Picture the Time

Heather returned from the yard, her phone held in triumph.

“I did it!” she proclaimed. “Fifty-two weeks!”

“Oh? … OH!”

A smile spread across my face to match my wife’s. At long last, the photo forest was complete.

Perhaps I should explain. My wife Heather enjoys photography, especially shots that involve patterns and repetition. She’s also felt a little disconnected from the world since COVID arrived in 2020. With her various autoimmune conditions, she has to be careful about how and where she goes out, even in virus conditions that others might shrug at.

So to grab a sense of time, she started visiting the apple tree in the back yard for a brief photo session. One shot per week, always at the same time of day, always from the same angle and range. The goal: one year’s worth of pictures.

It started slow. After all, there’s not much difference between a barren tree branch in late February and a barren tree branch in mid-March. (Especially with the “second winter” that the Front Range can often get.) But over time, across 52 weeks, the changes became subtle and then profound: first budding, then flourishing, then thinning once more.

At times, it became a panic task. (“Scott! I almost forgot! I’ve got to do the tree!”) Time had started to mean something again among the sameness of home life, even if it mostly meant a date with a silent, leafy companion.

And as the leaves grew, so did her confidence.

She had set a goal. A long-term one. And she was following through.

When you spend a lot of time with chronic illness, that’s not a small thing. Plans often have to change on a dime; schedules and expectations become necessarily fluid. Friends, family, even doctors all become familiar with the phone call that starts “I’m sorry but I can’t today …”

A lot of things get torn away. And any time you can grab something back, it’s a triumph. A moment to plant your feet and say “No. I get to do this and you can’t stop me.”

And so, over time, the photos became a battle record. A simple spectrum of determination.

Fifty-two weeks. Fifty-two moments that added up to so much more.

Everything starts with a moment. It’s easy to forget that, easier still to get overwhelmed by what life asks of us. It all seems so big and our abilities so small, like sculpting with a toothpick.

But taking just a moment, claiming it, repeating it- that’s powerful. Even scattered moments built from brief flashes of opportunity add up. Georges Seurat spent two years painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”  J.R.R. Tolkien spent 17 years on “The Lord of the Rings.” Both created masterworks – but in a way, that’s beside the point.

It’s not about whether the goal resounds through the ages. It’s about what it means to you. And even what you build in yourself as you achieve it.

Heather built something lasting. She reclaimed a piece of her life. And regardless of the pictures themselves, that’s something no one can take away.

It’s amazing what can happen when you just take a shot.

Or even 52 of them.

Taking the Field

The world seemed to stop as Missy slowly reached for the softball on the ground. Felt for a grip. Then raised it up above her head and THREW.

“Woohoo!” “All right!” “Way to go, champ!”

On this day, on this ballfield, it was a moment of triumph to equal any World Series ever played.

This marked yet another season-ending game for the Niwot Nightmares, a “Softball for All” team that Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, has played for since its founding. The season ran a little later than usual – torrential downpours in June had a habit of washing out games – but otherwise, the same Monday evening joy and enthusiasm reigned.

If you’ve never seen the Nightmares and their league-mates in action on a summer’s evening, I highly recommend it. It’s a little different than anything you’ll experience at Coors Field. There’s no screaming vendors, no multi-million-dollar contracts … heck, there aren’t even any outs.

Instead, you get a game that moves at the pace of each player. You get friends coming together and cheering each other on, including the ones on different teams. Most of all, you get a sense of fun that has kept families coming back for years.

And when Missy steps on that field, she does it with the pride of an All-Star. Heck, she’s tipped her helmet to the crowd so many times – sometimes in a single at-bat – that we started nicknaming her “Hollywood.” For her, it’s both a game and a celebration.

She’s taking pride in what she can do. Pushing it, even. Not with an eye to someone else’s performance, but with an eagerness to meet the moment.

I try to do the same. I’m not always successful.

I suspect most of us aren’t, regardless of our level of ability.

We learn early on to judge what we can do and “stick to what we’re good at.” It’s a toxic lesson but a hard one to avoid. Everyone loves success and hates failure, and getting good at something requires a lot of failure.

And so, we diminish ourselves. We learn not to step out on limbs so that we’ll avoid embarrassment … and as a result, we never really learn to fly.

I’m not just talking about acquiring skills. These days, most people have at least heard of “imposter syndrome,” the conviction that everyone else has it figured out and that sooner or later they’ll realize you’re faking it.  It’s an affliction that’s not limited to the obscure – the author Neil Gaiman was once shocked to discover that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, felt out of place in a room full of accomplished individuals because “I just went where I was sent.”

“And I felt a bit better,” Gaiman famously wrote later. “Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.”

We’re all vulnerable. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got. When we understand that, I think we become a little easier on each other. And on ourselves as well.

And then, only then, can we really grow.

I’m not saying we’re all going to turn into figures of legend and envy. But we’ll find what we need for the season we’re in. And maybe a little joy besides.

Move at your pace. Give yourself permission to discover. Meet the moment with what you have, whatever it may hold.

And if that moment leads you to a celebration with friends on a hot summer night … so much the better.

Here’s Mad in Your Eye

In the still of the night, the most terrifying tale of the year waited to be born.  Not “It.” Not “Stranger Things.” Not even the Denver Broncos’ quarterback situation.

Not compared to the prospect of myself with a hobby knife in one hand, preparing to perform surgery on a ping-pong ball.

Yes, Halloween approaches. And this year, a non-profit group I belong to was putting on a Harry Potter night in advance of the holiday, so a little wizardly transformation was in order. With the aid of some building, borrowing, and scrounging, I would Transfigure my humble frame into the visage of Mad-Eye Moody, hard-bitten survivor of the wars against the darkness.

It sounded cool. Even a bit nostalgic. After all, my Mom used to make most of our Halloween costumes, sending me into the world as Robin Hood, or a scarecrow, or Hercules, or a ghost, all covered over with the heavy coat that even heroes of legend require in a Colorado October.

But completing this transformation would require sharp objects. And hot glue. And abundant snickers from the unseen peanut gallery.

You see, I’m not my Mom. (News flash!) My skills aren’t fated to be the centerpiece of “Craft Wars” or “The Handmade Project” or a PBS special on domestic skill. A Comedy Central special on unintended slapstick, on the other hand, would be right up my alley.

I’m the guy who, every Christmas, loses a wrestling match to wrapping paper.

Who once turned cleaning up dog vomit into a Chevy Chase routine, including two collisions with a bathroom door.

Who famously walked offstage in the middle of a solo, in order to make an unscheduled visit to the orchestra pit by the most direct route.

As a result, my Halloween costumes as an adult had been somewhat … well, safe. An IRS agent, with a briefcase saying “I’m not Death, I’m the other one.” A Man in Black. A reporter in a borrowed trench coat.

But no one stays safe in Hogwarts. And so, the Night of the Ping-Pong Ball Sacrifice awaited. After all, Mad-Eye Moody has to have that oversized eye. A full complement of fingers, on the other hand, was clearly optional.

In a situation like this, Harry would have relied on the wisdom of Dumbledore, or the learning of Hermione, or even the gentle strength of Hagrid. Thankfully, I had something better – a lesson in the sheer practicality of my brother-in-law.

Heather’s brother Brad has helped us with more than a few home improvement projects over the years, from repairing ceilings to replacing doors. But his best advice was also his simplest, given when a little bit of force had just solved the problem of the day.

“You can’t fix something,” he said, “if you’re afraid of breaking it.”

The more I think about that, the truer it gets. And it fits a lot more than just basic repair.

Everything worth doing carries risks. And it’s easy to get intimidated by them, especially if the task is difficult or unfamiliar. The costs loom large, the worst-case scenario all too palpable, summoned to life by the words “What if …?”

But while you never take stupid risks, taking none at all is the quickest route to failure. Not every attempt will succeed. But making the attempt gives it a chance. And when the extra push clicks something into place instead of snapping it in two, you gain something worth having – a cool costume, a repaired home, a neat idea that helps a community or a nation – plus a little more confidence for the next time.

Confidence and effort won’t solve everything. But it’s where a solution can start. It’s almost magical that way.

It certainly snapped me out of my Moody blues.

Claiming Space

By the time I came to bed, a furry mountain range had already seized most of the acreage.

“Blake…”

Big Blake, the Clydesdale Canine, remained motionless, the dark fur of his muscular body almost invisible in the night. He may not have known the principle about possession being nine-tenths of the law. But he certainly knew how to sprawl across nine-tenths of the bed, leaving only the space my wife Heather was sleeping in, and a small corner of empty mattress that might fit an adult hobbit.

Might.

“Come on, Blake.”

Even appealing to Blake’s bottomless stomach won’t always move him off the bed at times like this. And since my own back isn’t up to lifting 80-plus pounds of sleepy dog, what usually follows is half negotiation and half dance, until the thought finally penetrates his mind. “Oh. I am not a Chihuahua. Perhaps I should move over a bit.”

And with great reluctance – and no small amount of nudging – the mountain finally moves.

What makes it frustrating sometimes is that Blake is not a bad dog. Not really. Sure, he’s a klutz who tends to think with his belly instead of his mind, like many a rescue dog before him. But he loves deeply and is loved dearly, an enthusiastic member of the family who practically flies over Pikes Peak when one of his people comes home.

But when he takes up more than his share of space, it still gets on your nerves.

For football fans, that might sound familiar.

The first direct exposure many of us had to Richard Sherman, a cornerback in the Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” was last Sunday. Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard a lot about what a decent guy he actually is, and his background seems to bear it out – the guy who got out of Compton and into Stanford; the guy who, off the field, usually has time to spare if someone else needs it.

But all that got shoved into the background after the NFC championship game, where his game-sealing interception in the end zone was followed by a quick round of trash talk. “Well, I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like (Michael) Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get! Don’t you EVER talk about me.”

Now, this is sports. A certain amount of braggadocio comes with the game. To compete before a crowd requires supreme confidence, whether it’s the quiet certainty of a Champ Bailey or the flamboyance of a Muhammad Ali. Most fans know that.

But when someone seems to take up more space than he should, when the interior monologue becomes too exterior, especially in an unguarded moment – that’s when it’s going to rub the wrong way.

And that’s why Sherman made a lot of Bronco fans on Sunday.

For that moment – a moment, admittedly, with his “game face” still on and his adrenaline soaring – he came across as rude, obnoxious and willing to put himself before and above the team.

It only takes one of those moments to obscure a lot of nice.

To his credit, Sherman seems to recognize that. When he apologized at a recent news conference, it was for pulling focus from his teammates. Not for believing himself great (or Crabtree mediocre), but for letting his passion push the rest of the team off the stage.

I’m not a mind-reader, so I can’t tell you how sincere he was. Only those who watch him carefully will be able to say for sure which is the posturing, the behavior on the field or the apology off it. But at the least, he understood what it was that had pushed the button and sent things over the edge.

That’s a start.

(It’s also starting from a better place than the Seahawks fans who threw food at an injured San Francisco player, but that’s another story.)

I’ll give the guy a chance. After all, I give Blake plenty of opportunities to clear some space, too.

But if the “best corner in the game” gets beaten a few times by Denver’s high-flying receivers – well, I won’t be terribly disappointed, either.

Now, let’s put this whole thing to bed.