Learning to Play The Hop Critical In Life

In life, like baseball, you need to learn to play the hops.

Last week a friend told me about when a simple piece of advice whispered on the sidelines of a high school basketball game seemed to pivot his son’s perspective on life.

“We’re at his high school basketball game, and he’s giving it his all – but frustrated,” he said.

At halftime, my friend made his way down from the bleachers and pulled his son aside.

“Listen,” he said. “You’re trying too hard, trying to force things. Let the game come to you.”

As the game continued, my friend’s son began adjusting to his surroundings – or the game, leading to better results.

Or, as others will say, he learned to play the hops in life.

We like to think we are in control of life, right down to the smallest of details. And while our attitudes and actions are powerful predictors of outcome, so are those lesser-known moments of responding to the unexpected.

Learning to field a ground ball is a good training exercise for life. Unlike those manicured lawns in the major leagues, most of us learned to play on fields populated with dirt clods, a lost piece of gravel, and scraggly weeds.

I remember taking to the field and a coach striking downward on the ball, sending the ball skidding across the dirt.

“Pick it clean,” he’d say.

And as hard as I’d try, the ball generally won. Getting my feet and glove into position, occasionally the ball would elect to take a last-minute detour either under my glove or hop up and bounce off my bony chest. Afterward, I’d smart, say a few words, and kick the dirt.

“Play the hop Woolsey,” he said.

At the time, I did not know his words would accompany me decades after leaving the dirt field behind.

The best players on the diamond learn to remain loose, almost rubbery, in their approach to a ground ball. To them, nine out of ten times, the ball will do as expected. But that one time, remaining flexible in their preparation allows them to adjust and embrace the bounce. They play the hop, not the expected.

As an adult, I could relate to my friend’s son. Going into life, you feel there is a formula – you do this action, the expected occurs. You say the right thing, and the desired outcome happens. But every once in a while, life to throws you a wild pitch. And how we respond – or play the hops in life – becomes a valuable predictor of success.

Playing the hops isn’t about life breaking you down, but rather embracing the flow, turning momentum or circumstances to your advantage.

Much like learning to bounce a bad hop off your chest, life plays out on an unpredictable playing field. Staying flexible allows you to use the inertia of circumstances to fuel your progress. Dirt clods are everywhere. How we play them, however, greatly determines the outcome of the game.

Play the hop.


Life Without Instruction Books Challenging

At 93-years old, my dad is looking for an instruction book. 

He’s not wrong. Nearly everything he owned came with a printed booklet explaining how to either set, operate, or trouble-shoot his purchase. And in our childhood home, we kept a library’s worth bursting from a single drawer.

I’m sitting in his apartment, him looking down at his new cellphone.

“Where’s the instruction book?” he said. “Certainly one came with the box.” 

I tell him no, but he might find an answer by going online.

“There are user guides and websites with lots of helpful suggestions,” I said. 

He looks at me, his nose pointed down, eyes pointed up – the same look he employed a hundred times when he smelled childhood fib coming his way. 

“No instruction book? How am I supposed to know how to fix it when it goes haywire?” 

I think back to memories of our television going kaput and him dragging up from the basement a cardboard box filled with mysterious vacuum tubes and beeping handheld devices. A familiar musk always escaped into the air as he lifted the tatted brown lids. I can still hear the soundtrack of clinking and clanking of tubes, much like a mad scientist in a desperate search of that one special ingredient. 

If it was electronic and broken, my dad was convinced he could fix the problem. And for the most part, he could. If it came apart, it could surely go back together. Televisions, radios, cars. His generation believed you only disposed of an item after the threads wore clear through or the smoke coming out of the back spooked my mom too much. 

On this day he’s looking down at his hand, a small electronic device with more computing power than sent men to the moon, and comes without a printed instruction book. 

He goes silent, mulling his options.

“Guess all I can do is play around with it,” he said.

Our son recently came by for the weekend. Afterwards I found myself in my dad’s shoes. 

Crawling around below the bedroom nightstand, he fidgeted with cords and entered digits into my cell phone.

“There,” he said, “all you have to do is to ask the nightstand to turn on or off.”

After a half-century of reaching to twist a thumb-sized switch, my son my son was rewriting the instruction book on me. 

I asked the small disc-shaped device to turn on the lights. The light illuminated the white lampshade. I asked the same disk to turn off the light. The shade darkened on cue. 

Pushing down my initial hesitation to this change, I accepted his world creeping into mine, me either getting aboard or getting left behind.

That night I find myself repeating the instructions several times, the device’s actions sensitive to my specific words. Pangs of uncertainty populate my confidence as I try to remember the exact commands. I called out several times. Frustrated, I twisted the nob. 

If only I had an instruction book.


Vaccines Lead to a Return of Hugs and Handshakes

The second COVID shot a couple of hours in her, my wife found an odd sensation rolling across her.

“I didn’t expect to feel so differently after the second shot,” she said. “Like a sense of calm coming over me.”

With the expanding percentage of vaccine shots in arms, life is also changing between our ears.

“Not that I feel immune or anything, but having the vaccine reduced some of my anxiousness.”

Getting the vaccine is a personal decision – a decision not to be debated in this space. But I will say the other side – or getting the vaccination – does feel different.

If you asked me what I missed most over the past year, I could sum it up in two words: hugs and handshakes.

Human touch is so essential to humans. To deny ourselves the intimacy of coming into physical contact with others weighed heavily on me last year. The currency of hugs and handshakes will always outweigh a fist bump or elbow tap.

Recently I shared a hug with a community friend visiting my office.

We’ve known each other for many years and work together on behalf of the community. My friend is a beautiful soul and a friendship I cherish.

Our minds instinctively remembered how we’ve always shared a hug after seeing each other – but this time, we hesitated. But after discovering we both carried the first shot, we jumped – or leaned in – towards each other.

“You know,” she said. “That is the first hug I’ve shared with almost anyone in nearly a year.

Humans need human contact. In our mind, heart, and soul, the magic of a caring touch is powerful. Getting back to hugs and handshakes is going to be a big deal for all of us.

One of the most compelling photos of 2020 to me showed two people attempting to share a comforting warm touch through a cool pane of glass. If I recall correctly, the picture includes an elderly parent in a care center with their adult child standing outside the building and looking in.

No doubt this same sort of image somewhat replicated millions of times worldwide – be it children and parents, family members in a hospital, or even two strangers offing hope to one another on the street. Human touch is a universal currency we can all value.

For me, the past year’s circumstances limited my wife and me from seeing and hugging our adult children. Both living out to town, the personal calculation proved too steep – at least in our eyes. Never did I need a hug so badly for them as during the past year.

Guess what is on the agenda for the next several months: Hitting the road and getting those long-overdue hugs on the other end. My wife and I will continue to practice safety measures, but if we’ve learned anything in the past year, time is fleeting.

And after last year, do I ever need a hug. 


COVID and Pasta One Year Later

One year ago, my wife and I went out for our anniversary dinner, only to see the first bricks of life as we knew it crumbling before our eyes.

Tucked into a quiet Italian restaurant, we shared the room with barely another soul. Across the room, we could see the owner, her head resting in the palms of her hands, elbows planted on the counter.

“I’ve had 60 cancellations tonight,” she said.

Her words proved no match for the pain projected in her voice.

Around the corner in the kitchen were special orders of perishables, extra staff and plans for an exceptional night.

But in the afternoon, the phone began ringing and did not stop.

COVID, previously a deadly virus spreading across the national news channels, now was in our neighborhood. Businesses were closing up, and, in this case, a nearby theater abruptly canceled the show that was anchoring the reservations.

There are moments in life we never forget where we were when they happened. Generally, there is a clearly defined moment on the shared clock — say the moment the second plane struck the Twin Towers. But with COVID, the virus seeped into our daily life and psyche in tiny degrees, like the boiling of water.

On that night, sitting in the restaurant for our anniversary dinner, the pot was finally boiling — and not with pasta.

At the time, we thought our nation would be impervious to the virus, or at least not face the scale of disruption playing across the television screens, newspapers and newsfeeds. But we were wrong.

A year later, and with more than 500,000 U.S. deaths related to COVID, I still wrestle with wrapping my head around the sheer number of lives lost, impacted or changed forever.

While the virus proves somewhat discriminating in terms of the lives it takes, there are no such selective criteria for the families and businesses shattered. No one, at least at this point, can say the pandemic did not impact them.

I remember an out-of-state friend drove this home during a call several months ago.

“Early in the summer, I didn’t know of anyone who had the virus,” he said. “By fall, I’d heard of several people who had gotten sick. Now I know more people who got it than I can count — and several died.”

Posting blame is not helpful. Dealing with the present is our only option. And encouragingly, we see signs of improvement in confirmed cases and death totals. But as we slowly regain our footing in this new normal, we need to remember how far this went in such a short time.

Practicing safe behaviors, determining whether COVID shots are for you and continuing to be respectful of others will be here for the foreseeable future.

And for my wife and me, we are headed back to the little Italian restaurant one year later. The restaurant and we traveled similar but different roads for the past 12 months but, importantly, we’re still standing and moving forward.


Vaccine Drive Illustrates Sense of Community

I could not shake the feeling of sitting awash in a moment of history in the making.

This week joined volunteers at the Galveston County Health Departments’ mass COVID vaccination site in League City. With more than 2,000 expected to receive their initial shots, the human faces were as diverse and colorful as tiles in a piece of mosaic art. Each face, each smile, carrying a distinctive path to moment.

My job was to work with a team of volunteers fanning out deep into the traffic, checking paperwork, confirming names, and placing bracelets on the wrists of qualifying individuals.

“Thank you, and God bless you.”

While the grey skies drizzled throughout the day, the warmth of smiles and kind words inside the cars insulated me from the cold.

Lines were long, but the payoff would represent a decisive step to protect them from the dangerous virus, which has taken over 500,000 American lives.

On a human level, spending a day looking into the eyes of people eager to get their first shot proves emotionally powerful. You see the lines on their faces, the wrinkles around the eyes, and the occasional tear welling up as the plastic bracelet snaps around their wrist.

A white full-size pickup truck pulls up, a sheriff’s deputy behind the wheel, his beige western hat nodding to the passenger. There sits a quiet older man wearing a blue WWII veteran’s hat. As I confirm his name, I can’t help but imagine what his eyes witnessed up to this moment and how he must feel. As a member of The Greatest Generation, he is here, again, front and center in a vital moment of history.

The bracelet snaps around his thin wrist; he thanks the volunteer and the truck pulls forward – the soldier’s next personal moment in history one step closer.

And then there are the cars filled with adult children driving their elderly parents for appointments, some playing the translator’s role. And with each interaction, you are reminded of the rich and powerful melting pot of our region. So many individual backstories, but all aligned with one purpose on this day.

Long lines extend beyond my view, but people are excited and almost – if I say – giddy. Today is their day, the opportunity to protect themselves, their friends, and their loved ones. Their effort is every bit as important as the volunteers working the site. They, too, were playing a critical role in pushing back the COVID threat.

And then, behind the scenes, are volunteer health care workers: retired medical doctors, nurses, and others showing up to play their part. And long after the lines ended on my side, they continued for the better part of an hour.

Thanks to the Galveston County Health Department, the volunteers, and everyone who played a part in receiving their initial shots this week. Each contribution is critical.

This vaccine effort is our moment in history, each shot bringing us closer to winning this war against the virus.


If you wish to learn more about volunteering, please visit https://gcoem.org/volunteers-needed-for-covid-19-vaccine-hub-sites

Warm Hearts Melt Icy Conditions

The worst of times seem to bring out the best in people.

This week’s deep freeze event set records in not only temperatures but in levels of pain and frustration for people across Texas. Overnight, water, electricity, and heat became the most valuable commodities on most people’s minds. And for many, the pain and memories will remain in the present long after the temperatures return to normal.

But we need to not let the memories of the most honest of human gestures melt away with the ice and snow. No, we need to make ourselves pause and give the better nature of people the respect due. For those anonymous hands and voices can make the difference between despair or inspiration.

My experiences are probably no different in intent from those of others, but the cumulative effect on others is what makes our community special.

This week I know of a husband and wife living in dangerously cold conditions, declining offers from friends and others to leave their home. And while understandable, here is where an angel with hot home-made pasta dish landed.

People who tend to help others tend to have oversized hearts and undersized egos. Their concern and motivations, rooted in the servant leadership calling, allows them to selflessly and effortlessly work to help others. Self-attention is the last thing they want.

But word gets around.

This individual drove across icy roads to deliver a hot meal to the husband and wife iced into their home. Days without electricity and heat are difficult; for people with few options, a home-cooked meal is a godsend. And navigating frozen steps to deliver is, pardon the pun, icing on the cake. I also heard of another person opening up a small rental house they owned to help others get much-needed showers and heat.

Personally, one friend came over to our house to show me how to properly prepare a specific outside plumbing fixture, while another allowed me to tap his reserve of dry firewood for days.

But I’ll bet my list is pale compared to what you are hearing. As challenging as circumstances can be, people tend to rise and help each other and those in need. No matter how difficult, our better instincts and actions – however humble and not wanting attention – win out the day.

For every scuffle in line for gasoline, there dozens of acts of kindness going on around them. A nod to the next car, allowing them in, to another offering a tip on how to manage flushing toilets without running water. The shared experiences of kindness will always outweigh the isolated incidents of selfishness.

Importantly, let us not forget there remains a lot of pain and need out there. Commit to focusing not on what you lack but on those who lack more than you. Making a positive difference in the world each day can be a simple as asking around. Call your Salvation Army. Call your local houses of worship. Be the difference.


Deep Dish For Deep Love

For Valentine’s Day, my wife and I are going to bake a homemade pizza. And to be truthful, we do not know how this will work out. But the tradition of a low-key Valentine’s Day is alive and well in our home.

Understand we love Valentine’s Day as much as the next person. And over the year, we played a role in keeping the greeting cards in business. But for extravagant gifts, not so much.

Being as we are now on our 39th Valentine’s Day together, the holiday remains stubbornly low-key. For decades we would watch a splotched VHS version of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp on a small television screen and order a budget-friendly delivery pizza. As perennially broke college kids, you do the best you can with what you have. And as for money, again, the best generally came in the simplest of terms.

As the years passed along and circumstances improved, I learned bringing home a dozen red roses more likely to put me in the doghouse than her arms. The cost of the crimson red sirens of love during high season hung over the holiday like a low-country fog, seeping into every crack and cranny of the holiday. A total backfire and one I learned not to repeat.

The funny thing about traveling side-by-side most of your life with the same person is no matter how the circumstances change, you essentially remain rooted in the humble ground where you began.

Mark that down as reason number 1,382 that I love that woman so much.

I am confident we could win a million-dollar lottery, and she would remain grounded and unselfish. Go find a way to help someone who needs a hand, she would tell me. Make a difference; we have a roof over our heads and shoes on our feet.

One of our most prized Valentine’s Day decorations cost mere pennies to bring into our lives.

Created with a leftover red poster board and a can of black spray paint, we would not trade the artwork for anything from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The honest emotion and simplicity, the letters scrawled on the hand-trimmed heart-shaped board are priceless to us. Now faded and a veteran of nearly a dozen moves around the county, the artwork adorns our fireplace this year.

The letters are simple as if carved into a fencepost: LW + MW

As I said, this year, we will be baking a deep-dish Chicago-style pizza from scratch. A culinary experiment, and we have no idea how this will work out. But we do know, no matter what, the memories in our minds will last far beyond those of our tastebuds. Many times, you define success is by the moments you create, not the outcome.

Valentine’s Day is for lovers. Jump in, make memories, and never forget happiness does not always come with a receipt.


When in doubt, Drink The Champagne

My wife and I are drinking a lot of champagne these days.

Well, I am not speaking literally.

A New Year’s Eve a few years back, we were searching for the perfect bottle to kick off the coming year. To help us make a good selection, we even asked for advice from an employee in the store. Big man, warm smile, and a silver ponytail resting between his shoulders.

Reaching into a black metal case, his muscular hands extended a blue bottle towards us, cradling as if holding a newborn baby.

“This is one I’d highly recommend,” he said. “I have actually visited this vineyard in France. I first tasted this bottle will sitting in a grove outside the building.”

The story sold us hook, line, and sinker. We left the store with a discovery under one arm and a romantic tale planted in our hearts.

The story, however, runs out of fizz here.

Getting home, we placed the blue bottle into the refrigerator. And for one reason or another, the blue bottle spent the next twelve months taking turns standing next to jars of pickle spears and or salsa.

But in those same twelve months, a good friend of mine went from healthy to abruptly losing his life from an unexpected illness. For me, his death continues to leave a loud dent in my soul.

His spirit was one of loving life and taking every opportunity to learn and greet new experiences. In retrospect, he lived as if somewhere along the way, he somehow peeked at the end of his personal story and tried to outlive the number of remaining pages.

As the new year approached, my wife and I, still stinging from my friend’s passing, spotted the blue bottle nested in the back of the refrigerator. Now sandwiched behind a carton of Almond Milk and bottled water, we recognized the bottle as a as a reminder of missed opportunity, one my friend would certainly not let slide past.

Looking at each other, we agreed the bottle would never see the closing of another year. From that day, the bottle silently shouted a reminder of moments missed. And in the name of my friend, my wife and I decided to live differently. Never would we carelessly push aside the opportunities under the false flag of believing our future days remain unlimited.

Three words now scroll across a chalkboard in the kitchen: “Drink the champagne.”

Drinking the champagne is not about alcohol, although the results of living life with your eyes wide open are intoxicating.

Something inside says to call a friend? You call your friend. Feel like learning to cook a new dish? You cook it. A book you want to read? You read it.

Being predisposed to action or no longer putting off life is powerfully rewarding. After all, living is for the brave, those with the courage to balance life with responsibility and dreams. Doing less is to sentence yourself to a deathbed of painful and needless regrets.

Drink the champagne.


Art of political discussion a kitchen table lesson

My mom and dad would return from the voting polls, each laughing and claiming they’d canceled each other’s vote. She, an immigrant from Scotland and naturalized citizen, and he a Mid-Western with his boot planted deeply in the traditional values. Voting was equally important to each of them.

I was young, and the concept of voting was only beginning to take shape in my mind.

Interestingly, I never heard an argument. Discussions, yes? Raised voices and name-calling? Never. And for me, this became a formative point of view of how to discuss politics. Adults, so I witnessed, exchanged ideas with skill and fact-based discussions.

Somehow, I find myself out of sync with today’s world.

As kids, many of our lessons on life play out at the kitchen table. And I am no different. My parents, while viewing the world from slightly different angles, openly discussed their differences of opinion. And remarkably, both, on occasion, one might inch towards the other after such a talk.

The kitchen table proved a great training ground for me as an adult.

Granted, I regularly get labeled as a secret member of the far end of either the liberal or conservative scope in the same week. But the truth is, I’m more of a reflection of what I learned at the kitchen table—listening, considering, and asking myself if I can take away from the other person’s view. And many times, I gain valuable insight.

That is how our democracy works – or at least, so it did at our kitchen table.

I know I’ve more salt than pepper in my hair, but I do pang for a more civil environment for political discussion. Top-shelf, emotional generalizations seem more the norm today instead of the art of debate. The putting up walls reduces both sides’ opportunity to learn more and – just maybe – come always feeling a bit different.

From the kitchen table, I learned to speak with respect, listen, and be willing to accept I may not always be right.

President Ronald Reagan and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil shared a similar understanding. With both approachings from different political parties and a list of platform wishes, they understood that finding a way to move forward took precedence over individual ego and needs.

History tells of how Regan and O’Neil would sit down – one on one – and share each other’s point of view, both understanding neither would walk away until they could agree. Some sessions were longer than others, but both understood neither stood larger than the common good for their constituents across the country. No bully pulpit, no silly posturing, and no name-calling. They were getting the people’s work done.

I miss the kitchen table. Know if you want to discuss a difference of opinion, I’ll always extend you respect, listen for quantifiable and well-sourced facts, and never, ever call you a name.

And if I do, I fully expect my mom to reach down from heaven and slap me.


Dogs and Man Share Special Bond

I’m sitting outside a quiet roadside dinner in western Texas, a sea of cloudless skies arch above. Blue is the designated color of the day in Marfa.

A white Ford F-350 truck sits behind me, exhaling as the motor block cools. Tick, tick, tick. I take a pull from my chilled Topo Chico.

I feel eyes on the back of my neck. Turning, I look up to find a small black and tan ranch dog resting on the roof of the pickup, and nose pointed down for the best herding view. Today, we are his livestock, his charge.

A sucker for dogs, I get up and walk over. The dog jumps up, making sure I understand the truck is his turf, and I shouldn’t think of making any stupid moves. My boots pause in the gravel, and I offer a hello. Another head pops up to greet me.

A voice comes from out from behind the truck.

“Hello,” says the young man, sharing his dog’s name.

“She’s a sweetheart, don’t worry,” he says.

Dressed in worn blue jeans, a western work shirt, and a pair of boots worn on a ranch, he smiles and tips his hat. There is a welcoming air to words.

“She’s my newest, the other’s ones offspring.”

Both dogs share a black coat with tan accents and effortlessly migrate across the truck bed filled with tools to his voice. Neither weighs 30 pounds wet and caked with mud.

“Love them both.”

We get to talking dogs.

“I was looking for just the right size dog, ones I could take anywhere, go anywhere. They fit the bill perfectly.”

He tells me he moved to western Texas after years of wishing to work a ranch and do the work himself. He needed help and went looking. Soon he ran across the older dog and was hooked.

Inviting me to brush my hand against the dog’s coat, he explains wire-like texture allows it to run through nearly any brush. Steel wool comes to my mind.

The young man is polite and well-spoken, as friendly as a screen porch in summer.

The dogs keep a watchful eye from the roof of the truck. He and I talk breeds, share dog stories, and wallow around knee-deep in general dog fandom for a few minutes. They may be his working dogs, but they are much more that – each is a part of the things that bring joy to his life.

The younger one comes over, nudging her head beneath his hand, begging for more attention.

And if I didn’t think he could soften more, he leans in and speaks softly to the pup. The bond is unmistakable.

His breakfast comes out in a takeaway bag. He settles with the waitress and tips his hat.

The dogs jump back into the bed as he fires up the big motor.

I watch as the dogs and young man head down the dusty road, knowing there is a whole lot of love riding in the truck.