Weekend Winter

Colorado has many things that define “consistent.” Like the presence of the Rocky Mountains. Or the awfulness of Rockies relief pitchers. Things that stay the same week after week, year after year.

But weather?

If you’ve hung around this corner of the Front Range for the past three weeks, you know what I’m talking about. Mild throughout the work week … maybe cold, maybe warmer, but definitely dry. And then once the weekend arrives: BAM! Snow and ice time.

It’s been regular as a clock. Steady as a metronome. And probably a little frustrating to 1) students hoping for a snow day or 2) anyone hoping for a Saturday that doesn’t involve slip-sliding away.

I know, I know, it’s winter. (My favorite time of year, as it happens.) Snow comes with the territory. But it usually doesn’t come with a punch clock.

Again, if you live here, you get it.

Everyone talks about how their state’s weather is wild. Colorado is the one where you can get all four seasons before lunch. It’s where a meteorologist’s kit includes a dartboard, dice and a voodoo doll of Mother Nature. (Am I right, Mike Nelson?) As the story goes, if your outfit for the day includes a parka AND Birkenstocks, you might just be a Coloradan.

Steady, scheduled weather just doesn’t fit the profile.

It’s not the story we’re used to telling. And that’s always a little unsettling.

We like stories. We’re storytellers by nature, either trying to explain the world we’ve got, remember the world we had or describe the world that could be. Depending on the tools we use, the result may be epic myth, rigorous science, conspiracy theory or the next hit series of blockbuster films. But at some level, it helps us define patterns and discern reasons …or at least, feel like we are.

The trick comes, of course, when we’re trying to impose a pattern rather than discover one. That’s relatively harmless when we’re seeing shapes in clouds. It can be downright marvelous when it leads someone to write an engrossing novel or the next hit song. But it gets more treacherous when a deeply-held story collides with reality and the story wins.

We get comfortable in how we see the world. And when the world argues with us, a lot of us tend to argue back. Better to hold your ground, be consistent, prove you’re right – or is it?

“When events change, I change my mind,” the economist Paul Samuelson once said (later crediting a similar thought to John Maynard Keynes). “What do you do?”

Easy to say, especially from the outside. But it’s harder to do. It requires humility to change your mind in the face of evidence. It requires awareness rather than acceptance, constant questioning rather than confident certainty.

In other words, it takes work. And a willingness to change.

When we can do it, the result is a better story for all of us.

The weekend winters will shift eventually. (Right?) The memory will become another story. As we write our next one, look around with clear eyes and a thoughtful mind. You might find more than you think.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to find a shovel and some ice melt. After all, Saturday will be here before we know it.

When Christmas Got Purse-onal

We still remember it as the Great Purse Christmas. 

The story starts with Missy, as so many do. Missy has a love for the season that is both passionate and unfeigned, and my wife Heather and I have learned her enthusiasms well over the years that we’ve cared for her. 

Carols? Play them anytime! 

Lights? Let’s go see them every night! 

The Grinch? Yes, please! 

It makes Christmas Day really fun to watch, especially since Missy’s tastes are pretty simple. New puzzles. Coloring books. Exciting stories for bedtime. Music by the score. 

And, of course, purses. 

It’s less pronounced now, but for many years, Missy’s constant companion was a big red purse, packed with half the universe inside it. Anyone venturing into its depths would unearth flash cards, stuffed animals, crumpled-up comics, a partridge in a pear tree …. as well as a ripped lining and bursting seams from holding so much for so long. 

So one Christmas, Heather and I saw the state of her current handbag and decided that a new red purse would be just the thing for Missy to find under the tree. 

As it happens, we had some company. 

Come the day, Missy got not one … not two … but FOUR red purses under the tree. Each one a different size, style and shade. The hilarity grew as the bags multiplied. 

“You mean you …?” 

“Oh, no!” 

“Wow, Missy ….” 

As communicators, we had failed pretty miserably. But as gift-givers, we had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. 

Missy was over the moon with joy, wealthy beyond words. And all of us had unwrapped a new story to share and re-share. 

You can’t ask for a better Christmas than that. 

It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the stuff, tempting to see Christmas Day as the here-at-last finish line of a long December march. But the day was always meant to be a beginning, not an end. And the best present has always been the gift of each other, wrapped in stories and memories and love. 

Here at Chez Rochat, it’s rare for a present to be opened without a tale or an explanation from the giver. It might be as simple as “I never thought this would get here in time” or a mighty seasonal epic of desperate searches and sudden discoveries. But with each telling, we strengthen a bond and reinforce a message: “I thought of you. I care. And I want you to know how much you mean to me.”

After all, we’re storytelling creatures. It’s how we make sense of the world, sometimes even how we transform it. Most of all, it’s how we become an “us,” tied together for the moment – or maybe longer – by a common understanding and shared vision.

The story now begins anew, today and every day. Write it well. Share it often. Celebrate it with others and watch it grow as your story joins theirs, making both richer.

Together, we can write a new year worth remembering. One where the real gifts aren’t just tucked away in a dark corner of December, but shared throughout. I’m confident we can do it.

In fact, I think it’s in the bag.

The Words That Matter

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

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

It’s where life happens.

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

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

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

The exceptions hurt too much.

***

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

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

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

And they still do it.

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

Sometimes they die for it.

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

***

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

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

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

The right words at the right time matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even in their very home.

Turning Tales

Many of my baseball-loving friends have the blues. And they couldn’t be happier.

Some of that blue belongs to the colors of the Kansas City Royals, questing for their first title in 30 years and desperate to wrap up the unfinished business of last year’s almost-world championship. No question, these are Royals in search of a coronation.

The rest have a darker shade to their uniforms – appropriate, since these are the friends who know the blues indeed. These are the brethren of the Chicago Cubs, the legendary hard-luck team that has not even seen a World Series game in 70 years without buying a ticket. The team that has not won a championship in over a century. The team cursed by a goat, now praying to be freed by the prophecies of the Back to the Future movies.

I promise, I’m not kidding.

If both teams manage to make the Series at once, I think Facebook may just explode. After all, these are fans who have not just been loyal, they’ve done penance. The moment is at hand – Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench, Frodo Baggins at the edge of Mount Doom, Rocky Balboa ready to get the tar beaten out of him.

Er, never mind that last one. But it does make a compelling story.

And that’s a primal power indeed.

Stories surround us and penetrate us, binding the galaxy together – no, wait, that’s the Force. But it’s a small difference. This is a big world we live in, too large for us to take it all in at once. By shaping a story, we make it something we can hold and understand, something that makes sense.

It’s why sports can have such a draw. This is a story in its basic form, redrawn every day on the playing field: good guys and bad guys, victory and defeat, beer and hot dogs.

It sits at the heart of our politics. In a democracy, candidates compete to tell us the most convincing story, with themselves as the hero who can ensure success or avert disaster. Sometimes those stories are true. And sometimes … well, you know how to finish that tale.

It’s why good journalism can be some of the best writing around. Every person on this earth has at least one story worth telling; a skilled reporter can let you into that story as though it were your own and reveal the wonder that lies beneath the most everyday persona and event. Whether it’s a mighty flood or an airplane-throwing contest – and I’ve written about both – anything can be compelling if you find the heart beneath. (I’ve always said that the heart of every one of my columns is the question “Why do I care?”)

Granted, like any power, it can be misused. Often – maybe too often – we impose the story we want to see on the world around us, regardless of the facts. Researchers have recently suggested that our brains aren’t wired to seek the truth, but to cling to the items that support what we want to believe. Call it Simon’s Law: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

But stories make us human. They fuel our curiosity and build a community. And if a story survives long enough, it can bind us across the centuries, tying us to anyone who ever invoked our version of “Once Upon A Time.”

Yes, even Cubs fans.

So if sports make you crazy, take heart. You’ve got a tale or two of your own that means just as much. From the outside, it may seem just as odd as celebrating men who swing lumber and fling horsehide. Let someone in. Share it. Revel in it.

How to do it? That’s another story.

And one that no one can tell as well as you.