In the Middle of the Night

The clouds had scattered for the moment. The night air was still. And high overhead, one half of the moon had gone into shadow.

CLICK.

I went inside and studied my picture of the so-late-it’s-early eclipse. Perfect. But something was … different. Somehow in the dark, my natural coordination (which makes Maxwell Smart look like an Olympic athlete) had bumped one of the camera settings while I was lining up the shot. The result looked less like a photograph and more like a painting, framed by trees that seemed to be the work of careful brush strokes.

I loved it. It was like tripping over a rock that turns out to be a diamond.

Late-night magic had struck again.

Like the Phantom of the Opera,  I long ago fell in love with the music of the night, that wonderful time when the demands of the world are few and the mind can go where it will. It can be a time to write and reflect. Or to chat with fellow owls. Or to power through my mountainous reading pile, including the final few (hundred) pages of The Wheel of Time.

It’s a time that’s set aside. That’s ready to be whatever you make it.

And if that sounds familiar, you’ve probably glanced at the calendar.

We’ve reached another Memorial Day. Another time that’s set aside from the usual demands of work and daily life to be more or less spent as we please. (Especially with the gradual easing of the pandemic in this country.)

For many, it’s a time to break out the grill, the steak and the sunscreen. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with a good cookout.

For many of us, it’s also a time to reflect. To think about who isn’t at the barbecue. Maybe even to raise a flag or leave some flowers.

That’s where this began. Not with the grill. Not even with a “thank you for your service” to living veterans (though you certainly don’t have to wait until November to do that). But with a moment to remember the price that others have paid.

Not just out of respect, though that’s important. But because it may also help us weigh the costs of what we do as a nation going forward.

No action happens in a vacuum. Everything we do touches someone or something beyond the immediate moment. And there’s always a price to be paid. Maybe it’s in literal dollars and cents. Maybe it’s an effect on the physical environment, Maybe it’s an impact on how others live their lives – or whether those lives continue at all.

When we remember that, we remember each other. And maybe, just maybe, we learn to consider and to care for each other on this journey together as well.

But it’s our choice.

It’s our choice whether to remember those who gave their lives for the nation … or to regard their sacrifices as ancient history  and war as someone else’s video game.

It’s our choice whether to build a nation that remembers and includes all of us … or to throw up walls and barriers, turn away from uncomfortable truths and perpetually see an “other” instead of a neighbor.

And yeah, it’s even our choice whether to season all this thought with the offerings of a backyard grill. (Weather permitting.)

It’s your time. Your choice. It’s whatever you choose to make it.

And if that choice keeps you up a little late, maybe I’ll see you around.

I might even have my camera figured out by then.

The Quiet Time

By now, we should be experts in quiet.

Think about it. We’ve had weeks, even months of practice. Self-quarantine. Social distancing. Stay-at-home orders with every possible distraction removed (except Netflix). Surely by now, we’ve mastered the art of silent contemplation, gained a new appreciation for the inner life, and dedicated ourselves to a period of reflection and self-discovery …

You’re not buying it, are you?

Well, it was worth a shot.

In all honesty, the growing levels of COVID-19 restlessness haven’t really shocked me that much, and not just because of economic pressure and a rising tide of Amazon boxes that threatens to inundate all of suburbia. The fact of the matter is, we’re a loud country. An extrovert among nations. Folks who want to do instead of be, and preferably do it with friends at 100 decibels or more, especially when it comes time for the July 4 Symphony in the Key of High Explosives. (If you’re not part of the annual conflagration, by the way, our dog would like to thank you from the bottom of his eardrums.)

I know, there are plenty of exceptions (myself included). But by and large, we’re not a country that does real well with “sit still and wait.”

So there’s a real irony to the fact that our first restless steps beyond the house and the grocery store are coming just in time for Memorial Day.

A couple of years ago, I noted that Memorial Day is something of an oddity among the holidays, since it doesn’t ask you to do all that much. There’s no calls to put out acres of holiday lights, or dress in bizarre costumes, or call your mom before her day slips away again. (You did remember this year, right?) Instead, we’re asked to pause and remember and reflect, to hold close the memory of those who gave everything they had to protect the nation.

And to be honest, we don’t do it all that well. We mean well, most of us, but backyard grills are seductive. And swimming pools. And the chance to grab the first three-day weekend in the last three months or so.

But now … now we have the quiet holiday in the midst of the quiet time. A moment where we’re still supposed to be taking it slow and distant, the perfect atmosphere in which to focus on the things that matter.

What if we actually did?

What if we took the time to remember those who stepped forward to protect those more vulnerable, whatever the sacrifice?

What if we learned from them? And emulated them? Not by hurrying to a foreign battlefield, but by coming to the aid of our friends and neighbors, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable?

What if we took a moment to recall the cost of conflict, and then looked for ways to ease it?

What if we opened ourselves to the lessons of the past, so that we could build a better future?

What if we just stopped to think? To look beyond our skin? To see a need and stand up to fill it, as someone once did for us?

That would be a Memorial Day worth remembering. And not just for the epic barbecue rubs.

Take the opportunity. In a world of uncertainty, be someone’s reassurance, even if it’s through the simplest of acts. In a time where distancing is survival, take the actions that bind all of us closer together, even when we have to stay physically apart.

So many gave so much to bring us where we are. But it’s up to us to carry it forward, with our heart, our willingness, and our sacrifices, big and small.

Don’t do it for applause or acclaim. Do it because we’re counting on each other. Because none of us can do this alone.

You may even find a quiet satisfaction.

And at a time like this, that’s the most fitting reward of all.

Object of the Game

Computers have mastered chess. They’ve cracked “Jeopardy!’ But it seems even they can’t figure out “Game of Thrones.”

Maybe there’s hope for the human race.

For those of you who care about the recently concluded HBO series, be warned – there’s spoilers ahead. (Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father, Rhett leaves Scarlett, and “Rosebud” was the sled. Just saying.) On the other hand, if Westeros isn’t your cup of tea, stay with me, OK? I promise, we’re going somewhere from this.

OK, back to the computer.

Game of Thrones is known for a high body count among its heroes and villains, with survival rates that are about as good as a Denver Broncos head coach. (The joke goes that when George R.R. Martin logs onto Twitter, he kills off all 280 characters.) So, computer science students at the Technical University of Munich in Germany were given a challenge – create an artificial intelligence algorithm that would predict who had the best chance of surviving the final season.

They programmed the AI. They fed it the data. And they concluded the most likely survivor – a 99 percent chance! – was the Mother of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen.

This would be the same Daenerys who got stabbed to death in the final episode, by the way.

Oops.

I’m sharing this for a few reasons. First, as a reminder that computer intelligences depend on our intelligence, and are only as good as the assumptions we make. Second, to reassure diehard Daenerys fans – and oh, my, there are a lot of you on the internet – that even the experts were on your side.

But most of all, I wanted to point out that the biggest survivor of all wasn’t even on the list. I don’t mean any of the kings or queens or dragons or warlords …  not directly, anyway.

I mean the story.

The story that engrossed people for eight seasons. The adventure that had millions of people arguing about the fate of its characters, before, during, and after its conclusion. Love or hate, agree or disagree, the tale was not being ignored.

That’s powerful.

And it’s a fundamental part of who we are.

I’ve said this here before: we are creatures of story. We look for meaning, narrative, connection in every part of our lives. Sometimes we find them in Westeros, or Middle-Earth, or a galaxy far, far away.

But many times, we find our story in something bigger yet. The causes we stand for. The beliefs we hold. The traditions and histories we carry on, and where we see our role in them. Those are stories on an epic scale, ones that men and women would willingly die for.

Have willingly died for.

We’ve reached another Memorial Day. It’s the time when many of us recount the stories of our fallen – who they were, what they did, why they did it. It’s also a time, perhaps, when we think of the story that motivated them to fight and die in the first place – the dream made real, the ideal made true, the hope that a particular hope could be carried on through generations.

Because ultimately, that’s what our country is supposed to be. A hope. A promise. An imperfectly kept promise, it’s true, at many times to many people. The story is far from finished, always being written, always taking shape.

But it’s still our story. Through all its twists and turns, we still have the power to write the next chapter.  And with that, the duty to remember the authors who came before – military and civilian, young and old – and consider what the story they’ve given us mean, and what our part in it will be.

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” Tyrion Lannister declared in the final episode of Game of Thrones. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”

Take up the tale. Tell it well.

Because no computer ever made can do it as well as you.

 

More Than Memory

We throw hats. And then we lay flowers.

What an odd weekend we’ve given ourselves here.

It’s easy to miss. Heaven knows I usually do. On the one hand, we send our young people into the world with love and benedictions and way too many recitations of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” And then we’re asked to stop a moment for those who have already left the world, wanting to protect it and to build a better one.

Graduation day. Memorial Day. We set them side by side: the flag and the Mylar balloon, the endless drone of “Pomp and Circumstance” and the quiet sound of “Taps.” It’s the strangest of couples, as if someone wanted to talk about Batman and Hammerstein, or Ernie and Juliet.

And yet, it does fit.

It all starts with the quiet.

That may sound even stranger. After all, between graduation parties, backyard grills, and the Indy 500, this can be a loud and busy time. Too busy for some. From the 1870s to today, it’s been traditional to lament that the fun side of Memorial Day (and Decoration Day before it) has overwhelmed the call to stop and reflect, that we’re doing it wrong.

Which, now that I think about it, is a strange way to put it. Because uniquely among American holidays, we’re not asked to “do” anything on Memorial Day. Not buy presents or string lights. Not fire rockets and sing songs. Not pass around cardboard hearts, or drink green beer, or talk like a pirate from a bad Errol Flynn movie.

What we’re asked to do is remember. But that’s only the start.

Because memory unacted on is lost.

Our recent graduates can attest to that, or soon will. Most spent hours trying to memorize as much as possible for their final exams. (Or desperately wishing they had.) At this time next year, most of those answers will be gone – except maybe for some lasting embarrassment at writing “Lin-Manuel Miranda” instead of “Alexander Hamilton” on a history test.

What will stay, or should, is the memory of how to think, how to research, how to organize, how to interact with others in a productive way, and even how weird and amazing other people can be. Why? Because that’s what you did. That’s what you practiced. That’s what you learned.

So this Memorial Day, after memory – what next?

It’s good to remember the fallen. It’s necessary to tell the stories, to raise the ghosts, to bring their memories to life again. But if the sun sets and the memory falls back into the dust until next year, how much respect have we really shown?

Memory unacted on is lost. And the way to act is to build.

Build the world they wanted to see and never did.

Build anew the freedoms that were worth their life – including the freedom to argue and disagree, to challenge and question, to preserve the nation by daring to examine and even improve its underpinnings.

Respect, yes. Live together as a nation, yes. But even more so, live together as a free nation, recognizing how many ways there are to live in freedom. And stand together against those would abridge even an inch of it.

Just as those we honor once stood.

It’s not about glory and uniforms and parades. It’s not about watchfulness and fear. It’s about carrying on a promise.

Remember. Then act. That’s how we learn. And it’s how we create something worth remembering.

Shall we commence?

Hidden Stories

Not long after Roger Moore passed, a friend sent a clip of him I had never seen before. It had no car chases or amazing gadgets, no beautiful women and hideous henchmen, not even a single utterance of “Bond … James Bond.”

Instead, an older Roger was reciting poetry, his still-charming voice capturing the keenly observant soldier of Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy Atkins”:

 

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ‘is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;

And it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

And Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!”

 

The poem had always been a favorite of mine. And the time couldn’t be better to bring it back again. Not just because we’re into the Memorial Day holiday, when we remember to remember our own fallen fighters, but because of what it says about ourselves and the stories in our head.

We all have them. Our inner monologues, our lens we see through, the set of expectations that each of us builds from the moment we wake up and fumble toward the shower. It’s not often conscious. In fact, it’s usually a reflex, trained over years, the smooth and invisible way of deciding how to think and what to think about.

And because the assumptions are invisible, we forget they’re assumptions. Or fail to notice when they contradict each other. Or worse, grow toxic.

Sometimes the stories become so compelling, they force themselves into visibility, they have to come out. Sometimes when they do, they add something new and wonderful to the world – a “Star Wars,” say, that enters the world 40 years ago and touches the imagination of millions, teaching them a new way to see.

Other times, the stories that force themselves on the world do so in blood. Smoke rises in Oklahoma City, in New York, in Manchester, carrying panic and pain and death. Why? A thousand reasons and more could be given, but they all start in the human heart and head. No bomber thinks “I’m going to wake up and be evil today,” consciously putting on villainy like Oddjob putting on a hat or Darth Vader donning a mask. Each has internalized a story that seems to justify their anger at the world or a piece of it, to inflame it, to demand retribution.

This is not an excuse. It’s not a call to sympathize with a murderer or make a killer the next guest on “Dr. Phil.” But it does suggest that the problem is one not easily solved with guns and missiles, one that even Kipling’s “thin red line of ‘eroes” would strain to defend against.

We have to look longer and farther and deeper.

Where do stories come from? Any writer would say they come from everywhere. Every piece of day to day life provides another idea, another connection, another piece of fuel. It’s why those who consciously create stories – writers, actors, and more besides – frequently read, frequently experience, frequently get out to learn something new.

Change the seeds, and you change the story.

Step outside the fictional, and it’s still true. Anger and hatred and radicalization can be hardy flowers … but only in a certain soil. A rebuilding Germany had little use for the nascent Nazi party. A desperate Germany was all too susceptible.

Change conditions and you change assumptions. Change assumptions and you change the world.

It will be long. It will be frustrating. It will require constant effort in numerous fields: economics, education, medicine, diplomacy, personal experience and more. And you can’t ignore symptoms while treating causes, so we will still have to defend against and deal with the angry and the evil and the violent.

But down that road waits understanding. And hope. And maybe a greater ability to see past the easy answer.

“We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes,” Kipling wrote, “nor we aren’t no blackguards too/ But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you.”

Remarkable indeed.

So today, let us remember.

Tomorrow, like Tommy, let us see.

Exhaustive Democracy

I don’t usually write about my reporting side here. I’m going to make a small exception today.

If I can stay awake, that is.

As many of you know, I cover city politics. And this last Tuesday, city politics covered me like a semi covers a skunk. It was almost 1 in the morning before the final gavel came down, closing a night of often impassioned and sometimes angry debate.

The subject was fracking, of course. It so often seems to be these days. And I won’t be weighing in directly on the issue, just like I haven’t weighed in on airport runways, backyard chickens, or marijuana dispensaries. My job is still to cover the story, not to be the story.

But I do have something to say to the five dozen speakers who pummeled the air with their opinions and concerns. To all involved in extending the debate until deadlines were only a fond memory. To everyone who helped me wake up the next morning feeling like I’d gone 30 rounds with Joe Louis in his prime.

Thank you.

Seriously.

Memorial Day is almost upon us. Every year, we talk about honoring the soldiers who fought for the nation we live in and the rights we hold. The men and women who help keep this a free country.

But the finest military in the world can’t keep a nation free if it loses the habit.

I know. This is the sort of thing newspapers usually get excited about just after Election Day, either praising the public for a higher-than-expected turnout or excoriating it for a low attendance rate. But voting’s only one step in the democratic process. The easiest one, at that.

The hard part is to enter the brawl. To shape the issues that get voted on. To push the officials who cast the votes, maybe even to become them.

To be a voice instead of just a hole-puncher.

I didn’t agree with every speaker Tuesday night. To be honest, there were a few on all sides that had me biting my tongue hard enough to leave marks. Some went so far out on a limb that they were tap dancing with woodpeckers.

But I give them this, good and bad and ugly. None of them stayed home and stewed. None of them decided it was somebody else’s problem. All of them came and made their feelings known.

Sure, we can talk about civility or checking the facts or finding ways to come together. Those things are important, too, even crucial. But the first step, the vital step, is to break through apathy and get everyone in the same room and talking. You can’t have a good public debate if you have no public debaters.

And whatever the other faults of Tuesday may have been, that was not one of them.

So thank you, one more time. Thank you for insisting on being heard. Thank you for being a people, a public, a participant.

See you all next time.

Right after I get myself a nap.