Getting a Grip

Don’t look now, but the Olympics have been scandalized.

Forget green water in the swimming pool. Never mind the athletes robbed at gunpoint. Doping worries can wait until another day. We have bigger fish to fry. We have – gasp! – two athletes who held hands in a race.

I’ll pause while you recover from the shock.

For those who missed it, a pair of twin sisters from Germany finished the Olympic marathon side-by-side – literally. Finding themselves far out of contention for a medal and near each other as the race wound to a close, the two joined hands and crossed the finish line together.

To some, this might be heartwarming. To Germany, it was controversial, if not outrageous.

“It looked as though they completed a ‘fun run’ and not (an) Olympic (race),” German Athletics Federation director Thomas Kurschilgen told the press, accusing Anna and Lisa Hahner of hijacking the moment for their own glory. The two finished 15 minutes behind their best pace and 21 minutes behind the leader.

Because you know, if you want glory and universal acclaim, finishing in 81st and 82nd place is the way to do it.

I can understand some of the reservations. People train hard to get to the Olympics. It’s a huge investment in time, money, and personal strain. When you reach the Games, you’re in an international spotlight, committed to pushing for the best that you can be.

And yet, the Games have always been about more than the score.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” the Olympic creed begins. And while there have been breathtaking performances in the Games, the gestures that burn in the memory are often ones that never go in the record book.

They may be inspiring moments like runners Abby D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin helping each other up after a collision and fall. Or shocking ones, like the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with an Israeli competitor. They may bring attention to a cause, a personal struggle or triumph, or simply to their own shortcomings.

That too, at its greatest and its worst, is part of the Olympics.

How you take part matters.

Granted, that’s Kurschilgen’s point, too. And if he wanted to push them for not pushing harder, that has been every coach’s and athletic director’s prerogative since time began.

But let’s take a breath. The two didn’t try to sabotage their competition or chemically enhance their own bloodstream. They didn’t spout racial epithets or enter the final mile carrying a McDonald’s banner. They didn’t pull something stupid that would endanger other runners or themselves, or throw away a winning position.

Instead, whether by coincidence (as they insist) or design (as Kurschilgen maintains), they finished the race in a gesture of sisterhood and friendship.

And really, isn’t that what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about?

With some high-profile exceptions, our memories of Olympic athletes tend to fade when it’s all over. We remember the abbreviated ski jump of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, for instance, without knowing a thing about what happened to him later. The odds are good that four years from now, or eight, or 16, most people won’t remember the names of the Hahner sisters – they’ll just remember, maybe, “those sisters that held hands across the finish line.”

That’s pretty weak for a (possible) self-promotion.

But for an Olympic memory, it’s not a bad one to have at all.

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Turning the Page

Gee, I might just live forever.

No, I haven’t been listening to the theme from “Fame” again. (“I’m going to learn how to fly – high!”) But I have been getting some encouragement from Smithsonian lately. According to an article there by Erin Blakemore, reading books lengthens your life – and the more you read, the better it gets.

This is an exceptionally good thing for us for two reasons. Number one, our home is practically overflowing with evidence of immortality … which is a nice way of saying that there are books shelved, stacked and scattered in every single room, including the garage. And number two, both Heather and I possess a mighty tsundoku —  a useful Japanese word referring to the “reading pile” that has yet to be whittled down. At the rate we accumulate volumes, we might just need the extra lifespan to imbibe them all.

The details? The article cites a study from Social Science and Medicine that looked at 3,635 adults who were 50 or older. After controlling for other factors, those who read books lived almost two years longer on average than those who didn’t. Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week saw the best effects. And books produced better results than either newspapers (apologies to my former co-workers) or magazines.

It’s not solid proof. But it’s a good suggestion that, like so many other aspects of life, what we emphasize becomes powerful. Push your body and you strengthen your body, as we’ve seen in so many Olympic athletes this week. So why shouldn’t pushing your brain make it stronger, too?

Of course, there’s a corollary to all that, too. If a person builds what they focus on, then we need to be careful what we focus on.

We haven’t done such a great job of that lately.

We live in a social environment that has become increasingly toxic. One where people listen less and argue more – if “argue” is even the right word, as opposed to “overlapping shouting.” One that encourages people to look at differences instead of commonalities, to close out instead of bring in, to form up factions rather than attempt the hard work of compromise.

In a world that reasons by volume, the biggest bullies and shouters look like leaders. Not because they’re right, but because they refuse to let anyone else occupy the stage. And the more that people buy into it, focus on it, imitate it, the stronger they become.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the focus and you can change the reality.

Kindness and empathy haven’t died. Hope and consideration aren’t extinct. Courage hasn’t gone the way of the VCR and the floppy disc. They may not get the 6 o’clock news, but they’re still there. And if those “muscles” get exercised — if we refuse to be bound by fear, if we push back against hate, if we actively reach out to each other at every opportunity – then they, too, become strong.

Curiously enough, reading can be powerful there, too. After all, books are captured memory. They remind us that this is not the first time hate and fear have run rampant. And they remind us that those forces have been overcome before, and can be again. That the fight may be never-ending, but it’s far from hopeless.

And if we’ve been willing to touch a multitude of minds on the page, live a hundred lives that were never ours – then just maybe, it might train us to be aware of the minds and lives of others in the “real world,” too.

It’s all in where you put your time and attention.

The choice may well speak volumes.

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Faster, Higher, Weirder

At long last, it’s time for that display of peace, unity and brotherhood that arises every four years – namely, coming together to hunt down the creators of those presidential phone surveys and dropping them off a cliff.

No, I mean the Olympic Games, of course, brought to us this year by Rio de Janeiro and about a zillion mosquitoes. Athletes have been taking steps to protect themselves from the Zika virus ranging from long sleeves to tent-enclosed beds, though no one went further than Russia, who thoughtfully arranged to get their weightlifters disqualified in advance to ensure their maximum protection.

But despite all the controversy – and really, what’s a Games without controversy? – it’s still the Olympics. That glorious time when we sit on the couch with specially branded cans of Coke, cheer on the Parade of Nations, and then decipher the television schedule to find the five sports we’ve actually heard of.

Granted, the Summer Games are easier to follow than the Winter Games, which for most Americans could best be described as “Skating, gymnastics, hockey, and everything else. Oh … and skiing, right?” We know basketball and soccer. We recognize the track events from long-ago gym classes. In fact, most of the events are pretty straightforward, even if they’re things that, at any other time, the typical U.S sports fan would only happen on by accident while hunting for “Family Feud.”

And of course, there’s always the fun of discovering what’s been added. Every four years, the organizers experiment with something new, whether it’s tae kwon do, beach volleyball, or (this time) rugby.  This time out, though, I can’t help feeling the Brazilians missed a chance to garner some good press by making the Olympics relevant to today’s generation. Imagine the viewership and camaraderie if the organizers had also thought to include:

The Pokémon GO Obstacle Course – Cheer on the players of the world’s most popular virtual game as they attempt to walk across four lanes of traffic, through thick woods, and past strategically placed manholes for the gold medal. Gotta catch ‘em all!

The PotterChase: Held inside a bookstore, this track event requires passionate fantasy fans to climb over every obstacle in their path, including each other, to claim the last copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Bonus points for costumes, of course.

Wrestling with the Facts: Get ready to merge grappling with the fact-check generation, as the wrestlers come armed with speeches from today’s headline politicians. Victory requires pinning your opponent for a three-count and logically refuting at least two of their arguments. (This may be the only Olympic event that gets better with the sound off.)

The $5 Billion Dash: Runners race at top speed while being pursued by an Olympic torch bearer. The loser has to start saving up to put on the next Games.

These could add relevance. These could add ratings. These could add to the joy of discovery that we so often feel when watching the event of the moment, cheering on the best of the best and enjoying a bright moment of hope in the midst of the world’s usual drama.

Or as much of it, anyway, as we can see through the mosquito netting.

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Coming of Age

This year, as Heather likes to put it, our marriage is old enough to vote. Or to smoke. Or even to get married itself.

Yes, it’s been 18 years since Heather and I stood in a friend’s garden and said “I do.” Which, honestly, seems impossible. I mean, it was just last week that Heather and I were nervously watching rain clouds and wondering about the wisdom of an outdoor wedding, right? It couldn’t have been 18 years since my hair began popping loose in defiance of everything my sisters could spray on to hold it down?

Hmmm. Come to think of it, there’s not that much hair to spring loose anymore. Which means …

Wow.

Every year, a few more of my friends say “Congratulations!” Every year, a few still jokingly say “That’s it?” Either way, we’ve gone just a little further down the road that turns a good wedding into a great marriage, where, as I’ve often quoted Grandma Elsie, “If you make it through the first 30 years, the rest is easy.”

Easy. That it most certainly has not been. In that span, we’ve moved three and a half times. (Once was Heather coming to join me in Kansas.) We’ve endured floods, hailstorms and chronic illness. We’ve said goodbye to too many and hello to more than a few, while becoming “parents” in a way we never expected as we became guardians to her disabled aunt Missy. We’ve encountered the proverbial richer and poorer, better and worse, in sickness and … well, we’re still kind of getting that last part down.

And somehow, along the way, we laughed and loved and lived enough to send 18 years running by. True fact: 24 hours takes forever to pass, but 18 years goes by in a moment.

True, this isn’t one of the “name” anniversaries that gets commemorated, like the Gold Anniversary or the Silver Anniversary or the 35th Level Pokémon Master Anniversary. But as Heather joked, 18 is one of those numbers that tends to loom pretty large on its own. And the more I think about it, the more I realize how fitting a comparison it is.

When you turn 18, you’ve spent most of your life learning … and realize that you’ve only just started.

When you turn 18, you realize how much you’ve been gifted with … and, if you think about it, how much responsibility has been placed on you.

Eighteen is the age where you can do so much in your own name, from joining the Army to being charged as an adult. It’s a point that grew from “Wow, that’s old” as a little kid to “Wow, that’s tomorrow” as a high school senior.

It’s a point where you suddenly look back on fears and memories alike with a bit of wonder. And, if you’re lucky, with a bit of anticipation as well.

I consider us to be very lucky indeed.

True, nobody’s issuing us a cap and gown tomorrow. (I said we were lucky, right?) But in a real sense, every day has been a new graduation.

So Heather my love, thank you for 18 wonderful and unforgettable years. Our marriage is all grown up now, even if neither of us seems to be.

And if tomorrow, our marriage doesn’t run off and try to buy booze with a fake driver’s license, I think we’ll be doing OK.

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“Conventional” Wisdom

OK, who else is ready for the pep rallies to be over with?

If you’re an unabashed fan of the Republican or Democratic national conventions, my apologies to the three of you. (Anything will have someone who cheers for it – I give you the Oakland Raiders as Exhibit A.) But I suspect I’m not alone on this one. Like most former reporters, I’m something of a political junkie, but when it comes to getting to the end of convention season, my inner 6-year-old starts to wake up, kick the back of the driver’s seat and ask repeatedly “Are we there yet?”

If the conventions served an actual purpose, I could probably forgive some tedium. Life isn’t french fries and ice cream, after all; not everything that’s necessary is going to be fun as well. But I’m having a hard time seeing what the reason could be, other than to demonstrate how a political party can blow through $64 million in a week.

“To choose a presidential candidate?” That ship sailed a long time ago. Thanks to the modern system of primaries and caucuses, the conventions are little more than an expensive rubber stamp for a choice that voters made long ago.

“To introduce the candidate to the nation?” Once upon a time, yes. But we’ve had folks campaigning for over 15 months. If someone has been avoiding the major players for that long, are they really going to tune into two weeks of infomercials now? (The RNC’s mediocre television ratings suggest otherwise.)

“To get a ‘bounce’ for our candidate?” Traditionally, the saturation coverage of a political convention has caused a candidate to gain in the polls as they get promoted and their opponent vilified. But as the political website FiveThirtyEight.com has noted, that effect has gotten smaller over the years and tends to be canceled out quickly now that the parties hold their events right after each other. These days, a bowling ball has more bounce than most national conventions.

“Because we’ve always done it this way?” Pretty much. Never underestimate the power of inertia, especially when it puts on its best clothes and calls itself “tradition” instead.

I’ll grant you, this is $64 million apiece that isn’t being spent on more annoying political ads – or rather, is being spent on one big multi-day commercial that’s announced in advance and easier to avoid. And asking a campaign to not spend money is like asking my dogs to not eat crayons; it’s a good idea, but it’s just not going to happen.  So unless we come up with an alternative, canceling the conventions simply means stuffing our mailboxes with more fuel for the fireplace and our phones with more requests for “Just a moment of your time.”’

It’s time for something … well, unconventional. And I have an idea.

A few years back, when Colorado seemed ready to burn itself to the ground, I suggested that both campaigns cancel their conventions and put the money they saved into disaster relief instead. That got a flood of support from readers and about as much attention as you’d expect from the campaigns. But if we revise the plan and give ourselves enough lead time, maybe we can save our sanity in 2020.

Let’s have the campaigns put their money where their mouths are.

You want to see America’s space program revive? Take the time and cash you would have normally spent on a convention and put it into a few school STEM programs instead.

Do you want more attention for Americas’s working poor? Pour your convention budget and volunteers into an area’s local utility relief efforts, or their housing assistance program.

Take that platform and make it more than just words. SHOW us what’s important to you for a week by your actions.

Will it be for the cameras? Of course. Will it be self-serving? Probably. But it’ll get something done and leave a mark in a way that no overhyped balloon drop ever could.

Pep rallies are fun for a little while. But every sports fan knows it’s all about the game.

Let’s get the players on the field and see what they can do.

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Totally Floored

When in the course of home improvement events, it becomes necessary for one family to dissolve the fabric-covered bands which have connected one piece of flooring with another, a decent respect to the opinions of the Times-Call’s readership requires that they should declare that this was a heck of a way to spend a holiday weekend.

Yes, while the rest of Longmont was practicing its skill with legal and quasi-legal exploding objects, we were busy ripping up a lot of downstairs carpet. This was mostly due to the efforts of a few generations of house pets, all of which had important messages to leave in the former dining room, if you catch my drift. So when our own Duchess the Wonder Dog decided to leave her own updates and found the mailbox already full – in the form of a ruined padding – well, it was time to introduce some “postal reform.”

In the course of this expedition, we quickly found certain truths to be self-evident. They didn’t exactly involve life, liberty, and the pursuit of cheap Chinese incendiaries, but many of them will be familiar to home owners nonetheless:

1) When outfitted properly in goggles, breath mask, gloves and knee pads, you will vaguely resemble a junior Darth Vader on his way to umpire his first minor-league baseball game. Except that Darth Vader’s goggles never fogged up in the middle of the job.

2) It is amazing how much you can accomplish in one night when you don’t care how much sleep, sanity, or major vertebrae you lose.

3) There is a proper, simple way of removing carpet strip by strip for easy portability. Somewhere in the third hour, that way will be discarded in favor of attempting to fold half the room up like a piece of oversized origami. Again, you really didn’t need those vertebrae anyway.

4) Few things in life are more entertaining than ripping up the long strips of tacks and nails that held the carpet down.

5) Few things in life are more painful than rediscovering those same strips with your sock-clad feet.

6) There is always one more staple. Even if you scour the floor with a magnifying glass, a metal detector, and the great-grandson of Sherlock Holmes, once you paint your primer on the plywood, a dozen staples will magically appear like the next row of sweets in a Candy Crush game. You will become very familiar with your floor scraper  and a certain level of vocabulary.

7) It takes longer to disperse primer fumes than anyone would realize. Longer than a baseball All-Star game. Longer than an especially intransigent session of Congress. Possibly longer than a geological age of the Earth.

8) Speaking of ancient epochs, it will also be discovered that there is a certain fascination in home archaeology. Beneath that carpet will be an indelible record of every family that ever passed through the house, lacking only Egyptian hieroglyphics and Roman graffiti to be complete. You will quickly see how many dogs have lived there. You will quickly appreciate what nearly four decades of Christmas Eve dinners for the entire extended family looks like. You’ll even find the occasional artifact from the last poor souls to lay down a carpet here, which gives you an extra 3 cents to put toward the new flooring. Little did they know they were paying it forward.

Finally, with a new appreciation for your house (and a new resolve that liquid beverages will never be allowed in it again), you are ready for the loud BOOM – not from fireworks, but from your bank account abruptly disgorging the funds needed to recover your primer-painted plywood with something human beings can walk on. You will celebrate wearily but wholeheartedly. And if you’re like me, somewhere inside you’ll rejoice that you’ve mastered one more staple of an actual adult’s skill set.

Or maybe that should be “one more foundation brick” of it. Because you are never, ever going to mention staples again for as long as you live.

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Reading and Revolutions

Heather and I have a lot of reading ahead of us.

OK, that’s not unusual. After all, between us, we have enough books to be the northern annex of the Longmont Library. (“Yeah, that’s history and classic literature in the living room, sci-fi and fantasy in the basement … I’m sorry, crafting and gardening? Upstairs and hang a left.”) But these next few months are going to be different.

For the first time in a while, I’ll be reading out loud to my wife.

We used to do this quite a bit. And, granted, sometimes she still listens in when I’m doing our bedtime reading with our disabled ward Missy. But this time, we’re doing this for exercise as much as recreation. Maybe a few laps with Heather’s beloved Jane Austen, or the calisthenics of Charles Dickens putting us through our paces. Heck, Dave Barry may be warming us up.

At this point, we’re reaching for anything and everything that will cut through the fog.

Regular devotees of this column may remember that Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a little more than 14 months ago. As we stumble towards (please!) a new, more effective medicine, there have been a lot of small battles to fight. The moments of weakness. The occasional vertigo and loss of balance. But the most persistent and insidious has been what Heather and others with MS often call the “brain fog.”

MS lives in your brain. And it’s not especially careful with the furniture. It can make someone forgetful, make it hard to focus or concentrate. Heather noticed it creeping in when some of her puzzle games became more difficult and when anything longer than a news article became too much to handle. The woman who had read and loved “War and Peace” couldn’t pick up a novel.

It can be fought – by using patience, by establishing patterns and workarounds, and maybe most of all by keeping the brain active and stimulated. Hence the out-loud reading, which lets us work through at our pace, stop and explain or repeat if necessary, and use multiple senses at once (including my own sense of the theatrical) to hold and keep her attention.

It won’t be easy. We know it’ll take a lot of time and work. The progress may seem minuscule or even invisible more often than not.

But that’s how revolutions work. Whether you’re revolting against Great Britain or your own brain.

This July marks 240 years since we first held “these truths to be self-evident.” But the American Revolution didn’t spring fully formed from the brain of Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. Its success was from more than just an eight-year war or even a summer-long Constitutional Convention. Plenty of movements have declared revolutions, from 18th-century France to modern-day politicians. Most of them fail.

What made ours different – or at least one vital factor in it – is how well-prepared it was.

In a way, the Revolution merely confirmed what the American colonists had spent seven or eight generations learning: that they could govern themselves independently of any outside power. They had been practicing that art for nearly 160 years before Lexington and Concord, learning how to build a society and keep it together, in a land where the mother country was months distant and much indifferent.

They survived. They thrived. And by the time the King and Parliament decided it might be time to tighten the rein, the colonists discovered they didn’t need Britain any more – and hadn’t for some time.

“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” Adams once observed. “The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people.”

Now it’s time for revolution to come to a mind again.

We don’t have 160 years to spend. But Heather spent most of her life forging the necessary tools. We’re willing to work as patiently and persistently as we have to, to knock the rust off and make them fit for use again.

I’ll take any excuse to read a good book. And this may be the best of them all.

Nothing could be more self-evident than that.

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Now You See It

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, whatever his other gifts may be, has clearly never been a reporter.

That might sound obvious, like noting that Bill Gates has never been an NFL linebacker. But it may explain a curious decision of Ryan’s on Wednesday.

For those who missed the drama, several Democratic members of Congress staged a sit-in Wednesday, literally sitting on the House floor until a gun control bill would be heard. This would be shown to the nation via C-SPAN, an all-Congress, all-the-time cable network that normally draws a lower viewership than competitive crochet.

And then Ryan gave the protesters a gift of inestimable value. He ordered the House cameras turned off.

Now, since the cameras belonged to the House and not to C-SPAN, Ryan had the right to do this. No question. But that’s not the same as saying it was a smart thing to do, since:

1) Several of the protesters carried these amazing devices called smart phones and could stream live video for C-SPAN to rebroadcast.

2) Nothing attracts a reporter’s attention – or an audience’s – like a closed door.

It’s sometimes called the Streisand Effect, after a long-ago attempt by the singer to remove a picture of her home from an online collection of 12,000 pictures of the California coastline. Before Streisand’s efforts, six people had viewed the photo online. In the month afterward, that soared to over 420,000.

People want what they’re told they can’t have. Especially when someone powerful or famous says so.

It works on a smaller level, too. Years ago, I was covering the efforts of Emporia, Kan. to hire a new city manager. This was of moderate interest to the community since the incumbent was one of those long-timers who had been around since “Crocodile Dundee” was the biggest thing to hit movie theatres.

And then moderate interest became burning interest. The Emporia City Council went back on an earlier decision and decided it wasn’t going to announce the finalists for the position.

The result was a flood of emails and online comments, a front-page story and a very rapid surrender by the council. The decision to close the doors had become a bigger story than any announcement of the finalists could ever have been.

Most of us, whether reporters or consumers of the news, don’t have a lot of time in the day. There are a lot of things screaming for our attention, most of them claiming to be pants-on-fire urgent. So it’s normal that a lot of stories, sometimes even fairly large ones, will slip beneath the radar of the average reader or viewer.

But we’re also a stubborn bunch. We have been for a long time. And when someone talks down to us saying “You don’t need to see that, “it almost always prompts an immediate “Why not?” For a moment, we KNOW where to focus our attention – and our frustration.

I’m not saying that the gun-control bill was good, bad, or as ugly as Eli Wallach. I am saying that its proponents should send Paul Ryan a thank-you card. Whether they succeed or fail in their quest, they’ve gotten the attention they wanted, and then some.

Come to think of it, maybe the Speaker’s found a second career. I’m sure there are many other struggling broadcasts that could use his assistance in getting a larger audience.

“Live from the Pepsi Center … it’s the 2016-2017 Denver Nuggets season that Paul Ryan didn’t want YOU to see!!”

Couldn’t hurt.

Let us know, Mr. Speaker, willya?

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The Next Step

When we lived in Kansas, Heather once had a surgery that kept her in the hospital for a week. I know it was a week because of the parade of food that resulted.

If you’ve ever lived in the Midwest, you know what I mean. Small towns and church communities have a sixth sense for when one of their own needs help. That’s when the casseroles start lining up – because even if everything else in your life is chaos, by jingo, you won’t have to worry about dinner for a while. Just return the dishes when you’re done.

It was love made visible. Concrete caring.

Which brings me to Orlando.

As I’ve said before, I’m tired of writing about mass shootings. I’m sure most of you are tired of reading about them. We’re all tired of living with them, and the pain and confusion that follow in their wake.

As the drumbeat of violence goes on, seemingly without end, nerves are getting strained. Tempers are growing thin. For Exhibit A, just watch the reaction when any politician makes the now-traditional offering of “Our thoughts and prayers.”

“Never mind the thoughts and prayers, man! What are you going to do?”

Now, as one friend pointed out, thoughts and prayers by themselves are not a bad thing. When a horrific act occurs, we need a quiet space to sort things out. We need to think, to meditate, to pray and commune, so that we can get centered again and see a way forward.

But this should be a beginning. Not an ending.

What do we think about? What do we pray for? When we go into this quiet space, what do we come out ready to do?

When someone is sick, we don’t just offer thoughts, prayers, and cards. We make food. We run errands. We pay visits to ward off loneliness.

When a friend is in tight straits financially, we don’t just wish them luck and move on. We pass the hat. We offer help. Maybe we even slip an anonymous gift card into the mailbox.

When a society is wounded and bleeding, what do we do? The answer is, and always must be, whatever we can to answer the pain.

Our job is not just to pray. It’s to be the answer to someone’s prayer.

As a Christian, my own thoughts go to the challenge of James. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes or daily food,” he wrote, long centuries ago. “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well-fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? … Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

What do we do?

Do we address the issue of guns? Of mental health? Do we dare look at the problem while it is fresh in our minds and burning in our hearts and offer some sort of answer to it? If nothing else, can we offer any assistance to those still alive, to the families forever scarred by this abominable act?

Or do we simply argue, and groan, and maybe offer a word or two of blame before running for cover? Stand vigil for a bit, change a Facebook image for a week or so, and then move on until the next horror?

If that’s what we want, there’s nothing easier in the world. Just keep it up.

If we want better, we have to work for it. Hope demands nothing less.

Yes, give thought to what has happened. Yes, pray by all means. But in those thoughts, in those prayers, look for the next step on the road. How do we come out of this quiet space ready to make life better?

What do we have to offer? What can we give? What can we create?

The time is now. A world waits.

What will we bring to the door?

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Tugs and Stumbles

When the weather gets hot, I sometimes find myself thinking of the company picnics that my Dad’s work used to have.

You may remember something similar. Lots of food, with an emphasis on potato salad. Lots of people, many of whom only saw each other at something like this. And, invariably, the sorts of games that never got played anywhere else, unless your school had a field day and no compunctions about having some kids win or lose.

For example, there was always a tug of war – one rope, with a not-so-small army of kids and adults gathered on each side, each trying to pull like crazy until the middle of the rope passed to their side. The losers got the fun of sprawling in the dirt or grass with rope burns on their hands; the winners got a ribbon or small prize … and, usually, their own collection of rope burns on their hands as a memory. (There may be a reason this doesn’t get done much anymore.)

Or, for the ultimate in ridiculousness, there was always the three-legged race. Take two people, have them each strap one leg together, and then try to have them walk forward. Unless you have a lot of timing and teamwork, the result is a lot like Goofy after the mallet has fallen on his head; lots of staggering and very little progress. The first pair that can stay upright long enough to cross the finish line wins; the last pair gets to find out the best way to remove grass stains.

This sort of thing doesn’t seem to be done much anymore, which may be one reason we’re all living longer lives these days. (Never underestimate the potency of a potato salad that has sat outdoors for three hours.) But as I watch the state of national politics, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost some valuable training.

Mind you, we’re all still pretty good at the tug of war. We prove that during every primary and general election, when most of us plant our feet in the ground and refuse to be swayed by anything that could sway us from our chosen position. “Never him!” “Anyone but her!” We pull and tug and haul until main strength decides the contest one way or the other. Of course, at a picnic or field day, you never had a team that tried to pull in five different directions at once, with the result that everyone on your side went sprawling, which demonstrates one of the many ways in which sixth-graders are still smarter than many American voters.

But we’ve lost our talent for the three-legged race. And that’s a pity. Because while the tug of war will get you through an election, you need the three-legged race if you really want to govern – different people learning how to walk together in order to reach a common goal.

Of course, most political “fields” don’t have a commonly-agreed-upon finish line. Sometimes it’s not even clear how long the race is. But like it or not, we’re strapped together and have to cooperate to make even a little progress … or else learn to enjoy the taste of Weed & Feed.

“Winning was easy, young man; governing’s harder,” George Washington notes in the recent musical “Hamilton.” (Yes, I’m still on that kick.) In many ways, it’s like the difference between a wedding and a marriage – one requires short-term planning to achieve an easily defined goal, the other requires long-term survival skills and cooperation, however hard the situation may get.

Many local governments haven’t completely forgotten the skill. It makes a difference when you have to live next door to your opponent. But at the national level, maybe it’s time to look for folks who actually know how to cooperate and step forward, instead of trying to break the ankles of everyone who doesn’t share their (sometimes very eccentric and bizarre) path.

It’s not easy. But then, no one ever said this would be a picnic.

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