What’s Called For

When you have to write a column a couple of days in advance, there’s always a danger of being overtaken by events.

This one didn’t even make it to 400 words.

“THEY CALLED PENNSYLVANIA!!” Heather shouted from the bedroom as I wrote on Saturday morning.

My brain abruptly turned into a train derailment as my fingers skidded to a stop.

“You’re kidding!” I called back.

“No! NBC, CNN, now ABC …”

I looked at my incomplete draft. And then reached for the backspace key.

Maybe I ought to buy that lottery ticket after all.

Like most of us, I had gotten used to the thought that “Call Me” might be a nice Blondie song, but it was unlikely to be seen in real life for quite some time. After all, this is how it works, right? Trickle of votes, adjust the lead, back to the count. Trickle of votes, adjust the lead, back to the count. Over and over in an endless news cycle, sort of like Peter Jennings meets Bill Murray.

To be honest, the catch-and-release pattern gave me a rueful chuckle. This used to be my former life as a newspaper reporter. In the Super Bowl-like enthusiasm of Election Day – marked by newsrooms with high adrenaline and higher pizza bills – there would always be at least one race that would defy deadlines. In a ballot full of easy calls and quick turnarounds, you would somehow draw the one that looked you in the eye and screamed “Meaningful results? TONIGHT? HAHAHAHAHA! See you in the morning, sucker!”

So yes, this is familiar. It’s just on a larger scale.

It’s also more challenging.

As a reporter, I had a job to do, a story to write at the end of it all. As a voter, it’s less obvious. After all, we’ve done our job, right? We made our call, said our say, and now we can finally be thrilled, or disappointed, or eager to see if armies of lawyers can manage to beat each other to death with briefcases.

But it’s not that simple.

When the election ends, our job is just getting started.

There’s been a lot written lately about peaceful transitions of power. That’s not just a courtesy – it’s a recognition that elective offices are under a permanent job review. Fortunes can change as easily as the tides, yesterday’s “outs” can be tomorrow’s “ins,” and when it’s your turn, you had better show the same grace on the way out that you hope to receive on the way back in.

And that job review? That’s us. Regardless of party. Regardless of faction.

And that goes on long beyond a cast-and-counted ballot.

It means watching the people we choose, and not just as a fan club. It means separating truth from fiction, learning what’s going on, learning what it means for people beyond our own sliver of the world. Not silencing our voice, but learning to hear the voices of others as well. As any choir will tell you, that’s the only way to create harmony.

It means holding people accountable for their actions, even the ones on our “team.” I use the quotes, because our real team is ultimately the country itself. No one deserves our blind support. Praise what makes us better, challenge what makes us worse, and always look for a way to bring more light and less pain to the world.

I’ve said it before – this country is never finished. We need to make sure the next chapter is one we can all be proud of. Even if we have to rewrite it in midstream.

Now and always, that is our calling.

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.

Seeing Through the Walls

Big Blake’s tail didn’t thump when we walked in the room.

His eyes were … there but not there.

Even the magic word “Food!” provoked only a little attention and some reluctant movement – maybe. For a dog who had always been ruled by his stomach, that was the scariest of all.

“I think we’d better call the vet again.”

It would be his second trip in two days. Yesterday he had been moving fine and eating fine, but with rather messy results out the other end. He’d been checked out and sent home with something for an upset stomach – but this seemed like a new ballgame.

There are moments in a crisis when all the walls turn transparent. You can see all the possibilities but you have no idea which one the path leads toward. Were we looking at an intestinal blockage? An injury, from a slip as he left the car the day before? Something more insidious that had been waiting until now to show its head?

All we could do was take him in, hope, and watch the clock.

Two hours later, the call came. Two minutes later, so did our reaction.

“It looks like what he’s having is an extreme arthritis flare-up . We’ve added some pain medicine to his NSAIDs for now ….”

I think our collective sigh of relief must have re-routed hurricanes in the Gulf.

We could see the path at last. And it actually led somewhere that we wanted to be.

Now, with our furry friend beside us, we get to watch another moment of clarity and uncertainty – this time on a national scale.

As I write this, the drama of COVID-19 entering the White House is still going on. So many questions are still hanging in the air. How many more names will we hear that we recognize? What does this mean for the country? Headlines about confirmations, debates, economies, elections, and yes, very real lives – those actually infected and those affected by them and their choices – continue to whirl and spin across the landscape like a Kansas tornado.

Once again, the walls are transparent and the path unclear. The nature of the virus almost guarantees it. Some get sick and get well and get on with things. Some require much more intensive medical care. Some recover, but with serious after-effects that can hang on for months.

And yes, some die. Too many have.

Again, you’re reading this later than I’m writing this. You may already know the next chapter of the story. But if we’re still watching the news, wondering what’s next and what it will mean – well, I suppose in 2020, it isn’t all that surprising.

Once again, we have to wait. And to keep doing what we need to do while we’re waiting. Because life doesn’t stop for the rest of us.

We still need to hold out hope for the future and caution for the present, looking to a day when things can be better while taking the careful steps needed to make it there.

We still need to look to each other as friends and neighbors, giving and accepting strength.

We still need to look to our own care, so that whatever the world sends us tomorrow, we’re ready to meet it.

Ready when the path starts to re-emerge.

For now, we’re once again walking the path with our dog. Big Blake’s tail is thumping. His eyes are bright. And his attention to food is as laser-sharp as ever.

It’s the moment we didn’t dare hope for.

And we couldn’t be happier.

A Healthy Respect

When you think about it, we don’t ask for that much from our presidential candidates. Just the agelessness of Superman or Wonder Woman. The steel-clad sweat glands of the Terminator. And maybe the all-around athleticism of Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.

Simple, really.

As you may have gathered from the most recent news cycles, though, we don’t exactly have the Clark Kent candidacy yet. On one side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton’s attempt to continue her campaign through a case of pneumonia drew alarmed coverage from journalists across the country. But there was plenty of criticism left for her opponent Donald Trump as he openly hesitated about releasing his own recent medical information, before eventually presenting the results of his latest physical on-air to Dr. Oz.

Now, on one level, I get it. The presidency is a highly stressful, demanding job. When you look at the before-and-after pictures, our typical Leader of the Free World looks like they’ve aged about 20 years overnight. And when both candidates are among the oldest to ever run for the position, it can be important to know whether they’re one good White House dinner away from saying “Your turn, Mr. Vice President.”

But I’m also not too surprised that a candidate would hold that information back. Or a president, for that matter. In a way, we all but demand it.

Simply put, we don’t do sickness very well.

The Christian writer Max Lucado once noted that if you ever want to stop a conversation cold, ask someone what they think about their impending death. We don’t want reminders. Not as a species. Not as a country. Entire industries are built on the premise that a person can always be young, beautiful, and healthy, a movie star on Main Street.

Illness? Worthy of sympathy, of course. But please, have the decency to get better soon so we can go back to our fantasy. As I’ve mentioned before, even the best-intentioned friend can begin to suffer “compassion fatigue” when continually exposed to the reality of a long-term physical condition.

So we build up an ideal. And to meet that ideal, our presidents lie.

It’s not a new thing, born of reality TV and the celebrity presidency. Franklin Roosevelt concealed the extent of his polio, attempting to “walk” with braces in public and never letting his wheelchair be photographed. Jack Kennedy publicly played rough-and-tumble football games with his brothers to hide his difficulties with back pain and Addison’s disease. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke that basically incapacitated him for the last year and a half of his presidency; the public was told he was suffering “nervous exhaustion.”

Never let ‘em see you suffer. Keep up the face at all costs.

Sometimes, of course, the face slips – and oh, boy, do we react. The elder George Bush famously tried to attend a state dinner despite an illness, and was roundly ridiculed when he threw up on the lap of the Japanese prime minister as a result. Even lesser reminders of physical imperfection become the stuff of late-night comedy – when Gerald Ford, a former college athlete, began suffering an extended attack of the clumsies, it pretty much launched the career of Chevy Chase.

And each moment with derision, we remind our presidential aspirants to build that wall a little higher.

I’m not saying presidential candidates should be dishonest. At this level, the information often needs to be out there. But some of the burden is on us, too. We need to be able to react without hysteria, without mockery, and with as much common sense and calm judgment as we can bring to the table. (A little sympathy might not hurt, either.)

Trying to pretend an illness isn’t there can make things worse. We all know that. But if we insist on the mask, we’ll get it.

And I guarantee, it won’t be hiding a superhero.

Opening the Door

Hell froze over. Pigs are soaring over the Rockies. The Chicago Cubs can start printing World Series programs.

In other words, Donald Trump just let a banned reporter back in a campaign event.

Not just one outlet, either. According to recent reports, the Donald has shredded his entire blacklist, a do-not-invite wall of spite that extended from the Washington Post to Buzzfeed and maybe even the Daily Planet while he was at it. Anyone who had dared offend him with their coverage or their cheek (one online outlet put their coverage of him in the Entertainment section) had been summarily shown the door.

And then, a wall that had been rising for over a year suddenly came down.

Not with an apology, of course, or any acknowledgement that the candidate had done anything ill-advised. That would be expecting a bit much. If anything, his press ban was lowered with a bit of resignation, a sigh of “I figure they can’t treat me any worse.” But still, lower it he did.

Reality finally broke down the front door.

This is one of those things that remains true whether you love or hate Trump, or for that matter, whether you love or hate the press. If you are a politician – whether holding office or running for it – you cannot do without the press, any more than a modern-day NFL team can do without television coverage or a lounge lizard can do without tacky gold chains and a pickup line. As a would-be representative of a free society, this is your reality.

It’s a reality that our nation’s leaders have tried to dodge on occasion. President Nixon was the most notorious, maintaining an outright “enemies list,” but he was hardly the first or last president to have an antagonistic relationship with the Fourth Estate. Even Thomas Jefferson, who once said he preferred newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers, once wrote in exasperation that “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

Nothing is more tempting than to build a wall – if thy press offend thee, cut it off! But it’s a little like Mom’s warning about picking at a wound. It may feel good at the time, but it doesn’t help things, and it’s almost certainly going to make them worse.

As almost any veteran politician could have told Trump, cutting a press outlet out of your events doesn’t end the conversation. It just ends your control of it. Campaign events are highly staged, positioned to put a candidate in the best possible light and give him or her an opportunity to address the issues of the day. Take that away and – heaven forbid – the reporters may just go off and find news about you on their own.

What a concept, huh?

Add in the fact that a press wall is really leaky – many high-profile events with limited space have pool coverage, where reporters have agreed to share information – and the surrender becomes even more inevitable.

It’s not a bad rule of thumb for any of us: engagement and interaction beats withdrawal and disdain. Granted, there are some toxic people and situations where the best move is to create as much distance as possible. But remember that your refusal to interact with a situation does not guarantee that you cannot still be shaped by it. Pick your spots carefully and with much thought.

Gee. Forethought. Maybe that’s a word that more of our national politicians need to learn.

But maybe they prefer the taste of flying bacon.