Using Your Head

I’ve been a baseball fan for years. But somehow, I had never seen the Canseco Bounce. 

If you just said “Huh?”, you owe it to yourself to start the New Year right. Go to YouTube. Look up the words Canseco, Ball and Head. And don’t drink anything while you’re watching. 

What you’ll see is a 1993 clip of outfielder Jose Canseco going back for a fly ball in deep right field … a fly ball that hits him on top of the head and bounces OVER the wall for a home run.

“Look at this!” the announcer laughs as it gets replayed over and over and over again. “Boink!! And it’s out of here!” 

I made the belated discovery through a book I got for Christmas on 50 memorable baseball moments. (Thanks, Mom!) And while many of the other entries had more significance, drama or heart, this one keeps coming back and making me chuckle. 

First, because Canseco clearly isn’t hurt. (Lasting injury is never funny.) In fact, he’s even smiling. 

Second, because the moment is just so Looney Tunes. You could put it in the middle of a Rowan Atkinson or Jim Carrey movie without alteration – especially since the ball only clears the wall *because* of the head bounce. Way to go, Mr. Bean! 

Third and most of all, because I suspect we’ve all been there. You know what I mean: those moments where you’re trying to do the right thing and somehow manage to make matters hilariously worse. 

Having spent a fair chunk of my life in newspapers and amateur theatre – two highly public arenas – I’ve had my share of misplaced fly balls. Like writing a headline about the discovery of a “Viking horde” in Britain instead of a “Viking hoard.” (No, England did not get invaded.) Or walking on stage with a ringing cell phone in my pocket. Or for that matter, walking *off* stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of a solo. 

But it doesn’t have to be in front of a mass audience or on the JumboTron to have an impact. Most of us are quite capable of replaying those moments endlessly, right behind our own eyeballs.

And so, besides starting the New Year with a harmless laugh, I hope this also starts us with a few reminders.

First: give yourself grace.

We’re not going to win all the time – even if we judge the fly ball perfectly. One of my favorite Star Trek quotes (geek alert!) says simply that “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” And we will commit mistakes. Holding yourself to a standard of perfection is a good way to break yourself; forgiving yourself for falling short helps you forgive others, too.

Next, learn from what happened. Laugh if you can. Tell it on yourself afterward if you like. After all, you’re going to remember it anyway – if you can make it a story, you can take out a lot of the sting and maybe even create a rueful smile. “I’m never going to do THAT again …”

And most importantly, get back in the game. There are a lot of innings left to play. Mark the moment, but don’t stay stuck in it. That’s sometimes easier said than done, I know, especially with bigger goofs that take a while to deal with. (As I said, lasting injury is never funny.)  Take the time you need. Reach out to someone if you can. And then, when you’re ready, play ball.

That kind of focus and mindfulness is a great way to keep your head in the game.

One way or another.

Pass the Popcorn

Uncle Oscar wants so badly to be cool. And that’s exactly how he’s doing it … badly.

Is anyone really surprised?

It’s weird to even be writing about the Oscars in mid-summer, but that’s what happens when the Academy gets desperate. And desperate it is. Ratings for the famed award show have been falling like the villain in a Disney movie. More and more, the Academy is seen as out of touch, reaching a hysterical climax in 2017 when it was even out of touch with its own program. (“And the winner is … La-La Land! Uh, hold that thought …”)

So they’re rolling the dice. Taking their shot. And this audacious, daring, newly revealed one-in-a-million top secret battle plan is … to give popular films their own special Oscar.

Gee, I can hear the audiences streaming back already. Or maybe that’s my migraine again.

OK, they’re looking at a few other changes as well, such as shortening the ceremony (gee, where have we heard THAT before?) and moving it to an earlier date. But it’s the “Popcorn Oscar” that has gotten the attention. After all, it’s hard to beat the power of a bad idea whose time has come.

Don’t get me wrong. The Oscars can be a wee bit snobbish. The Academy didn’t honor its first fantasy Best Picture winner until 2004, and “The Return of the King” remains the only one. “Silence of the Lambs” is still the only horror winner, despite the impact of films like “Jaws” or “The Sixth Sense.” It’s never given the top honor to a science fiction film (even with nominees like “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Inception”), or to an animated film (“Beauty and the Beast, “anyone?). So a little broadening is not a bad idea.

But setting aside a separate table for “the popular kids” is – well, cynical and clueless to say the least. Let me count the ways:

1) In an age of smartphones and Twitter, does anyone think that an audience will tune in to an epic-length award show for one category?

2) How do you define “popular?” Ticket sales? Online ballots? Number of illegal downloads? Buzzwords per minute?

3) As several commentators have noted, the superhero film “Black Panther” was a recent critical and commercial darling. Is it just a little tone deaf to announce a “separate but equal” film category for it in the same year?

4) Who says that a film the audience likes can’t actually be … how do I put this … good?

It does happen. Best Picture winners like “Schindler’s List” broke hearts and earned bucks. “Rocky” raised spirits and lifted a little trophy of its own. “The Godfather” made audiences and critics an offer they couldn’t refuse, and “Titanic” proved that every rule has its exception. (Is my snark showing?)

This shouldn’t be surprising. Films are stories, and stories depend on the audience as much as the author. A tale can be moving, vivid, true to the heart – but if no one hears it, it withers and dies forgotten.

I’m not saying that popular acclaim is the only measure of quality, or even a guaranteed one. If that were the case, the Transformers films would be among the great epics of our time. Small stories can be gems, and letting them shine in the spotlight is a worthy act. But that’s not because they’re “high art” or “low art” – it’s because they’re good art, something that any story can aspire to, from the biggest seller to the smallest silhouette.

If the Academy can take big films seriously as Best Picture possibilities, the new category is superfluous. If it can’t, it’s an insulting excuse to shunt “unworthy” films to the side. Either way, it’s time to put this one back in the envelope and just let good stories be good stories.

How cool would that be?

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.”

Taking the Cake

“BLAAAAKE!”

I followed my wife’s voice to the scene of the carnage. Heather stood there aghast, with an over-muscled Labrador mix on one side, and a half-empty cake pan on the other.

Big Blake, it seemed, had discovered my belated birthday cake.

At two weeks late, it had been meant as a bit of a surprise. It succeeded. Instead of getting frosted by Heather and Missy, it had gotten a two-minute sampling by our canine connoisseur of all things semi-edible.

Surprise!

At first, I was horrified. Then, a little worried for the big guy (needlessly, as it turned out). And then, finally, amused.

After all this time, my cake karma seemed to have finally come full circle.

It’s an old family story, told by me as often as by anyone. My youngest sister Carey had had a birthday and knew exactly where she wanted it to be: Chuck E. Cheese. (I’ll pause for a parental shudder.) As the joke goes, it was our early childhood lesson in junk food and gambling, and we plunged with abandon into both, gladly running from pizza to video games to Skee-Ball and back again.

Since this was a birthday, naturally there was a cake. Since we were a family of five, naturally we didn’t finish it in one sitting. As the big brother (all of 10 years old or so), I volunteered to carry it out to the car when we left, holding it proudly as we entered the parking lot.

A little too proudly, perhaps. With a timing worthy of Mr. Bean, the cake left my hands.

And with one simple plunge, Abstract Art Piece No. 7, a study in frosting and pavement, had been born.

Surprise!

It’s been 30 years since then. My sister has long since started talking to me again. But the funny thing is, I can remember that incident more quickly and clearly than my college graduation. In terms of sheer vividness, it competes with the opening-night play at the Longmont Theatre Company where I took one downstage step too many, descending into the orchestra pit.

Some things, it seems, your brain hangs on to. With relish.

(No, the cake didn’t have relish. Chuck E. Cheese wasn’t that bizarre.)

Oddly enough, that’s been a subject of major research over the last few years: why our mind clings so hard to mortifying memories. The hope is to be able to better treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And the studies seem to suggest that it’s a combination of a particular brain chemical – norepinephrine, released in times of strong emotion – and an understandable need to obsessively examine a situation and figure out “Why did I do that?”

“It’s our need to control,” scientist Angela Londoño-McConnell told msnbc. com in 2009. “person might have thrown up simply because they were getting sick. It just happened. But it’s very difficult to tell the brain, ‘It just happened.’ So we go over it, trying to figure it out, trying to make sure we won’t be embarrassed again.”

That can actually be a valuable way to learn. But it can also mean you beat yourself up for a long period of time and blow a small event into a huge one.

Gee, that sounds familiar.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “but in rising up each time we fail.” Anyone can screw up – heck, Thomas Edison once burned down the family barn as a child. The question is what you do next.

I’ve had a lot of “nexts.” So have most of us, I suspect. More than enough to let a few cringes go, however vivid.

I know, it’s not often easy. But now that the years have worn this one from embarrassment to amusement, letting go shouldn’t be too hard.

You could call it a piece of cake.

But don’t tell Blake if you do.

Thinking the Unsinkable

I used to want a time machine when I was a kid, something out of H.G Wells or “Back to the Future,” so I could see the great events of the past all over again. Lately, I’m starting to wonder if I succeeded.

So far, I’ve seen a presidential candidate (now former) promise to put a man on the moon.

I’ve seen a member of Congress hold up a list of hidden Communists in Washington, D.C.

And now there’s plans to build an unsinkable ship called the Titanic.

Yes, seriously.

Credit this one to Australian billionaire Clive Palmer. He plans to launch a new Titanic sometime in 2016, built to the same dimensions and even starting on the same route – but designed to avoid the same finish.

“It will be designed as a modern ship with all the technology to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Palmer told Reuters on Monday.

Will someone sign the gentleman up for Missing The Point 101, please?

First of all, there’s nothing remarkable in designing a cruise ship that doesn’t sink. Most of them don’t. It’s like bragging that you’ve built an individual airliner that won’t crash – the odds are good that you’ll never have to test your claim.

Second, there’s no real reason to do it, beyond separating a lot of tourists from a lot of money. (Itself a good enough reason for most businessmen, admittedly.) If Titanic II sails safely into New York, it won’t magically bring back the passengers from Titanic I. It won’t even prove the first Titanic could have done it, since it won’t be using the same tools.

But most importantly, it ignores one of the biggest lessons of the Titanic – how the humility of failure can teach more than the pride of success.

I first heard the theory floated (sorry) by an engineer and author named Henry Petroski during an NPR interview. In it, he noted that if the Titanic had sailed safely, there would have been nothing historically remarkable about it. It would have made money and had imitators, like any other successful product.

But the flaws in its design would have still been there. They might have even been exaggerated as competitors tried to build it bigger and better. Sooner or later, overconfidence would get the same payoff – maybe even worse.

“When we have a success, a prolonged period of success, we tend to become more complacent,” Petroski said. “We tend to become overconfident that we’re doing it right, that we’ve got it figured out finally. And then, of course, a failure occurs and wakes us up out of our dream.”

And that’s when the learning comes – when you’re willing to acknowledge that mistakes are possible, that you can screw up, that’s when you really begin scrutinizing your work.

It almost sounds un-American, I know. We have an ideal of almost hyper-competency, that a free people can go anywhere, accomplish anything. And honestly, I’m glad when people dream big; that’s where a lot of great ideas start.

But it’s that dash of humility – that willingness to admit that maybe this time we don’t know everything – that can keep those big dreams from becoming bigger nightmares.

It’s something teachers drill into their students, that editors drill into their reporters: don’t get cocky, check your work. It’s an attitude all too rare in politics anymore, where the appearance of being right seems to matter more than the reality.

And it’s the only way to guard against a Titanic error.

Mr. Palmer, may you have the best of luck and happy sailing. But if Titanic II arrives on time, it won’t be because of unsinkable confidence. It’ll be because everyone acknowledged the worst and planned for it.

Meanwhile, I wish you well.

In fact, with the headlines lately, maybe I should wish you Wells.