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.


Returning to Old-School Friendship

Friendship is one of the most valuable gifts we can extend to another.

“To have a good friend, you must first be a good friend.”

These words, written to me last month by a friend in Georgia after learning of my loss of my lifelong childhood friend, broke out from hundreds of other condolences, and refuses to leave me alone.

The author, too, is a good friend.

In today’s world, we tend to toss around the currency of calling people friends like feeding carp at the end of a wooden fishing dock. From considering everyone we connect with on Facebook to stretching a passing relationship into our once guarded legion of friendship, we dilute the value of one of our most precious gifts.

The author is someone I consider a friend. We know each other’s character, family, and a fair bit of personal history. My wife and I feel he and his wife are role models for marriage – always laughing, extending respect, and family-centered.

He was there when a seagull let loose a deposit from above, splattering across my head. I think once you share a moment like that, friendship is like a natural progression.

But his words ring so true. Friendship isn’t earned or passed out like free samples of ice cream on a hot summer day.

Friends are someone you know – warts and all.

I thought about how this applied to those I consider – at least in the 20th-century definition – friends. The investment in time, love, and ups and downs all require effort on each other’s part. My old-school definition tends to be those we’ve never really been out of contact with, always finding reasons to speak to one another regardless of what state or stage of life we live.

As for my friend who passed last month, he and I called or spoke to one other on each other’s birthday for more than 50 years. Each year we’d open the call with “Happy birthday, old man,” and laugh our way into wherever the next 15 minutes wandered. The good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.

My Georgia friend’s words will forever alter my understanding of friendship after losing my childhood friend.

A friend is someone you share a relationship string with like no other. You’ve most likely gotten sideways at times, helped through a family crisis, and known when to silently sit while they vent – knowing your advice is not wanted, only your presence.

Friends also share embarrassing experiences, many you hope would just as soon remain between the two of you. And friends, no matter where they are at the moment, will drop everything to be by the other’s side in a time of need.

And finally, a friend is never looking for something in return on their investment. You being you is all that is required. And that is true friendship. 


2021: The Year We Take Back Our Lives

Finally. Welcome, 2021. Many of us thought you’d never get here.

One year ago, we shared a handful of aspirations for 2020. Many of us likely planned to lose a few pounds, spend more time with friends and family, and committed to cutting back our growing binge-watching problem on Netflix.

Well, 2020 rudely hijacked that plan.

Here I sit on the first week of a new year with a new friend I’ll call “Mr. COVID Fluff” tugging at my midsection. I am also thirsty for the faces of friends and family. And somehow, in 2020, I consumed enough British crime series episodes to give me a faint accent.

Let’s take back our lives in 2021.

First of all, let’s keep calm and carry on (oops, here come that British influence again) as we support our health care and front-line workers managing the disruptive nature of the COVID pandemic. Science proves we need to ramp up our end of the equation, not let down our guard. Mask up, give space, and wash your hands. Doing so is the best way we can get to the next part of our list.

I miss my friends and family terribly. Sorry, but Zoom isn’t quenching my thirst. As we cross over to a safer environment in 2021, hugs will be on the menu. Extra helpings will be free, no coupons necessary.

Earlier this week, a friend told me she’d gone three months without human contact – and doing was so painful. As humans, we need the touch of another, in love or pain. Let’s not forget this when on the other side of this pandemic.

As for my new friend, Mr. COVID Fluff, he’ is going. Hit to door, do not collect $200, cheerio (sorry, British vocabulary sneaking in again.).

Yes, staying at home for extended periods allowed us to exercise regularly, take walks around the block, and focus on our health. But the newfound time also meant walking through the kitchen about 100 times a day. Make the 101 some days.

Stress eating is real – and I am proof. No matter how much I ramped up my exercising, some of those 10,000 steps a day took place in the kitchen. One snack won’t hurt, I’d kid myself. Eventually, I considered putting up a pet gate and yellow crime tape during certain hours to protect me from those tiny frosted cookies behind the cabinet doors. Still might.

Mr. COVID Fluff needs to take a deep dive into the Thames River (dang, British crime shows influence again).

As for binge-watching British crime shows, well, that one might stick. The shows are so darn good. And now I’ve discovered equally good shows from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and other far reaches of the globe. In short, subtitles changed my life forever. If you need recommendations, feel free to ask.

I’m optimistic about 2021. We shape our world with our thoughts and actions. And, as they say in England, a stiff upper lip doesn’t’ hurt either.


With a little looking, we can find the good in 2020

2020 is going down as the year people love to hate.

To be honest, that’s not a hard train to jump aboard. With the devastating effects of COVID, widespread economic disruption and corrosive politics, many would like this to be the year to forget.

We cannot — nor should we — be sugarcoating the pain this year inflicted on so many.

But what if we searched the year for the positives to take forward into the new year?

Below are a few of what I’ll call revelations for me during this year of (you fill in the blank).

Personal reflection: I remember a friend first bringing this forward during a particularly frightful period of the year — a period with more unknowns than answers, more pain than healing. A dark window. She told me she found herself more reflective and appreciative of her life and those around her.

Her words stuck with me, and I, too, found her truth bubbling below the surface of my radar. Her words changed my life that day.

Our medical community: Too often, we under appreciate those who quietly perform a great job behind the backdrop of our daily lives. If I’ve come to elevate my appreciation for anybody, it’s for health workers and the immensely critical role they play in my life — even when I don’t know they are there.

2020 is demonstrating we have a remarkable health care system populated with immensely talented and committed professionals. Imagine crews of people working in fogs of exhaustion for weeks and months without a break, never knowing when the rush would slow or a solution would show up on the horizon.

I remember a nurse telling me she’d been working seven days straight for several months. The difference was she was not complaining but rather remained committed to saving people at her expense.

I will always remember this particular moment.

The little things matter the most: Much like the economic crash of 2008, conspicuous consumption is out. Again, people recognize chest-thumping and collecting new shiny objects are an outward sign of insecurity or thirst for validation from others.

Instead, I’m finding myself viewing excess or shallow spending as insensitive to others who are genuinely in need. Time sitting alone with a good friend is better than a rare bottle of scotch sitting on the shelf.

Waking up in the morning in good health is worth more than a winning lottery ticket.

And to recognize that each word we speak, each action we take will make a difference in the world, radiating as a pebble dropped in still water, is so rewarding.

Contextualizing 2020 is not going to be easy. The list of pain and discomfort easily out shouts the quiet, positive moments occurring in the shadows.

But let’s not forget, we alone own our attitudes, perspectives and actions in the world.

Let’s use this incredibly challenging window of time to reinvent ourselves from the inside out. The world will smile.

Take that, 2020.


Cancer Can Take Lives, But Never Love

Entering a hospice a week before Christmas was never in my friend’s plans.

Cancer may be coming for his life, but it’ll never take his spirit.

“You know,” he said, his voice scratching like a coarse piece of sandpaper, “if someone told me I could trade some of the crazy things we did for an extra five years, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

I first met my friend walking out from beneath a tray of home-baked cookies his mother baked for my family. A green and yellow moving van parked in the driveway, my family’s belongings packed inside, our new life on the outside. New town, new neighbors, and new adventure.

In a week or so, I’d begin the first grade, but more importantly, I started a friendship spanning more than a half-century.

My hand rests in his, his fingers drawing towards mine. The room is quiet.

We shared our first beers. Today ice chips are on the menu. White plastic spoon, small Styrofoam cup, and tiny ice nuggets like the BB’s we sprayed into tree branches hoping to bring home a squirrel.

I don’t remember if we ever succeeded. Still, I remember tramping in the woods like explorers, imagining we were hundreds of miles from home, acting like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches didn’t wait for us a few hills back.

No one thinks they might have once met my friend – you either did or you did not. His energy, tender soul, and ability make everyone who meets him feel like a spine-tingling cosmic connection occurred. Kindness, embracing demeanor, and intensely thirsty about the world around him are his hallmarks. And the more he learns, the more he appreciates this crazy journey we call life.

We jumped into swollen creeks during flash foods, not knowing where we might end up. We jumped off roofs to see if we could fly and cried to each other after breakups with girls.

A nurse comes, reaching down to a small hose running from his torso. She begins pouring a clear fluid when the twinkle in his eye stops her.

“That the good stuff?” he said.

“Sure is,” she said. “Might even be tequila today.”

And there it is, the soft laugh, the sparkle, and nurse willingly joins the club of thousands before her.

He asks about our kids, both of who know him as their uncle. Both adults now, they recognize they are fortunate to have someone like my friend in their lives. Each learned first-hand blood does not define family, but rather it is love cementing lives together.

Fifty years is a lot of territory to cover in a few hundred words. Impossible to justly do for someone you once sliced pinky fingers with a pocket knife, swearing to be blood brothers for life.

Today those same two hands are resting on the hospital-style bed, one cradling the other. We’ve loved each other for a lifetime – and then some. And cancer will never take that away from us.


COVID Reminds Us To Give

COVID keeps reminding me of a time-honored saying.

“It is better to give than receive.”

Aside from a pandemic turning our world upside down, the disruption is painful across a broad range of people – many who never expected to be in line at the local food bank. The pandemic is killing more than people. According to Fortune magazine, more than 100,000 small businesses that earlier in the year closed temporarily never reopened.

Through no fault of their doing, many long-time, faithful, and hard-working individuals find their trades in a state of extended suspension or potentially never returning. The world moved on – and did so overnight.

A friend said to me she’s much more reflective as the pandemic continues to steamroll on.

“The world looks and feels different,” she said. “And maybe, in a way, that is a good thing, too.”

Her words stuck with me.

A few days later, my wife and I were scratching out Christmas lists. Names, budgets, and ideas.

When it came to each other, we both looked at one another and knew something felt wrong. Spending money on each other when so many others are in need seemed tone-deaf. So we punted – right into committing to ramping up donations to those in need.

Together we set a tiny gift budget for each other and agreed to find ways to help others. At first, we were not sure where to start, but let the universe guide us. And, unsurprisingly, the universe opened up.

So far, we’ve uncovered new ways to help children discover gifts beneath the tree, families put food on the table, and even much-needed items at a local pet shelter. And we are just getting started.

I bring this up as I can’t begin to describe how this is changing me. The holidays are always a season of giving. But for so long, the giving seemed to be promoted as sparkling gifts, the kind that makes dreams come true.

COVID reminds us too many people wish for food on the table, clean socks in the drawer, and the heating bill. And for that, I am thankful. I know myself well enough to know when I’ve changed inside, and this year is one of them. And I’m sure I’m not going back.

I can tell you I will see gifting the same. I love to surprise people with a thoughtful and unexpected gift, but more and more, I see extravagant gifts are a missed opportunity to help others.

And if you need another reason, the United States is by far the most generous county on the planet when giving to charity. You could say, giving and sharing with those in need is as American as Apple pie.

So this season, join me in finding new ways to help those in need. Keep both your eyes and heart open, and give those individuals and agencies you trust. Give the gift of lending a hand to those in need – and you’ll never look back.


Bedtime Foreshadows Future

Sometimes 34 is the lucky number.

This week my daughter landed a job with an employer she’d long wanted to work. After applying for nearly for nearly three dozen opportunities over the past year, she’s in. After dozens of decline emails and a handful of promising interviews, her foot in on the inside. The streak of stubbornness she developed years ago at bedtime is serving her well.

Sending her to bed as a little girl was always an adventure.

“Time for bed,” I say.

After a bit of staling, she’d try to turn the moment into a negotiation.

“How about a book first,” she’d say, knowing how much we encouraged her to read.

“Sure,” I’d say. “One.”

“How about two?”

Negotiations would continue until we found ourselves curled up in her soft pink Fisher-Price princess bed, her handing me an armful of books to read.

One book down, she’d play her next card.

“And this one too, please. It’s a short one, and I know it is one of your favorites,” she’d say, using me against myself.

Eventually, we’d get to the end of a couple of books, and I’d reach down to kiss her goodnight only to find another book or two hidden beneath her pillow staged for after I’d leave the room.

A stubborn streak, put to good use, can be a useful asset in life.

When my daughter began researching employers, friends told her the company she was applying for would only accept six applications a year from you. After that, wait until next year.

Again, a stubborn streak can be a good thing if used in the right circumstances.

“All they can do is keep telling me no,” she said to me one day.

There were times when she felt as if she was banging her head against the wall. But, to her credit, she learned slowly to get back up, dust herself off, and make another run. If she gained anything from this experience, if you want something bad enough – for the right reasons and are willing to put in the extraordinary effort – you might change the outcome.

But you must put in the work.

In life, you learn more from not getting the desired result than you do from hitting a home run on the first pitch you see. Foul balls are a part of the experience. So are pop-outs.

In life, learning to be resilient, resourceful, and not let others’ input derail your desires is one of the most important lessons you gain. In anything from career to relationships, the road to success rests on a foundation of jagged rocks and jarring bumps. Stumbling, tripping, and falling are all a part of the journey. Having the courage to get back up to your feet and reset for another run is the difference-maker.

I remember sitting on that tiny pink princess bed, hoping my little girl would carry this creative and stubborn trait out into the world, not letting anyone dictate her journey. She’s proving me right.


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 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.


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.