Rush of Achievement

There’s weird. There’s wonderful. And then there’s David Rush. The man is in a class by himself.

Several classes by himself, actually.

You see, Rush is an Idaho man who’s trying to become the Record Holder of Record Holders – the man who holds more Guinness world records at once than any other person. It’s a quest that has led to some extremely bizarre accomplishments.

Such as being the fastest person to sort M&M’s by color.

Or popping 200 balloons in less than 12 seconds.

Or, just last Thursday, hitting a target with a pump-powered rocket 37 times in a row.

Right now, according to UPI, this gold-level master of strangeness holds 163 simultaneous records, 20 short of his goal. He’s actually achieved 250 different records but – inevitably with a goal this long-term – some of them then got broken by others while he continued his journey. They had to move fast, though: at one point, Rush broke 52 records in 52 weeks.

Why do it? As he’s mentioned to Guinness and many others, he’s a promoter of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) who simply wanted to show what focus on a goal could achieve.

“Too many students try, fail, and give up with a fixed mindset,” he says on his website, where he encourages a “growth mindset” instead – the idea that abilities aren’t simply innate, but can be developed through time, effort and help from others. “I can only do a very small part, but I’d like to do that part as well as I can.”

I suspect that hits home for a lot of us. It’s a message of hope, which I’ve described here before as “optimism plus sweat”: the willingness to commit to something better and then see it through.

And it remains powerful even when we’re aware that it’s not always that simple.

We’re all aware of boundaries in our lives. Some are more pliable than others. Some may be physical limitations, whether they’re as everyday as nearsightedness or as profound as severe childhood brain damage. Some have been set by society – we’ve all seen (or even experienced) stories of the additional challenges and barriers set due to poverty, race, gender, or an array of other qualities that can become a dividing line.

Can sufficient work, time and help overcome those? In many cases, sure – but the definition of “sufficient” is going to vary widely between individuals. For one person, a particular achievement may be as easy as a walk in the park. For another, it may be the equivalent of designing an entire space program from scratch.

Does that mean we should all give up? Heck, no. But it does mean  we all have a few additional lessons to remember.

First, be kind. Don’t assume that someone else is lazy just because they haven’t achieved what you think they should. You don’t know their burdens, their battles, or what they may have going on where no one else can see.

Second, try to see. Be aware of those around you. Understand as you would like to be understood, care about them as you would about yourself.

Finally, be the “help from others.” Encourage, teach, stand alongside. Find the boundaries that shouldn’t be there and help bring them down. Even when the limits are severe, work to grow what you can, like a garden behind a stone wall. Create opportunities – not all of them will be fulfilled, but you may be surprised at the ones that flourish.

Together, we can help each other grow. And help ourselves in the process. That’s an exciting feeling.

You might even say it’s quite a Rush.

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.

It’s a Big World, After All

“Space is big,” Douglas Adams once wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Don’t look now, but he may have understated the case.

Remember the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble that sent back amazingly clear star field images last year? Well, it’s back for another round. Astronomers studying those images have found six tremendous galaxies dating back about 13.1 billion years … which means the early universe was about 100 times bigger than we thought.

“We’ve been informally calling these objects ‘universe breakers’ — and they have been living up to their name so far,” astronomer Joel Leja told CBS.

Another put it even more simply to the press: “We just discovered the impossible.”

Now, depending on your perspective, this might not seem like such a (pardon the phrase) big deal. After all, it’s not something that’s going to instantly clean the atmosphere, bring peace on Earth and lead the Broncos back to the Super Bowl. Lots of stars? So what?

But from another angle, it’s huge. Not only does this add to our knowledge, it forces us to revisit it. We had an idea of how quickly galaxies come together. Now it looks like we were being too modest. And if so, old ideas need to give way in the face of new information.

That’s a basic tool of science. It’s also something we’re not terribly good at in our day-to-day lives.

Previously in this column, I’ve mentioned what I call the Paul Simon Rule, derived from a verse in his song “The Boxer”:

Still a man hears what he wants to hear,

And disregards the rest.  

Put simply, we’re a stubborn bunch. Sometimes that’s been our saving grace as a species as we outlast war, disaster and the rise and fall of Jerry Springer. But it also means that we tend to hold onto ideas long past their sell-by date.

Why? Because staying with what we “know” is comfortable. Certainly more comfortable than having to rearrange our mental furniture and maybe even acknowledge we were wrong.

Take a look at the last Super Bowl. A thrilling, down-to-the-wire game exploded into controversy because of a holding penalty that basically killed the Eagles’ chance for a comeback. And even after the player in question admitted he had been holding, it didn’t really change anything. Fans had already staked out their positions on whether it was justified or a joke, and nobody was budging.

At our core, we are storytelling creatures. We’re happiest when things fit a pattern. And if the story fits what we already believe, well, then we’re golden. Studies have suggested that our reasoning originally developed to win arguments rather than to find facts, especially since we’re so often better at seeing flaws in someone else’s logic than our own.

So when something comes along that forces us to rethink, it’s a big deal indeed. Even more so when we succeed. It’s a moment of humility that moves us forward, allows us to learn, opens up new worlds that we might not have considered before.

In its own way, those moments rebuild a universe at record speed. Maybe even faster than those ancient stars.

Let them happen.

You might just find that they give you space to grow.

Stepping Out

For a moment, the steps grow faster, the leash tighter.

“Holmes, wait.” We stop until the lead slackens. “Good boy. Ok, let’s come.”

A fenced-in dog challenges us, creating a short pause. A neighbor across the street draws some barks. It’s not a perfect run yet , especially when rabbits – the ultimate temptation – cross our path. But it’s already so much easier than it was.

Step by step, Holmes is learning.

If you’re only just joining us, Holmes is the latest addition to Chez Rochat, a one-year-old mixed breed with a boatload of smarts and Way Too Much Energy™. As a result, we’ve been throwing more Frisbees than a California beach, filling up food puzzles with the efficiency of a North Pole assembly line, and even trying to teach him how to calm down when needed, something my wife Heather calls “doggy Zen.”

And of course, there are walks. Followed by walks. And more walks.

Of the three dogs we’ve owned, Holmes is already the walking champ for sheer frequency. But he’s also new, stepping out with a mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm and anxiety about what he’ll  find … and still learning which situations merit concern.  (“Hey! Hey! That man getting into his car is VERY SUSPICIOUS! I mean, who does that?”)

I follow and guide with treats and patience and a slightly sore shoulder. Which means that as Holmes learns the world and how to behave in it, I’m learning Holmes at the same time.

Isn’t that always the way of it?

Everyone has a story and a struggle. Part of being human – or at least, a better kind of human – is to be aware of those stories and struggles even as we’re dealing with our own. It’s why almost every faith and philosophy on the planet has some variation of love your neighbor, help the stranger, reach out and touch someone … wait, that last one might have been AT&T.

The point remains: we’re here to help. But as some have pointed out, that’s not a one-sided proposition where help simply descends on someone like Batman from a skylight. When we teach, we learn. When we see into someone’s heart, our own is opened a little wider. Just like a handshake, you can’t touch without being touched in return.

That can be a little frightening. Not just in the responsibility it gives us for others, but in the possibility – no, certainty – that what we do will change ourselves in ways we don’t expect. It’s a reminder that we’re not really in control, a lesson that few of us enjoy learning. (If you’ve ever stepped on a phantom brake while in the passenger seat of a car, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

But it’s also an exciting lesson, too. It means that no single one of us has to have all the answers or plug all the holes. It means there’s room for surprise and discovery. Most of all, it means that all of us need all of us, and that together, we can shape something pretty amazing.

Even in something as small as a morning or evening walk.

Reach out. Walk together. Look around. You might just find yourself on a path you never knew existed.

One warning, though. If that path has rabbits, you’d better keep a firm grip on the leash.

Right, Holmes?

On Beyond Candy Land

The queen of Candy Land has found new realms to conquer.

This is no small statement. You see, our ward Missy is a passionate Candy Land player. She opens up the board with gusto. She draws her cards with undisguised glee. And she wins. And wins. And then goes on to win some more.

At one point, Missy had won nine games in a row, and her overall record still looks like it belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is no small accomplishment when you remember that Candy Land has no choices – you draw one card at a time and move down a single path, an exercise in predestination. It’s like Lotto, only with less chance to influence the victory.

And she wins. And wins. And wins some more.

So did she get bored? Quit while she was ahead? Pfft. Please. This is Missy we’re talking about – the lady who can play Christmas music with relentless cheer through to July 4, only stopping when the disc wears out.

No, only one thing could seduce her onward. The addition of sheer unmitigated chaos.

You see, we recently got something called Magic Maze as part of a Christmas present. It’s a wonderfully silly idea: down-on-their-luck fantasy heroes raid a shopping mall for equipment and then try to get away before security catches them. The board’s discovered in sections, so it’s different every time.

In the simplest version of the game, the mechanics are exactly what Missy’s used to: draw and move and draw again. But now you’re racing a timer. You’re working together. And you’re going a little crazy trying to get everyone where they need to go.

She. Loves. It.

And as the smile grows wider, Missy’s world gets a little bigger.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Missy’s enthusiasms catch fire several times since my wife and I began caring for her … has it really been almost 11 years now? Each new piece gets added with a fierce joy. We’ve watched her become enchanted with Harry Potter, awestruck by Darth Vader, eager to throw a basketball or start up a Face Vocal Band video.

But the really exciting thing is that she rarely abandons an old love. She still dances, still loves familiar faces and places, and when the pandemic eases up enough, I know she’ll be hitting the bowling alley without hesitation. It’s not like fireworks, flashing and burning out at high speed, but more like a bonfire, growing just a little bigger as more fuel is added.

Her capabilities are what they are. Her physical and developmental disabilities are no less real. But within what she can do, she finds new opportunities to discover and grow.

That’s a prize I think all of us would reach for.

Granted, it’s a challenging prize to win these days. Even before the pandemic, it was always tempting to build a bubble, staying with the safe, familiar and comfortable. Now, in a time of constant vigilance, it’s easier than ever to draw in and hold back.

But the fire doesn’t have to die.

The times are what they are. The need to stay safe is no less real. But within those limits, we still have opportunities of our own. We can still open new pieces of our world, find new joys and become a little more than we were before.

It can be an amazing experience.

And speaking of a-Maze-ing, I think Missy’s ready to set up the pieces again.

The game is afoot.  

Beyond Memory

A whole generation has grown up with no direct memory of Sept. 11.

It’s odd that that sounds odd. After all, that’s what happens.  Time moves on. If I pointed out the huge mass of Americans with no memory of the moon landing, or the Kennedy assassination, or World War II, no one would be shocked.

But when it comes to that early fall day of clear skies and screaming headlines 20 years ago, we stumble.

Never forget, we ritually cry. Remember, remember, like some Guy Fawkes rhyme re-cast for a new time and place.

But we can’t hold on to “never.” Brains don’t work that way. And a growing number of us have nothing to remember except the lessons and examples that the rest of us choose to pass on.

What will those be?

This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in this place. Seven years ago, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I observed how the day was becoming more ordinary. How some of us actually had to be reminded instead of having the date leap to mind automatically. And how we weren’t horrible human beings because of that.

From that past column:

No one’s passing is ever truly “gotten over” or should be, all the less so when the passing is the violent end of a few thousand people.

But it’s OK for the pain to dull, too.

It’s OK to not feel every anniversary as though it were the first one.

It’s OK to be able to look at those memories from a distance and maybe, in a way, see them for the first time with clear eyes.

Most of us have experienced the passing of someone close to us. Some of us have had the ill fortune to have it come out of nowhere, a total surprise that rocks the world. Too sudden or too young or too … well, too many “too’s” to count.

For the longest time afterward, it seems like life can never be about anything else. The pain is fresh and the disjointment real. The wound gapes and resists every effort to stitch it.

But something happens.

It never really gets better. But it gets farther.

And with that time and distance come different memories. The ones that comfort. That remind. That lift the day for a moment instead of crushing it down.

The pain is still there. But it’s no longer alone.

Twenty years since a single day in New York and Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, will the memories we pass on still be of fire and chaos? Or will there be something more?

Will there be the memory of those who reached out to help and comfort from across the country, moved by the needs of people they had never met?

Will there be lessons drawn from the actions we took in its aftermath, good, bad and ugly? The choices that brought us together and the ones that had us squinting in suspicion?

Every crisis shapes us. Some remake the world, like the current pandemic. Some are much more local, like the St. Vrain flood that’s now eight years in the past. Each time, we find ourselves making choices.  What do we carry forward? What do we leave behind?

Memory is important. But memory fades and changes. Its grip loosens a bit with each new heir that it’s passed to.

Build something with it, and memory becomes experience. Build something worthy with it, and it won’t matter that future generations weren’t there. They’ll be here, with a foundation to stand on, an example to learn from, maybe even a goal that they can be part of shaping.

Long after memories of the day have passed, that’s where we’ll find our re-generation.

Something Missing

Every so often, a quest becomes the thing of legends.  

Like Frodo Baggins and his journey to destroy the One Ring.

Or Luke Skywalker racing to the aid of a princess he’s never met.

Or Scott Rochat … searching for holiday magazines at the grocery store?

Somehow I don’t think I’ll have John Williams composing music for this one any time soon.

By now, Heather’s used to this. Over 22 years of marriage, she knows that the holidays are a magical time for us both. We enjoy it all: the message, the music, the lights, even my annual battles to the death against easily-torn wrapping paper. (“So we meet again, my old foe …”)

She also knows that each year, there will be one detail that threatens to make me crazy.

Sometimes my obsessive quest produces something wonderful, like when I uncovered the exact edition of “The Story of Holly and Ivy” that  Heather used to love as a child, the one with the red-and-green Adrienne Adams illustrations. But most of the time, it just gets me fixated on one minor brushstroke of a bigger picture.

One year, it was the always-around-since-childhood chocolate coins that seemed to have sold out at every store.

Another time, it was a hunt for a pre-lit tree with colored lights. On that holiday season, of course, 99% of plastic pines for sale had lights that were whiter than a Bing Crosby Christmas.

Last year, it became the magazines.

There are certain things I always stuff Christmas stockings with, from the tasty to the ridiculous.  And the collection has always included three magazines each, tailored to each person’s interests. For instance, our ward Missy might get one title with beautiful dresses, one on classic cars, and one about Star Wars or Harry Potter. (Yeah, life with her gets pretty interesting.)

But last year, the magazines went away.

Stores reduced their sections or removed them entirely. Some titles went out of business, others moved online. And a happy holiday task that normally took 30 minutes tops somehow became a sprawling journey to every business in town that might sell a periodical. My internal dialogue got taken over by Gollum: “Must find the precious …”

Why? Because I had a picture in my head of what the season should be. And this minor detail was blowing it up.

No surprise there. We’re good at that. This year, I suspect we’ll all experience it in spades, as we run into used-to-bes that can’t be because of pandemic safety. Tradition is powerful at this time of year, and disrupting any tradition, from the tall to the small, is unsettling.

But then, at its heart, Christmas is unsettling.

That sounds strange, I know. We think of the season as one of peace. But peace means more than just calm and contentment. It’s a restoration, pushing people out of familiar paths and opening their eyes to something larger.

And in almost every tale of the time, from the sacred to the secular, it’s about a missing piece.

It might be Ebenezer Scrooge, discovering he needs to let the world into his heart. Or Charlie Brown finding a quiet truth amidst the seasonal noise. It might be the girl Ivy and the doll Holly searching for each other without knowing why, or terrified shepherds who suddenly see something new and real burn in the skies overhead.

It’s an awakening. Often an uncomfortable one. Breaking the routine usually is.

But from that awakening comes wholeness. Awareness. Growth.

Peace.

Take the risk. Be unsettled. Don’t just look, but see.

That’s how hearts open. It’s how we find each other again, and find ourselves in the process.

That’s a quest worth achieving.

With or without magazines in hand.

A New Direction

When the director says you gave a fantastic audition, you usually didn’t get the part. And I didn’t.

But this one had a surprise for me.

“I wonder if you might be interested in being the assistant director.”

My response may have set land speed records at Daytona.

“Absolutely!”

After a long time away, I was back on the bridge.

If your life hasn’t included the wonderful vistas of community theatre, you may not be aware of the invisible world that exists away from center stage. (You may also be a lot less sleep-deprived and have a much more normal sense of humor, but I digress.) Behind the performers who spin the stories and create the characters are an entire army of people, all of them dedicated to keeping that secondary reality alive and vibrant.

Most of those folks have pretty specific jobs – the light designer, the props master/mistress, the crew chief for building the sets, and so on. Some are wider-ranging: the producer who oversees the logistics, the stage manager who keeps the show running smoothly when the curtain rises, and of course, the director who brings it all together with their own unique vision.

Assistant directing is a little different. The job has basically two pieces:

  • Whatever the director wants it to be, and
  • Whatever you make it, within the constraints of part one.

A few directors turn this into a “gofer” but most know better. In essence, the AD is a second brain, a second set of hands and eyes, and a filler-in of missing pieces.

A director who’s more creative than organized may have an AD who helps create plans and schedules.

A director who’s not technically savvy may choose one who can translate their ideas to the technical director (or in smaller companies, may also BE the technical director).

And any director who can’t be everywhere – which is all of them until we manage to invent that pesky time machine – benefits from having someone who can see the action from a different angle, think about the scene from a different perspective, go over the notes and say “Have you considered …?”

Speaking as someone who’s been a director long ago and far away (in that otherworldly dimension of Kansas), those gifts can be invaluable. It’s that “click” that creates peanut butter and jelly, John Williams and Star Wars, three-day weekends and a full tank of gas – good by themselves, but even better together.

And the best part is, you don’t have to be a theater person to get it.

Most of us have the chance to be someone else’s missing piece, if we think to look for it. A lot of us don’t. We focus on our own needs, we look for familiar situations. And when we do team up, we often look for someone just like ourselves – no risk of conflict, but limited chances to grow.

It’s when we step outside what we’ve known that the magic can happen. To not just pursue our own needs and visions, but help others with theirs.

The more we do it, the more opportunities we see. And the easier it gets to accept help when we need it ourselves.

And personally, I can’t wait to see what this opportunity brings.  My notebook is ready. My eyes are open. My mind is eager.

The invisible world awaits.

Let’s go set the stage.

The Princess Riot

The roar of indignation echoed across the internet.

“What do you MEAN, they’re remaking ‘The Princess Bride?’ ”

To be fair to Hollywood – probably not. The whole mess started with an off-hand comment by a Sony CEO that some “very famous people” wanted to take another crack at the 1987 family favorite. There’s been no official announcement since. Indeed, the only word of any kind since then seems to have been an unnamed USA Today source confirming that Sony has no plans to touch the film.

No surprise. If Sony meant to test the waters, the studio quickly found them full of Screaming Eels. In a world where we seem to grow ever more divided, EVERYBODY from ordinary fans to stars of the film to prominent political figures closed ranks to defend the movie. And since ‘The Princess Bride’ is one of the most quotable movies ever made, everyone had a chance to tweet one of their favorite lines as part of the resistance:

 

“There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.” – Cary Elwes

 

“NOOOOOOOO!!!!!! Sonny, The Princess Bride is the greatest thing, in the world—except for a nice MLT, mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. DON’T MESS WITH PERFECTION.” – Sen. Ted Cruz

 

“INCONCEIVABLE!!” – Half the internet, simultaneously

 

The only thing missing was Inigo Montoya drawing his sword and making his famous introduction … oops, no wait, there it is in a meme. We’re good.

It’s heartwarming, of course, to see people defending a story, especially this one. This was William Goldman’s favorite novel and screenplay, one that made it to the screen against tremendous odds. It spent over a decade in “development hell,” with many studios convinced it was unfilmable. Its initial release came and went with barely a ripple, since the marketing department didn’t know what to do with it – was it a romance, a fantasy, a comedy, what?

Home video saved it and made it an icon. Small wonder. A fairy tale that both celebrated and mocked its own roots, a story with swashbuckling action and tongue-in-cheek wit, a movie that could wholeheartedly embrace true love (or is it “twoo wuv?) while also quoting “Life is pain, princess; anyone who says differently is selling you something” – what’s not to like?

Or more to the point, what’s to remake?

Hollywood, of course, loves the remake and the reboot. It’s the safe choice, with a built-in audience. And it works more often than we think. “The Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland was the second feature film on the subject. So was Charlton Heston’s “Ben-Hur.” “The Magnificent Seven” was a resetting of “The Seven Samurai,” while the comedy “Airplane!” took the script of “Zero Hour!” almost word-for-word.

But in each of those cases, there was something new to be brought to the mix. A different tone or  genre, or a new take by an actor or director, or new technology to better capture the story. If all you’re doing is retreading the same ground, you might as well just re-release the film and have done with it. You’re not going to take it anywhere new – and you might well make it worse.

You don’t have to be Hollywood to understand that. Most of us know what it’s like. We get in ruts. We make the same decisions over and over. Sometimes they’re good decisions that became merely comfortable ones. Sometimes they’re Charlie Brown’s football, promising over and over again that THIS time it will work.

Deep down, we know we have to explore and grow. That’s why our best stories take someone beyond the comfortable and force them to change. The reckless and rootless Huckleberry Finn learns maturity and the worth of a man. The stay-at-home Bilbo Baggins learns confidence and an appreciation of the wider world.

And yes, the farm boy Westley remakes himself into the hero his love needs him to be – and learns that even the most competent hero can’t do it alone.

Remaking movies can be tedium. But remaking lives is essential. What lives, grows.

Anything else is simply inconceivable.

Looking From The Edge

It started with the rope.

Maybe you remember what I’m talking about, if you took grade-school PE in the 1970s and 1980s. The long floor-to-ceiling rope in the gymnasium, suspended over a safety mat. The one that students were expected to climb like Tarzan at some point in their elementary school careers.

Correction. The one that most students were expected to climb. I was given an exemption because, well, childhood epilepsy and dangling from a line like Spider-Man don’t mix really well.

Danger anticipated. Danger avoided.

Now fast-forward several years to junior high school. Specifically, to the various track-and-field games in gym. Unlike ropes, long jumps were perfectly safe for an epileptic and I tried over and over again with all the enthusiasm that a nerdy and awkward adolescent could manage.

Maybe a little too much enthusiasm. The sore feet I had after class didn’t go away. It turned out that between that, and maybe some after-school martial arts classes, I had managed to break the growth plates in both my feet.

Danger not even considered.

So what’s the point of all this rambling, besides setting the stage for the Totally-Not-Plagiarized-Diaries-of-a-Sorta-Wimpy-And-In-No-Way-Copyright-Infringing Kid? Well, to start with, it never hurts to remember the limits of our expectations – how, as the adage goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. For all that we plan and foresee and calculate, some things simply aren’t on the radar because we didn’t know to put them there.

But oh, do we try. Especially at the New Year.
The fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett had characters who were drawn to “edge places,”  points where two states of being come together, like doors, or masks, or mirrors, or even theatres. Similarly, something about the boundary between an old year and a new one draws us.  It’s a time when we look back and look forward, when writers everywhere compile their “10 best” and “10 worst” lists, when we try to anticipate what’s next – aside from freezing weather and drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads, of course.

I don’t want to make this sound too idealistic. Many years, the look back is on the level of “Thank heaven THAT’s over” and the look ahead is more like “Well, it can’t be as bad as what we just went through.” But we still like to think we have some sort of control over the outcome. That’s why we make resolutions, right?

We like to think that. Until we get sore feet.

As some of you know, this last year for me has gone beyond unpredictable. It’s had some amazing joys and some crushing blows, and my regular readers have experienced many of them with me. And one of the most challenging lessons I’ve had to take from all of it is that there is only so much I can do.

That’s not the same as saying “There’s nothing I can do.” That’s a trap. Saying “I can’t do everything” isn’t the same as saying “I can’t do anything.” Hope demands effort, otherwise it’s nothing more than an optimistic dream.

But we do have to accept that we’re not the ones in the driver’s seat.

And that’s hard.

We can prepare. We can anticipate. We can make the most of our chances. We can set ourselves up really, really well. But some things will always be out of our control.

In an odd way, though, that can be kind of hopeful.

It means that we don’t have to blame ourselves for every catastrophe in life. Not as much as we want to.

It means that totally unexpected blessings can find us in life. However undeserving of them we may feel personally.

It means we can let ourselves heal. And wonder. And grow.

And that we can reach out to each other as we do so.

Keep reaching. Keep growing. Take the pains and the wonders of this new year as they come. And where you can act, do it with hope.

After all, it never hurts to know the ropes.