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This blog post comes from my mom, Joanne Kelleher, as she recalls a #christmasmiracle from 30 years ago. It’s a great read, especially this time of year. Enjoy.

Gratitude is currently enjoying its day in the sun. Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines are sprinkled with #gratefuls and #gratitudes, and the happiness experts advise you to keep a gratitude journal if you want to live a happier life. This particular happiness hack is not new, it’s just become popular to publicly proclaim your gratitude. Most of us have always carried with us moments of grace that we call to mind for a burst of joy, or comfort, or encouragement, and they have been inspiring gratitude in us before there were hashtags to label them. As Christmas approaches, I remember back to such a moment that redeemed a difficult holiday season thirty years ago.

My little boy Bobby was three and he and I were living with my twin brothers in their 2-bedroom apartment in Bayside, Queens. My husband and I had separated, and my brothers had been kind enough to take us in until I could save up some money to rent an apartment. They were two single guys in their mid-20’s, not used to having an active little kid around, so I tried to keep Bobby quiet and out of their way when they were home so as not to wear out our welcome. Usually, we slept in the living room, but sometimes one of my brothers stayed at his girlfriend’s apartment, and on those nights we got to sleep in his bed.  That was always a treat, especially if it was a Thursday night and I could catch up with Knot’s Landing on the television in his room.

During that time, I worked in a warehouse answering phones for a company that rented out televisions and VCRs on a monthly basis. It was my job to let customers know the window for their delivery, pick-up, or service call. I also handled customer complaints, which could be pretty frequent because when stock was low, they rented out equipment that was not up to the usual standard. It wasn’t a great job, but it provided a small income while I tried to get my life back on track. I had become friendly with the other girl who worked there and we were planning to rent an apartment together.

Aside from the everyday stress of trying to get my life together, the added expectations and expense of the holidays were weighing on my mind. I had a few items on lay-away for Bobby, but there were always holiday-related purchases to make and errands to run. With the Christmas countdown accelerating, I decided to squeeze in a lunchtime dash to my go-to neighborhood for bargain shopping. I knew that parking wouldn’t be easy in that congested area, especially at this time of year, but I had to get my shopping done. As I reached the heart of the shopping center, I saw a prime parking spot right on the main street. What a lucky break! I pulled up in front of it preparing to back into it, but before I could back up, a car snuck up behind me and pulled into the spot front first. What?! Are you kidding, guy!? I flung the car door open and stormed back to address the other driver – That is MY spot!  He said, “I’m not moving.”

That was pretty much the end of the conversation and the end of my reserves. It wasn’t just the fact that he wasn’t moving, but the way that he dismissed me, like I wasn’t even worth the argument, that deflated me. I couldn’t muster up more yelling but I couldn’t move either. I stood there frozen in place, hand on hip, the recent months of failure and worry flooding through me and pooling at my eyes in tears that threatened to spill over. Suddenly, I heard a voice from somewhere above my right shoulder. I looked up from the spot-stealer to see a police officer sitting on a horse.

Officer: What’s the problem?

Me: He took my spot.

Officer (to spot-stealer): Get out of the spot.

As simple as that.

All of this had taken place under the el (the elevated train tracks), which obscured the midday sun, but a few blocks beyond us, the el ended and the sun shone brightly. When I looked up at the officer to thank him, he was backlit by sunlight; it looked as though he was glowing. And just then, it began to snow – flurries, the kind that swirl around you like the last flakes settling in a snow globe. The only thing missing was a choir of angels singing. I stood transfixed in the magic of it all, then headed back to my car to claim my parking spot.

I have never forgotten that moment.

On the day of the hero police officer, I couldn’t know that things would get worse before they got better, that my father would die alone in his apartment on Christmas Day, or that the friend who had agreed to rent an apartment with me would back out and leave me with a rent that I couldn’t cover. On that day I only knew that for the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful. It was my own tiny Christmas miracle.

Moments of grace don’t always appear as a literal knight in shining armor riding in on a horse illuminated by rays of sunlight in a swirl of gently falling snow, serving justice. Yes, sometimes these moments are huge, like getting the call that your son is in the clear after a months-long medical scare he’d been dealing with. But there’s also grace to be found in the things that we take for granted – having enough to eat, a roof over our heads, our friends and family, even just a quiet moment with your cats purring on your lap.

Catch these moments when you can, and savor them.

Merry Christmas!

#gratitude #grateful

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When I was a senior in high school, I applied for a $500 scholarship from an organization called the Sons of Italy.

I didn’t know much about the Sons of Italy except for the few times my Italian grandfather had mentioned them in passing. In their own words, here’s what the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) are all about:

We are a national organization of men and women who represent the estimated 26 million Americans of Italian heritage, dedicated to promoting our culture, our traditions, our language, the legacy of our ancestors, and our contributions to the U.S. and the world. … We exemplify the very best of what it is to be Italian American.

To compete for the scholarship, I had to write a short essay on why I was proud to be an Italian. Easy money, I thought. I ate pasta and meatballs with my dad’s side of the family every Sunday for as long as I could remember. Surely, I could parlay this pseudo Italian-ness into a saccharine story about my Italian pride. Even if I didn’t really believe in the concept of ethnic pride.

When I told my family the next Sunday that I was writing the essay, my Italian grandmother beamed—that is, until I spoiled her good cheer by admitting that I was not, in fact, proud to be Italian.

“Not proud to be Italian?” she said, incredulously. “What would you rather be?”

It wasn’t that I would rather be something else. It was just that I never felt a sense of pride for being something that I had no control over. It’s not as though I’d been given a choice and selected to be half-Italian, 3/8 Irish, and 1/8 Portuguese. I’d simply been born with this heritage. The way I saw it, I was nothing more than a random soul floating around, eventually landing in a human body that happened to be a part of an Italian family from Queens, New York. How proud could I really be about that?

Over the years I’ve tended to identify more with my Italian side, perhaps for no other reason than my last name. (Had I been outfitted with my mother’s maiden name, Kelleher, I wonder if anyone would have sniffed out my Italian-ness.) But really my ethnicity was nothing more than a small talk topic of no more significance than the weather.

About eight years ago, my mother and grandmother (my Irish-Portuguese side) were invited to an unveiling ceremony for a new exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The museum opened in 1988 and serves as an educational memorial to the millions of American immigrants who settled in New York and lived in almost sub-human conditions as they tried to find work, raise a family, and build upon their social status ever so marginally with each passing generation.

My family was invited because one of the museum’s tours apparently mentioned one of my Irish-American relatives who struggled so mightily to find a social and financial foothold in 1860s New York City.

At the time I didn’t attend the ceremony, and didn’t give much thought to the Tenement Museum for years after the unveiling, even after my mother visited it a second time and assured me it would be worth my while for me to go see. I still didn’t budge, and so for our wedding anniversary she just went and bought two tickets for my wife and me.

In February 2015 we finally visited the museum. And I was blown away.

Our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, Rebecca, unfurled the remarkable—yet almost banal for new Americans in the 1860s—story of Joseph and Bridget Moore.

Hmmm, I thought, Moore. When, earlier in the week, I had told my grandmother I was finally going to the Tenement Museum, the name she told me to listen for was Jane Moore.

As Rebecca continued to tell Bridget and Joseph’s story, I realized that the tour included more than a mere mention of a long-ago relative of mine; the exhibit was the story of my own family’s origins in America.

By the end of the tour, as I slowly connected the dots of the real-life characters in Rebecca’s story, my family members, I discovered that Jane Moore was the daughter of Joseph and Bridget, making her the grandmother of my grandmother—my great great grandmother.

The hour-long tour covered the many challenges Irish-American families like the Moores faced: substandard living conditions; not enough work opportunities; specious blame for bringing cholera to America; crooked politicians leveraging financial favors given to poor Irish for their votes; and little to no medical care or government-sponsored financial assistance. (In the Moore’s case, a lack of medical care or access to medicine led to the death of one of Jane’s infant siblings. The tour included a room recreated to look like the site of the child’s wake, complete with a tiny coffin.)

Towards the end of the tour, Rebecca showed us a picture of Jane and her husband; Jane was the only one of Joseph and Bridget’s eight children (four of whom died during childhood) to have her own children. One of those children was my grandmother’s mom. Rebecca told us that two of Jane’s grandsons grew up to be a New York City fireman and policeman.

Those grandsons are my uncles (my mother’s twin brothers), Chris and Kenny.

I’m usually not a crier, but something struck me in that moment. That I’m a sixth generation New Yorker. That my family’s humble beginnings had been preserved so beautifully. And that every day Tenement Museum tour guides like Rebecca are telling complete strangers from all parts of the world the story of how the Moore family survived an Irish potato famine in Ireland, a hellish five-week trip in the hulls of a slave ship, treacherous and sometimes deadly working and living conditions, and evolved into the family I belong to today.

I still can’t quite say pride is the right word for what I feel towards my ancestry, whether it’s the Italian, Irish, or Portuguese pieces of me. But I certainly have a new appreciation for all the work and sacrifice and hardship that led up to my own existence. And for that, I should strive to make my ancestors proud of me.

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Petry Media Corporation, where I started my career back in 2005, officially shut its doors earlier this month. This is my version of a eulogy for the defunct company which, for better or worse, gave me my start in the media business.

“Do you play softball?”

I was asked this question while sitting in a decade-old, coffee-stained desk chair, waiting to be interviewed for a position at Petry Media Corporation. My potential new boss, Judy, was finishing up some paperwork and had me wait outside her cube for a few minutes. While I sat there, my would-be coworker, a guy named Ross, had ostensibly decided to conduct his own pre-interview.

Ross was my age and played for the company softball team. Petry didn’t have many employee perks, but softball, if you were good enough to make the team, was one of them.

Whether he was intending to or not, Ross put me at ease for my actual interview with Judy. By the time I finished a short while later, I was reasonably confident that I had the job. A couple of days later Judy called to formally make me an offer, which I accepted.* For a cool $26,700, I would be a research analyst at Petry Media. More importantly, I had my first real job in New York City.

*Earlier that week I had accepted the a research analyst position with one of Petry’s competitors. Before I could officially accept Judy’s offer, I had to renege on my acceptance at the other company. It was a pretty awkward call and my almost-new boss was pretty pissed—this was Friday and he had been expecting me to start the following Monday. You might be thinking that what I did was unethical, but the other company was offering an even lower starting salary, $22,000, so I didn’t really feel too bad about walking away.

What I didn’t fully understand when I accepted the offer, but would slowly piece together later, was how the Petry actually made its money.

Petry was a “rep firm” for local TV stations across the country. If you own the local NBC station (a.k.a. “affiliate”) in a relatively small market like Green Bay or St. Louis, you might not be able to afford to hire your own sales people to sell TV commercials on your station. Instead, you contracted a company like Petry, whose sales team would sell your station’s air time—and collect a percentage of the ad revenue they bring in.

My job was A) to keep the inventory (the TV shows) current in the system so the sales people could sell the ad space in them; and B) to give my best estimate of how many people would watch them (i.e. Nielsen ratings), so the sales people knew how much to charge for the ad space. For the second part, the estimates were based on how many people watched that show in the previous season, or for a new show, how other shows like it had performed in the past. (If we didn’t have high hopes for a show, we would simply use “time period” estimates based on the ratings for the canceled show that ran during that day and time in the prior TV season.)

The job was far from rocket science—a lot of the work was glorified data entry—but I enjoyed learning about the television industry. I’d heard the terms “rating” and “share” before, but didn’t really know what went into calculating them.

I made fast friends with Ross (the softball guy). We were the same age, both former journalism majors, and both huge Yankee fans. Ross had grown up in Manhattan; even as a Queens-born kid, I found that fascinating. I was commuting into work every day from Long Island and didn’t know a whole lot about The City. Ross was my unofficial tour guide, directing me on things like best subways to take to get somewhere, or the fact that Fifth Avenue was Manhattan’s vertical dividing line between streets, e.g. East 54th Street and West 54th Street.

I had been at Petry for a couple of months when softball season started. I wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team, but Marty, a veteran sales rep at Petry and the longtime manager of the softball team, let me try out. As the youngest guy on the team (besides Ross), I assumed I’d have no trouble playing my way into the lineup—but the fact that I even had to try out made me a little nervous.

I reached base on four infield singles and play solid defense in the outfield and made the team. (Eleven years later, I still play for the team. Over the years guys left Petry the company, but not Petry the softball team. Marty was the only remaining Petry employee to plan on the team before the company closed up shop earlier this month.)

The other nice perk of working at Petry was lunchtime. On most days we used the unoccupied conference room to watch TV while we ate lunch—and we could usually push the lunch hour to 90 minutes. If it was “upfront season,” the time of year when the TV networks were previewing their new fall lineups to whet the appetites of advertising buyers and sellers, we got to watch the pilots for new shows that the networks would send to Petry (to help our reps sell them). I remember seeing the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother and knowing it would be a hit.

The research analyst position at Petry, for most people who held it, typically had a shelf life of about a year, two at the most. Most of Petry’s research analysts followed one of two career paths. They either found research jobs at other media companies, or they entered Petry’s sales training program. (By all accounts the training program was fairly rigorous and low-paying. If you “passed,” Petry required you to sign a multi-year contract pledging your loyalty to them. This was, I gathered, a standard deal for rep firms.) The research-to-sales guys I knew seemed happy enough, but I wasn’t interested in selling for a living after a negative experience selling Cutco knives during college left a bad taste in my mouth.

While I looked for work at other companies around my year mark at Petry, Ross and I had tons of down time once we got our work done. We spent a lot of that time talking about Moneyball and the new trend of advanced metrics in baseball. Sometimes, when things were really slow, and felt like we’d “run out of internet,” we’d tinker with some of our work processes.

Part of keeping the inventory current was loading “tapes,” or the most current data files from Nielsen that had the ratings from all the shows in the most recent “sweep” period. (In my nearly two years at Petry, I never actually saw a “tape.”) The process involved putting certain codes in an application that looked like it was stuck in 1980. The numbers and letters we entered into the program’s various blank spaces didn’t seem to correspond to any sort of user manual. So, we wrote our own. When we found a step that didn’t seem to make sense, we changed it and put it in our manual (i.e. a Word document). Before we knew it, we’d literally rewritten Petry’s antediluvian process for uploading ratings data to its network. (I’m sure it’ll eventually be placed into the Petry time capsule for our great-grandchildren to discover.)

Eventually, Ross left Petry for a job at CBS, where he was already freelancing on weekends, trying to break into sports production. I left a few months later for another media job. Having Petry on my résumé helped me land the gig—my new boss had also started her career there, too.

Petry gave me my start in the grown-up working world, and while I left the company for greener pastures ten years ago, I’m still thankful for the time I spent there. R.I.P. Petry.

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On May 7 the New York Times published an expose about the horrific working conditions for manicurists in many of Manhattan’s nail salons, “The Price of Nice Nails.”

Specifically, the article pointed to many cases where workers were being paid abysmally low wages—after initially being forced to pay salon owners for the job in the first place—with little opportunity to earn more or work their way up to a decent living wage. Even well-tipping customers are no boon for these workers, because the salon owners are skimming their workers’ gratuities, too. The article also pointed to the hazardous conditions brought on by manicurists working with and breathing in harmful chemicals all day, often with no masks.

Suffice it to say the Times did not paint a pretty picture of NYC nail salons and many customers, including my wife, were left wondering if there was a way to be a “responsible” mani-pedi customer.

On Thursday night she had her first post-NYT mani-pedi. She went back to a salon she’d been to many times before, Angel’s Nail on the Upper East Side. Despite the claims in the Times, she felt Angel’s maintained a clean shop, the workers usually seemed in good spirits, and the prices weren’t dirt cheap to the point where she felt they were cutting corners on employee wages.

As the Times article pointed out, mani and pedi prices in NYC are actually lower than in other parts of the country—which is unheard of for basically any product or service I can think of—because a) the area is so much more concentrated with salons and b) salon owners pay their employees so little. From the Times story:

The typical cost of a manicure in the city helps explain the abysmal pay. A survey of more than 105 Manhattan salons by The Times found an average price of about $10.50. The countrywide average is almost double that, according to a 2014 survey by Nails Magazine, an industry publication.

With fees so low, someone must inevitably pay the price.

“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen,” said Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.”

If there was any question as to whether Angel’s Nail was aware of the NYT article (and the potential backlash against Manhattan nail salons), it was answered right away on the price board. My wife reports that in previous visits she paid about $33 for a mani-pedi at Angel’s. But this past Thursday, the same service was priced at $43–a 30% increase.

The way I see it we can interpret the big price bump in one of two ways: either the $10 difference represents the salon’s mea culpa over previously paying its workers poorly, now showing its customers that Angel’s has seen the error of its ways; or it represents a smart salon capitalizing on an opportunity to monetize its customers’ guilt for previously paying so little for their mani-pedis (though, why should customers feel guilty if the salon wasn’t doing anything wrong?).

The salon was nearing closing time when my wife arrived so she got the benefit of having two workers tend to her, one on the mani the other on the pedi. When she went to pay her total came to $47 (not the $43 from the price board, so now it was a 42% increase from her last visit). With the article in mind, she didn’t feel like she was in a position to argue, so she went ahead and paid it. On top of that she tipped BOTH workers, more than she normally would have. All told she paid around $55 for a the same mani-pedi that used to cost her about $38.

I can only assume other nail customers are seeing changes in the pricing–and possibly the level of service, cleanliness and customer service–at their local salons. I’d like to think its made the bad salons clean up their act. If that means the good salons are using it to make a little more money for themselves, well, I’ll leave the laws of supply and demand sort out whether that’s a smart strategy moving forward.

Have you been to a Manhattan nail salon before and after the Times article? Have you seen a difference?

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Yesterday I competed in the 2014 Men’s Health Urbanathlon in New York City.

I went in thinking the Urbanathlon would basically be like a Tough Mudder course, which I ran in 2012 in New Jersey, minus the mud. Beyond that my frame of reference for timed or racing events is mostly running races I’ve done in Central Park and other parts of New York City, as well as the Anthem Richmond Marathon I completed in 2012 in Virginia.

Yesterday’s Urbanathlon was a 10-mile course within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, starting and ending at Citi Field, where baseball’s New York Mets play.

Like so many “adventure races,” including Tough Mudder’s rival Spartan Race (not to mention the CrossFit Games and the American Ninja Warrior competition), the gimmick here is that it’s not just a running race–which adventure race promoters often disparage as “boring”–but an obstacle course with running built in. But with the Urbanathlon, I’d say it was essentially a 10-mile running race with a few not-so-difficult obstacles added in.

For someone like me, who runs about a 10-minute mile (which is not particularly fast) I had hoped to make up some time against faster runners on the obstacles. I have decent upper body strength and can pull up my body weight pretty easily with my arms, so I figured I’d gain at least a few minutes on monkey bars, wall climbs, etc. However the obstacles were fairly easy to complete and I never felt like I made up more than a couple of seconds on them. I can’t remember any obstacle taking more than a minute or two, at which point it became a foot-race again.

Most of the obstacles involved simple over or under moves–including jumping and ducking police barricades–or navigating short tire runs. The course did include monkey bars, but I was through them with just four or five swings. (On the Tough Mudder course, the monkey bars were spaced farther apart and were built like a peaked roof so you had to climb on an incline and then a decline. Also, they were greased up and your hands were already covered in mud, so the level of difficulty was much higher.)

By far the toughest and most unique obstacle I encountered at the Urbanathlon came in the last mile or so of the course, which took us into Citi Field. Once inside, competitors had to walk or run up and down the stands of the stadium for about six sections, a mini tour de stade. (I imagine this would have been much cooler if I was a Met fan.) From there we got to actually run on the warning track of the field–which, even for a Yankee fan, was pretty cool–and eventually out into the parking lot where we crawled under some propped up Volkswagens (sponsor!), jumped over some NYC taxi cabs (I saw a couple of guys do that slide across the hood thing you see in the movies), and up and down a cargo net stretched over a school bus.

I completed the entire course in an hour and 40 minutes, which is just about my usual 10-minute mile running pace (the course was just over 10 miles). Considering my time included conquering 14 obstacles, it’s safe to say they were nothing more than a minor hindrance to my overall pace. Overall I finished in the middle of the pack, 495th out of a field of 1,056.

Speaking of time, I had also assumed that like Tough Mudder, there would be long waits for some of the obstacles due to a high volume of competitors. (That race took me almost five hours to complete 12 miles plus all the obstacles.) But at Urbanathlon, I hardly waited for any of the obstacles besides when the people ahead of me started to slow up on the stair climb.

The Urbanathlon cost about $100 per entrant (slightly more or less depending on how early you registered). For an event of this distance that’s not a bad price, especially if it serves as the motivation for otherwise sedentary competitors to get off the couch and train for it. As for me, who’s generally pretty active, I was hoping to be pushed to my physical limit a little more than just summoning the stamina to run 10 miles. I thought the mud theme at Tough Mudder was a little overdone, but that event also has some really difficult obstacles outside of the mud, a few of which I couldn’t complete.

Obstacles aside, the Urbanathlon NYC course was beautiful as a running race. Most people who live outside of Queens (any many who do) don’t realize how much Corona Park has to offer. Aside from the U.S. Open and Citi Field, the park features baseball and soccer fields, water, biking, and even a small zoo.

For runners who want a little something extra in their races to break up the all the running, the Urbanathlon is exactly that. But for non-runners in the market for a challenging and fun obstacle course that will test both their upper and lower body, I suggest trying out for American Ninja Warrior instead.

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