Making the Moment

Some things just take the cake. Others make it taste really, really good.

And no, I don’t mean the frosting.

Ask the University of Minnesota. The folks up in the Land of 1,000 Lakes Plus The Start of One Honkin’ Big River recently did a study that found a curious thing: simply wearing a Vikings jersey can decrease a football team’s Super Bowl chances by a factor of 10.

No, wait. That’s not it. What the researchers really found was that singing “Happy Birthday” before eating a cake made it taste better. And no, it doesn’t work if you just slouch down in your chair and die of embarrassment while the waiters at Three Margaritas do it instead. You’ve got to be personally involved.

(No word yet, by the way, on whether the slightly off-key singing of a televised clown adds anything to the mix. Attention to all Blinky’s Fun Club veterans – the next avenue of research awaits!)

It’s not just the singing, mind you. Lighting and blowing out the candles counts, too. Even the smallest ritual that adds “intrinsic interest” matters, U of M researcher Kathleen Vohs told the world in a release, down to making a big deal of how you unwrap and eat a chocolate bar.

That’s interesting. Weird, but interesting.

And it confirms the results of my own 15-year-long experiment. The one that involves a gold ring on the left hand of two people.

Heather and I married on July 25, 1998. Since then, like most couples, we’ve added a lot of rituals and traditions to our lives. Sometimes it was even on purpose.

There’s been the tradition of sleeping at least one night under the Christmas tree, fulfilling a childhood dream of Heather’s.

Or the accidental tradition for many Thanksgivings of having take-out pizza on Turkey Day – a combination of family illness and nothing else being open.

Even before we married, of course, we partook in the universal date night tradition of Passing The Buck. “So where do you want to go tonight?” “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” “I asked you first.”

And of course, the last two years have added a host of Missy-related rituals, from teasing her out of bed in the morning (Heather found that an off-key rendition of “Cracklin’ Rosie” works really well) to reading her to sleep at night.

Just like the much-repeated birthday song, each new tradition added a little spice. It fixed the memories into place. It put us in the moment.

For the survival of a marriage, that last can be the most valuable of all.

I know, I know. There’s a lot of people who will warn against letting a relationship slide into routine. And they’re right. Taking each other for granted is the surest way to turn a marriage gray, to the point where each partner suddenly wonders if the other has noticed them at all.

This is the opposite of that.

This is finding a way to set aside moments and make them special.

This is a way to focus attention on what you’re doing.

This is claiming drops of the sea of time and saying “This is for us. Here and now.”

It makes a difference.

And just like in the study, it doesn’t work if you’re only a spectator. You have to help make the moment, no matter how many times you may have made it before.

That’s when it becomes truly yours.

We’ve had a lot of moments in 15 years. I look forward to many more.

Somehow, I don’t think we’ll find it hard to do.

In fact, it might just be a piece of cake.

Putting the Pieces Together

Missy has a unique way of playing Concentration.

To start with, her cards always stay face up. That in itself might not be unusual, given her disability. Simply locating and matching a pair of cards counts as a triumph, even without the added challenge of remembering where a certain pair is hiding.

But it’s what happens next that gets my attention.

Because Missy’s matching doesn’t stop with pairs.

Cards showing markers are stacked with cards showing crayons. Cards showing airplanes get sorted with cards showing rockets. Any card that has a picture of food on it finds its way into a common pile.

In short, she’s finding patterns.

More, she’s finding patterns that everyone would recognize.

In this day and age, that’s not just a triumph. That’s darned near a miracle.


“Still a man hears what he wants to hear/And disregards the rest.”

— Simon and Garfunkel, “The Boxer”


There’s a lot of anger in the country these days.

Anger over gun laws and gay rights. Anger over drones and bugs, over hours-long filibusters and mile-long health care plans. Anger over what exactly happened on a rainy Florida night between two strangers that left one dead and the other notorious.

I’m not discounting that anger or proclaiming myself immune. I’ve felt it. You probably have, too. And frankly, it’s good for citizens of a democracy to be uncomfortable at times, to not be complacent, to look at the world and say “This is not how it should be.”

But going there isn’t enough.

You have to decide what the next step is going to be.

For some, the urge to anger becomes the urge to destroy. Hit back. Tear down. It’s the most primal urge of all, the most tempting. The blow thrown in rage. The bomb set in Boston. The war that consumes all of Europe, then all the world.

To let the heat become fire, all-consuming.

For others, anger is a chance to build and transform, the righteous anger that cleans moneychangers from the temple or slavery from a nation. To say “This is not right” and replace it with something better.

To let the fire light the way to a different path.

For most of us? It becomes hot air. Something to vent on Facebook and Twitter, to rant about in the halls of power, to air the dissatisfaction without necessarily seeing it become action.

Now, that talk has its place. It’s better to shout than to shoot, after all.  Sometimes that debate can even lay the groundwork for those who do act, if only by helping one more neighbor to see and appreciate a view that’s not their own.

That way can lie understanding. Compromise. Even cooperation.

But … and this is a big “but” … there has to be a place where minds can meet.

And that can’t happen if everyone has their own personal reality.

The Zimmerman trial was only the most recent example. We’ve seen others. Cases where so many already know what happened, know what the truth is. And will pull out everything they can, be it fact or rumor, to support that pre-determined conclusion.

Doesn’t fit the picture? Shuffle it back into the deck.

Need that matchup to work? Go ahead. Stack the pizza cards with the crayons. Who’s to say you’re wrong?

I mean, besides any kind of objective reality.

Facts are uncomfortable things. They’re not always going to be on the side we want. It is, indeed, useful to recognize patterns and draw inferences from them – but only if we’re ready to follow where they take us.

If it mars our pretty picture, so be it. Better an honest uncertainty than a conviction built on air.

And if we can’t do that … well, then we get today’s Congress. And much of today’s social media. A lot of echo chambers, each sure of their righteousness and the other guy’s error, none ready to acknowledge the horrible possibility that they might be mistaken.

It doesn’t take much to change it. Just open eyes. An honest mind. And a willingness to put sense before pride.

Missy will be glad to demonstrate.

Red Queen’s Race

It’s hard to think when she’s hurting.

I look at those seven words. Then look at them again. They don’t seem to go far enough. And they seem to fit far too well.

She’s been hurting a lot lately.

This is not new ground for me and Heather. Far from it. Some people trade favorite books and movies on a first date; we traded medical conditions. Hey, you talk about what fascinates you, right?

So I’ve known all along about her Crohn’s disease, about her migraines, about her crazy immune system. Surgery took care of the endometriosis; the lesser-known, harder-to-spell ankylosing spondylitis came into the picture about the same time. It’s a list I can rattle off better than next week’s groceries at King Soopers.

But lists don’t capture a wife who hurts so badly, she has to lean on your arm – hard – just to get from the bed to the bathroom.

They don’t capture the frustration of knowing everything she needs and wants to do, and having to wait for her body to give permission.

They don’t capture a lot of things.

It’s not always like this. Heather can go a long time between major flare-ups sometimes. Over the last five years or so, she’s even managed to keep them penned behind walls of medicine, a new drug that could push back the pain, give her some spaces to live a life. Not perfectly, but better than anything before it.

But like sunspots, chronic pain seems to have a cycle. And lately, we’ve been trending toward a maximum.

The walls are getting cracks.

I don’t know how she does it. To be fair, neither does she. There’s a lot of days when she doesn’t want to do it, when she’s flat-out had enough.

But still she’s in there. Part stubborn strength, part love, part not knowing what else to do.

I know we’re not the only ones in this spot. We’ve taken love and comfort from so many, the other folks whose friends never know quite what to say, who keep asking if you’re doing better, not understanding that “doing better” is a temporary thing, not to be relied upon.

Every so often, I flash back to a joke my cousin and I used to tell. We knew that deja vu was the feeling you’d been somewhere before. The opposite, we said, must be vuja de, the feeling you never want to be somewhere again.

Flare-ups are made of vuja de.

I think the most frustrating thing for us – for anyone caught in a similar cycle of turmoil – is that we seem to keep covering the same ground over and over again, like a football team that can’t quite get the score but won’t quite give up the touchdown. Like Alice and the Red Queen from Looking-Glass Land, running as fast as they can, just to stay in the same place.

But oddly enough, the frustration is sometimes the strength. However far away the line may be, we’re still running. We’re still in the game.

Despite everything, we keep making it.

Not long ago, I spotted a Facebook message from one friend to another that I had to copy for Heather. It’s a virtual poster, reading “On particularly rough days, when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100 percent, and that’s pretty good.”


We hang on. Sometimes by the notch in a fingernail. Sometimes by the skin of our teeth. But we’re not off the cliff yet.

And yeah, to mix the metaphor, that is one heck of a batting average.

Tonight may be hard. Tomorrow night, too. But we’ve made it through nights before.

And with love and stubbornness and exhaustion, together, we will see the dawn again.

Triumphant Through Defeat

When you think about it, our country celebrates a pretty odd birthday.

I’m not talking about the fireworks bursting in the sky while stomach linings are bursting on the ground. As Erma Bombeck once said, it’s a wonderful thing that we observe a patriotic holiday with food and Frisbees rather than a march of our armored divisions down Pennsylvania Avenue – and besides, it’s un-American not to celebrate a major event by over-eating, right?

Nor am I talking about the fact that we celebrate on July 4th an independence that was approved on July 2nd.  Given our national ability with dates, we’re probably lucky not to have it at the start of football season.

I don’t even mean the fact that every Independence Day concert closes with “the 1812 Overture,” a piece about Russians kicking the tar out of the French army about 30 years after our Revolution ended … with the help of the French. We’ll overlook a lot for the chance to fire off cannons at a concert, after all.

No, here’s the oddity, at least from my perspective.

Every July, we celebrate a war that was mostly won by not losing.

Think about it.

We’re a country that packs the stands at the Olympics and takes it as a personal offense when we don’t grab the gold in everything. We spend a lot of time cheering for sports that allow scoring, scoring and more scoring (baseball’s given a pass because of tradition; hockey because of the fights). We’re the land of Rambo and Horatio Alger; where “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,”; where anything can be a competition, even throwing cow pies.

We are, in short, as obsessed with victory as ever a nation was. Ask George Karl sometime.

Just don’t ask George Washington.

Not unless you’re ready to squint at the win-loss record.

This isn’t meant as a slam on the General. He’s an American hero and rightfully so. At times he held the Continental Army together through sheer willpower, wrestled with an often-sluggish Congress for essential resources (you know, nothing like today) and stood up when his country called, over and over again, to do whatever it needed him to do.

But if you had a dollar for every time a history text said “Washington retreated” or “Washington withdrew,” you could probably put on a pretty nice fireworks show.

Sure he had reason. The British could usually put more troops in the field with better cohesion. But that doesn’t change the fact that , until the surprise attack at Trenton at the end of the year, 1776 mostly saw Washington and his men being chased out of New York, out of New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. The most notable moment for the Continentals came with a near-miraculous escape across the East River under cover of fog.

In short, this was a losing streak that would be unparalleled until the creation of the Chicago Cubs.

And yet.

During World War II, Winston Churchill once quoted a saying that England always wins one battle – the last. Washington seemed to have understood something similar. For a revolutionary general, victory isn’t measured by battles. Or by territory. Or even whether your side keeps possession of its capital.

Victory is measured by whether you still have an army in the field and can keep up the fight. If you’re still there, you win. You can lose any number of individual clashes, so long as you hold on to the essentials.

It’s a perspective that often gets lost today, I fear.

Fight out a bill? Absolutely, every time, by every means possible, without compromise – even if the net result is Congressional paralysis.

A war on terror? Grab every tool you can to fight it – even if the result is the shrinking or loss of those liberties we thought we were fighting for.

I’m not saying surrender. Washington didn’t either. But never lose sight of the goal. Never lose sight of where victory really is.

Brilliant victories that lose a war are all too common. But to make even defeat a cornerstone of triumph – now that’s genius.

If the fight can go on … if the nation can go on … we all win.

And if that’s not worth a barbeque, I don’t know what is.