Mask Up and Pass The Gravy

Thanksgiving will be quiet around the Woolsey table this year. Due to COVID, our kids will not be flying in from different time zones or far reaches of the state. People outside our regular bubble will not pass the stuffing across the table or ask for seconds of my wife’s fabulous green bean casserole.

But one place bustling with activity on Thanksgiving will be our hospitals.

It is easy to play the ‘this won’t happen or impact me’ card, but it is a lousy bet for too many. As I write this, I’ve several friends under or recovering from hospital care from COVID. No matter how inconvenient supporting the CDC’s recommendations feels, I know any gatherings of people who do not regularly interact is risky.

As of today, COVID remains a genie out of a bottle. Infection rates are climbing – in some places raging at 50% positivity levels. Safe havens in the summer, particularly the Midwest, are now driving higher rates. And comparatively, to urban cities, health care options are fewer and less available.

I can’t help but hear the voices of health care workers pleading with us to show self-restraint and allow them a day off. Recently one healthcare worker said she couldn’t remember the last time she had a day off. That stuck with me: the stress, the hours, the mental pounding of a relentless stream of incoming.

This week our nation passed the 250,000 deaths related to COVID. Comparatively, the city of Corpus Christi (ZIP 78469) is 283,000, according to data site infoplease.com. Imagine if someone told you a year ago, we’d lose the population of a nationally-known city due to a powerful and mysterious flu? Most would have scoffed or felt revolted at the statement.

Unfortunately, this is real.

The good and the bad is that we, as individuals, can control both the spread and impact the outcome. Vaccines are coming, but the timelines will be extended, and take patience. And while I applaud the medical community and all those involved in bringing solutions to the public, we need to do our part – wear a mask, social distance, and regularly wash our hands.

Look, I get this is a pain in the tail, but in the long run – and for the greater good – I’m willing to deal with short term inconvenience for the sake of others. My dad is 92, and getting COVID could prove fatal. My daughter is immune-compromised, and contracting COVID could potentially bring her great harm.

And while I know and am aware of their challenges, I do not see the risk levels of the person I interact with at the grocery store or other innocent interactions.

I know that I can do my part by taking responsibility for my actions and activities. And if that means delaying large family gatherings until next year, that is a small inconvenience compared to the risk I could create for others.

So for this Thanksgiving, mask up and pass the gravy, please.

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Success Starts and Ends With The Letter A

Recently a younger person asked me what common traits I thought successful people held and practiced. At first, I was flattered. Secondly, I realized the question deserved consideration beyond those included in nearly every self-help book: show up, work hard, and hold yourself to the highest of standards. 

After a few long walks with my dog, below are my personal, albeit non-scientific, suggestions of the three A’s: Aspiration, Attitude, and Action. And while there are many roads to the same destination, these three best reflect what I’ve observed. 

Success begins with aspiration. Deeply personal aspirations rise from inside and are rooted in your core needs. Aspirations, those able to survive the gut punches of life, burn from within, and are rarely material. Instead, the strongest aspirations rise from inside with foundations rooted in results that reward you in ways not reflected on a bank statement. The urge to find rewarding work, help others, provide security for your family tend to be among the most common.

More times than not, highly successful people say they had an idea or opportunity, and the success that followed was simply a byproduct. The reward was found in the burning urge to impact change or create something of value. Richard Branson never set out to be a billionaire, but something inside him called out to him each day. Same for Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. What drove them was rooted in something much more powerful than money or fame – themselves. 

But aspirations are only dreams without adding the right attitude to navigate the gut-wrenching journey. People are too willing to take an eraser to their ambitions when the road gets bumpy. Failure is the one constant in success for everyone. Coming to terms with obstacles or the unpleasant things that happen along the way is a dealbreaker. If your aspirations lack the resiliency to take flurries of punches or setbacks, aspirations quickly turn to dust – and potentially damaging mental baggage to carry for years.

Thomas Edison failed 1,000 times, attempting to create the electric lightbulb, shrugging off each miss as one more step toward finding a solution. Additionally, mindless positivity is nauseating and not helpful either. Knowing how to embrace setbacks constructively allows you the perspective of adjusting your actions and finding a new direction. 

And finally, all the aspirations and attitudes fall flat on their face without action.

Nothing good happens in the absence of positive direction and motion. Too many carry around the weight of unrealized dreams of pursuits – aspirations stopped cold by self-doubt and or turning back at the first signs of difficulty. But the biggest difference-maker in success and those on the other side is the relentless understanding nothing happens without action. And only with effort – regardless of the outcome – will aspiration and attitude pay rewards. 

I’ve learned the most successful people – those at the most at peace with themselves – measure their lives with a playbook based on the three A’s. 

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Musical Aspirations In Life Muted

I’m learning being musically inclined is often a matter of opinion.

“Honey,” I said to my wife, where is my trumpet?”

“Hmm,” she said, “that’s odd. It must be around here somewhere.”

This example is not the first time my trumpet found itself missing in action.

With the agility of a practiced magician, she shifts gears, her words leading me down a different rabbit hole.

“By the way, what would you like for dinner?”

I conclude my MIA trumpet is now no accident but rather a covert trumpet-napping. I expect to find a ransom note, complete with individual letters clipped from the newspaper, demanding I cease any further crimes against humanity’s ears.

After searching a handful of previous hiding places, I realize this time she determined to succeed. I crawl under beds, explore behind the framed art hidden in the attic, and thumb through the closets without success. My mood turns as blue as Miles Davis slowing walking through his take on My Funny Valentine.

This time she is serious.

The first hint of my particular talent came when the kids requested I not sing them to sleep, apparently their keen sense of musical taste awakening early on. Or when my wife and I were dating, she would continuously turn up the dashboard volume as Rikki Don’t Lose That Number rang out. In retrospect, Steely Dan may never have sounded so bad as when I sat in with the band.

I found myself a talentless musician adrift in a sea of desire – and one without an instrument. But my luck changed. One day a neighbor called to see if we would like to buy her old piano. She was upgrading and thought maybe our kids would like to learn or take lessons.

This kid, the one with the driver’s license, jumped all over the opportunity. At last, an instrument in the house my wife could not hide beneath the bed. And better yet, one I could promote the altruistic goals of the kids learning to play.

The second one never happened; neither of our kids showed interest beyond a casual curiosity.

For me, however, the piano became my next opportunity. I purchased and read books. I watched videos and took off-site lessons. Thie piano would be the stage where I would melt my family’s hearts with everything from Christmas songs to America Blues.

I promised myself to graciously accept apologies from family members for questioning my desire to express myself through musical sounds.

But that did not last. My family quickly tired unskilled pecking at keys at all hours of the day and night.

A family meeting occurred. A curfew resulted, followed by further restrictions on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Today my dreams of musical greatness remain unrealized. Even living the empty-nester lifestyle, I tethered to being considerate of the timing of my expressions. My playing may continue to bring more pain than joy into the world around my loved ones and me.

If only I had a trumpet.

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Big Blue And Other Joys In Life

My friend approached his dog at his side.

“What a beautiful day,” I said.

His dog pauses, standing beside him as he stops.

“Yes,” my friend said, “my aunt called these Big Blue days.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yes, she said any day absent of clouds for the entire day was called a Big Blue,” he said. “She also said a Big Blue days were special and did not count against your allotted days on earth. A bonus day, so to speak.”

I looked up where a deep blue canopy filled any available canvas above the tree line. The sky was as if the universe had only a single color to use, that being a deep, rich blue designed to reward all inhabitants below.

My friend laughed.

“You know,” he said, “I was a kid, and she was probably telling me a story. But the best part is all these years later, whenever I see a Big Blue day, I think of her. And that’s really pretty cool.”

My friend’s story got me thinking of how we, as parents, pass along well-meaning stories to the next generation. We know there is little chance science will prove us out, but we tell them anyhow. But in doing so, we pass along our voices – and the memory – into the future.

I remember how my mother, sitting on the front steps, would predict the weather by reading the sunset’s colors.

“Red sky at night,” she would say. “Sailor’s delight. Red sky at morn, sailors take warn.”

Her growing up along the North Atlantic Ocean, I never questioned her advice or expertise. Even years later, as a teacher explained how moisture reacts to light as the sun crosses the horizon, I could hear my mother’s voice. She, as my friend said, was in the classroom with me.

In a world filled with a YouTube for about any possible problem, I continue to find the stories shared by earlier generations to be timeless, the sayings essential.

I still hear my dad’s voice from decades ago, me beneath a V-8 motor wresting to loosen the oil filter. Armed with an empty bread bag to catch any extra oil as the filter slipped out, he’d coach from above.

“Righty tighty, lefty loosen,” he said.

I can still feel the seal breaking loose, the filter falling into the bread bag, the last drippings of warm oil pooling into the bottom of the plastic. Success never felt so good.

Or how my mom would predict the start of Spring by when daffodils began breaking through the last of Winter’s snowfall. Nowadays, I realize she had the calendar on her side, but I still hear her voice at the sight of the first yellow blooms. And that makes me happy inside.

But after visiting with my friend, we enjoyed four consecutive days before the first cloud appeared. Four free days, so said his aunt. But for me, I now hear my friend’s voice – and the magical journey continues.

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Zebras Are A Horse of Another Color

Sometimes we make life needlessly difficult.

I’m on the phone with a friend telling him about my trouble with a crossword puzzle.

“Four letters, English countryside,” I say.

He tosses out an idea or two.

 “Sometimes, I feel I am over-thinking,” I say.  

My friend’s laugh, the same one I’ve heard for more than 50 years, comes back across the phone. His voice is warm, comforting, trusting. We’ve known each other 90% of our lives.

 “A friend once told me not everything is a zebra – sometimes it’s just a horse.”

We talk about how easily we can turn the easiest of challenges into complicated, layered equations – only finding the answer is the easiest solution or the first place our gut wanted to go.

Since this call, I hear his words over and over again. From removing a cabinet from a garage wall to adjusting the tension on my bike, I see animals strolling around in my mind. If I find myself staring at a zebra – stuck and unable to figure my way out – I ask myself, am I starring at a horse?

Some of us carry a lot of power between their ears, processing large amounts of information, quickly making sense of the challenge. Other of us tend to find our minds clogging up like narrow drainpipe during heavy rain. And in the overflow, we drown.

In elementary school, word problems always had my number.

Word problems, which always seemed like a misnomer since they were all about numbers, killed me. Just seeing creeping up on a test was enough for me to break out in a sweat and restrict my breathing.

I’d sit and stare. Indeed, I would think, this is my opportunity to demonstrate my extraordinary brilliance to my teacher. Afterward, she’d look at my answer and realize she should place me in an advanced academic environment. Surely, she’d say to herself, only a genius would be able to solve such a complicated challenge correctly.

And while I daydreamed this scenario, precious minutes would tick off the clock on the classroom wall, only adding to the pressure.

I approached every word problem as if I were figuring out the perfect air ratio to fuel on a rocket ship to Mars.

I would proceed to walk around the problem, identifying and imagining obscure details into the question. What if Jonny is allergic to tomatoes? Does that mean he would not have used the two on for his BLT, leaving all six intact on the table? Or what if the traveling car crossed over from Georgia to Alabama where times the zones change? Could Billy and Jane arrive at Aunt Betty’s before they originally left according to their wristwatches?

And, as you can expect, I crashed and failed. Chasing zebras destroyed my scores – and derailed me from ever becoming an astrophysicist.

Fortunately, I’ve learned more of my problems are horses than zebras. That is unless you are that last pesky 6-letter word on my crossword puzzle.

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Kiss Leads to Life of Adventure

She didn’t need to say yes. Looking around, I could see dozens of better choices than me. But, for some reason, she agreed to a date.

Thirty-nine years ago this week, my wife and I went out on our first date. Two students fumbling through our first semester of college, and in a weak moment, she agreed to join me for lunch. Lunch led to an afternoon walk, an elevator ride, and a date that continues to this day.

I don’t know why I leaned in and stole a kiss in the glass elevator. Shy and nervous, I probably didn’t know what to say. At a loss for words as the elevator rose a dozen stories into the building, she met me halfway – most likely a result of us both feeling the need to fill the air.

If asked to identify the top three most life-changing moments – the ones where you swear you can still feel the temperature and taste the smells around you – this is at the top of the list. Time travel by way of an emotional vortex.

A kiss is simply two sets of lips touching. Nothing inherently magical – until it is.

Either the elevator was not properly grounded or magic happened in space the size of a walk-in pantry. I felt the spark, and so did she. I can relive the moment in raw detail, mostly as the kiss closed, and we withdrew from each other. We both knew something had happened, and it wasn’t a jolt on elevator cable.

We have adult children today, yet we feel as if we are mentally entombed in amber. The moment fused us in time, creating an indelible marker from which our life transformed into vivid color. There is life before the kiss – and everything after.

Today we sit down and joke about the moment and where the nervous kiss led us over the years. Over a half-dozen states and no one in our family born in the same state, we’ve lived a nomads’ lives. Home is simply is defined as where ever we are as a family at the moment.

From that kiss came my understanding of learning to live for someone else. To evolve to understand true happiness is found by striving to make the other happy, appreciated, and needed. I can tell you the guy on the elevator was a long way from that point, filled with youthful selfishness and insecurity.

But then, one step at a time, we learned to grow together. Life came at us hard and fast, at times threatening to break apart what the moment in the elevator brought together. Kids, careers, and splitting a $10 bill in a Walmart and walking in different directions to buy each other a Christmas gift are moments that shape you forever.

But here we are 39 years later. The sight of her walking in the room still gives me butterflies. And I continue to wonder, why did she say yes?

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Humans Can Learn From Dogs

“You know,” said a neighbor, “if people were a bit more like dogs, the world could be a better place.”

After a couple of weeks of taking a small black and tan rescue dog into our family, I’m learning a great deal from someone who communicates without ever saying a word. Luna, it turns out, is wise beyond her 10-months.

Dogs, like humans, need socialization. Being locked up in a house with a finite world of experiences can make them frightened of the world, afraid of coming across new and different interactions. The world is one big exciting place, and for dogs, one big playground to explore.

Luna needs several long walks a day. And while burning off puppy energy is one benefit, her getting to know the world and meeting strangers – both two and four-legged versions – is essential. Dogs can either learn to be curious or fearful of the world, the latter leading to problems down the road.

Standing in the middle of the street, my neighbor and I watch as our two dogs begin measuring up the other. Leashes pull tight as two noses come closer, and a few nervous barks ring out. A nip here, a retreat returned with a playful stance, and soon tails are wagging. All is good in the world again.

He then reaches down to reward his dog, casting a long stroke across the silver coat.

“Good boy, Spanky,” he said.

In some ways, people and dogs are remarkably alike, sharing universal instincts for living in packs, territorially protective, and generous to a fault with their heart.

People are the same. We tend to want to live near each other, making regular social interaction, and in times of need, prove to be willing to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt and shirt off our back. Dogs, in many ways, are a human’s best qualities amplified.

I love dogs. I love the honesty, the faithfulness, and that all they want from you is love on you and make your life better.

All of which brings me to my continued concern for today’s world. Today it seems as if society teeming with anxiety, fearful of strangers, and predisposed to be afraid or angry. In response to our retreat into the impersonal world of social media and being protectively locked up in our homes, have we forgotten our roots of empathy and understanding? Have we somehow devolved into being fearful of the unfamiliar, uncaring of others, and always ready for a fight?

I sincerely hope I am wrong.

Maybe we all need a couple of daily walks, leaving our phones and narrow focus of social-media friends on the kitchen table. Getting out, finding new faces, and people – much like our dogs do – might be good for us. The world is not perfect, but it certainly is not worth tearing down to the ground.

Let’s get out more. Meet more people. And as our dogs teach us, wag our tails more.

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Luna, our 10-month old Australian Kelpie, leads by example.

COVID Challenges Time-Honored Traditions

The blue ink pen resting on the carpet below, my arm froze in mid-air.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know in this COVID world if I’m supposed to pick up your pen for you or not.”

As a doctor, the irony brought a laugh due to the awkward situation. Should I be polite and kneel and pick her pen up? Or should I stand there and act like heel and do nothing?

Reaching down, she answered the question for us both.

“No kidding,” she said. “This COVID is changing everything in the world.”

I’ll admit I’m getting the hang of always having a mask, but what about the time-honored demonstrations of respect for helping others with the simplest tasks? Opening a door is now a risk as is offering to hand offer to hand another a plastic water bottle. Even encroaching on one’s personal space is now considered not only rude but dangerous. Consider the act nestling close to a stranger to share a secret a thing of the past.

Dang strange world today.

As a child, my mother taught me to always or hold open a door for another and be quick to help others when items dropped on the floor.

But the one gesture I miss the most in today’s COVID world is the handshake. Playing second fiddle only offering you personal word of assuance, the handshake remains one of the world’s most valuable and universal currencies. Time-honored, respected, and considered the final bonding moment of an agreement, the handshake is now being shunned. Welcome to the elbow-tap. If not so pervasive, you might find the motion derived from the sketch comedy group, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Minister of Silly Walks? How about the Department of Assorted Appendage Taps?

Imagine if you will world leaders sitting around a large board room, signing and exchanging documents. Moments later, chairs slide back, and everyone leans across the table and offers an elbow. Somehow the optics don’t carry the same weight for me.

One of the fundamentals of sportsmanship is that, regardless of how badly you got stomped on the field of play, you are to shake hands with your opponent afterward, thus clearly defining the end of the competition. And as hard as this lesson is to learn as a kid, the ability compartmentalizes the moment of conflict becomes a critical skill to carry into adulthood. And the handshake is universal punctuation calling the contest to a close.

But in today’s world, even the highly-caffeinated cousin of the handshake, better known as a high-five, is on hiatus. No longer to ballplayers offer mid-air slaps after home runs or 60-foot putts on the green. No, instead, there is a choice of awkward inaction or other contactless motion invented on the fly.

But at the end of the day (post-COVID), I always hope to feel the urge to pick up a dropped item for a stranger. And for the record, I’m not willing to bet world peace on an elbow tap.

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New Member of Family Unexpectedly Arrives

I’m five hours on the road and call back to hear my wife’s voice. Heading out before the sun peeked over the horizon, I’d tried to slip out quietly. My watch tells me I’m calling during her morning coffee window.

“How are you doing this morning, babe?”

Road noise fills the background, unusual for this time of the day. Coffee is usually in the kitchen with newspapers.

A few words in, I recognize her voice is exploding like a pan of Jiffy Pop popcorn. I’m not sure what is happening, but the calendar says today is early August, not Christmas.

“You won’t believe what I have in the car,” she said.

Knowing she considers the local hardware store her playground, I toss out a few ideas. Plants or maybe a new rug, I suggest. She’s proven she can fit anything into her car.

“No, a puppy!”

The hot asphalt reminds me I’m far from the beach where we live.

“A what?” I said. “Like a puppy- puppy?”

I can’t recall the next few minutes of conversation, but I know if asked to pick colors out of a box of Crayons, her words would be the most vibrant shades in the box.

“She’s so excited she’s already climbed from the back of the car to the front seat with me,” she said. “She is so cute.”

I realize my world already is changing since pulling out of the driveway earlier in the morning. And believe it or not, I’m excited about this new chapter. Until now, we’ve been between dogs, our last passing two years ago. But one constant in our family is a dog as a member.

My wife’s heart is as big as the state she was born in, which is Texas. She’s raised two wonderful children into adults and continues to bring me along. The latter is a continuous work in progress, undoubtedly bringing up the rear.

Her covert trip across Houston to make a rescue only deepens my love for her.

Dogs accompanied our children from — literally — their first footsteps through leaving for college. I remember our son grabbing our dog’s black coarse coat, steadying himself and taking slow, cautious steps together.

And I remember how our daughter dressed our next dog in a gold-flaked cape, making him look like a four-legged version of Elvis in Las Vegas.

But the best part is how intertwined dogs are in our family history, finding a memory without our dogs in the background is nearly impossible. Like a single golden thread woven in a bolt of dark fabric, our family is only complete with a dog under the roof.

Love takes you to the highest peaks, and one day, to the lowest of valleys. But a life unlived and unloved is hardly worth living. And dogs, somehow, play an integral role in our family.

Like knowing our last chapter closed two years ago, I can’t wait to see where this new one takes us. We are again complete. Color me happy.

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Luna, an Australian Kelpie joins the Woolsey family.

Desert Town Picks New Residents

A young man wearing a protective black bandanna walks across the restaurant to take our order. My wife and I are in a once-bustling mining community in western Texas; now, a locally claimed ghost town. A quick look at the chalk on your shoes and sun blistered desert basin, and you easily extend the town the benefit of the doubt.

The waiter is polite and happy to see us come inside.

Brisket tacos served with a side of cold beer in an aluminum can are on the menu.

Life is hard on the desert – harder if you can’t come to terms with yourself and your surroundings.

The young man mentions he moved from Houston to this corner of the universe, one with fewer actual residents than parking spots at a Walmart.

I ask how he picked Terilingua for his new home.

“You don’t pick Terlingua, Terlingua picks you.”

His words, intentionally or not, resonate with confidence.

“I moved out here about a year ago,” he said. “Best decision of my life.”

Pausing, words of love for his new home flow out like a bottomless bowl of chips and salsa.

“You learn to adjust out here. Things I thought I needed back there, I don’t need out here. I’ve friends back in the city, hustling and struggling. Here, we are a community where everyone knows and helps each other. I have everything I truly need.”

He tells me life as hard as the Coronavirus is impacting local businesses, but he is learning to do with less and remains self-sufficient.

“I haven’t had to take a dime from the government,” he says.

The front door creaks open, flooding the room with blinding white. Instinctively, we look away as another couple comes inside.

 “You learn to appreciate simple things – like water,” he says. “You recapture water, use when you need – and not when you don’t.”

He tugs at his shirt.

“If you don’t need to shower each day, you don’t – and it makes a difference.”

The restaurant is quiet, and the tables spaced apart, allowing guests to dine within Coronavirus restrictions guidelines. In years past, tables and guests were elbowed to elbow both inside and out. If life in this corner of the world was hard before the arrival of the pandemic, you don’t need to look too far past the now silent businesses now representing a twisted version of modern ghosts.

“You learn to look at everything differently,” he says. “Like after you use something to take a moment and ask if there might be another way to use it afterward. You don’t just to toss things away.”

I think about his words and how he is learning – or unlearning – to adapt to his new world. The water here is regularly captured from the sky, abandoned auto parts welded into sculptures, and shards of shattered limestone become walls.

The waiter returns with brisket tacos and cold beer.

As he walks away, I can’t help but feel like he is, indeed, home.

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