Down to Human

A halfpipe skier had fallen on the Olympic course. And Missy made sure we knew all about it.

“No!” she shouted at the TV screen as the action shifted to other skiers competing and celebrating.

“Right here!” she informed me and Heather firmly, rubbing her shoulder hard to be absolutely clear about where the impact happened.

“Missy, we get it. But she’s OK now, she got up …”


Injuries and stress make a big impression on Missy, the developmentally disabled relative that we’ve been caring for since (has it really been?) 2011. When people cry, she gets upset. When people fall, she remembers. Heck, when fictional characters get hurt, she takes it seriously – a mention of Frodo Baggins getting his finger bitten by Gollum had Missy pointing at and checking out my ring finger for weeks afterward.

It’s a reaction without filters. Raw and undeniable.

And there’s a lot of opportunity for that when Olympic season comes.

Most of us don’t think of that much, outside the moment. After all, the Olympics celebrate the best, right? These are the ones who move faster, go farther and reach higher. It’s about triumph and success, passion and achievement.

Until, abruptly, it isn’t.

We’ve seen it for years. No, for decades, in summer and winter alike. The speed skater with too much on his heart who tumbles to the ice. The ski racer who sprains both knees at a crucial moment. The young athletes – some still young teens – who find themselves at a storm center and no longer have what brought them there.

Even leaving injuries and accidents aside, there are only so many medals. Someone has to fall short. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, always with the world watching.

And in those moments, something reaches out to us. Maybe in a way that no other Olympic moment can.

I’m no Olympian. You probably aren’t either. Most of us, however skilled and accomplished we may be, don’t have the sort of talent that tears up ice rinks and grassy fields on a global scale. It’s been joked online that every Olympic event should have an ordinary person competing as well, to bring home just how good these teens and men and women really are.

But in the moments where everything falls short, where the awesome becomes merely human … we know that one. We’ve been there. We can feel it.

Missy’s right. It hurts.

And when our hearts break with it, we reaffirm our humanity.

Most of the time, in most of our lives, it’s easy to not see the pain. To assume that normal is … well, normal. We’re doing OK, so things must not be too bad, right?

When we see the vulnerable, the hurting, the chronically ill, it’s often uncomfortable. It’s a reminder of how quickly life can change without our permission. How easily we could be there.

And if we let that open us up instead of close us off, it means something better for all of us.

I’m not saying each of us has to jump to every alarm and bandage every wound. That way lies exhaustion. But we can’t shut it out either. When we make our decisions – as individuals or as a society – with an eye to those who need us and a determination to share the pain of others, something happens.

We start seeing people. Not strangers. Not others.

And in reaching for them, we reach to ourselves as well.

Don’t turn away from the falls. Let your heart be broken. See the hurt and respond to it.

That’s the real medal moment.

A Moment of Victory

The word has reached around the world and back again, echoing in our minds like the ringing of a church bell.



The boys are safe.

At this time last month, most of us had probably never heard of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, never thought much about Thailand at all. Now the rescue of 12 young soccer players and their assistant coach from its winding depths has been celebrated from shore to shore.



The boys are safe.

It unfolded like a movie – and you know people are making movies about this. The innocent exploration by the boys that turned into a deadly trap as rainwater cut them off. The desperate search, in a place where radios were useless, guided by determination and the maps of an obsessed spelunker. The fear that hope had already gone. Too far. Too deep. Too late.

And then, too amazing.

One life lost, unforgettably; a retired Thai navy diver who used up his oxygen while delivering air to the boys. (Remember his name: Saman Kunam.) And then, the rescue. The emergence, after so many days, of the team and its rescuers.



The boys are safe.

If we got a little obsessed, it’s understandable. It’s what we do in crises like these, whether it’s a flooded Thai cave or a collapsed Chilean mine. For a moment, other fears become muted. There’s just the danger and the hope, the prayer for its resolution, often riding on the backs of so many that seem to be so few.

We know that sort of story from the inside, even if we’ve never been further underground than a basement rec room. More than once, the simple weather of the West has created devastation that took entire communities to overcome. Blizzards. Tornadoes. Floods that tore our own city in two physically, and made us one in mind and effort.

It’s a story of hope. Not optimism. Hope, with all the strain and effort and common strength that goes into making it real.

When it’s us, we reach for each other. When it isn’t, we reach for the stories. Because we need the stories of hope so very badly.

In a world where the worst of us dominate every news cycle, we remember that the best of us have not gone away.

In a time of anger and division and fear, we remember that struggles are not hopeless. That fights are not futile. That trials can be overcome.

And at a moment when it’s all too easy to write off our own world as too far gone to save, beyond the reach of any rescue … at those moments, this shines one more light, holds out one more promise that desperation, ingenuity, and will may yet find the way.

This isn’t a call to become complacent, sure that things will work themselves out. The problems facing us are real. Lives often hang in the balance. The rain is falling, the tunnels are filling, and waiting for the best simply uses up time we don’t have.

No, this is a call to fight. To try. To struggle together in the face of everything facing us, to be the rescue that we need. No one of us will do it all – but each one of us can do something, whatever the challenge may be.

We must hope, in order to try. Even in the face of overwhelming futility. We must try, in order to succeed, even when the quest seems quixotic.

And in the moments when success comes – well, then we’re allowed a little celebration for us all.



The boys are safe.

And hope, with them, survives.

Red Queen’s Race

It’s hard to think when she’s hurting.

I look at those seven words. Then look at them again. They don’t seem to go far enough. And they seem to fit far too well.

She’s been hurting a lot lately.

This is not new ground for me and Heather. Far from it. Some people trade favorite books and movies on a first date; we traded medical conditions. Hey, you talk about what fascinates you, right?

So I’ve known all along about her Crohn’s disease, about her migraines, about her crazy immune system. Surgery took care of the endometriosis; the lesser-known, harder-to-spell ankylosing spondylitis came into the picture about the same time. It’s a list I can rattle off better than next week’s groceries at King Soopers.

But lists don’t capture a wife who hurts so badly, she has to lean on your arm – hard – just to get from the bed to the bathroom.

They don’t capture the frustration of knowing everything she needs and wants to do, and having to wait for her body to give permission.

They don’t capture a lot of things.

It’s not always like this. Heather can go a long time between major flare-ups sometimes. Over the last five years or so, she’s even managed to keep them penned behind walls of medicine, a new drug that could push back the pain, give her some spaces to live a life. Not perfectly, but better than anything before it.

But like sunspots, chronic pain seems to have a cycle. And lately, we’ve been trending toward a maximum.

The walls are getting cracks.

I don’t know how she does it. To be fair, neither does she. There’s a lot of days when she doesn’t want to do it, when she’s flat-out had enough.

But still she’s in there. Part stubborn strength, part love, part not knowing what else to do.

I know we’re not the only ones in this spot. We’ve taken love and comfort from so many, the other folks whose friends never know quite what to say, who keep asking if you’re doing better, not understanding that “doing better” is a temporary thing, not to be relied upon.

Every so often, I flash back to a joke my cousin and I used to tell. We knew that deja vu was the feeling you’d been somewhere before. The opposite, we said, must be vuja de, the feeling you never want to be somewhere again.

Flare-ups are made of vuja de.

I think the most frustrating thing for us – for anyone caught in a similar cycle of turmoil – is that we seem to keep covering the same ground over and over again, like a football team that can’t quite get the score but won’t quite give up the touchdown. Like Alice and the Red Queen from Looking-Glass Land, running as fast as they can, just to stay in the same place.

But oddly enough, the frustration is sometimes the strength. However far away the line may be, we’re still running. We’re still in the game.

Despite everything, we keep making it.

Not long ago, I spotted a Facebook message from one friend to another that I had to copy for Heather. It’s a virtual poster, reading “On particularly rough days, when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100 percent, and that’s pretty good.”


We hang on. Sometimes by the notch in a fingernail. Sometimes by the skin of our teeth. But we’re not off the cliff yet.

And yeah, to mix the metaphor, that is one heck of a batting average.

Tonight may be hard. Tomorrow night, too. But we’ve made it through nights before.

And with love and stubbornness and exhaustion, together, we will see the dawn again.

Triumphant Through Defeat

When you think about it, our country celebrates a pretty odd birthday.

I’m not talking about the fireworks bursting in the sky while stomach linings are bursting on the ground. As Erma Bombeck once said, it’s a wonderful thing that we observe a patriotic holiday with food and Frisbees rather than a march of our armored divisions down Pennsylvania Avenue – and besides, it’s un-American not to celebrate a major event by over-eating, right?

Nor am I talking about the fact that we celebrate on July 4th an independence that was approved on July 2nd.  Given our national ability with dates, we’re probably lucky not to have it at the start of football season.

I don’t even mean the fact that every Independence Day concert closes with “the 1812 Overture,” a piece about Russians kicking the tar out of the French army about 30 years after our Revolution ended … with the help of the French. We’ll overlook a lot for the chance to fire off cannons at a concert, after all.

No, here’s the oddity, at least from my perspective.

Every July, we celebrate a war that was mostly won by not losing.

Think about it.

We’re a country that packs the stands at the Olympics and takes it as a personal offense when we don’t grab the gold in everything. We spend a lot of time cheering for sports that allow scoring, scoring and more scoring (baseball’s given a pass because of tradition; hockey because of the fights). We’re the land of Rambo and Horatio Alger; where “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,”; where anything can be a competition, even throwing cow pies.

We are, in short, as obsessed with victory as ever a nation was. Ask George Karl sometime.

Just don’t ask George Washington.

Not unless you’re ready to squint at the win-loss record.

This isn’t meant as a slam on the General. He’s an American hero and rightfully so. At times he held the Continental Army together through sheer willpower, wrestled with an often-sluggish Congress for essential resources (you know, nothing like today) and stood up when his country called, over and over again, to do whatever it needed him to do.

But if you had a dollar for every time a history text said “Washington retreated” or “Washington withdrew,” you could probably put on a pretty nice fireworks show.

Sure he had reason. The British could usually put more troops in the field with better cohesion. But that doesn’t change the fact that , until the surprise attack at Trenton at the end of the year, 1776 mostly saw Washington and his men being chased out of New York, out of New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. The most notable moment for the Continentals came with a near-miraculous escape across the East River under cover of fog.

In short, this was a losing streak that would be unparalleled until the creation of the Chicago Cubs.

And yet.

During World War II, Winston Churchill once quoted a saying that England always wins one battle – the last. Washington seemed to have understood something similar. For a revolutionary general, victory isn’t measured by battles. Or by territory. Or even whether your side keeps possession of its capital.

Victory is measured by whether you still have an army in the field and can keep up the fight. If you’re still there, you win. You can lose any number of individual clashes, so long as you hold on to the essentials.

It’s a perspective that often gets lost today, I fear.

Fight out a bill? Absolutely, every time, by every means possible, without compromise – even if the net result is Congressional paralysis.

A war on terror? Grab every tool you can to fight it – even if the result is the shrinking or loss of those liberties we thought we were fighting for.

I’m not saying surrender. Washington didn’t either. But never lose sight of the goal. Never lose sight of where victory really is.

Brilliant victories that lose a war are all too common. But to make even defeat a cornerstone of triumph – now that’s genius.

If the fight can go on … if the nation can go on … we all win.

And if that’s not worth a barbeque, I don’t know what is.