Finding Balance, Fixing Blame

Missy sat on her pillow, only to find most of it had no mattress underneath.

WHUMP.

Startled but unhurt, our disabled ward looked up from the carpet. And then, with a growl worthy of Yosemite Sam, she pointed fiercely at the nearby nightstand.

“No!” she bellowed, with offended justice ringing in her voice.

I glanced at the object of her ire and then helped her up.

“Missy,” I said gently, “the lamp did not trip you.”

Another scowl resulted. Guilty or not, that nightstand lamp would not be forgiven any time soon.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to act as a defense attorney for an innocent object or creature. When Missy’s coordination issues produce an occasional fall, she’s good at slowing herself down into a soft landing. She’s also good at fixing the blame on anything nearby. In the days when we still had Big Blake, our lovably massive English Lab, the Missy Finger of Judgment would quickly indicate her furry friend … even if he happened to be across the room at the time.

“Missy …”

Other times, the accusation has been leveled at our birds. (A real accomplishment, that.) Or an empty chair. Or maybe a passing poltergeist out for a stroll. Anyone and anything except herself.

But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, many of us do exactly the same thing.

I’ve said before that we’re story-centered beings. We want a cause or an explanation for everything, the simpler the better. But we also don’t want that cause to be us or something we admire. And so, we look for a convenient target.

In sports, we lash out at the ref for making That One Call. (Never mind the 300 bad plays before it that made the call important.) Or we decide that everything’s the fault of one coach or one player – like an ancient king, sacrificing them will prosperity to the land again.

In the larger world, it gets even uglier. I don’t need to recount how many Others we’ve found to blame for the problems of a troubled society or a broken world. Usually we choose a people who are safely powerless and already despised, convenient scapegoats that make us feel good about our prejudice or contempt.

Too often, we don’t look inward. Too often, we don’t dare.

Some of it is simple pride. Many times, we’ve committed ourselves deeply to an action, a cause, a person, a belief. And when someone gives that commitment badly – if the belief is ill-founded or the hero is anything but – turning back means admitting “I was wrong.” Maybe even looking foolish.

That’s hard. Far easier to double down instead, to deny the uncomfortable truth and press on ahead.

The times when we’ve been able to break through those clouds and start to choose a different road are some of the proudest in our history. But they never come without struggle. And the struggle always starts on the inside.

We will find that clear vision again. But how long it takes and how hard it will be depends on us. And when we stumble along the way, I hope we can find our balance in each other and rise again.

Even if it means forgiving that darned lamp.

Taking the Field

The world seemed to stop as Missy slowly reached for the softball on the ground. Felt for a grip. Then raised it up above her head and THREW.

“Woohoo!” “All right!” “Way to go, champ!”

On this day, on this ballfield, it was a moment of triumph to equal any World Series ever played.

This marked yet another season-ending game for the Niwot Nightmares, a “Softball for All” team that Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, has played for since its founding. The season ran a little later than usual – torrential downpours in June had a habit of washing out games – but otherwise, the same Monday evening joy and enthusiasm reigned.

If you’ve never seen the Nightmares and their league-mates in action on a summer’s evening, I highly recommend it. It’s a little different than anything you’ll experience at Coors Field. There’s no screaming vendors, no multi-million-dollar contracts … heck, there aren’t even any outs.

Instead, you get a game that moves at the pace of each player. You get friends coming together and cheering each other on, including the ones on different teams. Most of all, you get a sense of fun that has kept families coming back for years.

And when Missy steps on that field, she does it with the pride of an All-Star. Heck, she’s tipped her helmet to the crowd so many times – sometimes in a single at-bat – that we started nicknaming her “Hollywood.” For her, it’s both a game and a celebration.

She’s taking pride in what she can do. Pushing it, even. Not with an eye to someone else’s performance, but with an eagerness to meet the moment.

I try to do the same. I’m not always successful.

I suspect most of us aren’t, regardless of our level of ability.

We learn early on to judge what we can do and “stick to what we’re good at.” It’s a toxic lesson but a hard one to avoid. Everyone loves success and hates failure, and getting good at something requires a lot of failure.

And so, we diminish ourselves. We learn not to step out on limbs so that we’ll avoid embarrassment … and as a result, we never really learn to fly.

I’m not just talking about acquiring skills. These days, most people have at least heard of “imposter syndrome,” the conviction that everyone else has it figured out and that sooner or later they’ll realize you’re faking it.  It’s an affliction that’s not limited to the obscure – the author Neil Gaiman was once shocked to discover that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, felt out of place in a room full of accomplished individuals because “I just went where I was sent.”

“And I felt a bit better,” Gaiman famously wrote later. “Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.”

We’re all vulnerable. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got. When we understand that, I think we become a little easier on each other. And on ourselves as well.

And then, only then, can we really grow.

I’m not saying we’re all going to turn into figures of legend and envy. But we’ll find what we need for the season we’re in. And maybe a little joy besides.

Move at your pace. Give yourself permission to discover. Meet the moment with what you have, whatever it may hold.

And if that moment leads you to a celebration with friends on a hot summer night … so much the better.

Casting Off

The champion’s gaze softened as he regarded the new world about him, devoid of any feature or distinction. Once, this had been a thriving landscape. But time and chaos had done their work, choking the land’s vital energy, until the approach of the end times could no longer be denied and the champion had acted to sweep everything away. Now, with one word, it could be made anew.

The champion pondered.

“OK … now where DID I put that access code, anyway?”

***

If my mind seems a little apocalyptic today, my apologies. Setting up a new computer will do that to you. Yes, our machine at Chez Rochat finally began sending signs that its long and faithful service was … well, about to be a lot shorter and less faithful. The Desktop Blues had become a favorite tune, followed by the Desktop Reboot and the Desktop Disk-Checking Screen, so it was clearly time to ring down the curtain and clear the stage.

I can’t really complain. At eight years old, my computer was getting into Willie Nelson and Keith Richards territory. But it did mean that it was time for the ritual intonation that every modern first-world human makes when faced with cleaning out a basement, straightening out a closet, or getting ready to move computer files.

“Holy crap! Where did all this stuff come from?”

I can see a few smiles of agreement out there. Most of us aren’t exactly Marie Kondo, regularly studying every item in our inventory and pondering “Does this give me joy?”  If anything, we’re a little closer to John Lennon, where “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Over time, the intentions of the moment fade and sink into mystery until it’s time for the next major archaeological dig.

Sometimes it makes for a neat rediscovery. “Aw, man, I forgot we had these old pictures!  Look at Dad’s hair!”

Sometimes it’s cause to think. “Wow, we haven’t played this in years. Think your cousin would want to give it a try?”

And sometimes – probably most times – it’s a much more primal reaction. “We still have this? Huh …” Hopefully not followed by an immediate rush for some bleach.

The cleanup that follows is often painful (especially for folks like me who are a walking vortex of chaos) but generally necessary. And not just with computers and closets.

We carry a lot of stuff inside us that we don’t need, too.

That one’s harder because everything in us has shaped us in some way, and because letting go of a bad piece of the past isn’t as simple as pulling out a Hefty bag. But we all know the bits we don’t need. The ones that don’t leave us with any memories worth keeping or any lessons left to learn – or that even lead us down false trails and cause continuing harm as they weigh us down.

Our stories keep bringing this back to us. Like Yoda warning Luke Skywalker that the only dangers he’ll face in his next test are the ones he brings with him. Or Frodo and Sam on the brink of Mount Doom, casting off most of their gear – including some things they love but no longer need – so that they can endure the last punishing run of their quest.

You don’t have to be joyless or ascetic. Just aware of what’s really important to you, and ready to shed something that’s become a burden.

It’s not easy. It may require a lot of help.  But it’s worth it, every single time. Especially when it helps keep you out of the blues.

Or even the blue screens.

The Game’s Up

Fantasy football draft weekends have certain rituals that cannot be avoided. Keep the sports magazines close at hand. Test the connection to the draft website. Make sure the caffeine is well-charged.

And this year, there’s one added  detail. Cross Andrew Luck off the quarterback list.

If you’ve paid even one scintilla of attention to the sports world lately, you know what I’m talking about. Luck, the highly-talented and often-battered 29-year-old quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts finally decided that he had taken one injury too many and retired.

“It’s taken the joy out of the game,” he acknowledged in a hasty press conference about a week ago.

The decision drew boos from the fans in the stands. No surprise. Fans are notorious for calling on players to tough it out and earn their paycheck. Players with a history of frequent injuries often get wisecracks rather than sympathy (I still remember Chris Chandler becoming “Crystal Chandelier”) and musings on how the old school would have kept going with one leg and no arms, uphill, through a snowstorm, both ways.

Players know better. They should. They’re the ones who take the shots, who have to decide how much pain is enough.

All for the game. You know, that thing that’s supposed to be fun?

If there’s no joy in a game, why are you playing it? Whatever the score, you yourself are bound to lose.

Oddly, that’s when my mind went back to the 1980s. No, not to the horrific Joe Theismann injury. To Matthew Broderick.

Some of you may remember the film War Games, about a teenager who accidentally hacks into NORAD’s supercomputer and nearly triggers World War III. The final scenes are well known, where the computer runs scenario after scenario of global thermonuclear war – from the most predictable strategies to the least likely incidents – and comes up with the same result every time: No winner.

“A strange game,” the computer concludes. “The only winning move is not to play.”

In short, the computer had to be taught the concept of futility. That some games cannot be won. That some battles have to be walked away from rather than fought.

It doesn’t take a silicon genius to learn that. Or an NFL superstar.

In fact, if you have any kind of chronic illness – physical or mental – you likely have learned that constantly.

Regular readers may remember that my wife Heather has a number of chronic illnesses. The list includes Crohn’s disease, MS, and ankylosing spondylitis (the last of which is guaranteed to crash any spell-checker on the planet). She’s accomplished a lot despite all that, including being a wonderful mom to our disabled ward Missy.

But she has to pick her battles.

It took me a while to learn that as a young husband. Like a lot of people – including a few football fans – I thought that if you pushed hard enough, you could make anything happen. That disappointment would only make matters worse.

I know better. A lot better.

Sometimes all the effort does is leave you in the same situation, but with less energy and more pain.

You have to know when the game is worth playing.

This isn’t a recipe for despair. For me, hope is one of the most powerful virtues there is, and hope requires work and commitment to be more than just vague optimism. But hope needs to be paired with judgment.

And if the judgment is that you’re starting a chess game with just three pawns, one king, and a knight, then you’re better off leaving the board and looking for a deck of cards.

So you have my best wishes, Mr. Luck. May you find joy in the path ahead.

And since you’re free – have you got any good fantasy football tips?

There’s Snow Season Like Spring

When March comes, some places get songbirds.

Some get the first hints of green and an early flower or two.

Some blessed spots even get the sounds of baseball – a refrain growing since dismal, bleak February – and a promise that The Season with its infinite possibilities will soon arrive.

And then there’s Longmont. We get Paul Revere of the Yukon, on every channel.

“The blizzards are coming! The blizzards are coming!”

It’s not that they’re always wrong. It might be easier if they were. But we know that March is Longmont’s snowiest month. We know that sudden snowfalls and paralyzing drifts can happen. We know that entire weekends, even entire weeks, can be set to the drone of the snow blower and the groan of the snow shoveler.

And so, we prepare. Maybe with a cynical chuckle and a roll of the eyes, but we prepare. And when the snowstorm turns out to be staggeringly ordinary or even non-existent, we nod, and sigh, and say “Those forecasters.”

Because we know the times that we don’t prepare, the times that we decide it’s all bunk, maybe even the times that the forecasters themselves don’t take it seriously – that will be when Suzie Snowflake holds a debutante ball over half the Front Range.

And now we know what it means to be as mad as a March Hare. The dang rabbit has gone insane from trying to make weekend driving plans.

But it’s not without benefit. Each year, we learn a very particular set of skills (with apologies to Liam Neeson). We learn to stay on the alert without staying paralyzed. To weigh possibilities and gauge best-case and worst-case scenarios. And when the need arises, we learn how to buckle down, do the job, and watch out for our neighbor.

In short, we learn one of the most relevant skill sets there is these days.

We have a lot of things claiming to be emergencies these days. Some truly are urgent. Some are important, but magnified and distorted. And some … some exist strictly in the mind of the proclaimer, exuding an accuracy and trustworthiness that make Chicken Little and The Boy Who Cried Wolf look like Willard Scott.

That’s where we need to listen with a mind trained by March.

No one can respond to all the alarm bells. No one can ignore every one either. And so, if we’re smart, we greet them with a mix of wariness and preparation. What do the facts say, not just the images? What’s the cost of acting? Of not acting? What’s the smart action, not just the popular one?

It’s not easy. It means reining in instincts that go back to the Stone Age, urging us to move into action at the slightest hint of danger. But it also means that we don’t live half-ready to spring, with a tension that seeps into everything we do. Perspective doesn’t just dial up preparation, it dials down stress.

And when that happens, we’re not just ready to help ourselves and our community. We’re ready to find joy in it.

Yes, a sudden snowstorm requires work and caution (PLEASE be careful on the roads!), and assistance to others. It also transforms expectations, turning a world we’ve seen a  thousand times into something new. Even beautiful. It muffles, forcing us to pause in our regular lives, to draw inward for a bit and contemplate.

And around here,  it remains the truest sign we have that spring is just around the corner.  At least until we hear the crack of the bat and the promise that this year, the Rockies are going to win it all.

Whether that’s a true forecast, or just one more snow job, I leave up to you.

What a Great Idea! Right?

Anyone can sing in the car on long trips. The Dutch took it one step further.

According to Reuters, the highway near the Dutch city of Jelsum will play a song when you drive over the rumble strips. Not just any song, either. When you hit the strips at 40 mph, the road will ring out with the anthem of Friesland, a northern region of the Netherlands. Imagine if a stretch of US-287 suddenly started playing “Rocky Mountain High” and you’ll have the idea.

It was brilliant. And also insane. Because what sounds cool when one car drives over one stretch of road every now and then, becomes chaos when a regular stream of traffic travels the same road at all hours and at varying speeds.

“Locals say the musical road had created a never-ending cacophony that keeps them awake at night,” Reuters reported, briefly quoting one neighbor who got to continually listen to the anthem at high speed in the early hours one night when a long string of taxis chose to blaze across the rumble strips.

The strips will soon be removed. And the Dutch get to join a long line of people in singing one of humanity’s oldest anthems: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”

You know this song. So do I. It’s not the song of the moments that are inattentive and clueless, like the time I walked off the stage and into the orchestra pit on Opening Night in mid-song (a matter now part of Longmont Theatre Company legend). No, these are the ones with a little thought and a lot of optimism, deliberate choices that felt really good until the consequences started to kick in.

For me, it was the night I tried driving home from Garden City, Kans. on a single tank of gas, figuring I could refuel in Bennett instead of my usual Kansas stop in Goodland. Great idea – except it was late in the day on a holiday weekend when I arrived and the gas station was closed. The result was increasingly urgent prayer as I ultimately arrived in Hudson – and an open Conoco station – on fumes.

For our disabled ward Missy, it might be the decision that her Big Purse always has room for one more item. Great idea – until it suddenly contains half the known universe. The result is a purse that she’s reluctant to leave behind but often asks someone else to carry on trips.

For my wife Heather – well, she married me, didn’t she? (Just kidding … I think.)

At its best, it’s born of an admirable capacity – the human ability to imagine something worthwhile and then put out the effort to make it happen. The trouble comes when hope and sweat are divorced from judgment and reflection. That’s when the weird things happen.

When we’re lucky, the worst it produces is embarrassment, expense, and an unforgettable story.

When we’re not so lucky, the results can be tragic. On a national scale, it can even mean lives disrupted or lost, regions devastated, and seemingly-endless wars begun – though in that last case, the anthem’s title is usually rephrased to “What Else Could I Do?”

A great question. But one that’s usually never asked until after it’s already too late.

I believe in hope and imagination. I believe in making the best decision you can from the information you have, rather than being paralyzed because you can’t make the perfect choice. But I also believe that’s a different thing from not considering consequences at all, just because what you want to do seems so compelling or necessary.

Consequences have to be considered. And if they’re not faced before the choice is made, they certainly will be after.

At that point, it’s best to learn from the Dutch. Acknowledge what happened. Fix it as soon as possible. Learn from it. And move on down the road.

Because sometimes you just have to change your tune.

A Time To Think

There’s a fire racing through Facebook.

This time, the spark came from talk of Syrian refugees. Before that, it was gun control. Before that, some other broad and powerful issue of the day, building an audience faster than the rumor of free Bronco tickets.

By itself, that’s not so bad. Big and important issues should be discussed by a free people, after all. I’ve seen some approach the impromptu debate with thought and care, and I’ve done my best to take part in the same manner.

All the while, I know we’re in the minority.

Most of what happens isn’t a discussion or debate. You know it. I know it. Most of it is a shouting match at best, the verbal equivalent of Mark Twain’s duel with axes at two paces – swing hard and fast, with no particular care for accuracy so long as blood is drawn.

“Behold the power of my inflammatory photograph!”

“Hah-hah! Your photograph is impotent in the face of my video of dubious origin!”

“Oh, yeah? Well have at thee with an unsourced blog post!”

“Pah! Now you shall see the might of my snarky cartoon!”

Sometimes the borrowed memes and images open a new line of thought. More often, they’re an opportunity to raise the voice, plug the ears and carry on, invincible. No listening. No learning. No need for the other person to even be in the (virtual) room.

And thus, a wildfire. Plenty of heat. Plenty of damage. Precious little in the way of useful light.

Please understand: I’m glad that people care. In the face of an issue like this, apathy would be an indictment of us all. I want this to be on our minds and hearts and I know others feel the same.

But how it’s done matters.

If you are one of the people involved, please. Take a moment, or several, before hitting Enter. Take the time to think.

Think about the image, or the video, or the report that you’re about to put out there. Have you checked its accuracy? Does it have identifiable, verifiable sources? This is especially true if it seems to agree with your feelings and beliefs in every particular – these are the items we are least likely to check, because they seem so obvious. (Reporter’s Rule No. 1: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) If it is true, does it add anything new and useful to the discussion?

Think about what you’re for, not just what you’re reacting to. What can you offer as a next step? If you favor sealing the borders, how do you propose helping those who need help, without putting them at risk of being radicalized? If you favor welcoming the stranger, what do we as a society and as individuals need to stand ready to do, to make sure our aid is more than an empty ‘welcome’ banner and an isolation within a new society?

Think about what the other person is saying and examine where you stand. Have you put yourself in a place that you’ll regret when the passion of the moment has died down? Our history books are full of people who earnestly argued positions that have since been exposed to wrath and ridicule. (One of those, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is even now the subject of a Broadway production.) Are you so sure that you want to be so sure? Even the unbending Oliver Cromwell himself once implored “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Sure, I want to win people to my side of the argument. I’m human and the subject is important to me. But I think calm consideration is more likely to do that than angry sloganeering. If it can’t, then maybe I have a few things to examine of my own.

I’ll take that risk. This is too important to be decided purely by gut impulse. This is the time to think of who we are as a community and a nation, and what we want to be. A “Thinksgiving” season, if you will.

Some fires bring warmth, and light, and inspiration. Please help this be one of them.

Haven’t we all been burned enough?

A Step Over the Cliff

Not long ago, a man stepped off a 60-foot cliff while sleepwalking in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. He survived with only minor injuries – thank goodness for bushes – and an indelible memory of Newton’s First Law. Once started, some journeys are hard to stop.

I suspect David Cameron might have a fair amount of sympathy.

Cameron, for the unfamiliar, is facing the prospect of having the United Kingdom become the “Untied Kingdom.” In just a few days, Scotland will be voting on whether to declare independence from the rest of the UK, and for the first time since the referendum was announced two years ago, polls suggest that the separatists might win.

How did things get here? Because of an agreement that Cameron himself made two years ago with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond after a big Scottish Nationalist win in the local elections. He didn’t have to. Cameron was already deeply unpopular in Scotland; saying “No” couldn’t really lose him any more ground. But it probably seemed harmless. No previous referendum had succeeded, after all, so this could be a way to soothe popular opinion while closing the books on the question for another generation.

Oops.

Once started, some journeys are hard to stop.

With ancestors on both sides of the boundary line, I’m not entirely sure of my own feelings. Is it a good thing for a people to claim its own national identity? It can be, yes. Is it a good thing for a people to stay joined together, to try to make something more than the sum of its parts? It can be, yes. Living in Longmont and not Glasgow, it’s not something I have to make a commitment on, fortunately.

But pardon me if I fail to feel sorry for Mr. Cameron. He’s running hard against a political law as hard as any of Newton’s: decisions have consequences.

It’s a point worth remembering.

A good friend recently forwarded one of the multi-point lists that seem to spring up on the Internet like dandelions in a lawn. In this case, it was “Twenty Daily Practices That Changed my Life.” And the very first point stuck with me – simply asking the question “Do I want this?”

It’s scary how easy it is to forget to ask that. Many times, we make choices feeling there is no choice. We keep the uncomfortable job because of the insurance. We keep the bad relationship because it’s not always like that … is it? And on a higher level, we – whether voter in the street or leader in the capital – go along with a less-than-desirable policy because of the political realities.

But do we want this?

What could happen if it failed?

What could happen if it succeeded?

I’m not arguing for indecisiveness. And heaven knows that compromise is vital to politics and even to life in general. But if you haven’t taken a moment to see your own choices clearly – to weigh what you really want and what costs you’re willing to pay – then you’re compromised before you even begin.

You’re sleepwalking off a cliff. With no guarantee of a bush underneath.

However the Scottish election goes, I hope it works for the best. Because that’s really all that can be done now. No nation makes its own breakup easy to do (as we’ve seen here, even breaking up a state can be quite difficult) but if a free country gives its people that choice, it has to live with the consequences. Whatever they may be. All of Scotland must now ask “Do I want this?” and weigh the answer well — better, perhaps, than Mr. Cameron did.

Mr. Newton said it. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The actions we start may be hard to stop.

Choose them well. With eyes open.

Or be ready for an abrupt awakening.