacy) didn’t leave much time for Amy & I to engage in baby making activities. So, Billy sent us to a therapist specializing in such matters. As my first and second born daughters will attest, that particular therapy was a resounding success!

Our first daughter was born in April of 2000. In early spring of 2001, in spite of the great joy of being witness to her birth, my mental health remained poor. I was withdrawn, sullen, dark and mostly humorless. Business was good, but it was demanding. I was under a lot of (self-imposed) pressure to do better. I continued with the therapy and it didn’t seem to be making much of a dent. The fact that my diet sucked, I never exercised and worked 18 hours a day, six days a week certainly was not doing much to elevate my mood. I decided, very reluctantly and with Billy’s assent, to go on Zoloft. Because, pills are magic, right?

Coincident with that decision, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. (There’s a whole post on this topic alone in the works.) It didn’t make sense to me to pay for therapy and medicine to treat my depression and then actively thwart those efforts by drinking anywhere from two to six (or more!) beers every weekend. My heredity was a headwind on this journey as well. You can’t swing a dead cat in my family without hitting a couple alcoholics. “Why tempt fate?” I thought. Plus, based on what was my first experience of pure, unconditional love in the moments after our first daughter’s birth, I was deeply committed to being present and being the best father I could be to her. Fighting through the cobwebs of a Sunday morning hangover definitely put a damper on those ambitions. There weren’t a lot of shades of gray back then. I was (and still can be) an “all in” or “all out” guy. And booze was out.

The Zoloft helped for awhile. I began dreaming in color again. I hadn’t realized I’d ever stopped. My mood improved somewhat. On the flip side, I gained weight. I never really lost the pregnancy sympathy weight I so willing put on, so I was 5′ 9″ and pushing 200lbs. Not a great look (unless Dad Jeans are your thing). I was always hot and never horny, if you get my drift. So, it was better, but still not great, as I wasn’t really dealing with the things that were causing the depression in the first place. I’ll get into all that and more in future posts.

Tune in next week, when our hero moves to the suburbs and buys a station wagon…