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.

The Eyes of Loss

A long time ago, C.S. Lewis wrote that the death of a loved one was like the amputation of a leg. The pain might eventually dull. The patient might eventually work out new ways to walk and live life. But they would remain aware of what had been lost for the rest of their life.

It’s been two years for us. And the limp still catches.

Two years since Melanie. Unbelievable.

Melanie, the 21-year-old cousin who had been staying with us for over a year, probably would have laughed at being remembered this hard for this long. She would have joked that it’s only because of the blanket for Missy that she left unfinished, or the dishes that stopped piling up in her bedroom before a much-delayed trip to the sink. She might have teased that at least we didn’t have to listen for the front door at night, to make sure she hadn’t lost her key in her backpack again.

She’d be wrong about that last one, by the way.

A little bit of me has never stopped listening for the door.

The world seemed to freeze on Jan. 26, 2018 when she was found in her bedroom. It almost seemed insulting that it should move on, without so much as a wobble in its orbit. Move on it did. It always does, in all its noise and wonder.

But maybe just a little more muffled than before.

No … no, that’s not quite right. Not anymore. If you’ve been through something similar – and too many of us have – you realize that the numbness is only temporary. After a little while, your awareness goes the other direction and becomes almost unbearably acute. Like Sherlock Holmes, you begin noticing even the smallest details that might connect to a memory.

When my Grandma Elsie passed, it was soccer that brought her back to me unexpectedly. Strange, since in the years I knew her, my English grandmother was a passionate Denver Broncos fan. But she had also been the one to explain a little soccer to us as kids … and that afternoon, with a World Cup game on TV and tea for Missy brewing on the stove, her memory was suddenly inescapable.

With Mel, it can sometimes be as small as an abrupt cold snap. (At 5’1” with a tiny frame, she had little insulation against freezing weather and little patience for it.) Or an online comment evoking her unique blend of sass and heart. Or the book she’d loaned shortly after moving in that I never did return (dang it).

Or, more subtly, a heightened awareness of other people and their hurts.

Because that was Melanie, too.

That last one, I suspect, has a lot of company. No one knows pain like the people who have been hurt badly, whether through a traumatic loss, a chronic illness, or some other wound to the body or soul that simply cannot fully heal. It damages. It isolates.

And sometimes, it amplifies. Having endured pain, you recognize it in others. Not just in sympathy, but in compassion, reaching out to join hurt to hurt.

We start to see each other’s limps. And with that, we walk together a little better than we did before.

I’m not saying that pain or loss is a good thing. I never could, especially after these last two years. But if we can learn to reach to each other’s pain, to see that it matters, that they matter – that, perhaps, is one of the best things of all.

No, the world never stops. But it can become closer.

Maybe even as close as a memory of Mel.

If There’s Anything …

I’m tempted to just write the words “Thank you” and be done with it this week. After all, what else is there for me to say?

I’m referring, of course, to the steady stream of comments, offers and good wishes that followed the appearance of last week’s column, where I noted that my wife Heather had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That included the oddly celebratory mood both of us had been feeling, since we had finally ripped the mask off our opponent and knew what we were fighting.

Pieces like that are always a little risky to write. My oldest rule for this column, taught to me a long time ago, is “No navel gazing” – anything said here has to be of interest to more than just me. There has to be a universal tie, something for a reader to latch onto and care about, even in the most personal of stories.

Even so, I was shocked at just how many of you turned out to care very much indeed.

Some of you shared words of encouragement or stories of friends and family with MS that kept living normal lives. Others had suggestions for how diet could help Heather, or how activity could. A couple of very powerful accounts talked of their own struggles to put a name to a chronic condition and how isolating and painful it could be to just not know.

And of course, from friends and family across the board, we’ve heard the invocation: “If there’s anything I can do …”

Simple words. Powerful ones, too.

We’ve all said it, of course. Often when we don’t know what else to say. The times when the mountain seems so large and threatening, a mystery too great to even comprehend – and yet, we know we can’t let a friend go up it alone.

And so, when the hard news comes, we reach out a hand. Maybe with a confident grip, maybe unsure of our own strength and ability. After all, sometimes there isn’t much one can do. The late, great fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who died recently from Alzheimer’s-related complications, once said that he appreciated the sentiment but was only accepting offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

But it does help. More than anyone realizes.

Pain isolates. It can be the physical pain of an illness, the emotional pain of a death, the all-consuming anguish of news too terrible to comprehend. All of it tries to draw limits, to seal us off from the world, to trap us in our own bodies and heads.

Granted, some withdrawal can be necessary to heal. But it’s easy to get trapped in the cycle, to become convinced that you have to deal with this yourself, that you don’t want to be a burden. It feels like a surrender to ask for help, an admission that you’ve lost control.

And then, someone reaches beyond the walls.

It may not be huge. It may not even be much more than the words themselves. But like a candle in the night, it becomes a small gesture that changes the landscape.

Someone cares.

Someone noticed.

Someone wants to help, even if they’re not quite sure how.

Someone’s heart has opened to me.

That is a powerful realization.

A friend recently reminded me that it’s a gift to allow others to give. It’s a harder lesson than it sounds. But a true one.

In admitting our mutual need, we summon our mutual strength. We become a family. No … we remind ourselves of the family that we already are.

Thank you for that reminder.

“If there’s anything I can do ….”

Trust me. You certainly have.

And The Winner Isn’t

It’s Oscar time again. And I can’t help feeling the statue is well-named.

After all, who but a Grouch could manage to use the occasion every year to concentrate on the losers?

“Leonard DiCaprio, passed over for his portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover …”

“… the first time a Pixar film has not been nominated for Best Animated Feature … “

“Albert Brooks, in a tweet to the Academy, said: ‘You don’t like me. You really don’t like me.’ …”

And this year’s not that unusual.

Oh, sure, once the ceremony arrives, 73 percent of all the Academy Awards coverage will focus on some cute winner’s moment, like Roberto Benigni leaping chairs or Adrian Brody lip-locking Halle Barry. (The other 27 percent will basically say “She was wearing THAT?”) But even then, some snubs will become legendary on the scale of Hatfield-McCoy:

It all started, son, when yer Uncle Oscar went up to that Annie Hall tramp instead of that nice young Star Wars feller. (Spit) Now git lost and git Grandpa some more moonshine.”

Glory lasts a moment. Especially compared to the disbelief of seeing Alan Rickman passed over again.

It’s a strange thing, this fascination with the losers’ circle. And yet it’s oddly comforting, too.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to reaffirm our humanity.

Most of us don’t get to know what it’s like to be President of the United States, or to go to the Super Bowl, or to raise a trophy while Hollywood applauds in envy and appreciation. Granted, we have our triumphs – many of them far more meaningful over the long term – but rarely on a scale that would get that level of public adulation.

But we all know what it’s like to fall short. To not quite make it. To be almost good enough for something – but only almost.

And when we see it in another, however great or small, it’s hard to suppress a moment of sympathy.

The football fans among us know this already. What got more attention this last week? That the New England Patriots would be going to another Super Bowl? Or that their opponents had been one step shy of a winning touchdown, one kick shy of a tying field goal?

So close. So far. So familiar.

It’s different when it’s someone you dislike, of course. The Germans specifically invented the word schadenfreude for the not-so-guilty glee when an Oakland Raider or a Jersey Shore cast member stumbles. Free target, have at it.

But most people seem to have more Charlie Brown than Darth Vader in them. Enough to create that empathy. And maybe even a little hope: If they can do so much and still stumble, maybe it’s not so bad when we do the same.

And if they can hope for a second chance, maybe we can, too.

So here’s to the Rickmans and the Sam Rockwells and all the others who could be great without yet reaching the peak. Maybe you’re even a little happier for it, in having something still to strive for. I hope so.

Because let’s face it. You guys were robbed.