It’s the middle of March as I write this, and we’re at the close of yet another brutal winter up here in northwest Wisconsin. We’ve gotten a lot of snow (tons, literally; I shoveled a total of 3 tons off my deck) and tonight we’re expecting another two to five inches. Or, as we say up here, “We’re looking at two to five tonight.” Nobody has to ask what “two to five” means. The vernal equinox, the official arrival of spring, is Monday at 4:24pm. It can’t come fast enough. I’ve had quite enough winter fun, thank you.
Of course for some folks, winter really is fun. They snowmobile, they snowshoe, they ski, they go out on the ice and fish. I don’t do any of that. Sue and I own snowshoes and might go out once or twice to walk around our lake and out to the island, but that’s about it. Our cross-country skis were given away several years ago.
We still get plenty of exercise, but all of it’s indoors, at the two gyms in Rice Lake, plus the municipal pool for me. Our experience with the Spartan race last fall really ramped up our fitness regimen, and we’ve done our best to continue that, even though we don’t have a specific event to train for.
This year, anyway; 2024 will be a different matter entirely, because we are in the early stages of planning our long-delayed trip to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, less than a year from now.
Many of us up here in northern Wisconsin plan a getaway during the winter. A week or two on a beach in the Caribbean or Mexico sounds awfully good when you’re scraping ice off your windshield, or driving at 30mph on snow-covered highways, trying to avoid the white-out behind a snowplow. Unfortunately for me and Sue, winter is always the busiest time of year at her travel agency, Travel Designers Travel Leaders of Rice Lake. It’s a rare winter quarter that we get to travel anywhere. I might manage to sneak away for a couple days to visit family in Arizona, as I plan to do next week; I’ll also be on assignment for my radio station, attending some spring training baseball games and interviewing Milwaukee Brewers players for our season preview special.
So we sit at home, or we are at work, and we tend to let our minds wander. There’s only so much TV you can watch, only so many books you can read. Lately, I’ve been thinking of moments in time.
The all-is-lost moment.
I get a weekly post from the author Stephen Pressfield, who wrote one of my favorite novels, Gates of Fire. In a recent entry, he told about his “all-is-lost” moment, back in 1980, when he was living in New York City, driving a cab and trying to get his novels sold to publishers. Rejection after rejection left him convinced that as far as his dream of being a novelist was concerned, all was indeed lost. We all have moments like these, and over the course of this winter I thought of a few of mine.
The phrase itself is contradictory, in a way. If something happens and you think, “That’s it, all is lost,” well, then, whatever you were doing is over, gone, done. Whatever you were trying to do will never happen. Your goal will never be achieved. But, of course, those moments, the real all-is-lost moments, are rare, fortunately. I’m sure a lot of people on the Titanic had their honest-to-God all-is-lost moment, because it was really happening. But such catastrophes are, fortunately, very infrequent. Even in the face of disaster, as many people out in California recently experienced with severe weather, they survive, they clean up the mess, they move on, they rebuild.
I had my first “all-is-lost” moment in high school. It was the first weekend of March 1975. I was a senior at Potosi High in southwest Wisconsin, about which I’ve written before: “When the Madness was Personal.” On the worst night of my life (up till then, anyway), I scored only one point and my PHS basketball team was defeated in the regional semifinal round of the state playoffs. I was the co-captain of the team, a senior, and my scoring and rebounding had helped us get to a 14-6 record at that point. We were on a run, having won 9 of our last 10 games as we began what we were sure would be a deep playoff run, hopefully all the way to the state Final Four in Madison. And I had one LOUSY POINT! We lost that game to Belmont.
But of course, the sun came up the next morning. Belmont, the team we’d lost to (by 7 points, after blowing an 18-point, second-quarter lead), lost the following night to Bloomington, which in turn was beaten in the next round up in La Crosse in the sectional semifinal. Even if I’d played well enough to help us win, we still would’ve had to win three more games to get to the state semis in Madison. The odds were against us, as they are against all of the schools who enter the playoffs in high school sports. Only one of them ever wins a state title. It wouldn’t be us, though, and I was crushed.
I survived, obviously. Life is full of disappointments. Bad things will happen, even to good people. This is a tough lesson and we all have to learn it, usually at an early age. There are far worse things than losing a high school basketball game. Over 200 schools entered the playoffs in our division that season, and every one of them, except for Marathon, the team that won the title, lost its last game. The sun came up the next day for all of those who lost. It came up in Marathon, too, and although it might’ve made their gold trophy a little shinier, it was the same sun for all us, the one winner and all the losers.
What that taught me, eventually, is that if you set a goal, you have to do everything you can to achieve it. I didn’t work as hard in the previous off-season as I should’ve. Not that I loafed all the time; my parents would never have tolerated that. But, there was more work I could’ve done, in the weight room and on the floor, getting myself ready. So, you have to prepare, and train, and plan, and sacrifice. When the moment is at hand and things don’t go your way, you have to improvise, adapt, overcome. My jump shot was gone that night, but I didn’t compensate by driving to the hoop, getting to the free throw line, or playing better defense so the kid I was guarding couldn’t lead their comeback. It was a tough lesson to learn.
I had more all-is-lost moments in college. One of them was early in 1977, during my sophomore year. I’ve written about that before, too: “Behind the Mic.” Following my father’s advice after losing out on what I thought would be my only chance to actually go on the air and broadcast a basketball game, I did indeed improvise, adapt and overcome. All was not even close to being lost. Determined to get on the air, I did what had to be done, and here I am, 46 years later, with over a thousand sports broadcasts on my resume, including more than a dozen state championship games, not to mention three national championship college football games.
There would be many more all-is-lost moments in the years after college. There would be professional setbacks, marital problems, financial decisions that went awry, the deaths of my grandfathers, putting down a beloved dog. At times, it truly did feel as if there was nowhere to go, no way to get out of the pit. But somehow, I did. I always had help, though. Usually it was from my father, with a word of advice, maybe a few bucks to tide me over. The good Lord had a hand in it, too: He always made sure the sun came up the next morning, and the morning after that. I would make some changes in the way I did things, how I thought about things, and move on. You don’t give up. You’ll deal with your all-is-lost moment, and you’ll almost always have an epiphany moment
When all-is-lost becomes an epiphany.
For Pressfield, his epiphany–the moment when you have what the dictionary calls “an illuminating discovery, realization or disclosure”–came when he was at his lowest point in New York. He decided to make a try at screenwriting. He had a friend who worked as an assistant to a Hollywood agent, and she gave him tips on how to proceed. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Pressfield moved to Los Angeles, sold some scripts and eventually got his novels published. His first, The Legend of Bagger Vance, came out in 1995 and five years later was adapted into a movie, directed by Robert Redford and starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Matt Damon.
I’ve had more than a few epiphany moments in the 32 years since I met Sue, the woman who would become my wife, and she’s responsible for most of them. There was an all-is-lost moment, too, early in our relationship when we hit a rocky patch, as most new lovers do, and I well recall that moment, when I thought it was all over. But then, an epiphany happened (the Lord had a hand in that one, too), we reunited and have been together ever since. Another one happened several years after that reunion, when she was reading a book one night before bed and tossed it aside in disgust. “You can write better than this junk,” she said, and the result was my first novel, The White Vixen.
And so, as I prepare to bid farewell to this long and very snowy winter, I know that we improvised, adapted, overcame. The tons of snow on the deck simply had to be shoveled off. The guys who plowed our driveway and removed the snow from our roof had to be paid. Always ahead of us was the certainty that it would end, spring would come, the snow would melt. I am anxious to get out into the yard and clean up the debris that winter always leaves behind, and there will be much work to do in our woods with my chainsaw and brush-cutter. Our dog, Maisie, is certainly looking forward to being able to chase the squirrels and the deer without sinking into a snowbank. All was never lost this winter. It was just buried for a few months.