Mountains and Molehills

When I was a kid, my folks once got into an argument over whether or not peanuts were a fruit. It was silly. It was inconsequential. And it was hard to stop once it got started.

On our first Christmas together, Heather discovered my family had always done stockings last, after presents. I discovered that her family did them wrong … er, I mean, first. The resulting “holy war” has had more than its share of laughter but never entirely died down, either.

And somewhere in Alaska, a mountain got a new federal name this week. You might just have heard about it.

I’m not sure how many of the people on social media have actually been to Denali, the peak that many of us learned in grade school as Mount McKinley. But when President Obama announced that the feds would recognize the name Alaska had been using officially since 1975 – well, the Internet reacted with the passion usually reserved for a minor Kardashian sister or the cancellation of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Mind you, the mountain itself doesn’t especially care what it’s called. (Imagine THOSE headlines!) That’s left to us and in particular to:

1) The people and leaders of Ohio, who argue that President McKinley was an important man whose reputation and legacy should be remembered, even if you’ve never actually given him two thoughts since your freshman year in college.

2) The people and leaders of Alaska, who argue that “Um, it’s our mountain, dudes.”

An alien watching from orbit would probably decide we were all nuts. (Mind you, he’d probably reach the same conclusion after watching a typical football game.) Not necessarily for endorsing one side or the other, but for putting so much energy into it.

But that’s what happens. The less significant a debate is, the more importance it actually assumes.

A professor, Wallace Stanley Sayre, once observed that academic politics were so intense “because the stakes are so small.” But it’s not just academia. At any level, a small scope can engender big feelings. A county government might spend minutes discussing a multi-million bond issue … or hours on a $2,500 budget item. A family that navigates the big issues with ease can spend all day on … well, presents and peanuts.

Why do we this to ourselves? I suspect it’s partly survival, partly relief.

There are a lot of big, complicated issues out there. We get drowned in them every day, issues of war and terrorism, politics and civil rights, straining economies and questioning minds. It’s a lot to take in, and we’re never really given a quiet space in which to do it.

“Every man whose business it is to think knows that he must for part of the day create about himself a pool of silence,” Walter Lippmann once wrote. “But in that helter-skelter which we flatter by the name of civilization, the citizen performs the perilous business of government under the worst possible conditions.”

In that situation, a trivial issue can seem heaven-sent. Simple in scope, easy to understand, no challenge at all to form an opinion on. And because it’s so easy, we can’t see how anyone could possibly reach a different conclusion.

But of course, they do. And it’s off to the races!

Fundamentally, those sorts of debates are more or less harmless. They may even be a good way to vent for a while. But they take time. They can generate hard feelings if they go on too long. And sometimes they even seduce us into thinking all issues should be this easy – that any major subject of debate can be quickly simplified into memes, quotes and a cute animation.

That’s when it’s time to step back. To breathe. To take some time and gain some perspective.

Because I promise, the mountain doesn’t care.

Energy and passion are good things. We just need to figure out where to aim them, and how to weld them to some kind of understanding.

Because the last thing we want to do is peak too soon.

 

 

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All About That Face

Missy twisted and turned, her hands in the air, her face brilliant with delight. Her knees bent to the rhythm, then straightened, then bent again.

“Yeah!!” she called out, laughing and bouncing as the energized voices of the Face Vocal Band – Colorado’s own a cappella rock band – powered their way to a close. Stopping was unthinkable, sitting down impossible.

“All right, Miss!”

Regular readers of this column know that our disabled ward Missy – eight months younger than me physically, but younger still in mind and spirit – will dance at any excuse or none. She’s the original crank-it-to-11 fan, capable of blowing the speakers off a car stereo with just one cut from a John Denver CD. She’s rocked it to the Bee Gees, to Michael Jackson, to a department store recording of the Hallelujah Chorus.

But since we first moved in with her four years ago, a cappella seems to have zoomed to the top of her list. Face holds down the top spot, whether it’s live in concert at the fairgrounds or over and over again on a DVD never made for ritual abuse. But there’s room for more, discovered on old recordings and through the magic of YouTube. The Nylons. Pentatonix. Straight No Chaser. If it’s got all voices, no instruments and a beat that can’t be stopped, Missy is all in.

I can’t say I blame her. After all, this is fuel for my own personal Wayback Machine.

Back in high school – never mind when – I sang in the Longmont High School men’s chorus. The crew met at the what-time-is-this-class hour of 7 o’clock in the morning, an hour at which basses rumble and tenors gasp. (If you’ve never heard a teenage tenor trying to get his voice started at 7 a.m., I encourage you to watch … but don’t try to swallow any carbonated liquids while you do, please.)

We sang whatever the fertile mind of Mr. Harrison could come up with, from show tunes to cowboy songs. But the best ones, for my money anyway, were the a cappella bits. Mind you, I sang bass, so that usually meant my vocal line was something like “Doo doo, da doo doo, da doo doo, whoa, whoa, whoooa” or some similarly deathless lyric. But it didn’t matter.

This was magic. This was music. This was creating something fun and spectacular with nothing more than what you had inside.

There’s no rush to match it.

You don’t have to be a singer to get it. Any talent, loosed into the world without restraint, will hit a similar vein. One man’s sculpture is another woman’s martial arts is another person’s passion for old cars. No brakes but your own enthusiasm, no limits but your own perseverance.

It’s exciting. Addictive, even.

And maybe that’s some of what speaks to Missy.

Her world is often a silent one, even a little mysterious to someone who doesn’t know her well. But rev up her enthusiasms – for dancing, for bowling, for art or a good story – and she’s a woman transformed. How much more so when her transformation is ignited by someone else’s?

It’s more than imitation. To this day, Missy’s musical tastes don’t perfectly match with mine or Heather’s. It’s something that reaches the core, some alchemy of voices unchained meeting a spirit unrestrained.

How can you beat that? Why would you even try?

So tune the tenors. Strike up the bass. Get that vocal percussion going. Missy’s revved and ready to rock.

Trust me. You’ll never have a more Face-ful fan.

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Making Magic

Heather’s youngest sister hurried up to me as the rehearsal dinner wound to an end.

“Mom’s outside with Heather,” she said. “She’s sick.”

My turn to hustle. Sure enough, my wife Heather was doubled over on a bench outside the restaurant. It had been a warm night and heat is no friend to an MS patient; as she’d stepped outside the crowded dining room to get some air, she’d suddenly had to sit down before she fainted, threw up or both.

“I need the car,” she whispered as her stepmom watched over her. Of course. I hurried off and pulled around, slamming the air-conditioning from Spring Day to Christmas in the Arctic. Her family helped bundle her into the back seat, some asking if they needed to follow us home.

No need. After a few brief minutes in the frigid air, Heather was upright and coherent, talking easily and reassuring everyone. It was like magic.

Appropriate enough. After all, dealing with any chronic condition is something akin to stage magic.

We’ve dealt with a lot of things for a lot of years. Crohn’s disease. Ankylosing spondylitis. Now multiple sclerosis. Each time, we’ve had to meet it with the dedication and training of a David Copperfield, not to vanish the Statue of Liberty, but to make something close to a real life reappear.

It can be done. But like a Copperfield or a Houdini, it takes hours of advance preparation to make things seem natural, even effortless to an audience. The wedding of Heather’s sister Jaimee the next day was typical, where a full morning’s rest, a constantly-present water bottle and periodic micro-breaks outside the reception helped Heather survive a ceremony on the hottest day of the year.

Magic indeed. But you never really get to let the curtain go down.

Chronic illness ebbs and flows, but the need to manage it never really goes away, much like the need to exercise. It’s a constant. For someone who hates losing control of their life, it can even be something of an irony – now you have to take control of your life whether you want to or not, even those things that would normally be automatic for most people.

You measure how much you can do before the fatigue catches up. You inventory what you need for even a short excursion. You balance, compromise, postpone so that the essentials can keep going. Maybe you even learn for the first time what the essentials truly are.

Somehow, you keep things going. Sometimes surprisingly well. Well enough that friends or relatives can be astonished when a breakdown occurs, because they’ve never seen you that sick.

It’s a triumph. But it’s a tiring one. After all, the show must go on … and on, and on, and on.

I’m not saying any of this to fish for pity. If anything, what I feel is closer to wonder. I am married to a strong person in a compromised body, and even on the days when she’s feeling weakest, the power of what she’s already done shouts to me in a voice I can’t ignore.

This is more than magical. This is miraculous. Maybe not the kind of miracle where a lame man is suddenly pole-vaulting down the street, but miraculous nonetheless.

There will be better days. There always are, eventually. But until that intermission hits, the Magically Medical Rochat Family will continue the conjuration. We can’t let the audience down, after all.

And if it means some long highway trips in sub-frigid air, then so be it.

After all, I already knew she was the coolest lady around.

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Walking on Dreams

“Look a’ that!”

When I hear those words and that tone, I know what I’m likely to find. I glance to where Missy’s finger is stabbing the magazine page and I’m not disappointed.

“Whoa,” I say appreciatively. “Cool shoes, Miss!”

Anyone who knows our disabled ward knows she has an eye for footwear, the brighter the better. Her sneakers are usually a shade of hot pink most often seen on Barbie dolls, cotton candy and pre-teen birthday cakes with extra frosting. Her current pair literally glow in the dark, not that they need to – even in broad daylight, every eye in the room is pulled to them like Superman to a bank robbery.

“I want a pair like those!” is the common refrain, with a smile and a laugh. My wife Heather even went beyond words to action; she and Missy now have matching Day-Glo footwear. Strategically placed, they may even save us money on nightlights, so there are all kinds of side benefits to be had.

But Missy’s dreams race far ahead of her feet.

Go through a magazine with her, even for a short while, and you will discover every wild, elaborate or fancy pair of shoes to be had. High heels with elaborate fastenings. Pumps with sequins. Shoes straight off the runway, with no practical application at all – ah, but this isn’t about practicality, is it? This is about imagination.

“Look a’ ma shoes.”

Missy’s cerebral palsy rules out nearly every single pair, of course. Her balance is carefully maintained at each step, even in sneakers with good soles and great support; put her in even a low heel and the fun would quickly become dangerous. Were she ever to spend more time in a wheelchair, Heather and I agree, one of the few consolations would be the amount of footwear that would be opened up to her.

And so, she dreams. It’s fun, even harmless, so long as she doesn’t actually step into anything that can’t hold her up.

At this point in the election calendar, Missy may have a lot of company.

Anyone who’s been giving even a glance to the political news – and I can’t really blame you if that isn’t you – has been seeing constant reports of “surges,” presidential candidates catching fire who are sure to be the Next Big Thing. The spotlight may be on Ben Carson, or Bernie Sanders, or the Trump card himself, but the message is always the same: look over here, a star is about to be born!

“Look at that!”

It can be fun to see the enthusiasm (or maybe frightening, depending on the candidate and your side of the aisle) and speculate on the possibilities. But like the shoes in Missy’s catalogs, there’s not a lot of support there.

This is the preseason. Maybe even training camp.

This is the stretch of time that once spurred talk about Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. This is when Howard Dean was a superstar and Bill Bradley a hopeful.

This is six months before the primaries get started. A lot can happen in six months. And usually does.

In short, it’s dream season.

And it’s worth remembering.

By all means, get fired up for someone. It’s good to care, great to be involved. But this early in the game, take each report of a surge with a few shakers of salt. Meteoric rises are common at this stage. So are equally-meteoric falls.

Maybe your guy or gal really is The One. If that’s your leaning, great. Work to make it so. But don’t be seduced into thinking it’s all over but the laurel wreaths. As the SEALs like to say, the only easy day was yesterday. The long work is still ahead.

Dreams are fun, even necessary. But the support has to be there.

If it comes in glow-in-the-dark pink, that’s a bonus.

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An Open Letter to Kermit the Frog

Dear Kermit,

Well, it finally happened. If the mainstream entertainment press can be trusted, you and Miss Piggy are officially kaput. Mind you, I’m still a little skeptical – when it comes to celebrities, the pen can be a dirty business, never mind the pigpen. But so far, you and she have backed this one up.

I wish I could say I was surprised.

I’m sorry if that sounds a little harsh. My sisters and I grew up on you, after all. We watched “The Muppet Show” religiously during its original run, objecting loudly when Mom wanted us to miss an episode for some silly reason like taking Dad to the emergency room. OK, granted, he had just fallen on the ice and needed several stitches in his forehead, but still – Muppets!

The show had it all. Good music. Intelligent humor. Projectile fish. To this day, I can quote several of the sketches by heart, and know that if I ever call out “Mahna Mahna,” someone in the room will respond with “Doot doo, do doo doo.” Classics do that to you.

But even then, I think we could all see the tension between you two.

Oh, the movies made a lot of the “meant to be” romance; Hollywood does that. But on the original show, it was pretty obvious what was going on. Half the time, Miss Piggy would chase you harder than Batman pursuing a villain of the week. The other half, she’d flirt non-stop with any cute guest star that caught her eye. (John Denver seemed to be a particular object of porcine passion – I suppose there’s something to be said for country ham.(

You? You were usually caught up in the latest drama of the moment, oblivious to – or even mocking of – any attempts at romance that were less subtle than a karate chop to the gut. Which you caught, more than once.

I hate to imagine the medical bills.

This isn’t a formula for long-term romance. Two people – or whatevers – who aren’t truly engaged with each other aren’t a couple, even if they share the same room most of the time. It takes attention and commitment, even when times are chaotic. Maybe especially then.

But we all wanted to believe. And for a long time, you seemed to make it work. No relationship is perfect and there’s something to be said for trying and trying and trying again. As I’ve said before, weddings are easy and marriages hard, even without storylines that regularly blow up your supporting cast.

But when the two of you were headed back to television, with its daily pressures – well, a storyline like this was kind of inevitable.

Did that sound skeptical? I’m sorry. Maybe it’s because it fits the general pattern of life in the old “Muppet Show,” where things always just barely came together in the nick of time, night after night. Jim Henson used to say that if the show were a basketball game, the final score at the end of each episode would be Frog 99, Chaos 98.

So having this tension coming in at the start of a new Muppet series is kind of dramatically convenient. You can’t start a story on a happy ending, after all. There has to be some sort of conflict, some challenge that takes a struggle to overcome. If it involves the leads, so much the better.

Funny enough, if it is just one big plotline, you’ll make a lot of people very happy. They’ll get to watch their favorite pair strike sparks again in their natural environment: utter insanity. Hey, it worked before.

And if it’s not – well, you’re professionals. You can work together even if it isn’t exactly hog heaven, right?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better let you hop. There’s a karate chop out there with my name on it, and I’d really hate to be here when it arrives. There’s got to be less painful ways to bring home the bacon.

Always a fan,

Scott

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Furnishing a Marriage

The stage contains a balcony and literature’s most famous lovers. They seem considerably older than we remember them.

“Romeo, oh, Romeo; wherefore art thou Romeo?”

“Call me but love, Juliet, and I shall be new-baptized. But take this gift of my heart and I never will be Romeo.”

“Oh, Romeo! Dost thou bring me flowers? Diamonds? Silver or gold?”

“Nay, Juliet.”

“Then, what?”

“Behold, I bring thee a 5-piece dinette set with matching hutch. Canst thou give me a hand with the pickup?”

And thus did the happy dagger and the apothecary’s drugs give way to the latest special from Verona’s Furniture Warehouse.

No, I haven’t been taking cold medicine. But thinking too much about anniversaries can certainly make you feel that way.

Heather and I celebrate 17 years of marriage on July 25. It’s been an adventure with a lot of ups and downs – some of them literal, like our 1999 trip to climb the Great Sand Dunes together. We’ve survived Kansas summers, Colorado winters and even life in the newspaper industry.

We’ve also shared a love of trivia. And so one night, I got curious about what sort of anniversary this was. Everyone knows that 25 years is silver, for example, while 50 years is the golden one. But what the heck is seventeen?

I looked it up. Then looked it up again. Then a third time, to be sure.

Furniture.

Yes, really.

No, the list was not prepared by Jake Jabs.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Not that we couldn’t use a new mattress and an additional bookcase, of course. But … furniture? It didn’t quite seem to be the stuff of romantic epics. It was so, well, mature. Mundane. Practical.

Where’s the fun in that?

Then I heard myself and chuckled. Sure, maybe it was tagged at random to fill out a list or because the author had a couch to replace. But In a way, there couldn’t be a more evocative way to demonstrate the difference between a wedding and a marriage.

it’s a difference that sometimes gets glossed over, especially in a country where weddings are a multi-billion dollar industry. Many of us expect our weddings to be an event: fine clothes, a beautiful setting, a band or DJ that knows more than just “Louie, Louie.”

It’s a special day and rightfully so. We try to make it a fun, meaningful celebration, something that will grace photographs and memories with a bit of enchantment.

But even the best events come to an end. The next morning, you wake to find the wedding is over – and that the long road of the marriage is still in front of you.

A good marriage is work. Not the frantic work of trying to assemble details for a moment that will come and go. This is the long haul, where the partnership has to renew itself every day and navigate sometimes difficult waters.

This is about dealing with the daily trials: vomiting dogs, leaking ceilings, mice in the living room, family in the hospital. Sometimes it’s about raising children (or caring for a ward, in our case) and seeing the odder pieces of yourself reflected right back at you. And it’s about not losing sight of each other in the middle of it, even when you’d rather just grab a nap.

There’s still room for romance, even joy. But there’s a practicality mixed with it, one that knows this is still important, even when it isn’t always fun or flashy.

One that has room for furniture as well as diamonds.

Maybe seventeen years is a good time to remember that.

Heather my love, thank you for the love and the fun and the silliness. Thank you for the times we struggled, because we struggled together. Thank you for being with me in the times of frustration and confusion and sheer exhaustion.

Somehow, we’ve done all the grown-up stuff and still love each other. I guess that means we’re doing it right.

Happy anniversary, honey.

Now, tell me again about that table you wanted.

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Learning the Mockingbird’s Song

Opus the Penguin told us this would happen.

Back in 1994, the miniseries “Scarlett” was about to hit the airwaves, based on the why’d-they-do-it sequel to “Gone With The Wind.” About a month before it aired, Opus discovered in his comic-strip world that another American classic was getting a second chapter as well, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.

The name of this deathless piece of Hollywood literature? “Kill Mo’ Mockingbird: Boo Radley Loose in the ‘Hood.”

Well, we never got to see Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch and Dennis Hopper as a heavily-armed Boo. But from the recent ripples in the book world, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

In case you missed it, the much-loved Harper Lee returned to the bookshelves this week with a long-unpublished manuscript: “Go Set A Watchman.” Seen through the eyes of an adult Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, the book features numerous changes to the familiar world of “To Kill A Mockingbird” – not least, Scout’s discovery of the racist attitudes of her father, Atticus Finch.

That caused a bit of an earthquake, and understandably so. After all, “Mockingbird” fans are a devoted crew and Atticus is one of the most adored literary creations ever. Turning him into a segregationist is almost on an order with carving the Golden Arches on Mount Everest – so unthinkable as to be almost obscene.

And yet, that’s not quite right.

Before deciding to avoid the new book forever – and plenty of fans have declared their intention to do just that – consider this. “Watchman” was written first. It’s not a sequel. It’s an early attempt, written and then abandoned when Lee decided to approach the story of Scout and Atticus from a different time and perspective, the one that has endured for decades.

In short, it’s a first draft.

Many things can happen in a first draft.

Some regular readers may recall that I’m a longtime fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. Several years ago, Tolkien’s son Christopher wrote a series of books about his father’s creation of Middle-Earth, including the evolution of “The Lord of the Rings.”

The early drafts featured a hero named Bingo Baggins. Treebeard appears as a villainous giant rather than a mighty forest-guardian. And while there’s no sign of the courageous Strider, the reader is treated to a Hobbit ranger known as Trotter, running around the countryside in wooden shoes.

There are false starts. Uncertain tones. Details of the world that seem almost ludicrous compared to the epic we’ve come to know and love.

But to read it is utterly fascinating. Even illuminating. And my appreciation of the Middle-Earth that finally came to be is all the richer for it.

Very few works of art come to life fully-formed. They’re born in struggle and frustration, with all the ungainliness of a toddler learning to walk or a teenager growing into their body. The results aren’t often pretty and many of the early efforts are often well-abandoned.

But without those efforts, the final beauty could never be.

That’s encouraging, not just as a reader, but as a writer – or, indeed, a creator of any kind. It means you don’t have to be perfect from the start. It means you can find your voice, make bad choices, create pieces that fall to earth with a “clunk.”

It means you can learn. You can grow. You can master the skill that no one else can: the skill of your voice, your vision.

And that’s when the mockingbirds fly.

So when you read “Watchman,” read it in that spirit. This isn’t a second verse to an old song. It’s a map of roads not taken, the earliest sketches before the final canvas.

Come to it with those eyes. And you may just love Atticus – the one and only Atticus – more than ever before.

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Joy in the Net

At five minutes, the World Cup final stopped being an ordinary game.

At a little over fifteen, it became a legend.

I don’t use the word lightly. But what else can you say when a U.S. player kicks the ball from midfield – from 50 yards out, the sort of kick that nobody’s tried since junior high school – and it lands in the net? When it’s not just a fluke goal, but the capstone to a barrage, the fourth goal to strike home in less time than it takes to order a pizza?

That’s when you know you’re in unmarked territory. And oh, man, did it feel good.

Not just because the game was a rout. After all, I’m a Denver Broncos fan. I know all about routs in championship games, usually from the wrong side. There’s a point where every additional score becomes a physical blow, where it starts to feel like the age-old nightmare of going to school in your underwear – exposed before the world with nowhere to hide and no way to escape until that final whistle blows.

Even when you’re on the right side of that, it can start to feel cruel.

But this one didn’t have the same harsh aftertaste. Not to me, anyway.

It’s hard to say exactly why.

Maybe it was the Japanese. In blowouts, we talk all the time about having nothing left to play for but pride. On a night where no one could have blamed them for surrendering – had the rules and the refs allowed it – the women of Japan refused to just mark time. They fought. They rallied. On a wildly uneven stage, they even allowed a moment’s worry that maybe, just maybe, patience could undo the American lightning strike.

Maybe it was the sheer unlikelihood of it all. In the U.S., everyone knows soccer as a low-scoring game, too low-scoring for the tastes of many. To see the early shots go in, and in, and in like a video game or an NBA matchup (is there a difference?) added a level of wonder, almost awe.

But mostly, I think it was the joy.

You could see it in the U.S. players. You could see it in the U.S. crowds. This had become … fun. A pleasure in its own right. You know, like it was a game or something.

For 90 minutes, a simple joy had taken over the grass.

I’m not sure we appreciate how rare that is.

It’s not easy to get unalloyed joy into the spotlight anymore. Too many of us know the backstories or have learned to wait for the other shoe to drop. The steroid use that makes a record a mockery. The dark history behind a famous name. It creates a weariness, a reluctance to trust or let go. A certainty that if we do, we’ll get burned once again.

And the worst burns come from the greatest trust. The ones that seemed to personify the joy of a child in a grown-up’s body (never mind any names). Those are the ones that can make you wonder if any pleasure is as innocent as it truly seems.

So when something like this comes along, can anyone be blamed for grabbing on with both hands?

OK. A World Cup victory – even a 5-2 World Cup victory – is not going to cure cancer, end war or restore Pluto to its rightful state as a planet. But if, for just a moment, it restores some joy and happiness in this place, hasn’t it done all we could ask?

Hasn’t it done what sports are supposed to do?

So one last time, as the cheers fade into history. Thank you, ladies of the U.S. soccer team. Thank you for the thrills and the excitement and the memories that even now may be inspiring a new generation to try and try and try.

Thank you for the unapologetic fun.

For everyone watching, this was truly a net gain.

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Nation in Progress

For a moment, the show seems to be over. Then the fresh explosion comes. BOOM! Sound and fury light up the landscape until it feels like a battle in full swing, with moments of fiery brilliance giving way to a continuous background chatter, holding the floor until the next burst.

Watching Facebook is really something, isn’t it?

OK, maybe the comparison’s a little inaccurate. After all, even the longest Fourth of July fireworks show is eventually over. But our national fulmination never seems to end, always finding a new source of fuel. A Supreme Court ruling. An inept political remark. A decision to pull “The Dukes of Hazzard” reruns from the airwaves.

Squeeeeeeeeeeee-BOOM!

Between an unsettled nation and unsettled times, it can feel a little exhausting. It’s easy to wish for quiet, for stability, for a little time to make everything make sense before we have to go on to the next crisis.

It’s also about as foreign to this country as Justin Bieber in a Beatles movie.

Sorry for that image. But on this, I think even George Washington might agree. Once he got the tune to “Baby, Baby, Baby” out of his head, anyway.

I think it comes down to something simple: America should never be a comfortable place to live.

I don’t mean the landscape should look like something out of a Mad Max movie. And I’m certainly not suggesting a “Love it or Leave It” attitude that urges all dissenters to make a run for the border of their choice.

But America has always been a little more than a country. It’s a concept. A conversation. Even a dream.

And as such, it’s never really finished.

Once in a while, some pundit will appeal to the Founding Fathers and what they did or didn’t intend. My reaction is always the same: “Which Fathers?” To look at the American Revolution and the years that followed it is to see chaos in a bottle, a group of people that sometimes seemed unable to agree on the lunch bill.

Some wanted to save slavery, or to kill it. Some wanted 13 loosely tied sovereignties with little national leadership, while at least one wanted to do away with state governments all together. We were a year into our war against Britain before we could even agree on why we were fighting. Even our Constitution, venerated by many, is deliberately vague on several points – and had to be, so that everyone could think their side had won.

We are a wrangling people, in the middle of a country that’s always under construction. And that’s not going to change. We’re always working out what America means and we always should be. If we ever stop challenging each other, or being challenged, worry.

A free land should never be a quiet one.

Mind you, I’m not saying we have to be a bunch of rude, bumptious yahoos, either. Part of the constant struggle is that it’s a struggle to find a way forward, not just to make noise. There can be respect. There can be compromise. There can be intelligent consideration of the facts (I swear, even as the network news tries to say otherwise every night).

But what there can’t be is apathy. Or complacency. Even the loudest boor adds more (if maybe not much more) than the individual who steps out of the fight entirely.

The conversation has to go on. Even if it sometimes wakes the neighbors. Or, if we’re lucky, the nation.

Enjoy the fireworks. And don’t forget to light a few of your own.

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Making Change

Duchess the Wonder Dog is wondering how to get up on our bed. It’s no small puzzle.

Not for the mind, I might add. As part lab and part border collie, Duchess is an honor student among canines. She’s especially gifted at the thesis problem of “Removing Objects From the Trash For Later Consumption: A Study in Subtlety,” bringing art to a field where her companion Big Blake has often gained renown through sheer raw talent and audacity.

But even in the most brilliant of dogs, the body has limits. And at 12 years old, those lines are a little clearer than they used to be.

Just a little bit of arthritis in the lower back and hind legs. Eyes that are blurrier than before. Even some recent balance issues (now mostly cleared up) that had my wife Heather wonder if she was trying to join the cool kids’ club, since Heather’s own MS often causes vertigo.

We’re not at the end of the line yet. I hope we won’t be for quite some time to come. And Duchess still has an energy reserve that can turn on at surprising moments, letting her tear around the back yard with great vigor.

But in dog terms, she’s closer to Helen Mirren than to Ellen Page, the Grande Dame rather than the Ingénue. A living reminder that – well, things change.

We’re not always so good at that.

We like to think otherwise, of course. After all, the easiest way to sell something in this country is still to make it “new and improved.” (An old Garfield strip once cracked “Gee, and all this time, I’ve been eating old and inferior.”) We like the latest and the greatest in our toys, our phones, any convenience we can manage.

But when change touches us personally, that’s another story. Rising hairlines. Falling assumptions. Faces that leave the building. A world that moves on regardless of what we like or don’t like – which is why Madison Avenue also does great business with nostalgia and items to fight the clock.

We don’t necessarily want to dip the universe in amber. But just like when we were kids, we often want the good stuff of growing up without the rest. Don’t touch me or the things I care about. Don’t touch my friends or family.

And especially don’t touch the loved ones who can’t speak for themselves.

We know better. Or we should. But that doesn’t make it easier.

My own family’s been fortunate when it comes to pets. Heck, we even had a goldfish make it to 13. But sometimes that makes things even harder as time goes on. The longer they stay, the stronger they grip. I know I wouldn’t trade anything for all the wonderful years – but I’d trade almost everything for just one more.

I know we’re not alone there.

What can you do? What we have to. Live in the moment, regardless of what it brings. Not without thought for the future, but not in fear of it, either. Enjoying the good and adding to it whenever and wherever we can.

We do touch the world even as it touches us. Especially in the lives of those closest to us.

I’ve joked before that Duchess has been Heather’s furry guardian angel for the last nine years. I sometimes wonder if she feels the same of us, taking a timid “rescue dog” and introducing her to a world where cuddles are OK and pizza crust is just a tilted plate away.

Soon our bed will have some pet steps near it. One more concession to a changing life, one more battle to keep things the same for a moment.

Duchess the Wonder Dog may wonder many things. So do I. But neither of us need wonder how much we care.

Some things, truly, never change.

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