Snow – Big Deal

The sounds of a long-forgotten battle echoed through the night.

Crack. Bam. BOOM.

I lived in Kansas once. I  knew the sounds of this fight. Tree branches laden with too much winter, crashing and falling, headless of anything in their path.

If you’re lucky, that path does not become yours.

Wednesday morning, we were lucky.

Branches decorated the front yard. One of them practically was the front yard. It lay across the yard, across the front walk, into the drive ….

But not, mercy be praised, across the car. As the great Maxwell Smart once put it, “Missed it by that much!”

Back in the flatlands, we hadn’t been that lucky.

In Kansas, a shattered scene like this usually means one thing: ice. The fury of a Great Plains ice storm is something to behold, preferably from a distance, like the region’s tornadoes and straight-line winds.

A kind ice storm will seal off your car more effectively than Saran Wrap ever dreamed of. If you’re fortunate, you can pop a trunk and shatter the seamless sheet; otherwise, you’re left picking and scraping at the unyielding surface, praying for the first hint of weakness.

A less than kind storm will take branches … and casualties. Heaven help anyone or anything unlucky enough to be under a tree when the ice comes. One elm branch that missed our home in Emporia had an arch in it big enough to walk through.

The other one failed to miss the windshield of our car. That wasn’t the death stroke for the Battered Blue Buick, but it was the sign that its days had become numbered, and that the number did not have many digits.

Storms like that invariably get you thinking – well, once you complete the stream of profanity and the calls to insurance companies. You start to realize how closely beauty and danger can lie together, how quickly futures can change at the crack of a branch.

How lucky any of us are to have what we have. And whom we have.

Through every storm, we’ve had each other. We’ve had friends and neighbors who have helped clear debris, cut down branches, even guide a car to the body shop. And we’ve had a great deal of gratitude for all of it.

We still do.

Now it’s time to clean up. To assess. To get on with life until the next inevitable snow, or wind, or whatever.

And – for just a moment – to be grateful that nothing worse has come down from the branch office.

Fortune’s Favorite

The luckiest city? Really?

San Diego?

That’s what s survey by Health magazine concluded, after building a list of 100 American cities using a lens that Warner Brothers might envy. The factors included least likely to be killed by a falling object or to be struck by lightning, the most holes-in-one and lottery or sweepstake winners, and the lowest lottery and racing debts.

“Luck is basically our modern world’s magic,” editor-in-chief David Zinczenko said, according to Reuters. “People need to believe in luck because it allows them to give a name to the randomness of life, and when you name something, you have more power over it.”

Still. San Diego?

Nothing against the Southern California city. Any community that sits that close to Los Angeles without being pulled into the black hole clearly has something going for it. And after the last Chargers-Broncos game, I’m willing to believe that San Diego has something we lack (though I would have called it a defense and an offensive line, personally).

But the luckiest?

Give me leave to doubt.

Let’s face it. If there’s power in a name, there’s even more power in a definition. SoCal towns aren’t that likely to see a lightning strikes. Lottery wins can point at a lucky population – or at one that plays the numbers more frequently than most, such as Las Vegas  or Reno (also in Health’s top 10). Choose your factors and you’ve chosen your winner.

And if they’d chosen these factors, Longmont, Colo. might already be climbing the list:

* Most school days canceled due to weather. When you’re in grade school in Colorado, luck has everything to do with snow, especially when your homework is far from done. Bonus points if no “white stuff” actually fell, allowing you to stay home on account of chill.

* Greatest survival of bizarre accidents. Anyone can avoid falling objects, especially if there aren’t many elevations nearby for them to fall from. But to emerge alive from a multi-car accident that sends one vehicle through the wall of a video store? (Especially when a clerk just walked away from the area.) To have laundry catch fire and just happen to have a city worker across the way who has a hose out and can put it out before serious damage can happen? Now that’s luck.

* Most successful “pet bodyguards.” When domestic animals face wild ones, the result is usually preordained. So when a cow faces down a young bear (hello, Hygiene!), or a house cat stands its ground against a mountain lion (admittedly, from behind a glass door), you’ve got to believe something fortunate is at work.

I could go on. And that’s the point. Almost anyone can. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city that’s not ravaged by plague or consumed by starvation, if your neighbor isn’t likely to come down with his friends and their automatic weapons tomorrow to take your stuff away, if you have family you can see on even a semi-regular basis – well, by global standards, that’s a pretty good start on luck right there. (A pastor of mine used to point out that anyone with spare change on the dresser is among the wealthiest 7 percent in the world.)

The rest is details.

So roll the dice. Throw the darts. Make your lists. It’s a harmless pastime, even if it is dividing the ultra-fortunate from the merely well off.

And if you ever happen to find a community where reporters with geeky tastes and blond wives win the Powerball at least three times a year – let me know, will you?


Growing up, I knew I had the coolest Grandma in the world.

She lived with us, instead of having to come to visit.

She had that cool English accent, which most of my classmates had never heard off of TV.

She even had a cool job. After all, when you’ve bumped your knee or scraped your elbow, who better to run to than someone who works in the hospital? (I was older before I understood she changed bed sheets there.)

How do you beat something like that?

Today, the coolest Grandma in the world turns 91. And she’s only gotten cooler over the years.

She is, well and truly, one of the Irreplaceable People.

You know what I mean. We all have people we love and admire. But there are a few whose disappearance would leave a hole the size of the Grand Canyon, whose presence is as assumed as the air we breathe. A neighbor. A partner. A friend.

You can always tell the real thing. They’re the ones where you can tell as many stories on them as you can on yourself, and probably with greater accuracy.

Like how my sisters and I would huddle with Grandma on Christmas morning and exchange off-kilter Christmas carols. (“Good King Wenceslas looked out, in his pink pajamas ….”)

Or how she survived the Blitz as a young woman and a new bride, then later chose to start life over in a new country at the age of 37. While making sure the immigration folks didn’t pay too much attention to her ill 6-year-old daughter, by the way, which could have made everyone wait at least another week.

Or how she became an inseparable part of the “English Ladies” of Longmont, becoming friends with my future wife’s grandma long before Heather and I even knew each other existed. (When we did finally meet and become a couple, Grandma reminded us “If you can make it through the first 30 years, the rest is easy.”)

We’ve swapped jokes, traded news and admired my sisters’ new children. There have been scares occasionally – the bypass surgery in the ‘80s, the hip injury a couple of years ago – but even these have occasionally spun off stories of their own. I mean, how many grandmas injure themselves during physical rehab while playing video baseball on a Wii?

Through it all, I’ve never doubted her love. That’s part of what being one of the Irreplaceable People means.

It also means some extra attention needs to be paid. Because when you have an Irreplaceable Person in your life, the tendency is to think they’ll always be there. After all, they always have been, right?

But unfortunately, irreplaceable doesn’t mean invulnerable. And timeless love doesn’t mean the clock stops ticking.

Spend the time. While it’s there.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go call the coolest Grandma in the world.

Happy birthday, Grandma Elsie.

A Full-Time Occupation?

OK, I admit it. I’m a bit fascinated by the Occupy Wall Street bunch.

They’ve been going now for about four weeks – and going, and going, and going, like an Energizer bunny with a cardboard sign.. Admittedly, the message has sometimes been more varied than a Whitman’s Sampler,  but for sheer endurance and visibility, it’s become impressive. Some of their slogans have even become mass memes, especially the famous “We are the 99 percent” – a statement which, if taken literally, includes quite a few affluent people, but never mind.

But there’s an element of rubbernecking, too. It’s a little like watching a car hit the curve at 90 mph. A curve that hides a broken bridge.

The power’s impressive. But does the driver know what to do next?

I’m not sure yet.

Don’t get me wrong. Public protest and demonstration has a long, strong history in American society. It’s how a lot of people have taken their first steps beyond “just voting.” Done right, it can bring people to think about issues they never would have contemplated before.

But the best movements don’t stop with talk.

There’s a critical point, where discontent can either take new territory or descend into grumbles. Where you either take the next step, or decide you’ve done everything you need to do and sit back down – assuming you knew what you wanted to do in the first place. Where passion either drives, or sputters.

We’ve seen both, not all that long ago.

In 2008, Democrats organized as never before for Barack Obama. They spoke, they agitated, they coordinated and ultimately they won. And then, having won, many – not all, but many – decided they’d achieved their goal and sat down, feeling nothing more was needed from them.

Around the same time, we saw the Tea Party movement start to get off the ground. Love them or hate them (and I know folks on both sides), it’s impossible to deny their drive. They’ve yelled. They’ve organized. They’ve pushed for their goals and then kept right on pushing.

If that comparison makes you uncomfortable, step back to the ‘50s and ’60s instead, with Dr. King. His marches led somewhere, and not just to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a stirring speech. His mark lasted, long after the syllables faded – and not by chance.

Perseverance. Dedication. Even a bit of obsession.

That’s the difference between a protest and a movement.

And it’s what will decide if OWS is a lasting influence or a flash in the pan.

Right now, I don’t know. But I’ll be interested to see what happens.

Occupying a park is the easy part. To occupy a consciousness, a society, a place in history – that’s harder. Harder still to be one that’s worth lasting.

That is where the work truly begins.

Ninety-nine percent of it, anyway.

Ashes to Ammo

All of us can understand the desire to keep a loved one around after they’ve gone.

But to keep them as rounds?

That’s the proposal of  Holy Smoke LLC, an Alabama company with an unusual use for the ashes of the dead. Holy Smoke loads them into shotgun shells, or rifle and pistol cartridges, so that friends or relatives of the bereaved can take them on one last hunting trip.

“People take ashes and spread them across lakes or forests or throw them in rivers, and nobody thinks twice about that,” co-founder Thad Holmes told Reuters.  “This is no different.”

“I would rest in peace knowing the last thing I did was to go screaming at that turkey at 900 feet per second,” his business partner, Clem Parnell, told ABC.

Where’s Jeff Foxworthy when you really need him?

Curiously, the first thing I thought of on reading this was jewelry. For some years now, a company called LifeGem has offered to take the ashes of the dearly departed and make them into a synthetic diamond that can be set in a ring or pendant. (As a co-worker once put it, “If he wouldn’t buy you diamonds while he was alive …”)

Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned. But something about all this doesn’t feel quite right.

Understand, I’m not the type to insist on the hard and heavy when it comes to funeral rites. (My mother has let us all know that when her time comes, she wants Dixieland music.)  Nor have I ever insisted that you have to “move on” and find a way to somehow get over a person who was an intimate part of your life. Something’s going to stay with you and that’s OK.

I’m just not sure if that something should stay in your ammo clip.

Ironically, what it suggests to me is that we’re not that comfortable with death. That we have to find a way of whistling past the graveyard, of trying to make it less serious than we truly believe it to be. That to let go of even the smallest piece of someone would somehow be to lose them from our lives and memories.

It’s understandable. But it may also be unnecessary. Memories are strong stuff, stronger even than double-ought buckshot or a .50-caliber Desert Eagle round

Still, if that’s really how you want the memorial to be – and, as importantly, how they wanted it to be –  be my guest. In a sense, I suppose burying someone in a deer at 200 yards is no stranger than burying them in the ground at two. There’s even some precedent – Hunter S. Thompson (of course) had his own ashes loaded into a cannon and fired off from a 153-foot tower in Aspen.

In the end, it’s the respect that matters. And the love. And the chance to say goodbye with a full heart.

And hopefully, in this case, with very, very careful aim.

Reading the Crystal Ballot


OK, it’s time to pull on the Election Swami turban again. The one with the Magic 8-Ball in the middle, stuck on “Reply Hazy, Try Again.”

Casting my pseudo-clairvoyant powers upon the 2012 election to come, I will dare a forecast so wild, so crazy, that grown men will fall to the ground and weep. Some will cry “Hosanna!”, some will cry “Heresy!”and some will simply just cry.

Behold the vision:

Unless something changes radically in the next month, Barack Obama will probably be re-elected president.

Understand, I’m not making this prophecy out of deep affection for the president. Or out of a malicious sadism toward him, either.

This has nothing to do with the quality of his Republican opponents, who between them represent an impressively wide range of regions, backgrounds and IQ scores.

It’s not because I think the economy will suddenly produce gold and ice cream for all, or that Afghanistan will become the new Switzerland. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Joe Biden. It might well be in spite of him.

No, the source of the vision is simple. So far, President Obama lacks a significant opponent in his own party. And he’s running out of time to attract one.

And in the modern era, that’s one of the best predictors of all.

Think about it. In the modern era – say, the last 100 years or so – if an incumbent president runs for re-election and has no primary opponent, he almost always wins. If he has one that has any kind of solid support, he wins the primary, but loses the election.

Think of Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. George Bush  I and Pat Buchanan. Heck, think of William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

The last time an incumbent president ran and lost without a major primary opponent was Herbert Hoover, mainly because popular opinion gave him full responsibility for the Great Depression. It’s possible the Great Recession might pull a sequel for President Obama – but with 80 years since the last known example, that’s far from a guaranteed bet.

If you think about it, it makes a certain amount of sense. If supporters of an incumbent president – one of the most prestigious positions in the country – are falling away, the odds aren’t good when he gets exposed to the general public again. If they hang together, he gets to spend a restful primary watching the other party’s candidates savage each other … probably while remembering the best attacks for his own campaign.

But still, one wonders: Could this be a counter-trend year? Could the results defy history? Could John Hickenlooper suddenly announce a challenge and change the landscape?

Fear not, for the Swami is prepared for all. (Shakes turban, looks carefully at it.)

“Better Not Tell You Now.”

Behold. The Swami has spoken.