“The cards will hear you,” my dad would say, when we played crazy eights or canasta on those winter nights in Minnesota, when I was young. Mom and Dad and I would play, sometimes with my sister, upstairs on the orange shag rug in the study, near the hot radiator that kept the little room warmer and cozier than the open dining room, living room, and kitchen downstairs. I hated to lose, or worse, to almost win. I would throw the cards and storm out when I didn’t win the trick, or when I didn’t get the right card.
“Don’t complain! The cards will hear you,” Dad would say. Apparently cards don’t like complainers. Then Dad would put on this self-righteous demeanor, virtually say a prayer for the card he wanted, and say some staged gracious remark regardless of outcome. “This is a wonderful, wonderful card. I am so grateful to receive this new opportunity.” If he would lose, he would say words of thanks, but playfully, and if he won, he was intolerably overbearing. “See what I mean?” he’d say. Mom would roll her eyes or slap him.
Thirty years later, I know the cards can’t hear me, and no one ever believed they could. As a math professor, Dad’s faith was in statistics, not prayers to the card gods. As a lawyer, I’m not taking up the case for cards having ears. But at the same time, Dad was on to something.
I believe in the power of a positive attitude, to transform fear into joy, despair into victory. To complain is to fail at the outset. A positive attitude guarantees success.
Cathedrals and castles are built, charities are funded, victories are won, conflicts are resolved, lives are lived, and cards are played—if done well—not out of fear, dread, or frustration, but out of hope and joy and an unwavering belief in success.
I recently visited my frail, eighty-nine-year-old great-great uncle in a hospital where he was recovering from a stroke, and he gave me the “squeeze ‘til it hurts” handshake. “Feel this,” he said, as he tried to make my hand hurt. “Ouch,” I said. He showed me his flat, bony, old-man bicep—”Not too bad, is it?” He would not be defeated by a stroke or old age. This was no deathbed.
Now I play games with my children. The basement family room is vibrant, cluttered with toys, cozy, and warm, with my nine-year-old intensely transfixed at the game table and my six-year-old trying to hold the cards while playing tug-of-war with the dog. Tension rises and falls. When someone almost wins, which is often, my kids are vindictive, envious, rude, hurtful. They cry or strike out when they lose, and they gloat when they win. They behave just like children.
And I am now my dad. My wife groans or slaps me when I pass on the faith, dripping with smug resolution, but deeply in earnest: “Don’t complain, and be grateful for what you have.” “Remember to have fun.” “The cards will hear you.”
It is the most important lesson I can teach.
Eric Larson is a shareholder in a law firm, practicing municipal law in the greater Milwaukee area of southeast Wisconsin. He draws inspiration from his wife, who teaches at the local university, from his talented kids, and from service to local charities. He walks Toby, the family Tibetan Terrier, to and from work every day, to guarantee a happy reception at both ends.
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