April (Snow) Showers

On Saturday morning, the landscape was made to confuse Bing Crosby.

“I’m … dreaming of a white … springtime?”

Some things just come with Colorado living. Like elevation signs at the city limits. Or a faith in the Denver Broncos that defies all evidence. Or – perhaps most of all – the roll-the-dice seasons that give you snow in April, even if it’s only for a day or two.

I got an early initiation into the wonders of Colorado weather, with a blizzard that closed my grade school and knocked out the power … in May. And of course, by the next day the streets and sidewalks were as dry as a bone. It wasn’t exactly a planned part of the curriculum, but it drove its own lesson home.

And yet, no matter how many times it happens, I can still get caught off guard by it. It’s like a weird version of Rip Van Winkle: go to sleep with green grass and weekend plans to weed the garden plot, only to wake up to the latest episode of Second Christmas. (“You’d better watch out …”)

It’s weird. It’s wonderful.

And more often than not, it’s exactly what we need.

OK, put down the torches, pitchforks and angry snow shovels. I know how long a winter we just had. Even for the Front Range, keeping snow on the ground from December until March is a tad unusual. And I know some of you became more than a little tired of it, even while others found a childlike wonder and glee and still others gave the mandatory chant of “Well, we can sure use the moisture.”

But I’m not talking about the snow itself.

I’m talking about the shakeup.

It’s easy to get into ruts and routines. Even when the pandemic hit, our world shattered in an eye blink … and then reorganized itself around a new set of precautions, habits and expectations. After all, it’s exhausting to constantly reinvent everything; slipping into the familiar frees our mind to focus on other topics.

But if we stay too familiar – if we introduce nothing new – we risk stagnating.

The mystery writer Lawrence Block once gave the example of a man stranded on a raft in the freezing North Atlantic. Every day, Block said, he burns a piece of his raft to stay warm. And sooner or later, if he doesn’t find any new material, he’s going to be in trouble.  

It doesn’t have to be huge. A book you’ve never read before. A place you’ve always thought about visiting. An experiment of any kind, even if it fails – maybe even especially if it fails, since that can allow you to learn more for the next time around. (“Rapid unscheduled disassembly,” anyone?)

It can be anything that opens your horizons just a little more and makes you consider something new. Because then a bit of you becomes new as well. And like snow in springtime, that piece can shine with its own unexpected beauty.

By the time this appears in print, the coats may be back in the closet  and the gardening tools back in play. That’s OK. If the unexpected stays too long, it becomes a new routine. Magic, to stay magical, can’t linger.

But the lesson can. I hope we remember it and put it to use.

And if we can, it’s snow wonder.

Say My Name

Once again, Holmes had found his way onto a kitchen chair. And while it looked cute to have his fuzzy black canine head peeking above the table, some things Cannot Be Allowed™.

“Oliver! Down!”

Oliver? Where’d that come from? Oh, yeah, my sister-in-law’s dog. Try again.

“Blake! Get off!”

Blake? Big Blake hadn’t been in the house since last summer, when he passed away at 15.

“Oli … Bla … Hol … whoever you are, get over here!”

I’ve heard of this happening to parents, but it’s a first for Heather and me when it comes to pets. And other than the fact that all three are or were black dogs in occasional need of correction, they don’t have that much in common. They’ve never even been in the same house at the same time.

But reflex is strong. So when you need something quickly in the moment, you reach for whatever comes to hand first. Whether it fits or not.

But of course, the wrong name gets you nowhere.

Call a dog by the wrong name and they’ll be either oblivious or confused.

Get a name wrong in the newspaper and you’ll see upset phone calls or emails.

Using the wrong name in a conversation may draw laughter, frustration or outright offense.

Names matter. They’re tied into who we are and how we see ourselves. And they have a power beyond just commanding a dog to “sit!”

My wife’s middle name is Lyn. It ties into her mother’s name (Debra Lyn) and her grandmother’s (Marilyn). It’s a part of her heritage.

My own name was the product of a hasty family compromise: Dad wanted to name me “Walter,” Mom and Grandma hated it, and suggested naming me after him instead.

Some of my friends have been known by a nickname for most of their life. Others I know changed names as they grew up or changed circumstances: a BJ who became Brad, a Michael who became Kavya and so on.

It’s something fundamental.

But then, we’re good at getting fundamental things wrong. Especially when we act on reflex.

All of us have a story we tell ourselves about the world  and everything in it: beliefs, expectations, preconceptions. And inevitably, we bump up against something that doesn’t fit. What we do next says a lot about ourselves:

  1. We can look at the mismatch, see where we got it wrong, correct ourselves with a shake of the head, and go on a little wiser.
  2. We can decide we know better, keep insisting on our version of reality and wonder why the rest of the world is bring so stubborn.

Looking at the world today, we seem to have a lot of people in group B. And that’s a recipe for trouble. Sure, it feels good to tell yourself what you want to hear, but if you’re not calling something what it is, you’re not going to make progress.

And when a bunch of mutually exclusive versions of reality bump up against each other? You only have to look at the headlines to see the result of that.

Naturally, we may all draw different conclusions from the same facts. That’s human, and it can even be helpful. But when we can’t even agree on the facts … well, that’s where the problem arises.

So don’t always trust the reflex. Take a step back and think. It’s not always easy – sometimes even outirght uncomfortable – but it gets you farther in the long run.

Just ask Oli …I mean Bla …

Sorry, little buddy. Sooner or later, I’ll find the way Holmes.

Something Missing

Every so often, a quest becomes the thing of legends.  

Like Frodo Baggins and his journey to destroy the One Ring.

Or Luke Skywalker racing to the aid of a princess he’s never met.

Or Scott Rochat … searching for holiday magazines at the grocery store?

Somehow I don’t think I’ll have John Williams composing music for this one any time soon.

By now, Heather’s used to this. Over 22 years of marriage, she knows that the holidays are a magical time for us both. We enjoy it all: the message, the music, the lights, even my annual battles to the death against easily-torn wrapping paper. (“So we meet again, my old foe …”)

She also knows that each year, there will be one detail that threatens to make me crazy.

Sometimes my obsessive quest produces something wonderful, like when I uncovered the exact edition of “The Story of Holly and Ivy” that  Heather used to love as a child, the one with the red-and-green Adrienne Adams illustrations. But most of the time, it just gets me fixated on one minor brushstroke of a bigger picture.

One year, it was the always-around-since-childhood chocolate coins that seemed to have sold out at every store.

Another time, it was a hunt for a pre-lit tree with colored lights. On that holiday season, of course, 99% of plastic pines for sale had lights that were whiter than a Bing Crosby Christmas.

Last year, it became the magazines.

There are certain things I always stuff Christmas stockings with, from the tasty to the ridiculous.  And the collection has always included three magazines each, tailored to each person’s interests. For instance, our ward Missy might get one title with beautiful dresses, one on classic cars, and one about Star Wars or Harry Potter. (Yeah, life with her gets pretty interesting.)

But last year, the magazines went away.

Stores reduced their sections or removed them entirely. Some titles went out of business, others moved online. And a happy holiday task that normally took 30 minutes tops somehow became a sprawling journey to every business in town that might sell a periodical. My internal dialogue got taken over by Gollum: “Must find the precious …”

Why? Because I had a picture in my head of what the season should be. And this minor detail was blowing it up.

No surprise there. We’re good at that. This year, I suspect we’ll all experience it in spades, as we run into used-to-bes that can’t be because of pandemic safety. Tradition is powerful at this time of year, and disrupting any tradition, from the tall to the small, is unsettling.

But then, at its heart, Christmas is unsettling.

That sounds strange, I know. We think of the season as one of peace. But peace means more than just calm and contentment. It’s a restoration, pushing people out of familiar paths and opening their eyes to something larger.

And in almost every tale of the time, from the sacred to the secular, it’s about a missing piece.

It might be Ebenezer Scrooge, discovering he needs to let the world into his heart. Or Charlie Brown finding a quiet truth amidst the seasonal noise. It might be the girl Ivy and the doll Holly searching for each other without knowing why, or terrified shepherds who suddenly see something new and real burn in the skies overhead.

It’s an awakening. Often an uncomfortable one. Breaking the routine usually is.

But from that awakening comes wholeness. Awareness. Growth.

Peace.

Take the risk. Be unsettled. Don’t just look, but see.

That’s how hearts open. It’s how we find each other again, and find ourselves in the process.

That’s a quest worth achieving.

With or without magazines in hand.

Belly Up to the Bard

After 20 years, my dream has come true.

No, not the one where I come to school for a test I never studied for and then realize I’m in flagrant violation of the dress code. Different dream.

This one began with a chance purchase of an oddly-titled script in a college bookstore. Now it’s coming to fruition amidst a torrent of sight gags, word play and utter ridiculousness. A tribute, really, to a master of the hilarious and bizarre.

Right, Master Shakespeare?

OK, OK, I know. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” our newest comedy at the Longmont Theatre Company, bears about as much resemblance to the stagecraft of Laurence Olivier as I do to the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s the beauty of it, really. This is Shakespeare as it might have been done by Monty Python and the Marx Brothers, with a little Saturday Night Live thrown in for good measure.

It’s irreverent. It’s absurd. It’s three men blasting through the canon with a buzz saw like the hero in a zombie flick, and leaving about as much standing.

And somehow, I think the Bard of Avon would have laughed his head off. Once the migraine cleared up, anyway.

That’s not because the show’s true to the text. (Heavens, no.) But it’s true to the life.

Maybe I should explain.

A lot of times, Shakespeare’s plays get treated like museum pieces: Dust off the icons, admire the filigree and keep everything on a nice, safe pedestal. They’re works to be studied, venerated, stuffed and mounted.

Now mind you, I admire the man’s work. I consider his writing some of the most beautiful in the English language. And the details certainly bear study, if only to discover what “fardels” actually are.

But Shakespeare wasn’t writing for textbooks. Shakespeare was writing for people. Rich people, poor people, anyone who could pay for a seat (or a patronage). And he played to that audience as surely as any modern-day Hollywood schlockmeister.

Bad puns? Check. Blood and gore? Check. Soap operas, mistaken identities and jokes about bodily functions? Check, check, and most definitely check. (Take a fresh read through Macbeth if you don’t believe me on that last one, where a porter hilariously laments how too much wine “provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”)

Yes, he wanted people to think. And part of the way he did that was by also making them laugh, wince, and shudder. Many of his tales had been told before; by adding his own twists, touches, and jokes, he could make his audience really hear them and consider them as something new.

That kind of re-transformation can be vital and not just in Shakespeare. Any time we give something a set-apart status – the Founding Fathers, a sacred work, a loved one, the 1927 New York Yankees – we risk taking them for granted. We memorize a headline, or quote the words without the music. As a minister of mine used to say about the Easter story, we already know the end, and so we lose the fear and apprehension shared by those who didn’t know how all this was going to come out.

We stop understanding and see only what we expect to see.

By shaking up those expectations, we wake up our minds. And maybe even laugh ourselves silly in the process.

Let go. Have fun. And if I’ve got you curious, come on down and see what our warped minds have come up with. ( Show details can be seen at www.longmonttheatre.org.) As Master Shakespeare used to say, the play’s the thing.

What kind of thing? Thereby hangs a tale …