A Moment to Remember

The moment had finally come.

The last shot … blocked. The last second … elapsed. At last the long wait was over. The Denver Nuggets would walk off the floor for the first time as Western Conference Champions, punching their first-ever ticket to the NBA Finals.

It was time for the nation to see Denver’s joy, to see the excitement, to see … two long minutes of LeBron James heading for the Lakers locker room in defeat?

Sigh. Sometimes even when you win, you can’t win.

I shouldn’t be surprised. As a nation – maybe even as a species – we’re not that good at focusing our attention where it belongs.

After all, look at our current holiday.

We often get caught up in the trappings of a holiday and Memorial Day is no exception. In fact, with Memorial Day, we get layers upon layers of misunderstanding and distraction. An alien looking at our practices and reading our subconscious minds might conclude that the day is:

  • “The first day of summer! Ok, that’s really in June, but still …”
  • “A chance to pull out the new grill and show Jake and Mary how you really cook a steak!”
  • “The first three-day weekend we’ve had in way too long. Woohoo!”
  • “Uh … something about thanking soldiers for their service. Right?”

None of them hit the bullseye. Even that last one. Not that it’s ever inappropriate, but if you want to tie that “thank you” to an actual holiday, Veterans Day in November is the one you’re looking for.

Memorial Day is … well, what it says. The pause to remember. The moment of honor for the defenders no longer here. It’s not the passing parade but the sudden silence.

And as such, it draws on a whole bunch of qualities that we’re really not that good at.

A moment to pause? These days, our world insists that every moment be filled, leaving no time to think about anything except what’s right in front of you.

Remembering the dead? So many of us go out of our way to avoid thinking about death at all, like a student who thinks graduation is an elective and that they can stay in school forever.

Silence? Every moment of our lives seems to have a soundtrack. Stillness is something foreign, a state that has to be sought out … if we even remember it exists at all.

In short, Memorial Day forces us to make a lot of choices that don’t come naturally to us. To break out of our expectations. To see and be, not just react.

There’s nothing wrong with the rest of it. I like a good steak, too, after all. But if we focus on the fun and forget the core, we’ve missed the point as surely as any ESPN announcer.

That’s not where any of us should want to be.

So this year, take a moment to hold up those who can no longer hear our thanks. The ones who never came marching home again.

Remember to stop. Be still. Reflect.

Our choice costs nothing. Theirs cost everything.

The moment has come. And we’ve seen how grating it can be when a champion is ignored.

So take some time now to give our own champions their due.

Unfinished Tales

It’s barely even March and I am already looking ahead to summer.

This is not normal for me. I’m the person who, when given a choice between the blazing hot and the freezing cold, will take the weather that requires a coat, a scarf, and a chorus of “Walking In a Winter Wonderland.” After all, you can bundle up, but there’s only so far you can peel down. And when you’re looking at the chores ahead, snow melts, but grass grows. Right?

I’m not saying I’m a complete polar bear. Spring is when life wakes up, especially life that wears baseball gloves and purple uniforms and has one chance in a hundred of seeing the World Series this year. Fall is the time of great-smelling grills and gorgeous trees that no rake can ever keep up with.

But summer? Really?

As usual, you can blame my addiction to theater. On March 16, the Longmont Theatre Company opens a two-weekend run of “Leaving Iowa,” a show about the iconic Summer Vacation Family Road Trip. And this time around, I’m playing Dad, which means I get to invoke the Ritual Repeated Parental Warning: “Now settle down back there, or I’m pulling this car over!”

But it’s more than that, really. It’s also a story about family ties over the years. About how your perspective changes when you move from child to adult (and not just by moving into the driver’s seat). And especially about how you always think there’s more time to know someone until there suddenly isn’t.

That last one hits home. No matter what the time of year. But for me, maybe especially now.

***

A few weeks ago, many of you saw my column about the recent passing of our 21-year-old cousin Melanie. I know, because so many of you chose to respond and send your sympathies, whether through the mail, online, or in the newspaper itself. It was gratifying, healing, and even a little overwhelming to see how many people cared.

I appreciate it and I thank all of you. It brought a lot of love and warmth to a season that had suddenly become too cold even for me.

As much as I love winter, it’s become a little haunted for us. Mel left us in January. Last year, so did our long-time canine queen, Duchess the Wonder Dog. Four years ago in February, we said goodbye to Grandma Elsie. A few years before that, it was Melanie’s dad Andy – January again. Story upon story, soul upon soul.

Sometimes we had a lot of warning before the final chapter. Sometimes none at all. Always, afterward, there are the feelings of questions not asked, things not done, stories not told. It happens even when you’re close, and if there’s been any distance at all, it only magnifies the lost opportunities.

I once wrote about a folk song called “Kilkelly, Ireland,” where an Irish father and an immigrant son exchange letters across the Atlantic for 30 years. The father is always asking the son to come home to visit, the son never seems to – and by the time he finally is ready to, Dad has already passed on.

There will always be a Kilkelly moment. There will always be one last thing you meant to do or say, because as people, we never go into moments thinking they’ll be the last one. There will always be something more you wanted them to experience, whether it’s to see a great-grandchild arrive or to enter college and begin life.

Living stories don’t end neatly.

At the same time, as a kind person reminded me, they also don’t truly end.

We are all more than just ourselves. We carry pieces of every person we’ve ever loved, every story that ever intersected with our own. They shaped us, influenced us, colored the way we see the world.

And when they leave, that touch remains. We carry a little of their flame.

Their story goes on.

And so, when I mount the stage in a couple of weeks, I won’t do so alone. In fact, I’ll be carrying quite a crowd.

I just hope there’s room for all of us in the station wagon.

Lens of Love

In the heat of summer, he was there. The game ebbed and flowed around him as players steadily wheeled their chairs from base to base, or reached down for a lightly hit grounder, or waited for the next pitch with an aluminum bat and a coach’s help.

He never intruded, rarely drew attention. But through his lens, the Monday night softball game became magic. No – through his lens, the game revealed the magic it already held, as the joy and eagerness of each player made them shine like stars.

This was the Ed Navarro that Heather and I knew.

And this was the Ed that Missy loved.

By now, you’ve probably heard or read about Ed’s passing. He was one of those guys who makes a community work, the sort where you read the obituary and say “Wait – he did that, too?” The piece in the Times-Call hit all the beats – co-founder of El Comité, passionate local lawyer and advocate for the Hispanic community, and always ready to capture a local activity or a youth sporting event with his perfectly placed camera.

Most of it, I’m a little embarrassed to say, was new to me. That’s how it often is with the people in our lives; we see the small piece that intersects our own, unaware that we’re dealing with a leading actor in the show.

But then, I’m not sure how many knew the piece we saw, either. The part that greeted the Monday night crowd at Clark Centennial Park.

The part that was a fixture at the summertime “Softball for All.”

Some of you have seen me write about the summer softball program here for the disabled; the one that runs for three innings with plenty of cheers, no outs and no score. Every year, our ward Missy lives for the next season to arrive, when she can don her Niwot Nightmares T-shirt and grab a bat, a glove, and a coach’s arm for support as she travels the bases.

I teasingly call her “Hollywood” during the season because she strides the field like a celebrity, often stopping to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd with a wave or even a bow. And like any good celebrity, her room is full of the photos of her accomplishments, on the walls and filling well-thumbed albums.

Every one of those photos came from Ed Navarro.

Each year, at the end of the season, the teams hold an ice-cream social at the Longmont Senior Center. And each year, they and their families arrive to find the walls covered with dozens, if not hundreds, of photographs from Ed that he had taken at the games. Each player could bring home their own, the shots that revealed their own inner Mantle and Galarraga and A-Rod. And each got to keep an album with shots of everyone. The later years even included a CD in the album that held every shot.

We always cheered him and gave him a card and a gift. It could never have been enough. Not compared to what he gave us.

Not compared to the love that shone from every wall.

The funny thing is, we hold up folks like Ed as special. And they are. They’re priceless. But their greatest power, I think, is to remind us that anyone can be an Ed.

We all have something to offer. We all have something to share. It might be a moment’s kindness. It might be a talent that creates a memory. It might be something, anything, that says “You’re human. You matter. You are loved and seen.”

It’s easy to forget that sometimes, to feel alone. When we reach out, we rebuild the family. And that lifts all of us up.

We can all be important in someone’s eyes.

Ed’s eyes captured memories and shared them freely. And in those memories, a whole league was revealed as All-Stars.

Thank you, sir.

Our caps are off to you.

When Life Gives You …

The cardboard signs are out. The kids are waving eagerly. The shout goes up loud enough to carry half a block in any direction.

“LEMONADE!”

In some ways, Longmont has changed very little. I remember doing the same thing – very briefly – when I was in grade school. It’s not a business model that any investor would pitch to Wall Street. Foot traffic is less common than it used to be. Cars are insulated against your pitch unless you’ve got a really good sign. And lately, the weather has been closer to Seattle in springtime, further depressing your product’s demand – except of course, for Mom and Dad, who are usually also your major wholesalers. (Don’t tell the FTC).

All of which is to say that I’ve already purchased two cups in two days from two different sellers. And I’ll probably buy another tomorrow if I see the chance.

It’s what you do.

This isn’t just me being a nice guy. A while back, I read a book of little things that police officers typically picked up on the job – small details, habits, trivia that might make its way into a novel someday. One of the items on the long, long, list was simply this: if you are on patrol, and you see kids on the sidewalk selling lemonade, you WILL buy some. If you have no cash, you WILL get some from an ATM and come back.

In that case, it’s part of community policing. But many of the same reasons apply even for those of us who don’t wear the badge. It makes you a neighbor instead of a face. It establishes trust. It means that if they or their family see you again, they’ll have a smile and the knowledge that you’re one of the good guys.

And these days, children can use all the good guys they can get.

Sometimes it seems like we do a lot to push them the other way. Oh, I know, if you look at the long-term trends, this is a pretty good time and place in history to be a child. But we fill the world with so much stress, and with so much to stress about, that it can even overwhelm the adults among us, never mind the young.

I was almost 13 when the Challenger exploded. It seemed like every classroom that day had a television or a radio on with images and news of the disaster – almost none of it new news, just the same trauma recycled over and over again. Schools don’t generally do that anymore, and with good reason: it doesn’t help. It’s like asking a Volkswagen Beetle to tow an elephant; even if you succeed, the slug bug’s not going to be in the best of shape afterward.

You measure. You moderate. You don’t isolate a child from reality, but you help them handle it on their terms. And you always let them know that there are people to turn to with their worries and fears. Parents. Teachers. Helpers and friends.

You don’t have to helicopter or coddle or swathe them in cotton and plush. But never destroy a child’s hope. Be the face to trust, the ear to listen, the proof that there are still people in the world who want to make it better instead of worse. Even if it means carrying an extra 50 cents in your pocket in case of lemonade ambush.

Besides, most of the time, it’s not bad lemonade.

Tugs and Stumbles

When the weather gets hot, I sometimes find myself thinking of the company picnics that my Dad’s work used to have.

You may remember something similar. Lots of food, with an emphasis on potato salad. Lots of people, many of whom only saw each other at something like this. And, invariably, the sorts of games that never got played anywhere else, unless your school had a field day and no compunctions about having some kids win or lose.

For example, there was always a tug of war – one rope, with a not-so-small army of kids and adults gathered on each side, each trying to pull like crazy until the middle of the rope passed to their side. The losers got the fun of sprawling in the dirt or grass with rope burns on their hands; the winners got a ribbon or small prize … and, usually, their own collection of rope burns on their hands as a memory. (There may be a reason this doesn’t get done much anymore.)

Or, for the ultimate in ridiculousness, there was always the three-legged race. Take two people, have them each strap one leg together, and then try to have them walk forward. Unless you have a lot of timing and teamwork, the result is a lot like Goofy after the mallet has fallen on his head; lots of staggering and very little progress. The first pair that can stay upright long enough to cross the finish line wins; the last pair gets to find out the best way to remove grass stains.

This sort of thing doesn’t seem to be done much anymore, which may be one reason we’re all living longer lives these days. (Never underestimate the potency of a potato salad that has sat outdoors for three hours.) But as I watch the state of national politics, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost some valuable training.

Mind you, we’re all still pretty good at the tug of war. We prove that during every primary and general election, when most of us plant our feet in the ground and refuse to be swayed by anything that could sway us from our chosen position. “Never him!” “Anyone but her!” We pull and tug and haul until main strength decides the contest one way or the other. Of course, at a picnic or field day, you never had a team that tried to pull in five different directions at once, with the result that everyone on your side went sprawling, which demonstrates one of the many ways in which sixth-graders are still smarter than many American voters.

But we’ve lost our talent for the three-legged race. And that’s a pity. Because while the tug of war will get you through an election, you need the three-legged race if you really want to govern – different people learning how to walk together in order to reach a common goal.

Of course, most political “fields” don’t have a commonly-agreed-upon finish line. Sometimes it’s not even clear how long the race is. But like it or not, we’re strapped together and have to cooperate to make even a little progress … or else learn to enjoy the taste of Weed & Feed.

“Winning was easy, young man; governing’s harder,” George Washington notes in the recent musical “Hamilton.” (Yes, I’m still on that kick.) In many ways, it’s like the difference between a wedding and a marriage – one requires short-term planning to achieve an easily defined goal, the other requires long-term survival skills and cooperation, however hard the situation may get.

Many local governments haven’t completely forgotten the skill. It makes a difference when you have to live next door to your opponent. But at the national level, maybe it’s time to look for folks who actually know how to cooperate and step forward, instead of trying to break the ankles of everyone who doesn’t share their (sometimes very eccentric and bizarre) path.

It’s not easy. But then, no one ever said this would be a picnic.

Fuel for the Fire

The battle lines have again been drawn in flame.

We know the drill by now. High wind. High heat. Lots of vegetation, some of it beetle-killed. One spark and Colorado becomes a tinder box, with too many fires and not nearly enough people to fight them.

Homes consumed. Prisoners evacuated. Summer evenings obscured by smoke.

Oh, yes. We know this well. It’s part of our memories, our fears, our DNA.

Even if we did think – hope? Pray? – we might actually dodge the bullet this time.

I know I did.

Sure, winter had been much too dry. But there had been that beautiful snow in April, that wonderful rain in May. The threat of drought had been eased. Not erased – my pleading lawn was testimony to that—but at least, pardon the phrase, damped down.

On Monday, I made the fatal mistake. I told someone that this summer didn’t look too bad. Certainly not as bad as last year.

Some words should never be spoken. By Tuesday, the match had been lit.

The last time Colorado burned, we had presidential contenders cris-crossing the state. I took up a friend’s plea that they all withdraw and give their Colorado advertising money to fire relief, where it would do more good than a thousand finger-pointing ads.

Didn’t happen.

This year, we’re at least spared the indignity of leaders-in-waiting fiddling while home burns. A small comfort, I suppose. Very small.

But then, everything seems pretty small against a wall of flame.

Especially our own efforts.

So often, that’s what keeps coming back to me. What can we do? We all want to stop it. To turn it off. To make it not happen.

And we can’t. That’s in the hands of a few brave men and women, putting everything on the line to save the rest of us.

But we can do two things. Remember. And prepare.

We all have a responsibility to be ready for the next battle.

When I was a kid learning to cut the lawn, Dad drilled me on the three things every mower needs. Fuel. Air. A spark. Take away even one, and you don’t have a lawn mower, you have a lawn ornament.

Wildfire works by the same rules.

Air, we can’t do much about. Colorado winds are what they are, erratic and sudden.

The spark? Common sense can help a bit there. But danger can still leap from the sky in a lightning strike or emerge from the embers of a seemingly-doused fire pit.

But the biggest thing we can do is remove the fuel.

And in the mountains especially, that means firebreaks.

I know. It’s beautiful to have a “hidden home” in the mountains. It’s prettier to have the trees come right to your door. I’ve seen it. I agree, it is nice.

But capricious as fire is, it still needs a path. A tree-shrouded home offers it a six-lane highway.

Clearing a space may not guarantee safety. Neither does wearing a seat belt in a car. But both do a lot to improve the odds. Three years ago, those spaces and a shift in the wind helped spare Gold Hill from yet another wildfire. In aerial photos, it looked like the homes were surrounded by a moat.

That’s what a firebreak is. A moat of dirt. A defense against the next battle.

A way for the militia – all of us – to help the regular defenders.

We’ll endure. We always seem to. The fires will recede, the destruction will end. The smoke will fade.

But the memories and the lessons shouldn’t.

And maybe next year, we can meet the fire season with more than hope.