Picture the Time

Heather returned from the yard, her phone held in triumph.

“I did it!” she proclaimed. “Fifty-two weeks!”

“Oh? … OH!”

A smile spread across my face to match my wife’s. At long last, the photo forest was complete.

Perhaps I should explain. My wife Heather enjoys photography, especially shots that involve patterns and repetition. She’s also felt a little disconnected from the world since COVID arrived in 2020. With her various autoimmune conditions, she has to be careful about how and where she goes out, even in virus conditions that others might shrug at.

So to grab a sense of time, she started visiting the apple tree in the back yard for a brief photo session. One shot per week, always at the same time of day, always from the same angle and range. The goal: one year’s worth of pictures.

It started slow. After all, there’s not much difference between a barren tree branch in late February and a barren tree branch in mid-March. (Especially with the “second winter” that the Front Range can often get.) But over time, across 52 weeks, the changes became subtle and then profound: first budding, then flourishing, then thinning once more.

At times, it became a panic task. (“Scott! I almost forgot! I’ve got to do the tree!”) Time had started to mean something again among the sameness of home life, even if it mostly meant a date with a silent, leafy companion.

And as the leaves grew, so did her confidence.

She had set a goal. A long-term one. And she was following through.

When you spend a lot of time with chronic illness, that’s not a small thing. Plans often have to change on a dime; schedules and expectations become necessarily fluid. Friends, family, even doctors all become familiar with the phone call that starts “I’m sorry but I can’t today …”

A lot of things get torn away. And any time you can grab something back, it’s a triumph. A moment to plant your feet and say “No. I get to do this and you can’t stop me.”

And so, over time, the photos became a battle record. A simple spectrum of determination.

Fifty-two weeks. Fifty-two moments that added up to so much more.

Everything starts with a moment. It’s easy to forget that, easier still to get overwhelmed by what life asks of us. It all seems so big and our abilities so small, like sculpting with a toothpick.

But taking just a moment, claiming it, repeating it- that’s powerful. Even scattered moments built from brief flashes of opportunity add up. Georges Seurat spent two years painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”  J.R.R. Tolkien spent 17 years on “The Lord of the Rings.” Both created masterworks – but in a way, that’s beside the point.

It’s not about whether the goal resounds through the ages. It’s about what it means to you. And even what you build in yourself as you achieve it.

Heather built something lasting. She reclaimed a piece of her life. And regardless of the pictures themselves, that’s something no one can take away.

It’s amazing what can happen when you just take a shot.

Or even 52 of them.

Mile-High Hopes?

Sure, I could have written about CU this morning. I didn’t for two reasons: 

1) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to. Everyone and their cocker spaniel is writing about the Buffs, Coach Prime and a transformation that’s right up there with Bruce Banner’s. 

2) I’m kind of afraid of jinxing the whole mess. Sure, it’s silly, but after seeing a “Yay, Nuggets” column get followed by the Heat’s only win of the NBA Finals, I am taking no chances. 

So instead, I’m turning my eyes to the Boys in Orange. After all, there’s only so much harm I can do there, right? 

If you felt a wind gust through the Front Range last week, it might have been the WHOOSH of deflated expectations from a horde of Bronco fans. After all, on the surface, we got a new coach, a new season and the same result: a 17-16 loss to open the campaign, just like 2022. 

It’s been hard to take, especially for the parts of the fandom that can remember the Broncos being at least a playoff threat for 30 years and then again in the Peyton Manning years. There’s history here. But ever since The Sheriff walked off the field, that history has been … well, history. 

That said, I have to admit something. Sure, I gritted my teeth through that Raiders game, too. But I still left with something that sorta, kinda, maybe, if-you-squint-real-hard, looks like hope. 

No, I don’t need the concussion protocol. 

The opening game came down to two big things: dumb penalties and a bad extra point. Both of these are correctable. More to the point, it did NOT come down to a disappointing day from Russell Wilson, who finally started to look like the quarterback we expected to see in 2022. I’ll emphasize the word “started,” especially since he didn’t exactly pour on the yardage in the second half.  But I’ll take a sharp completion percentage, two touchdown passes and – most importantly – no interceptions as a starting point. 

By the time this appears in print, Game 2 will have played and I’ll look like either a genius or an idiot. So it goes. But I’ll stand by this: for the first time in a while, it feels like there’s potential here. 

Yes, that’s a dangerous word. As Linus from “Peanuts” once put it, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” And when we’ve been burned so many times – OK, when we’ve burned OURSELVES so many times – it can feel instead like Charlie Brown rushing up to try kicking the football yet again. 

I’ll be honest: I do not expect the playoffs this year. But I do expect better. As long as we have a coach that’s willing to work, able to work and given a chance to work. (That last has not exactly been a guarantee with the revolving door Denver has seen in the last few years.) 

That’s where anything worth doing starts. With the willingness and the opportunity to try. 

As I’ve said and quoted before, hope isn’t optimism. It’s optimism plus sweat. If you believe that better is possible, you have to show that belief by committing to it. That’s true whether you’re talking about a sport, a job, even a country. 

That doesn’t mean being blind about faults and weaknesses: “My team/party/country right or wrong.” But if you can set your sights higher than where you are and put in the effort to travel that path, then even a failure can make you stronger. Even a stumble can be forward motion. 

We may have a lot of stumbles ahead. But if we keep them in the right direction, we’ll get there. Jinx or no jinx. 

After all, we’ve seen what can happen when a team hits its Prime.

Stepping Up

For just a moment, I felt a kinship with Pavel “Frankie” Francouz.

Mind you, this has nothing to do with shared athletic ability. Coordination, musculature, endurance … sure, I can spell all those words. But in a world where some people move with the grace of Bruce Lee, I’m more like Inspector Clouseau on roller skates. I’m certainly not at the level of Francouz, a backup goalie for the Colorado Avalanche.

But in Game 2 of the conference finals, the backup became the star. And that’s something I do know about.

If you saw the game last Thursday, you know what I’m talking about. Starting in place of an injured teammate, Francouz was unmovable, stopping 24 shots in his first career shutout. Between that and a two-minute offensive explosion by the rest of the lineup, it added up to a 4-0 shellacking that left the Edmonton Oilers wondering “What the heck just happened?”

It’s the moment every understudy dreams of.

Heaven knows I did.

Pre-pandemic, I did a lot of amateur acting. In my first few productions, a quick memory for lines – everybody’s lines – got me jokingly dubbed “the universal understudy.” I appreciated the compliment, kept a close eye on the leads just in case … still with a role myself, but always ready and waiting for an opportunity.

And waiting.

And waiting some more.

Backups, whether official or otherwise, do a lot of that. Oh, sure, there can be pre-planned appearances to give the regular starter a rest, or chances to lend a hand during practice, and so on. But most of the time, if you’re on, it means something has broken down. And you with your gifts – the gifts that were passed over the first time around – you’re the one who has to step in and help keep things moving.

That’s intimidating. Even terrifying.

And if you do it right – if your big break doesn’t break you – it can also be exhilarating.  

“It’s a special feeling,” Francouz told The Sporting News after the game. “It’s tough to describe. It doesn’t happen every day, it was a special night for sure.”

No doubt. And those moments – on the ice, on a stage, anywhere – are moments of hope for the rest of us, too.

Because lately I think a lot of us feel like understudies in a show where we’ve barely seen the script.

At the best of times, imposter syndrome  can be challenging, that feeling that everyone else knows what they’re doing and you’re just making it up as you go along. These aren’t the best of times. We’ve been dealing with a constant drumbeat of crises, each blow landing before we’ve had time to fully process the last one. A global plague. A massive drought. A slaughter of innocents that too many seem powerless to stop. On and on and on.

As a nation, as a people, we’ve passed through the fire before. But it’s easy to say that was someone else, more capable, more ready. We’re just … us. Aren’t we?

So were they. So is every generation. And even if they were outright demigods, we’re the ones who are here now, this day, this moment. It’s our turn on the ice, our gifts that have to meet the moment without warning.

It’s all right to feel unready. But the spotlight is on. The net is waiting. And with the willingness to step in to take our place – yes, our place – the terrifying can become the miraculous.

Ask Frankie.

Twenty-four shots. Twenty-four stops. A moment of glory that even Inspector Clouseau couldn’t break from a hero no one expected.

That’s a goal – and a goalie – worth imitating.

She Shoots, She …

WHAM!

Missy grinned as I scrambled to the basketball and ran it back to her. Our fall day in Carr Park had turned out to be perfect for an afternoon of shooting hoops.

Or … well, shooting something.

WHAM!

From her wheelchair, Missy gleefully examined the target. (With her cerebral palsy, it’s easier and safer for her to shoot while sitting instead of standing.) After a moment, she reared back and let fly with an energy Michael Jordan would have envied.

Jordan, of course, specialized in “nothing but net.” Missy’s aim was a little different.

WHAM!

“Good one!”

Shot after shot sailed at the metal goalpost. Lacking elevation but never determination, Missy  had decided to shoot for a target at her own level. And more often than not, she was hitting it.

WHAM!

In the 10 years since Heather and I became Missy’s guardians, we’ve learned a lot about her abilities. We know she can remember and follow instructions (when she feels like it), that she can follow along with the plot of a novel and keep track of the characters, that she can bowl a 100 game and dance up a storm and write a recognizable “M” when she works at it.

We also know, of course, that there are limits and accommodations. Missy uses a ramp to bowl. She solves 50-piece puzzles instead of 500-piece ones. She often dances with a partner or a piece of furniture nearby to keep her balance.

In short, she likes many of the same things that everyone else likes, but she often enjoys them in a different way. Her targets are at a different level, one that engages her and even pushes her, but  without being cruel.

That’s important. And not just for Missy.

We’re often encouraged to dream big, set our aims high, shoot for major goals, whether in the personal realm or the wider world. And there’ nothing wrong with doing any of that … until it becomes a source of intimidation instead of inspiration. Until you reach a point where, because you can’t do everything, you don’t do anything.

But there’s nothing wrong with setting the bar to where you are.

Writers know this. When the fantasy author Terry Pratchett started out, he wrote just 400 words a day for his first three years. That’s about as long as everything you’ve read in today’s column so far. By the time Pratchett died, he’d written over 50 books.

Chronic pain patients know it. There’s a saying that’s gone around social media that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The usual example is that if your pain and fatigue won’t even let you spend two minutes brushing your teeth, it’s worth doing it for 30 seconds instead – because it’s still better than not doing it at all.

Leaders and dreamers throughout the ages have known it, winning the small battles that can be won now, even when the larger vision still seems so far ahead.

You set your aim. You give it what you’ve got. And if what you have today isn’t what Stephen King has, or LeBron James, or even a Disney Channel extra, it’s still yours. And you’re still doing it. That matters.

When the goalpost is what you can hit, hit it hard. And keep shooting.

The target may change. The sights may rise. And even if they don’t, if it moves you forward or gives you pleasure or tests what you can do –  then it’s a win.

So have a ball. And if you have it on the Carr Park courts … well, just watch out for flying objects, OK?

WHAM!

One Giant Leap

When I peeked into the bedroom, a pair of deep brown eyes in a furry face stared back at me. From a much higher elevation than usual.

“Blake?”

“He jumped up,” Heather said smiling, as 85 pounds of English Labrador curled into her on the mattress of our bed.

This was big. And not just because of the sheer canine mass involved.

It’s been a long time since Big Blake managed to fly.

Mind you, in his younger days, Blake would leap for the bed about as regularly as he’d raid the trash, and with fewer emergency vet visits involved. If both of us happened to be there, he’d happily land among us like a moose onto a parade float, exultant in his accomplishment even as he inadvertently crushed anything nearby. If one of us had briefly gotten out of bed for any reason – to visit the bathroom, to get a book, to check on Missy – then the spot would be claimed by a furry black-and-white mountain range, requiring contortions, pleas and the liberal applications of snack food to alter the terrain by even an inch.

But that’s been a while. A 14-year-old dog’s knees just don’t have the spring that they used to. Medicine helps a bit. Steps get ignored. These days, Blake either gets a boost from one of us, or he stays grounded. Most of the time.

But sometimes motivation matters.

Like, say, the world suddenly exploding. Every night.

Blake hates the Fourth of July season. Hates it. The random booms, bangs and bursts that fill the air for two weeks before Independence Day and a week after it turn our big, bold hound into a nervous wreck. He’ll do what he can to find safe spots to curl up, places where he can feel less of the vibration while staying near people he trusts.

And if that means learning to fly again – so be it. Falling from a failed jump is scary. But maybe not as scary as the alternative.

You focus on the goal. And you do what you need to do to get there.

If ever there was a time of year to remember that, it’s this one. When an entire country took a leap into the dark and hoped.

I’ve said it before: the American Revolution was not exactly made for Hollywood. Sure, sometimes you’d get a Saratoga or a Yorktown, a battlefield victory to evoke cheers and celebrations. But most of it? Retreat, evade and endure, with a healthy dose of “survive” on the side.

“We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the midst of all. And we weren’t. The daily victory was staying alive by any means necessary, whether that meant getting out of New York one step ahead of the British, abandoning the “capital” at Philadelphia, or hunkering down for a long winter of next-to-nothing at Valley Forge.

In a world like that, it’s easy to get impatient. Easy to lose sight of the long-term goal. Easy to forget that the discomfort and struggle has a purpose.

But when the world is exploding around you – in revolution, in fireworks, in pandemic – you do what you need to do to keep moving forward. Because falling back isn’t an option.

And there is a “forward.” However hard it is to remember sometimes.

“Yet through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory,” John Adams wrote. “I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”

We’re in mid-leap. If we keep our focus, we will stick the landing.

Even if it means working like a dog to get there.

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.

Beyond Hopeless

The news couldn’t be worse for the general.

After all, his opponent had the most professional army in the world. The troops in the area didn’t just outnumber him, they outnumbered the city he was defending. Well, supposed to be defending – that same enemy army had pretty much kicked him around at will, overwhelming him at every point, sending his own troops not just into retreat, but often outright flight.

Only some convenient fog and a masterful escape had kept them all alive this long. And if the enemy ever committed to a hard pursuit even that might not last. After all, no one had told George Washington that he was going to win in the end. And if they had, at that moment, he might not have believed them.

“I am worried to death,” Washington wrote to his brother, as his army was uprooted from New York and chased into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. “I think the game is pretty near up.”

This isn’t how we like to remember the American Revolution. Oh, sure, we take pride in having fought a giant. We may even remember images of Valley Forge, where the army starved and froze before coming out tougher than ever.

But we sit with the vantage point of centuries in our favor. We know we won. Of course we did. The British were fighting a different kind of war. They had an impossible situation in terms of logistics, communication, and coordination. And that was before French, Spanish, and Dutch allies turned it into a world war. The rebels had to win. Obviously.

Except it was anything but obvious at the time.

It never is, when you’re in the midst of the fight.

Washington wanted a clear-cut win on the battlefield. With rare exceptions, he wasn’t going to get it. His win had to be longer-term – to keep his army alive and together another day, another week, another year. When you can’t outfight your opponents, you have to outlast them.

But over time, outlasting becomes its own victory.

It’s a lesson I think most of us have had to learn. A lot of life’s problems don’t allow for a quick knockout punch, an easy resolution, and a fade to black with a wry quote on our lips. We get outmatched, even overwhelmed.

For Heather and me, it’s her medical situation, dealing with a laundry list of chronic illness – sometimes with Crohns, sometimes with multiple sclerosis, sometimes with the melodically-named but painfully-endured ankylosing spondylitis. It’s a situation that laughs at plans, where a day’s schedule may be completely rewritten because a condition decided to flare up.

For somebody else, it might be an impossible family situation, or a budget that’s circling the drain, or a change in the political winds that threatens fundamental needs for themselves or their loved ones. Everyone is fighting their own fight, and sometimes the fight can seem pretty darned hopeless.

But if we stay standing, if we stay in the fight, if we refuse to go down and go away, we can reach beyond hopeless. And then come out the other side.

Struggles are won by the side that gives up last.

Oh, it’ll be painful. It’ll be frustrating, even dispiriting. Washington himself famously shouted “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” when his troops refused to rally and stand. There are no guarantees.

But if we stand, if we last, if we persevere and continue – one day, down the road, we may look back and realize how much we’ve done. And how inevitable it now seems.

It’s a shift in perspective that can be pretty amazing.

Maybe even Revolutionary.

A Light Matter

It still feels wrong.

It’s like the Grinch that stole Boxing Day. Or Ralphie getting a Nerf gun under the tree. Or Santa Claus taking to the skies in a B-52. (“We have chimney acquisition!”)

But there’s no avoiding it. This Christmas, after a years-long struggle, I’m running up the white flag – preferably with multicolored lights attached.

This year, for the first time, Casa Rochat is getting a pre-lit tree.

OK, I know, I’m a little late to this party. There’s probably enough pre-lit wattage in the world right now to make the words “THIS WAY TO BETHLEHEM” visible from space, along with the related GPS coordinates.

But to me, it always seemed like cheating. There’s a right way to do Christmas lights, and that’s to drag out a series of dented cardboard boxes, untangle 17 miles of electrical cord, and solemnly intone the Ritual Seasonal Words Of Profanity before finally invoking the phrase that makes everything perfect:

“Honey … do you have a minute?”

Heather, you see, was my ace in the hole. My wife is a past master of Christmas  light spacing, trained by her father in the arcane arts of making a tree “glow from within.” No gaps. No globs. And usually, no doubt about which way her blood pressure was going as she sought perfection.

By the end, this was a tree that knew it had been decorated. With love, attention and borderline insanity.

As Heather’s back began to develop problems, I became a larger part of the crew. Which usually meant that our tree got decorated twice – once by me, and once by Heather fixing the mistakes I had made.

“Honey, I really think it looks …”

“Scotty, there’s a huge gap right in the middle. It’s really obvious.”

“Uh … gap?”

“Here, let me do it …”

Well – it’s the thought that counts, right?

But this year, things came to a head. Repeated topplings by our canine companions Big Blake and Duchess the Wonder Dog meant that our old plastic pine had gotten a little ragged. Heather’s back hadn’t gotten any better since our last tree. Mine had gotten quite a bit worse.

So – surrender.

And not without regrets.

I can feel a few heads nodding here. We may be a minority these days, but I know there’s still a solid chunk of people that mistrusts making something too easy, who insist on doing things ourselves even when it no longer makes sense. Maybe it’s a leftover strain of Puritanism, a belief that if you haven’t suffered over it, it doesn’t really count.

And I still believe there’s a value in that, of putting something of yourself into what you do. That’s why I continue my long war with Scotch tape and wrapping paper, producing the most awkwardly-wrapped presents in the Western Hemisphere, rather than simply buying a gift bag. No one can doubt that time, effort and love were spent. (Notice I did not say skill.)

But when the time comes – so be it. There’s no shame in bowing to necessity. And while my stubbornness may be a bit ridiculous, at least it’s also ensured that it wasn’t done … er, lightly. That there was a reason beyond simple convenience.

That sort of close examination isn’t a bad thing. At any time of year.

So bring on that glowing tree. I’m sure it’ll be as tall and welcoming as anything we’ve raised before.

Especially once Heather gets through fixing it.