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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Puzzling it Out

Missy bent over the magazine, sharpened pencil at the ready. The point descended to circle one letter … then another … then one more.

She looked up from the penciled rings, her hundred-watt smile beaming. Just letters for now, no full words. But a New York Times crossword champion couldn’t have been prouder.

“Look!” she declared.

Despite all its other epochal moments, January 2017 will go down in history for Chez Rochat as the moment that Missy discovered Heather’s puzzle magazines. My wife Heather has long loved mind-benders of all kinds, from crosswords to sudoku to logic problems. Since her multiple sclerosis diagnosis two years ago, they’ve become not just a recreation but also a weapon to push back against the occasional MS “brain fog.”

Our disabled ward Missy, for her part, has always enjoyed more tactile challenges, like board puzzles, shape balls and simple jigsaws. But she’s never met a magazine she didn’t want to explore, whether to search for classic cars and pictures of fancy shoes or to disassemble for a spur-of-the-moment collage. And at a moment of Missy curiosity, Heather saw an opportunity.

Word searches and other letter jumbles are the current field of battle – anything Missy can peruse to track down a single letter, like finding where an “M” is or an “S.” It’s not quite the sort of play that the original puzzle-maker expected, perhaps, but it’s doing its job: sharpening a mind and challenging it to learn more.

Curiosity is a powerful thing once inflamed.

That’s something known by any scientist, any journalist, any parent of a 6-year-old. But somehow it still manages to surprise politicians. Even in its mildest forms, the nation’s curiosity can turn any offhand remark into a performance review, often pushing aside whatever message the elected official had hoped to promote.

And if that official is actually trying to hide something, or to cut off information, or to pre-empt debate? That’s when curiosity gets married to stubbornness.

Not always, I admit. People want to be right, and the desire to “mostly say hooray for our side” as Buffalo Springfield put it, can include a willingness to excuse behaviors and ignore inconvenient facts. But we also hate to hear words like “No,” “shut up,” and “You don’t need to know that.”

That becomes a challenge.

Ban a book and not only will it draw defenders, it’ll become a bestseller.

Cover up the truths behind a “third-rate burglary” and it becomes two years of Washington Post headlines, culminating in the first-ever presidential resignation.

Forbid someone to speak to the press officially and they’ll find a way to do it unofficially – often becoming more prominent and more embarrassing than if they’d been left to themselves.

Smart politicians learn this quickly. They learn that concealment and misrepresentation become their own stories, that open channels give you an opportunity to manage your message, that barriers don’t protect you but instead cut you off from any control.

The others? They learn what happens when you squeeze a sponge. The tighter you exert your grip, the more it leaks.

That mix of curiosity and stubbornness is woven tightly into this country’s fabric. It can be infuriating – but it’s also our national glory. Short of outright repression, it means no leader will ever go completely unchallenged. And none ever should, however popular they may be.

We want to know. We want to see. And given the slightest opportunity, we’ll find what we’re looking for.

Even if it’s as simple as an M-for-Missy.

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The Last Choice

“Blake and Du –“

I stopped, took a breath, tried again. “Blake! Do you want some food?”

Big Blake, our muscular English Labrador, bounded down the stairs to breakfast. As he did, I realized once again how hard this was going to be.

Duchess the Wonder Dog wasn’t there. She wasn’t going to be. Not in this world.

Strange how a small dog can leave such a big hole.

We had her for one more Christmas, the gift that Heather and I really wanted most, curious and loving and even cunning enough to steal part of Blake’s Christmas bone. But the cancer became too much. Piece by piece it was stealing her. Stairs had become terrifying for her, requiring us to lift her and hold her close. Her legs needed more and more help simply to stand. She’d lost any interest in dog food, though she still dived into people food with gusto.

Finally, 41 days after her diagnosis, it became time. Time for the kindest, hardest choice of all. Heather had already cried all her tears and held her close, comforting and reassuring. My own face grew wetter and wetter as I stroked and patted Duchess’s fur,  a stream of thank-yous and I-love-yous falling from my mouth.

We both had to be there. There was no question about that. We had been at her side since she was a three-year-old rescue dog and we weren’t going to leave now.

The time came. The eyes closed. The hearts broke.

I’ve never had to make this choice before.

Nearly 14 years old. That’s a long time for any dog. Too short for any heart.

But long enough to fill our hearts with memories.

There was our first meeting in Wichita when she was still timid and fearful from a little-known past. We greeted her, welcomed her, loaded her in the car – and 20 minutes later, our car was hit by a driver turning left against the light. I lifted a frozen Duchess to get her out of the busy intersection and she bit my arms in panic, the first and only time she would ever do so.

I still carry those faint marks on each arm. A memory made tangible.

The years since then could fill a book. They’ve certainly filled a lot of columns. Even in her most timid days, she loved children, letting them climb all over her. Our Kansas dog rejoiced to discover Colorado mountains, roaming far and wide until called close again by Heather’s voice. She charged through any fresh snowfall with glee, spinning through the back yard like a furry tornado, driving her snout deep into the whiteness until she earned the nickname “Snownose.”

Her timidity muted over the years – calmed by love, time, and pizza – but never entirely went away. (Right after a move, we learned that Duchess’s anxiety could become powerful enough to claw through a bedroom door.) But she had her own courage and awareness. A neighbor’s dog that jumped the fence and began barking at Heather soon found a black-and-white growling guardian in front of her. Our disabled ward Missy found that Duchess treated her with loving care … even if the cute doggy didn’t always linger long enough for a pat. A young friend of Missy’s named Hunter declared at a softball game that Duchess’s middle name was Hunter, too – and from that moment, it was.

On and on the stories go. Written in love, held by memory.

That same love made the choice to end her pain necessary … and darned near impossible.

How do you say good-bye to a hello that has lasted so long?

Maybe we never really do.

Maybe that’s how you know you loved and were loved.

My last photo of her was taken a few hours before the end. She had just wolfed down a Wendy’s cheeseburger, a gift that brought joy and excitement with it. As she licked up her lips and looked up with a smile, she seemed – just for a moment – to have become a puppy again. To shed the years and the pain and simply be Duchess.

A final gift. A welcome one.

Thank you, my good girl. Thank you so much.

You may never know it, but you rescued us, too.

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Dress Rehearsal

One of the best parts of being married to an actor, Heather sometimes says, is that both of us know what it’s like to endure makeup and hose.

Now we can add heels to the list, too.

No, this isn’t a “coming out” column. It’s just fair warning that I’m in another farce with the Longmont Theatre Company and that the show, “Leading Ladies,” requires me to disguise myself as a woman for at least half my time on stage.  What could be more normal than that?

Mind you, “normal” and “farce” don’t exactly belong in the same sentence. After all, this is the comedy of decisions made with high speed and little judgment, where gags fly fast and the actors fly faster, and where everything ultimately descends into complete madness … only to somehow rebuild itself into some semblance of order and justice with five minutes to go.

Compared to that, rocketing across the stage in a wig and heels IS perfectly normal – at least, by the laws of the comic universe.

If I sound a little too familiar with all this – well, yes and no. It’s been about 25 years since I played a man playing a woman, rendering a deliberately clumsy rendition of Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with tresses like a windblown haystack and a voice like an off-key piccolo.  (How high? Let’s just say that the applause probably included commentary from every dog within three blocks.)

Farce, on the other hand, is an old friend. From Neil Simon to Woody Allen, and from “Noises Off” to the offerings of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, something in me seems to respond to a riotous state of utter chaos and confusion.

Yes, yes, I used to be a newspaper reporter. Besides that.

Actually, the more I think about it (and thinking about farce is dangerous), the more sense it makes. In many ways, this sort of high-powered ridiculousness is the best life lesson of all.

Farce always has a layer of pretense. The motives are straightforward, but the methods never are. Need to impress a girl even though you’re bottom rung at the embassy? Make like you’re the top dog, despite a complete lack of diplomatic skill. The host of your party has keeled over five minutes before the other guests arrive? Weave together a “reasonable explanation” that changes every time someone new comes over.

Gee, this already sounds like the last election, doesn’t it?

Why pretend? Fear, mostly. Fear of getting embarrassed, fear of getting arrested, fear of getting booed off the stage. The personal stakes are high, and the fear of what might happen, could happen, surely will happen, terrifies people into becoming something they’re not.

And then something happens. Actually, a lot of somethings happen. Excuses start to be torn away. Disguises start to fall apart. And in the process of it all, the pretender usually discovers something true in himself or herself – something that will let them get what they really want, if they can just get past all the fantasies they’ve created.

Fear. Self-discovery. Overcoming past mistakes of our own making, and growing from it.  If that’s not relevant to most of us today, what is?  (The fact that it’s bundled into a package of slamming doors and hilariously awkward situations is just a bonus.)

Intrigued? Come on down to the theatre on the weekend of Jan. 13 or Jan. 20 and we’ll give you a crash course. (Details of “Leading Ladies” are online at www.longmonttheatre.org.) If nothing else, you’ll get the chance to see if Scott can really run in high heels without twisting his ankle.

It’ll be a riot. And a total drag.

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A Thirty-Year Gift

Star Wars grabbed hold of me at an early age.

I had the action figures in the Darth Vader carrying case, including a Han Solo whose hand went into the pencil sharpener, courtesy of my sister. I knew the movie dialogue, read the comic books, and reinvented the world around me in terms of a galaxy far, far away. Swings became X-wing fighters, blizzards turned the backyard into the ice world of Hoth, and even “A Christmas Carol” was seemingly improved when my best friend and I put Han in the role of Scrooge.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. But we had a lot of company. The story was thrilling and the characters were so much fun to be with. The wide-eyed Luke. The wise-cracking Han. And of course, the gutsy and determined Princess Leia.

And now the Princess has left the stage.

There’s been a lot written about Carrie Fisher since she died at 60 from a heart attack. She had that kind of life. People have talked about how they drew inspiration from her far-from-helpless Leia, or hope from her open acknowledgement of mental illness. They’ve talked about her rough-edged humor, her career as a Hollywood script doctor, even her dog.

The one thing I haven’t seen so much on is how close we came to losing so much of it.

It happened in 1985. After filming a role in Hannah and her Sisters, Fisher almost died from a drug overdose. She was rushed to a hospital in time and it afterward became a turning point for her life and career, beginning with “Postcards From the Edge” and going on to so much more.

A slightly slower ambulance might have meant a headline of “Carrie Fisher Dead at 29.”

That makes one pause.

Yes, age 60 is too soon to leave the world these days. But given what could have happened, we should count ourselves lucky. Time is a precious gift, and the world got 30 more years with her that it might not have had – years in which so many of us really got to know her, and in which she really got to know herself.

It doesn’t take celebrity to appreciate that.

None of us are promised one more day. When we leave a friend, it might be the last time. When we put off a dream, there might not be a later chance. Life can be an amazing story, but there’s no theme music to warn you when the credits are about to roll.

We avoid thinking about it most of the time. Life is busy and the implications are uncomfortable. A cartoon I saw once on a college door read something like “Bob lived every day as though it were his last” – and naturally, what it showed was Bob running around, screaming “I’m gonna die! Im gonna die!”

But turning away doesn’t make it less real.

It shouldn’t make us live in dread. But it should make us live.

Be aware of the world instead of sleepwalking through it. Make the choices, take the action, do the things that will make you and it better. Reach for people and lift each other up.

When I leave the house, my last words to Heather and Missy are almost always “love you” – just in case. It’s a small thing, but a big meaning.

None of us get guarantees. Not even gutsy space princesses. But what we do with what we get can mean the galaxy to someone.

And that kind of bond is a powerful Force indeed.

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Dropping the Ball

A couple of years ago, on a frozen New Year’s Eve, I watched as a brilliantly lit Hippity Hop ball descended to Earth.

It could have been a budget remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, minus Keanu Reeves. (See, we’re ahead of the game already!) But this idea sprang from the minds of two good friends who, long ago, made this their own Dick Clark-style tradition. Simply gather the neighborhood for a party. Wrap a perfectly good hopper ball – the kind that are about two feet around with a handle on top – in Christmas lights. Then hoist it into a tree and lower it as the crowd counts down to midnight.

They’ll be the first to tell you it’s weird. Maybe even bizarre. And why not?

After all, when it comes to the New Year, we can use all the joy and laughter we can get.

It’s a strange holiday, to start with. It doesn’t commemorate any notable people or great events – just the passing of an arbitrary line. And it’s an oddly placed line to boot, celebrating the birth of a fresh new year in the cold and darkness.

Maybe Baby New Year is a cat burglar?

Not that it really matters. Even though the holiday’s officially about welcoming the new year in, most of the enthusiasm is usually about throwing the old year out. That seems to have reached a pitch this year, when Old Man 2016 might do well to trade in his scythe for a good pair of running shoes to keep ahead of the angry mob – well, everyone except the Cubs fans, maybe.

Zika. Russia. Creepy clowns. Beloved stars dropping left and right. Ugly election seasons with uglier aftermaths. Someone even let the Oakland Raiders start winning again.

Brrrr.

Even if your personal life was stellar, this was a grinder of a year. Add in a few crises (and many of us had more than a few) and it can seem downright intolerable.

Next year has to be better – right?

Well ….

Remember that arbitrary line in the snow? It’s not a magic barrier. All the raw materials of 2017 are contained in 2016; whether we liked it or loathed it, it’s what we have to build on as a foundation.

The good news, of course, is that we can build. We can’t erase what came before. But as a world, we can produce some unexpected changes in the plot.

Step back a moment to 1986. That was the year of the Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl meltdown, the first confirmations of the Iran-Contra scandal. Someone could be excused for calling it a grim year, maybe even a hopeless one for everyone but John Elway.

Three short years later, the Iron Curtain was tearing and the Berlin Wall was falling.

OK, that’s stark and simplistic. Yes, there were good things in 1986 and bad things in 1989 as well. But that’s part of the point – where will we put our attention? Where will we put our mind? Where will we put our hands and our backs?

No, this year won’t miraculously erase 2016 with all its good and bad. But it’s not condemned to be a clone of it, either. The year will need our vigilance, our diligence, our willingness to examine and challenge and call out evil. But it will also need all the joy, beauty, and hope we can bring to it—not as a futile gesture, but as the genuine start to something better.

Maybe it does make sense to put New Year’s in the cold and dark after all. It makes the light all the easier to see.

So if we truly want to see a Happy New Year, let’s get hopping.

Heck – let’s get hippity-hopping.

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Ho, Ho … WHOA!

By now, I should be used to the wacky and the tacky at Christmastime, from beer-can trees to Kris Kringle toilet seat covers. But nothing in a lifetime of holidays prepared me for The Ugly Sweater.

The best thing I can say about The Ugly Sweater is that it’s one-of-a-kind, because the existence of two on the planet would cause me to despair for the human race. To properly envision it, imagine a sweater created with the budget of Donald Trump and the taste of Liberace on a bender, with just a touch of George Lucas for panache.

A-glitter with nearly 25,000 gaudy crystals, it features Santa Claus flying through space on a unicorn, while garishly red-and-green planets gleam in the background. There’s even a faux diamond necklace around the collar – because, you know, if you’ve gone this far, you might as well do it with class, right? The price tag for this little gem? About $30,000.

Hey, who needs a car, anyway?

Yes, it’s real. You can Google dozens of references in a blink as long as you remember not to eat first. And it’s tempting to be just a little outraged at someone spending thirty grand for a sweater that’s too heavy to even wear comfortably. (Yes, of course it comes with a frame!)  But anytime something like this comes to my attention, I usually calm myself with two thoughts:

1) Anyone who would blow $30,000 on Santa Bling Is Coming to Space probably wasn’t about to spend it on widows and orphans as their second choice, anyway.

2) Unicorn Santa and gewgaws like it make a nice lightning rod for people with much wealth and little judgment, relieving them of their cash before it can do some serious damage. Sort of like taking the keys from the inebriated at New Year’s, only with less need for breath mints.

Besides, while it’s easy to laugh – and I did my share, believe me — it is possible to turn the question around.

What have we done with our time and money that could have been better spent elsewhere?

Reality check: I don’t live like a monk and I’m not about to force anyone else to do the same. We all do fun things, frivolous things, even downright bizarre things with our resources at times, and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s even part of what makes this world a fun and colorful place to be.

But it’s also never wrong to ask “Have I done all the good I could do?” Maybe we don’t live in golden palaces or have Rudolph the Ruby-Encrusted Reindeer, but many of us have something. Compared to much of the world, we have a lot.

What are we doing with it?

It’s a question that becomes very palpable at this time of year. It’s one that should be more visible at all times.

The writer C.S. Lewis once said that the only safe rule for charity was to give more than we could spare. “If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they were too small,” he wrote. There should be something you would like to do, and can’t, he insisted, because of what you’ve already given.

It can look overwhelming, I agree. But just because we’re not doing everything doesn’t mean we can’t do something.

Is there someone to be helped? A friend, a relative, a stranger not yet met?

Is there a task that needs our skill? A hurt that needs our comfort? A wrong that can be made right, however briefly?

All it takes is a willingness to start. And if each of our littles can equal a lot, that is one dazzling gift, indeed.

Even more dazzling than Santa Claus on a space unicorn.

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