Nov 11 2009

Leaps of Faith

At first glance, high-jumping horses and vomit-flavored jelly beans may appear to have very little in common. Before I get in too deep, let me just start my little story with a disclaimer — I am far more familiar with the world of jelly beans than I am the world of horses, but I’ve been getting acquainted with the latter in recent months, so I officially declare myself marginally qualified to talk about both.

Let’s start with the high-jumping horses and my indoctrination into the equestrian world. My children have been taking horseback riding lessons for a few months now, while I’ve observed from the sidelines. A few things have become apparent to me as I’ve watched my children and the other kids, most of whom are 6-15 years old, spending their evenings at the stables. First, it’s a misnomer to call the experience “horseback riding” since that’s only a piece of what is occurring at the stable, and in the early stages, it’s a very small piece because the trainers require the kids to tack their own horses before riding. This means that the kids groom the horse, brush its hair, clean the dirt from its hooves, and get the horse saddled up with the array of riding equipment necessary to do it all properly. It took me a while to realize that this preparatory work was critical to the entire experience, because it is during this time that the relationship with the horse is established, and the horse-and-rider team is born. In fact, during my daughter’s initial lessons, it was of very little concern to her if she actually got to ride at all; she was networking. The result is that when I arrive at the stable, I may see 12 horses. Julia, on the other hand, sees 12 distinct personalities and 12 different riding partners. She knows Hershey is a sweetheart, Charlotte gets tired in the afternoon, Parker gets cranky if he’s hungry and likes to yank the reins from your hands, etc.

The next thing that became apparent to me at the stables was the fact that most kids want to jump. Riding is fun, but jumping is cool and exciting. So, when we had the opportunity to go to the Washington International Horse Show two weeks ago, everyone agreed that we wanted to see the big jumps. Among competitive riders there is a high-jumping category known as the “puissance” which is French for “power.” I’m not aware that this type of jumping originated in France; I think the word “puissance” was chosen as a method for distinguishing “real” horse people from amateurs like myself who can come up with about two dozen vaguely crude-sounding ways for mispronouncing “puissance.” Anyway, there are a lot of rules to the puissance, but the important thing is that each ride ends in a giant jump over the puissance wall, an opaque wall that looks like bricks, with jumps starting at the 6-foot level and increasing in height each round. This is not your average jump over a gentle fence. This is epic stuff. It’s like watching Greek Mythology right before your eyes, with equal parts of excitement and terror since the potential risk to horse or rider is substantial. Compounding the obvious challenge of the height of the wall (the world record is over 7.5 feet) is the fact that the wall is solid. Unlike other jumps constructed of rails or fences, the puissance wall completely obscures what is on the other side. This is where the relationship with the horse comes into play, since nothing short of an ironclad degree of trust between the horse and the rider will get both over the wall. The rider has to trust that the horse is physically capable of making the jump, and the horse has to trust that the rider knows the other side of the wall is a place that they can safely go. Launching yourself into the unknown requires an absolute level of confidence and trust, whether you’re the horse or the rider. Here’s an example of the puissance, starting with two warmup jumps and then the Big Wall.

We all face risks. Some of them are serious, like having a chronic disease or attempting a dangerous jump on the back of a horse. Others are far less serious, but may teach us just as much about walking toward the unknown.

I saw this in action when a coworker arrived at the office recently with boxes of BeanBoozled Jelly Beans. There are 10 different colors of jelly beans in each box, and each color has two flavors, one of which is palatable, the other of which is not. For example, the yellow jelly beans are flavored with either buttered popcorn or rotten egg. The black jelly beans are either licorice or skunk spray. Orange is either peach or vomit (you heard me…vomit). Green is either juicy pear or booger. You get the idea. It’s worth pointing out here that the “bad” flavors are not just a little bad, or slightly off-putting. They are really horrible. The skunk flavor, for example, feels as though it permeates your head in a matter of seconds. The rotten egg is a blast of nausea-inducing nastiness that will haunt your senses for a good 24 hours. This is not for the squeamish. In other words, this had all the markings of something my kids would LOVE. So, the day after Halloween we broke out a couple boxes and dove in. Each round was a stroll into uncertainty, with only the luck-of-the-draw determining if you’d be spending the next several minutes scrubbing your tongue with a washcloth. Catherine and the kids and I challenged each other to to sample these during a 45-minute hysterical game of jelly bean Russian Roulette this past weekend, and we spent most of the time laughing wildly. Here’s a sample of what transpired…

Facing risks is something that everyone copes with, whether it’s a chronic illness, attempting a dangerous feat, or risking eating a skunk-flavored jelly bean. I believe there are people in the world who treat risks as something to be minimized or even avoided altogether, and there are definitely certain risks that no one in their right mind should take. But there are also risks that we actually manufacture and throw ourselves into, just to add some texture to our lives: motorcycle riding, horseback riding, having kids. Finally, there are risks that are dealt to us, either by random dumb luck or by some unpredictable physiological recipe; in Life’s Liver Lottery, like Will with the jelly beans, I “got the booger” in the form of a faulty liver.

There’s not much reason to spend time fretting over why I’m sick, whose fault it might be, or anything I should have done to avoid it. Instead, I see my condition as my own personal puissance wall to get over. I can’t see through it, or over it, so I don’t know exactly what’s on the other side. But I’ve seen others go over it, so I know it can be done. I also know it can’t be done alone. Fortunately I’ve got the best team around. My wife Catherine leads the pack with her daily encouragement, love, understanding, and relentless drive to help me make all the right decisions about my care. Dr. Fisher, the transplant surgeon, has already conducted one type of “transplant” for me, replacing all of my fears and concerns with confidence and assurance that he’s the surgeon I want at the helm when it’s showtime. I’ve also got an incredible group of friends who not only are bold enough to talk candidly with me about my health, but who also don’t let me use my health as immunity from the merciless ridiculing we direct toward each other…I fully expect to “get” as much as I “give” in that respect, and these are the jabs that make me feel almost normal.

Given the choice, I’d obviously choose to be completely healthy. But I wasn’t given a choice, so I’ll play what I’m dealt and even admit that facing the unknown is exactly what makes life interesting. If all the jelly beans in the package tasted great, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun sitting around the dining room table watching each other take the next bite.


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  1. Catherine Mosley

    Bill, This is so beautifully written. And what fun Luke and I had watching your jellybean roulette! all the best, Catherin

    1. Reid

      I enjoy reading all of your posts….what a fun idea for a family activity and the lasting memories you have created…I think I may intoduce all of my family to a new game over Thanksgiving, “The Varner Jelly Bean Game”
      Take care and thanks for sharing!

  2. Gail Prensky

    Hi Bill. I’m in St. Thomas for a week with my good friend Trish (who has Crohn’s, living with this chronic disease for years).

    Your blog is powerful. Have you considered submitting it for publication consideration to share with the public at large. I think you might inspire a lot of people who suffer from fears and chronic diseases, not to mention give the psychological professionals a tool to share with others.

    I’m so glad you found the zone.


  3. Phillip Bosen

    Glad to see that you are still “fighting the good fight” I hope that you have a great Thanksgiving. You have helped me realize a few more things that I am thankful for. You and your crew are in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Becky Hann

    Bill – a lovely and very well written story. I can completely picture Julia in the stable instructing everyone on the horses and being in complete control of everything. My very best to you this holiday season. Becky

  5. Stacey

    Bill, What a poignant and funny story! that’s what I like about you. You’ve always been able to look at everything with “open eyes”, seeing the real picture, good, bad, but real. Let me know how the journey is going. Stayed with Susan C. a few weeks ago and she sends all her love and strength. Tim Brown is trying to get in touch with you as well. Tom says hello. WE are here during your journey too. ALL our best, Me, Mom, and our family.

  6. Freda Springs

    Bill, I was so happy to run into you and Catherine and the awesome Varner offspring the other week. Powerfully thought-provoking – and funny – post. (And the video reminds me why I love you and yours so much!)

  7. Gary


    Your blog is inspiring, and your writing is poingant. Seeing your faces in the video made the many hours we spent with you come alive again, but also highlighted the saddness we feel over the distance between Virginia and Texas. We really miss you guys. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

  8. Nancy Brockman

    Bill, your writings are informative and VERY inspirational. Thanks for a clear picture of what you and Catherine are going through. Yes; I know that sentence ended in a preposition! Doug’s and my thoughts and prayers are with you as you head into the transplant.
    Nancy B.

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