I didn’t move for the entire second half. I chewed on my finger the whole time, leaving a raw patch, and didn’t move despite the pain in my shoulder until there was 10.3 seconds left and the hope was too much to handle.

I grew up in Cleveland. I was rooting for the Browns during The Drive and The Fumble. I was a Cavs fan every day they weren’t playing against Michael Jordan, but felt The Shot deeply. I cried every time the Indians let me down until my hope scabbed over and scarred like a wound.

In Cleveland losing in a spectacular fashion was so common, you always expected it and never were disappointed – crushed, yes, but not disappointed. Disappointment comes from expectations being dashed. But you become jaded. You hope for the best, but expect the crushing. It’s a coded language in Cleveland, an understood nod. We know it to be true and can talk about it among ourselves, but when someone from outside Cleveland brings it up, it hurts all over again.

The Cavs winning the NBA Championship was huge, not just because it was an incredible accomplishment in the face of staggering odds, but because it will force Clevelanders to find a new language, a new nod, a different outlook. Not a different outlook for our sports – though that will certainly be an outcome – but a different outlook for ourselves.

Change is hard. It’s very hard for Clevelanders like me. The moment you begin to see progress, you fall prey to hope. Hope is wonderful, but when you’re used to disappointment, it becomes a false signal. You sabotage that hope. You cut it off at the knees. Winning the championship means we have reason to hope, we have reason to cast aside our instincts to doubt and free ourselves to the notion of change.

I realize I’m making a big statement about something that is, in the grand scheme, pretty small, but it’s coming from a real place. I feel different today than I did 72 hours ago. I feel lighter, more positive. I’ve been reexamining my goals and what seemed impossible now seems not only possible, but achievable. I feel like I can do the work, like I want to in a way I haven’t wanted to over the last couple of months.

For an illogical and purely emotional reason, the Cavs victory is inspiring me to rewrite my script, to all hope to shape focus and focus to drown out doubt. And I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve spoken to several friends from Cleveland this week and they all say something similar – that the lack of being crushed feels strange and almost uncomfortable. The challenge will be to not settle back into old habits and to embrace the possibility for change.

 

Image Source: http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/releases/celebration-160619

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’ve been in the midst of a big project for work. My son had his First Communion – which meant 80 people in an out of the house on a rainy day. Mother’s Day. A little travel. Lots of sports. Writing, meetings, commitments. The usual flotsam and jetsam of suburban dad life.

But last week was particularly crazy – like, country song crazy.

It began with Penny. For the last couple of weeks, she’s been sick. She had a fever, was very lethargic. We’d boarded her for the First Communion weekend and she picked up a bug. Trips to the vet for fluids and antibiotics, long days laying in the sun near the front door – no energy. But last week, it got worse. She’d whine every time I touched her. She could hardly walk. Her legs were shaking. She had a hard time going from lying down to standing up and needed to be lifted into the car, up the stairs, onto the bed.

I had a trip and needed to leave Monday night. My wife, God love her, took care of Penny. Another trip to the vet, then to a specialist for a very expensive set of x-rays and a possible diagnosis of meningitis.

Crap.

The trip was fine, but it’s always hard to be gone. I was particularly homesick this trip. We’d had a couple busy weekends – my in-laws in town – and I felt like I hadn’t had a lot of quality time with my family. I also had a book deadline come and go and the pressure was hanging over my head.

So, my dog was possibly dying, I was far from home, work was killing me and money was running dry. What else?

Well, I got home Wednesday night and had to leave again Friday morning because my dad was having heart surgery. It was a lot to worry about. I wanted nothing more than to drown my sorrows in cheap beer, lay in the back of a pick-up truck and stare up at the stars.

Country songs rarely end well. But, thankfully, last week did. Dad’s heart surgery went incredibly well, thanks to the amazing staff at the Cleveland Clinic and his own pluck. Penny was given medicine and, while she’s not out of the woods and still needs tests (including a spinal tap!), her energy is back and she’s the wiggling, jumping, licking puppy she was a month ago. I finished the book and made it home safe. And, yesterday, Dylan pitched two great innings and hit a double that broke his hitting slump. Molly, my beautiful daughter, nailed her tap dancing routine at her annual dance recital and I managed to sleep through my alarm, waking up refreshed for the first time in months.

Life, sometimes, is a country song. It can be overwhelming and there will be moments when you feel like you’re under water. But life can also be a broadway musical, a contemplative Bon Iver song and “Walking on Sunshine.” Sometimes you get to choose the track, but other times you can’t.

The challenge we all face is to try and enjoy the music while it plays.

The Cavs are in the playoffs. The Republican Convention is coming to town. Over the next couple of months, Cleveland is going to be getting a lot of press. There will be stories about the ever-disappointing sports franchises, the attempts at rebirth, the depressed economy, the deranged man who kept three women locked in his house for more than a decade. Reporters will speak lovingly, condescendingly, disgustedly about the city. They will talk about its former heyday. They will talk about the industry disappearing, the people becoming depressed and hardened. They will most assuredly talk about the Cuyahoga River lighting on fire and maybe throw in a mention or two about the Flats, the Drew Carey Show, Great Lakes Brewing and Johnny Manziel.

But they’ll never talk about the things that make Cleveland great. Really great. The MetroParks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the people who are loyal and tough as only a community assaulted and often on the butt end of jokes can be. They won’t talk about the strange mix of pride and hope, the feeling of being us against the world.

They never do.

I grew up in Cleveland. I wasn’t born there. I was born in Wisconsin and lived in California and back in Wisconsin before my family settled down in Cleveland. It’s the place I consider home, the place I return to on holidays and special occasions. Sometimes, just because. It’s also the place where my mind returns when the weather finally breaks in Cincinnati and we get that one perfect week of spring.

A week like this one.

Cleveland is a place of extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Extreme optimism and extreme pessimism (sometimes within the same person in the same day). The weather is freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer.

But for a few weeks every year, it is idyllic. When the snow has thawed, the leaves have begun to sprout and the flowers bloom. Lake Erie is still too cold to swim in or boat on, but you can’t help but be outside. A light layer to buffet the cool breeze off the water. Sun coming down in gentle rays, you want to explore. You are compelled to wander – along the lake, downtown, through Little Italy. You look forward to the summer season at Blossom. You check out that new restaurant on West Sixth or East Ninth, you able down the paths of the Rocky River Reserve.

Spring means baseball and the return of the Tribe, but also the little leaguers taking over the parks. It means excitement for the NBA playoffs, which you’ll more than likely watch with friends, your hearts on your sleeves, a Commodore Perry IPA in your glass. It means the return of color to a place dominated by gray through the winter months. You walk through Lakewood or Tremont or Cleveland Heights and you hear music coming from the bars and restaurants. You meander downtown, you sit at Huntington Beach in Bay Village and dream across the water.

It will get hot, you know that. Once Lake Erie has warmed up, the humidity will be intense, the summer storms frightening. But all of that is ahead of you, just as the lake effect snow is behind. Your teams are more than likely to disappoint, but you hold out hope – for the Tribe, for the Cavs, even for the beleaguered Browns. Last season’s wounds have scarred over and you still have wishes left in you.

Sure, the construction on I90 is causing delays. But you don’t mind being in your car for a little extra time. You’ve got the sunroof open, the top down, the windows lowered. You’ve got music playing and you smile – you’ve survived another winter. You’ve made it through to these few special weeks that, along with the chilly late October when the leaves turn and the world smells like grass and high school football games, seem to make it all worth while.

You can’t understand what it means to be from Cleveland from a headline. You can’t understand why people love the place so much when you only know whats in the news. To know Cleveland, to love Cleveland, is to understand and embrace the extremes – the cold and the heat, the rich and the poor, the optimism and disappointment – and to appreciate the in-betweens.

I’m proud to be from Cleveland. I’m proud to know the truth. It’s far from a perfect city, but that, in and of itself, is where its perfection lies. Cleveland is your favorite old pair of boots that have seen much better days but you can’t bring yourself to throw away. It is your mom’s meatloaf – you’ve had better, but never experienced anything that compares. It is your first car, your first love, your first heartbreak and all those things that come to define you later on in life.

A lot of people are going to be talking about Cleveland over the next couple of months, but I know they won’t have much to say. And the things they do talk about might be factual, but they have little to do with the truth of the place. To know the truth of Cleveland is to be from there, to experience the highs and lows, to suffer the outside world’s slings and arrows and love the place anyway. Because you know they can say anything they want, but they can’t take away those few perfect weeks, those in-between moments where everyone who has lived there remembers and those that still do look forward to.

Cleveland is not what you think.

image from: https://www.csuohio.edu/international-admissions/international-admissions

She’s always there to greet me when I get home, usually running out of the garage in stocking feet celebrating the best part of both of our days. She is always calling my name, kissing my cheek, sneaking into bed in the middle of the night to take her half of my pillow.

She’s my little girl, my princess and I don’t have the energy or inclination to argue the gender politics of it. She just is. I look at her and it’s all I can think of- she is nothing short of a treasure to me. She makes me soft where I am hard, hard when I have gotten soft. She lightens me, elevates me. My daughter, but also, my wish- all the wishes I never knew I had. 

I don’t love her more than I love my sons. She’s not my favorite, my preferred or better in any way. And she’s far from perfect. But she’s, well, she’s just different.

It had been a long week. Five or six projects coming at the same time, unexpected and ill-afforded travel, I haven’t been sleeping well. All she wanted was time with me, for me to take her to the community center to go swimming and climb the rock wall. Just us, her and her daddy. How could I say no? 

It didn’t matter that I hadn’t slept and had been up worrying. It didn’t matter that my work day was hectic or that accidents meant it took me almost two hours to get home. All that mattered was that I was there and I would keep my promise. 

I was quiet, she asked if I was tired. It didn’t matter that my head was elsewhere. I promised I would go. And so I did.

“Look at me daddy!” She shouted to me just a step from the top of the rock wall- the highest she’s ever climbed. The ice began to crack, like the smile on my face.

“I’m going to splash you!” She said in the pool and her million watt smile was like sunlight in the darkest parts of my brain, my heart, my mood.

“I love you daddy,” she says as we towel off. And suddenly I realize the other stuff was gone. I tell her five more minutes and she runs back into the pool, giggling, laughing, screaming, looking back over her shoulder at me as I pull out my phone and start to write this.

It won’t always be like this. Some day she’ll move on. I won’t be daddy, but dad. She won’t want me, won’t greet me at my car, won’t shout for me to look or watch. There will be other men in her life, other people she can’t wait to see. 

But not today. Not right now. Not this minute.

No, right now she’s my princess and I’m her daddy.

Right now, she’s my little girl.

Do you ever have that feeling- the one where you can be in the middle of a completely familiar situation (dinner with your family or friends, say) and suddenly, and without warning, you have no idea where you are? You don’t recognize the people around you, you don’t recognize your surroundings. Or, you do, but they don’t feel familiar at all.

That happens to me more often than I’d like to admit. Maybe it’s my ADD, maybe I’m just innately self-centered, maybe I’m just flighty, but it happens. At least once a month. It’s the opposite of deja-vu. It’s the opposite of recognition.

I haven’t been traveling as much this year. Maybe with same frequency, but certainly not with the same kind of duration. Day trips. Single nighters. Here and there and everywhere. Familiar places for the most part.

The other morning, I was standing in the security line at the airport, a place I visit as frequently as the barber shop, and I had one of those moments. I couldn’t recognize where I was, couldn’t remember how I had gotten there. 

Then again, standing in the kitchen with my wife, talking about the kids’ schedule. I looked at her and it was like I was seeing her for the first time. The woman I have loved with every ounce of me for twenty years and it was like discovering her all over again.

I suffer from these moments, these instances of what Vonnegut might call being “unstuck in time.” I suffer then, but also look forward to them, relish them. Why? Because as uncomfortable as the moment is, it also creates an opportunity to see the familiar in a whole new way- to realize how lucky I am to see the way my wife’s face with fresh eyes; how lucky I am to be able to move throughout the world as often as I do.

I don’t wish the instantaneous feeling of disconnectedness these little time leaps entail on anyone, but I do think it’s easy to get stuck in looking without seeing, in being with someone or in a place without experiencing them. And I’m glad for those little out of life experiences, just for shaking things up.

I won’t be overly dramatic and say that I fell in love all over again with my wife the other day, but for a second the way I feel, which gets a little blurry and indistinct with time and familiarity was freshened up and given a fresh edge.

I loved that.

So if we are ever together and it seems like I’m a million miles away, if I shake my head slightly and widen my eyes, please understand, I’m seeing you in a whole new way and am still glad to be with you.

Last week, I wrote about Moments of Confluence. I wrote about owning your Echo. I wrote about embracing opportunities when they come, even when they are challenges, about taking responsibility for your responses. Today, I’m thinking about the work.

It had been nearly two weeks since I had gotten up for a pre-dawn run. My back and shoulder have been making it hard to sit in my chair at work, let alone chase Penny through the morning streets. And, I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that in that two weeks, everything started to lag. The focus I’d had for more than two months had become a mish-mash brain bash as my attention shifted like sand in a hurricane from one project to another, from one need to another, from one set of aspirations to another. I was feeling it mentally, emotionally, physically and, no matter how many promises I made in my morning journal, I knew I needed to get back on track.

I needed to own my echo. I needed that moment of response to take an active role in the day ahead.

It came, oddly enough, while I was watching a talk by James Patterson. Think what you will of his books, but 76 best-sellers means the guy has something figured out. He was talking about outlining and how it shapes his writing. The outline is the plan, it’s the to-do list, it’s the map. Do it right and the writing is easy, you just have to sit down and push the keys. “Don’t worry about the sentences,” he said. “Concentrate on the story.”

I realized he was right and not just about writing. I had gotten caught up in not being able to run my best, to write my best, to do my best, when the thing I need to do was the work and allow my best to come out. Strange how something out of context can make such a larger point.

So, last night, I took my muscle relaxer for my shoulder and climbed into bed at 9:30. My alarm was set for 6:30. A good night’s sleep and then back on track, I thought. The alarm went off. I crawled to the floor and stretched. Penny licked my face as the aches kicked in. I thought about leaving it alone. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. I fed her breakfast and curled up on the couch, still groggy from the meds and sore from everything else. Maybe I would just take her for a walk.

I let her outside to go to the bathroom. I let her back in. More licks to the face. More excitement to be alive. Okay, then, a walk.

I put her leash on, pulled on my sweats and a pair of gloves. I sat down in the garage to put on my shoes. She sat in front of me. Just looked at me, her tail swishing back and forth on the concrete floor.

“You’re right,” I said out loud. “Running it is.”

The first couple minutes were fine. The next ten were rough, but she looked so happy, so I pushed on. By the time I was 20 minutes in, I knew I was slower than I had been a few weeks ago, but the endorphins, the sunrise, the way her head bobbed back and forth – something changed. I remembered that I had come to like running earlier this year. I remembered that I liked the work.

I had already written my outline, but I had gotten too worried about the sentences. I needed to focus on the story – the running, the time with my dog, the feeling of doing something when I first woke up. I had forgotten how much I loved that. Taking time off was the right thing to do for my health, but now it was time to run again, to write again, to push myself ahead because someone – even if it was only a Golden Retriever – was counting on me.

James Patterson, Penny, the man I see in the mirror and the one I hear in my head – they convinced me to get back out there and I’m glad they did. It might not seem like much and, on even a medium scale, it’s not. But I felt something I hadn’t felt in the last couple of weeks and it makes me want more – pride.

You don’t have to write perfect sentences. You don’t have to have a way with words. You just need to focus on the story – your story, whatever it entails. And realize, just because you pause doesn’t mean you’re done. You’re not over. You just have to remember how to love the work.

I had coffee with Ryan this morning. We talked about films and storytelling, about goals and our aspirations. Eventually, our conversation turned to tragedy. A close friend of his (a person I know, like and respect), is going through a tough time right now. I won’t get into the details, but that served as a context for our conversation about the experience of ‘growing up.’

Neither of us are children. We’re both married and have three kids, somewhere more than a third of the way between college and retirement. But we’ve reached the age when things have started happening with more regularity. Friends getting divorced, others getting sick. Parents – not ours thank God – are starting to pass away. Just like your early to mid-20s are defined by weddings, so too are your late thirties defined by tragic events in other people’s lives and sometimes our own.

We talked about the nature of tragedy, how it can seem like tragic events are pinpoints, rocks dropped into a perfectly calm pool from which ripples expand in concentric circles. But we quickly came to the conclusion that the ripple-effect of tragedy implies passivity by those not in the center; that simply experiencing the tragedy of another is a passive act.

But it’s not.

We are not defined by the tragedy in our lives. We are defined by our response to it. When a good friend goes through sickness or loss, we are not passengers in the relationship, but active participants in it. Ryan’s friend lost someone dear to him. The definition of how that tragedy impacts Ryan lies not in his knowledge of it, but in his response to it. If he keeps his distance and stays quiet, he becomes a victim of another’s tragedy. But if he doubles down, if he shows up before he’s asked for, he creates an echo of positivity that goes against the tragic ripple.

I believe in Free Will. I also believe in God. And I believe that God gave us the ability to make up our minds in order to give us the opportunity to learn from and for ourselves in the face of adversity. I believe this to be one of the bedrock principles that define the human condition. And because I believe these things, I believe my echo, my response to a tragedy is my opportunity to exercise that will.

I haven’t always understood this. There was a time when I didn’t show up; when I wasn’t there for friends who may have needed me, who definitely needed me, because I thought it wasn’t my place or I wasn’t welcome. It tainted those relationships. In one instance, not roaring back with an echo is among one of my greatest regrets. But just as my will allows me to respond, it also instructs me to learn from that experience.

We can go through life tossed and turned by the ripples, allowing them to become waves and eventually a maelstrom. Or we can turn and face them and create waves of our own – waves of empathy and sympathy, of caring, love and regard. We can be thrown by the storm or we can turn and face it.

Ryan and his wife, Jill, are the kind of people who shout into the hurricane, the kind of people who show before they are called. They exercise their will and create echoes.

It’s a lot to think about on a Friday, but these kinds of conversations over coffee are in and of themselves, echoes against the coming waves. And I, for one, am choosing to be heard.