Pouring Down, Rising Above

The rain just wouldn’t stop. 

When I lived in Kansas, I learned what that meant. Hard thunderstorms could make a mess. But steady, unceasing rain could be worse. When water has time to gather its strength, it transforms everything around it. Roads become rivers, concrete dividers become popcorn, lives become changed. 

I thought I knew that lesson. 

Ten years ago, I learned how little I knew. 

If you were here in September 2013, you know what I mean. If you weren’t, I’m not sure I can ever explain it properly. That handful of days belongs to another world, one where events flowed as ceaselessly as the St. Vrain and sleep was a rare and precious commodity. A world transformed. 

Longmont became a city divided. Lyons became an island chain. Missouri Avenue turned into the “Missouri river” as the water rose. Hover Street became impassible, though that didn’t stop some from sloshing their way across on foot anyway, struggling from south to north as emergency workers yelled at them to turn back. 

We held on as the water did its work. 

And even after the waters fell, we weren’t quite the same.

I don’t just mean the physical damage, though rebuilding from that became a years-long effort. Passing through the flood changes people. You don’t just let go of what happened, even if your home and family were well out of the floodway.

A few months later, when the spring rains began, I think most of us paused for just a moment. I remember watching the runoff pool and flow in a gutter near Longmont High School, unable to look away as my mind went back to higher waters and faster flows. 

Call it a reflex. A readiness. A ghost.

But we also carried away something else. We learned that we truly had neighbors. 

It’s easy to forget sometimes. Easy to ignore the lives that pass so near our own or even to clash with them. We divide, separate, watch the world with wary eyes.

But the good stuff never went away. Neighbors still exist. And when the waters rose, we found each other, reached out and helped. 

Even the St. Vrain couldn’t separate that.

It shouldn’t take a flood. Or a blizzard, or a wildfire, or any of the other traumatic moments that throw us into each other’s lives. But then, those are the moments that boil down all the choices and throw everything into stark relief. Where it’s clear that we either stand together or else we might not stand at all.

And so we reach for snow shovels. Or sandbags. Or masks.  One way or another, we reach for a neighbor’s hand and make each other stronger.

The world does its worst. And we rediscover our best.

And each time, I hope the discovery will last a little longer. It’s too important to rise and fall like a passing creek, full past bursting in a crisis and parched to the point of drought otherwise.

I said it at the beginning: sudden storms come and go, but steady effort transforms. That’s true of more than just rain. If we keep that sort of steady focus on each other, that daily commitment to our neighbors, we can reshape our world.

We just need to gather our strength. And not let up.

Long may we rain.

Through the Fire

When I write this column, two days pass before it appears in print. That makes some topics risky. Anything that’s still in motion can make 600 words obsolete in the blink of an eye.

But on this day and in this place, there’s no avoiding the Marshall Fire.

Boulder County passed from one year to the next in a burst of fire and ice. And no one could look away. The December wildfire – December! – shot around the world at the speed of news, one last piece of horror in a year beyond belief.

But when a disaster hits close to home, it’s more than just news.

It’s realizing you know the hospital that’s evacuating. Or the animal shelter that’s in the line of fire. It’s the sudden memory of how many friends live nearby and the discovery of how many more you didn’t know about.

Who’s safe? What’s been lost? Can anyone do something? The questions race, the answers crawl. And the images burn our hearts and souls.

We hold to hope. Even as we fear to.

And sometimes, beyond belief, the hope holds.

On Saturday morning, one person was missing. One. In a fire that may have swallowed over a thousand homes. That’s staggering.

I’m not ringing bells yet. Even if that’s the final toll, one person is still too many when the person is yours. I hope and pray that by the time this appears in print, everyone has made it to safety.

And I’m thankful beyond words that so many already have.

I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. We know disasters here. We know what to do. The details differ, but the essentials remain the same whether we’re facing fire or flood, blizzard or pandemic:

  1. Be aware of what’s going on.
  2. Don’t try to “ride it out” – take active steps to protect your safety.
  3. Help your neighbor.

Yes, you can do everything right and still have things go wrong. But the more people that do it, the less gets left to chance.

And when the fires came, so many did the right thing.

They listened. They left without hesitation. They helped others who might not have been able to flee on their own: friends, family, animals. Those not in the danger zone helped make a landing space for those escaping it.

And together, they carried through.

No. Together, WE carried through.

In a time of uncertainty, that’s a heck of a foundation to build on.

It’s here that I have to bring up Betty White, the beloved actress who died New Year’s Eve, less than three weeks away from her 100th birthday. (I promise, this is relevant.) As so many shared their memories and sadness, a Twitter comment pointed out a lesson to be learned: live your life so that, even if you live to 99, everyone will say the time was still too short.

In the midst of fire and fear, I think we’re seeing a lot of people living that sort of life already.

Thank you all. For raising up. For reaching out. And for holding so much together when the world tries to tear it apart.

I can’t see the future. Heck, I can’t even see Monday’s paper. But on this day and in this place, I can see the light you share.

And that’s something that will never be obsolete.

Laboring in Vrain

On the first day of the Big Flood, a photographer and I covered southern Longmont like a blanket. We watched Missouri Street turn into the “Missouri river”. We saw washed-out train tracks and rising streams and people dangerously trying to wade a flooded-over Hover Street.

And when it came time to return to the Times-Call newsroom, we saw one other thing. Namely, that getting back home was going to be a lot harder than we thought.

If you were there in 2013, you probably remember. The rising St. Vrain Creek had cut Longmont in two. Within town, there was exactly one north-south connection left – from Ken Pratt to Third – and that was being reserved for emergency vehicles.

And so began the Journey of Exploration.

The photographer knew the area well. He had to. As he drove east, we picked our way between small county roads  like a child’s pencil through a maze, trying to find just one clear route that would let us outflank the St. Vrain.

It took about an hour. It might have been the first time that anyone had gone from Hover Street to the downtown by way of Mead. Wings would have been great to have, or maybe sails.

But we made it.

True, it had required much more work, persistence and time than anyone had expected. Much too much.

But at journey’s end, we were just glad to be home.

**

Eight years later, it sometimes feels like we’re back in the flood.

Once again, we have a people divided by disaster. Some are trying to help. Some are already hit hard. Some are desperate enough to try anything that offers a way out. Most are simply trying to survive until it’s all over … whenever that might be.

And just like that drive home on those rain-swept roads, the journey back is turning out to be a lot longer than we thought.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. Pandemics don’t end as quickly and neatly as a Hollywood movie. Or if they do take their cue from Hollywood, it’s from all those interminable sequels where the old threat keeps getting recycled with new abilities and special effects.

We wouldn’t survive as a species if we couldn’t hope. And so we keep crossing our fingers that this time we’ve turned the corner, that this wave will be the last, that things can finally start to subside and normalize again.

And when we turn the corner and find another corner, it’s draining. Frustrating. Even crushing.

But we have to keep driving.

We need to remember the things that got us through the flood – helping neighbors, staying alert, doing what’s needed to stay safe.

It hasn’t been easy. It won’t be easy. Like outmaneuvering a river, it’s taking more time and effort than anyone thought.

But with persistence, with awareness, with careful attention to the road … we can move forward. And we will make it home.

True, home might look different than we expect. Like rivers, “normal” doesn’t stand still. Sometimes it transforms, like the St. Vrain changing its course. Sometimes it needs to transform, like the efforts to widen and deepen the river channel to make a second flood less likely.

But we still have a destination to reach. The way may be long and the vision ahead may be unclear, but we know where we want to be and it isn’t here.

So we keep on. Together. Eyes on the road.

The sign for Mead is out there. And when it comes, we’ll be ready to take the turn.

Bigger Things

Water rising in the streets. Highways cut off. Neighborhoods turned into islands as their residents hunker down to shelter from the deluge.

We know this story.

Oh, not on the scale that Houston has seen and endured, to be sure, with its millions of people and trillions of gallons of water. But our own memories of floodwater are still raw and fresh, not quite four years old. We still recall the power of the storm.

We remember river channels moving and attacking from new directions. We remember south Longmont isolated and Lyons evacuated. We remember the rain, steady, unhurried, relentless, never seeming to leave.

And one thing more. That even as floods divided the city, they united its people. For a while, the usual controversies didn’t matter. What mattered was reaching out to the next guy, and the next, and the next.

The scale has changed but the impulse hasn’t. A storm focuses attention to an amazing degree. All at once, people line up to offer shelter, or supplies, or even a hastily assembled fleet of boats like a second Dunkirk. I can’t say all criticism or animosities were forgotten – among 300 million people, that may be an impossibility – but for a while, they were eclipsed by something bigger.

Come to think of it, that’s a timely word. After all, it hasn’t been so long since that was literally true as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, much of the country took a break from what it was doing to watch a hole in the sky. For some, it was transformative as totality turned the midday sky into a magical darkness. Even those of us just out of the main path of the solar eclipse were transfixed by shadow, reflections, and the hint of sun still visible through darkened glasses.

Again, it didn’t lift us completely above our controversies and arguments. But it did seem to put life on pause for a few minutes, to make the contention smaller as we stood and watched together.

For a moment, the scale changed. And our perspective with it.

For a moment, our focus was captured by something larger than ourselves.

It doesn’t last. Maybe it can’t. The author Terry Pratchett once noted that “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.” We still are different people with different views, and when that singular focus has passed, we still have to figure out how to build a life together day by day.

But we can keep that common purpose on a deeper level. We can remember why we come together in times of disaster and wonder.

Because your life matters as much as mine. Because we share a world bigger than any of us. Because it’s not just about ourselves, but about the others in this world who are just as worthy of respect and dignity and help – and that each of us is an “other” to someone, who may someday need an outstretched hand and an open heart.

We may each of us see the road differently. But if we’re striving for the same destination, to reach a place that lifts all of us up and holds none of us down, then we can travel together. It won’t always be a peaceful journey – what family road trip ever is? – but if we can agree that helping each other is more important than scoring points or revenging wrongs,  it will at least move us all down the road.

A hurricane makes it obvious. But storms move on.

It’s up to us to make sure something bigger remains behind.

Run of the Miller

Don’t look now, but the invasion is underway.

Bang on a storm window, and half a dozen visitors may fall from the screen.

Leave a door open just a little too long, and you’ll turn to find 20 of the newcomers in the front hall … or the laundry room … or your office, charging the fluorescent lights.

The silent whir. The soft collisions. The persistence that keeps them coming back more often than robo-calls in election season.

Ladies and gentlemen of Colorado, it’s “miller time.”

Miller moths have been an annoying feature of Colorado springtimes since I was a kid, but every few years they manage to put together a swarm of epic proportions. About 25 years back, for example, they became so numerous that even the cats stopped stalking them.

“They say that to a cat, miller moths are like pizza,” a radio host said at the time. “But if pizza kept falling out every time you pulled down the sun visor on your car, you’d start to get a little sick of it.”

It’s not even anything inherent to the moth itself. One moth in a room is distracting but tolerable. But like potato chips, you never just have one. You get entire flight patterns.

Anything in those quantities, even things we would normally welcome, starts to get overwhelming and hard to handle. It could be an army of puppies. A cacophony of radio stations. A torrent of water …

Ah, I saw some of you nodding with that last one.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I love a good rainfall. I like to claim that it’s in the blood – Mom’s family came here from England, after all, and my sister even lives near the famously soggy skies of Seattle. So when the Colorado landscape turned into “Home on the Range” in reverse – where the skies remain cloudy all day – I gave a mental “hallelujah” and settled back to enjoy it. Heat? Sunburn? Ha!

And then it kept coming.

And coming.

And … well, somewhere after the 16th iteration of “coming,” it began to be just a tad overdone. Even more than a tad, as rivers rose and anxieties climbed with them.

Water is one of the most precious and treasured things in Colorado. But in such relentless quantities, it can officially become Too Much, a curse of house painters and construction workers and anyone who just needs a little sun. A good thing, made horrific through excess.

As I write that, I wonder how well we’re paying attention.

After all, we’re Americans. We’re good at excess. We eat big meals, work long hours, and rack up the highest credit-card debt of anywhere in the world. And of course, anytime the Powerball total starts to climb sky-high, our attention climbs with it.

And yet … deep down, I think most of us know better. We know that too much food makes you fat, too much work makes you crazy, too much debt ties you into knots that can take years to untie. That there’s such a thing as “enough.”

Heresy, maybe, in a consumer culture. But true. Someone once suggested that the real definition of “wealthy” is to have enough that you no longer need to worry. Anything more than that just starts to create its own problems, as the celebrities of the world seem determined to prove every day, and twice on Sundays.

I don’t mean to suggest that we have to become monks, to simply swing our lives to a different extreme. But there’s a quiet beauty in balance. One that lets you truly enjoy the pieces of life – and eventually, the peace of life – without being overwhelmed.

I’m still working on it myself. But it’s worth working on.

Right after I get these moths out of the laundry room.

Sound Off

There are a lot of wrongs to rail at in this world. Hunger. Injustice. The continued existence of the Oakland Raiders.

And since all those are taken, I’m going to snark about the Tony awards instead.

At least, I will if this microphone is working. No guarantee, that.

The Tonys, you see, decided that next year there would be no awards for sound design. Now, don’t everyone riot at once. I know, most of you stay up into the wee hours to see if this will finally be the year for … well, whatshisname. And the other one, too. The one with the hair.

Ok. I’ll admit it. To the general public – even the general theatre-going public – sound designers have all the renown of congressional interns. Unless there’s a scandal, you’re not likely to ever learn their names. And even then, it would have to be one heck of a scandal. (“Imported mayonnaise? Oh, dear.”)

But when you think about it, that’s exactly the point.

The anonymity, that is. Not the mayonnaise. Stay with me here.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to a lot of movies. And at every single one, we stayed until the final credit had rolled across the screen. Dad’s mom had worked in a behind-the-scenes job for one of the studios, you see, so he knew how important those miniature letters zooming past at high speed were.

Always stay, he told me. Always honor the work. For many of these people, it may be the only recognition they ever get.

That stayed with me. Even during the Lord of the Rings films, where half the New Zealand phone book had to roll by before we could leave.

Always honor the work.

It’s easy to cheer the actors. We see them, we hear them, we feel like we know them. And directors are not without honor. We know who’s (officially) in charge, whose name is tied to the success or failure of a production.

But there’s a whole invisible world in theatre that most audiences never consciously notice. Costumers. Light and sound designers. Stage managers. Prop masters. People in the shadows who, arguably, are more important to the success of a show than the cast. Anyone who’s worked in community theatre will tell you that finding performers is easy compared to finding capable backstage crew.

They rarely get bows. They rarely get recognized. But the work of the best can sink into your soul.

And that’s not a story only belonging to theatre. In most walks of life, there are people who serve as a living foundation – all but invisible to a casual glance but vital to keep things standing.

When we do notice, it’s usually because of a crisis. Think back to the flood. Sure, we saw a lot of cops and firefighters, the heroes we justly cheer every day. But we also noticed the folks who build the roads, who fix the water lines, who haul away the trash. (Actually, judging by the reaction to the neighborhood roll-offs, the trash haulers may have been the most popular people on the block!)

The foundation had been exposed. And it held.

And it’ll keep holding long after the spotlight has burned out.

If those people don’t deserve a moment of recognition, nobody does.

So to the ladies and gentlemen of the Tony Awards committee, I offer one word: reconsider. Sure, you might save five minutes on an already overlong night of glitz and glamour. But think of what you’re turning your back on to do it.

Honor the work.

Let it be heard.

A Memory of Water

The surging water quickly filled the gutter, cascading down the nearby grating in ripples and bubbles.

I watched in the dark, hypnotized for a few seconds.

Part of it, in all honesty, was probably fatigue. Normal people sleep at 1 o’clock in the morning. Even crazy ones will sleep at 1 a.m. when it’s snowing outside. But as a reporter, I’m a special breed of crazy, so I was out in the snow showers, trying to get a halfway-decent picture that could run on our website come morning.

But lack of sleep only goes so far, especially for a night owl. The larger part of my mind, the part that couldn’t look away, was hearing an echo. One that was six months old.

A memory of a river that would not stop rising.

***

I doubt I’m alone here, either in my reflex or in my embarrassment at it.

I mean, water is the treasure of the West. It’s what starts small towns and big fights. It’s the heart of everything we do in Colorado, from farms to breweries to ski lodges.

What’s more, I love water from the sky. I glory in rainstorms (especially since their arrival means my early-warning pressure headaches can go away). And snow has been a special treat for me since childhood, a chance to see the world transformed and the California drivers at a loss.

It’s beautiful. Marvelous. Powerful.

And last September, we all got a reminder of the other side of that power.

I was one of the lucky ones. The flood didn’t reach my home, didn’t harm my family, didn’t turn my life upside down. Even so, I still have memories from the first day, reporting from the south side of Longmont and not sure how I was going to get back to the north.

I remember the “Missouri river” created when Left Hand Creek emptied into the nearby street. And the sea that had been Boston Avenue, stranding those who lingered even a moment. I can still see water slowly filling neighborhoods or quickly roaring under bridges or ripping away railway beds. And I doubt I’ll ever forget the sight of people walking across a flooded-out Hover Street, desperate for any way to get back home.

That’s from someone for whom the flood was a job. How much stronger still for those whose lives passed through the current?

And no one emerges from a trauma unmarked.

It’s like having a death in the family: the smallest things will trigger the most powerful memories. And so we sometimes wince to see gray clouds in the sky, or to hear rain on the roof, or to even think of what spring’s runoff may bring down the St. Vrain’s channel.

It’s a natural reflex. And not an entirely bad one.

When a relative passes, the unexpected memories help preserve a loving tie even beyond death. When a flood passes, the memories can keep us alert and watchful — a useful thing, so long as it doesn’t degrade into a fear and panic that paralyzes instead of primes.

We know what can happen now. We can be ready. Even if we don’t anticipate everything, we can prepare for enough.

And someday, down the road, we’ll be able to hear the rumble of thunder without anxiety.

Maybe not yet. Maybe not now. But someday, when watchfulness has built security, the time will come.

Until then, all we can do is navigate as best we can among a flood of memories.

Well, Look at That

About 10 years ago, my boss took me to the emergency room. Nothing huge, just a bleeding chin that needed three stitches after my spur-of-the-moment attempt to make the Olympic parking-lot diving team. You know, the usual.

On his way back, he drove by an accident. He slowed down, as drivers do, and took a glance. So did another driver, one who found the accident much more fascinating than the road.

Boom.

And like that, my boss’s car had a keepsake.

We’ve all seen it. We all know it happens. And most of us shake our heads in disbelief – until we’re the ones going past the car crash or the house fire. All of a sudden, you just can’t look away. You have to see more.

You’ve joined the rubberneck brigade.

The word’s an interesting  one. “Rubbernecking” originally described the out-of-town tourist, the sort whose head swiveled at every building taller than two stories. Now it’s become the badge of the morbidly curious and the curse of the highway patrol; at least one study suggests that gaping at crashes is almost as likely to cause an accident as yapping on a cell phone.

And since the Big Flood, it’s become a pastime for some that’s second only to Broncomania.

You know what I’m talking about.

The driver who swings around abruptly on the highway, to get a better look at washed-out homes.

The passerby who has to climb over or cut through a snow fence, to see if the Greenway is really as damaged as the city says.

The folks who hike around barriers and across still-dangerous country to where people are rebuilding – not to offer any help, but just to see the sights.

At one story I covered, a frustrated Longmont Dam Road resident called it “disaster tourism.” Some of the things her neighbors wanted to call it couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper.

I call it heartless.

I recognize the irony of a reporter saying this. After all, part of my job is to go to places where the worst is happening and see it for myself. I’ve stood by families as their home burned to cinders. I’ve watched the water rise in neighborhoods and walked through mud-ruined trailers with their residents afterward. I’ve even seen emergency workers drape the sheet over drivers whose luck ran out one dangerous day.

It’s never comfortable. Any of it.

I draw lines, of course. I never get in the way of emergency workers. I try not to do anything stupidly dangerous. I approach victims carefully, trying to be a neighbor as much as a journalist. And if they want me out of their face and off their property, I respect that and go.

I’m not just there randomly. I’m doing a job. In a way, I’m there so 500 other “tourists” don’t have to be.

And always, always, I make myself remember these are people in pain. Not just fodder for a lookyloo.

Maybe I haven’t convinced you. That’s OK. Sometimes I don’t always convince myself, either. But one thing I am convinced of – that callous curiosity carries a price tag.

There isn’t a place for it. Not here. Not anywhere.

It’s natural to want to see what the flood did. (If it wasn’t, our paper would have just wasted a lot of time and money.) But safely. Humanely. Please.

If getting a closer look makes you do something dangerous, it’s not worth it.

If getting a closer look puts you in the way of people trying to help, it’s not worth it.

If getting a closer look means stepping on someone’s heart, it’s really not worth it.

Have a heart to go with those eyes. Remember that these are still our friends, our neighbors. Treat them with the love and respect they deserve.

Let’s have fewer rubber necks and more open arms.

Civil, Not War

When someone stops shouting in your ear, it can take a minute to notice.

It had been a typical work-from-home day at Chez Rochat. Which is to say, something like Fred Astaire dancing on ball bearings, each step careening into the next and none of them quite on balance. Wake up, write, get Missy out the door, write, check on Heather, write, let the dogs out, write … a lifestyle tango with an unrelenting orchestra.

And then, a beat skipped.

I missed it at first. It was only later that I added up the evidence – the ballots on the counter, the calendar on the wall, the thin pile of mail on the table – and asked the question that had been hiding in my mind.

“What happened to all my election chaos?”

You know the sort of thing I mean. Over the last few years, even a non-presidential race has become an Event, sort of like being invaded by locusts, but less productive. The junk mail that could heat a home for the winter. The robo-calls that make telemarketers a nostalgic memory by comparison. The relentless barrage of ads by the oh-so-concerned, or at least the oh-so-concerned-that-you’ll-vote-the-right-way.

This year? Sure, there’s been some calls, a few letters in the mailbox. There’s been the usual back-and-forths in the usual places, some of them pretty edged.

But it’s been … bearable. Normal, even. Like an election instead of a war.

Is this even allowed anymore?

OK, I know part of it’s that we don’t have the big money here this time around. No massive spending for national politics, or fiber-optic campaigns, or oil and gas issues. When it’s down to just a few local folks spending a few thousand dollars each – at most – it’s hard to stir the waters too badly, even if the occasional outside group parachutes in.

But I think it’s a little more. Left to ourselves, I think we’ve regained a little perspective.

Last year, at the height of the Colorado wildfires, I used this space to ask that President Obama and Mr. Romney suspend their campaigns here and give the ad money to relief efforts. I saw that column re-circulated in a lot of places, but no sign that anyone in authority ever gave the matter a moment’s thought.

This year, we followed fire with flood. And with disaster on their doorsteps, our local folks showed how to do it. Everyone called off campaigning for the next three weeks or so, even those who most needed the exposure. Digging out the home became more important than getting out the vote, and more than one candidate found a way to lend a hand.

I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna. There’s a little cynic in me still that will point out how hard it is to campaign in a flood-ravaged town, and how no candidate wants to be the one that gets labeled “the insensitive jerk.” I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some calculation, frankly.

But that’s part of my point. Even the most tactically-minded politician could look at this situation, say “campaigning is stupid” and then not do it anyway. They recognized what people wanted and did it.

Isn’t that how the system’s supposed to work?

In this case, an abundance of sense (and a shortage of cents) seems to be giving us a sane election. Not a perfect one or even a perfectly polite one – by its nature, democracy tends to be pugnacious – but one where the vote can be just one more fact of life, instead of an all-consuming monster.

I’ll take it.

So thank you, ladies and gentlemen of public life. Thank you from the bottom of my over-stressed nervous system.

And if you do feel the urge to send me some mass mail, let me know.

I can restock the fireplace any time.