The Time Between

Nobody has perfect 20/20 foresight. Not even John Adams. 

Full of excitement at America’s independence, he predicted in a letter that there’d be a great anniversary festival. He saw how future generations would celebrate it with “pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” 

He also predicted it would be on July 2. Whoops. 

To be fair, the world looked very different when Adams wrote home on July 3. The vote to break with Great Britain had been yesterday. The vote to approve the Declaration would be tomorrow. Few people knew what had happened; fewer still could guess what it might mean. 

A moment of transformation. No, make that a moment IN transformation. A change in process, with the past behind and the new present not yet formed. 

Exciting. Terrifying. Uncertain. 

And oh, so familiar. 

The technical term is a “liminal moment,” meaning a moment on the threshold. We experience a lot of them, as individuals and a society. They’re not a comfortable place to be, not least because they hold so many questions from the inside. 

“Am I an adult yet?” 

“Are we in or out of a pandemic – or does that mean anything?” 

“Am I over the threshold or still in between?” 

We don’t like uncertainty, of course. So we try to set boundaries, definitions, signposts. (“Why, you’re an adult when you’re 18. Except for the parts where you’re 21. Other terms and conditions may apply.”) We want to move ahead and get out of the fog, finding our way to firmer ground. 

But please. Don’t rush too fast. 

That time in between has value. 

You can’t live there, of course. But you can make a life from there. It’s a moment of discarding old assumptions and shaping new ideas.  When tomorrow doesn’t have to look just like today with better cars and smaller computers. When we can choose who we are and what we want to become. 

Treasure that. 

Sure, we’ll be wrong about a lot of things. We’re human. It happens. But if we live these moments unafraid to be wrong – aware, adaptable, open to wonder – then even our mistakes can lead somewhere pretty amazing. Maybe even revolutionary. 

So here’s to Mr. Adams and all his heirs. Perhaps, in his honor, we should commemorate July 3 as well. Not the day of decision, nor the day of declaration, but a day of possibilities with all the world open. 

That’s certainly something worth writing home about. 

Beyond the Fourth

This year for Independence Day, I want to think a little less about July 4.

Heresy, I know. But let me explain.

The imagery, of course, has become iconic. The Continental Congress pledging “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to the fight for independence. John Hancock flourishing his gaudy signature, with most of the others adding their own a month later. Public readings, bells ringing out, fireworks, dogs howling … OK, maybe that last one was added from my own experience.

It’s all very celebratory. Triumphal. Familiar.

And in times of struggle or questioning, or among those who feel left out of independence’s promise, it can also sometimes feel a little hollow.

“The Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” wrote former slave Frederick Douglass in the 1850s. Others have taken up that call at different times, seeing freedom pledged to all but denied to them, or a government in which their trust is shaky or absent.

But celebration is only a small part of the Revolution’s heritage. Maybe not even the most important one (with apologies to John Adams).

So for a moment, I want to step back. Widen the lens. And look at the months after the Declaration.

The British kept coming. And coming. And coming, in overwhelming numbers. In September of 1776, one American solider said the massive fleet off Kip’s Bay looked like all London was afloat.  

And the Americans? Mostly a familiar pattern. Fight. Lose. Retreat. Repeat. Over and over, Washington had to pull back, just to keep his army alive. By mid-December, Congress had fled Philadelphia, fearing that capture of the city was imminent.

In short, the fight looked hopeless.

But the fight went on. Because the alternative was unthinkable.

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” Thomas Paine wrote, “yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. … Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

Hope in hopeless times. Resolution in the face of seeming defeat. Standing up when it’s called for, whatever the cost.

That’s the Independence Day message I want to remember.

And it’s one that we can all inherit and pass on.

Even in the times when the nation is divided. Even by those who feel little reason to celebrate. And even in days when an array of crisis upon crisis seems to grind the soul with teeth of stone.

We’ve seen these times. We were born in these times. And we know how to face them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: the Revolution never truly ended. There is always more to do, always more to build to achieve an America that can match its ideals. Sometimes we stall. Sometimes we go backward. But the fight goes on.

That’s a promise that rings louder than any bell and shines brighter than any firework. A declaration that lives not in ink and parchment, but in each of us.

Happy Fourth, everyone. Make it what you will.

And then do the same with the nation.

Oh, Say, Can You Hear?

If you held back on bangs, pops and especially BOOMS this Fourth of July season, Missy would like to thank you.

For those of you who know our Missy, that may sound a little odd. After all, Missy slams out music from her stereo at a volume that the band in “This Is Spinal Tap” would envy, with a dial that goes past 11 and all the way to 17. Back in the days when KBPI bragged that it “rrrrrrocks the Rockies,” I’m pretty sure Missy was already shaking a fourteener or two herself with an ultra-high-power recording of “Rocky Mountain Way.”  

But she’s also developmentally disabled. That comes with a few side effects.

One of hers, as it turns out , is that she really hates sudden and unexpected loud noises.

Most of the time, that just means she jumps out of her shoes when she hears a motorcycle rev up or a car backfire. But when we get into the second half of June and the first week of July, it often becomes an auditory minefield that keeps her nerves on edge and her sleep uncertain.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally have nothing against Independence Day fireworks. Growing up, I used to wave sparklers, light fountains, and even climb up the ladder to the roof with Dad to watch the local skyrockets. (That last can be an interesting challenge when you’ve just soaked down all the shingles to guard against someone’s stray illicit bottle rocket.) It was a night of noise and color that easily lit up a grade-schooler’s heart.

So yeah, as long as it’s not a bad wildfire season, I can get on board with some July 4 special effects, finding ways to keep the dog calm and Missy distracted for one night.

It’s the three to four weeks of constant vigilance for the additional voluntary celebrations that can get a little wearing.

I know we’re not alone. There are folks who have their own issues, maybe because of a pet who thinks the world is ending, a vet who doesn’t need to hear explosions without warning, or a neurological issue like Missy’s where the sharp stimulation is just too much. Those stories and more are out there and we hear about them from time to time.

So if you dialed back the usual artillery this year – or if you’re holding back these next few days after the Fourth is done – thank you. If you’re thinking ahead to next year and maybe revising a few plans, thank you. We really, truly appreciate it.

More than that, we appreciate the spirit behind it … the same spirit of thoughtfulness to neighbors that has been reinforced so many times in the last year.

That thoughtfulness meant masking up as the pandemic set in, even when it was inconvenient and annoying, so that others could survive.

That thoughtfulness meant hitting the shovels and the snow blowers over and over in the midst of a major March blizzard, even when resting in a warm home would feel so good, so that others could make it through. (Trying to guide a wheelchair through a snowy sidewalk is No Fun.)

That thoughtfulness meant taking a moment to think of others, even when it meant a little more work or restraint for ourselves.

That’s the sort of thing that builds a good neighborhood. A good community. Even, carried far enough, a good country.

That’s a spirit that’s worth celebrating. And I think we can do a bang-up job of it.

Er … so to speak.

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.

The Words That Matter

When you’re a reporter, the newsroom is home.

It may be a home you see more often than your real one, to be honest. It’s where the phone calls get made, the interviews get scheduled, and the miles and miles of copy get written. It’s the place of bad jokes, election-night pizza, and arguments over whether a material is called “concrete” or “cement” in print. It’s the core of the daily insanity, the “daily miracle” as each new edition of the newspaper is referred to.

It’s where life happens.

And last week, for one publication, it became where death happens, too.

On Thursday, the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis lived the nightmare. Five of their co-workers dead as a gunman shot his way in. The rest, having to keep going, to cover this horror that had come through the door, to report the deaths of friends and colleagues even in the midst of trying to find safety.

Every reporter has heard the editor’s admonition to get out there because “you won’t find any news in the newsroom.” If only that were always true.

The exceptions hurt too much.

***

In a way, it’s strange to be writing about this. Not just because I did a column about press violence literally a year ago, when the stories of the day were about windows being shot, bomb threats being called in, and a congressional candidate knocking a reporter down. But because it’s a story of someone taking a newspaper seriously. Seriously enough to kill.

That’s been the exception more than the rule these days.

We’ve seen the stories of the budget cuts, the layoffs, the financial pressure put on newspapers across the country. To many people, they’re a part of the conversation that seems to get increasingly exiled to the periphery. Websites keep snapping up and recirculating their copy – it’s a dirty secret how many online news sites rely on newspaper coverage, just as television stations once did before – while the men and women at the heart of it are continually called on to do more with less.

And they still do it.

I’m not talking about angels. I’m talking about people who make good choices, bad choices, and sometimes even bizarre choices in what they cover and why. Here and around the world, they ask, they learn, and they tell the story, even when someone would rather they not.

Sometimes they die for it.

Around the world, just this year, 33 of them have. Most of them by murder.

***

To our Founding Fathers, the conversation would not have been strange. On the Fourth, we look back to when several of them wrote words that could get them killed. When the signers of the Declaration pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” they knew it was no empty promise.

“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?” Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania recalled in later years.

“Let us prepare for the worst,” Abraham Clark of New Jersey wrote after signing. “We can die here but once.”

The right words at the right time matter.

And in journalism, this is why the work goes on.

Sometimes badly. Sometimes well. Reporters get praised, threatened, reviled, thanked, and even ignored – sometimes all in the same week. And even if newspapers went away tomorrow, the work would still go on somewhere, in some form, because it is too necessary to a free country to have people ask and learn and tell the story to others.

The story won’t stop. So the storytellers must go on.

At the Capital Gazette, one page of one edition was left blank after the shooting, save for the names of those who died and a brief tribute. A moment to pay honor, to feel the pain.

And then the work continued. As it has. As it will.

This is a country made by speaking out. And the words will not be silenced.

Not even in their very home.

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.

Totally Floored

When in the course of home improvement events, it becomes necessary for one family to dissolve the fabric-covered bands which have connected one piece of flooring with another, a decent respect to the opinions of the Times-Call’s readership requires that they should declare that this was a heck of a way to spend a holiday weekend.

Yes, while the rest of Longmont was practicing its skill with legal and quasi-legal exploding objects, we were busy ripping up a lot of downstairs carpet. This was mostly due to the efforts of a few generations of house pets, all of which had important messages to leave in the former dining room, if you catch my drift. So when our own Duchess the Wonder Dog decided to leave her own updates and found the mailbox already full – in the form of a ruined padding – well, it was time to introduce some “postal reform.”

In the course of this expedition, we quickly found certain truths to be self-evident. They didn’t exactly involve life, liberty, and the pursuit of cheap Chinese incendiaries, but many of them will be familiar to home owners nonetheless:

1) When outfitted properly in goggles, breath mask, gloves and knee pads, you will vaguely resemble a junior Darth Vader on his way to umpire his first minor-league baseball game. Except that Darth Vader’s goggles never fogged up in the middle of the job.

2) It is amazing how much you can accomplish in one night when you don’t care how much sleep, sanity, or major vertebrae you lose.

3) There is a proper, simple way of removing carpet strip by strip for easy portability. Somewhere in the third hour, that way will be discarded in favor of attempting to fold half the room up like a piece of oversized origami. Again, you really didn’t need those vertebrae anyway.

4) Few things in life are more entertaining than ripping up the long strips of tacks and nails that held the carpet down.

5) Few things in life are more painful than rediscovering those same strips with your sock-clad feet.

6) There is always one more staple. Even if you scour the floor with a magnifying glass, a metal detector, and the great-grandson of Sherlock Holmes, once you paint your primer on the plywood, a dozen staples will magically appear like the next row of sweets in a Candy Crush game. You will become very familiar with your floor scraper  and a certain level of vocabulary.

7) It takes longer to disperse primer fumes than anyone would realize. Longer than a baseball All-Star game. Longer than an especially intransigent session of Congress. Possibly longer than a geological age of the Earth.

8) Speaking of ancient epochs, it will also be discovered that there is a certain fascination in home archaeology. Beneath that carpet will be an indelible record of every family that ever passed through the house, lacking only Egyptian hieroglyphics and Roman graffiti to be complete. You will quickly see how many dogs have lived there. You will quickly appreciate what nearly four decades of Christmas Eve dinners for the entire extended family looks like. You’ll even find the occasional artifact from the last poor souls to lay down a carpet here, which gives you an extra 3 cents to put toward the new flooring. Little did they know they were paying it forward.

Finally, with a new appreciation for your house (and a new resolve that liquid beverages will never be allowed in it again), you are ready for the loud BOOM – not from fireworks, but from your bank account abruptly disgorging the funds needed to recover your primer-painted plywood with something human beings can walk on. You will celebrate wearily but wholeheartedly. And if you’re like me, somewhere inside you’ll rejoice that you’ve mastered one more staple of an actual adult’s skill set.

Or maybe that should be “one more foundation brick” of it. Because you are never, ever going to mention staples again for as long as you live.

Triumphant Through Defeat

When you think about it, our country celebrates a pretty odd birthday.

I’m not talking about the fireworks bursting in the sky while stomach linings are bursting on the ground. As Erma Bombeck once said, it’s a wonderful thing that we observe a patriotic holiday with food and Frisbees rather than a march of our armored divisions down Pennsylvania Avenue – and besides, it’s un-American not to celebrate a major event by over-eating, right?

Nor am I talking about the fact that we celebrate on July 4th an independence that was approved on July 2nd.  Given our national ability with dates, we’re probably lucky not to have it at the start of football season.

I don’t even mean the fact that every Independence Day concert closes with “the 1812 Overture,” a piece about Russians kicking the tar out of the French army about 30 years after our Revolution ended … with the help of the French. We’ll overlook a lot for the chance to fire off cannons at a concert, after all.

No, here’s the oddity, at least from my perspective.

Every July, we celebrate a war that was mostly won by not losing.

Think about it.

We’re a country that packs the stands at the Olympics and takes it as a personal offense when we don’t grab the gold in everything. We spend a lot of time cheering for sports that allow scoring, scoring and more scoring (baseball’s given a pass because of tradition; hockey because of the fights). We’re the land of Rambo and Horatio Alger; where “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,”; where anything can be a competition, even throwing cow pies.

We are, in short, as obsessed with victory as ever a nation was. Ask George Karl sometime.

Just don’t ask George Washington.

Not unless you’re ready to squint at the win-loss record.

This isn’t meant as a slam on the General. He’s an American hero and rightfully so. At times he held the Continental Army together through sheer willpower, wrestled with an often-sluggish Congress for essential resources (you know, nothing like today) and stood up when his country called, over and over again, to do whatever it needed him to do.

But if you had a dollar for every time a history text said “Washington retreated” or “Washington withdrew,” you could probably put on a pretty nice fireworks show.

Sure he had reason. The British could usually put more troops in the field with better cohesion. But that doesn’t change the fact that , until the surprise attack at Trenton at the end of the year, 1776 mostly saw Washington and his men being chased out of New York, out of New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. The most notable moment for the Continentals came with a near-miraculous escape across the East River under cover of fog.

In short, this was a losing streak that would be unparalleled until the creation of the Chicago Cubs.

And yet.

During World War II, Winston Churchill once quoted a saying that England always wins one battle – the last. Washington seemed to have understood something similar. For a revolutionary general, victory isn’t measured by battles. Or by territory. Or even whether your side keeps possession of its capital.

Victory is measured by whether you still have an army in the field and can keep up the fight. If you’re still there, you win. You can lose any number of individual clashes, so long as you hold on to the essentials.

It’s a perspective that often gets lost today, I fear.

Fight out a bill? Absolutely, every time, by every means possible, without compromise – even if the net result is Congressional paralysis.

A war on terror? Grab every tool you can to fight it – even if the result is the shrinking or loss of those liberties we thought we were fighting for.

I’m not saying surrender. Washington didn’t either. But never lose sight of the goal. Never lose sight of where victory really is.

Brilliant victories that lose a war are all too common. But to make even defeat a cornerstone of triumph – now that’s genius.

If the fight can go on … if the nation can go on … we all win.

And if that’s not worth a barbeque, I don’t know what is.

Brought Fourth in Silence

I’ve never known a quieter Fourth.

No shells bursting in the sky. No firecrackers raising the hackles of our dog. Just a night where the occasional rattle and bang and boom was occasional indeed, brief ripples in a sea of silence.

And yet the stillness rang louder than any skyrocket.

It’s no surprise, of course. This is a summer where many people have seen enough fire in the sky already. With Colorado burning down day after day from wildfires, fireworks had become about as politically popular as renaming Mile High in honor of Al Davis. Maybe less so.

Shhh. This is a No Sparking zone.

Some disagreed, of course. Some always do. And I can understand. Fireworks have been an expected part of the day since John Adams. I have memories of watching the bursts from bat-inhabited golf courses, or tree-obstructed bedroom windows, or even from our own rooftop, the shingles made slippery by a protective hosing down against bottle rockets. (Mind that last step!)

So yeah, it’s a great part of the day.

But it’s only part of it.

Absurdly, my brain began to go back to Christmas, to a Grinch who decided stealing all the presents could steal the holiday with it. Anyone with young children in the house (or our Missy) can recite the results by heart:

 

He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

 

It’s still true. Douse every sparkler, shush every “1812” cannon. The day is still there, the freedom still as real. The symbol isn’t the thing.

And the symbol this year may be more potent than anyone expected.

What’s the day about, really? Not beer and explosives, fun though the combination may be. It’s about a people taking charge of its own future, about men and women and communities doing what they must to secure the day, however little they might like it.

It’s about a general who constantly wanted to come to grips with the British – yet knew his country’s only chance was if he kept his army alive.

It’s about those who risked “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor”in grasping at a dream where failure meant the noose.

It’s about those who could leave family and home, or hold it together while others left, deferring what they wanted in favor of what was needed.

The Fourth of July has never been for wimps. Living the legacy means making tough choices.

And when we make those choices together, for the protection of us all, that’s a brighter light than any skyrocket could create.

There’ll be a day when the fireworks return, a day when smoke and flame can be replaced by “Ooh” and “Aah.” Maybe it’ll be twice as good, with two years of Independence Day budgets saved up. Maybe it’ll be the same show as before, with this year’s spending donated to this year’s fires, a drop in the bucket but a welcome drop all the same.

Whatever comes, the Fourth will come with it. And someday it’ll come with all the bells and whistles and Roman candles anyone could want.

Until then, we wait. Not out of fear. But out of care, out of duty, out of watchfulness for our friends and neighbors.

And even on a silent night, those can be heard loud and clear.