Schrödinger’s October

By the time this column appears in print, we’ll either be tired of shoveling or cynical about weather forecasters.

No surprise. That’s how October in Colorado works.

My friends from warmer climes often do a double take when they hear that a Front Range “snow season” runs from October to May. But even those words don’t really capture the true experience. The symbol of those eight months isn’t a snow shovel, but a pair of dice. You listen to the forecasts, buy out the bread and milk at the grocery stores (and somehow it’s always the bread and milk) and then roll ‘em.

Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes the big Snowmageddon forecasts produce nothing but a dusting of flakes and an ironic “I survived” post on social media.

Other times, it’s no laughing matter.

I grew up here. I remember a lot of Halloweens spent with a winter coat pulled over a truly awesome costume. (Hercules just doesn’t look the same when he’s bundled up against the cold.) But the year that really drove it home for me was 1997, when we got slammed by a late-October blizzard right before the Broncos were due to leave town for a game in Buffalo.

In those John Elway days, every bit of Bronco news was Serious Business. And so, in the midst of relentlessly raging snow and cars stacking up on Peña Boulevard, broadcasters would break in with the latest escapades. Kicker Jason Elam caught a ride to team headquarters with a group of fans. Safety Steve Atwater joined the rest of the team by snowmobile. Somehow, incredibly, everyone got out of town, stumbled into their hotel at 1 a.m. in the morning, and then  staggered their way through an overtime win that afternoon.

So yeah. We know. Feast or famine. Snow or “Snow big deal.”

And the thing is, we have to be ready for both. Like Schrödinger’s cat, the fabled “Chance of Snow” isn’t really alive or dead until we open the box and find out.

But then, isn’t that how we live our lives anyway?

We like to think we’ve minimized uncertainty. We make plans, we check forecasts, we schedule out our day. Everything’s in control.

Until it’s not.

The reminders, inevitably, come in. Sometimes as small as the storm that cancels a birthday picnic in the park. Sometimes as big as the injury or illness that transforms a lifetime.

We may have planned a route. But we’re not the ones driving the car.

So what do we do?

First, be aware. Always. Both in the moment-by-moment “situational awareness” sense and the bigger-picture sense of seeing what’s out there, not just what you want to see. Not only will that keep you ready – well, readier – for the unexpected, but it also reminds you of how much great stuff there is to see around you and how many situations your gifts and talents might be able to improve.

Second, stick together. I stress this a lot, maybe more than anything else I’ve ever written in this column. But it’s that important. Whether it’s shoveling our neighbor’s walks or standing up for our neighbors’ needs, we depend on each other. It’s how we weather a crisis or enhance a celebration.

We’re not going to see everything. But with eyes open and hands clasped, just maybe we can see enough.

Even in a stormy October.

The Juggling Act

“So, what are you reading these days?”

Every so often, a friend will ask that simple question. Simple and dangerous. Like a dragon deep within its cave, I have to smile in anticipation at an adventurer who does not know his peril.

“Well, I’m getting into a book on the fall of Richard Nixon. Oh, and there’s that new translation of The Iliad. And of course, Missy and I found a really fun modern fantasy series to go through at bedtime, we might have another hit there. And speaking of fantasy, there’s a novel  a co-worker finally got me into …”

No, I’m not just throwing out the coming attractions. This isn’t the to-be-read list, though that particular reading mountain is also impressively high. At any given time, I’m usually juggling anywhere from three to six books. It kind of works out a little bit like a literary version of Mambo No. 5: “A little bit of Asimov in my life, a little bit of history by my side ….”

I know I’m not alone. We’re out there, taking our meandering path less traveled. We’re often the kids who had to be told “No more than five books, OK?” on each library trip, knowing that we’d cart off half a shelf if given the chance – and devour it all.

And invariably, we get two questions from more tightly-focused readers.  “How?” Quickly followed by “Why??”

“How” isn’t something I’m sure I can answer. Like any skill, it seems to be a mix of inclination and practice. It’s not really multitasking (thank goodness) where one to-do interrupts another, lowering your productivity at both. If anything, it’s more like having multiple foods on your plate at dinner: you don’t have to finish your mashed potatoes before starting on the steak, but can alternate bites of both as you like, letting the flavors reinforce each other.

And maybe that’s part of the “Why?” as well. At its heart, this narrative whirlwind may be the most liberating experience I know.

We go through a lot in a day. Everything we touch shapes us, so that we’re not quite the same person from hour to hour, or maybe even minute to minute. Our mood shifts, our energy level shifts, our ability (or desire) to engage with the rest of the world shifts.

And as our life balances and re-balances, the sort of inner world we need may change, too. Like grabbing an umbrella for a rainstorm or a T-shirt for a sunny day, it’s nice to have options. (“The forecast is hopeful and curious, with a chance of random silliness: Yes, this is a great Connie Willis day.”)

It also keeps the stories fresh. We’ve all had the experience where even a favorite book can get a little fatiguing if you KNOW you have to finish it up before you can move on to another story you’re curious about.  Giving yourself the freedom to move from tale to tale as the inclination takes you (with careful bookmarks, of course) can keep all of it fresh and exciting.

It’s also a great reminder that nothing happens in isolation. Like that dinner plate I mentioned, it gives you a chance to combine and compare, bringing out themes you didn’t expect. (This happens to writers, too, by the way. Isaac Asimov once mentioned that the idea for his Foundation series happened when a Gilbert & Sullivan illustration got him thinking about what he’d read of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

So go ahead. Let the worlds collide. It’s your literary universe, after all.

 And when someone asks you that Simple Question – remember to let your inner dragon smile.

Working in the Dark

I love weird stuff. And every so often, it’s so weird that I have to spend a morning on it here.

That’s how we’ve ended up with columns on the infamous “Boaty McBoatface.” Or on the man who solved nearly 7,000 Rubik’s Cubes in 24 hours. Or on the friend who loves to wrap a “hippity hop” ball in lights and lower it from a rope to celebrate the New Year. You know, the stuff that keeps the world interesting.

Well, we’re back in Rubik’s territory today. Not quantity this time, but quality. I’d say it’s a real eye-opener, but that would be singularly inappropriate in this case.

You see, today’s weird and wonderful accomplishment comes from an Australian teen who set a new Rubik’s Cube speed record … for solving it while blindfolded.

In 12.1 seconds to be exact.

Now I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t do a 12-second solve with my eyes open. Even if you let me “solve” it by peeling off all the colored stickers and putting them back on again so they matched.

To be fair, Charlie Eggins’ first reaction, according to Guinness, was also “I still can’t believe it!” And that’s after he’d done about 25,000 practice solves.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so startled. Maybe none of us should be.

After all, we try to do the same thing every day. Only we’re taking on something harder than Rubik’s Cubes.

We’re trying to solve people.

We like to think we know our family, our friends, the folks around us. Even with complete strangers, we’re usually pretty comfortable in our rules of thumb … after all, they can’t be that different from us, can they? Even one of our most fundamental rules – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – takes as its first assumption that others want what you want.

That’s not a bad starting point. It’s certainly better than seeing the “other” as a danger to be feared. But every so often – more than every so often – we run into the limits of it and have to reassess.

It could be minor, like discovering their indifference to a movie “everyone” knows. (“What do you mean, you’ve never seen Star Wars?”) It could be something more fundamental in their beliefs, their upbringing, the way they see the world.

Big or small, earthshaking or trivial, we suddenly find something that brings us up short and makes us think instead of react. In that moment, we get new eyes: toward the other person, the world, even ourselves.

Like a number of literature geeks, I’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of “The Iliad” lately. (I’d offer you my copy but, well, beware of geeks bearing gifts.) There’s a moment early on where the fierce warrior Diomedes is briefly given the ability to recognize the gods on the battlefield , even when they’re invisible or shape-shifted. Able to see who’s receiving special help, he fights more effectively than ever, even wounding Aphrodite when she tries to protect one of her favored warriors.

Clear vision can produce amazing results.

But like Eggins, we won’t solve anything if we’re not willing to come to grips with it.

We may be working in the dark. But if we’re at least trying to understand, we’ve taken the first step. (A step too few take, judging by the headlines.) We may get it wrong. We may fumble and stumble and misunderstand. But if we make the effort, and recognize the attempts of others to do the same with us, we’ll get there eventually … even if it isn’t in 12.1 seconds.

And that’s pretty weird and wonderful in itself.