Burning Thoughts

At some point, you’d think there would be nothing left to burn.

If only.

Every week, every day, a new fire seems to start, an old one seems to grow stronger. Names that were places to visit are now battlegrounds. Or staging areas. Or victims.

Who dreamed we would see flame stalk the Air Force Academy? Who imagined fire would draw near to NCAR? Whose worst nightmares assumed this much destruction, this much displacement, this heaven on Earth turned hell?

All right. There were warnings. The dry winter, the rapidly vanishing snowpack, the tinder lying ready and waiting. The TV talking heads bubbling on about how beautiful the weather had been, how nice it was not to be cooped up inside by snow and ice.

They’re on my list.

So yeah, I think some of us at least knew we were in for a bad fire season. But never this.

And it’s only started.

Sometimes I think the worst part, unless you’re actually in the path of the destruction, is the helplessness. Oh, we try. We put up friends, we give to the Red Cross, we volunteer to help the firefighters in every way imaginable.

But it’s not what we really want.

What we want is to turn off the fire. Only a few brave men and women out on the line have that chance.

What we want is to turn off the fire season. And not even those few can make that guarantee.

The rest, however welcome, feels so small sometimes.

And then there’s the bits that aren’t welcome at all.

Every day, it seems we get a choice of two images on television: a shot of Colorado burning, or an ad for people campaigning. It’s even odds which one is less wanted right now.

I know, one of the great things about our country is that we keep going on. Even a civil war couldn’t make us suspend national elections and nothing less is about to do it. That’s all very admirable and fine.

At the same time, to continue a pair of high-dollar ad campaigns declaring “I’m the greatest and he’s a jerk” in a state that’s burning to the ground seems … well, petty.

A friend had an idea. I liked it enough to steal it and share it. And I hope someone, somewhere is listening.

Mr. Romney. President Obama. Suspend your Colorado campaigns for now.

Then take what you would have spent on ads in this state, and donate it to the fire relief.

I know you guys. You don’t spend small, especially in a battleground state. A single week can see a million dollars worth of TV ads here, just from one campaign.

The High Park Fire alone has cost around $33 million to fight so far. That’s not small spending either. And it’s doing a lot more than any finger-pointing ever will.

You can help that.

Think about it. And if the sheer humanity of the act isn’t enough, consider it tactically. If even one of you makes this move, the other will have to follow or else look more heartless than Lord Voldemort and Darth Vader combined. Once both of you do it, there’s no fear of losing an advantage.

And the first one to do it comes off looking really, really good.

OK, there’ll be some cynicism. There always is in an election year. But it’s an action that will do some genuine good. Between that and having some peace on their TV screens, I think most voters will respond warmly.

National office is important. But some priorities rank even higher than that. Please, gentlemen. Show us you understand that.

Battleground state?

You have no idea.

Haiku, You Ku, We All Ku

You thought it was gone,

But you should have known better.

Haiku never dies.


If this feels familiar, blame Arizona.

As a lot of folks know, Arizona gets dust storms. Haboobs, if you want to use the local phrase (swiped from Arabic). People being people, Arizona also has its share of drivers who will try to drive through a haboob, even though their perception of detail is about as low as the average TV newscaster’s.

The state wanted to warn people, of course. More importantly, it wanted them to actually listen.

Enter the haiku.


You’re not a Jedi.

This is not Tatooine, Luke.

Pull over now, man.


For those who skipped English class, the haiku is a 17-syllable poem: five in the first line, seven in the second line, five in the last line. (Yes, the last part of that definition is itself a haiku.) Technically, it should be in Japanese and about nature, but most of us skip that part. After all, they’re just too much fun.


Mixing and matching,

Oblivious to the boss.

Syllable playtime.


I last wrote about haiku in 2010, when National Punctuation Day picked the form for its annual contest. Now it seems the Arizona Department of Transportation has started a contest of its own, to find the best short warning that can be tweeted to drivers across the state. The Star Wars entry is my favorite, but others are more down-to-earth, so to speak.


Dust storms mean danger,

Zero visibility.

Pull over and wait.


Whenever a story like this gets mentioned in the newsroom, by the way, the usual result is several minutes of frantic haikuing by the staff just to see if we can. (Is haikuing a verb? It is now.) Even among friends who don’t write for a living, it gets quickly addictive.

Why? Well, it’s a short attention span hobby. Once you know the rules, it doesn’t take long to join the fun. That helps.

But the real secret is in the strictness of the rules themselves. Think about it. In all the best sports, it’s the challenge that makes it interesting.


Who’d watch basketball

If on the court, all players

Could use a ladder?


Strict boundaries. And within those boundaries, total freedom. Combine that with instant gratification, and how can you lose?

Besides, once you’ve got the knack, there’s nothing that can’t be enlivened with a little haiku. Such as local government:


No fracking in here!”

No, leave our gas wells alone!”

Yes, it’s Council night.


Or sports controversies:


A Boston pitcher

Gets “not guilty” from the court,

Fans say “Can’t fool us.”


Or even a blazing summer:


Please turn off the sun,

Scorching rays make thirsty crops,

Let’s have a downpour.


If you feel like joining in the fun – well, I can’t stop you. I can’t pay you, either, but you knew that. Just look me up on Facebook or hit me with an email, and I’ll try your 17 syllables on for size.

Besides, it beats watching political ads. Right?


Most fame is fleeting,

But haiku is forever.

Come on out and play!

Famous First Words


Our nearly two-year-old niece pointed a stubby finger at the nearby finch, then trotted over to the next bird cage. A fresh smile grew on her face as she again pointed excitedly, this time at a pair of parakeets.


Yes, Riley has discovered words. Sporadically, anyway. During her weekly visits to our house, it’s not uncommon anymore to see her pursuing the dog with an outstretched arm and calling “Oggie!”At red lights, she’ll sometimes tell her dad “Go, go, go!” She’s even learned a sort of chorus to “Old McDonald,” chiming in at the right moments with “Ya, ya-yo!”

Clearest of all is the cry of achievement. We heard this one when she saw a cartoon boy working in his garden – something Riley had just helped her mom with the other day.

“I did it!” she declared, pointing ahead.

You sure did, hon.

It’s especially fun for me because I’ve lived with and worked with words for so long. I love their sound, their texture, their taste. Heather and I used to spend many date nights comparing words with cool sounds – yes, we’re geeks – or bemoaning the fact that the best words always seemed to belong to horrible medical situations. (Heather’s own condition of ankylosing spondylitis has a certain musical ring to it.)

Now, with two nieces and a nephew in the toddler stage, I get to watch someone new dip their toe in the pool. It’s like being an artist seeing someone discover finger paints, or a musician hearing the first strikes on a toy piano.

Or maybe a marksman carefully watching the first lesson on a firing range.

Because words have power. Oh, so much power.

We start out claiming otherwise. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words …” Well, you know the rest. And before we get out of elementary school, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn that words can hurt. A lot.




And yeah, worse ones that I’m not going to print here.

By the time we’re grown, we’ve had an opportunity to see the best and the worst that language can do. And it doesn’t have to be a Shakespearean sonnet or a stream-of-consciousness flood of profanity to get a reaction.

In many ways, the most potent ones are the reverse of my old date-night exercise: ordinary words freighted with extraordinary meaning.

“Are you OK?”

“Never mind.” (Sigh) “It’s not important.”

“What were you thinking?”

“Hey. It’s all right. Come here.”

None of those require a college degree. All of them can leave fingerprints on the soul.

A word well-wielded can be an awesome thing. Or a terrible one.

And someday, Riley will learn that power.

Learn to speak well, little one. Learn when not to speak. And especially learn how to listen, not just to the words of others, but to your own, so that you may always realize what you’re saying and how.

May your words always be a joy and your joy be beyond words.

Now, let’s go check out those erdees.

Venus, If You Will

Look! Up in the sky!

Well, actually, I hope you didn’t. I know you value having eyesight and all.

Most of my friends know that I’m a certified space geek. On Tuesday I had an awful lot of company. Around the world, people were looking through telescopes, watching computer monitors or otherwise doing everything they could to safely watch the “transit of Venus.”

It might not sound worth the effort to some. After all, it’s basically the world’s tiniest eclipse, as Venus moves across the sun like a lost penny across a football field. But as the Franklin Mint likes to remind us, rarity has a certain value. You get two of these transits eight years apart – and then you have to wait more than 100 years for the next one.

OK. So it’s rare. Big deal. So are copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special, right?

Granted. But unless you’re into really bad Wookie fiction, I’d pick the transit any day. For a tiny disc, it tends to inspire a lot of frenzy.

The transits of the 1760s may have been the wildest, as European scientists tried to scatter across the world to see if they could record the event from different points – and, incidentally, find out just how far the Earth was from the Sun. And while it was Captain Cook’s 1769 measurements that helped fix the distance (about 93 million miles, for the record), the struggles of those who didn’t quite make it eight years earlier make even more entertaining reading – entertaining, that is, in the sense of “Boy, I’m glad that wasn’t me.”

“Jean Chappe spent months traveling to Siberia by coach, boat and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers,” wrote Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything. The swelling was due to unusually heavy rainfall, which the locals in turn blamed on the strange man pointing odd objects at the sky.

First impressions. So important.

These days, no one had to be Indiana Jones to measure the transit, but it was still worth measuring. Last time, Venus helped us find ourselves. This time, it may help us find the neighbors. By watching Venus, we know a little more about how to find planets in other solar system, work out how big they are, maybe even piece out a little more about their atmosphere.

Not bad for a view from the cheap seats, huh?

It’s also very reassuring for a teacher’s son. Most teachers have said at some point that there’s no such thing as a stupid question (and almost immediately get students who try to prove them wrong). I tend to believe something very similar – that there’s no such thing as useless knowledge.

Role-playing games taught me how to calculate percentages.

Children’s mysteries helped me learn how to estimate distance.

Even something as light as studying stage dialects has helped with getting Missy to brush her teeth at night. (It pays to use an outrageous French accent to count how much is left to do, even if the giggles do tend to spatter the mirror a bit.)

When everything fits with everything, anything can be good to know.

So watching Venus dance across the Sun? Why not? You never know when it might come in handy.

You simply can’t planet.