A World of Difference

Written Nov. 16, 2019

And now, to boldly go where everyone and their brother has gone before.

No, not the well-traveled corridors of the starship Enterprise – though this will take us to the final frontier. Namely, to the vicinity of Pluto, the frozen world with the simmering debate: is it a planet, a dwarf planet, or a really lost California skier?

For the head of NASA, it’s incredibly obvious.

“I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month to the International Astronautical Congress – as opposed to the International Astronomical Union, which demoted our distant neighbor to dwarf planet status 13 years ago, making grade-school textbooks around the world obsolete at a stroke.

If this sounds like a really weird thing to argue about – well, yeah. But the most passionate arguments can flare up over the smallest things. Daylight Saving Time. The “real name” of This-Sponsor-Here Stadium at Mile High. Heck, if you want to inflame a group of Star Wars fans for the next 40 minutes, just sidle up and ask them whether Han shot first.

In the case of the Pluto War, everyone’s got their official-sounding reasons, such as whether the planet “clears its orbit” (or whether any planet does), or the presence of moons or an atmosphere, or maybe even eventually whether there’s ever been an Elvis sighting there. All of which underscores the fact that “planet” is a really fuzzy concept – about as fuzzy as “continent.”

What’s that? Everyone knows what a continent is? Well, sort of. Some of us were taught in school that there were seven. Others learned that there were six, since Europe and Asia aren’t truly separated by anything but history. An alien from outer space might argue that there are four – the big American land mass, the big Europe/Africa/Asia land mass, plus Australia and Antarctica. And is Australia really the world’s smallest continent, or just its biggest island?

It’s a matter of perspective.

Debates like these are safely amusing because whoever wins, it doesn’t really change much. (Except for the textbook budget, of course.) But when they get so passionate, they can edge into a gray area where strongly-held opinion takes on the power of fact.

From there, it’s a short step to the genuinely dangerous area: the belief that facts are malleable. The idea that every fact is just someone’s opinion, and that if the facts disagree with what I think, then the facts must be wrong.

That’s not a funny debate at all.

It has consequences for human dignity. For law and justice. For anything that relies on reason and inquiry – which is to say, our ability to live side-by-side with each other at all. Anything becomes justifiable and correct if you get enough people to agree with you. Our history, past and present, has some very scary examples of that.

Granted, even our capacity for wishful thinking has limits. If you’re firmly convinced that you can fly, and you step off a 500-foot cliff, the physical universe will quickly disabuse your notions. (“See how quickly I flew downward?”)  But if we have to hit those walls, the ones where Captain Obvious gives us a dope slap, then we’re already in trouble.

As I’ve said many times, we all have a story. But our own stories aren’t the only ones that matter. We have to step away. To see the stories of others. To digest the facts that we don’t want to hear but that aren’t going away.

I know. Easy to say. Hard to do. But you have to acknowledge the need before you can start. And as a species, we need some perspective.

How much?

Well – I hear Pluto’s nice this time of year.

To Tell the Truth

It was so much easier in the days of Snidely Whiplash.

Remember Snidely?

For those too young to have a proper cartoon education, Snidely Whiplash was the ongoing villain of the “Dudley Do-Right” tales. Snidely was evil and you knew it – he had a black coat and hat, a mustache that begged to be twirled, and a dramatic, sinister laugh. There was no secret about who he was –  even somebody as dimwitted as Our Hero Dudley could tell “Hey, this is probably the bad guy here.”

As we got older, things got a little more sophisticated. Oh, there were still blatant figures of evil like Darth Vader with his black armor, blood-red lightsaber, and habit of choking minions who failed their job reviews. But we also got characters that seemed oh-so-charming, ready to smile all the way to the bank, with your money in their hand. Stories like “The Music Man,” “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” gave us flim-flam artists who could talk anyone out of anything – to the amusement of we, the audience, who knew so much better.

After all, we knew the whole script.

We like to think we’re that good in real life, too. That we can spot the phonies and the fakes. That no one is going to spin a line on us, because we’re smart. We’re aware. This is our story and we’re the hero, so that means we have to be right, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It never was.

We’ve had a lot of painful reminders of that over the years. Bill Cosby, loved by millions as America’s Dad, going to prison on sexual assault charges. The sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, where trusted figures proved to have terrible secrets. And now we have in front of us the Supreme Court hearings, where a nation is weighing whether nominee Brett Kavanaugh or his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is more credible.

Nobody gave us the script. Nobody put us in the room where it happened. And that means we’re left leaning on two things – evidence, which is often slow and painstaking to gather, and our own impressions and experience, which can be put together oh-so-quickly.

Maybe too quickly.

A recent piece in FiveThirtyEight noted studies that show we’re a lot worse at gauging liars than we think we are. Even professional observers – police, journalists, prosecutors – turn out to have a success rate that’s only a little above 50 percent. Even the cues we watch for aren’t a sure tell, the piece notes. Since “everyone knows” that certain cues indicate that someone is straightforward or a liar, they’re easy to fake – actors do this all the time – or easy to stumble into by someone who’s nervous about being mislabeled.

The result is that two people, watching and listening to the same individual, can reach completely different conclusions. One person’s “Obviously sincere” is the other’s “well-rehearsed phony.” For one, anxiety is proof of guilt, for another, the sign of understandable stress. And as observers try to convince each other, they often talk right past each other, because they are literally not speaking the same language.

I’m not pretending to be a sage who’s above it all. I have my thoughts and impressions, too; I have a conclusion that seems likely to me. But it is easy for anyone – rightly or wrongly – to reach a conclusion based on the story they expect to see. The charges on Cosby, for example, had circulated as rumors for years before they ever reached a courtroom. And it was easy for most people to dismiss them as merely rumors … until the grinding weight of evidence made it undeniable.

It was slow. Painfully slow, especially for those at the heart of it all. But by taking the time, by persisting in the investigation, a conclusion was finally reached. One big enough to shatter the stories that had already been drawn.

We need to take the time. On this case and any case. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to decide this quickly. But with so much on the line, we need to be sure. It can’t just sound right – it has to be right.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” Sherlock Holmes once observed. “Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keep digging. Always.

It doesn’t have to be as fast as a Whiplash.

Brilliant Decisions

My name is Scott Rochat and I have Decoration Postponement Disorder.

OK, that’s a convenient label to soften the fact that we’ve reached the Martin Luther King weekend and our Christmas tree is still standing tall in the front window in all its decorated, multi-colored glory. All kinds of wonderful excuses could be given – family emergencies, busy schedules, post-Bronco depression – but the fact remains that the First Noel has yet to say the Last Goodbye.

Looking around, though, I’m not exactly alone. Oh, the inflatable Santas in the front yard and reindeer on the roof have mostly gone, but I’ll still turn a corner to find homes proudly lighting the night with strings of color. This has made winter even more exciting for Missy, for whom holiday lights are a MAJOR passion to be pointed out at every turn and indulged in at every opportunity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that (with apologies to Jerry Seinfeld). In fact, if you visit the right corners of social media, you’ll find a pretty active debate about just when the lights should be taken down and how long is Too Long. There are several distinct camps:

  • Right Away – Come Dec.26, or at most, New Year’s Day, and boom, down they go. These are also the folks with immaculate garages and five years of carefully-stored receipts.
  • Epiphany — Some of us remember that Christmas is 12 days long (yes, the 12 Days of Christmas starts on the 25th), and decide that the decorations don’t need to come down until Epiphany hits on Jan. 6. Normally our own intended goal, this was postponed this year by a cousin’s sudden Jan. 6 appendectomy. (Yes, sometimes the holidays just keep on giving!)
  • Stock Show – In Denver, of course, there’s a grand old tradition that Christmas lights stay up until the end of the National Western Stock Show, which concludes this year on Jan. 21. This has since been enthusiastically adopted by a certain contingent of Coloradans in general. “I’m sorry, hon, but I have to show solidarity with the cowboys. Especially … you know … wossname.”
  • Huh? And sometimes objects at rest just tend to remain at rest. When I was a kid, there was one notable year when the rooftop lights didn’t come down until Easter. Alternatively, this can be a conscious choice – I once knew a Kansas police department that kept its tree up year round, but changed the decorations each month to something appropriate, such as hearts for February, flags for July, or black crepe for another Chiefs playoff loss. (OK, maybe not that last one.)

As you might guess by now, I’m not exactly a zealot on the subject. In fact, in a time of dark nights and dark news, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to keep light shining by any means possible. You could even argue that this time of year, when we remember King’s words and our nation’s struggles toward freedom and equality, is one of the most appropriate times of all:

“…when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

“Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Maybe, just maybe, as we keep our rooftops alight, we can remember to do the same for our hearts, our hopes, and our passion for justice.

And if it means enabling my DPD for a few days longer, well, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Sing it Out

Singing waiters, rejoice. Your time of birthday deliverance is at hand.

If you’ve ever been out to eat, you know that there are three certainties in modern casual dining: that a tip is 20 percent, that the TV with the game you’re interested in isn’t visible from your table, and that if it’s your birthday, you will be humiliated by a team of waiters singing anything but “Happy Birthday.” You may hear the William Tell Overture. (“Merry day of birth to you, have some cake and candles too!”) You may get painfully rewritten lyrics set to “Stand by Me” or “Kill the Wabbit” … uh, I mean “Flight of the Valkyries.” But you will not get the classic off-key grade-school anthem that has shattered eardrums since time immemorial.

Until now.

A federal court recently ruled that “Happy Birthday’s” copyright is dead. More than dead. According to the judge, the song should have been out of copyright 80 years ago, making its rights the musical equivalent of a George Romero zombie movie. (“Caaaaaaaaaake.”)

Silly argument? Not for the owner and not for anyone wanting to belt out the birthday ballad in public. In fact, “Happy Birthday” has been big business, generating about $2 million a year in royalties from movie producers, restaurants and anyone else who wanted the song and didn’t want a visit from the Warner-Chappell attorneys.

I’ll write that again. Two million dollars a year. For a song that pre-dates World War I.

OK, that does seem silly.

Mind you, this isn’t a diatribe against having copyright at all, or patents, or trademarks, or all the other wonderful things that encourage ideas and ensure a creator gets something of what’s coming to them. (Mark Twain famously said that a country without patent laws was like a crab, only able to travel sideways or backwards.) But it is possible to stay at the party too long. And when “fair compensation” starts to turn into “I’m holding you up because I can,” that’s when people start to object.

We saw a more serious version of this recently in the medical world. The media – both mass and social – exploded after the new owner of a common AIDS drug, Daraprim, announced that its price would go up from $13.50 to $750 a dose. By most estimates, the drug costs about $1 a dose to make.

The word “outrage” doesn’t really go far enough. Twitter went nuclear. Everyone from patients to politicians added their denunciations. And within a day or two of the online fire and brimstone, a white flag went up – Daraprim’s price would go down again. (By how much has not yet been said as I write this.)

Call it supply and demand in vivid action. An owner can charge what he likes for a product. But if no one wants to pay it – if people are actively offended by paying it – it’s time to find another price or another product.

At the bottom of all this is a much-derided word: fair. “Life’s not fair,” we’re told over and over again. But one of our more admirable qualities as a species is a rock-bottom belief that it should be. Granted, sometimes we go too far – anything can go too far – but for the most part, it’s a guide to common decency, empathy, and all the qualities encapsulated in “liberty and justice for all.”
Fairness means we look out for each other, because one day it might be ourselves. It means we think about what we do and why. It means we don’t take unjust advantage of a situation.

We’re not perfect about it. We’re not going to be. But the fact that we still care about trying says something good about us.

Maybe it’s like anything else – if we keep trying, it gets easier. It might even become a piece of cake.

And when it does, we’re all set to sing.

Peace Together

My wife Heather is not a fan of January.

The antipathy goes back to her school days, when January meant not just returning to school, but returning without an escape hatch. She and her classmates faced a long, cold, bleak month without the enchantment of Christmas or the myriad minor holidays of February – indeed, hardly anything to break up the barren landscape of the calendar at all.

With, of course, one significant and recent exception.

I’ve written before that King Day is a curious holiday. It’s one of the few we have that’s dedicated to a person instead of an event. It’s a reminder of a fiery time, placed in the middle of a frozen month. (In many ways, the August anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech might be more appropriate.)

And it’s about the only time, other than Christmas, when we spend a holiday talking about peace.

Please don’t think that I’m just referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolence. That is an important part of his legacy and one that might have even surprised him at the beginning of his career, when armed guards and weapons for self-defense seemed to be an option worth considering. As we know, he finally made a powerful and famous choice to walk a different path, one that still inspires people today.

But that’s not what I mean by peace.

It’s a complicated word, really. A couple of my friends – one a pastor, one an author – like to point to the distinctions between two of the “peace” words, the Latin “pax” and the Hebrew “shalom.” The first, they note, is an end to open hostilities, a basic lack of violence. Under that definition, so long as you do not have war, you have peace, regardless of how resentful or conflicted the setting may be otherwise.

The second is something else. A “shalom” peace is a wholeness, a restoration of balance. Under that definition, peace is what you get when things are restored to the way they were meant to be. It has the broader implications of the English word “harmony,” of differences not clashing, but creating a more beautiful whole.

That’s a much more difficult goal to reach. But also a more embracing one.

One can have the first kind of peace and still have injustice, hatred and fear. In fact, “pax” is often just a breathing space between wars, the sort of thing seen in Germany of the ’20s and ’30s, where peace exists mainly because one side lacks the ability to act on its anger … for now.

The second kind—that’s the kind that echoes through King’s words again and again and again.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”

“If you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …”

Not just the absence of wrong. But the presence of right.

That’s worth advocating. And it’s worth remembering. Even in the coldest, bleakest month in the year. Maybe even especially then – when are we more aware of the need for heat, for light, for the warmth of friends and neighbors?

The power to redeem January. Now that’s something.

And if it’s still a little difficult to rise in the darkened mornings and slide back to work or school – well, so be it.

After all, peace is a great dream. But no one ever said it wouldn’t require snow tires.



As I write this, a grand old man hovers at death’s door. By the time it appears in print, he may already be gone.

Godspeed, Nelson Mandela.

His is one of the amazing lives of the last century. Few men have made the transition from political prisoner to national leader; even fewer have done so without the intervention of civil war or other violence. To have done that and remain a respected, even beloved, figure years after leaving power – well, you get the idea.

But the end comes for all of us. Not always quickly or kindly. Though at least most of us don’t have the world’s press straining to be the first to announce our passing. An odd compliment, in a way.

Farewell, Mr. Mandela.

I can’t think of him without thinking of a moment in history. And I don’t just mean February 1990, the moment of his freedom from prison, the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.

That’s a key part of this. But to everyone who was alive then – do you remember?

Do you remember what a remarkable time in history that was?

Think back to 1989 and 1990.

These were the years the Wall came down. That the Soviet Union began to break apart, like a calving iceberg. That the Velvet Revolution came to Czechoslovakia, setting off dominoes across Eastern Europe – and not the sort of dominoes once anticipated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That even Beijing felt an attempt to “shake your windows and rattle your walls,” in the old words of Mr. Zimmerman.

Remember those days? When it seemed like the books were being rewritten every day, mostly for the better?

Heady times, indeed.

OK, I admit, putting it that way makes it sound like some kind of high school slide show, probably set to a rewritten version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” But looking back from now, when the headlines involve drones and wiretapping, wildfire and Middle Eastern war … well, it can make someone a little nostalgic.

But here’s the interesting thing about including Mandela in that parade of events. It gives a little perspective.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. Years during which he had little reason to believe that South Africa was ever going to change. Years during which it seemed the world would continue on the same old paths in the same old way, for as long as anyone could foresee.

Then, all at once – transformation. Release.


No, the world’s problems didn’t end. We didn’t magically enter the promised land. But so much that no one had even dared promise came to be.

No, it didn’t just happen to happen. It took work and endurance and even suffering on the part of many, with no promise of success. And that may be the most hopeful part of all.

If they could dream then, we can dream now. If they could labor then, not even daring to speak the fear that it might all be in vain, we can labor now.

And what they achieved, we can achieve. However dark the times may seem.

So thank you, Mr. Mandela. Thank you for what you ended and what you began.  For not just outfighting injustice, but outlasting it.

Thank you and farewell.

May you rest in peace.

And may we not rest until peace is here.