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55

55/MR
Nikon Df, 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 AF Nikkor

After my birthday every year, I look to make a photograph where the number of my next birthday is in the image. On a Michigan Road trip earlier this year, I came upon this just south of Rochester, and it was perfect.

Today I complete 55 trips around the sun and begin my 56th. For most of these years I sought after perfection. In my 50s, I’ve finally come to accept that seeking it sets me up for disappointment and disenchantment. I’m a recovering perfectionist! But it’s good to be open to perfection when it finds you. Then stop and enjoy it as long as it lasts.

I’ve written a birthday reflection every year since I turned 44. See them all here.

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Signs of aging: Losing my hair

I was looking back through old photos recently and came upon this photo of my parents, my brother, and me on my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 2014. We had taken them out for a fancy dinner in downtown South Bend, and then walked over to the church where they were married so they could reminisce. My sons were along; one of them made this image of us sitting on the church’s steps. I was 46 in this photo. Dad was 73.

My parents looked like they were 30 until they were 50, when they started to noticeably age. Even then, through their 50s and 60s they passed for a decade or more younger. They passed that trait down to both of their children. I was routinely carded in bars until I was in my late 40s. My co-workers were surprised when I mentioned recently that I’m 54; one said he would have guessed 40. Bless him.

We were also a family of full, thick hair. Here’s a photo of us with our Aunt Betty from when I was about 14, and Dad was about 43. But you’ll notice that his hairline is clearly receding.

Dad’s hair began to noticeably fall out starting in his 40s. It fell out unevenly, starting over his left temple and slowly working itself back. Here’s Dad in 1991 when he was 50, that hair-loss pattern in progress.

Meanwhile, a bald spot appeared at his crown. Then his hair started falling out over his right temple, eventually reaching the bare crown. It left him with a tuft of hair in front, right in the middle. You can see in the first photograph how he handled that: he left that central tuft long and combed it straight back to reach where his hair resumed again at his crown. He then slicked it all down with Vaseline hair tonic, which was made mostly of mineral oil. It wasn’t a great look on him, but there wasn’t much he could do with that hair pattern.

As I cruised through my 40s with my hair intact, I thought surely I’d escape Dad’s fate. Here I am at age 47 with a full head of hair.

But after I turned 50, my hair began to thin at my crown and recede over my left temple, just like my dad. I didn’t realize how much hair I was losing until early in the pandemic. I didn’t feel good about sitting in my stylist’s chair, so I bought clippers and gave myself a buzz. Only then could I see that my crown was nearly bare, and the hair over my left temple was thin all the way to the crown. I was losing my hair in the same pattern my father did. (I hate how I look in a buzz cut, but I don’t know any other way to cut my own hair.)

In my early 20s I swore to myself that as I aged, I would accept it in peace and with grace. But then with very good fortune I looked young for the next nearly 30 years. As I headed into my 50s I noticed gray hairs finally starting to show up and noticeable wrinkles forming on my face. Weirdly, my eyebrows became thin and faint. I certainly didn’t celebrate these changes, but I didn’t rue them either.

But when I saw how clearly my hair was going away, I freaked out — and I broke my promise to myself. I immediately tried Rogaine, and used it for nine months, but it had no effect. My dermatologist then prescribed Propecia, but the side effects were unpleasant and frustrating so I gave it up right away. I had no choice but to accept my hair loss.

I mourned for several months. I loved my hair! It was hard to come to peace with losing it.

Here’s a photo of me from the year I turned 40 that I especially love. I was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a field trip with my older son’s third-grade class. My son took my camera and made this portrait. I love it first because I see my enjoyment of my son in my eyes. But I also like it because my hair looked straight up terrific. I was wearing it a little long then, something I did off and on from college to my early 40s.

I now accept that little by little the top of my head will come to look like my dad’s, and I increasingly won’t like how I look. I never liked how Dad styled that front-and-center tuft, but I am no smarter than him and can’t see a better way. Maybe I’ll try shaving it. But fortunately, progress is slow and I won’t have to cross that bridge soon.

I’ve been very fortunate — I’ve had an extra long run of youthful good looks. I won’t complain anymore. But it feels good to get this off my chest.

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54

Every New Year’s Day I announce a theme, usually a single word, that represents the way I want to grow. As I turn 54 today, I want to reflect on this year’s theme, which is congruence — that is, to live a life true to my values and needs, to be honest with my yes and my no.

I’ve leaned into this year’s theme harder than any year’s theme before. I’ve really worked on advocating for myself.

The timing could not have been better. Shortly into the new year I took a new job as Director of Engineering in a software company. Unexpectedly, I’ve found myself needing to set strong boundaries with a particular VP. His function and mine are interrelated; we work fairly closely together. Sometimes he oversteps.

At first, I wasn’t sure of the fellow’s intentions. Did he think I was incapable of my job? Was he trying to take over territory? In time, I came to see that he is acting in good faith. He just has a command-and-control kind of personality, and tends to direct anything that doesn’t seem in order. Fortunately, every time I’ve set a boundary with him, he’s honored it. I’ve even given him critical feedback a time or two, and he’s received it well and tried to act on it. I believe that in time he will trust me and my team and I won’t have to draw lines with him anymore.

Also unexpectedly, in June I had to have a very blunt conversation with my boss. When he hired me he agreed to let me hire a layer of managers to directly lead the engineers — all 21 of them. That’s a lot of direct reports, far too many for me to do a good job of managing them and also do the other duties of my job. But then the money to make those hires kept not coming and kept not coming. And then my company took a very large outside investment, which created a lot of activity, and my already full schedule became double and triple booked. I had barely been keeping up with everything, but not anymore. I went on the fast track to burnout.

My mistake was waiting. I should have held my boss to his promise from day one. I kick myself now. I try to give myself a pass because I could not have seen coming the large investment and the performance pressure it has placed on us. But even without that, I wasn’t doing every aspect of my job well enough because there was simply more than I could do.

At home, I’ve started several conversations with my wife about what we want out of our marriage and our home. The crazy family challenges we’ve lived through have tended to put us in constant go mode. There’s been emergency after emergency. It’s left little time for us to talk about and work out what we want our home and our life together to be. Except where I personally take care of things at home, this home life isn’t what I want it to be. But as we’ve talked about what we want, we’ve both tried hard to honor it, and be honest about when we can’t.

This has been hard. I have not enjoyed it. At my core, I want harmony to simply exist, so I can live placidly within it. I’ve always known that’s not realistic, that you have to work at building and maintaining alignment, but I’ve generally put off doing anything about it unless I was backed against a wall. I hope that as I keep practicing this, it will become a normal part of my behavior.

I don’t expect to be perfect. It’s just that where I’ve had unhappiness and dissatisfaction in my life — and I’ve had considerable helpings of both — at the root, I didn’t live true to my values and needs.

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53

As I turn 53 today I’ve been thinking about the life lessons I still haven’t learned.

Row of Herbies

Chief among them is that I will always have shortcomings. During my 40s I put a lot of effort and energy into working through shortcomings. I believed, deep down, that I was unacceptable because of the ways in which I failed or fell short. I felt real shame over a few of those shortcomings. I wanted to identify and eliminate them all.

I’d like to get over that in my 54th year. That’s not to say I won’t keep working to be a better man. I just want to to accept that I’ll always be a work in progress, and that I may never be able to change certain things about me that I wish were different or better.

I want to be a better man because I want to have a better life, one less characterized by stress, disappointment, and sadness; one more characterized by peace and joy. I want to not be a jerk or an ass in the world, even unintentionally, even when I feel justified. I want to be more effective in the things I do and in my interactions with others. I want to build people and institutions up, not damage them.

It might surprise you to learn that I’m largely driven by anger. I see things that are wrong and it pisses me off. I want to correct or control them. I want to fix what’s broken and shape what’s wrong for right. I want justice. It’s my basic nature.

My photography and my writing counterbalance the anger. Photography is a wonderful distraction where I can lose myself in pleasure. Writing helps me discover what I think so I can make peace.

I still haven’t learned what to do when I feel angry. I’ve spent my life trying to not yell and punish in anger like Dad often did. He always played it down by saying he only raised his voice, but his raised voice always frightened me so. I don’t want to pollute my world like that.

That’s led me to internalize angry feelings. Sometimes I can process them and let them go. Once in a while they leak out in passive-aggressive ways. Mostly I get stuck in them. They keep me awake at night. They lead to pervasive feelings of disappointment. Unchecked, that disappointment leads to depression.

This year I’d like to work on dealing with anger more in the moment. First, I’d like to analyze quickly whether I can act on the thing that has activated my anger. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For the things I can’t do anything about, I want to work on acceptance — radical acceptance, if need be — and set boundaries that let me protect and care for myself.

For the things I can do something about, I’m still afraid of losing my cool like my dad used to. That will remain unacceptable to me. But if I can just stay steady in that moment, and speak swiftly, I think I can speak my mind and discharge the anger without leaving others feeling burned. Take a quick breath, find as even a tone of voice as I can, and say what’s bothering me. Stay steady, speak swiftly. Maybe that will sometimes change things. But if it doesn’t, at least the anger should reduce and be less likely to linger.

I think this starts with me accepting my basic angry nature. After 53 years it’s still here, which is strong evidence that it’s not likely to go away. This is who I am. I don’t have to like it, but the path to peace and sanity is to accept it.

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52

Jct 52

Every year on my birthday I write about growing older. But 52 isn’t that old.

It’s twice as old as 26, which is about the median age of the software engineers who work for me. I feel twice their age as I notice their youthful good looks and see them struggle through things I mastered long ago. I miss my youthful good looks but would not unlearn these valuable life skills to get them back.

As the rest of my 50s unfold I look forward foremost to our children all building independent lives. I’m eager to see what they choose and whether it brings them joy and satisfaction. I am eager for Margaret and I to turn our attention toward the life we want to build for ourselves, and to enjoy our children and grandchildren.

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49

My hair is thinning on top. I wondered if this would ever happen. It started happening to my dad when he was in his late 30s, and he tells me his dad went bald in his 20s. Now it’s my turn. I’m glad I’m tall, or everybody’d be able to see through to my scalp. My eyebrows are thinning, too; my height doesn’t mask that. At least you have to look really hard to notice my gray hairs. They don’t show up at all in this photograph!

49

I can no longer deny that I need reading glasses, but I forget to carry them most of the time and so look at my phone at arm’s length.

My new normal weight, the one my body defaults to when I don’t overeat, is 10 pounds more than it was 10 years ago.

And I tire more easily now. My athletic friends have complained about loss of ability and stamina since their early 30s. An advantage of being mostly sedentary is that there’s a lot less to lose, and you lose it a lot later.

I’m lucky: I’ve aged physically a lot more slowly than most of my age peers. Yet each of these changes in my body has come with some feelings of resistance and loss, and has taken effort to accept.

I decided a long time ago not to fight physical aging. I’m not going to resort to Rogaine or hair dye, and certainly not cosmetic surgery (tempting as it may be as I really hate how my right eyelid has gone droopy). A little more exercise would do me good, though.

But no regrets, because I’m happy and content now. That wasn’t always true when I was twentysomething and thirtysomething. I say it every year at this time: you couldn’t pay me enough to go back.

Happy 49th birthday to me!

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