So far in my life, 2021 is the only year when I can remember a “significant” event being the last thing that happened to me before we rang in the new year. To be honest, it’s not all that “significant,” and it was something that was going to happen at some point, I just didn’t expect it to be in the last moments of 2021 for me. I met a cast member from Saturday Night Live.
First, some backstory.
As a 45 year old guy, it feels funny to use the words “best friend.” Particularly when I have so many great friends, and many close, great friends. But some times you hit it off with someone in a way that’s a bit different, perhaps sharing commonalities with them that set them in a different category than others. That’s how it is for my friend Chad and me. (That’s us in the picture above. Chad took me to a Steelers/Ravens game in Pittsburgh. The trip is one of my fondest recent memories.) Early in our friendship we discovered some similarities in our lives that created a special bond. We hit it off quickly.
In the years since, I’ve spent some quality time with his family, including his parents, one of his brothers(2), and both sets of his grandparents. They’re all wonderful people; what you might call “good stock.” His father, Michael, is one of the nicest, most loving people you could ever hope to meet, always working to make sure you know you’re important to him.
He believes everybody is special(2). I’ve joined the scores of people who look up to Michael as a mentor. I often send him my writing for his thoughts. He’s a good writer himself(3).
“I think the distance between a hug and chokehold is typically very small. ..I’ll try to write about how humans get along with each other.”
He’s one of those guys who knows how to hug a person too. Not just the bro-hug kind of one arm-er with a slap on the back. These are strong bearhugs followed by eye contact and a hearty, “It’s so good to see you!” So, when he’s around, I make efforts to be able to see him. People like to be seen.
Pandemic be damned(4), my family and I had planned to be in New York City to ring in the new year. As it turns out, Michael was in NYC with his wife, Sarah, to visit their youngest son, Austin, and daughter-in-law who are expecting their first child.
Having seen Michael’s Facebook post sharing his visit to NYC with his friends, I texted him the moment I got to town to see if we were close enough to get together for the bear hug.
As it turns out, we were. I was staying in near Times Square with my family, and he would be lunching with his family in Washington Square.
Michael’s son, Austin, was the only member of the family I hadn’t met yet. He’s a comedian and impressionist, and this fall was added to the cast of Saturday Night Live as a featured player. You might know him as James Austin Johnson(5). Chad had introduced me to James Austin’s work a couple years prior, and we all reveled in his success as he grew. So I admit, as much as I was looking forward to my hug from Michael, I was also looking forward to finally meeting James Austin if the opportunity presented itself.
Here’s the thing about extroverts like me – we’re not great at social cues. Interactions with friends and meeting people we have been looking forward to meeting are moments that trigger our dopamine receptors. We live for this stuff. And sometimes we miss (or ignore) social cues from non-extroverts or general rules of public interaction. I do this all the time. Michael is an extrovert too, and I think he’s probably as good as me at the social cue thing. That is to say, not very.
So, as I was making plans to meet up with him, my introvert wife and kids were checking my motives. My wife kept imploring me to be sure it was ok. I mean, we’d be interrupting their family’s lunch. I double and triple-checked. Michael seemed as excited as I was.
We arrived at our meeting spot in Washington Square and I got the hug, greeting, and smile I was looking for. I got to say “hi” to his wife, Sarah. And yes, I finally met James Austin Johnson. We chatted for a few moments. I didn’t take long, as even I knew there would be a more appropriate time and place for a more in-depth conversation(6). For what it’s worth, he was as polite and courteous as you could ever hope a celebrity-type person can be.
It appears that niceness is the Johnson family modus operandi.
Michael took a picture of our family, and we headed on our way. As we did, I thanked my own family for putting up with my overly outgoing ways and reflected that it was pretty cool that the last thing I did in 2021 was to meet a cast member of SNL. It was still fun, even though he was “just” the brother of my best friend.
High on dopamine from the experience I began to turn to where the ego always turns to bask in its glory – social media. I’m of the age (read: old) where this usually means Facebook. But I thought better of a braggadocios announcement. It felt a little weird, and it also felt that talking about it would have been a disservice to Michael and the rest of the family who I was also happy to see.
Instead, I created a status asking people what unexpected experiences they had during 2021. Being in a good mood, I was hoping others would share their exciting but unexpected experiences. I should have been more specific about my positive vibes in the moment because mostly, that’s not what happened.
There were a couple of celebratory responses about purchasing a house and getting a new job. There was a somewhat funny response from a friend who unexpectedly found herself working at a Spirit Halloween. This was somewhat of an inside joke for those of us who know her and never would have guessed she’d work at a Halloween costume store. Finally there was the friend who took a trip to Europe, decided to stay, and hasn’t returned since.
But I was struck by the amount of experiences people shared that weren’t, well, good. One friend, (who I have to be honest, may have been responding tongue-in-cheek) said he experienced Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Another somewhat cheeky friend said he had to schedule a colonoscopy. Another spoke about how she’d been hurt by people she cared about several times during 2021.
Covid had a strong presence in the discussion with one friend lamenting the failure of the world to conquer the virus by vaccination. Another’s husband acquired the virus and was forced to retire from work. The only positivity in relation to COVID was a friend who was able to run an ultra-marathon only because it wasn’t cancelled due to COVID.
One friend had their house hit by lightning. Another, a teacher-friend of mine had the horrific experience of watching a student get stabbed right in front of her.
My friend, Christina, simply said her whole year was a mess.
One young woman was diagnosed with epilepsy. One was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Another lost her mother to cancer. Then there was the friend whose son was diagnosed with cancer.
Her young, pre-school aged son.
It was a sobering few hours for me as those responses trickled into my newsfeed. As I read the difficult comments, I remembered most of them from earlier in the year. Because while Facebook and social media is where our egos go to bask in their glory, it’s also where we go to share our struggles. My friends had shared these struggles throughout. I began to feel a little bit guilty about my excitement over meeting a cast member of SNL. It seemed kind of trivial in light of the struggles I was now remembering in the lives of those I care about.
My 2021 had its share of challenges. This was the year we decided my wife and daughter should get an apartment 2.5 hours away from where I live and work so my daughter can attend a school that specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia. With my son off to college, I was suddenly a quasi-bachelor again. We sold our house and I moved in with my in-laws to help care for them as they live their senior years. It’s actually been harder to adjust than I thought it would be. It’s a weird, unexpected chapter in our lives.
But it’s not tragic. The reality is, my son was a good student and got some scholarships to help make college more affordable. My wife does pretty well at work, and we can afford the special, private school for our daughter. My in-laws are glad I can be around to help them as they get older. They both tell me on a regular basis how much they love me.
I spent a long time thinking about this. I’ve always thought about it. The cognitive dissonance I experience lays somewhere between, “I’m really grateful for all I have and have experienced!” and, “Why do others suffer when I do not?” I don’t have an answer. But I have made a decision to live with more intention.
Those little “I-just-met-a-celebrity” things? Well, I’m going to continue to enjoy the shit out of them. I’m not going to pretend they don’t mean something to me, even if it’s “just” my best friend’s brother. It’s still fun. And life should involve copious amounts fun and pleasantness. I don’t know the number of times I’ve seen announcements on Facebook in regards to cancer, accidents, deaths, etc… which were followed up with “hug your loved ones,” you never know when life will change. I think that’s part of living life to the fullest when you can. There might be a day when you will rely on the memories of those times to bring cheer to your day. So I’m going to live a life of gratitude with this in mind.
But as I do, I’m going to remember that part of being truly grateful is to try to be a part of creating these special moments for others. Michael and his wife Sarah have made this a way of life. This is a legacy worth leaving – remembering that each and every interaction we have might be considered important, cherished even, by those with whom we are interacting.
Chad understands this, and he’s spent no small amount of time being a part of my life and creating memories.
James…or Austin (I still haven’t figured out which name to use) understands it too. This is likely why there wasn’t any hint of annoyance as some jamoke brought his family into a restaurant where he was eating with his parents, pregnant wife, and her parents for a hug and a handshake.
So thanks, James…or Austin, for being gracious in that moment. And congrats on the bundle of joy to come.
1) The third brother in the Johnson clan is named Brian. Brian and I spent some time golfing together a couple of years back. You can rest assured he’s as cool as the rest of the family. (Continue reading.)
2) Dr. Michael Johnson’s doctorate dissertation was titled, “What’s Love Got To Do With It: Is There a Relationship Between Generosity, Satisfaction With Life, And Commitment To An Organization?” Translation- Does being nice make a difference? I mean c’mon, the guy literally has a doctorate in being nice. (Continue reading.)
3) Grammar Nazis may take issue with my use of the phrase “good writer” instead of telling you that Michael “writes well.” It was intentional stab at double meaning. He writes about bringing goodness to the world. (Continue reading.)
4) If you need to take a second to think shaming thoughts about my decision to take my family to NYC during a pandemic, go ahead. I understand. Going to NYC might have been the wrong thing to do at this point in world history. But I’m not sure what the right thing is at this point. About half of my colleagues have been diagnosed recently and so was my son a couple weeks prior to our trip. Since we’d had this excursion planned for some time, we decided to take our chances with NYC. When you’re ready, read on.
5) To say James Austin Johnson’s foray into the world of SNL has been a success thus far would be a major understatement. Those of us with a connection to him sat glued to our televisions on October 2, 2022 in hopes that he’d get a few moments of air time, we dropped our collective jaw as was the first performer to grace the stage in the cold open. They opened the show with a first-year, featured player. He hasn’t slowed down since. (Continue reading.)
6) For the record, my own son, who knows a thing or two about how to meet celebrities, grew more uncomfortable with my audacity on this day. “Did we really just interrupt their lunch?” Yes, son, we did. Thank you for being a part of it. In general though, my son is correct. As a rule, I only interrupt the lunches of people I know personally will be happy I did. Well, mostly, with all apologies to the rest of Michael and Sarah’s table that day. (Continue reading.)