Half the Fun

They’d taken Heather’s temperature. Too high. Again.

Time to wait. Again.

For half a moment, I could feel the old station wagon forming up around us.

Longtime readers of this column may remember that my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about two years ago. At the time, we were more relieved than anxious, since it explained so much that had been going on – the periods of foggy memory, the occasional bouts of weakness, and so on. Better to have an enemy you know, right?

Since her MS is of the “relapse-remission” sort, we even managed to get some stretches where things were just about normal again. Well, as normal as you can get when a person also has Crohn’s disease and ankylosing spondylitis (quite a mouthful, huh), but you know what I mean. During that normal time, she and her doctor started planning ahead. A periodic infusion of a “biological” medicine might help her keep on top of things – basically, trading an occasional and very boring five to seven hours in a chair for the ability to keep the MS on a leash.

No problem. Boring medicine days are why God put the Lumberjack Olympics on TV, right?

But something always seemed to keep that medicine just ahead of us, like a will o’ the wisp in a swamp. Things like paperwork that didn’t make it through the mail, or blood tests that had to be rescheduled again and again because another chronic illness had flared up that day and left Heather unable to come out.

Finally, the preliminaries were over. Medicine Day had come.

Unfortunately, so had the Creeping Crud. You know this one. Maybe you’ve even had it, the one that keeps circling back around for another pass? It bumped up Heather’s temperature, just a bit.

Just enough to postpone the infusion. Twice.

It’s a good thing I already have a bald spot. Less hair to tear out in frustration.

That’s when my mind’s eye began to see the Volvo arrive.

When I was a kid, my parents liked to plan long vacations for all of us. This included, more than once, the Great Overland Trek from Colorado to California, with two adults and three children in the confines of one car for multiple hours.

Mom was an expert at distracting us. Dad planned out small jobs that each of us could do. But inevitably, at some point along the highway, the Official Kids’ Chorus of Summer Vacations would arise.

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

The answer was obvious, of course. Not yet. Not for a long time. (Maybe not for a very long time, if the chorus started while we were still in Wyoming.) But when the good stuff is still ahead and doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, what else can you do?

Some things don’t change very much in three and a half decades.

We still wind up on long journeys, where we’re not at the wheel. We still find ourselves watching the landscape crawl by. And again and again, it seems like each passing hour brings … another passing hour.

It can be maddening. Or at least wearying. Especially if the resolution refuses to come into sight.

All we can do is trust. That California is out there somewhere. That the road does reach a destination. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary. We just have hang on to each other, do what we can on the journey, and keep traveling.

In our case, at least I know we’ll get there. The infusion will, eventually, happen. The treatment will, eventually, begin. And then we can start on a whole new road.

I hope we packed enough snacks.

 

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Watching From the Shadows

Missy and I had been sitting on the couch when we heard the jingle.

“Shhh,” I said. “I think she reappeared.”

I set my tablet down, looked behind the furniture. Sure enough, a pair of small eyes gleamed back. After a long day of invisibility, Cupid had deigned to show herself again.

Well, sort of. You can’t rush a lady.

Cupid is the visiting cat of a visiting relative. A grand-and-tiny feline of 13, she’s also a new adoptee, greeting her changed environment with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty. That especially includes our muscular English Labrador Blake, who has greeted the new arrival with a mix of enthusiasm (“Hey! New friends!”) and jealousy (“Hey! This is MY house!”). She in return has greeted him with a mixture of concealment (“I’m not here …”) and ferocity (“…. but my claws are, buddy, so don’t come any closer, OK?”).

Note to self: When a 95-pound dog tries to mix it up with a tiny puff of fur, don’t bet against the puff of fur.

This is familiar ground, though it’s been quite a while. When I was a kid, my sister Leslie introduced Twinkle Lumas Rochat to our home, named for the blaze of orange between her eyes that matched a mark on her mother, Starface. Twinkle remained in the house as an uncrowned queen for 17 years, learning the arcane secrets of paper bag, bits of ribbon, and Christmas tree tinsel.

And, of course, Max.

Max was the newer arrival, a bearded collie who loved the world. It was a match made in … well, somewhere. Like most beardies, Max had never heard of personal space; like most cats, Twinkle believed the entire house was hers.

On the first day Max came home, Twinkle disappeared into my sister Carey’s closet and refused to leave.

The script started out as Upstairs, Downstairs – as in, Max hadn’t yet mastered staircases, so upstairs and downstairs were the perfect places for Twinkle to hide. When he made the breakthrough, it became the biggest shock in Twinkle’s life and the start of a new episode, straight out of the old Road Runner show: one bark, one yowl, and two furry bodies streaking up or down the steps in hot pursuit. (Anvil not included.)

It took a long time, but things eventually reached a detente. And then some. It wasn’t uncommon for someone quietly entering a room to notice a certain pup and a certain kitty sleeping within paw’s length of each other. Once they realized they’d been seen, of course, official relations resumed, beginning with a high-speed chase, but we all knew the truth.

Each had made their peace, without compromising who they were. And they’d made something better doing it.

That’s not an easy thing to do for anybody, furry or not.

We live in a world of changes. Not all of those changes are comfortable. Some we welcome, some we fight, some we try to accommodate if we can.

But the one thing we can’t do is ignore them and pretend they’re not there. Oh, it’s tempting. And there can be a bit of helpful respite in pulling back to reassess, recover, and figure out what to do next. But as Twinkle discovered, hiding out only works for so long before the change finds you anyway. Then you have to figure out what to do next.

That doesn’t mean surrender. But it does mean understanding what’s happened, and then working out what the next step needs to be.

Meanwhile, we’ve got a guest to attend to.

Somewhere around here, anyway.

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Making an Im-Press-ion

(Appeared first in print 4/10/2017)

When you’re a teenager, it’s easy to wonder if you’ll ever make a difference.

That’s not a problem for the kids of Pittsburg High School. Not after turning their southeast Kansas school newspaper into a star of investigative journalism, and turning their school’s administration upside down in the process.

Yes, really.

For those who missed it, the teens probed into the background of their newly hired principal and found that some of her credentials didn’t seem to add up – in particular, that the university where she earned two of her degrees didn’t appear to be an accredited institution or even to have a physical address or working website. In fact, they discovered, it had a reputation as a “diploma mill.”

By the time they were done, what could have been a routine story about a new principal ended up by asking some very awkward questions. Awkward enough that the principal announced her resignation, just a month after her hiring.  By then, the kids had the attention of the national media and the thanks of the school district’s superintendent.

“We’d broken out of our comfort zones so much,” 17-year-old Connor Balthazor told the Washington Post. “To know that the administration saw that and respected that, it was a really great mo ment for us.”

I’ll add my own applause to that. These are the kind of lessons that need to be learned, not just by high school journalists, but by any citizen in a democracy.

And it happened because the kids had the opportunity to learn, the freedom to act, and the initiative to do something about it.

Kansas school papers, like Colorado ones, have a guaranteed freedom of the press for high school journalists. (In fact, Colorado passed that guarantee while I was still in high school myself.)  The schools have only a limited ability to restrict what appears in the paper – mainly, things like libel or obscenity – allowing students, like their grown-up counterparts, to work uncensored.

But that only matters if you have writers who are willing to go past the obvious. And much journalism, whether high school or professional, is comfortable to stick with the routine. The state championship winners. A new class or a retiring teacher. Much of it is necessary stuff, but it doesn’t often demand much of the writer or the reader.

To go further, a good reporter needs to remember two principles. Always ask the next question. And always verify the answers you get, even if they seem to make sense. Especially then. “If your mother says she loves you,” the old newsman’s saying goes, “check it out.”

In a day when many newspapers are folding (no pun intended) and when social media allows the half-true and the false to circulate more rapidly than ever before, that’s an important skill for everyone.

These kids have learned it. And then some.

And in the process, they’ve taught a few lessons of their own.

They’ve shown a reminder that learning isn’t limited to the classroom, the test, and the textbook. The extracurriculars – newspaper, theatre, music, and more – offer a host of valuable lessons for the student who’s willing and able to take advantage of them.

They’ve reminded us that an alert media can make a difference. That an alert citizenry can make a difference. All it takes is a willingness to look, and a determination to keep looking.

They’ve even given us some hope for the future, that the next generation is ready and eager to join the conversation.

That sounds like a lot to build on one article in one school paper, I know. But they’ve worked to build it. And I suspect they’ve learned that it’s a work that never stops. The name of “journalist” is always being re-earned. Much like the name of “freedom” or “democracy.”

Let’s get to work, shall we?

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Looking In

In the wake of an attack, normality can be the strangest thing of all.

When the first reports came out of London, my heart sank. This seemed to have the earmarks of a scene that we’d witnessed many times in different forms – the public spectacle, the first word of fatalities, the wait for information that would link this all to terrorism. The chaos had begun again and I waited to see the next familiar steps of the dance.

And then someone turned down the music.

I don’t mean that the attacks near Parliament completely fell off the radar screen. But for an American, unless you were looking for more accounts, they seemed to get quickly pushed to the background. By Saturday,  if you did a quick drive-by of online news and social media, it’d be easy for someone on this side of the Atlantic to miss that anything had happened at all.

Why?

The distance? France was farther and #prayforparis remained an online trend for days in 2015.

The low number of casualties? It’s true that this produced (thankfully) few deaths – no bombs in the crowd, no mass shootings or falling buildings to endanger more lives.

The most likely explanation, my reporter brain suspects, is that there’s only so much media oxygen to consume and most of America’s was being tied up in the Congressional health-care drama as the Republican proposals came to a screeching halt. What was left seemed to be consumed by the intelligence hearings. That sort of follow-the-leader isn’t uncommon, especially when local stakes are high and newsroom budgets are thin.

But when even the social media ripples are few (outside of English friends and sources, of course),  that suggests that much of the audience has moved on, too.

This either suggests something very good or very bad.

On the one hand it could mean that, like the English during the Blitz of World War II, we’ve finally become good at carrying on normal life in the face of those trying to disrupt it, that we’ve gained some perspective about how to sort out the severe from the sad. I’d like to think that, I really would.

But it’s also possible that there are just too many alarms on the bridge. When crises seem to fill the headlines, when every story demands your attention (with or without justification), how easy is it to become numb to one more alert? At what point are there too many things to invest your heart in any given one?

At what point do people, do countries, say “Forget the rest of the world, I’ve got my own problems?”

It’s easy to do. Problems need to be attended to, whether it’s a fight to make sure your family is cared for, or a struggle to address or prevent national calamities. Attention can’t be everywhere and priorities have to be made.

But when eyes turn too far inward, when our neighbor’s problems become invisible in the face of our own, we become less of an “us” and more of a crowd of scattered “me’s.” Worse, we miss the chances for shared strength that can come as we reach for each other and face down our mutual problems as one.

We don’t need to be traumatized by every new peal of the bell. That way lies fatigue and madness. But we can’t close the door and pull the shades either. Care for self and care for others need not be exclusive from one another. Should not be. Cannot be.

Be someone’s helping hand. Be someone’s neighbor. Even if all you can offer is attention and sympathy, pay it. It spends well.

Together, we can build a “normal” worth having.

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Rushing to Help

With bowls and ingredients in hand, my wife Heather armed herself to make my birthday cake. Naturally, Missy jumped to help, eyes aglow.

For those of you who remember my previous chronicles of our disabled aunt/ward, who’s 43 in physical age but much younger in heart and soul, you may recall that she lives life with enthusiasm. So when she helps out in the kitchen, Missy throws everything she has into it – in more ways than one. As Heather later related it, the script for the afternoon looked something like this:

HEATHER: “Oooh, hang on.”

MISSY: (Begins plopping spoonfuls of cocoa directly on the cake.)

HEATHER: “Wait, honey, I have a bowl.”

MISSY: (Drops two-thirds of the cocoa and most of a bag of sugar in the bowl.)

HEATHER: (Turns around from softening butter) “Oh, my goodness, hang on, that’s a lot of cocoa!”

The result was perhaps the most well-frosted cake in the sidereal universe, along with a broadly smiling Missy and a thoroughly exhausted Heather. Rarely has a baker been so eager to light the candles.

It’s not the first time Missy has hurried to assist around the house. If we start to hang up clothes, she immediately grabs a hanger and a shirt – though her coordination is such that she often tries to place a sleeve on the hook rather than the base. In dish washing, she’s quick to rinse and eager to help empty the dishwasher – but it sometimes takes a sharp eye to make sure that dirty glasses don’t join the clean ones on the shelf.

So yes, at times, Missy’s help requires an extra dose of attention. It can leave you feeling a bit wrung out by the end of the task. Sometimes it’s even tempting to quote Max Bialystock in “The Producers” and say “Don’t help me.”

But when a willing spirit offers, what can you say but yes?

It’s something that’s familiar to a lot of political movements these days. When groups have a common overall cause but different agendas, a lot of energy can be wasted on internal friction as each decides the other isn’t “doing it right.”

“Don’t you know that …?”

“Where were you when … ?”

“Oh, this is so important, but what about …”

Without careful attention, a movement can end up going sideways rather than forward, unclear where its next step should be and how it should be taken. Again, it’s tempting to say “Go tend your own garden and leave mine alone.”

But that kind of splintering results in a lot of small nudges rather than one big push. And it misses so many opportunities.

As with Missy help, it can be a teaching moment. An awkward alliance can be a chance for everyone to truly learn another’s cause, history, and motivations.

Even more so, it forces you to pay attention to the task at hand. We spend a lot of our life on auto-pilot, doing familiar things in familiar ways. But when you have to keep an eye on how someone else is washing the dishes, you also focus more carefully on your own. If you have to instruct someone else on your goals and tactics, you’re also reminding yourself.

The enthusiasm can make things take longer. But with care, it can also produce a satisfying result – and just maybe, some long-term lessons that stick with everybody for the next time.

As it happens, the cake was beautiful. Sure, the frosting was a bit thick and the sprinkles were all in one small area. But it didn’t matter. The result was something sweet, to the taste buds and the heart.

So thank you, Missy, for helping out Heather.

When it comes to assistance, you really take the cake.

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Oooh, Shiny!

I may have finally found my sport.

Mind you, I’m not without competitive talent. If someone announces a punning decathlon, I’ll be right at the starting line. The 100-meter deadline-anxiety dash has my name written all over it. And my skill at the Orchestra Pit Diving Invitational has become legend among Longmont actors, and at least one surprised musical director. (Hey, I didn’t miss my cue!)

But no, those are warmups. My new ideal venue is a Japanese tug-of-war. This one doesn’t require you to be Hercules – but Curly Howard would have a field day.

“Members of (Tsuruta City’s) Bald Men Club took turns competing in a unique game of tug-of-war by sticking a suction cup, which is attached to a single red rope, to each of their heads,” Megumi Lim of Reuters reported recently. “Both sides then attempt to pull the cup off of their opponent’s head.”

That’s right. This is a sport where you really use your head.

It’s true that I haven’t parted ways with my comb yet. But my hairline left on an expedition to the North Pole long ago and has begun sending back detailed reports of the Arctic Circle. As the old comics used to put it, I have wavy hair – it’s just that it’s mostly waving good-bye.

I come by my natural highlights honestly. The Rochat men typically wear their foreheads high enough for me to see my future in the reflection. My Dad likes to say, “They don’t put marble tops on cheap furniture,” and I know my place in the department store is coming.

“But wait,” someone’s bound to ask, “doesn’t baldness come from the mother’s side of the family?” Well, maybe – but Granddad Bill made the rest of us look like Rapunzel, so there’s not a lot of help there.

Bothered? Not as much as I used to be, and not just because I still have enough to need a trim. (“Short back and sides” is now a description as well as a haircut.) Yes, I know there is a difference between “balding” and “bald” and I don’t mind that I haven’t crossed over to the Mr. Clean side yet. But it’ll come.

And when it does, I hope I can celebrate it.

There are a lot of things to worry about  in this world – hate and prejudice, surveillance and privacy, factions breaking the human race into a jigsaw puzzle gone wild. But for most of us, the truly primal fear is aging and dying. A lot of money gets made off the difference between what we expect and what we see in the mirror, convincing us that our bodies are betraying us rather than doing what comes naturally.

Some of it’s understandable. Things wear out or wear down; repairs do become necessary, aches and pains never become welcome. Offer me a back that’s never been thrown out and I’d jump at the chance. But some is an attempt to freeze a moment or to hide from one.

I want to trust what I am and what I’m becoming.

Things will always change and some of it we’ll have to live with, from the minor to the major. But we need to be able to gauge which is which. We need to trust that our selves are more than our packaging, that there can still be joy despite change – or even in change.

And when we trust ourselves, maybe we can build a more trusting world.

Or at least one with plenty of ointment for those head-mounted suction cups.

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And The Winner Is …

By the time this appears in print, the envelope will be open. The statue awarded. The orchestra will be playing the new Best Picture Oscar winner off the stage.

And then, approximately 30 seconds later, all the pundits will be arguing about what it means.

Mind you, for many of us, the Oscars mean about four hours that we’ll never get back, spent among memories, film clips, a few (barely) decent jokes, and at least one dress that makes everyone shout “WHY??” Sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful, often memorable for the strangest reasons – sort of a class reunion with higher budgets.

But we do go deeper. We can’t help it. We are a story-telling species and film is a storytelling medium. And it’s impossible to tell a story that doesn’t have some kind of meaning, whether it’s as simple as a fairy tale or as bizarre as “A Clockwork Orange.”

And so it’s only natural to ask: What sort of stories are we telling? Whose messages are we celebrating?

This year especially evoked a lot of chatter. If “La La Land” won, was it a honoring of Hollywood’s heritage or a dismissal of more challenging topics? Would  a victory for “Hidden Figures” or “Moonlight” be a recognition of more diverse stories or simply a reaction to last year’s ceremony? Should the producers of “Arrival” leave early and avoid the rush?

A lot of tea leaves get stirred before the ceremony; a lot of ink gets spilled afterward. And while I’ve done my share of prognostication, I think most of the experts are looking for meaning in all the wrong places.

Trying to derive a message from Oscar winners, frankly, is an exercise in futility. Because when it comes to its biggest award, Hollywood almost always plays it safe.

It’s an open secret. It’s why the Oscar odds are usually pretty easy to set, such as favoring actors who play real people (especially with accents or disabilities), animated movies that did well at the box office, or supporting characters with something quirky about them.

And the Best Picture? Often a drama, sometimes a comedy, rarely a musical, once and only once a fantasy film. (Thank you, Peter Jackson.) Socially significant can win, but it’s usually a safe social significance – think “Gandhi” and “Driving Miss Daisy” rather than “Brokeback Mountain” or “Network.” And of course, underdog stories are always beloved, from “Rocky” to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Always true? As a journalist, I learned to never say “always.” But it’s often enough. Yes, the awards often recognize excellent movies, but they’re usually excellent movies that appeal to either a mainstream audience, mainstream Hollywood, or both. It’s not a field for living on the edge and the message sent is usually as simple as “We  know what we like – and it hasn’t changed that much.”

Which isn’t to say that pulling something deeper and richer from the Oscars is hopeless – but you have to look beyond the winners. For a truer picture of the times, you need to look at all the nominees.

When “All the President’s Men” and “Network” are among the nominees, you can draw certain conclusions about a society’s trust in its institutions and the power of media.

When the year of “Driving Miss Daisy” also includes “Dead Poets Society,” “My Left Foot,” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” it’s a time for stories of the overlooked and those left on the margins or learning to raise their voice.

And yes, in a year that incudes films about black female mathematicians (“Hidden Figures”), a religious pacifist in wartime (“Hacksaw Ridge”), a gay black man trying to find his identity (“Moonlight”), and even finding ways to reach out to another species through the power of language (“Arrival”) – well, it may just be that the scope of our stories, and of our storytellers, has gotten broader than ever before, regardless of who brought home the knickknack.

And the winner is … all of us. Without a doubt.

See you at the movies.

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With Everything On It

“Go, ahead, honey,” Heather told Missy. “Show him your card.”

Eagerly, Missy reached out and handed me her latest creation. The sheet of computer paper that it had once been could barely be seen. From corner to corner and edge to edge of the page stretched a sea of foam stickers – no, a wave of them, piled high and crammed tight.

Valentine’s Day had already come and gone, so Missy had grabbed for the package of Easter “foamies” instead and applied it generously. Squadrons of rabbits squeezed for room among armies of eggs and forests of grass. Somewhere beneath, a magazine page had been glued to the page, its image all but invisible beneath the huddled masses.

It was the finest example of Everything Art that I had ever seen.

Our disabled ward Missy, who is my age physically but often much younger in spirit, likes to express herself in a number of media. She’ll paint like it’s going out of style and slice up pictures for her collages until no magazine in the house is safe. But the quintessential Missy artistic style may be “Everything Art”: cram the page with everything you can reach that will stick to it, until the picture you’re creating has nearly become a sculpture.

Everything Art is somewhat tricky to display. Because many of the pieces are stuck to other pieces rather than to the page, hanging it on the wall means some of it may begin to slide and fall. Lying it on a flat surface has a better survival rate, but even so, Everything Art has an ephemeral nature akin to ice sculpture or painting with light – the beauty you see today is not guaranteed to last, so study it well while you have it.

Fragile. Unusual. Undeniably drawing the eye. And most of all, enthusiastic with absolutely nothing held back.

Oh, yes. This couldn’t be more Missy if it tried.

As regular readers may remember, Missy tends to approach life without filters. A bite of a delicious dessert may raise a cheer that echoes across a restaurant. Music exists to be turned up to 11, or even 15. Her smile lights a room as easily as her temper can shake it, and new discoveries produce a lot of excited conversations afterward –with or without words.

Yes, she can be quiet, even stealthy when she has mischief in mind. But even then, she’s fully engaged, just in a different way. She wears herself openly and she gives what she has to everything she does, whether it’s dancing with hands high in the air or waiting at her favorite bay window for someone’s return.

It’s life as Everything Art.

Most of us have learned to hold back a bit. Sometimes to keep from exhausting ourselves too soon. Sometimes out of concern what others might say. There are many good reasons and many less-good ones, some arising from forethought, some from fear or remembered pain.

But every day, Missy reminds me how good it can be to release the restraints. Not to hurt or overwhelm someone else, but just to honestly engage with the world, in joy and wonder and curiosity.

To let down the barriers and see what’s beyond the wall.

To live.

Sure, there’s a place for care and caution. But living under guard can be tiring. As the old words go, there’s a time for every purpose under heaven – and that includes a time to let go and dive in.

Because sometimes, life is too short not to grab all the foamies.

 

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Getting in the Gears

The story might be apocryphal. I’ve noticed that the best ones often are. But true or not, it’s still worth telling.

When I was in school, I saw an illustration that has been part of many a civics lesson: namely, the U.S. government as three gears. One toothed wheel was supposed to be the legislative branch, another was the executive branch, and the last was the courts, all of it interconnecting to make a fine machine.

Well, according to the story, someone decided to build a working model of the illustration. They created each gear as described in the drawing, brought them together exactly as shown. Then, when everything was ready, the would-be civics engineer threw the switch.

And the gears promptly jammed.

Whoever had drawn it had been better at cartooning than engineering. As shown, the parts of the “machine” did nothing but work against each other, struggling to progress a single inch.

Yeah. I’m with you. Looking at the last several years – heck, at my lifetime – the artist may have been more accurate than they intended.

The latest version of the illustration has been in the news for all to see, the grounding of the new administration’s executive order on travel. Executive orders are a pretty sweeping power, especially with the extensive bureaucracy that the U.S. has built over the years, and it’s one that has made me nervous no matter who wields it. There’s a lot of power to bypass the normal legislative process there, simply by one man saying “yes.”

But as the courts have proved, it’s not an absolute power. If even a few judges think an action has gone too far for the Constitution’s comfort, they can bring down their gavels, and the gears jam.

I’m sure it’s a frustrating thing for a president to watch. Especially for one used to a privately-held business, where the boss is the boss is the boss, with no shareholders or competing power centers to interfere with the latest initiative.

But frustrating or not, that’s the design. And it’s one with a lot of history (and no small amount of paranoia) behind it.

The Founders didn’t necessarily want a government that did nothing. They’d had a lot of that during the Articles of Confederation, to the point where the U.S was more a loose alliance of quasi-independent states than an actual nation. But they knew too well, or could visualize too clearly, what could happen if any one power center got too effective.

They knew about kings going off on their own. Or Parliaments becoming the center of action. And they certainly had their share of fears about the mob rule that could develop if the people started taking everything into their own hands.

And so, whether by fear, design, lucky chance, or all three, they built a system whose watchword was interdependence. Each piece needed the others, each had a way to stop or slow down something they didn’t like.

It doesn’t sound very efficient. And it’s not, if what you’re trying to produce is action.

But what if the machine’s meant to make something else?

This is a system that requires listening. Conversation. Negotiation. Everyone has to account for each other, no one gets to be left in a corner. When some of the sides are feeling obstreperous, it can mean that very little gets done – but over time, that inaction can prove its own cure, requiring some level of cooperation to do anything at all.

It reinforces one of the oldest political adages: “No one gets everything he wants.” Some folks can get an awful lot out of the machine, but even the best get cooled down by nervousness or jealousy or competing agendas. And sometimes, the machine seems determined to sit and rust, but as the computer engineers like to say, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. A failsafe, if you will.

It’s meant to work, without working too well.

Gears can jam. Or gears can mesh. It all depends on how well people listen, and how willing they are to account for each other.

If the answer is “not well” – then welcome to the old grind.

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Piling On

In The Naked Gun, there’s a wonderful scene where the bad guy has just been zapped by a dart from the hero, Lt. Frank Drebin. “He’ll be all right,” Drebin says, and he would have been –  if the bad guy didn’t proceed to then fall several stories onto the freeway and get run over by a bus. And a steamroller. And a marching band playing “Louie, Louie.”

Some weeks, there’s just no way to win.

This week, to be honest, has been a Louie, Louie week.

It started with a Saturday bug. It had to be Saturday, of course, since that was the one day guaranteed to shorten a Missy outing. With apologies, I took her home from lunch and sought the couch.

The couch and I then became close friends as “bug” turned to “cold” turned to a five-day-long “flu.” All the while, my lungs were turning into the cannons from the 1812 Overture, my body was shaking like a chicken that had been asked to cross I-25, and my sense of time was becoming about as reliable as a soap opera’s – lots of fade-ins and fade-outs, with the occasional flashback.

My first day of true recovery was met with ice everywhere, because there’s nothing that helps you bounce back from the flu like hastily clearing your car’s windshield in sub-freezing weather.

But the ever-helpful universe made sure that didn’t matter anyway. After one patch of icy road during a lunch break, I no longer had a car. No injuries, it’s true (thank heaven), but no transportation either.

As I listened for the sound of a marching band in the distance, I wondered if it was possible to take a week back for a refund. (If nothing else, I had a chance to beat the Super Bowl rush.)

What can you do?

We’ve all been there – the days and weeks when it seems like the world is personally out to get you. You know the thought is ridiculous, but as events accumulate like snowflakes in a blizzard, it stops mattering whether it’s purposeful or not. You just want the blessed train to stop, already.

And maybe a blizzard isn’t the worst comparison I could think of. Or a flood, or a fire, or some similar wide-scale natural disaster. Not because of the devastation it leaves. But because of the dependency it creates.

When a disaster gets extreme enough, you realize how many friends you really have.

When a week starts tipping over like a pile of dominoes, you realize how many co-workers stand ready to lend a hand. How many friends are willing to offer a ride. How many people are thinking of you and trying to come up with ways to make something better, even just a little, so that life can become normal again. (Particularly your long-suffering wife who’s watching the pile-up from the sidelines and figuring out how to extricate the survivors.)

That’s huge.

More than huge – that’s the definition of “friend.” And even “neighbor.”

It’s easier to forget that than it should be, in a world where “friends” are a way of keeping score on Facebook and social media seems to reward social discord. Those same channels can bring people together in common purpose, of course – few tools are so poor as to have only one edge – but it’s easy to get cynical and think that “neighbors” went out with Mister Rogers.

Until you get reminded otherwise. And reminded. And reminded.

That’s the best kind of parade.

So thank you, everyone. Now and in the future. As the good lieutenant says, I’ll be all right.

Just help me keep an eye on that freeway. It’s a long way down.

And you never do quite get “Louie, Louie” out of your head.

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