Rainbow Perfect Ending to Brilliant Life

God is a master at showing up in the right place and right time – even when not on the RSVP guest list.

Last week I drove to St. Louis to say goodbye to a childhood friend cancer took the week of Christmas. Wakes or celebrations of life are beautiful experiences even when COVID postpones them for six months.

Walter and I met as five-year-olds beneath a plate of cookies his mother handed to mine. Minutes later, we were off exploring a backyard creek. For the next half-century, our lives would intertwine like a strand of DNA.

Six months is a long time to process the passing of a friend. In the meantime, you allow yourself moments to reflect, laugh, and occasionally cry. But in the end, humans need those moments to come together and share whatever we are feeling.

In a small stone shelter tucked beneath the arms of a forest of green, more than a hundred of us came together. Walter naturally cultivated a beautiful collection of friends with as many facets of interests as there are jeweler’s cuts on a diamond. And on this day, we all came together for an afternoon of meeting one another.

We were all different but remarkably the same. Each of us loved life, loved my friend, and couldn’t wait to meet each other.

A large banner hung from a post declaring the space dedicated to The Walter Party; coolers lined up like SUVs circled the concrete pad. Another friend manned a grill to the side, feeding the other empty spot everyone would eventually recognize.

The soundtrack of the shelter featured animated conversations, each grounded in their particular facet and featuring my friend’s name sprinkled in like the essential ingredient of an old family recipe. And in the end, this was his family recipe – Walter, the essential bonding ingredient.

Midwest summer heat is real. Heavy, dead still, and drapes across you like spending the day locked in a stuffy closet wrapped in a warm, wet terrycloth towel.

Later, Mother Nature stopped to whip up a quick shower. With the winds dusting up, we pressed together beneath wooden rafters. Facets of interests blended with one other, creating a one-in-a-lifetime jewel.

Minutes later, the showers moved off, and several of us wandered out onto the clearing. The sky glowed in hues of pastels – pinks, oranges, and a few I’m sure Mother Nature created on the spot.

Then God showed up.

Looking up, we found ourselves standing in an open field dwarfed by a horizon-spanning rainbow.

Everyone knew what was going on. Laughter and tears broke out.

Turning to my wife and daughter, I buried myself into their shoulders, releasing months of heaving pent-up pain. When emotions come from so deep, you are a captive passenger until the train arrives at the next station.

With the rainbow wrapped over my shoulders and securely in the arms of the two most important women in my life, I rode the train to the last stop.

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Rocks Reveal Life Journey

Standing on the shoreline of a body of water cut from glacial forces, I can’t help but marvel at the tens – if not hundreds of thousands – of small rocks surrounding my boots. All created from hard surfaces, their edges softened over time, their jagged elbows replaced by accommodating surfaces. And I wonder, can we learn from a pile of rocks?

A stretch, but hang with me a moment.

Even the tallest mountain ranges have eroded more than remains to the naked eye. And much like a rock, I’ve found my temperament soften and my desire to better understand others expand with each trip around the sun. Once I, too, was a jagged rock covered in sharp edges. Today, after decades of the waters of life coursing over, my edges are softer and more understanding of the world around me. I am less likely to judge quickly and far more interested in learning how we can exist together.

But I am not a rock. I’m a human being and filled with all the drama built into my DNA.

Recently while traveling in the Pacific Northwest, I watched a restaurant owner ask several people to leave for not wearing a mask.

On the door read a sign “Please wear a mask before entering our restaurant. We don’t like it either, but let’s all do what we can to get through this together.”

Not forceful and not rude. The owner even thanked potential customers on behalf of the health of the employees and other customers.

The group of three young men, with their jagged edges on full display, wished to argue the merits of the restaurant owner’s note.

I sat watching, understanding both sides. But my rounded edges reminded me the owner is only asking a customer to help him keep him from getting his doors shut down. He knows some may wish not to come inside, but he is between – pardon the pun in the context of this piece – a rock and hard place.

I’ve been those guys before, more wound up on using my youthful edges to chip away at the world. What I lost, however, was the ability grow from experiences gained by looking through the eyes of others. And in learning to be more open, viewing challenges from the other’s point of view, I’ve also found more happiness and success in life.

You can fit more rounded rocks in a jar than those with uneven and jagged edges. The former look for ways to adjust and make room for others to join in; the latter wedge themselves into place and fights like hell, never giving an inch to accommodate others.

Time, like the waters rolling against these once raw and jagged stones, changes many of us by washing away our quick to anger tendencies and resistance to seeing the world from another’s point of view.

I placed a beige rounded stone the size of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup into my jacket pocket. Mother Nature is holding class again.

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West Coast pilgrimage carries extra meaning

Pilgrimages come in all shapes and sizes. Religious, chasing a genealogy tree or hoping to catch a glimpse of Elvis hanging out in Graceland. Following the passing of my best friend, Walter, I found myself on one as well.

Together, he and I spent more teenage hours on skateboards than sleeping. His recent death sent me to the birthplace of modern skateboarding, Walter tucked inside my heart.

Dogtown is a funky little space with such an independent streak it reaches into two cities along the Southern California coast. Venice and Santa Monica found their streets overrun by skaters during the ’70s and ’80s.

Walter and I pasted our bedroom walls with posters of skaters from the infamous Zephyr team, better known as the Z-Boys of Dogtown. The team was your classic anti-hero team, constantly breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries of skating. And from our perch in the Midwest of the country, they were the perfect role models.

Walter and I jumped fences searching for empty swimming pools, concrete pipes on construction sites, and any surface that could get us the high of being vertical.

You can insert a lifetime here. We both grew up, went off to college and eventually became somewhat respectable adults. Children, mortgages and even 401ks replaced our buying the newest deck or particular set of bearings for our wheels.

But neither of us quit skating. Whenever we’d see each other, we’d find a way to skate. Once, in the basement of a children’s museum while our kids played upstairs, another time shooting hills around his neighborhood.

This moment brings me to a massive skatepark in Venice Beach, California, built in honor of the influence of the Z-Boys on skating. A concrete island surrounded by a sandy beach and a soundtrack of Pacific waves pounding nearby, the park draws skaters worldwide. Last week, I joined the club.

Dropping in, I couldn’t help but think of Walter and how we’d encourage and challenge each other to push faster and higher up the white cement walls. From the high-fives to the encouraging word as you lick your wounds after a nasty fall back into the bowl, I missed his voice.

After one terrific run, I felt the urge to turn to Walter and challenge him to top me. But then the memory of holding his hand in hospice a few months ago returns, and I remember why I’m here. On this day, I’m skating for two.

These days, my legs are good for half an hour at best, and I call it a day. Walter and I talk for a bit, his imaginary legs hanging down into the bowl, feet kicking. I can hear his voice, his laugh and his encouraging chant, “Heck yeah!”

Afterward, I’m standing on a street corner, looking across the Venice plaza, the skatepark out on the beach. I call an Uber and again find myself thinking of my friend and how much I miss him.

My phone vibrates, telling me my Uber driver is on his way. His name is Walter.

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Immigration Draw Not a New Issue

I’m sitting around a small table at my dad’s retirement home. He’s on the far corner, and three women finish out the seats.

“You know,” he said, gesturing across the table, “her family is third-generation on the island.”

On Galveston Island, the term BOI – or born on island – carries an earned level of respect for hardened resiliency in the face of deadly hurricanes and dangerous flooding. A sandbar is, by nature – and because of nature – is a curious place to build a town.

I look to a woman sitting to my left, her eyes like small orbs of light, smiles with sparkle of shyness.

“Yes,” she says. “My great-grandfather came over from Germany, my great-grandmother from Switzerland.”

A teenager, her great-grandmother crossed the Atlantic alone and with few prospects.

“Why did she emigrate?” I asked.

“To get a job,” she said.

Her words were so matter-of-fact – and timely.

Immigration is a problematic discussion these days as hundreds of thousands of people migrate toward the United States. Some legally, others not. But in the end, their reasons generally fall into a small number of categories. And from my experience, the motivate drawing my dad’s friend’s great-grandmother is a powerful draw: a job.

As much as the United States like to say we the world’s beacon for hope, we have never fully achieved the words etched into the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is a big ask of a nation that is in a constant state of reinvention. Wide-open immigration, as alluded to in these words, is more aspirational than reality. Managing immigration, right down to my mother’s in 1952, is filled with hoops, standards, and commitments. My uncle, a US citizen, even signed a document to the government promising my mother would find gainful employment and never burden the American people.

The allure for a better life in the United States burns worldwide with the intensity of a supernova. Given an opportunity to support themselves and provide for your family can be a powerful magnet compared to four corners of this big round world.

It is impossible for me to fully appreciate what it is like to live in a world those so desperate to come to America endure. If you’ve traveled beyond national borders, you will quickly be embarrassed at the sheer scale of wealth we enjoy in this country. And by wealth, I mean running water we can drink, the food we toss out on trash day, and petty disagreements pick with one another over shades of grey.

Right now, tens of thousands are attempting to migrate to America because of a bi-directional problem: away from poverty, despair, and persecution, and towards a place where they believe self-sufficiency and self-destiny can happen.

This problem will not resolve with angry words, but addressing both ends driving the problem. Only then can we fulfill the destiny of our promise etched on the Statue of Liberty.

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Hate A Word Worth Addressing

I rarely use the word hate.

“Be careful how you use the word hate,” my mom would say. “Hate is a terrible word and should use sparingly in life.”

I picture this conversation at the circular dinner table in the kitchen and me – again – leaving my brussels sprouts to go stone cold. And as a kid learning the ever-changing language boundaries, the words seemed appropriate for a vegetable tasting like the blades of grass outside the window.

“You can say you don’t like something, but save the word hate for rare cases,” she said.

Over the years, she drilled into me to avoid using the word, as if radioactive and would harm others. Words, she helped me understand, can carry unintended meanings, lasting pain, and penetrating hurt. Use them carefully, she said.

Which brings me to a reflexive feeling in my body when hearing the term hate crime. I hear my mother’s words and warnings in my head. And as embarrassing as I must admit, she’d agree with the increasing usage in the modern-day.

My calendar contains many useful features, one reminding me of the themes designated for the coming days and months. Most times, the subjects are meaningful, others not so much.

But in a timely sense, one popped up this week, and when viewed under the light of current events, brought my mom’s words back home. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Hate crimes are heinous. By definition, a hate crime is a crime that typically involves violence motivated by prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or other grounds.

I thought of a recent report of a large man New York City man beating a 65-year old Asian American woman to the ground. His actions were not dislike, but hate.

Or the death of a 25-year old Black man running the streets of Brunswick, Georgia, after two adult men jumped from their vehicle. This too, was not dislike but actions deeply anchored in hate.

Recently a friend joined me for coffee. His wisdom of the world includes being of a generation ahead of me. I enjoy and respect his point of view.

“Racism is about all about power,” he said. “The act of putting someone below you in the levels of life.”

My friend is a kind man with a good heart. His words opened up a new understanding of what drives people to cross the line from dislike to hate. According to him, the age-old premise of individuals jockeying for position against people who are different from them or know little. Doing so lays a fertile foundation for hate to grow.

The growing frequency of hate crimes concerns me. Hate crimes are not new, but today we are better at attaching the definition to such motivated actions. Bringing such crimes to public light can be a good thing. True hate should burn under the light of day.

But I hate hate crimes – use I am sure my mother would agree.

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Kids Become Adults, but Will Always Be Children

At what point do you stop referring to your children as kids?

My wife and I are parents of two beautiful children. Both are now fully-fledged, card-carrying adults with health insurance and FICO scores.

But too often, when speaking with other adults, I catch myself referring to our children as kids – which, as adults, they are not.

In conversations with others, the term spills out of my mouth like an out-of-tune piano, trying but unable to hit the right note.

My wife and I feel blessed with two children we like and enjoy hanging around. Both own solid work ethics are honest to a fault and carry generous hearts.

But those kids – the same ones who trustingly stood on top of my feet learning to ride a skateboard or sounded out words during bedtime readings – are long gone. Only now they text photos of them standing atop an 8-hour hike up and down a mountainside or holding kitten they rescued from a bush.

In our neighborhood, my wife and I are now the older folks on the block. The soundtrack of our street features kids chasing one another with lightsabers and the occasional afternoon of hand-blown bubbles dancing across our fence line. A Big Wheel parked on the sidewalk, baseball in the street, and Halloween costumes in July don’t register as odd.

Our children are now long gone, one in a different time zone, the other deep into another stage of adulthood. A game of catch buried in the distant past, and the old costumes tucked away in storage boxes are increasingly considered collector’s items.

“Kids” is an odd but universal term. The word children, however, is both literal and dryly scientific. While the latter is timeless, the former eventually asks to go out the door like an impatient puppy. And out of respect, we need to do so.

But as a parent, this is hard to unwind the space between our ears.

I remember as a kid nothing chafed like being relegated to the kid’s table for a holiday meal. My brother and cousins all jockeyed for the day we’d be invited to sit at the big table with the adults, the place where the laughter ran as thick and heavy as brown gravy. One day, we trusted, we move up to the adult’s table.

Reality proved otherwise. Christmas after Christmas, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving, our holiday’s included a card table in the living room or shaky plastic television trays. As kids, we were stuck in limbo waiting for the call to join the big table.

The spell of being considered a kid, it seems, didn’t fade until marriage and bringing your own into the world. Doing so earned you a past trip Pass and Go, collect your $200, and grab a chair at the adult’s table.

I guess the most beautiful memories of life will always anchor our sense of being. And if being a parent is means we will always have kids, so be it.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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