stories of my dad: a nordic ski to the office

My dad has the energy of Al Czervik from

My dad is such an excellent human being, it makes me feel exuberant just sharing his energy with others, which is why stories of my dad have become the foundation of many of my friendships. I’ve always felt that sharing these stories with others ushers them into a fabulous little club of inside jokes, cigars, and Laphroaig. Sort of like walking into the clubhouse in Caddyshack, elevated and somewhat exclusive, yet utterly ridiculous. A club where everyone feels like an ace.

I wanted to start a series where I tell some of the more ridiculous stories I’ve heard or witnessed, partly so I can share them with a broader audience, but also partly because I know that if I write them, the punchlines will be more consistent zingers. So I hope you read this, perhaps with an adult beverage of your choice, and join our family for just a few minutes. Welcome to the club.

It was a snowy day in downtown Chicago, in about 1983.

The Lasalle bridge in downtown Chicago.

My dad was working on Lasalle, a street that gives you a snapshot of the older days in Chicago when white-collar crime ran rampant and Al Capone ruled the roost. Riddled with “big brother” energy. When I walked along this street as a little girl, I was utterly dazzled, entirely entranced by the power I could feel between those massive steel beams. This was certainly not a place for funny-business.

The early 80s was early in my dad’s career, before he had a name or much of a reputation. In fact, a reputation is exactly what he was trying to build at this time in his life. His cohort didn’t yet know that Paul Zeller stood for relentless pursuit, resiliency, and unabashed confidence, but they were about to find out.

It was late January, which is an almost punishing time of year to spend in Chicago. The edges of Lake Michigan often freeze over into jagged iceburgs. I’ve seen the winds get high enough to blow people from the lakeshore into the frozen abyss, where they often never return. There was a blizzard, and almost everyone gave up on the idea of going to the office. Most of us, I think, would’ve relished in this kind of solidarity. It’s practically a snow-day for adults. Where most of us would see a break, however, is where my dad saw an opportunity.

His home phone begins to trill and he joyfully paces over to the receiver.

“Hi, John. Yes, I’ll be on the call. No, not from home, I’ll be taking it from the conference room. Yes, I’ve seen the weather. Yes, I’ll be there shortly.”

My dad slams down the phone on the receiver, pops up from his seat and immediately gets dressed with not a single furrow in his brow. In a suit? No, not at all. The weather made the loop undrivable. The L was shut down for the day. No, my father donned his long-johns and prepared to make his commute to his corporate office.

Right as he’s about to swing out the door, he whips open the front closet, grabs his nordic skis, boots, and poles (that reach armpit height), and confidently saunters down to the lobby of his building. Once he reaches the door, he prys it open against the plundering wind and snow and slams his skis down on the sidewalk with as much force as the phone’s receiver not 10 minutes earlier. His wide smile has gathered dimples on his face, and with the purest form of panache, he straps on the skis and heads off to work.

A more recent picture of Dad in his Nordic ski garb.

That’s correct. My father cross-country skied through downtown Chicago to get to his office. He says that he was the only person in sight in one of the most bustling areas of the city. And to this day, he swears that it was one of the defining moments of his career. And despite how ridiculous that image of him gliding down Lasalle is, I have no trouble believing that this was a defining moment for him and his character.

At the end of the day, only we know ourselves, and I think life is our best attempt to demonstrate it to others. Or, as Dolly Parton brilliantly quipped: “find out who you are and do it on purpose.My dad is relentlessly persistent, driven, and totally committed to his work. Although this story is entirely ridiculous, I think he honestly exemplified who he is when he put those skis on.

And so, to you, dear reader, I hope you think often of who you are, what makes you an individual. And I hope you do it on purpose, even if it entails tracking snow into a corporate office and taking a call while wearing long johns. There is nothing that feels more brilliant than being authentically yourself.

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Young computer scientist, studying intersection with cognitive science. Driven by intellectual curiosity and snacks.

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Chloe Zeller

Chloe Zeller

Young computer scientist, studying intersection with cognitive science. Driven by intellectual curiosity and snacks.

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