Perhaps This Time, or Next Time, or Soon

Dear Will:

This is a story about soccer (football without hands). But note: This is not a football story.

I first heard about the Brentford Bees at a business dinner in 2003. It was the same night in which I met Monty, a master raconteur who spent the evening entertaining us with stories about his sad-sack, lower division English football team. He recounted tale after tale about how his Bees sustained long periods of incompetence with occasional flashes of pretty-goodness—just enough success to create twinges of hope in the hearts of loyal fans, followed by the inevitable, almost unthinkable pratfall that would remind everyone of the true essence of Brentford. I was not much of a soccer fan at the time, but I found the Bees’ ineptitude irresistible. That very night I decided that Brentford would be my team.

Over the next several years, Monty had to teach me about promotion and relegation, why at the end of every season we seemed to sell off our best players and start over, how it was that we played in League Two which is actually the fourth division of English Football. (You understood that right: My Bees weren’t second-rate; they were fourth-rate.) I learned that Brentford supporters even have a saying—“It’s Brentford, innit?”—a shared bit of understanding that eventually, no matter how much you love them, the Bees will break your heart.

Allow me to illustrate: In the final seconds of the final game of 2013 (against Doncaster Rovers), the Bees had a chance to win the game and the league by converting a last-minute penalty kick. Alas, the ball hit the crossbar and bounced away, and in the scramble that followed Doncaster took the ball to the other end and scored as time expired. Thus the Bees turned near-certain victory into heartbreaking defeat—precisely the sort of thing you should expect if you are going to root for Brentford.

Fast forward to 2019/20. With the help of new ownership and better coaching, the Bees had climbed all the way into the second division (known as the Championship in order to maximize confusion). A victory in either of their last two games would have meant automatic promotion to the Premier League, considered the greatest league in all of football. (By now you should know where this is going.) Of course (of course!), the Bees lost both games and the playoff that followed—their ninth playoff failure in as many tries. Then, within weeks, we sold off our two best players, because, well, it’s Brentford, innit?

Given that fire sale, the 2020/21 season promised more of the same disappointment. A shorter off-season and a condensed schedule resulted in numerous injuries, forcing Brentford to scrap their way through the season with makeshift lineups. In spite of all of that, somehow the Bees pieced together two long unbeaten streaks, even rising briefly to the top of the league table. A late-season dip left us in third place, facing yet another playoff to try to secure promotion to the Premier League. Facing a two-goal deficit in the semi-finals, the Bees mounted an unimaginable comeback, scoring the winning goal with just minutes to play. The following week, Brentford did what their unwavering fans could only have dreamed of, beating Swansea 2-0 in the playoff final to earn their first-ever place in the Premiership. Fans wept openly, not quite believing what had happened to their beloved Bees. After decades of suffering, their faith in the team had finally been rewarded.

But like I said, this is not a football story.

The way I see it, we’re not so different from the Brentford Bees, you and I. We too are full of aspirations and good intentions, but too often our execution falls short. We try (for the most part), but on too many occasions we fail to perform at our best. Carelessness, bad habits, self-destructive behavior—they all get in the way. Repeatedly. As a result, we disappoint those we care about the most. Sometimes we even break their hearts. And yet through all of this fall-shortedness, those who love us never quite give up hope. They may not always like us, but having seen us (on occasion) at our best, they know what’s possible and cling to the notion that our Best Self could become our True Self—if only. Perhaps this time, or next time, or soon, at any rate, we will put it all together, rise above our weaknesses and become who we were meant to be.

This story about football is for all of us who break promises we cannot seem to keep, no matter how hard we try. And it’s also for all of those who believe in us in spite of all the disappointment, who hang with us through failure after failure, who continue to hope against all reason that eventually we will get it right. It’s about the kind of love and commitment that does not waver even though we do. Above all, it’s a reminder that, no matter on which side of disappointment you may find yourself, you should never give up hope that someday your day will come.

PW

Photo: Getty Images

This Stuff Sticks with You

IMG_3237

Dear Will:

About a week ago we returned from a two-week trip to South America. My wife, Dana, and I spent several days exploring Buenos Aires before flying to Posadas, in northern Argentina, where our son Seth was concluding his two-year missionary assignment for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was, as you might imagine, an emotional reunion.

Over the next 10 days, we covered a lot of ground. We spent a couple of days at Iguazú Falls which . . . I can’t even . . . it’s just . . . I don’t know . . . there aren’t words. Google it and assume that you still have no idea how magnificent and stupefyingly spectacular it all is. My jaw dropped so hard and so often that I was afraid it would become unhinged and I would be forced to spend the rest of the trip storing my chin in my shirt pocket. It was like that.

From there we went to Peru for a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. So cool. The two-week adventure concluded in Lima with dinner at Central, one of the top ten restaurants on the planet (for good reason). I don’t expect to EVER have another meal like it, in part because I’ll still be paying this one off well into my 90s. But inasmuch as travel is about making forever-memories, Central was all that and then some.

So yeah, it was all pretty great. But for all of the exotic wonder of our various stops along the way, it was all shrug-worthy anti-climax compared to the first evening we spent together with Seth. Once we had loaded his few remaining possessions into the back of our rented Fiat (he had already given the good stuff away), he took us to a tiny neighborhood they call Kilómetro 18, about a 25-minute bus-ride outside of Eldorado where Seth concluded his missionary service.

The roads of 18 are all red clay, the homes simple and functional but not much more. Seth had already told us about how he loved the place, and it was easy to understand why. Everywhere we walked we heard people calling for “Elder Wockeen”; they chased him down in the streets, implored him to visit their homes. THEY LOVED HIM. And it was obvious that he loved them back. When we gathered that evening in the home of the Familia Baez for a simple asado, there must have been 20 or so members of their little community of faith there. Given their limited circumstances, the spread was impressively bounteous (I recommend the fried mandioca), a generous gift which humbled us to be sure.

That evening will stay with me a long time. In fact, I would trade the night at Central, with all of its culinary flair, for another seat at the table of the Familia Baez—no question. The experience at Central I paid for, but as I celebrated that asado with Juan Carlos and Natalia, with Rafa and Daiana and Charly and the others, I felt awash in the pure love of Christ. That sort of feast cannot be bought.

Asado 18

Seth’s shoes (or what’s left of them, anyway) are still stained red by the clay on the streets of 18, and I think that’s fitting. When Jesus sent His disciples out to share The Word with the world, He told them that if, for some reason, a town rejected them, they should shake off the dust from their feet as a testimony against those people (Matthew 10:14). What I saw in Seth, in contrast, was the opposite effect: that when kind and loving people embrace a servant of God and his message, you CAN’T shake them off. What happens there sticks to you, perhaps forever, the discoloration on your worn-out shoes a lovely reminder of where you’ve been, who you’ve met, and how it all changed you. Those shoes are a token of selfless service, a priceless treasure made holy by days spent walking on sacred ground.

PW

I’m Pretty Sure I’m Psychic. Or At Least I Hope So.

clairvoyant-historical-pic-shutterstock_1024

Dear Will:

Years ago, in the midst of a long, mind-numbing road trip with the family, I introduced my kids to a game that had not existed five minutes prior. Making it up as I went, I outlined the rules: I announce a category of my own choosing—let’s say “Animals.” Then I silently select a specific item from that category and try to tell you what I’m thinking without saying a thing—no gestures, no other clues of any kind. “I must communicate to you solely through the sheer force of my prodigious, telepathic powers,” I told them. “Even now I am sending forth psychic emanations! I am devoting all available synapses to this one thing! Divine it, and we shall have achieved . . . PSYCHIC WONDER!”

In case you didn’t recognize it, this is fun. Or as my wife, Dana, might put it: insufferable. (Which, just between you and me, is what actually makes it fun. Don’t tell her I said so.) Nevertheless, in spite of its manifest stupidity, it was the ridiculousness of Psychic Wonder that made it for me somewhat irresistible in moments when I was feeling silly or when I saw an opportunity to embarrass my children (also fun). Thus I frequently subjected a backseat full of carpoolers to Psychic Wonder on the way to school. Alas, the game never really lasted very long—for some reason I never found anyone as good at it as I was.

Over the years, I introduced my children to a number of these not-quite-games, invented on the fly and precisely honed in the carpool laboratory. Sometimes we “played” Factoids or Poetry Hour or a thing I called Life Is Like, in which one person would begin a simile and everyone else would have to try to Forrest-Gump a suitable ending. (Go ahead. Give it a try: “Life is like a box of Hamburger Helper. . . .” FUN!) Or here’s another one that Dana “loves”: Shamu or Celery. I choose a random something-or-other (nose hairs!) and then we debate whether that something-or-other is more like Shamu or more like celery. (The correct answer, in this case, is celery. Obviously.) That game just might be Dana’s all-time favorite, as you can imagine.

I ask you: What’s a better way to fill the 15 minutes between home and La Veta Elementary? Throw into the background some not-so-classic rock from decades prior and you’ll be pulling up into the drop-off zone in no time. Not only will you have amused and delighted approximately one person in the car, but the kids will be pushing and shoving, climbing over each other to get out the door and onto the curb, looking at your son as if to say, “Luke: What’s with your dad?”

I miss those mornings, winding through the streets of Orange with a Mazda full of braces and nervous energy. Sadly, my carpool days long ago receded into my rearview mirror. Luke, now all grown up, married and established, drives himself to work each day; Bryn, committed to doing what she can to save the planet, prefers a bike or public transit as she completes her degree; and Seth, working as a missionary in Salto de Guairá, Paraguay, has little choice but to walk everyplace he goes. I now find myself commuting in an empty car, inching along the 405 freeway, alone with my thoughts, hoping that somehow, way back when, somewhere between the garage and the crossing-guard, my kids got the message embedded within that early-morning nonsense, conveyed to them by something more heartfelt than psychic emanations. Conveyed to them even now, as I write this and hope that in this moment they can divine what I’m thinking, no matter how far away they may be.

So that maybe the next time someone asks “What’s with your dad?,” they’ll immediately know the answer, and they’ll feel it—deep down. PSYCHIC WONDER!

PW