Oh, THERE’S My Flying Car

When the pandemic first hit, many people joked that we had become the Jetsons. After all, many of us work over monitors. We’ve got wristwatch computers and flat-screen TVs. We even have electronic assistants and housecleaners, even if they’re named Alexa and Roomba rather than Rosie.

But there was always one big exception. One that rose to the level of a meme.

“Where’s my flying car?”

Well, the favorite sci-fi staple may finally be waiting in the wings (er, so to speak). The Associated Press recently reported that the Alef Aeronautics Model A has received its airworthiness certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. Ironically enough, it’s still waiting for its highway certification, but if that goes ahead, the Model A could hit the market in 2025.

Er … yay?

I’m a sci-fi geek. (I know, you’re shocked.) So part of me does find it cool. But I’m also a long time Front Range resident. And so, I have to ask the obvious question.

“Flying cars? Have you seen the way people drive when they’re on the ground?”

OK, curmudgeon moment over for now. But it brings up a couple of useful reminders.

The first is that, even with the most amazing technologies, there are always tradeoffs. The automobile came as a godsend to many large cities, where horse manure had become a serious public health hazard. (New York City alone had to deal with 100,000 tons per year at one point in the 1880s.) Nobody had yet anticipated that we’d also have to deal with carbon emissions, drive-throughs on every corner, and people who head for the grocery store at 70 mph with no turn signals.

But in a way, that’s the easy one. We make changes constantly in our world and we’ll make more. And while we regularly create problems, we also create possibilities. If we can see what needs doing, and we’re willing to seek a solution, we’ve got a chance.

But that brings up the bigger challenge: us.

To put it simply: technology can change rapidly. Human nature doesn’t change much at all.

Go back to ancient Rome and you’ll find parents complaining about how their kids have lost all respect for authority. (And probably kids complaining about how their parents are out of touch.)  Step back even a century or two, and you’ll see people saying how morality is doomed because of the movies … or the waltz … or novels. And of course, we’ve all heard how customer complaints for bad service go back to the Bronze Age.

We still hope, worry, fear and wonder. We’re still capable of the most amazing bursts of creativity and the most idiotic bursts of stupidity imaginable. The tools can enhance that, but they don’t replace it. Even recent developments in AI are still set against a context of our wants, our anxieties, our priorities and our deep-seated need to see what Bart Simpson would have looked like in Shakespearean times.

That means we have choices to make. We always have. If we ignore everything except our own wants, needs and impulses, no tool ever invented will make things better. But if we reach to our neighbors with open hearts, if we let ourselves actually see the world instead of just the parts we like … well. That’s when we and our tools can work from the best of us.

It just takes a willingness to look to the horizon.

And while you’re looking, watch out for that Model A in the wrong lane.

Stalking Joy

“Scott,” Heather asked in a voice that was just a shade too serious, “I have a very important favor to ask you.”

“OK …” I tilted my head slightly, waiting to see what she would ask for next.

“Would you …. be celery for me?”

I laughed hard. Oh. THIS game.

“Sure!” I said, still grinning as I stretched up to my full height with my arms at my side and curved my shoulders inward. A perfect celery stalk imitation, if I do say so myself.

“How about … a turnip?”

My knees bent into squatting posture, hands over my head to form the greens.

“A carrot?”

Back up tall, still with the greens, but this time shoulders out and feet pointed. Now both of us were laughing.

“Thank you, bear,” Heather said, a smile as bright as any Christmas tree on her face.

None of this was going to win me a spot in the revival of “VeggieTales” or impress anyone with my mastery of interpretive dance. This was a gag  so old that it went back to the earliest years of our marriage, so old that we’d practically forgotten how it started. It may have even begun with the typical new husband declaration of “I’d do anything for you!” and a mischievous wifely response of “Oh, really?…”

Whatever the cause, it’s been one of our secret weapons. A way of snatching back a little silliness from a stressful world.

And oh, has it been stressful lately.

Picture an Advent calendar designed by Dr. Evil and you get the idea. Instead of a chocolate, each new day has revealed a different little ball of anxiety. Like straining my back while fixing a shower. Or racing Heather to the ER for Crohn’s issues. Or having our ward Missy turn into a squirming ball of unhelpfulness at a dental appointment. Or a series of minor and not-so-minor breakdowns in the house. And that’s without adding the magic of 2020 to the mix.

You know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. It seems to go with the holidays, whether it’s traffic on the streets or a missing person at the table. And it all gets underlined by the constant reminders that this is a season of joy.

Joy?

It’s a conundrum that Charles Dickens himself knew very well. “What’s Christmas time to you,” his Ebenezer Scrooge groused, “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer?”

Sometimes joy can be a very hard candle to light. And seeing it stay dark makes it even harder. Resignation’s much easier, an emotional distancing to go with the social, a mask worn over the heart instead of the face.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Because joy isn’t something we make. It’s something we make ourselves open to.

Joy lives in the unexpected moment.

When we turn a corner and Missy shouts “Lookit! Look!” at a house ablaze with lights from every seam, joy has come.

When a friend leaves something on the doorstep without warning just because it’s the season, joy has visited.

And yes, when Heather asks for a vegetable imitation and the laughter of 22 years of marriage suddenly breaks out across both of us, joy is in the middle of it all.

It’s still close at hand. Waiting.

Even in 2020.

May joy find you this season, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances. May you always be open to it, even in the hardest of times. Whatever flock you’re watching by night, may it give you the chance to watch the skies as well.

Be ready. Be hopeful.

And if you can, be celery, too.

It’s amazing how useful that can be.

Directions in the Fogg

For the last few weeks, bedtime has been a race. And now, at last, Missy has pulled up smiling at the finish line.

A trip around the world can do that.

No, we’re not defying coronavirus restrictions and dashing through international borders one step ahead of the health authorities. Heck, at the rate baseball has been going, even state borders are starting to look like an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

But Missy’s bedtime reading has opened a lot of doors over the years. We’ve journeyed through Middle-earth. We’ve battled evil at Hogwarts. We’ve traveled the stars with Madeleine L’Engle and solved mysteries with Ellen Raskin.  And since Missy’s online activity group has been “visiting” a lot of countries lately, the time felt right  to introduce her to an old friend.

Once again, it was time to travel with Phileas Fogg.

If you’re not familiar with “Around The World In Eighty Days” – is there anyone left? – you have quite the journey ahead of you. I was a kid on summer vacation with my family when I first read Jules Verne’s tale of the incredibly precise 19th-century Englishman who accepts a 20,000 pound wager to circle the world  in the stipulated time without being a single minute late.  It’s a short novel and one that moves as quickly as its characters as they jump from trains and steamships to sailing craft and elephants, efficiently racing the clock (and a misguided detective).

Like a lot of older books, some bits age better than others. But the story still draws like a magnet because the central idea still works.

No, not the idea of circling the globe in under three months. Anyone with access to an airline ticket and a passport – a combination which, admittedly, has become a piece of fiction itself lately – can travel at a pace that leaves Fogg and his friends gasping in the dust.  But the challenge behind Fogg’s wager is still part of us today.

Namely, the idea that with enough planning, even the unexpected can become predictable.

At this stage of 2020, the idea sounds almost humorous. Anything we may have expected on  New Year’s Eve has surely gone through the paper shredder as we’ve grappled with seven months of upside-down events. It’s always hard to grasp how little control we truly have, but 2020 seems determined to remind us of that constantly … with a Louisville Slugger, if necessary.

The thing is, Fogg’s friends back home seem to have already absorbed the lesson. From the start, they remind him of all the things that could go wrong – breakdowns, bad weather, local violence and more. And in a way, they’re right. Fogg’s ability to take advantage of the good and improvise around the bad gets absolutely derailed on the final lap, disrupted by the one complication he hadn’t foreseen. Disaster looms.

It sounds like a pandemic lesson. And I hope it is. Because – spoiler alert! – that’s not the end of the story.

There’s a second complication. A positive one that gives Fogg more time than he thought he had. But without his planning, he would never have been in position to take advantage of it. And without learning to recognize and return the love of others, he would never have seen the opportunity at all.

And that is the lesson we need to learn.

Not to give up. Not to say “Nothing we do will make any difference.” But to plan as best we can, improvise where we have to, and recognize that ultimately it’s our compassion for the people around us that will get us through this. When we look out for each other instead of grasping desperately at normal, we win – because every one of us is “each other” to someone else.

Like all adventures, this will leave us changed. But it can be a change for the better.

Maybe, just maybe, a little Fogg can help us see clearly.

Following the Light

“Daddy, look!”

Missy bounced in the passenger seat of the car, eyes aglow. It had to be important. Missy has called me many things since Heather and I became her guardians over seven years ago – “He,” “Frank,” even “Mom” sometimes when Heather’s not in the room – but “Daddy” mostly tends to come out at moments of discovery.

And what a discovery!

Trees glowing with the lines and colors of Dr. Seuss. Lawns stacked with Grinches, with Nativities, with snowmen of every shape and size. Roofs blazing in the night like a multicolored landing strip made for a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, or any UFOs that happened to be passing within 10 light years or so.

Her smile beamed brighter than any of the homes we passed. For Missy, this was the heart of the season – the regular Christmas light run, discovering new homes and new neighborhoods every night, shining with glory in the freezing air.

I smiled, too. And enjoyed. And with a little trepidation, looked to see which of the curving streets might eventually bring us back to a familiar road again.

Like wise men in the East, I could really use a guiding star about now.

***

Longtime friends and readers may remember that I don’t have the best sense of direction. And that may be putting it mildly. In the course of my wanderings over the years, I have wound up following ruts in farmer’s fields, or staring at a Denver-area dead end, or possibly discovering new lands in the name of Spain. I can find “down” without a compass … most of the time … if I’ve left a shoe untied.

Like any long-time Front Ranger, I know the rule of thumb: “The mountains are west.” Like any good 21st-century resident, I know the other rule of thumb: “Google Maps are your friend – except when they aren’t.” None of which helps when it’s too dark to see the peaks, you’re not exactly sure of your current location, and your eager passenger will become an impatient one if you pull over to check your phone.

Besides, on this night, in this place, it didn’t really matter. Tonight wasn’t about the destination. Tonight was about the journey, the traveling, the unexpected wonders ahead. Tonight was about wandering without really knowing what you were looking for, and allowing yourself the excitement of finding more than you expected.

This time of year, that sounds more than a little familiar.

***

From the beginning, Christmas has been about going places you didn’t expect and finding things you never anticipated. Whether the tale is sacred or secular, it’s a season of surprise. Shepherds being startled in the night and called to a manger. Grinches and Scrooges discovering joy and hope in a heart that had grown cold. Charlie Brown finding that just a little bit of love can make the scrawniest of twigs shine brighter than any aluminum Christmas tree.

It’s about breaking expectations. Seeing the world with new eyes. That can be hard to do, and even a little scary, because it means taking roads you don’t know and journeys that might be a little uncomfortable.

Most of us don’t like to do that. We like the familiar. And after a while, we stop seeing it. We go to places without really going through anywhere, exist without really living.

So when the sudden turns come, big or small, it’s easy to panic. But it also may be the first time we truly notice the world around us. And in noticing, wonder. Discover. And learn.

That’s a powerful gift.

So follow the roads. Trust the turns. Find the beauty that you never knew was there. It may take some searching on a cold, dark night. But it could be closer than you think.

Maybe even as close as Missy’s smile.

A Little Something Extra

I read the email twice. Three times. It didn’t change. It wasn’t a prank.

Which meant I really did have three and a half days of vacation I hadn’t known about.

Wow.

How?

It didn’t seem possible. Not this year, anyway. “Lucky” 2013 had been the Year of the Minor Family Emergency for our house, after all. It was like a dark version of Old McDonald’s Farm: here a flu, there a strain, everywhere a … ah, you got the idea.

With each micro-crisis, another couple of days off got eaten up. Soon sick time was gone and the rest was going, like some survivor in a post-apocalyptic movie who throws Louis XIV furniture on the fire just to hold off a blizzard.

Finally, I’d counted off the last of my time. Or thought I had, anyway. But there it was.

Part of me gave three cheers for reporter math skills.

The rest reached back to grade school. And the year of the Christmas Map.

It had been a pretty successful holiday that year, all things considered. My sisters and I had carried off our usual plot to wake Grandma on Christmas morning, who then helped us softly sing off-kilter carols as we waited for Mom and Dad:

 

While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated round the tub …

 

Followed quickly by that seasonal favorite:

 

Good King Wensceslas looked out, in his pink pajamas …

 

The day dawned into family and fun and books and games and the sorts of childhood memories you want to have on Dec. 25. But as we started to break up the morning revelry, Dad took a glance at the tree and then at me.

“I think you missed one.”

I looked again.

Long and skinny, it looked like a forgotten roll of wrapping paper tucked out of the way. A few quick rips revealed the truth: it was a map. One of those great Rand McNally-style wall maps of the U.S., with bright colors and thick sprinklings of small towns, perfect for journeys of the imagination.

It hadn’t been on any list or in any letter to Santa. But the surprise made it all the more fun, an unexpected present sneaking in the door.

And I’d almost missed it.

It’s easy to do, and not just with the ones that look like gift-wrap. I think many of us count stresses more readily than blessings these days – the stacked-up highway traffic, the cough that takes three weeks to leave, the bill that’s waiting still one more week to get paid. We all know the list and it starts to get deadening after a while, to the nerves and the soul.

But then there are the other moments. The ones hidden behind the tree.

For me, this year, a lot of those gifts have been wrapped in people. Like the friend who unexpectedly appeared at the grocery store, in time to help change a flat tire. Or the one who sent us a puzzle book in the mail one day, just because. Or even the online acquaintance who’s never met me but sent a shoutout during the flood to be sure I was OK.

Unexpected gifts, all of them.

Wonderful to give. Even better to be, especially at this time of year. After all, what is this season about if not a present that no one was expecting?

I wonder whose gift I can be.

I suppose I’ve got an extra three and a half days to figure it out.

Simply, Simon

After a week of wonders, from resigning Popes to exploding space rocks, the biggest one of all came Sunday.

Right, Simon?

Simon is my newest nephew. He entered the world around 2 in the morning, not far from Seattle. And if that sounds like a UFO report, well, that’s how it feels sometimes.

Funny. You think I’d be in practice by now.

This is my fourth entry into unclehood, you see. The first three came as quickly as skydivers leaving a plane, two nieces and a nephew, all within the last six months of 2010. It was a barrage of babies, the full immersion approach to witnessing infancy.

And then, it got quiet. I had a chance to get used to Gil’s winning smile and shining eyes, to Ivy’s all-absorbing curiosity, even to Riley’s looks of mischief and calls to “go-go” just one more time in her wagon.

Things became normal. Well, as normal as they get in the land of toddlers.

That probably should have been a warning.

I’ve been a reporter for 15 years now. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in that time is to beware the slow news day. That’s when you get the plane crash, or the break in a cold murder case, or the million-dollar federal grant. It may be good news, it may be bad, but it will have you running in overdrive until it’s done. I’m sure someone has inscribed it on a monument somewhere: Those whom the gods wish to see busy, they first make complacent.

And so, when my sister Leslie put up an online picture of Ivy holding a sign that read “I’m going to be a big sister!”, we knew the headline news was ready to start popping again.

I couldn’t wait.

Apparently, neither could Simon. About two weeks ahead of time, Leslie got word that her tenant might be ready to break the lease a little early. That began the teasing period.

Would he come on Mom’s birthday, Feb. 12?

Nope.

Would the new little boy be a Valentine’s kid?

Uh-uh.

Groundhogs have been watched less closely. Messages flew. So did Mom, grabbing the first plane to Washington.

But just like in childhood, nothing happens until Simon says. And Simon said “Hold on a little more … no, just a little more … almost there…”

In retrospect, I wonder if my nephew has a future in public relations.

He finally became Sunday Simon with a few hours’ warning. With him came a reminder: babies set their own schedules.

Only fair. So does life, really.

We like to pretend otherwise. We schedule to a fare-thee-well, measuring minutes, slicing and dicing appointments and deadlines. We think of time as a possession, something that’s rightfully ours, that we can control, shape and dictate.

But as John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” And when hit with the unexpected, those plans can be as fragile as spun sugar. And we find out how much control we really have.

It can be frightening. Or it can be freeing. That part’s up to you.

For me, right now, it’s something joyous.

Even wondrous.

Thanks, Simon. And welcome.