Over the past few weeks, the maple down the street has changed from dingy, faded summer’s-end green to splendorous burnt orange and crimson, like blood and fire against the azure autumn sky. Every year it sparks in me a memory, or maybe something deeper than a memory; an image emblazoned in the archives of my past, filed away but far from forgotten.

There was a massive maple tree just like this one on the winding avenue that led up the hill to the house where I grew up. Every year it would ignite with the same impossible colors before yielding its leaves to the unrelenting autumn winds. I biked past it hundreds of times as a kid, returning from some friend’s house or some adventure deep in the woods, then drove past it hundreds more as a teenager, coming back from some keg-strewn bonfire in some gravel pit outside the city limits, racing to get home before curfew.

It isn’t just the image that has lingered with me, though, but all of the longing and turmoil spilling over at every moment in those days. I used to wear an old canvas army surplus jacket in the fall, full of rips and bloodstains and cigarette burns – each one hard-earned. I walked its threads like tightropes, dancing while they frayed beneath my feet. We were all so close to the edge back then and we wanted to be – to see just how close we could come, how much we could feel, how much beauty and pain and inspiration and heartbreak we could take.

I always felt those things the most in the fall, when somehow the world dying all around made me feel like I was being reborn.

But those flames have turned to embers now, glowing faintly beneath the years and layers of habit and routine. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever feel anything as intensely as we do when we’re young – or if we do, maybe it’s us who can’t last. After all, we’ve already said goodbye to some friends who tried to walk that edge for too long.

Last time I was back in the old neighborhood, I saw that they had chopped that old maple down, removing the last landmark by which I had tried to navigate my way back to the wild heart that used to beat in my chest. I sat at the stop sign blinking slowly, trying to make it reappear, until the honking of the cars behind me tore me from my reverie. For a split second, I swear I could see its jagged outline in the rear view mirror as I drove away.

This autumn is warmer and later than it should be, with the leaves in my neighborhood just starting to change and clinging tenaciously to the trees. All except the maple down the block, that is. It hasn’t been willing to wait for the colder weather to set itself aflame. It glows and burns like a personal protest against the slow death of winter it knows will come far too soon.

Though I know it, too, I just can’t seem to burn like that anymore. But I’ve still got those embers glowing somewhere inside of me, and I’ve still got a chance…


“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” – Nelson Mandela

Right now our collective heads are spinning with the news of the last 72 hours: the Defense of Marriage Act is struck down the day after the Voting Rights Act is gutted; Thousands of miles away in South Africa, a legendary freedom fighter takes what could be his final breaths while the throngs hold vigil outside. It is no small thing to be alive at this time – to witness earthshaking events such as these.

What is so striking about this confluence of events is not just their synchronicity, but also their simultaneous and conflicting implications. They are not solely about issues or people or the courts or laws. They are, fundamentally, reflections of how we interpret the very concept of freedom.

DOMA, of course, was never about expanding anyone’s liberty or ability to pursue happiness. It was, from its conception, a shallow and transparent ploy to rally a particular segment of the electorate and to force uncomfortable votes from swing district legislators. The true believers who earnestly claimed they were “defending marriage” on religious grounds weren’t actually the instigators at all. Instead, those whose callous interest was in mobilizing voting blocks big enough to sustain their majorities were more than happy to speak of defending marriage as if it were synonymous with defending our borders from some hostile foreign threat. They successfully conflated the rhetoric of national patriotism with the language of personal liberty in order to hide their own hypocrisy and to justify a usually politically poisonous “intrusion into states’ rights.”

Which inevitably brings us to another monumental Supreme Court ruling from earlier this week in which the 5-4 majority effectively pulled the teeth right out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by allowing nine of the most egregious and chronic vote-suppressing states to change their election laws without federal approval. Justice Scalia, who issued a scathing dissent in today’s DOMA decision in which he hyperbolically seethed: “That is jaw-dropping. It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere ‘primary’ in its role” – was more than happy to use his “judicial supremacy” to negate decades of populist struggle for voting rights, invalidate historic enacting congressional votes, and erase President Johnson’s executive signature making the Voting Rights Act the law of the land. Is it states’ rights or federal dominion, Justice Scalia? Is it judicial supremacy or the power of the People’s Representatives in Congress? Is it participatory democracy or is it elitist tyranny?

In arguing over jurisdiction and positional power, Justice Scalia completely, and quite possibly intentionally, misses the point. The singular question to be answered in either case is “does it promote freedom, liberty, and happiness or doesn’t it?”

It’s a particularly poignant and timely question given that, while all of these missives are being launched back and forth over the ideological fence, one of the greatest champions for freedom the world has even know lies close to death in a hospital bed in Pretoria while the world collectively contemplates the magnitude of his passing. Though Nelson Mandela has dealt with his own significant political debates and disagreements about the machinery of social change, his understanding of what it means to be free – what it means to fight for freedom has never changed. Though his methods evolved dramatically from his time as a front line freedom fighter, to becoming a movement martyr locked away on Robben Island, to his triumphant return and rise to the South African presidency, his belief that the freedom to love, to participate, to determine the direction of one’s own life has never faltered. He remains, in what may well be his final hours or days, the embodiment of some of our greatest shared ideals.

While he makes his way, God willing, to a peaceful rest, some will rejoice that DOMA’s downfall will, at last, grant the freedom to fully pursue happiness for LGBT people in the United States while others will decry the likely discriminatory consequences of the Voting Rights Act’s repeal. Dissenters on both sides will continue to hurl angry diatribes at each other about power and authority, using these as catalysts for, or barriers to, change. But they will be missing the point, just as Justice Scalia continues to miss the point.

My hope is that maybe, just maybe, they will hear a voice whispering to them through the din and noise, quietly, urgently…

The voice of a weathered warrior departing for his next great struggle.

“Freedom”, he will whisper, “freedom.”

Kevin Ware and the Nature of Healing

It was sickening to watch.  Midway through the first half of Sunday’s epic Louisville vs. Duke Elite Eight basketball game, Cardinals guard Kevin Ware went up to contest a routine 3-pointer from Duke’s Tyler Thornton.

When he came down, he suffered one of the most horrific injuries in college basketball history, shattering his lower leg so badly that his broken tibia tore right through his skin.  With the crowd sitting in stunned silence and traumatized teammates sprawled on the court weeping, television announcers struggled for any words to convey the weight of what had just happened.  Louisville coach Rick Pitino wiped away tears as he pulled the team into a close huddle around their fallen teammate who, before they carted him out of the arena and rushed him to the emergency room, had only one thing to say:  “Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be okay.  You guys go win this thing.”  And win they did.  But, as brave an exhortation as it was, and as epic a victory as it produced, it couldn’t change the tough reality facing Kevin Ware.

In a split second, his young life had changed forever.

In the days since, I have been as obsessed as anyone with Kevin’s injury and recovery, following every tweet and update about his surgery, about the steel rod they put in his leg, about how he was already up on crutches the next day, about how he will travel with his team to his hometown of Atlanta for the Final Four.  Like so many others, I pumped my fist when I read his New York Daily News quote:  “This is a minor setback for a major comeback.”

The kid’s got an amazing attitude and, by most accounts, could be playing again in a year.  In between now and then undoubtedly lie some of the hardest days Kevin Ware will ever experience, not only building his physical strength back, but also learning to trust his leg again – an emotional aspect of recovery that many athletes say is far more difficult than the rehabilitation itself.  Even though their post-surgery bones and ligaments may be even stronger than they were before, the residual trauma of having suffered a serious injury won’t allow them to believe it.  It is only through repeated testing and retesting that they begin to regain their confidence and learn to trust the strength of their repaired bodies; no small task when every plant and pivot and jump feels just like the one that caused the injury and their brain is telling them to do anything to avoid feeling that kind of pain again.

Kevin Ware is going to have overwhelming support from millions of people as he makes his journey from injury to recovery, as millions of us have now been public witnesses to his pain.  We cannot un-see what we saw and we won’t soon forget it.  Though the struggle will be his own, he certainly won’t be going it alone.  He’ll have Lebron and the rest tweeting their well wishes at him every step of the way, and he’ll have all of our thoughts and prayers to pick him up along the way.  As well it should be for a great kid in the midst of a comeback, not just in basketball but in a troubled life as well.

As I’ve been trying to wipe the terrible image of Kevin Ware’s leg folding obscenely under him, replayed twice in slow motion on CBS before they quickly pulled it, from my mind ever since I saw it.  There is something so indescribably awful about the way it ended up jutted out at nearly a right angle, skewed to one side, bones sticking through flesh.  Such severe and grotesque injuries may bring out our worst gawker tendencies but they also compel us to be compassionate.  I would bet there wasn’t a single person in Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday who wasn’t sending that kid every ounce of love and prayer they could muster, even the most rabid of the Duke fans.

Despite our love of competition, there is still something inside of us that can’t tolerate suffering.

But that thing, whatever it is – that instinct that drives us to rally around the fallen only engages when we are able to perceive pain.  Kevin Ware’s pain was in our faces in a manner so real that we couldn’t possibly ignore or escape it.  We could see his pain reflected in his mangled leg.  We could hear it in his cries.

The trouble for us, though, is that most of our injuries are hidden from view.

All of this has me wondering how much differently we would treat each other if all of the pain we carry around inside of us suddenly became visible to the world.  What if we could tell that our rude waiter just had his heart broken into a million pieces or that our conflict-averse boss had been abused as a child?  What if we could see our emotional scars the same way as cuts or broken bones?  Would we treat each other with the same empathy and compassion as a college basketball star with a badly broken leg?

Call me naïve, but I really think we would.

So, as we root for Kevin Ware to come back stronger than ever, let’s remember to root for each other, too.

Our hearts, after all, can take an awfully long time to heal.

Our Daily Protest

The last few weeks have been, in many ways, the kind of weeks I love most – full of big projects and big risks, tight deadlines and public spotlights.  They have found me in Capitol hallways and hearing rooms, but also in community centers and church basements, sitting on cold metal folding chairs sipping countless cups of lukewarm coffee and listening to the true stories of people’s lives, told so openly and earnestly that they make my own fastidiously constructed narrative feel like a fable.  I love the feeling of momentum and purpose, love the moments of commitment and connection when groups of people decide to link arms and take up a cause, love when the young ones get that first notion that their lives could mean something bigger than themselves, love when the elders rouse their tired and battle-weary bones for one more good fight.  It’s times like these when there’s no denying how blessed I am to be living this life and doing this work, when my eyes are clear and my heart is full.

As they always tend to be, though, the highs have been counterbalanced by lows – in the unfortunately coupled forms of cynical calculation and petty undercutting – sometimes even by those I’ve stood with for years in their own struggles.  What I’ve come to understand is that the perception of scarcity – the notion that if someone else gets something you won’t get yours – can make people act in some really terrible ways sometimes.  And lest you think I’m climbing up on my self-righteous soapbox, dear reader, let me assure you that I have been this person, too, slicing and carving my way to “victory”, leaving the tattered remains of relationships along the way.

It’s not difficult to see why this is such a pervasive pattern, not just in politics and public life, but also in our most intimate relationships.  Suspicion, dysfunction, and competition are the three core principles upon which most of our modern entertainment is based.  They seep into our collective consciousness whether we know it or not.  They turn us into people who value kindness yet revel in degradation.  It’s no wonder we start to believe that the only way to succeed is to destroy each other in the process.

I don’t believe it’s too late for us, though, and I don’t believe this is really who we are – and I certainly don’t believe we were meant to live this way.

So, here’s what I’m going to try to do starting today:  I’m going to believe the best about people.  I’m going to believe that most people, if given the chance, will choose to do good in the world.  I’m going to believe that the versions of ourselves who give comfort to strangers and pray for people we’ve never even met during times of crisis are stronger than the ones who tear each other down for our own gains.  I’m going to believe that our collective humanity is bigger than our individual insecurity.

I’m going to believe these things even if I’m proven wrong time and again.  Even if I get taken advantage of and called naive.  Even if I get hurt.

Of all of the mini-revolutions I’ve tried to start over the years, this is probably the only one that really matters in the end – the one without spotlights or strategy, notoriety or name.  It won’t require endless coalition meetings or multimillion dollar budgets or reams of research on the opposition.  It won’t even require us to sign a pledge or a petition.

But it will require us to believe the best about each other – stubbornly, genuinely, perhaps naively – in the face of so much erroneous evidence that we shouldn’t.  And it will bind us to act accordingly.

A simple agreement serving as our daily protest.

Breakfast at the Cheapside Wharf

It’s a brief and predictable walk to get there, down Charles Street, across Fayette, left on Water. On the way, you pass the ubiquitous beacons of modern culinary commerce, including the oh-so-tempting Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner, beckoning you seductively to come inside to get your daily refined sugar and ground floor sweepings coffee fix.  (America’s Favorite Coffee!)  You’ve been told “America Runs on Dunkin’” so many times that you almost feel unpatriotic not going inside but, after inconspicuously side-glancing to check for the hidden Homeland Security “subversive eating” street surveillance cams, you successfully circumnavigate the hypnotically bubbly orange and pink DUNKIN’ DONUTS marquee and doggedly push forth toward this morning’s breakfast destination.

For a moment, you think you might have gone the wrong way, since Water Street turns into an alley just east of Light Street.  Just when you’re about to turn back, though, you spot the hand-scrawled placard indicating that the unmarked door ahead and to your right is, in fact, the magical portal to the place for which you’ve been searching:  The Cheapside Wharf.

Upon entering, you are immediately and warmly greeted by a stout and smiling woman who motions to you, from the tiny kitchen in the back, to belly up to the breakfast counter on one of the 10-or-so available stools.  Shortly she emerges, pencil and order slip in hand, and reminds you not to forget about the Seafood Omelet Special which, since it is printed at the very top of the ragged coffee, grease, and egg yolk stained menu, appears to have been the daily special for a very, very long time.  It also happens to be the most expensive item in the Cheapside lineup at $6.  The undercard includes everything you want for anachronistically low prices – 2 eggs for $1.50, French toast for $2, grits for $1.  Need endless cups of organic, fair trade coffee with your meal?  That’ll set you back $1.25.

The order slip, once completed, is walked roughly 7.5 feet from counter to kitchen and handed to the affable chef – the only other employee on hand this morning.  He immediately goes to work with the masterful multitasking capacity exclusive to those who have done their time as line cooks and, within a few short minutes, has your Seafood Omelet Special sizzling along with your sides of potatoes, bacon, and crab cakes (yes, you ordered crab cakes, too).  Your grits are boiling merrily nearby.  With the deliciously commingling cooking aromas filling your nostrils and your hot cup of coffee cradled gently in your hands, you turn at the sound of the swinging front door to see the delivery guy step inside carrying a giant plastic pallet holding about 30 bags of celery to accompany the 9 different kinds of chicken wings they make at the Cheapside.  Clearly a regular, he calls the cook out of the kitchen to jaw about Saturday’s Ravens vs. Broncos playoff game while scrolling through photos of his 1-year-old on his phone with your charming hostess.  His delivery made and conversations had, he then makes his exit – but not before shouting one last “GO RAVENS!” on his way out the door.

Your breakfast makes the 7.5-foot journey from kitchen to counter and is placed lovingly in front of you.  Fighting through your initial bout of too-many-choices-induced indecision, you hit the Special first (good choice), then rotate through heaping forkfuls of the rest, spiraling your way inward toward the center of the plate, jutting your spoon out to scoop the grits in rhythmic fashion, like the John Bonham of breakfasts working the ride cymbal.  In the middle of your greasy-spoon reverie another delivery guy arrives – this one with a towering pile of Wonderish-looking bread loaves which he proceeds to count out with both the cook and the hostess.  Obligatory Ravens-related bantering ensues before he departs with the standard (you have now figured out) “GO RAVENS!” salutation.

Before returning to his kitchen duties, the cook stops to ask you where you’re from and, to your reply, shares that he’s been there, but only in the airport.  A spirited discussion follows about whether or not you can really say you’ve “been somewhere” if you never left the airport.  He claims his ride on the tram between terminals has to count for something.  You say you’ll give him some credit for that, but you still don’t really think it counts.  In an attempt to shore up his argument, he also shares that he has a friend who teaches at the university in your town and is pleased at your excitement about this fact.  The hostess chimes in to ask how your food is and, in response to your enthusiastic assessment that the crab cakes, in particular, were amazing proceeds to tell you about a different restaurant that you HAVE to go to because they make the BEST crab cakes (“as big as baseballs!)  Then, plate cleaned, tab squared, you slide off your stool, head back out into the street, just now starting to become aware that you may have just had one of the best meals of your life.  And, though you can’t quite force the words “GO RAVENS!” to come out of your other-team-loving mouth, you do toss a hearty “THANKS SO MUCH!” their way before you go.

Though all of this might seem mundane and unimportant on the surface of it, there’s a deeper version of you who knows it’s not – who can feel the difference between this and the hundreds of other Egg McWhatevertheheckthatmeatisMuffin and “try our NEW WAKE-UP WRAP” breakfasts you’ve had in all kinds of cities around the country including this one.  You realize that what you just experienced could only have occurred in this particular city at this particular time.  Free from the spatial disassociation caused by the calculated sameness of chain franchise America, you can actually feel, taste, and hear where you are on the Google map.  You can truly know where you are in the world.

You walk back up through the streets of the city – this city – now squinting your eyes to make the billboards blur and all the familiar landmarks disappear.  Peeking under dirty awnings and searching dark alleys for hidden doorways, you never know what you’ll find.  It may not be the same thing twice.  It may not be what you already know or even what you ever wanted to know.  But, it will be real.  And that’s the beauty of it.

Being Joe Webb

My wife and I were in Phoenix for a wedding this past weekend but, belonging to the unlucky and unenviable class of humans known as “Vikings fans”, managed to find an appropriately townie, every-person’s-bar called the “Draw 10” off 202 in Tempe to watch the big Vikings vs. Packers playoff game.  We should have known from the moment we walked in the door and saw some guy wearing a throwback #84 Randy Moss jersey that the football gods were feeling ambivalent about our chances.  Just like Randy, you never know which version of our team will come out to play – the one that will dazzle us with superhuman acts of athleticism or the one that doesn’t feel like blocking on this particular night and only runs half its routes.  Over ogre-sized plates of unholy local concoctions like mac ‘n cheese with pork and green chilies slathered over the top, we cautiously assessed our chances as “not good, but it could happen.”  (As long-time Vikings fans, any faint flicker of optimism is quickly snuffed out by painful memories of things like Favre throwing a last-minute pick when ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS RUN 3 YARDS AND FALL DOWN TO SET UP THE GAME-WINNING FIELD GOAL.  SERIOUSLY?)

Adding to our anxiousness (of course, because they are EVERYWHERE) were two rabid Packers fans just down the bar from us, grunting and bellowing their predictably extensive list of reasons they lost the last game to us – none of which ever seem to have anything to do with how crappy they played, mind you.  Though they had executed the perfect game, it would seem from their analysis, the refs were both blind and involved in some widespread conspiracy, possibly funded by the Minnesota soybean industry, not only to eradicate Wisconsin cheese products from the face of the earth, but also to cheat the Packers out of another well-deserved victory.  In what I thought was a magnanimous gesture of reconciliation and goodwill, I tilted my colossal dish of cheesy mac in their general direction to signal my sympathy for their cause, but no dice.  These two were out for blood.

Beyond any conspiracy-fueled Cheesehead animosity, though, we did have some real cause for concern in the form of one Joe Webb, our backup quarterback who, despite having thrown exactly ZERO passes in a regular season game this year, was green-lighted just 90 minutes before the game due to Christian Ponder’s “sore elbow.” (Don’t get me started on this, please.  Despite his strong propensity to throw the ball to the other team, Favre once jammed his own dislocated finger back into the socket and went back into the game without missing a single play.  But yes, by all means Christian, take care of the owie on your elbow.)  Despite our concerns, though, we were buoyed by the commentator chatter about how Joe’s presence would open up the magical world of the “read option”, thus rendering the Packers defense utterly stupefied and unable to decide whether to rush the quarterback or to hang back and wait to be unceremoniously flattened by Adrian Peterson.  And there was Joe on the screen, looking ripped and confident, keeping it nice and loose for the prime-time cameras.  Could it be possible?  The first drive looked promising as Joe and AP one-two-punched their way down the field to a Blair Walsh field goal.  Maybe, we thought.  Just maybe.

Sadly, those 3 points were the last ones we would see until the waning moments of the 4th quarter and, by then, it was far too late to make up the 3 touchdown deficit we’d chalked up.  The Packers would have their sweet revenge and the Vikings would bolster their reputation as one of the chokiest teams in the NFL.  And then there was Joe Webb, who played one of the most epically terrible games in recent memory – the kind of game that, if you have an empathetic bone in your body, changed rapidly from frustrating to just plain uncomfortable, like watching your kid forget his lines in the school play.  He really couldn’t have been much worse.  He overthrew his receivers by 15 yards.  He tossed the ball straight up in the air in an attempt to avoid being sacked.  He dropped back in the pocket when he should have stepped up.  He got picked off.  He fumbled and groped his way through 4 quarters of truly, embarrassingly awful football.

As I was yelling “YOU SUCK, WEBB” at the TV screen for the 89th time, however, I started to feel a just a little bit bad.  I mean, here was a guy who hadn’t taken a single snap all season, now expected to lead a, let’s face it, mediocre-at-best team through the Wild Card (at Lambeau, no less) and into the playoffs.  It’s hard to understand that kind of pressure.  I’m sitting here on the plane ride back home to Minnesota while I write this, imagining the flight attendant coming over the speaker and saying something like: “The pilot just developed a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome.  Has anyone here ever used a flight simulator or played a video game where you had to fly an airplane?  If so, can you please come up to the cockpit?  We’re going to need you to land this thing.”

Before you get all mad at me, let me be the first to admit that it seems like a professional athlete making millions of dollars should be capable of actually playing the game for which he is getting (over) paid.  But, just for a moment, imagine yourself as a kid, playing in your backyard and being your own announcer while you try to throw your football through the tire swing…it’s 4th and goal, there’s only three seconds left on the clock.  A touchdown will send them to the Superbowl; anything else will send them home.  He takes the snap and drops back.  He’s got three receivers on the corners.  Here comes the blitz!  He spins and gets away!  He scrambles.  He throws.  TOUCHDOWN!  THE VIKINGS ARE GOING TO THE SUPERBOWL.  I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!!!

You know Joe did that, too, probably thousands of times, dreaming of getting his one shot on the big stage – his chance to be a hero.  When he finally did, he failed.  And not just by a hair either.  He completely and very publicly collapsed under the pressure.  In the annals of sports history, he won’t be celebrated as the most unlikely of heroes, but as a loser – someone who simply couldn’t hack it under the bright lights.  Or even worse, he won’t be remembered at all – relegated to statistical anonymity somewhere in the archived files of the ESPN sports supercomputer.

In other words, it can’t be easy being Joe Webb right now.

Somewhere between hurling insults at the television and finishing my beer, it occurred to me just how scary it can be to find ourselves suddenly thrown in the spotlight, from the first time we’re called on to solve a math problem in front of the class to that oh-so-awkward rejection by your crush at the junior high dance in front of all your friends.  I think a lot of us learn, early in life, to avoid additional opportunities for public embarrassment.  But in our efforts to do so, we also leave a lot of our bigger dreams untried and unfulfilled.  We learn to play small to avoid losing big.

According to Nielsen, Joe Webb crashed and burned in front of approximately 26 million people on Saturday night.  I suspect, after a tough off-season, he’ll be back at it again, chasing another chance to prove to the world that he’s a real football player.  It takes serious guts, regardless of the salary involved, to step back up and try again.  Most of us wouldn’t do it unless we knew we’d succeed.  But that’s not how we find out how strong we really are.  That’s not how we grow.

So, while most people want to be like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rogers, count me out.

I’m going to try to be more like Joe.

The Anatomy of American Tragedy

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – Plato

As I write this post on January 2, 2013, it has been exactly 19 days since the name “Sandy Hook” brought our lives to a grinding halt and our nation to its knees.  In those excruciatingly slow hours of shock and sadness, and in the days immediately following, we huddled close together in our homes and in our places of worship, made awfully and powerfully aware of the precious nature of what any of us could lose at any moment.  Our Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with passionate admonitions to “hug your children tonight” and to “pray for those affected by this tragedy.”  For a brief and fleeting period of time, all of us became a bit kinder and more empathetic – more willing to wear each other’s suffering as if it were our own.  This wasn’t new for us, of course.  We’d done it many times before.  We have become, by necessity, a nation that knows how to collectively grieve.

We are also, however, a nation entranced by news cycles.  Like our own internal circadian rhythms, they tell us when to wake up and when to sleep, when to pay attention to which details, and when to move on to the next thing.  They tell us that our shock should last about a day, followed by grief for 2 to 3 more, at least through the funeral footage.  Sprinkled throughout should be a healthy amount of morbid gawkerism around the specific nature of the act – the number of bullets, locations of wounds, where the blood was smeared, who had to walk through it on their way out of the school.  Add to that some jaw-droppingly inappropriate and breathtakingly insensitive interviews with six-year-olds about what the gunshots sounded like and how scared they were.  Temper the tabloid voyeurism with tales of heroes and children’s lives and selfless acts of bravery.  Paint the gunman as an unspeakable monster while, at the same time, run the obligatory “how could this have happened” investigative background story.  Then spend a few more days pouring over the top of the entire occurrence the shrill, eye-bulging commentaries of the left and the right about the appropriate political response and there you have it: The life and death of an American tragedy in the span of a single week.

To be fair, we haven’t totally forgotten about Sandy Hook just yet.  Several stories ran today about the children returning to school and being welcomed back by the familiar face of their formerly retired principal.  It isn’t that these stories aren’t still being written, it’s just that most of us have already stopped paying attention.  For evidential purposes, here is a brief, and by no means exhaustive, list of “top stories” that were either as widely or more widely read than the Sandy Hook story today:

“John Boehner Told Harry Reid ‘Go F— Yourself’ Outside Oval Office” (CNN)

“Wendy’s Moves Past ’99 Cents’ With New Value Menu” (Yahoo)

“Scientologists Alleged “Alien Space Cathedral’ Found” (Yahoo)

“A Look At Justin Bieber’s Non-Music News-Making” (AP)

“Newly Pregnant Kim Kardashian Does New Year’s Eve In A Sheer Dress.” (HuffPo)

“Christie Calls Boehner’s Sandy Decision ‘Disgusting’” (ABC)

“US Has More Internet-Connected Gadgets Than People” (NBC)

“Jennifer Lawrence Says Acting Is ‘Stupid’ (NBC)

Lest you think I’m making an argument for us all to dwell insipidly on Sandy Hook or any other horrific American tragedy, I assure you I am not.  What I am trying to expose is the insidious nature of false equivalencies in our mass-consumed media machine.  It isn’t that Sandy Hook needs to be the only news for weeks and months on end; it’s that we are losing our ability to differentiate its level of importance from any other “news” that gets heaped on top of it – and most of that other news is hardly news at all.

In another week or so, there will be no more Sandy Hook stories since there will be no circus-like courtroom hearing to sentence a dead gunman.  Just like the “fiscal cliff” and Hillary’s blood clot and Bieber’s thoughts on paparazzi-related legal reform, it will fade from our collective consciousness to be replaced by a million other stories produced by the never-ending news cycle.  The next time we hear the words “Sandy Hook” will be on December 14, 2013 when CNN and FOX and MSNBC wedge 30-second remembrances between spots about pregnant celebrities and the latest partisan stalemate.  Unless, of course, there’s another mass shooting between now and then which will, inevitably, be either “the worst mass shooting since Sandy Hook” or “even worse than Sandy Hook” or something along those lines, depending on the tally after the news networks race each other to count the bodies and get the first “confirmed dead” number on air.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that we’re better than this.  We know it, too.  In the face of national tragedy we become who we could be – kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving.  But we forget so soon.  We replace solidarity and empathy with judgment and division.  Instead of holding up love, we revel in dysfunction.  We trade who we could be for who we’ve become.

It shouldn’t take another Sandy Hook to bring us together.  We’ve got it in us to be those people everyday.  So, let the news cycles try to spin without us.  It’s our feet on the pedals after all.