As I write this, a grand old man hovers at death’s door. By the time it appears in print, he may already be gone.

Godspeed, Nelson Mandela.

His is one of the amazing lives of the last century. Few men have made the transition from political prisoner to national leader; even fewer have done so without the intervention of civil war or other violence. To have done that and remain a respected, even beloved, figure years after leaving power – well, you get the idea.

But the end comes for all of us. Not always quickly or kindly. Though at least most of us don’t have the world’s press straining to be the first to announce our passing. An odd compliment, in a way.

Farewell, Mr. Mandela.

I can’t think of him without thinking of a moment in history. And I don’t just mean February 1990, the moment of his freedom from prison, the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.

That’s a key part of this. But to everyone who was alive then – do you remember?

Do you remember what a remarkable time in history that was?

Think back to 1989 and 1990.

These were the years the Wall came down. That the Soviet Union began to break apart, like a calving iceberg. That the Velvet Revolution came to Czechoslovakia, setting off dominoes across Eastern Europe – and not the sort of dominoes once anticipated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That even Beijing felt an attempt to “shake your windows and rattle your walls,” in the old words of Mr. Zimmerman.

Remember those days? When it seemed like the books were being rewritten every day, mostly for the better?

Heady times, indeed.

OK, I admit, putting it that way makes it sound like some kind of high school slide show, probably set to a rewritten version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” But looking back from now, when the headlines involve drones and wiretapping, wildfire and Middle Eastern war … well, it can make someone a little nostalgic.

But here’s the interesting thing about including Mandela in that parade of events. It gives a little perspective.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Years during which he had little reason to believe that South Africa was ever going to change. Years during which it seemed the world would continue on the same old paths in the same old way, for as long as anyone could foresee.

Then, all at once – transformation. Release.


No, the world’s problems didn’t end. We didn’t magically enter the promised land. But so much that no one had even dared promise came to be.

No, it didn’t just happen to happen. It took work and endurance and even suffering on the part of many, with no promise of success. And that may be the most hopeful part of all.

If they could dream then, we can dream now. If they could labor then, not even daring to speak the fear that it might all be in vain, we can labor now.

And what they achieved, we can achieve. However dark the times may seem.

So thank you, Mr. Mandela. Thank you for what you ended and what you began.  For not just outfighting injustice, but outlasting it.

Thank you and farewell.

May you rest in peace.

And may we not rest until peace is here.

Gone To Potter – And Thank Goodness

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.” – J.K. Rowling, 2011.

Don’t look now, but Harry Potter may just save the world.

OK, granted, he’s famous for doing that. I’m intimately familiar with the battles of England’s favorite boy wizard against the forces of Voldemort. I’ve cheered him on as he raised his wand against evil, selfishness and – most frightening of all – government bureaucracy.

But I’m not talking about the fictional confines of Harry’s hidden magical universe. I’m talking right here. Right now.

Or at least, that’s what Anthony Gierzynski is saying.

Gierzynski is the author of “Harry Potter and the Millennials,” a political science book that looks at the children who grew up among tales of Hogwarts and now make up a young voting bloc of their own.

What sort of voters? That’s the interesting part. Based on Gierzynski’s studies, the millennials who grew up reading the Potter books were more likely to be tolerant of differences and less likely to support using deadly force or torture; more likely to be politically active and less likely to be authoritarian.

In short, the sort of people we seem to need so much these days.

“I give Dobby most of the credit!” teased a friend.

Maybe so. Maybe there’s something to be said for an early exposure to Dobby, the fearful house-elf with an unlikely potential for heroism … or to a world where wizards’prejudices have visible consequences … or even to an orphaned boy who belongs to two worlds and sometimes feels out of place in both.

But proceed with caution. And not just because of the giant spiders.

Gierzynski himself warns that correlation may not be causation. For those not used to the difference (a majority, it seems, on the Internet), it works like this: After it rains, I go out and find the roof of my house is wet. But that doesn’t mean soaking my roof will make it rain.

Applied here, it means be careful which way you point the sign post. Sure, it might be that reading Harry Potter creates a tolerant, activist personality. But it could also be that people with tolerant, activist personalities were the most likely to read about him in the first place. Or even that it’s pure coincidence.

Either way, it gives me some hope.

Remember, Harry Potter books in their heyday were the most popular books in the world. At a time where the National Security Agency competes with online marketers to see who can make our lives the most transparent, when ideological differences repeatedly become hard-and-fast battle lines, when rights are treated like conveniences – well, it’s a little encouraging to know that a solid chunk of that record-breaking readership believes in a better way.

More, that they believe in fighting for one.

I know, it’s a long way from imagination to reality. But the way is there. And it’s a road that J.K. Rowling herself has been forcefully pointing to for a long time.

“The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry and I think it’s one of the reasons that some people don’t like the books,” the author once said. “But I think it’s a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.”

Yes, it’s a story. A fiction. A dream.

But people who have a dream and the passion to see it through, for better or worse, have had an amazing impact on the world before. They will again.

Choose your dreams well.

That’s the magic that lasts.

Fuel for the Fire

The battle lines have again been drawn in flame.

We know the drill by now. High wind. High heat. Lots of vegetation, some of it beetle-killed. One spark and Colorado becomes a tinder box, with too many fires and not nearly enough people to fight them.

Homes consumed. Prisoners evacuated. Summer evenings obscured by smoke.

Oh, yes. We know this well. It’s part of our memories, our fears, our DNA.

Even if we did think – hope? Pray? – we might actually dodge the bullet this time.

I know I did.

Sure, winter had been much too dry. But there had been that beautiful snow in April, that wonderful rain in May. The threat of drought had been eased. Not erased – my pleading lawn was testimony to that—but at least, pardon the phrase, damped down.

On Monday, I made the fatal mistake. I told someone that this summer didn’t look too bad. Certainly not as bad as last year.

Some words should never be spoken. By Tuesday, the match had been lit.

The last time Colorado burned, we had presidential contenders cris-crossing the state. I took up a friend’s plea that they all withdraw and give their Colorado advertising money to fire relief, where it would do more good than a thousand finger-pointing ads.

Didn’t happen.

This year, we’re at least spared the indignity of leaders-in-waiting fiddling while home burns. A small comfort, I suppose. Very small.

But then, everything seems pretty small against a wall of flame.

Especially our own efforts.

So often, that’s what keeps coming back to me. What can we do? We all want to stop it. To turn it off. To make it not happen.

And we can’t. That’s in the hands of a few brave men and women, putting everything on the line to save the rest of us.

But we can do two things. Remember. And prepare.

We all have a responsibility to be ready for the next battle.

When I was a kid learning to cut the lawn, Dad drilled me on the three things every mower needs. Fuel. Air. A spark. Take away even one, and you don’t have a lawn mower, you have a lawn ornament.

Wildfire works by the same rules.

Air, we can’t do much about. Colorado winds are what they are, erratic and sudden.

The spark? Common sense can help a bit there. But danger can still leap from the sky in a lightning strike or emerge from the embers of a seemingly-doused fire pit.

But the biggest thing we can do is remove the fuel.

And in the mountains especially, that means firebreaks.

I know. It’s beautiful to have a “hidden home” in the mountains. It’s prettier to have the trees come right to your door. I’ve seen it. I agree, it is nice.

But capricious as fire is, it still needs a path. A tree-shrouded home offers it a six-lane highway.

Clearing a space may not guarantee safety. Neither does wearing a seat belt in a car. But both do a lot to improve the odds. Three years ago, those spaces and a shift in the wind helped spare Gold Hill from yet another wildfire. In aerial photos, it looked like the homes were surrounded by a moat.

That’s what a firebreak is. A moat of dirt. A defense against the next battle.

A way for the militia – all of us – to help the regular defenders.

We’ll endure. We always seem to. The fires will recede, the destruction will end. The smoke will fade.

But the memories and the lessons shouldn’t.

And maybe next year, we can meet the fire season with more than hope.

A Rose for the Infield

The bat tapped the ball gently, sending a soft liner into the infield dirt.

“Go, Missy!” Heather and I shouted as Missy leaned on the arm of a volunteer and slowly made her way to first base. Partway there, she looked back over her shoulder to make sure we were watching and beamed.

Another softball season had opened. Missy, as usual, was having the time of her life.

Even without “her Joe.”

“My Joe” is how Missy refers to Joe Brooks, her Niwot Nightmares coach for a number of seasons. Once upon a time, Joe taught at Longmont High School and coached baseball. After his retirement, he decided to keep his hand in, and volunteered with a local league for the disabled.

I’ve written about that league before, where life is less about winning and losing and more about having a good time in the sunshine. Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, may be one of the longest-running players. In his time as coach, Joe practically adopted her, always greeting her with a smile, a hug and some advice on practicing her throwing.

I always admired how much he gave to that team. But it’s funny. Now that Mr. Brooks has retired for the second time, I find myself looking at the whole league with a different eye.

An eye full of roses.

I should explain. Recently, I had the chance to catch up with a dear family friend named Sarah. As we talked and reminisced, she happened to bring up one of her favorite parts of town: the Roosevelt Park rose garden.

Why the rose garden?

“Because of what it means,” she explained. To her, it was about more than just the flowers. It was about living in a society where those flowers could be planted and maintained, a society safe enough that one could walk among the flowers in peace and without fear. Where the flowers themselves could be left in peace.

This wasn’t just a garden. It was a small reminder of how lucky she was to live where she lived, in a place where quiet and beauty could still have somewhere to be.

Watching the players and their helpers on the dusty diamond, I had a similar feeling.

Joe Brooks poured energy and love into the program. And that’s a great thing. But the program was around before him and is still going strong after him – and that may be a greater one.

It means there are still so many who care.

We don’t always do such a great job of looking after “the least of these.” I’m sure most of us could point to stories – or real-life examples – of a world that looks past the poor, that neglects the elderly and the disabled, that leaves children to shiver with cold and fear. They’re heartbreaking accounts. And too often, they’re just accounts, engaging our sympathy but not any sort of response.

After all, it’s so big. What can we do?

What we can do.

What some people have done here is to keep a small labor of love going each summer. To prove that this is still a place where the disabled can have a place, that love and friendship and care are not dead. That flowers of kindness can be planted, and bloom.

It may not transform the world. But it’s protecting this small piece of it.

So thank you, Joe. Thank you to all the coaches and organizers and volunteers, past and present, who keep this garden growing.

You may not get laurels. But you surely have roses.

See you in the bleachers.