Stepping Out

For a moment, the steps grow faster, the leash tighter.

“Holmes, wait.” We stop until the lead slackens. “Good boy. Ok, let’s come.”

A fenced-in dog challenges us, creating a short pause. A neighbor across the street draws some barks. It’s not a perfect run yet , especially when rabbits – the ultimate temptation – cross our path. But it’s already so much easier than it was.

Step by step, Holmes is learning.

If you’re only just joining us, Holmes is the latest addition to Chez Rochat, a one-year-old mixed breed with a boatload of smarts and Way Too Much Energy™. As a result, we’ve been throwing more Frisbees than a California beach, filling up food puzzles with the efficiency of a North Pole assembly line, and even trying to teach him how to calm down when needed, something my wife Heather calls “doggy Zen.”

And of course, there are walks. Followed by walks. And more walks.

Of the three dogs we’ve owned, Holmes is already the walking champ for sheer frequency. But he’s also new, stepping out with a mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm and anxiety about what he’ll  find … and still learning which situations merit concern.  (“Hey! Hey! That man getting into his car is VERY SUSPICIOUS! I mean, who does that?”)

I follow and guide with treats and patience and a slightly sore shoulder. Which means that as Holmes learns the world and how to behave in it, I’m learning Holmes at the same time.

Isn’t that always the way of it?

Everyone has a story and a struggle. Part of being human – or at least, a better kind of human – is to be aware of those stories and struggles even as we’re dealing with our own. It’s why almost every faith and philosophy on the planet has some variation of love your neighbor, help the stranger, reach out and touch someone … wait, that last one might have been AT&T.

The point remains: we’re here to help. But as some have pointed out, that’s not a one-sided proposition where help simply descends on someone like Batman from a skylight. When we teach, we learn. When we see into someone’s heart, our own is opened a little wider. Just like a handshake, you can’t touch without being touched in return.

That can be a little frightening. Not just in the responsibility it gives us for others, but in the possibility – no, certainty – that what we do will change ourselves in ways we don’t expect. It’s a reminder that we’re not really in control, a lesson that few of us enjoy learning. (If you’ve ever stepped on a phantom brake while in the passenger seat of a car, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

But it’s also an exciting lesson, too. It means that no single one of us has to have all the answers or plug all the holes. It means there’s room for surprise and discovery. Most of all, it means that all of us need all of us, and that together, we can shape something pretty amazing.

Even in something as small as a morning or evening walk.

Reach out. Walk together. Look around. You might just find yourself on a path you never knew existed.

One warning, though. If that path has rabbits, you’d better keep a firm grip on the leash.

Right, Holmes?

Say My Name

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

“Oliver! Down!”

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

“Blake! Get off!”

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

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

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

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

But of course, the wrong name gets you nowhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s something fundamental.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask Oli …I mean Bla …

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

Holmes is On The Case

I’m constantly amazed at how fast Holmes’ mind works. He’s capable of amazing leaps. And once something catches his interest, he’ll stop at nothing to pursue it.

No, not Sherlock Holmes, the Great Detective.  Holmes Rochat, the Great New Dog.

Yes, for the first time in way too long, we’ve got a dog in the family again. Small-ish. Black. One year old. About as mixed as a mixed breed can be. And one of the fastest learners I’ve ever seen on four feet (or maybe even two).

Mind you, some of that is in contrast to what’s come before. Duchess the Wonder Dog was brilliant – as a combination of border collie and Lab, she could hardly be anything else – but also quite timid from some bad early experiences before we got her. Big Blake was 85 pounds of solid muscle, including his head: loving, devoted, but not exactly a canine Einstein.

With Holmes, we’re learning how to do this all over again. Largely because he’s so ready to learn himself.

Maybe it’s because he’s so young. Maybe his previous owner worked with him a bit. But Holmes listens.  Not always perfectly: we’re still working on concepts like “vets can be trusted,” “grass isn’t edible,” and “a flying hug isn’t the perfect greeting for all occasions.” But for the most part, he listens. He tries to do what you tell him. And he’s steadily forming a picture of the do’s and don’ts.

That’s awesome. And a little terrifying.

It always is when you have the power to be the Example.

“Into the Woods” put it well, with its closing advice to parents everywhere:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen,

Careful the things you do, children will see … and learn.”

We teach constantly. Not just in the conscious lessons like helping a dog learn to “sit” or a child learn to count and read, but in the thousand different ways we meet the world.

When someone shoves a dog roughly from their lap, they teach it to be fearful, even around those it should love.

When someone claims to love their neighbor but greets actual people with contempt or neglect, they teach that their word can’t be trusted … or worse, that it’s OK to mistreat those you say you love.

With our example, we teach what’s acceptable and who’s accepted, whether it’s by passing a law or paying a bill. (Dave Barry refers to the latter as the Waiter Rule: “If someone is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.”) We teach what we want to see by how we behave … and too often, we find the lessons coming right back at us, learned perfectly.

 If we want to see respect or compassion, we need to show it.

If we want to see justice, we need to confront injustice.

And if we want a nation that values everyone in it, we need to look at who’s being left out.

It starts with the small, daily actions. That’s how a dog learns it’s loved. That’s how a child learns it’s valued. It’s how a world learns the way we see it.

Big thoughts from a small dog, I know. And for now, that’s where my own attention is: watching Holmes chase butterflies, explore his new home, and learn just how much his new family loves him.

It seems so simple to put it that way.

Maybe even elementary.

Here Comes the Judge

“Can you do me a favor?”

My ears pricked up. These six words may be the most dangerous in the English language. Typically, they precede one of the following:

  1. A request to help somebody move (doubled in likelihood if you own a pickup truck)
  2. Yardwork or cleaning that will take more than four hours to complete
  3. Locating something that has been lost beyond the ken of man, angels or the Webb telescope

This one proved to be a rare exception, a request from a Kansas friend and former co-worker. Not a short task but certainly a delightful one.   

Namely, she wanted me to help judge a high-school journalism contest.

Like a lot of creative professions, journalism has its share of competitions. You can always tell when awards time has come around because editors and reporters start digging through the archives like never before, trying to find that one perfect feature that appeared on page C9 of the Sunday edition. If the contest requires a hard copy sample, you can count on adding several layers of dust from digging through a year’s worth of barely-touched newsprint.

You squint at the categories, you fill out the forms, you send it all off … wondering the whole time what will suit the fancy of those mysterious, unseen, usually out-of-state judges.

Now it was my turn to be on the other end. A virtual stack of 30 opinion pieces awaited my scoring and comments.

Easy? No. In many ways, it reminded me of being a director at auditions, where half a dozen great choices present themselves but only one can get the part. That’s always agony.

But at the other end, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my time. I mean, I had a chance to share what I know, with teens eager to learn the craft and improve. That’s exciting.

After all, good teaching moments always benefit both sides. And that’s not always easy to come by in writing.

It’s an odd craft. Some arts give you the chance to constantly bump up against others: acting, music, dancing. You work with others, you see what they do, and (in the best cases) you each come away the better for it.

Writing, by its nature, is a little more solitary. Both the creating and the learning tend to come when you’re reading and writing on your own. And unless you’re deliberately pushing yourself, a lot of it tends to fall into the comfort zone: we read what we like to read, and we see and learn the same things.

So having to evaluate a beginner in the craft forces you to think. You consider topics and approaches that aren’t your own, you see basic things that you haven’t thought of for ages. And in making yourself notice and call out details – whether to praise or correct – you reinforce that in your own mind too.

That’s valuable. And it goes beyond writing.

Whatever we do, whatever we’re proud of, we’re never so good that we can’t learn more, and a student can be the best teacher of all. We can always lift up someone else by sharing what we’ve gained … and often, find ourselves rising at the same time, buoyed by reflection, enthusiasm and the freshness of something new.

We teach someone to build. And in the process, we gain new materials of our own. Everyone wins.

So as the world opens up a little more (I hope), take the opportunity. Share something you love, whether it’s fishing or guitar or fixing the sink. Watch a rookie and remember what it was like to be there yourself.

I suspect you’ll enjoy it.

It may even do both of you a favor.

Triple Your T-Rex, Triple Your Fun

It sounds like a question you’d ask a 6-year-old: What’s cooler than having one kind of tyrannosaur?

Three kinds of tyrannosaur!”

No, this isn’t the latest Michael Crichton movie, but an honest-to-goodness paleontological debate. According to the New York Times, there’s now heated discussion going on over whether our records of the much-loved Tyrannosaurus Rex actually show three different species. Taking on the royal tradition, a new paper suggests calling them T. Rex (“king”), T. Regina (“queen”) and T. Imperator (“emperor).

It’s not that simple, of course.  Classification never is. To the critics, the differences are just individual variation – sort of like if you tried to suggest that LeBron James and Peter Dinklage were different species.

So what’s the big deal? A name’s a name, right?

But names do matter.

We know it in conversation. There’s no faster way to embarrass yourself than to call a person by the wrong name.

We see it in the news, whether it’s laughter over the polar vessel  that got popularly dubbed “Boaty McBoatFace” or disbelief about labeling a war a “special operation.”

It’s part of any field that someone cares about, from the serious to the silly. What do we call the high-school football team? Is Pluto really a planet? Is that superhero in the red costume called Shazam or Captain Marvel?

At any level, names are wrapped up in identity, memory and how we see the world. And when a piece of that changes – when something that you’ve “always known” might no longer be true – it can be a little unsettling.

And that reaches to a different level of the dinosaur story: the importance of examining what we think we know.

T-Rex might stay just as it is. It might become three species, or 20. For most of us, life will still go on as usual, aside from the occasional museum trip.

But the important thing is that it’s being looked at, studied, discussed. Something thought to be true for over a hundred years is getting a second look.

That’s the part we can learn from. And it’s something we don’t do well as a species.

In public, we like to praise the consistent, the unbending, the firm. Any sign of change or uncertainty quickly gets mocked as weak or wishy-washy. Psychological studies suggest that we typically use our reason to win arguments rather than seek the truth, clinging fast to what we believe and seeing challenges to our assumptions as an insult.

That sort of confirmation bias is hard to break out of. It’s easy to hear only what you want to hear and dismiss everything else. It’s a comfortable world to live in … and a dangerous one, like driving a highway with your eyes closed because you know what the road ahead looks like.

It’s only when we question what we think that we can really understand each other. When you’re “always right,” no one else matters. If you let in the possibility that you might be wrong, then it becomes important to see new perspectives and consider other views. To let each other in, working together instead of at odds.

That opens up the world, and the heart with it.

Take the chance. Ask the question. Learn what’s valuable and leave the fossilized beliefs behind with the T-Rex.

However many there happen to be.

On Beyond Candy Land

The queen of Candy Land has found new realms to conquer.

This is no small statement. You see, our ward Missy is a passionate Candy Land player. She opens up the board with gusto. She draws her cards with undisguised glee. And she wins. And wins. And then goes on to win some more.

At one point, Missy had won nine games in a row, and her overall record still looks like it belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is no small accomplishment when you remember that Candy Land has no choices – you draw one card at a time and move down a single path, an exercise in predestination. It’s like Lotto, only with less chance to influence the victory.

And she wins. And wins. And wins some more.

So did she get bored? Quit while she was ahead? Pfft. Please. This is Missy we’re talking about – the lady who can play Christmas music with relentless cheer through to July 4, only stopping when the disc wears out.

No, only one thing could seduce her onward. The addition of sheer unmitigated chaos.

You see, we recently got something called Magic Maze as part of a Christmas present. It’s a wonderfully silly idea: down-on-their-luck fantasy heroes raid a shopping mall for equipment and then try to get away before security catches them. The board’s discovered in sections, so it’s different every time.

In the simplest version of the game, the mechanics are exactly what Missy’s used to: draw and move and draw again. But now you’re racing a timer. You’re working together. And you’re going a little crazy trying to get everyone where they need to go.

She. Loves. It.

And as the smile grows wider, Missy’s world gets a little bigger.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Missy’s enthusiasms catch fire several times since my wife and I began caring for her … has it really been almost 11 years now? Each new piece gets added with a fierce joy. We’ve watched her become enchanted with Harry Potter, awestruck by Darth Vader, eager to throw a basketball or start up a Face Vocal Band video.

But the really exciting thing is that she rarely abandons an old love. She still dances, still loves familiar faces and places, and when the pandemic eases up enough, I know she’ll be hitting the bowling alley without hesitation. It’s not like fireworks, flashing and burning out at high speed, but more like a bonfire, growing just a little bigger as more fuel is added.

Her capabilities are what they are. Her physical and developmental disabilities are no less real. But within what she can do, she finds new opportunities to discover and grow.

That’s a prize I think all of us would reach for.

Granted, it’s a challenging prize to win these days. Even before the pandemic, it was always tempting to build a bubble, staying with the safe, familiar and comfortable. Now, in a time of constant vigilance, it’s easier than ever to draw in and hold back.

But the fire doesn’t have to die.

The times are what they are. The need to stay safe is no less real. But within those limits, we still have opportunities of our own. We can still open new pieces of our world, find new joys and become a little more than we were before.

It can be an amazing experience.

And speaking of a-Maze-ing, I think Missy’s ready to set up the pieces again.

The game is afoot.  

I Now Pronounce Thee … How, Exactly?

Once upon a time, I learned the word “brazier.” Sort of.

As a kid, I could write the definition in a heartbeat, enough to know it was some kind of metal bowl or container that held fire. After all, I’d read it in fantasy novels. I’d seen it listed as a treasure in Dungeons & Dragons. My folks had driven by a Dairy Queen sign that shouted it to the world. Easy, right?

Only one problem: I’d never heard it out loud.

And so, one evening, college-age Scott read a passage out loud about a “burning bra-ZEER” … and Dad almost choked himself laughing.

“Scott,” he said, after surviving the mental image of flaming lingerie suddenly appearing in a medieval fantasy scene, “the word is BRAY-zhur.”

Oh.

Hooked On Phonics, you have a lot to answer for.

I bring this up only because Reuters and others recently reported on the hard-to-pronounce words of 2021. And as someone who blundered into the realm of burning braziers/brassieres, I have to show a certain amount of sympathy.

There’s the surname of tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of the rare names out there that’s less intuitive than “Rochat.” (For the newer readers here, it’s roe-SHAY.)

Or the challenge of wrestling with “Omicron,” the virus that not only endangered lives but tripped up tongues.

Some people stumbled over “Chipotle,” others over the last names of stars like Jason Kelce and Billie Eilish. Even a long runner like the city of Glasgow, Scotland caused a few folks to sweat while it was hosting last year’s climate conference.

If you’re comfortable with all those, well done. But there’s probably another stumble spot somewhere. Most people I know have a story of awkward linguistic discovery to share. My personal favorite is my wife Heather’s sudden childhood understanding that Nancy Drew had “titian” hair – TIH-shun, a particular shade of red hair – and not “titan” hair.

“It was the ‘80s!” she told me. “I just thought she had a really big hairdo!”
It’s easy to laugh, easier to blush. And maybe easiest of all to decide “You know, I’m just going to wait for someone else to try this.”

But if you’ve been brave enough to take the plunge – even if it left you with mud on your face – you’ve got my congratulations.

As a writer and an actor, I love the taste of words. And like any kitchen experiment, not everything’s going to work the first time. Some may even be real disasters. But when you get a new one down, you add a little more flavor to your world.

That’s exciting. And not just for words or recipes.

Even in an uncertain world, there’s a lot to discover. If you’re willing to take the step into something new, however small, that’s something to cheer. (As long as you’re not causing lasting harm, of course – would-be Dexters need not apply.) Each new achievement gives a little more understanding: of a topic, of yourself, of those around you.

Sure, it may also give you some laughter at your own expense. But if it’s a laugh that invites people in and reminds us that we’re all human … well, we can use more of that, too.

So have fun. Experiment well. Read aloud. Maybe even get some burgers and ice cream afterward.

After all, I know a Dairy Queen with a great brazier.  

You Know What I Meme

By now, we all know the advice: Wear your masks. Get your shots. And remember your daily dose of memes.

Wait, what was that last one?

Yes, according to a recent piece by National Public Radio, internet memes – the contagious jokey or cute images that pop up on Facebook and elsewhere, usually with a pop-culture slant – may have been a key piece of psychological survival during the pandemic. NPR cited a study that found people who viewed memes had higher levels of humor, more positive feelings and less stress than those who didn’t. The effect was even stronger If the meme was directly about COVID-19.

Short version: if you’re that guy who’s been sharing dad jokes and cartoons, your work has not been in vain.

This might sound a little odd. After all, it seems to fly in the face of several “common sense” assumptions, like our mistrust of social media and an urge to keep from stressing out over too much pandemic news. And for heaven’s sake, isn’t serious stuff supposed to be taken … well, seriously?

Well. Maybe not.

Maybe, in fact, a little silliness is just what the doctor ordered.

It’s at moments like this that I like to invoke one of the most profound philosophers of our times, Roger Rabbit. On its surface, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is sheer goofy slapstick, the sort of chaos you can only get when an army of wild-eyed cartoon characters has to battle the plots of an extremely hammy Christopher Lloyd. But in a quieter moment – relatively speaking – the cartoon Roger takes a moment to convince his cynical human friend Eddie of the value of comedy.

“A laugh can be a very powerful thing,” Roger insists. “Sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”

Let me be clear: there’s laughter and then there’s laughter. We’ve all become a little too familiar with the cruel kind, the sort that mocks victims and makes light of tragedy. That’s a weapon turned on the weak, and it’s not the sort of thing we need now or ever.

But there’s a different sort of laughter.

There’s the kind that pulls people together through a shared crisis, like the World War II-era English in the midst of the Blitz. One shopkeeper, after an air raid, put a sign on his damaged business reading “More Open Than Usual.”

There’s the kind that gives a moment of relief and distraction in the midst of too much pain. I’ve written many times about my wife Heather’s chronic illnesses … and about the silliness that gets us through, whether it’s bad Bob Dylan imitations or setting the names of her conditions to music. (No, we haven’t yet tried setting her conditions to Bob Dylan music, but give us time.)

There’s the laughter that hits back at the cruel. Or that exposes absurdity. Or that opens minds as well as mouths. (I’ve lose track of how many times I’ve posted the punchline “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” to make a point). The sort that can make people aware of the world in a way that makes it more bearable – and maybe even helps them think about it in a new way.

So maybe memes aren’t such a bizarre tool after all. Maybe, in a time when so much is off-kilter, they’re just cockeyed enough to make sense.

The more I think about it, the more I like it.

After all, in these challenging times, we must live within our memes.

Beyond Memory

A whole generation has grown up with no direct memory of Sept. 11.

It’s odd that that sounds odd. After all, that’s what happens.  Time moves on. If I pointed out the huge mass of Americans with no memory of the moon landing, or the Kennedy assassination, or World War II, no one would be shocked.

But when it comes to that early fall day of clear skies and screaming headlines 20 years ago, we stumble.

Never forget, we ritually cry. Remember, remember, like some Guy Fawkes rhyme re-cast for a new time and place.

But we can’t hold on to “never.” Brains don’t work that way. And a growing number of us have nothing to remember except the lessons and examples that the rest of us choose to pass on.

What will those be?

This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in this place. Seven years ago, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I observed how the day was becoming more ordinary. How some of us actually had to be reminded instead of having the date leap to mind automatically. And how we weren’t horrible human beings because of that.

From that past column:

No one’s passing is ever truly “gotten over” or should be, all the less so when the passing is the violent end of a few thousand people.

But it’s OK for the pain to dull, too.

It’s OK to not feel every anniversary as though it were the first one.

It’s OK to be able to look at those memories from a distance and maybe, in a way, see them for the first time with clear eyes.

Most of us have experienced the passing of someone close to us. Some of us have had the ill fortune to have it come out of nowhere, a total surprise that rocks the world. Too sudden or too young or too … well, too many “too’s” to count.

For the longest time afterward, it seems like life can never be about anything else. The pain is fresh and the disjointment real. The wound gapes and resists every effort to stitch it.

But something happens.

It never really gets better. But it gets farther.

And with that time and distance come different memories. The ones that comfort. That remind. That lift the day for a moment instead of crushing it down.

The pain is still there. But it’s no longer alone.

Twenty years since a single day in New York and Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, will the memories we pass on still be of fire and chaos? Or will there be something more?

Will there be the memory of those who reached out to help and comfort from across the country, moved by the needs of people they had never met?

Will there be lessons drawn from the actions we took in its aftermath, good, bad and ugly? The choices that brought us together and the ones that had us squinting in suspicion?

Every crisis shapes us. Some remake the world, like the current pandemic. Some are much more local, like the St. Vrain flood that’s now eight years in the past. Each time, we find ourselves making choices.  What do we carry forward? What do we leave behind?

Memory is important. But memory fades and changes. Its grip loosens a bit with each new heir that it’s passed to.

Build something with it, and memory becomes experience. Build something worthy with it, and it won’t matter that future generations weren’t there. They’ll be here, with a foundation to stand on, an example to learn from, maybe even a goal that they can be part of shaping.

Long after memories of the day have passed, that’s where we’ll find our re-generation.

Pieces of the Picture

As I studied the dumpster’s dimensions, for a moment I felt like Dad.

No, Dad isn’t in sanitation. But whenever me or my sisters moved, we always wanted Dad as crew chief. To him, moving trucks were three-dimensional puzzles, where everything could fit just right if you only found its place in the picture – and he ALWAYS found its place in the picture. It might have been because of his time aboard a submarine, where space is limited and precious. It might have just been a natural talent for order. Either way, it was awe-inspiring.

It’s also a talent that I’ve usually lacked. My awareness of spatial relationships has been approximate, to say the least. As for order … well, Heather and I used to joke that I was a “walking vortex of chaos,” and my notebook-filled newsroom desks usually told the tale well.

But this time, as we prepared for the Great Home and Yard Purge of 2021, everything seemed to click. Branches … go here. That worn-out armchair … goes there. Like Sherlock Holmes assembling a case, every piece had its perfect fit, which then created the space for the next one. It was a living game of Tetris.

And at the end of it all, with everything squared off and filled up, it felt enormously satisfying.

No surprise. Most of us like neatly fitting pictures.  We like symmetry and order and consistency. There’s an appeal to the movie plot that ties everything neatly together, or the room whose layout says “comfort” without a word, or the ideals of justice (so hard to achieve) that say we all have a place and a part to play.

Most of all, we like explanations. And that’s where things get tricky.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The quest for explanations and answers is what drives philosophy, science, even newspaper editorials. We ask questions, we examine the world and ourselves, and we try to put together an answer that fits what we see.

But the world is messy and our senses are limited. That means there are going to be ragged edges to all of this. If we’re honest and careful, we acknowledge that, letting an old answer die or evolve as our understanding gets better.

Or, as Yoda put it, we take the quicker, easier, more seductive path to the Dark Side. We make the answer fit, no matter what we have to do to get it there.

Forcing a fit is one thing when you’re breaking down dead branches to stack them neatly with your yard waste. But as an approach to understanding the world or other people, it’s outright harmful. It means ignoring what you don’t like, while inflating coincidence into significance. The story becomes more important than the reality, and challenging it becomes a personal offense.

It means never allowing yourself to be wrong. Which in turn means never allowing yourself to learn.

I mentioned Holmes earlier. The Great Detective once warned against twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. Things can fit – but if you start with the answer you want and cling to it no matter what, you won’t actually discover anything. Paradoxically, you have to be willing to back up to move forward.

Easy to say. Hard to do. Essential to learn.

If we keep testing, keep examining, keep questioning , we can get to the answers that satisfy instead of just the ones that feel good. We can share thoughts instead of butting heads.

And those other answers that we discarded along the way?

Well. there’s always a little more room in the dumpster.