The meaning of life, at 50.

I’ve never been the victim of a surprise party before. I told Clare that we each get one per lifetime. 

I threw Clare one for her 40th and she still remembers standing in shock when she walked in the door, thinking, “I think I know that person, but they are dressed funny and they live on the other side of the country!” She was then immediately whisked off the floor and dressed in a tacky 80’s outfit we secretly picked out for her. Then she was shuttled to the dance floor to partake in our favorite 80’s music played by an amazing cover band. It took her a while to comprehend what was going on and enjoy the chaos – and the righteous outfits of her most beloved friends.

To this day she remembers the confusion and how long it took her to settle in to the party and enjoy everyone. Then, in a flash, it’s over. All her dearest friends are going home and she’s barely had time to talk with them all. Much too soon. 

Clare did a great job of keeping the secret from me this year. In hindsight, there were clues. Like when I walked in to my favorite restaurant, and their phone rings and the hostess answers it as I’m standing in front of her ready to order, “Oh hi, actually he’s standing right here in front of me! Do you want him to order some food for you? Oh…OK, yah, OK bye.” She hangs up.

“She must want a French Dip” I knowingly comment. 

“No. Nothing. Pocket call.” She says, with a nervous smile. 

I guess I was too hungry to rationalize that, so I just ordered. Clare always says I’m a bit oblivious. Sometimes I just trust people too much. 


We were to have dinner with a friend and her family at the neighborhood community center. It was supposed to be at their house, but at the last minute she changed it to the community hall. “They have a pool and hot tub,” she said, “the kids will like that”. It was a bit cold out, and going to be dark soon, so that didn’t really make sense, but, again, I just go with the flow.

We pulled in to the parking lot and it was full of cars. “Crap”, I thought, “it’s going to be crowded in there. I hope we have a place to sit and eat”. I didn’t see any people anywhere though. Our friends were sitting outside waiting for us. Again, a little odd, but maybe it WAS crowded inside and they wanted to suggest we go back to the house instead. 

“The kids are already inside!” She says with a hug, and leads us towards the door. Still no signs of people or noise whatsoever. Now my mind is actually starting to work. Too late. I’m at the door and there is a big sign adorned with old photos, “HAPPY 50th Kevin!!” Before I can even completely ingest it, the door is thrown open, and…

I think they all yelled, “Surprise!” But I’m not really sure. I was in shock. They could have yelled, “Meatballs!” and it would not have made any difference.

I looked around the room and started to cry like a baby. Good thing the room was filled with my best friends and family – people who fully expected me to cry at some point – just maybe not quite this soon.

There were friends from 20 years in Bend, wonderful new friends from the past year, a DJ friend from my days photographing weddings, armed and ready with his massive sound system. My dear Hawaiian friend, Bill Keale, who is an amazing singer/guitarist/performer and has played at nearly all our family’s major events since my 14 year-olds 1st birthday party, was surrounded by his guitars and ready to serenade us with enchanting Hawaiian music. 

My immediate family was there and it hit me that they were all in on it and how much work they must have done to put this together. 

Somebody came up to me and took the 6-pack of IPA that I brought to the “dinner party” from my still stunned and outstretched hand.

Music started, I tried to clear my eyes, then I began the wonderful job of delivering thankful hugs to everyone – one gratifying squeeze at a time. 

Clare had prepared a video montage to share, made from short videos that friends and family from all over the world had sent her. As we all watched, laughed, and cried (well, I did), it washed over me like a warm beach wave – I have amazing people in my life…and from all over the world! An immense feeling of thankfulness hit me, squeezing even more tears out. I’m going to need to rehydrate soon. 

Someone handed me a Bloody Mary, from the DIY Bloody Mary bar. Perfect.

We ate delicious Japanese food, topped with decadent chocolate coconut and banana cream pies. Somebody in my family also made Hawaiian/Japanese butter mochi for all to indulge, from our top secret family recipe, that could easily be classified as an addictive drug. (I’ll actually share it with you if you ask in the comments. You just have to sign a waiver that we’re not responsible for any addictions related to/or created by its consumption)

At one point in the evening, I was enjoying a conversation with a couple of friends, and one asked something like, “So what makes Kevin, Kevin?”

Had it not been for the events of the evening, I think I would have pondered that question a bit longer. However, it was genuinely obvious to me at this very moment in my life. 

“I have surrounded myself with amazing people for my entire life.” The answer led before I could even formulate the words in my head. 

I had to think a bit more about what just came out of my mouth. 

It was true. We are all products of our environments and even more so we are formed by the people we choose to spend time with and be inspired by. We are even formed by the people we choose to hire – as they are more than just “employees”, but become part of your family in many ways. 

I have never been one to have a ton of friends. I’m not a social butterfly. The friends I have are genuine and I would honestly enjoy hanging out with any of them, at almost any time. I don’t have friends that are downers, complainers, or afraid to embrace me in an enormous hug, or say, “I love you”. 

I’ve selected these friends because they enrich me. In the poignant paraphrased words of Jack Nicholson, “They make me want to be a better person.”

And there it was, my secret to a meaningful life, from the perspective of a half-century on earth. 50 trips around the sun. 1.1e-08 % the age of the planet.

Surround yourself with great people.

Scientific studies have even proven that people who surround themselves with people who are stronger or better than them, almost always rise to the occasion and do or perform better themselves. The opposite is completely true as well. I recalled a video that another dear friend sent me just a day prior – explaining this very concept. Was it coincidence?

My other friend in the conversation broke my contemplation, “Yah, I feel like I need to do that more myself. There are people I want to hang out with more, but I just don’t make the effort.” 

And there is the other part of “the secret”. We have to put ourselves out there. Great people will not usually just throw themselves at you, although occasionally they do. You have to act on the impulse to bring more of this person in to your life. Face your fear. Create the time. No answer is not a “NO” answer. Keep asking, keep trying. 

And, when you find that a person is not enriching your life, or is encouraging negative thoughts in your head, quickly move on. You don’t need to be rude, just move on.

More importantly, when you realize that someone really IS important to your life, share that with them. Tell them how much they mean to you. It will mean more to them than you can imagine, and will open another lane from the highway of your heart. Emotional traffic jams become much less likely – or at least you have more ways out.

I have realized and learned these things at age 50. That doesn’t mean I’m an expert at it all yet, but I know what I need to work on, and I’ve experienced the joy of being illuminated by beautiful, shining stars of people for most of my 50 years. 

I wonder what I’ll discover at my full century celebration? No surprise parties, please. That could be dangerous.