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This blog has moved, you can now find Can You See Here.
This page should redirect you to the new blog, if not click here.
This blog has moved, you can now find Can You See Here.
This page should redirect you to the new blog, if not click here.
The threat of rain had passed. The clouds lingered, leaving a perfect day for softball. Missy and her friends were all geared up, and nothing could stop the launch of another great season.
Not even a little thing like having enough players.
Some of you may remember the Monday night softball league from previous columns. The rosters feature disabled players, great enthusiasm, and absolutely no concern for strikes, balls, outs, or even runs. It’s an hour in the sunshine to hit, throw, and run (or walk, or wheel) to the cheers of friends and family as each lineup makes its way around the bases.
“There’s a lot of love on this field,” one parent told me at the season opener. I had to agree.
It’s a couple of steps beyond informal, and that’s its glory. Sun Tzu once called a formless strategy the pinnacle of military deployment. I’m not sure how many softball teams Sun Tzu coached, but the same idea applies here: things are so loose that anything can be adapted to.
So when one team showed up with practically every member who had ever worn the jersey, while another had a bare handful signed up and ready to play, the answer was obvious. No, not forfeit.
Minutes later, about a third of Missy’s teammates had crossed to the other dugout. The uniforms no longer meant a thing. The game had always been friends playing with friends, now it became even more so.
The different teams didn’t matter. The game was more important. And the game went on.
That’s an example to learn from.
It’s easy to get attached to teams. One way or another, we do it most of our lives, and not just in Bronco orange or Rockies purple. We stake out grounds based on politics. Creeds. Histories. Origins. We find a thousand ways to draw the line and define who we are – or, sometimes more vividly, to define who we’re not.
Now an identity is not in itself a bad thing. I’m not advocating that we all join the ranks of the formless, the gray, the uncommitted who just move through the background and leave without a ripple. Ideas CAN be important; concepts CAN be urgent enough to fight for or toxic enough to oppose with spirit and conviction.
But when the team becomes more important than the game, something is out of balance.
It happens when winning becomes more important than how you win. It happens when rules, or consideration, or even simple civility become less important than self-aggrandizement. It happens when conversation stops and the participants begin talking past each other – beyond not seeing each other as equals, all the way to literally not seeing each other.
It happens when “I” becomes paramount. When “we” becomes the people that agree with me. And when “they” ceases to exist in our awareness altogether.
Each of us could quote a dozen examples in just a week’s headlines. I won’t waste the space here. But we all know the atmosphere it creates, as deadly as any greenhouse gas.
The thing is, teams are temporary. The Federalists were once the hottest thing going. Now they’re a line in a Broadway musical. Parties, movements, loyalties of a hundred kinds are born of a moment in history. They change, they grow, they merge and split, they even disappear – and the players almost always find another team.
But the game has to go on.
Without the game, there’s no reason for a team at all.
I’m hoping that most of us believe that. If we do, if we act on it, the toxic clouds can lift again. We can have disagreement, even passionate argument, without the discord that drowns out any useful theme.
We can walk in the sunshine again. I think we will.
Maybe we can even play a little softball.
I don’t anger easily. But every once in a while, somebody will push the wrong button and Bruce Banner will turn into the Hulk.
Right now, I can feel my skin turning green.
The last several days have seen windows shot out at a newspaper office. They’ve seen a bomb threat at a newspaper printing plant. And most famously, of course, they’ve given us the reporter that was knocked down by an angry Congressional candidate (now Congressman). Incidents aren’t automatically a pattern, of course, but these sorts of incidents put my teeth on edge.
I spent too long in the profession to react any other way.
I worked as a newspaper reporter for 16 years. It’s a fascinating profession that can tap you into the beating heart of a community. It also means you can wind up on the edge – or in the middle – of a number of risky situations. You may be witnessing a fire, a police standoff, a tornado, even a 500-year-flood that’s swallowing up the roads as you watch.
And once in a while, the risk comes to you instead.
I was one of the lucky ones. Over my career, the worst I ever ran into was occasional harsh words (amidst many kind ones) and one flaming bag of dog poop left on my front porch. But it can get worse very easily. Newsrooms aren’t high-security areas, and more than one paper can tell stories about the angry reader who got within three feet of a reporter’s desk before anyone knew he or she was there. Those sorts of moments leave you anxious afterward, and watchful.
And sometimes watchful isn’t enough.
The Committee to Protect Journalists publishes a list each year of reporters and media workers around the world who have been killed as they did their jobs. They’ve tracked over 1,800 since 1992, including over 800 murders. Small numbers in a global sense, perhaps, but sobering as you read the names and stories of each, and realize how quickly a situation can turn bad.
Why make the list? Because press freedom is important. Because someone has to be able to tell the stories that a country needs to hear, without fear of reprisal or intimidation.
Don’t get me wrong. I know the press corps isn’t full of Woodward and Bernstein clones. We all know the ones who are superficial, or lazy, or heartless enough to ask “How do you feel?” to someone who’s just lost their family in a hurricane. We know the mudslingers and the loudmouths. Crackerjack reporters are still out there, doing more with less every year, but as in any profession, they often share space with the mediocre and the outright bad.
None of that justifies a blow, or a threat, or a shot in the night.
It’s OK to get angry at the press. I’ve been there myself. It’s all right to be upset with an outlet, or a media chain, or even the entire institution. Sometimes anger is justified, a necessary step in order to bring about change. It’s true of government, so why not of its watchdogs as well?
But when that anger crosses the line into violence, that’s it. The story is over. At that point, you are not my friend, nor any friend to democracy.
It’s been said that politics is based on the conviction that talking is better than fighting. Arguments need not bring warfare, disagreement need not provoke violence. That’s an ideal, of course – our country has seen the process break down into duels, riots, and even civil war – but it’s a vital one to hold.
And once held, it must be defended. Or else the conversation cannot happen at all.
I hope these are isolated incidents. They’re certainly good reminders. No rights are guaranteed; they must be claimed anew each day or they become simply words on paper. Someone will always test the boundaries and the boundaries must hold.
At its best, our country is a Banner achievement.
Don’t let Hulk smash.
Not long after Roger Moore passed, a friend sent a clip of him I had never seen before. It had no car chases or amazing gadgets, no beautiful women and hideous henchmen, not even a single utterance of “Bond … James Bond.”
Instead, an older Roger was reciting poetry, his still-charming voice capturing the keenly observant soldier of Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy Atkins”:
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;
And it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
And Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!”
The poem had always been a favorite of mine. And the time couldn’t be better to bring it back again. Not just because we’re into the Memorial Day holiday, when we remember to remember our own fallen fighters, but because of what it says about ourselves and the stories in our head.
We all have them. Our inner monologues, our lens we see through, the set of expectations that each of us builds from the moment we wake up and fumble toward the shower. It’s not often conscious. In fact, it’s usually a reflex, trained over years, the smooth and invisible way of deciding how to think and what to think about.
And because the assumptions are invisible, we forget they’re assumptions. Or fail to notice when they contradict each other. Or worse, grow toxic.
Sometimes the stories become so compelling, they force themselves into visibility, they have to come out. Sometimes when they do, they add something new and wonderful to the world – a “Star Wars,” say, that enters the world 40 years ago and touches the imagination of millions, teaching them a new way to see.
Other times, the stories that force themselves on the world do so in blood. Smoke rises in Oklahoma City, in New York, in Manchester, carrying panic and pain and death. Why? A thousand reasons and more could be given, but they all start in the human heart and head. No bomber thinks “I’m going to wake up and be evil today,” consciously putting on villainy like Oddjob putting on a hat or Darth Vader donning a mask. Each has internalized a story that seems to justify their anger at the world or a piece of it, to inflame it, to demand retribution.
This is not an excuse. It’s not a call to sympathize with a murderer or make a killer the next guest on “Dr. Phil.” But it does suggest that the problem is one not easily solved with guns and missiles, one that even Kipling’s “thin red line of ‘eroes” would strain to defend against.
We have to look longer and farther and deeper.
Where do stories come from? Any writer would say they come from everywhere. Every piece of day to day life provides another idea, another connection, another piece of fuel. It’s why those who consciously create stories – writers, actors, and more besides – frequently read, frequently experience, frequently get out to learn something new.
Change the seeds, and you change the story.
Step outside the fictional, and it’s still true. Anger and hatred and radicalization can be hardy flowers … but only in a certain soil. A rebuilding Germany had little use for the nascent Nazi party. A desperate Germany was all too susceptible.
Change conditions and you change assumptions. Change assumptions and you change the world.
It will be long. It will be frustrating. It will require constant effort in numerous fields: economics, education, medicine, diplomacy, personal experience and more. And you can’t ignore symptoms while treating causes, so we will still have to defend against and deal with the angry and the evil and the violent.
But down that road waits understanding. And hope. And maybe a greater ability to see past the easy answer.
“We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes,” Kipling wrote, “nor we aren’t no blackguards too/ But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you.”
So today, let us remember.
Tomorrow, like Tommy, let us see.
Methodically, one by one, I went through the motions.
Roll the neck. Flex the shoulders. Windmill the arms. Eyes closed the whole time as I carefully stretched each muscle and joint, down to the ankles.
The routine was familiar. The setting was not. Usually, I would be doing this on a stage in an empty theatre, a silent preparation for the organized chaos of a show. This time, the space was home, a familiar place pushed to one side of awareness for just a while.
This time, the quiet moment would descend for a different purpose.
Different actors may call it different things, but I suspect that most would recognize what I call the “quiet moment.” It’s the moment before a performance when you still your thoughts and clear your head, preparing to put on a new life and story. The moment that stands between your true self and your stage self, when all is quiet and in readiness. Soon, something will be. For now, it simply is.
Everyone has a different way of entering it. For me, it’s a routine of stretches so familiar, it no longer impinges on conscious thought. For others in a cast, it might mean lying in a darkened hallway for a few minutes, or whispering an exchange of lines like a mantra. However you do it, you’re entering border country.
It’s a calm place. Peaceful. Everything given over to complete focus.
In other words, a complete rarity in today’s world.
You know what I mean. We travel through a world of constant chatter, and not just in actual conversation. Televisions blare. Radios and music fill our travels. From our desks to our pockets, computers constantly connect us, filling each space with the latest thought, the latest news, the latest clever joke or point of interest.
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, mind you. I’ve met some close friends through the Internet that I never would have met any other way. I’ve found inspiration from something heard by chance on a morning drive. But while it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is a busy thing, keeping thoughts buzzing, awareness ever-vigilant.
In a stressful time, that can mean less chance for respite and recharge. Maybe none at all.
And which of us hasn’t had a stressful time lately?
National politics. Local traumas. Personal matters of a hundred kinds. It can all seem relentless. Combine it with the constant mental buzz, and it becomes darned near inescapable.
Breaking that requires perspective.
And perspective – whether literal or figurative – requires a little distance.
That’s not always achievable at every instant, I know. If you’re wracked with excruciating pain right now, or distraught over an immediate crisis, that moment may simply not be reachable yet.
But it’s a moment we need, in order to survive all the other ones.
Again, everyone’s key to the door is shaped a little differently. Some of us have a whole ringful: prayer and meditation, a burst of exercise, a quiet walk under the night sky. Not so much taking yourself out of the moment, but plunging more deeply into it, taking a moment as a moment and not just a bridge to the next task.
The task will come. It always does. But for just a little while, it’s good to let the moment be.
Outside the theater walls, I often forget that. But, with apologies to the Bard of Avon, maybe it’s time to let all the world be a stage. If peace and focus is valuable for creating an imaginary life, how much more so for a real one?
The show must go on. But the orchestra doesn’t always have to be playing.
If that’s not too much of a stretch.
Heather finally made it.
Those of you who have been following the adventures of my wife know that she’s repeatedly almost received an infusion for her multiple sclerosis, only to be rescheduled at the last minute due to a temperature. (I’ve always thought she was too hot for the room, but this is something else.) But a few days ago, we finally broke the cycle.
Her prize? To sit for more than seven hours with an IV in her arm, trying to keep it from popping out or giving her an allergic reaction.
Uh … yay?
By the time she got home, her back had joined the Rebellion. Her arms were sore. Her body was fatigued as only those who have spent a full day in the locked and upright position can be.
Did it work? It may be a couple of months before we know. And then, win or lose, we get to do this again six months from now. Once again, the latest round of the Waiting Game (trademark pending) is on us.
Thankfully, we’re good at waiting.
Well … not good in the sense of “I am impassive to the world; let me become one with the universe/the Force/the complete works of Bob Dylan until it is time for me to unexpectedly reach out and trap a moving fly in my chopsticks.” That would be kind of awesome, not least because we could count on getting a part in the next Karate Kid reboot.
No, when it comes to waiting, we’re like a lot of experienced pros: resigned at best and impatient at worst. We don’t really like it. We wish we didn’t have to. But we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, because that’s the only way that progress gets made.
More often than not, you move forward fastest by learning to stand still.
I’m catching a few nods out there. Long-term change of any kind – pregnancy, surgical recovery, dedicated Rockies fan – tends to require patience most of all. It’s even true in the political realm. It’s a truism in history that most revolutions fail; the ones that make it have laid down years, sometimes decades, of groundwork and have a tenacity that goes beyond the moment of adrenaline.
But there’s a trap. Don’t mistake patience for passivity. Waiting is not just sitting back and letting the world happen to you; it’s anticipating for the moment and preparing for it.
In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings that “I am not standing still – I am lying in wait.” There is a difference. You endure, yes, but you don’t just endure.
Heather isn’t waiting for the MS to magically resolve itself, any more than political change or decent relief pitching just falls out of the sky. She’s a participant in her own healing, even if that participation consists of waiting for the right moment to take certain small, specific actions, and finding ways to hold together in the meantime.
It’s not easy, especially for someone who would rather step up and take control now. Especially when there’s so much going on that screams for immediate help. But in the long term, care and patience usually leads to an answer that lasts.
Patience. Not despair. Not giving up. Not zoning out.
The next move in the game will come.
Hopefully with a good book and an IV that knows how to hold still.
By the time this appears in print, Gil’s letter should be almost ready to arrive.
Gil is my stunningly brilliant 6-year-old nephew. (No, it’s not short for Gilbert, and yes, my sister is an Anne of Green Gables fan.) He’s a budding student of the sciences, who once casually pointed out landmarks on the moon and Mars to me during an imaginary space odyssey. His busy hands have built long, elaborate marble runs, followed by long painstaking videos depicting the “races” between the marbles as they swerve and roll.
And now Mister Gil has discovered the epistolary art.
“Dear Anut Heathr/Uncle Scott/Missy,” he opened in carefully handwritten crayon, with animal and robot stickers decorating each line. “Wut things are you doing? And wut book are you reading? How is the weather? Please wriet back.”
My own response is finally ready for him. I say “finally” because … well, this is an admission that doesn’t come easily to a professional writer. This is between you, me, and a few thousand other readers, OK?
The fact is, I’m terrible at personal letters.
I know, it doesn’t make much sense. I’ve been a columnist for years. I can write news stories and PR pieces easily. And I’m quick to jump on emails, social media, and all the other communications tools of the 21st century. Easy.
But good old-fashioned mail? Too often, my brain resembles a kindergarten playground, trying to get everyone to line up properly and get back to class. “Oh, yeah, I need to send that reply out … oh, wait, we’re out of envelopes, I’ll pick some up at the store tomorrow … huh, the old envelope got recycled, I’d better email Carey for the address … OK, I know I have stamps around here somewhere …. “
If this all took place in one sitting, it might not be so bad. But each gets punctuated with occasions of Life Happening and soon “Scott’s Correspondence” has become the next long-running miniseries, complete with episodic cliffhangers. (“Will Scott and his envelope make it to the post office in the same trip?”)
Nonetheless … we’re doing this. Because it’s important to Gil. And therefore it’s important to us.
He’s learning. And all of us in the family want to encourage that. So we write. We click on his YouTube videos. We keep an eye out for books and toys that’ll fuel his interests even further. And we smile as he constantly finds more for us to encourage.
After all, when you reward behavior, you tend to see more of it.
That’s true for most people, whether we’re talking 6-year-olds or congressmen. Oh, granted, the 6-year-olds usually aren’t as stubborn and willful as the politicians (I blame a lack of regular naps and the occasional time-out), but the principles are the same. Communicate. Show up. Be clear. Encourage. Don’t stop. Packing a town hall or filling up a voice mail box may not be as cute as attending a school program, but it’s part of the same idea.
Smart politicians know this. The ones that forget sometimes become unemployed politicians.
And the best part is, it shapes you too. It makes you a better voter. A better relative. Maybe even a better letter-writer.
What you touch, touches you. And both can be better for the experience.
If you’re lucky, you’ll even get some cool robot stickers out of the deal.
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.
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.