The thirties are rough. At least for those of us living in America in 2016. So many of my friends in this age group, male and female alike, are struggling to figure it all out. There are lots of culprits that contribute to the strife: societal pressures, biological clocks, careers that have plateaued or have not proved as fulfilling as promised, the infinite opportunities and lifestyle choices that contribute to paralyzing indecision.
The variation in lifestyle for Americans in their thirties is quite stunning. At almost 33, I am surrounded by babies. Two of my best friends are pregnant and lots of other friends and colleagues are starting families. I also have several friends my age who aren’t even close to marriage. Instead, they’re focusing on their careers, or trying their best to prolong the fun and irresponsibility that defined their twenties. I see each group struggle in different ways. Some in marriages with children are learning what sacrifice means, whether it’s forgoing social events or suspending their careers to raise their families. Those who haven’t settled down are approaching a crossroads. Putting off marriage and children has never been easier or more accepted in our culture. Still, conventional society wants what it wants and biological limitations are very real.
I watch all of this going on around me, observing my friends as they spend countless hours discussing these challenges, and I can’t help but think that we’re all missing the point. We agonize over life decisions and obsess about what we don’t have. All the while, we’re missing out on living. I desperately fear looking back on my life only to find that I spent my best years in a ball of stress, worrying about things that ultimately didn’t matter or that I didn’t have control over anyway.
Some of us have an innate ability to keep perspective. Others have to try harder. This brings me to Andy.
I met Andy in late 2012, just prior to the beginning of the 83rd Texas Legislative Session. As chief of staff for a state representative, one of my responsibilities is hiring and managing personnel. With a tiny budget, I’m faced with the perpetual challenge of finding talented and capable folks to help us do the work of the people of Texas for little, or in most cases, no pay. Thus, I have become quite creative in finding cheap or free help. That year, I signed our office up to participate in a fellowship program for graduate and law students interested in environmental policy. The students are fulltime and free to us, as they receive a stipend from a nonprofit sponsor. Given my boss’s penchant for water policy and his service on the committee that vets all water-related legislation, this was a perfect opportunity for us.
The program director sent me three students. I interviewed each of them. Andy was last. He had been a reporter at the local NPR affiliate and decided he might want to do something different, so he started a graduate school program at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. He can help us with communications and media relations too! I thought, with stars in my eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the extra sleep I would get with Andy on the team. I knew right away Andy was the one. I was asked to rank them in order of preference. I went suicide. Andy or no one.
Andy accepted and immediately became an integral part of the team. Our office was infinitely cooler with him a part of it. At the radio station, he’d done a stint as a music reporter. He introduced us all to cool, unknown bands. He possesses a true passion for good food and drink and generously shared his knowledge of the Austin restaurant scene with us. We spent many evenings dining as a team at various restaurants, where we’d share the best charcuterie and sparking rosé in the city. He’d invite us to his charming abode in Austin’s ridiculously priced 78704 zip code (he was smart and bought several years ago when housing was still relatively affordable). We’d pitch washers and shoot BB guns in his backyard while listening to Kris Kristofferson on his record player. Andy became the coolest person I knew in short order.
In addition to being an impressively awesome dude, he far exceeded expectations in the office. His kind demeanor and positive attitude, even in the most stressful moments, had a positive effect on our office’s productivity and our ability to work as a team. He’d talk to constituents like they were long lost childhood friends and he’d charm even the most difficult people with whom we worked.
The only drawback I identified about Andy at the time was his laissez-faire attitude about everything. Very little riled him. I thought this personality trait was fine until things got hectic and deadlines were fast approaching. I would become increasingly uptight as the session wore on, but Andy remained his jovial, relaxed self.
One afternoon, we worked while inactively listening to the back-and-forth of members debating a bill on the House floor on the closed circuit TV in our office. I was suddenly startled to hear the clerk reading the caption of one of our most important water bills. We were introducing a floor amendment that needed a lot of explaining. Andy had been working all morning on updated talking points and a chart to accompany the amendment to further explain its implications. I ran out of my office to Andy’s desk, shouting, “Take the chart and talking points up to the floor!”
Andy was sitting with his legs crossed, chin in hand, chatting with a lobbyist. He turned to look at me. “Okay.” He said calmly without getting up.
“The boss needs it NOW!” I shouted, my shoulders scrunched tensely around my neck.
He grabbed the papers from the printer and strolled out of the office toward the House floor.
“He has absolutely no sense of urgency,” I mumbled to myself as I watched the debate on our water bill, realizing the boss was in possession of the documents and everything would be just fine.
The following week, I received a simple text from my boss: “Andy’s not in here.” It was around 8:15 on a Tuesday morning. The Natural Resources Committee hearing had begun promptly at 8:00 a.m. Andy never missed a hearing. He always arrived an hour early on Tuesdays and sat in the hearing room until the bitter end, every Tuesday without fail.
No call no show. Really, Andy? I typed a text that unbeknownst to me at the time would never be answered. “Where are you?” Followed a few minutes later by, “Are you ok?”
At about 9:00 a.m. we received a call from the Brackenridge Hospital emergency room. They had Andy and needed contact information for his family.
“Is he ok?” My colleague Shannon asked the nurse, who couldn’t answer. Word spread like wildfire in true Texas Capitol fashion. Suddenly, through the television speaker, we heard the committee chairman ask for prayers for our water policy analyst who had been in a bad accident. Then, as if by teleportation, our boss materialized in the doorway. The other staffers present that morning and I jumped in his truck and drove like mad to the hospital. We raced into Andy’s room. He was unconscious with crusted blood covering his head and his pillow. Some fresh blood oozed from his ears.
He had been in a terrible motorcycle accident the night before. His helmet had popped off on impact and he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), but he was alive. We all erupted in tears of joy. Andy was alive! Thank God!
The weeks and months that followed were tough. Andy had a lot of rehab to do. The other staffers and I held vigils at his bedside, brought him food that he couldn’t eat, and spent more time with his family and friends than our own. He ended up making a full recovery, never losing his sense of humor throughout the whole ordeal. Prior to the accident, Andy sometimes talked about running for office. We joked months later that his campaign slogan should be “Vote for the guy with the TBI!”
I spent a lot of sleepless nights directly after Andy’s accident, replaying the scene in my mind in which I yelled at him. I deeply regretted losing patience with him. Everything would have worked out in the end, regardless of whether I stressed about it. If all of the fretting and hand wringing I do have absolutely zero effect on the outcome, why do it? It’s one of the many lessons Andy has taught me.
Andy is a fantastic journalist. He’s a great researcher, storyteller, and communicator. He’s unequivocally Pulitzer material. Last summer, Andy’s talents were recognized. He got a job reporting for Marketplace and moved to LA. Shortly after his move, Shannon and I visited him.
He had just moved into an apartment in Silver Lake. We arrived at LAX, picked up our rental car and headed for his place. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday, so he was still at work, but he left a key for us under the mat. After hauling our senselessly heavy bags up what seemed like a thousand stairs, we found the key and let ourselves into Andy’s barren apartment.
“Seriously?” I lamented as I surveyed the emptiness of the place. An air mattress with a small blanket rested in the corner of the bedroom. The living room was bare save for the record player and Andy’s record collection. His stuff was being shipped from Austin and wouldn’t arrive until the following week. “Of course Andy would fill his suitcase with his records, rather than practical stuff like bedding and silverware.” I laughed. Typical Andy.
Shannon and I decided we would make the most of it. The previous weekend we’d camped at Mount Rainier National Park. We still had our sleeping bags with us, so we decided we’d do a little urban camping that weekend.
We spent an absolutely joyful 48 hours in LA with Andy. He’d been in the city for less than two weeks and had already amassed a group of talented, fun, and eclectic friends, including Kevin, a screenwriter/musician who is hilarious and great at darts; Raghu, who is also a smart and talented radio reporter; and Nancy, a violinist and teacher, whose birthday party we attended. In her spare time, Nancy makes her own ice cream, with inventive flavors, like jalapeno lavender. She treated guests of her birthday party to an ice cream taste test. We met some of the coolest people I’ll ever know at Nancy’s party, all of whom are in “the industry.” I immediately wanted to figure out to become a creative person, to move there, and co-opt all of Andy’s friends.
Just before we left LA for Austin, we all went to brunch, where a deep conversation about life, our careers, and our futures ensued. As we discussed anxieties and unknowns, Andy dropped some wisdom on us.
If you ever get the chance to befriend Andy, do it. Your life will be better for it.
As I meander through this life, I try to leave no room for the worrying. Instead, I strive to embody Andy’s philosophy.
“Spend all of your time being thankful for what is awesome and spend none of your time thinking about what’s bad.”