You’ve heard the cliche that life’s a game of inches? I’ve used it myself often.
Sometimes the games are lighthearted or insignificant in eternal terms. But other games are heartbreaking and try the soul.
I watched in shock as the legendary Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan, sank a game winning shot over Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. It was the closest the Jazz would come to a championship and a couple of inches might have meant a higher-grade diamond legacy for Hall of Fame trio John Stockton, Karl Malone and coach Jerry Sloan.
Remember Scott Norwood? The Buffalo Bills kicker missed a 47-yard field goal attempt with four seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXV. The Bills lost by one point and roughly 12 inches to the New York Giants and the term “wide right” was tattooed on the bicep of America’s sports culture. The Bills would go on to lose three more consecutive Super Bowls, not by inches, but by miles and double digits.
Both were disappointing but ephemeral losses.
On a somber and more personal note, my brother-in-law Shane Erekson was killed in a bizarre, single-car accident on a snowy road near Boise, Idaho, in 1995 when an inch one way or the other might have kept his car on the road. After rolling down an embankment, Shane hiked back up to the road with no visible wounds and without trouble.
But doctors suspect the precise position of his seatbelt punched and damaged his pancreas on impact. He died of internal bleeding in the back seat of a good Samaritan’s car heading into town. Our family certainly lost that tragic game of inches.
My list of losses by the inch is a mile long and covers a wide spectrum. Perhaps yours is, too. And that takes us back to the headline about a man biting into a supersized, pulled-pork barbecue sandwich and discovering a razor blade.
There are two ways to tell a story like this. In one version, the story reads like an Associated Press account with sharp, well-sourced reporting about a story the reporter didn’t actually experience.
Those are informative and useful, but the narrative is usually more dull and sterile than the sauce-soaked razor blade.
In the other version, the guy who actually bit into the sandwich and pulled the blade sideways from his big mouth tells the story firsthand.
Yes, I think we’ll go with that one.
Last Wednesday I was visiting a small town about an hour from home when I was passed a family-owned take-out joint. I love off-the-grid diners and dives and decided to pull over for a late lunch.
I ordered a barbecue pork sandwich and watched the owner assemble it. We made small talk as he piled on the barbecue and I knew that that if it tasted as good as it looked, I was set for a sandwich I wouldn’t soon forget.
Was I ever.
He handed me a bottle of water and a plastic to-go container and I dashed back to my vehicle across the parking lot. I settled in, turned on the radio, popped open my lunch and began texting a friend. I realized after just one bite that the sandwich was too big to enjoy traditionally and I opened it up to eat with a fork.
I took two or three more testing bites as my eyes darted back and forth from lunch to my phone. It was, quite simply, one of the best barbecue sandwiches I’ve ever had. I plunged in for a bigger bite of pork and, because I hadn’t forgotten where my mouth was, I stuck the fork in my mouth without looking.
I bit down and felt something hard. My first thought was that it must have been a large piece of bark from the meat. Bark is the tasty crust that forms during a long nap in the smoker. But when I pulled the piece out, I was holding a razor blade with one hand and lifting my jaw from my lap with the other.
My second thought was, “Wow, this guy really hates my books.”
I quickly returned to the counter to share my unfortunate discovery. And you thought my jaw dropped?
The stunned owner explained that he regularly uses a disposable utility knife to open the pork and then tosses it in the trash. In this case, it appears the blade popped off the handle and was cooked with a giant mound of meat. Later, when he massaged in the sauces, he wore heavy PVC coated gloves and didn’t notice the blade.
Well, I sure did.
He apologized and we chatted about what a close call it was and how much worse it could have obviously been. Soon, I was driving home and trying to convince my wife over the phone that I wasn’t kidding. “Life’s a game of inches,” I told her.
As the miles rolled by I considered how things might have turned out differently: a nick here, a slice there or even worse. What if it had been one of my children? What if I’d been racing down the road, eating on the fly and the blade had gone in at a different angle?
I’ve since shared the experience in detail with some well-meaning friends. A few suggested that I sue, embarrass the business and shut them down. Others advised that I simply call the health department, file the proper reports and count my blessings.
I chose the latter.
But my own conscience has whispered even more. It tells me that it’s time for me to stop focusing on the almostblessings, miracles or victories that never came and acknowledge all the almostdisasters, heartbreak and losses that didn’t come, either. For every bit of good fortune I’ve watched slip away by inches, how many tragedies or disappointments have been avoided by the same literal and figurative distance?
Sure, it’s still a cliche, but life will always be a game of inches. I’m just thankful to recognize that this time, I was blessed to win.