Mile-High Hopes?

Sure, I could have written about CU this morning. I didn’t for two reasons: 

1) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to. Everyone and their cocker spaniel is writing about the Buffs, Coach Prime and a transformation that’s right up there with Bruce Banner’s. 

2) I’m kind of afraid of jinxing the whole mess. Sure, it’s silly, but after seeing a “Yay, Nuggets” column get followed by the Heat’s only win of the NBA Finals, I am taking no chances. 

So instead, I’m turning my eyes to the Boys in Orange. After all, there’s only so much harm I can do there, right? 

If you felt a wind gust through the Front Range last week, it might have been the WHOOSH of deflated expectations from a horde of Bronco fans. After all, on the surface, we got a new coach, a new season and the same result: a 17-16 loss to open the campaign, just like 2022. 

It’s been hard to take, especially for the parts of the fandom that can remember the Broncos being at least a playoff threat for 30 years and then again in the Peyton Manning years. There’s history here. But ever since The Sheriff walked off the field, that history has been … well, history. 

That said, I have to admit something. Sure, I gritted my teeth through that Raiders game, too. But I still left with something that sorta, kinda, maybe, if-you-squint-real-hard, looks like hope. 

No, I don’t need the concussion protocol. 

The opening game came down to two big things: dumb penalties and a bad extra point. Both of these are correctable. More to the point, it did NOT come down to a disappointing day from Russell Wilson, who finally started to look like the quarterback we expected to see in 2022. I’ll emphasize the word “started,” especially since he didn’t exactly pour on the yardage in the second half.  But I’ll take a sharp completion percentage, two touchdown passes and – most importantly – no interceptions as a starting point. 

By the time this appears in print, Game 2 will have played and I’ll look like either a genius or an idiot. So it goes. But I’ll stand by this: for the first time in a while, it feels like there’s potential here. 

Yes, that’s a dangerous word. As Linus from “Peanuts” once put it, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” And when we’ve been burned so many times – OK, when we’ve burned OURSELVES so many times – it can feel instead like Charlie Brown rushing up to try kicking the football yet again. 

I’ll be honest: I do not expect the playoffs this year. But I do expect better. As long as we have a coach that’s willing to work, able to work and given a chance to work. (That last has not exactly been a guarantee with the revolving door Denver has seen in the last few years.) 

That’s where anything worth doing starts. With the willingness and the opportunity to try. 

As I’ve said and quoted before, hope isn’t optimism. It’s optimism plus sweat. If you believe that better is possible, you have to show that belief by committing to it. That’s true whether you’re talking about a sport, a job, even a country. 

That doesn’t mean being blind about faults and weaknesses: “My team/party/country right or wrong.” But if you can set your sights higher than where you are and put in the effort to travel that path, then even a failure can make you stronger. Even a stumble can be forward motion. 

We may have a lot of stumbles ahead. But if we keep them in the right direction, we’ll get there. Jinx or no jinx. 

After all, we’ve seen what can happen when a team hits its Prime.

Unconscious Victory

Talk about someone who was on a roll.

You might not have heard of Delaney Irving. She doesn’t have the grace of a Michael Jordan or the control of a Nikola Jokić. But like them, the Canadian teen has a championship of sorts, a really cheesy one. Even if it’s one she’ll never fully remember.

Irving, you see, took part in the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling in Britain. That’s exactly what it sounds like: roll a wheel of cheese down a hill and run after it until you both cross the finish line. And as the CBC, Reuters and many others reported it, she did it the hard way … by tripping, knocking herself unconscious and rolling across the finish line.

“I think next year I just want to watch,” she confessed to the CBC after waking up to her win.

Now there’s an athlete after my own heart.

If you’ve met me or read this column for a while, you know that I’m … how shall I put this? … not exactly poetry in motion. Unless you consider Mr. Bean or Chevy Chase a poet, anyway. If there’s an awkward, stumbling way to do a simple task, have no fear: I’ll find an even clumsier one.

That’s how I managed to slam the bathroom door into me twice while trying to rescue a puking dog.

It’s how I managed to turn the act of retrieving a grocery bag into a parking lot ballet that required three stitches in my chin.

And yes, as the Longmont theater community will remind you, it’s how I managed to walk completely off stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of an opening-night solo.

To my sort-of credit, I’m still around to write about this. I’ve even learned the vital survival skill of laughing at myself when life decides I really need a slapstick moment. But amid the laughter, there’s an even more vital quality to be found.

It’s equal parts persistence and commitment, but neither word quite says it. It’s the quality of putting it all on the floor. Holding nothing back. Being ready to fail, but only after doing everything you can to put yourself into a position to succeed.

In sports, it’s the team that knows one bad call won’t make or break them, playing a solid game with no effort left unexerted.

In fiction, it’s the Frodo Baggins type of hero – unable to destroy the Ring by his own strength, but using every ounce of strength to make its destruction possible.

And in life … well, in life, it’s a lot like Delaney Irving. Unable to control all the circumstances, but doing everything you can do. And maybe even getting the win despite yourself.

You set yourself up. Even when you fall down.

You may fall down a lot. There’s always the risk of saying “I gave it everything I had and it just wasn’t enough.” It leaves you without excuses or what-if’s.

But it also teaches. It trains. And it stretches you.

And each stretch brings you that much closer to where you want to be.

So by all means, trip. Stumble. Fall. (Heaven knows I do.) But do it because you’re trying for something better. You just might get it, even if you fall.

Keep trying, even if it’s just to roll a cheese downhill.

After all, where there’s a wheel, there’s a whey.

This Looks Familiar

“Uh-oh!”

That’s one of the Missy phrases that triggers instant attention every time, especially when accompanied by laughter. Our disabled ward likes to pull pranks from time to time, and the more she knows she’s doing something “wrong” – usually putting something where it doesn’t belong – the more jovial she’ll be.

I looked up from the book I had gotten out, on the alert … and laughed as well. Once again, Missy had just swiped my glasses from where they were resting and tried them on. My oversize lenses framed her face surprisingly well,  especially when paired with her crooked grin.

“Go show Heather!”

Off she went. Soon Heather’s laughter echoed as well. And then later that night, after we’d put Missy to bed, she noted something.

“You know,” she said, “it’s amazing how much she looks like Andy with those on. I mean, I always knew there was a resemblance but with those glasses, you can really see it.”

She showed me the pictures – one she’d just taken, the other an old shot of Missy’s brother Andy, who had died in 2006 at the age of 40. Same smile and laughing eyes. Same coloring and facial structure. And now, even the big glasses were similar.

No doubt. None in the world.

Wow.

I’m sure you know the feeling. It’s a little startling, isn’t it? And that sort of déjà vu can lurk around any corner, whether it’s a familiar face, a well-known location, or an old time that seems to become new again.

Maybe especially that last one. Lately, at least.

That may sound a little strange to say. After all, these last 12 months or so have seen an unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented.” (Sorry.)  Maybe in reaction to that, we keep reaching out for comparisons that will make everything make sense. Are we once again seeing the stubbornness and desperation of the Great Pandemic of 1918? The unrest and division of 1968? Are we reprising the corruption of the Watergate years, the economic uncertainty of the Depression, the political uncertainty of Europe between the wars?

Ultimately, of course, every time is its own. But as the old saying goes, even though history doesn’t truly repeat, it often rhymes. It’s still made by us – and our hearts, our minds, still have a sibling’s resemblance to those who came before, however much the world around us may have changed.

And so we find ourselves dealing with the same sorts of core issues given new faces and forms. Fear. Injustice. Uncertainty. Prejudice. Anger. Round and round we turn, sometimes reaching for something better, sometimes grasping only for ourselves.

No, not so different at all.

And therefore, maybe not so hopeless as we might be tempted to think.

At this time of year, it’s common to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe a little TOO common, as we grow tempted to set aside meaningful action for beautiful words, or adopt a spirit of complacency instead of struggle. But with that warning in mind, his words on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize seem to fit these “similar times”:

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights,” he said, “we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”

That’s not a pat on the head. It’s not an excuse to sit aside and say “Oh, well, things will work themselves out.” A struggle not joined is lost. But it is a call to hope, a reminder that working for hope is not futile. That the worst times carry the seeds of the best – if we’re willing to put forth the labor to plant them and help them grow.

Similar times. Similar fears. Similar promise, if we can face the moment with hope, courage and effort.

If we don’t?

Uh-oh.

A Long Time Coming

This year, another of the long, painful legacies finally came down.

OK, my friends who are Cubs and Red Sox fans are probably laughing themselves silly. After all, when your wait for vindication approaches or even exceeds the century mark, that’s a special kind of pain right there. Never mind the poor, hurting teacher I knew who was both a Cubs AND a Red Sox fan – an exercise in masochism if there ever was one.

Still, 50 years between championships is long enough to wait. And so, despite my own passion for the division rival Denver Broncos, I couldn’t help cheering along with my friends and family from Kansas and Missouri (yes, I know my geography) as the Kansas City Chiefs finally brought home the big one.

Naturally, they didn’t do it easily. The Chiefs rarely do anything easily. Every single playoff game, right up to the Super Bowl itself, had the same script:

  • Come in full of promise, heralded as one of the best teams in the NFL.
  • Fall behind. Maybe way
  • Find a way back that John Elway himself would envy.

If the last five decades could be translated into a single football game, that’s about what it would look like. And it’s why Chiefs fans went absolutely nuts afterward and a lot of the rest of us with them. The wait is painful. But the end is all the more glorious for it.

But putting it that way overlooks something.

It assumes that all you have to do is wait. Have patience, and the good things will happen.

That’s never been true. In football or the larger world.

For the last five years, the musical “Hamilton” has been a phenomenon on Broadway. Part of the attraction is the contrast between the show’s version of Alexander Hamilton – energetic, impatient, fighting to burn his name in the history of the world – and Aaron Burr, a charming man who plays his cards close to the chest, waiting for the right opportunity to show itself. At a crucial moment, when Alexander has just cut a deal to put his long-sought national bank in place, he taunts his rival:

 

When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game,

But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game,                          

You get love for it, you get hate for it,

You get nothing if you wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.

 

There’s nothing wrong with playing the long game. In fact, it’s vital. Most rapid revolutions fail, and many of the ones that succeed turn on themselves – the English saw it with Cromwell, the French with Napoleon, the Russians with Lenin and Stalin. The movements for change that win have a foundation underneath that is built from a long span of patient and often-frustrating work.

But the work has to happen.

If the Chiefs had blown off the draft year after year – if their fans had never bought a single ticket or tuned in any of the sponsored games – there’d be no trophy, and probably no Chiefs.

If the American colonies had never made a single move toward self-sufficiency over the decades that preceded the Revolution, the fight would have failed, if it had come at all.

If the civil rights movement had waited for rights to just happen, instead of constantly working, constantly struggling, constantly refusing to be put down despite yet one more failure, all of America would be poorer for it.

It’s still true today. Transformation doesn’t come from a single election. Victory or defeat in a cause doesn’t stem from a single action on Capitol Hill. Those are just individual notes in a greater melody. What makes the difference is constancy – not quitting, not turning away, taking the time that needs to be taken without assuming that all that’s needed is time.

Victory is never guaranteed. But it’s that sort of stubborn persistence in pursuit of it that can shape lives. Or histories. Or even the occasional sports franchise.

It’s no fun to endure. But the reward is worth it.

Just ask the Chiefs.

Pulling the Leash

Slowly but surely, the three of us approached the CSU veterinary school in the world’s most erratic chorus line.

At my right hand – literally – was our disabled ward Missy, angling her course periodically to point out the other dogs nearby, or to stop at the check-in desk to chat, or to steer a wandering route to the nearest restroom.

At my left hand – and my left wrist may someday forgive me – was the mound of canine muscle known as Big Blake. Amiable. Confused. And testing the strength of his leash, and of Newton’s Third Law, as every step drew us nearer to the home of “doggie doctors.”

Finally, in the exam room, Big Blake had enough.

“Why don’t we just take you right back for some tests?” the friendly and winning vet tech said – just before Blake leaned against me and dug his claws into the hardened floor, to Missy’s amusement and my knowing smile.

“OK … why doesn’t Daddy take you right back ….”

It’s hard to blame Blake. It had been a tough week for an easygoing English Lab. The immediate center of his universe – my wife Heather – had been gone for two days to help her sister through a difficult back surgery. Necessary. But uncomfortable.

So while Heather was being a source of comfort and transforming into the Amazing “Aunt Hufu” for our nieces, Blake was dealing with all sorts of schedules that were subtly off, from food to naps to food to family chores to food to errands to food. (When you’re an English Lab with a one-track mind and an iron stomach, there are certain priorities to consider.)

Mind you, it wasn’t the first time Heather had been absent for more than a few hours. It wasn’t even the longest. But it was the longest in recent canine memory, which for Blake stretches to about the previous Tuesday. Maybe.

Add in a vet visit after a long drive to Fort Collins and … well, you can understand Blake being just a little clingy. OK, a lot clingy. Like Saran Wrap made from duct tape.

Again, necessary. But uncomfortable.

To be fair, I don’t think most of us do a lot better.

Oh, we rarely get to fight back on a leash in the presence of a smiling veterinarian. But we’re all called on more than once to do the uncomfortable thing, to break the routine, to get something done that needs doing now.

And, many times, we resist.

It might be Jonah saying “Nah, you don’t need me to carry that message- hey, where’d that big fish come from?” Or Thomas Jefferson saying “Hey, Mr. Adams would be a much better writer for this Declaration thing.” Or something simpler in our own prosaic lives, whether it’s taking on a difficult task, reaching out a needed hand, or just getting that mole checked out that’s probably nothing, right?

We set up expectations for ourselves and for our lives. But life isn’t good at sticking to expectations. And rather than follow the new route, we often try to fight for the wheel like the protagonist in an action movie.

Sure, sometimes you need to stay the course as best you can. But a lot of times – whether it’s as personal as enduring back surgery or as large-scale fighting a policy that affects you and your family – you’ve got to hold on and make it through if you’re going to straighten things out. Maybe with the choice of an instant. Maybe with an effort of months.

We don’t get to choose everything that happens. Just how we deal with it. And how we help others do the same.

Blake’s home now. Heather, too. Both are happy and resting. And maybe, just maybe, our furry friend is a little readier to deal with the next time.

I hope so, anyway. My left wrist can only take so much.

Moonstruck

Every marriage fits in one of three stages, all defined by your friends. There’s “Awww.” Followed by “Hey, that’s great!” And finally, there’s “Wow.”

Heather and I are now firmly in the “Wow” category.

We reach 20 years on Wednesday. Yes, really. We still haven’t hit the guideline given to us by Grandma Elsie (“After you reach 30 years, the rest is easy”), but other than that, we’ve racked up our share of milestones. Four homes, three cities, two states. We’ve survived ice storms, heat waves, chronic illness, and the delight of moving a piano into a second-floor apartment. We’ve had the amazing joy of seeing our disabled ward Missy come into our lives – or us into hers – and the heart-rending pain of seeing our cousin Melanie leave us too soon.

I’ve shared a lot of that life in these columns. By now, I’ve probably poured out enough words to reach to the moon and back.

Fitting comparison, perhaps.

***

OK, I’m a space nerd. Heather, too. But I swear, we did not deliberately put our wedding day right after “Apollo Season.” Somehow, it still works.

For those who don’t have the dates permanently engraved on their brain, the moon mission known as Apollo 11 launched 49 years ago on July 16, reached the moon on July 20, and then splashed down back on Earth on July 24. It was and remains one of the most transcendently amazing things our species has ever done, an expedition that drew the awe and admiration of millions.

So much could have gone wrong. Some of it did. Total disaster was always a real possibility, as close at hand as the unforgiving vacuum of space. So close that President Nixon even had a speech ready in case the attempt proved fatal and those “who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”

But the triumph, the achievement, put everything else in its shadow. All the stress and the worry that had gone into making it happen are remembered mainly by the participants now, or perhaps by those who deliberately study them. For everyone else, it’s “The Eagle Has Landed.” A beautiful moment, never to be forgotten.

And not a bad model for a marriage.

OK, that sounds a little silly. But consider.

There was a huge amount of planning at the outset that still never felt like enough.

There were vows and promises that sounded grand, but would require massive amounts of work to achieve.

There were minor communications flubs that later became amusing (from Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” to Mission Control’s “Roger, Twank … Tranquility”) and major crises that almost upset everything (such as a difficult landing that took far more fuel to achieve than expected).

There was the eager anticipation of first steps, first words.

And while countless people stood behind them, supported them, made it all possible – the ultimate success or failure would be on the shoulders of the people who made the journey.

A big responsibility in front of the entire Earth. Maybe even a bigger one when just trying to patch your own journey together, day by day by day.

And most of all – for all the ceremony and spectacle, it’s that day-to-day work that’s the most vital. A marriage is not a wedding, anymore than a single television broadcast is a mission. An indelible record, yes. A moment to be celebrated, absolutely.

But it’s the stuff that happens next that makes all the difference.

***

We’ve long since left the moon. Maybe one day we’ll return and relight the fire that once burned so brightly. I hope so, with all my heart.

But in the meantime, our own mission of the heart continues. And despite everything life tries to do to bring us back to Earth, Heather and I are still over the moon.

One small step for a couple. One giant leap for a lifetime.

Hands of Hope

There’s an exhaustion that threatens to border on despair. I think a lot of us are there now. I know I am.

I’m tired of this.

What else can you be when you see the same situations play themselves out over and over again? New shooters. New victims. New settings, from Colorado Springs to San Bernardino. And exactly the same results.

I’m tired of our communities becoming a roll call of blood.

I’m tied of the wait to learn a killer’s name, tired of the endless gabble and chatter and theorizing when it’s revealed.

I’m tired of the argument that’s become ritual, as we raise the points we know so well. Guns. Mental illness. Terrorism. Rights. Needs. Like a tae kwon do training pattern, we pose and shake the skies, only to end up right back where we started.

To have this happen in a sacred season seems a grim joke. And yet it’s the time we need the reminder more than ever.

Now, most of all, we have to have hope.

It sounds kind of insubstantial, doesn’t it? Of all the virtues that get celebrated coming into Christmas, hope may be the most misunderstood. It doesn’t get the full spotlight that basks over love. It’s not directly celebrated in carol after carol like peace or joy. When it comes up in the season at all, it’s a quick mention, almost glancing:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoicing …

Respite in the midst of exhaustion. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But how?

Let me make one thing clear. This is not optimism. A simple conviction that “Hey, everything’s going to be OK” will burn out fast in the face of everything besieging it. Hope has more than good feelings behind it. Hope is putting your sweat where your dreams are.

Hope is the soldier of World War II who can’t see the end of the conflict, but throws himself into it, convinced that his one life can still make a difference.

Hope is the civil rights worker of the 1950s, for whom the vision of freedom seems impossibly far away, who nonetheless keeps marching and speaking and battling to make it happen a little sooner.

Hope is what keeps the teacher at a classroom. The policeman on a beat. It’s what fuels the best of marriages, the kind that didn’t stop all their energy on the altar but kept pouring it into every passing minute and hour and day.

Hope means work. To paraphrase a favorite writer, once you say that problems can be solved, that better is possible, you have to get off your duff and do something.

That’s what can transform a “weary world.”

Despair is easy. You just sit back, let the world happen, and say “told you so.” Hope can wear you out to the point where it almost breaks you. But it’s also the only thing that gives any of us a fighting chance.

This last year has been a quest for hope in our house. Ever since my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we’ve had a lot to do. There have been medicines to try, work schedules to balance, a life to somehow keep going in the midst of everything. And it’s tempting to just sit down and shout at the heavens “I CAN’T DO IT!”

Sometimes we do. Everyone needs to retreat sometimes. But eventually we keep going. We have to. Or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hope asks a lot. But it’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way to move at all.

Are we ready to try it?

It means more than hand-wringing and pained pronouncements. It requires more than a hashtag and a Facebook post. If we’re going to break the cycle of death, we have to be ready to fix our eyes on a goal and shoulder our piece of the work. It may not be monumental. It may seem hopelessly insignificant. But drops become a flood. And a flood can change landscapes.

Will we? Are we ready at last to take up the burden of hope?

I’m tired of what we’ve got.

Let’s wake our world.

This New Guitar

I twisted the peg, checked the tone. Way too low.

“Other direction, Rochat,” I muttered as I begin to reverse the tuning on the guitar. Better … better … perfect.

I smiled. Only 70 zillion steps to go.

Music’s never been a stranger to Casa Rochat, but it usually involves 88 keys and some desperate scrambling to turn a page without losing the rhythm or my sheet music. But this Christmas, Heather and Missy decided they were going to expand my repertoire a bit. Which is how I wound up with an acoustic guitar under the tree.
A guitar!

There has always been something about a guitar that sounds like home to me. Like a lot of Colorado kids born in the ’70s, I grew up listening to my parents’ John Denver albums, which probably set the pattern. That got reinforced by a lot of friends and relatives, especially acting buddies who would break out their six-string at a cast party. Often we’d play together, piano and guitar, chiming out folk songs or oldies or anything else we could think of.

When music became more available online, I adapted so many chord sheets that I began to joke about playing “rhythm piano.” And so, over the years, I began to think about chasing those warm, familiar sounds myself.

Easy to talk about, of course. Everyone’s got one of those friendly, fuzzy dreams from writing the next big bestseller to climbing the Fourteeners. They’re fun to bring up and cool to contemplate. But turning them into reality … well, that’s a different animal.

That’s work.

Or at least, that’s the attitude most of us take toward it.

Two attitudes, really. The first is to get disappointed when a new task doesn’t yield success right away. “I can’t draw Longs Peak on the first attempt, therefore I can’t draw.” “I tried auditioning and I didn’t get Prince Hamlet, so I’m done.”

The second … well, the second is viewing it as work in the first place.

Granted, to any objective bystander, work is exactly what it is. But most of us aren’t objective about what we do. Mark Twain hit it right on the money in “Tom Sawyer” when he pointed out that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

I write. A lot. I read about writing a lot. Even when I read for pleasure, I catch myself breaking down the structure and style, like an architect studying a blueprint. It’s effort at times, but it’s not really work. It’s just what I do, how I think, who I am.

At least, until I break into a sort of writing I’ve not done before. Then the sweat comes and the doubt begins. The reflexes aren’t trained, the expectations aren’t familiar, and the work, so second-nature at other times, becomes visible, even awkward.

Arguably, I’m doing exactly the same thing. But my mind doesn’t know that yet. It sees work, and lots of it; a mountain to be climbed rather than a view to be discovered.

If I turned that around, I’d probably have half a dozen novels by now.

Turn it around and there’s a freedom. This isn’t school. Nobody’s making me write a book or learn guitar or become a kitchen virtuoso. This is something I can choose to do or not do, to my own satisfaction or disappointment.

Terrifying? Sometimes. But also attractive. And somewhere, buried beneath the surface of the work, a lot of fun.

We discover that on so many other things we love. Why be surprised to find it again?

And so, this year, I’m strumming. Not as a resolution, forced by the change of the year. But as a dream that can finally be real – and real fun – with some time and effort and joy.

And maybe, in the chords, I’ll even hear an echo of a distant time and a Rocky Mountain tenor.

Take me home.

Beginning to See the Light

For the third time in four nights, Missy and I hit the road. And as we drove, the nightly refrain again rang out.

“Look a’ that!” Missy’s finger shot out to indicate a brilliantly decorated home and yard, accented by an inflated sleigh with reindeer.

“Look a’ that!” A roof edge outlined in blue-white LEDs, looking as though it had been claimed by stained-glass icicles.

“Look a’ that!” Electric candles in the windows, the only soft glow the house had.

“Look a’that! Look a’that! Lookit!”

By the end of the trip, Missy’s busy finger was still requesting new avenues to explore, pointing out the signs of lit homes and neighborhoods all the way back to the house. At her direction, we could have gone for hours longer, then likely started again.

“Want to do this again?” I asked as we pulled back into the driveway.’

Vigorous nodding. “Yeah!”

I couldn’t blame her. After all, my inner Missy was doing exactly the same thing.

There are a few things that really mark the start of the Christmas season to me. There’s the annual struggle to find and erect the Christmas tree, festooning the branches with every long-held decoration we own, right down to the bodiless head of Holly Hobbie. (LONG story.) There’s the comforting strains of John Denver and the Muppets, singing in the season as only they can. (After all these years, I still automatically respond to “Five … gold-en … rings!” with “Ba-dum, bum, bum!”) And yes, there’s the well-worn tapes and discs bearing tales of Scrooges and Grinches and sad-looking Christmas trees that only need a little love.

But the essential punctuation for me has always been the lights.

My wife Heather’s the same way. We react to Christmas lights the way a groundhog reacts to its shadow, ready to add six more weeks to the season just so we can see it all. We spent many a date night noting and categorizing the displays we’d pass, including:

* The Landing Strip: A roof perfectly outlined in a single color, with no other decoration, seeming to call out to passing aircraft, sleighs or UFOs.

* The American Epileptic Association Award: A home with so many blinking and flashing lights that it could have been level 37 of an especially busy video game.

* Disneyland: The home and yard that had been completely taken over by lights, figurines and licensed characters, cramming in five Santas, two Nativities, the whole Mickey Mouse family and a utility bill that could have reset the national debt.

* Oh, Really?: These would be the well-intentioned ones that somehow didn’t come off quite right, like the automatic Santa Claus in one home that bobbed back and forth, looking oddly like he was pounding on the window, trying to escape.

After we became guardians to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, it cranked up the Light Run by a few notches. No surprise, really, because Missy is a little like a home at Christmastime herself.

No, I don’t mean that she comes with running lights and glowing reindeer (though she might find that really cool, come to think of it). But she often meets the world at one of two extremes. Sometimes silent, her expression hidden, taking in the places and people around her. Or else with her feelings completely on her sleeve, cheering at a bite of pie, beaming at a newly-met passerby, calling out when she wants to go somewhere (or even more loudly when she doesn’t).

All that’s missing is Clark W. Griswold getting humorously electrocuted in the background.

So these last few years, I’ve watched both the neighbor lights and the “Missy lights.” Both seem to transform the world around them with just a little effort. And in a landscape of darkened homes, that effort stands out all the more brightly.

Maybe there’s some hope there for all of us.

Meanwhile, it’s time to hit the road. Somewhere out there is a rainbow-colored Rudolph with our name on it. Maybe even literally.

“Look ‘a that!”

I can’t wait.

I Didn’t Mean To … And I Love It

Three things in life have the gift of utter invisibility: the second half of a pair of socks, the car keys when you’re 20 minutes late, and the last box of Christmas tree ornaments.

“Not in the garage … not in the basement … not in the closet … wait, here’s some wrapped newspaper … no, those are old dishes …”

I don’t know about peace on Earth, but I was ready to give last year’s Scott Rochat a piece of my mind. Where were the stupid things?

One more try in the basement. Back straining, I pulled out old boxes of newspaper clippings … old suitcases … an old plastic tub full of …

Oh!

“Honey?” I called to Heather as I brought my discovery upstairs. “Take a look at this.”

The grungy plastic tub didn’t hold any Christmas ornaments. But it did hold an album of wedding pictures. More specifically, wedding pictures of Heather’s grandparents, in a worn but glorious black and white. Further down were more discoveries: a book of tales from India lavishly illustrated by Heather’s great uncle, old pictures of our ward Missy as a baby, even a picture of Heather and Missy as girls together, hair shining in the light.

“That’s incredible.”

We never did find that last box of ornaments. But it no longer mattered. We’d already unwrapped the most amazing present imaginable

***

It’s odd, really, but the best discoveries are often like that. Seek and ye shall find … but not quite what you were looking for.

Ask Richard James. He was trying to find a way to make naval instruments more stable when he accidentally knocked over one of his springs – and found he’d discovered the Slinky.

Or maybe Percy Spencer, who found a melted chocolate bar in his pants, and realized it had been cooked by the microwaves of a magnetron he’d been working on.

A stove left on too long led to vulcanized rubber. A transistor grabbed by mistake helped create the first pacemaker. And we’ve all heard the story about dirty dishes and penicillin.

On and on the list goes, oddly comforting in its serendipity. It’s a reminder that even our frustrations can come back to help us and that the “right thing” may not be what we think.

Nobody’s perfect – and it turns out that’s pretty wonderful.

Granted, there are mistakes and there are mistakes. I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to give me the Nobel Prize for successfully introducing my chin to a concrete sidewalk, for example. But if we don’t fear mistakes, that’s when real learning can take place.

My brother-in-law Brad, one of life’s truly handy people, once told me and Heather that a lot of home projects were easier than they looked. “You just can’t be afraid to break anything,” he said.

Good words to remember.

***

Looking back at my own delvings and the more noteworthy discoveries above, there really does seem to be a common thread, a balance that has to be struck. You have to be willing to make the effort, without being so focused on what you should be seeing that you miss what’s there.

If I’d said “Oh, well,” and done something else, I’d have missed a treasure. But I also would have missed it if I hadn’t started to widen my search.

Instead, in a season of the unexpected, we found a welcome surprise. That’s more than worth a few missing beads and bangles. And who knows what new discoveries might lie ahead?

I might even learn about this wonderful thing called “labels.”