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.

The Turkey Trot … Er, Limp

Starting off the holidays with a bleeding shin was not my idea. But there you are.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I have a lot of experience in living life as a slapstick comedy. Falling into the orchestra pit during a vocal solo? Done it. Slamming into doors and through water dishes while chasing a barfing dog? A classic.

But even by those standards, the Hidden Turkey of Thanksgiving Day has to be considered a standout.

It started innocently enough. A few days earlier, a relative texted some good news. Since Heather and I wouldn’t be getting out for Thanksgiving, he’d taken the liberty of ordering dinner for us. All we’d have to do on the day was pick it up at the grocery store.

Great!

So that morning, I got into Leroy Brown (our family Hyundai) and headed on over to pick up the feast. No line at the deli. This would be easy! I gave my name.

“I don’t see anything.”

Oh, of course. I gave the relative’s name.

“No …”

Hmm. Heather’s?

“I’m sorry.” Customers were starting to gather. “Why don’t you come around the corner here while we look?”

OK. Sure. I hustled around the corner …

WHAM!!!

… right into the shin-high wire display shelf.

“AAAaaggh!”

By a miracle of self –restraint, nothing came out of my mouth that would have earned a PG rating or higher.

“Oh my gosh … are you all right?”

“I think so,” came out through gritted teeth. My shin was on fire. No big deal. “Any luck?”

“Not yet. Do you have an order number?”

I texted.

No response.

I called.

Voice mail.

Multiple calls. Calls to relatives. More voice mail.  I hadn’t searched this hard for a source since my reporting days. I certainly had never done it while staggering back and forth like the survivor of a Die Hard movie.

“Maybe I can just throw it together for you?”  the kindly and worried clerk asked me.

“I don’t know what he ordered …”  

Limp. Dial. Stagger. Limp. Dial. Wince. “Come on …”

Suddenly angels burst out singing!

OK, it was actually my cell phone. But the revelation might as well have been from on high. The original order had had a mistake. His wife had re-placed the order. HER name was the magic word we’d been looking for! Food finally collected, I headed for a checkout line that now extended into Larimer County, made my campsite …

…. and realized I’d forgotten the whipped cream.

Limp. Stagger. Wince.

Welcome to the holidays, right? We go in with ambitious aims, only to walk into (ouch!) one frustration after another, like a chain of Russian nesting dolls. At some point, we reach Charlie Brown levels of angst: why are we doing this again?

But here’s the thing. The food still got home. The feast still happened. Heck, by the time I found the whipped cream, the checkout line had melted like an early snow.

Hope still waited on the other side. And it still does now.

It’s not easy. Especially not these days. Hope calls on us to trust in something we can’t see yet, to work and labor for a distant aim. To not just believe in something, but to put our effort where our mouth is, even when the blows keep coming.

It’s ot the optimism of “It’ll work out.” But the sweat of “It starts with me.”

As we stagger into the holiday season, that’s a gift I hope we can all enjoy.

And if you want to add a pair of shin guards, I won’t blame you.

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.

Just Bust a Lip

Some people have the moves like Jagger. Somehow, I wound up with the upper lip instead.

OK, not “somehow.” After all, I do live in a slapstick movie that Chevy Chase would envy and Mel Brooks would direct. Part of that privilege is that I can see exactly what’s about to happen – just in time for it to do me absolutely no good.

It’s how I’ve wound up stepping off a perfectly good stage. Or finding sewing needles with my bare feet. Or chasing a barfing dog around the bedroom, running into every conceivable obstacle on the way. (Oh, you’ve heard that one?)

And in this case, it’s how tripping on one broken piece of sidewalk turned a healthy walk to work into “OWWWW!”

I got lucky as I caromed off the concrete. No broken teeth, no broken nose. That seems to be part of the deal with my invisible producer: no lasting injuries that would kill off the chance of a sequel. Short of that, anything goes.

And in this case, “anything” was my swollen upper lip, to the tune of three stitches and enough blood for a Friday the 13th film.

Fun, huh?

Educational, too. For the past week, in fact, it’s been a constant tutorial in the Iron Law of the Universe: “You can never do just one thing.” Consequences snowball, whether it’s the Amazon butterfly raising a typhoon or the casual dinner remark sinking a political career.

In this case, my failure to pay attention to what my feet were doing didn’t just win me a Rolling Stones look-alike contest. It also guaranteed:

 

* That I would be unable to be understood by voice-message trees for at least two days. (“I’m sorry. I didn’t get that. Please try again …”)

* That drinking a glass of water would be on a difficulty level with competing in the Hunger Games.

* That drinking anything ice-cold would trigger expressions best not read in a family newspaper.

* That whistling would not be an annoyance to my co-workers for a while.

* That, contrary to “Casablanca,” a kiss isn’t just a kiss when your pucker feels like it’s hit a porcupine.

* That any kind of lengthy out-loud reading – longer than a page or two – was out of the question for the immediate future.

 

In a way, that last one hit the hardest. Reading is what I do. What I have done since the age of two and a half. Combine a love of books with a love of performing and the result is that I have read to and with anyone willing to listen for years: my dad, my sisters, my grandma, my wife Heather, our ward Missy, the dogs …

These days, it’s the vital bedtime ritual. Before the lights go down and the house goes quiet, I sit on the edge of Missy’s bed and read, a journey of the mind that has roamed from Missouri to Middle-Earth and from secret gardens to open warfare.

But when the stinging of your lip says “stop” after two pages, Hogwarts can take a little longer to visit than planned.

Well, lesson learned. And maybe even a small blessing with it. It only takes a few days of doing without something to discover what your real priorities are – what’s an inconvenience and what’s an essential. Being in a position to recognize that and to make adjustments later is no tiny thing.

It’s better still, of course, to be paying enough attention before a crisis hits. Especially when it’s often inattention that creates the crisis in the first place. Think, plan, imagine, observe. Act, however you need to, even if you don’t think you need to right now.

It may all seem terribly abstract.

But it’s amazing how fast it becomes concrete.

Clowning Achievement

It started with a puking dog. As all good comedy should.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The author Spider Robinson once speculated that the universe is connected by a number of invisible switches, set to activate at certain times. For example, the switch that rings your telephone is located in the bottom of the bathtub, guaranteeing a sales call as soon as you sit down. Meanwhile, the switch that turns traffic lights red is just under your accelerator pedal, for maximum fun on mornings when you’re running late to work.

I say this only because I seem to have a switch in my life that’s labeled “Chevy Chase.” And I’d really like to find the plug before someone dies laughing.

I’m not alone here. A friend of mine used to flip that switch any time he tried a home improvement project. An oil change would drain the transmission fluid. An attempt to stain the deck would also paint the house … or the fence … or would see the dog get out and run right across the wet surface and into the yard.

But even he, in his genius, would be hard-pressed to top the comedy routine that erupted when Blake began to heave.

The sound of a dog about to throw up on your bed is like nothing else in the world. It brings every sense to full alert, like a Mission:Impossible tape announcing “Your bed comforter is about to be irrevocably stained in 10 seconds. Good luck, Jim.”

Did I mention the dog weighs 80 pounds and is not easily moved?

“Towel!” I called out, jumping up and dashing to the bathroom. Somewhere … somewhere … here, the old ratty one we were about to throw out. Success!

I turned in triumph. And smacked nose-first into the door.

BANG!

“OW!”

The door rebounded. Hit the frame. And smacked me a second time.

THUD!

“OWWWW!”

I staggered forward, vaguely aware of my wife Heather and our ward Missy trying desperately not to laugh. It didn’t help their struggle much when my next step went into Blake’s water dish.

SPLASH!

True laughter now, as I woozily reached the bed in time to get the towel beneath Blake’s chin. The first “shot” hit the terrycloth perfectly … at which point Blake decided he’d feel better on the floor.

“Blake, wait!”

“Not on my book!” Heather called out, seeing his head perilously near a discarded paperback.

Round and round the bedroom floor I danced with the Canine Puke Machine, alternately offering the towel or yanking an endangered item out of the way. Finally, both of us done, we collapsed on the hardwood floor, panting side-by-side.

As my adrenaline lowered, I recognized the sound of music in the distance.

Missy’s stereo. At full blast.

Playing KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Keep It Comin’, Love.”

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing, too.

Sometimes that’s all you can do.

The universe contrives to put us in some pretty ridiculous places sometimes. Ranting and roaring about it only raises the blood pressure and (more often than not) extends the chaos. A good laugh frees you to be human, lets the stress go, and just makes you more pleasant to be around.

After all, you’d pay good money to see someone do this on purpose. If you’re the star, why not just enjoy the show?

You might even live longer.

At least, until that bathroom door comes back for a third swing.

“Owwwww ….”