It’s the Rail Thing

It’s McTrue.

Quite a while back, I recounted the saga of Boaty McBoatface, the British polar research vessel that was christened by an internet poll (Awwww!) only to have the name rejected as frivolous by the Powers That Be (Booo!). The decision disappointed lovers of silliness and members of the media – or is there a distinction? – who had to settle for the minor victory of calling the craft “also known as…” in every relevant story and online posting from here until the Sun flames out.

But! There has been a new development!

We take you now to Stockholm, where Reuters reports that a Swedish railway operator has named one of its trains through a public poll. The train operator publicly embraced the new name, which is … yes, really … Trainy McTrainface.

And no, this was not a reluctant bowing to the ever-strange mind of the internet. If anything, MTR Express gloated in a statement that, where Britain had ignored the voice of the people, this newly chosen name “will be welcomed by many, not just in Sweden.”

All that was missing was Ringo Starr to do the narration, accompanied by a certain tank engine theme song. (And if you didn’t want that earworm in your head … oops.)

OK, it’s ridiculous. It’s not going to bring justice, health care, and a free copy of the works of Elvis Presley to every human being on the globe. But if it brings a chuckle and a smile for just a minute, that’s not to be despised.

In fact, I’ll go beyond that. It shows how powerful a force simple joy can be.

We’ve seen the opposite for a while. Anger can rally people. Fear can make them huddle together against a perceived foe or danger. Suspicion can fuel talk, and theorizing, and endless opportunities for those with an agenda to promote. After a while, it becomes a feedback cycle, a circle that draws ever tighter against a seemingly threatening world.

The trouble is, it’s hard to build anything when your fists are clenched. Anger and fear provide plenty of enemies to defeat, but little to raise in their place. It’s a hunger that always needs to be fed, so that anyone could migrate from “us” to “them” with little warning,  from a wielder of the weapon to its newest target.  Even in the less intense cases, it’s fatiguing to always be looking over your shoulder … or even harmful, if it means you don’t see a crack in the sidewalk.

Building requires wonder.

It needs a desire to explore and consider the different.

It responds to hands that are open to tools, minds that are open to questions, lives that are open to the possibility of something that hasn’t been there before.

It may even need a bit of the cockeyed. Puns work (as much as they do) because someone can see two meanings of a word at once. Ideas work because someone can see two states of being at once – what’s in the world now, and what could be.

That’s how you build ideas, companies, inventions, stories, nations. And at its best, it sparks a joy and enthusiasm that can carry multitudes in its wake.

Not every idea will be good. Not every dream will bear fruit. But all of it can open a door to conversation instead of throwing up a wall.

“Don’t just tell me the quarterback sucks – tell me who should be playing.”

“Don’t just tell me the program won’t work – tell me what would work better.”

“Don’t just tell me the story doesn’t speak to you – help me craft one that can.”

It can be silly. It can be profound. But if it’s building joy instead of sapping hope, then we’re on the right track.

Even if it’s an unusual McTrain of thought.

Hearing Through the Storm

I wanted to write about Adam West this week. This was going to be a warm and fuzzy farewell to TV’s Batman, full of  the echoes of “BAM!” and “ZZONK!” and maybe even a “KAPOW!” or two.

But then shots rang out. Again. And it’s been a little hard to think about anything else.

This time, it crossed the country in a single day. The sites couldn’t have been more different. A baseball field in Virginia where congressmen were practicing for a charity game. A UPS center in San Francisco, where it was just another working day – until suddenly, it wasn’t.

Until the anger reached out. Again.

I used to write about these more. That was when the announcement of a mass shooting was a punch to the gut, a painful shattering of an ordinary day. It demanded to be grappled with, even if there were no clear answers to offer. (Are there ever?) Even if all that could be offered was comfort.

Now it seems more like an old wound, poked and prodded to life again. They’ve not become normal – please, let them never become normal – but the pace has increased and the alarm bells have started to blend with the overall noise. Now, we pay lasting attention mostly when something raises the bar, with maybe a high profile victim (the baseball shooting), or a strange setting (the Aurora movie theater), or a huge casualty list (the Orlando nightclub).

I almost wrote “… or a place we expected to be safe.” But that’s the point, isn’t it? We used to expect safety. Now, we seem to expect anger. No, shootings like this aren’t normal yet, but now they’re punctuation marks rather than breaks in the narrative.

When I was a kid, we used to play a storytelling game called “The Boiler Burst.” It was a narrative version of musical chairs, where whoever was up had to tell a story, usually long and rambling. Sooner or later, the person would have to call out the words “the boiler burst” and everyone would move.

After you’d played a while, you became harder to surprise. You learned how to listen to the story, to listen for the cues that would suggest the punchline was coming. You knew which players would jump to the punch line as quickly as possible, and which ones would draw it out to the point of agony. The more closely you listened, the more ready you were.

I think we need to do some listening now. Because the pressure keeps building. And if it doesn’t stop, the boiler will burst again.

I’m not naive enough to think that we can ever completely scourge this kind of thing from the nation, or that we can ever understand every last motive of every last shooter. But we can grapple with the national anger that gives them a space to grow and flourish. The rage that has touched all of us, even those who have never heard a single shot.

Some of that anger comes from understandable places. There are many among us who fear for their families, or their jobs, or their rights, or their place in the world. When the conversation seems to stop, when those who might be able to help turn into stone walls – or worse, seem to add to the pain – the fear turns to anger and the anger grows.

Some of it is manufactured. From ancient times to now, people have found it convenient to stir up anger and point it at a target – an “other” who can be safely blamed for all their woes. That rage can build mobs. It can build camps. It never, ever builds solutions.

We need to hear where the anger is coming from. We need to listen for the real worries and fears that generate it, and to know when we’re being sold an easy answer. We need to be more aware of each other and our hurts, so that no one has to shoulder their burden alone.

We won’t prevent all the crazies. But we can stop helping them flourish. And if we turn down the volume, maybe, just maybe, we can better hear them coming.

Batman’s not going to burst through the door this time.

This time, we have to come to our own rescue.

Lighting Hope

I’d gotten halfway across town when Santa Claus mugged me.

OK, not literally. There’s no need to call the fine folks of the Longmont Police Department and report a jolly old man with a fur hat and a blackjack, making a getaway in a reindeer-powered sleigh with one (red) headlight. The year’s been strange, but not that strange – yet.

No, this time Santa was part of a yard display that seemed to pop out of nowhere, complete with lights and color and holiday cheer. Normal enough for the holiday season. But a bit striking when it’s several days before Thanksgiving.

Missy, of course, was delighted. Our disabled ward eagerly plays Christmas carols in the middle of July. If Longmont were to break out in colored lights immediately after Labor Day, she’d probably break out in cheers that could be heard as far as Lyons – right before insisting on seeing every display, every night.

Not everyone is in her camp, of course. As stores increasingly deck the halls with holiday merchandise right after Halloween, I’ve seen the more-than-occasional post on social media, all of it set to a common theme: “What happened to Thanksgiving?”

I understand it, believe me. When I worked in the now-vanished City Newsstand bookstore, Christmas music and decorations were strictly forbidden until Black Friday. The dire penalties were never explicitly spelled out, but presumably included a lengthy spell on the Naughty list and a stocking full of coal.

But these days, I’m not really bothered by a chorus of “Oh, Early Light.” For a couple of reasons.

First, I figure Thanksgiving can take care of itself. Where other holidays cry out, Thanksgiving is about drawing in. It doesn’t require fireworks or dazzling displays, just a table to share and a spirit of gratitude. Its one garish parade, the Macy’s march, is really more of a start-of-Christmas celebration, with cartoon balloons and forgettable pop ballads mixed in. Thanksgiving doesn’t need to shout. It just needs a space to be.

Secondly, in this year of all years, I’m not about to refuse light and cheer from any source.

It’s been a hard one, with a lot of fear, anger and uncertainty that isn’t over yet. One (out-of-state) friend has had family threatened.  Another found a friend’s car had been covered with hateful graffiti. In so many places, online and off, battle lines have been drawn.

Mind you, election years are often divisive. But this one has taken it to a power of 10, not least because it’s left so many unsure of their future or fearful that they don’t have one. It’s a time when we need to be standing by each other and saying “You will not be forgotten” – as a promise, not a threat.

But threats are in the air.

I’ll say it again – we need each other. Every time we isolate, every time we declare someone unworthy of a place at the table, we weaken the whole family. Every time we turn aside from someone who needs our comfort, our support, our help, we break one more bond and undermine one more foundation of our common life.

If a few lights can remind us that joy drives out hate, I’ll welcome them.

If an early carol or two can send out the call for peace and understanding, I’ll join the chorus.

This isn’t about burying discord under a carpet of tinsel and plastic snowmen. It’s about recognizing the pain and reaching out to heal. It’s about seeing the darkness and driving it back so that we can find each other … and ourselves, as well.

There’s a Christmas carol I’ve quoted in this space before, taken from the despair and hope of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Its final verses are worth evoking one more time.

 

And in despair, I bowed my head,

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,

‘For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

 

May we give that peace to one another and a true Thanksgiving with it.

May that be our proudest decoration.

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.

A Time To Think

There’s a fire racing through Facebook.

This time, the spark came from talk of Syrian refugees. Before that, it was gun control. Before that, some other broad and powerful issue of the day, building an audience faster than the rumor of free Bronco tickets.

By itself, that’s not so bad. Big and important issues should be discussed by a free people, after all. I’ve seen some approach the impromptu debate with thought and care, and I’ve done my best to take part in the same manner.

All the while, I know we’re in the minority.

Most of what happens isn’t a discussion or debate. You know it. I know it. Most of it is a shouting match at best, the verbal equivalent of Mark Twain’s duel with axes at two paces – swing hard and fast, with no particular care for accuracy so long as blood is drawn.

“Behold the power of my inflammatory photograph!”

“Hah-hah! Your photograph is impotent in the face of my video of dubious origin!”

“Oh, yeah? Well have at thee with an unsourced blog post!”

“Pah! Now you shall see the might of my snarky cartoon!”

Sometimes the borrowed memes and images open a new line of thought. More often, they’re an opportunity to raise the voice, plug the ears and carry on, invincible. No listening. No learning. No need for the other person to even be in the (virtual) room.

And thus, a wildfire. Plenty of heat. Plenty of damage. Precious little in the way of useful light.

Please understand: I’m glad that people care. In the face of an issue like this, apathy would be an indictment of us all. I want this to be on our minds and hearts and I know others feel the same.

But how it’s done matters.

If you are one of the people involved, please. Take a moment, or several, before hitting Enter. Take the time to think.

Think about the image, or the video, or the report that you’re about to put out there. Have you checked its accuracy? Does it have identifiable, verifiable sources? This is especially true if it seems to agree with your feelings and beliefs in every particular – these are the items we are least likely to check, because they seem so obvious. (Reporter’s Rule No. 1: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) If it is true, does it add anything new and useful to the discussion?

Think about what you’re for, not just what you’re reacting to. What can you offer as a next step? If you favor sealing the borders, how do you propose helping those who need help, without putting them at risk of being radicalized? If you favor welcoming the stranger, what do we as a society and as individuals need to stand ready to do, to make sure our aid is more than an empty ‘welcome’ banner and an isolation within a new society?

Think about what the other person is saying and examine where you stand. Have you put yourself in a place that you’ll regret when the passion of the moment has died down? Our history books are full of people who earnestly argued positions that have since been exposed to wrath and ridicule. (One of those, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is even now the subject of a Broadway production.) Are you so sure that you want to be so sure? Even the unbending Oliver Cromwell himself once implored “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Sure, I want to win people to my side of the argument. I’m human and the subject is important to me. But I think calm consideration is more likely to do that than angry sloganeering. If it can’t, then maybe I have a few things to examine of my own.

I’ll take that risk. This is too important to be decided purely by gut impulse. This is the time to think of who we are as a community and a nation, and what we want to be. A “Thinksgiving” season, if you will.

Some fires bring warmth, and light, and inspiration. Please help this be one of them.

Haven’t we all been burned enough?

Drawing the Poison

I’ve been walking the yard with the dogs lately. I’m sure most of you can guess why.

If you can’t, I envy you.

Our two dogs, you see, have eating habits that only a canine could love. Our senior citizen, Duchess the Wonder Dog (“I wonder where she’s gone to?”) tries to chew backyard grass and sometimes the … um … stuff that dogs leave behind in backyard grass. Big Blake, meanwhile, has the instincts of a burglar, the stomach of a billy goat and the common sense of Roger Rabbit, leading him to grab any semi-edible opportunity within his considerable reach.

In short, if they see something lying on the ground that looks intriguing, they’re likely to give it a try.

And well … that’s just not safe anymore.

You’re probably sick of reading about poisoned meatballs. I know I’m sick of writing about them. It nauseates me to think that someone could decide that stuffing a meatball full of rat poison and throwing it in the grass could be a solution to anything.

If my neighbor’s been revving his engine, I don’t attach a car bomb to the ignition.

If his weeds are out of control, I don’t spread gasoline and light a match.

And if his dog is making more noise than a Jack London wolf pack, the answer lies in the cell phone, not the d-Con.

To a sensible person, it would be obvious.

But as I’ve said before, there seems to be a shortage of sensible people these days.

In my worst moments, I sometimes think friendly discussion itself is a lost art. Listen? Reason? Compromise? Please. This is the age of planting your flag and venting your spleen, whether it’s in the halls of Congress or the photons of Facebook. Because by jingo, you’re right, and if you can’t carry the day by facts, it’s time to do it by volume.

The old legal maxim goes “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table.”

There’s a lot of table-pounding lately.

In a scary way, this is simply the next step. If debate is unnecessary and the rightness of your cause is assured, why not take whatever measures are needed to end the problem, regardless of its impact on anyone else? At a certain stage of self-righteousness, others don’t matter. At a certain stage, others don’t even exist.

Nothing exists to them but the anger.

I don’t want to overstate the case. There have been and will be people who make selfish choices, even deadly ones. But at a time with so much selfishness on the march, it’s time for the rest of us to draw a line.

We will not be bullied.

We will not be intimidated.

And we will find our way to a better place again.

We’re watchful now, because we’ve been taught to be. It’s a terrible lesson to need to learn. We will watch those we love to keep them from harm, and we will watch for the agents of harm so that they may be stopped.

But our duty goes farther.

On a smaller scale, we must create a place for courtesy and understanding to be. We must be ready to remind people that listening is more than an option, it’s a prerequisite. Yes, the ones who need it most will be the ones who are lest receptive. But the rest of us must keep the conversation open.

It will not be easy. Sometimes I’m not even sure if it will be possible. But I know it won’t be if we let the bullies and the screamers and the brawlers have everything their way.

Only in trying do we have a chance.

I’m aware of the paradox here: to be uncompromisingly for compromise, firmly for gentleness. But it can be done. Any good teacher or parent has done it. They’ve found ways – sometimes through much difficulty – to head off the rude and the hateful so that civility and respect can continue.

We have to find that way again. All of us. Together.

Let’s make a world where it’s safe to feed the dog.