In the Middle of the Night

The clouds had scattered for the moment. The night air was still. And high overhead, one half of the moon had gone into shadow.

CLICK.

I went inside and studied my picture of the so-late-it’s-early eclipse. Perfect. But something was … different. Somehow in the dark, my natural coordination (which makes Maxwell Smart look like an Olympic athlete) had bumped one of the camera settings while I was lining up the shot. The result looked less like a photograph and more like a painting, framed by trees that seemed to be the work of careful brush strokes.

I loved it. It was like tripping over a rock that turns out to be a diamond.

Late-night magic had struck again.

Like the Phantom of the Opera,  I long ago fell in love with the music of the night, that wonderful time when the demands of the world are few and the mind can go where it will. It can be a time to write and reflect. Or to chat with fellow owls. Or to power through my mountainous reading pile, including the final few (hundred) pages of The Wheel of Time.

It’s a time that’s set aside. That’s ready to be whatever you make it.

And if that sounds familiar, you’ve probably glanced at the calendar.

We’ve reached another Memorial Day. Another time that’s set aside from the usual demands of work and daily life to be more or less spent as we please. (Especially with the gradual easing of the pandemic in this country.)

For many, it’s a time to break out the grill, the steak and the sunscreen. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with a good cookout.

For many of us, it’s also a time to reflect. To think about who isn’t at the barbecue. Maybe even to raise a flag or leave some flowers.

That’s where this began. Not with the grill. Not even with a “thank you for your service” to living veterans (though you certainly don’t have to wait until November to do that). But with a moment to remember the price that others have paid.

Not just out of respect, though that’s important. But because it may also help us weigh the costs of what we do as a nation going forward.

No action happens in a vacuum. Everything we do touches someone or something beyond the immediate moment. And there’s always a price to be paid. Maybe it’s in literal dollars and cents. Maybe it’s an effect on the physical environment, Maybe it’s an impact on how others live their lives – or whether those lives continue at all.

When we remember that, we remember each other. And maybe, just maybe, we learn to consider and to care for each other on this journey together as well.

But it’s our choice.

It’s our choice whether to remember those who gave their lives for the nation … or to regard their sacrifices as ancient history  and war as someone else’s video game.

It’s our choice whether to build a nation that remembers and includes all of us … or to throw up walls and barriers, turn away from uncomfortable truths and perpetually see an “other” instead of a neighbor.

And yeah, it’s even our choice whether to season all this thought with the offerings of a backyard grill. (Weather permitting.)

It’s your time. Your choice. It’s whatever you choose to make it.

And if that choice keeps you up a little late, maybe I’ll see you around.

I might even have my camera figured out by then.

Space to Dream

In the midst of a cold and frozen week, a text from Heather sent me out of this world: “perseverance touched down on Mars ok.”

Over the next several minutes, I couldn’t have missed it if I wanted to. Images. News stories. Cartoons. And of course, posts up and down social media, all celebrating the same thing: The Perseverance rover had made a perfect landing on Mars and was already sharing its surroundings with one and all.

A big geeky smile spread across my face. For a moment, the impossibilities of the world didn’t seem to matter.

For just a moment, we were on higher ground.

My friends know that I’ve been a space geek for a long time. In grade school, I devoured books about the solar system and spacecraft, and then watched the moon eagerly with Dad through a Christmas-gift telescope. As I grew up, my heart was broken by Challenger, amazed by comet Hale-Bopp, and utterly overwhelmed by the images from Hubble. Even now, the Great Beyond has never lost its magic and wonder for me, from midday eclipses to fiery black holes.

And every now and then, I’m brought up short when someone says “So what?”

Mind you, it’s a seductive thing to say. After all, here we are, fenced in our homes, waiting for a vaccine to set us free – maybe. Here we are, in the depths of a bitter winter, watching much of Texas go dark in the world. It’s easy to be pulled “down to Earth,” easy to say “Don’t we have more important things to worry about?”

And yet.

For me, there’s always an “And yet.” It goes beyond the obvious, like the spin-off technologies from the space program that make life better on Earth. (Like say, those weather satellites that enable us to prepare for freezes like this.) It even goes beyond the notion that space and Earth are not an either-or, that attending to one does not automatically mean neglecting the other.

For me, it goes down to something deeper. More aspirational.

Moments like this prove that we’re capable of better.

They show that we can look beyond ourselves and our immediate needs to something grander.

They show that our perspective doesn’t have to be limited to our own doorstep.

They show that we can still ignite imagination, reach out with learning, and achieve wonders that once would have seemed impossible.

Most of all, moments like this show that we can hope. That we can dream. That we don’t have to be locked into a perpetual cycle of despair.

Looked at from that angle, the question isn’t “If we can land a vehicle on Mars, why can’t we keep Texas warm?” It instead becomes “If we can land a vehicle on Mars, what else could we possibly do?”

There are real and serious needs here on Earth. Despair won’t beat any of them. But if we face them with diligence, wonder, creativity and hope, we just may find a way forward.

We’re in a time now where even much of our science fiction – a language of dreams – is tied down in dystopic visions of grim survival. If we look out rather than burrow in, if we dare to give our dreams a chance, who knows what we might prove capable of?

Let’s set our hopes high. As high as the stars. And then labor to make them real.

After all, we’ve seen how that can put a world of possibilities in reach.

All it takes is a little Perseverance.

Fighting for Indecision

On Friday came the news that I had been waiting for. Probably many of you, as well.

“Your Boulder County ballot has been mailed,” the email read. “Look for it in your mailbox soon!”

Finally. The last lap was in sight.

In recent years, most of us have had enough election fatigue to fill a book, and that volume is called “The Neverending Story.” No sooner does one campaign drag itself to an end than the next one sprints out of the starting blocks, demanding our attention. (And money. Never forget money.)

It’s not that we don’t care. If anything, the opposite has been true lately. People have gotten more passionate about their politics than ever – some from seeing just how much difference these choices can make to themselves and their loved ones, others from the sort of team loyalty that the Broncos used to excite when their roster was longer than their disabled list. We’re paying attention. We’re caring. We’re engaged.

We’re also very, very tired.

Some of it is doing all of this in the middle of Pandemic Land, of course. Captain America himself would be more than a little drained in his patriotic duties after dealing with the everyday realities of COVID-19 and its ripple effects. But there’s more to the picture than that.

And the biggest part of that picture is called certainty.

Colorado has had mail ballots for several years now. In most of those years, I have waited until the last possible day to fill out and hand-deliver my vote. Why? A desire for complete information – or, as I’ve always liked to put it, “I want to give the candidates the maximum opportunity to screw up before I make up my mind.”

There were always positions to be weighed, nuances to be studied, details to be considered. Even in the pre-mail ballot era, I could sometimes take a while – at my first-ever presidential election, in 1992, I wasn’t completely sure who my choice would be until three days before Election Day.

That’s not a problem this year.

I suspect that’s not a problem for a lot of us.

This year, my ballot’s likely to be returned within a day or so of getting it. And I know I’m not the only one. A recent poll from Quinnipiac University found just 5 percent of voters were undecided – a five-point drop from the same moment in 2016. The lines are sharply drawn, the issues clearly demarked and for most of us, the choices were made long ago.

Which, of course, is one reason why the voices have been louder than ever. Why the stakes have felt so high. And why there’s been such a desire to just get on with it – and at the same time, an anxiety about what that might mean.

At its best, politics is the principle that “talking is better than fighting,” to quote an old professor of mine. It’s meant to be a way for people who don’t always agree to find common ground, or at least to work out how to move forward together.

But lately, it’s felt like just one step above war. And a short step at that.

I want my indecision back.

I want to be able to look at two candidates and say “Hm, I like what he said there but she’s got a point.”

I want to be able to consider a win or loss without dread. Trepidation, sure. That’s part of the game. But without a fear that either of the players is going to overturn the board.

I think we can get back to a place like that. Not quickly. Not easily. Not without work. But if enough of us want it, if enough of us choose it – both on the ballot and in how we live our everyday lives – we can get there.

We’re tired. We’re worried. But we can still make a difference.

Watch that mailbox.

Our next step comes now.

The Face of Choice

A few days before he died, Heather saw footage of John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize” and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

“He looks so young,” she said in amazement.

A simple thing. But powerfully true. There on the screen was the young Freedom Rider, protester, orator and organizer. A face so different from the Georgia congressman so many of us had gotten used to, the man who had represented his district for so long that no one would have been surprised to see him turn up in “Hamilton” – as one of the characters.

Now all the faces belong to the past.

What face will we see?

That’s not as simple a question as it sounds. Like many people in many places, America loves its heroes. But we love them best when they’re safely distant. A Founding Father who belongs to a different time. A martyr cut down at the height of his glory. Crusaders and agitators whose messages can be carefully shaped the way we want to hear them, rather than have them inconveniently speak for themselves.

Lewis received an honor that many fighters for justice never claimed. He got to grow old. And so, for years and years, he got to remain a person rather than an image. Someone who could inspire people or irritate them, make them proud or make them angry.

The living get to do that.

They get to challenge us.

They get to embarrass us.

They even get to shame us.

Most of all, they get to remind us that they’re people. Not saints and angels from another realm. Not heroes conveniently written into a Hollywood script. But people like you and me.

And that can be the most humbling lesson of all.

Because if someone like you and me can do so much and stand for so long, it suggests that we could do it, too.

And then we have to ask ourselves why not.

For some of us, true, it’s a matter of opportunity. If you’re sweating and straining just to find $5 for a cheap dinner, simple survival looms much larger than leaving any sort of mark or legacy on the world. But for many of us – most of us – the answer is more unsettling.

For most of us, it comes down to choices. Often ordinary choices, that collectively have an extraordinary impact in what we do or what we ignore.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a piece about a photograph I’d found in a World War II history. It showed German soldiers throwing snowballs at each other in a train yard. Replace the uniforms with civilian clothing and they could have been anyone’s sons and brothers, taking joy in a winter’s day.

Ordinary men. Capable of laughter. Capable of silliness. And fighting for one of the most evil regimes in history.

Not monsters, safely separated from the human race. But people. Like us.

We can be our monsters. We can be our heroes. These are roles of our making, born of our choices.

Who will we choose to be?

John Lewis has left now, his choices made. Only his example remains behind. Will we remember a man, in all his complexities and contradictions, who left a mark and a job to be carried on? Or will we just remember a face from a documentary, a name from another time, a message from an old battle that surely has nothing to do with us?

Will we remember that we share the same story and the same potential?

Will we remember that our choices matter? And make them?

John Lewis’s face belongs to the past now. It’s time again to look at our own.

What will we see?

The Story of Us

It finally happened. I got to see it.

In a word? WOW.

If you’re new to this space, you should probably know that I’m a “Hamilton” fan. And unless you’re new to planet Earth, you’re probably aware that I’ve got a lot of company, including many of us who have yet to beg, borrow or steal our way into “The Room Where It Happens,” also known as a live performance of the Broadway smash.

That changed on Independence Day weekend. In a world where everything’s gone remote, the hip-hop history of the early republic followed suit, jumping feet first into streaming television. For two and a half hours we could see the show as it was on one night in 2016 … you know, back about a million years ago, when masks were something from a Jim Carrey movie?

I jumped in with it. And got hit with several tides at once.

First, of course, was a bit of heartbreak for a personal passion. Thanks to the coronavirus, it’s been so long since we’ve been able to touch live theatre – to see faces play off faces, actors play off audience, the perpetual cycle that creates something unique to the moment yet timeless in the memory. For an amateur actor like myself, to have even the shadow of that was powerful, even while it evoked the yearning for something more.

And then it touched something more subtle.

Watching the faces, you see, means watching reactions. Seeing thoughts and decisions. Having the impact of choices made physical and real.

In a story like this, that’s vital. Because this is a story about stories.

And it’s one that’s achingly relevant to now.

A bit of background: the musical sets up Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as foils to each other. Burr waits for the right moment; Hamilton tries to create it. Burr is cautious about what he says; Hamilton produces a flood of words at every moment. Burr weighs what his audience wants to hear; Hamilton speaks and writes with brutal honesty.

And yet, at the start, they’re more alike than different. Both are focused principally on themselves. True, Burr is considering how he’ll be perceived now while Hamilton instead looks forward to how he’ll be remembered. But it’s still “all about me.”

Burr rarely gets beyond that. When he finally puts his cards on the table, his aim is simply power for its own sake. To be at the center of the decision-making, regardless of what the decisions wind up being.

Hamilton, in the play, finds the seeds of something more.  Not just because he has something he wants to build. But because he’s reminded – often in painful ways – that his story isn’t just HIS story, that the choices he makes have an impact on others.

That’s a valuable reminder at any time. And especially now.

In a crisis, it’s easy to get caught up in the personal. After all, there’s so much of it. It’s human to feel the blows, to mourn the changes, to chafe at restrictions and scream “When do I get the life that I want back?”

We all feel it. And we know it’s not that easy.

In blizzards, in wildfires, in pandemics, the choices we make for ourselves can make life-or-death differences for others. That’s always the case, really, but a disaster underscores it. A moment’s carelessness can mean a pileup on icy roads, an out-of-control canyon blaze, or, yes, an outbreak that snuffs out lives and livelihoods on an epic scale.

And when we consciously look out for others – that’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we become neighbors and communities. It’s how we recover and build. Not by pushing ahead to what we want or deserve, but by watching for the needs and concerns of others and meeting them, even when it’s inconvenient.

That’s a story worth joining.

I wonder if we can get Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the music?

A Simple Act

Breathe deep. You’ve almost made it again.

After Tuesday, the ads are over. The junk mail can stop. The robocalls and surveys can find another topic for a while (and surely will). And with Daylight Savings over, you’ve even got your lost sleep back so you can recover your bearings.

But first, there’s a small job to left to do.

And small as it is, a lot of us won’t do it.

Every couple of years, a lot of time and money gets spent on “Get Out the Vote” campaigns. And every couple of years, the effect is … variable, if you want to say it kindly. In a good year, 60 percent of us may show up to the polls. In a bad year, even 40 percent may look like an impossible dream.

And in a midterm election, when there’s no presidential candidate at the top of the ticket, the bad years can be very bad indeed.

Everyone with a cause or a candidate wants to change that, of course – at least, for the folks who support THEM or who haven’t decided yet. And so, a lot of tactics get tried:

 

Eat Your Spinach – “Voting is good for you! It’s your duty! And you’re not leaving this dinner table until you’re done!”

Ooh, Shiny! – “Who wouldn’t want this cool sticker of the American flag? It’s the perfect accent to every outfit!”

What About Those Guys? – “If you don’t, (fill in least favorite person) will – and you know what he’s like!”

Buy Now! – “It couldn’t be easier! We’ll bring the ballot right to you! You drop it in the mail! Or even bring it to the curb! Heck, we’ll even throw in this lovely set of steak knives ABSOLUTELY FREE!” (Disclaimer: there are no steak knives.)

Be Emotional  – “People died to give you this vote. And you want to throw it away? I bet you shot Bambi’s mom, too.”

Be Practical – “These are the elections that count. No electoral college hoo-hah getting in the way, just your voice and mine. You wanna complain? Here’s your ticket.”

Be Really Practical – “You know those phone calls and doorbell ringers you’re sick of? You vote, and they magically go away. It’s like something out of Harry Potter.”

 

As I said, the results are mixed. Some tactics may help (especially clearing away the logistical barriers), but none is a magic bullet cure-all. And the reason is simple.

At its heart, voting is an act of caring.

It’s a small act of caring, true. Voting is to civic engagement what a wedding is to a good marriage – a first step on the road that’s often mistaken for the end of the race. It’s a commitment that says what kind of society you want to live in.  What issues and people are important to you. Who gets helped and who gets hurt.

It’s not just an abstract number shuffle. It’s a decision that changes more lives than the lottery and for a longer period. Sometimes the results can seem prosaic – jobs created or lost, standards created or repealed, projects begun or abandoned. But at the root are faces –a decision of who will be seen as a neighbor and who as a stranger, who will be greeted with open arms and who with doubled fists.

A single step. A first step. Even an easy one.

And if the caring isn’t there, even the easy step is too hard. It gets forgotten. Or cynically bypassed. Or maybe worst of all, done without any thought at all, just a tick of the box to get it over with. Boosting the turnout numbers, yes, but adding nothing to the decision.

Would you want an employee or a co-worker who approaches their job that way?

It can be good that everyone votes. But it’s vital that everyone who votes, cares.

Take the time. Spend the thought. Invest the heart.

Once again, there’s a small job left to do.

Do it right. Do it well.

 

What a Great Idea! Right?

Anyone can sing in the car on long trips. The Dutch took it one step further.

According to Reuters, the highway near the Dutch city of Jelsum will play a song when you drive over the rumble strips. Not just any song, either. When you hit the strips at 40 mph, the road will ring out with the anthem of Friesland, a northern region of the Netherlands. Imagine if a stretch of US-287 suddenly started playing “Rocky Mountain High” and you’ll have the idea.

It was brilliant. And also insane. Because what sounds cool when one car drives over one stretch of road every now and then, becomes chaos when a regular stream of traffic travels the same road at all hours and at varying speeds.

“Locals say the musical road had created a never-ending cacophony that keeps them awake at night,” Reuters reported, briefly quoting one neighbor who got to continually listen to the anthem at high speed in the early hours one night when a long string of taxis chose to blaze across the rumble strips.

The strips will soon be removed. And the Dutch get to join a long line of people in singing one of humanity’s oldest anthems: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

You know this song. So do I. It’s not the song of the moments that are inattentive and clueless, like the time I walked off the stage and into the orchestra pit on Opening Night in mid-song (a matter now part of Longmont Theatre Company legend). No, these are the ones with a little thought and a lot of optimism, deliberate choices that felt really good until the consequences started to kick in.

For me, it was the night I tried driving home from Garden City, Kans. on a single tank of gas, figuring I could refuel in Bennett instead of my usual Kansas stop in Goodland. Great idea – except it was late in the day on a holiday weekend when I arrived and the gas station was closed. The result was increasingly urgent prayer as I ultimately arrived in Hudson – and an open Conoco station – on fumes.

For our disabled ward Missy, it might be the decision that her Big Purse always has room for one more item. Great idea – until it suddenly contains half the known universe. The result is a purse that she’s reluctant to leave behind but often asks someone else to carry on trips.

For my wife Heather – well, she married me, didn’t she? (Just kidding … I think.)

At its best, it’s born of an admirable capacity – the human ability to imagine something worthwhile and then put out the effort to make it happen. The trouble comes when hope and sweat are divorced from judgment and reflection. That’s when the weird things happen.

When we’re lucky, the worst it produces is embarrassment, expense, and an unforgettable story.

When we’re not so lucky, the results can be tragic. On a national scale, it can even mean lives disrupted or lost, regions devastated, and seemingly-endless wars begun – though in that last case, the anthem’s title is usually rephrased to “What Else Could I Do?”

A great question. But one that’s usually never asked until after it’s already too late.

I believe in hope and imagination. I believe in making the best decision you can from the information you have, rather than being paralyzed because you can’t make the perfect choice. But I also believe that’s a different thing from not considering consequences at all, just because what you want to do seems so compelling or necessary.

Consequences have to be considered. And if they’re not faced before the choice is made, they certainly will be after.

At that point, it’s best to learn from the Dutch. Acknowledge what happened. Fix it as soon as possible. Learn from it. And move on down the road.

Because sometimes you just have to change your tune.

A Mountain of Choices

I came home from work one day to find I had no kitchen table.

In its place loomed a minor mountain range of paper and glitter glue and washable paint, covering every inch of the wooden surface and possibly a few nearby air molecules to boot. I smiled and shook my head, reading the signs as surely as a billboard.

Missy the Artist had been at work again.

Regular readers of this column will remember our developmentally disabled ward Missy, whose creative impulse can seem somewhat akin to placing pepperoni on a takeout pizza: namely, that if some is good, more is better, placed with as much vigor and energy as possible. But her approach to, say, collage or painting, is actually a bit more subtle than that.

First comes Step One: The Early Deliberation. At this stage, Missy has surveyed the canvas – er, pardon, the sheet of paper – and decided exactly where each element needs to go. If assistance is needed, she will then indicate this sport to my wife Heather with great determination, so that glue may be placed at the proper location, followed by the proper piece of cut-up magazine. Failure to match this precision will be met with a disgusted “Noooo, here!”

“Here?”

“Nooooo! HERE!”

This continues through the first couple of dozen gallery creations. Then, at Missy’s discretion, an unseen line will be crossed and we will enter Step Two: What The Hell.

At this point, precision and planning take a back seat to enthusiasm. The object becomes to create as much art as possible, as though it were going to be made illegal in the next 15 minutes. It’s entirely possible that a stray hand on the table may find itself painted blue and purple, wrapped in glitter tape, and adorned with cutouts from Glamour magazine.

“Lookit! Look!”

The funny thing is, the method seems familiar.

It’s the approach of a sports team as the season gets late, when carefully-applied draft schemes and lineup theories give way to simply surviving the final few games.

It’s the approach of a cast and director when trouble arises on Opening Night, and a solution has to be improvised in real time.

And it’s the approach of so many of us with our Issues of the Moment, whether personal or political. The world is busy, life keeps happening, and at some point, the ideal solution gives way to the pragmatism of getting something done, even if it’s not perfect.

And that’s OK.

There’s an old saying that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” – in other words, that insisting on the absolutely perfect can keep you from seeing something that’s perfect enough. Call it paralysis by analysis, or writer’s block, or gridlock, the end result is the same: frustration that only really lifts when we can take a breath and simply try something. Because not only is “something” better than nothing, it’s often pretty good on its own terms.

When I perform art triage on Mount Missy, sure, some items are too chaotic and tangled to be displayed or stored. But an awful lot survives. Some of it even thrives on a wall or a refrigerator door. And whether its origin was deliberate or frantic, all of it is there to be considered – and some of it, from every stage of creation, is pretty darned fun.

So go ahead. Push on. Make the choice that works. Let the mountain range rise.

And when you’re done, start soaking up some paper towels to clean the table.

Seriously. That glitter glue is stubborn stuff.

To Cap it Off

Down in the basement, Heather searched for yarn. And if that doesn’t frighten you, it should.

Some people, I’m sure, must have basements that practically sparkle, ones that could be rented out as living space or wow the judges on a reality program. Mine tends to descend into a state of nature if left on its own for longer than a week. It’s the sort of place that Indiana Jones might explore with torch and bullwhip, or where Gandalf might issue a warning about the things to be found in the deep places of the Earth.

But that’s where the old crafting material had gone – I thought. And so the archaeological expedition began. Past the baby toys. Around the Christmas stuff. Behind the kennel that was too bent to use …

Suddenly, Heather’s eyes widened. She’d found the yarn, all right. And a little something extra.

“I didn’t know any of these were left!” she said as she pulled out a small “elf hat” – a short, knitted, close-fitting cap seeming to hold all the colors of the rainbow. Heather’s Grandma Val had made several of them before she passed away a few years ago, planning to give them away. A few had made their way to Missy – Val’s daughter and now our ward – after she was gone. But those were treasures of another day, presumed to be long-gone.

Except … now they weren’t. Two caps sat in the box, one finished, the other still attached to a knitting needle, needing just a small amount of work to finish it off.

“There’s not that much left,” Heather wondered out loud as she fingered the rows. “I wonder if I could …”

And for a moment, across the years, Val reached out to touch her one more time.

We’ve all known moments like that, I think. Heck, the universe has known moments like that. In a recent experiment that will probably win someone the Nobel Prize, scientists managed to detect gravity waves for the first time – the slightest tremble of space-time left behind by two colliding black holes around 1.3 billion years ago. The event validated a 100-year-old prediction by Albert Einstein and also confirmed a basic human truth: What you leave behind matters.

We all touch lives. There’s no real way to avoid it, short of living in a hamster ball. But often it’s done without thought or realization. After all, we’re just trying to get through today – who has time to worry about tomorrow?

But tomorrow comes. Some of those choices we make will live on. Shouldn’t we make sure that they’re the parts of us that we want to survive?

Grandma Val planted miniature roses. Some of them are still coming up in the garden now each spring, despite my certified black thumb. A small decision that continues to add a little beauty to the world.

Another friend who recently left us planted stories. Some were his visions of the stories of others, brought to life on a carefully-lit stage. Others were the memories and tales he shared in the gatherings and cast parties afterward, with a wry smile and a bright eye. The best of those stories still makes me laugh … and remember.

What are we planting?

We all plant something, whether we intend to or not. With a little thought, it can be the best of us, whether it’s a work of our hands or a kind word at a hard time. It might seem small, something sure to be forgotten.

That’s OK. Forgotten hats get found. Forgotten flowers bloom. Forgotten energy ripples the universe long after its collision is gone.

Reach out. Care. Touch. Make a mark.

And while you’re at it – don’t forget to clean the basement.

A Word Out of Place

Who can forget the climax of “Gone With the Wind” when Rhett turned to Scarlett and shockingly, unforgettably told her “My dear, I don’t give a darn?”

Or the pages of Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War” where William T. Sherman warns that “War is heck?”

And of course, there’s that shocking background refrain in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where one of the “Chronics” in the asylum can’t say anything but “Fff ….” Come to think of it, I guess he never gets to say much of anything.

At least, that may be the case with a new app called Clean Reader that’s advertised to remove all the profanity from an e-book. The app can be set to Clean, Cleaner, Squeaky Clean or Off, depending on how many swear words a reader feels like tolerating; censored words receive a blue dot and a suggested substitute for those that tap the deletion.

It’s not the first time that something like this has been tried, of course. Go back to the 19th century and you find Thomas Bowdler’s cleaned-up edition of Shakespeare, where Opehlia drowns accidentally and Lady Macbeth screams “Out, crimson spot!” (And yes, this is where the word bowdlerization comes from.) Film buffs can point instead at CleanFlicks, a company which re-edited movies to remove offensive content until a judge told them to stop.

The difference here, of course, is that there’s a certain amount of reader control. Instead of buying an adulterated copy, the customer buys the same book as everyone else and then chooses whether to filter it. That’s led some to defend the app: “It’s my book and my business, right?”

There’s some truth to that. But there’s also a catch. Two catches, really.

Yes, you can do with your book whatever you want. If you choose to right now, you can take any book you own and go through it with a black marker to remove anything. That’s not new, either. Thomas Jefferson once took that approach to his copy of the Gospels, literally trimming out any reference to miracles or the supernatural.

But that’s where you run into Catch No. 1: markers don’t work so well on the mind. Even when you let something line out the profanity for you, the word isn’t gone. Every time a reader hits the deleted or substituted word, the act simply calls attention to what used to be there, unless the reader is either innocent or quite young.

And then there’s Catch No. 2, brought up by a friend: if you don’t trust an author to use the right words, why are you reading him or her in the first place?

One of the glories – and yes, sometimes, one of the dangers – of the written word is that it’s a telepathic act. By staring at words on a page, you can know what a writer was thinking, no matter how much time has passed since the thought. At any time, a reader can dive into the ideas of Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger or Maya Angelou, touching them mind-to-mind until the book is closed.

But the words matter. Twain once said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. They’re tools, chosen to evoke a desired effect.

Change the word, and you change the effect. You no longer have a clear window into the author’s mind, but only an approximation.

It’s true, not every author uses profanity, just like not every painter uses teal or violet. The ones that do have a reason. If the excuse seems weak, that’s a perfectly valid reason to read a different book or even a different author. Nobody reads everything, nobody has to read anything.

But what you do choose to read – don’t hold back. Read it. Without screens. Without modification. Find your way into that mind, even the uncomfortable parts, and see what you discover.

You may love it. You may hate it. But you’ll know because you’ve read the book, instead of almost the book.

And missing that opportunity would be a darned shame.