No Laughing Matter

Picture a driver whose wrists are handcuffed to the steering wheel. A short chain, at that, so no hand-over-hand turns. The gear shift is barely reachable, with the fingertips.

Now send that driver on a trip from Limon to Grand Junction. How much of a miracle will it be to make it? If and when the inevitable happens, how many will blame the driver? How many will see that the driver was largely a prisoner of his own car?

In the end, I think that’s where Robin Williams was. Careening off a mountain road in a vehicle he could not control.

The crash has left echoes in all our ears.

There’s been a lot said and written about Robin these days. Not surprising. For many of us, the brilliant comic and actor was one of the constant presences, always there, always doing something new, always on the move, like a lightning storm that had been distilled into a human body. Too much energy to be contained.

My own personal memory is of a performance he gave in London in the 1980s, part of a royal gala for Prince Charles and Princess Di. My family and I taped the show on TV and darned near wore it out, as we watched his hurricane of stand-up over and over again. The effects of playing rugby without pads. The difference between New York and London cab drivers. The sharks watching airline crash survivors bobbing on seat cushions. (“Oh, look, Tom, isn’t that nice? Canapés!”)

At one point, white-hot, he broke off his routine. Running beneath the royal box, he pointed upward, looked to the rest of the audience and stage-whispered “Are they laughing?”

Everyone broke up. Charles included.

But now I wonder. How much of that question lay at the heart of Robin’s own life? Are they laughing? Do they really like me or just the face I show? Does any of this matter?

Those can be uncomfortable questions even without a poisonous brain chemistry. But that is exactly what Robin Williams had.

I don’t have depression myself. Too many of my friends do, including some of the oldest friends I have in the world. From them and from a number of acquaintances, I have at least a second-hand idea, like a reporter in a war zone watching people in the line of fire.

And that’s what it is. A silent war against your own mind.

“Your brain is literally lying to you,” one online acquaintance said. Even when you realize that, he added, it’s still your brain and you still want to believe it.

That’s a terrifying thing to consider.

Mind you, I’m used to the idea that your own brain can ambush you. I’m epileptic. If someday my medication fails or it gets missed for too long, I can have a literal brainstorm. But that’s a sometimes thing, a sneak attack out of the bushes.

This is more insidious. This is the command center taken over by the enemy. When you can’t trust your own mind, your own perceptions and impulses, what do you do?

There are more tools than there used to be. I have friends who use medicine to fight the chemistry, who use cognitive-behavioral therapy to find a path through the labyrinth, who reach for reasons to even get out of bed in the morning: family, faith, pets.

“Unless brain transplants become a thing, I will always require medication,” one dear friend said. “But I’ll always need glasses, too, and that’s the context I try to keep it in.”

But among these tools, we also have one other thing. A society that doesn’t fully understand. A place where the glasses and the pills aren’t seen the same way, where people see depression as a personal failing instead of a mental illness.

Where it’s the driver’s fault for not sawing through the handcuffs in time.

Like many, I wish Robin Williams were still with us. But also like many, I hope his death gives more of us a chance to understand, to see, to ask questions and really listen to the answers. And by listening, to lift some of the stigma so that more people can get more help.

It takes all of us. Together, in understanding.

And that’s no joke.

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All’s Fair

When it comes to gardening, my green thumb is more of a shade of black.

My cooking skills, despite many good intentions, stop somewhere south of boiled eggs.

My history with a sewing needle mostly consists of finding one in my feet at inconvenient times. (Come to think of it, is there ever a convenient time?)

In fact, if you go down the list – livestock, shooting, dancing, model rocketry – I’m about as far from a 4-H kid as it’s possible to get.

And yet, I remain fascinated by county fairs.

After 16 years of newspaper journalism, I’ve covered a lot of them, along with the fair-like events that spring up here and there, such as the “Beef Empire Days” of Garden City, Kansas. I’ve been sunburned at the parades, deafened at the demolition derbies and confused terribly by the layout. (“Let me get this straight – the barns go C, A and then B?”)

But always, always, the memory that sticks in my mind is sheer admiration for the kids. This is their show and they make the most of it.

Raise a 290-pound market pig? Sure. Pull 300 pounds behind a pedal-powered tractor? No problem. Take on projects in photography, woodworking, rocketry and jewelry and still have time to raise rabbits? Ask for something hard, why don’t you?

These are, in short, some of the most capable people I’ve ever met. And that’s what truly makes the county fair, any county fair, exceptional.

It’s a place where we still celebrate capability.

I don’t mean excellence. We’ll cheer endlessly at people who excel, sometimes in very esoteric fields. There are pancake races, competitive sauna meets , cow chip throwing contests and the real head-scratcher – curling. However strange the event, there’s someone who wants to be the best at it and more often than not, we’ll sit down to watch the struggle.

But the celebration of practical skill is something else entirely.

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said contemptuously that “specialization is for insects,” rattling off a long list of (for him) basic competencies that he felt any human being should possess, from changing a diaper to planning an invasion. If anything, most of us have gotten narrower since, relying on Google and YouTube to fill in the gaps in our education. (The night that Heather and I had to use an online search to locate our main water shutoff while the kitchen ceiling was giving way was a memorable one, indeed.)

And then there’s the fair. Your hands. Your work. Your competency, in as many fields as you have time and desire to take on. It’s a reminder of something older and more essential, a world that may have become even more distant to us than the farm itself.

At its heart, it’s a reaffirmation that we are more than our tools. That we’re builders, not just watchers.

That’s a statement with a lot of implications.

When even the simplest things are challenges, it’s easy to feel like a helpless bystander. “Fix the country? I can’t even fix my sink.” Get used to competency and it’s addictive. If I can do this, why not that? Or that?

After a while, optimism becomes natural. Even hope. Why not? When you already know achievement is possible, the only thing left to get used to is the scale.

That may be a life’s work. But hey – got anything better to do?

So here’s to the kids of the fair and all those behind them. May there be many more like you and still more inspired by you.

Because let’s face it, you’re more than fair.

You’re outstanding.

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Prizewinner

A plastic medal. A book of photographs. A little ice cream, quickly gone. Not the stuff, perhaps, that a big league contract is made of.

But for Missy, this was her World Series ring.

I’ve written before about Missy’s softball league, the one geared to physically and mentally disabled players. There’s no score, no win-loss record, no single-elimination playoff, just a good time on a hot summer’s day. Throw the ball, take your swings and make your way around the bases at your own speed to the cheers of family and friends.

It’s fun for those who play, maybe even more so for those who watch. My wife Heather and I have done our best to properly embarrass Missy as she rounds the bases on a volunteer’s arm, whooping and hollering like Troy Tulowitzki had just hit .400. We’ve talked about wearing “Team Missy” shirts when she plays, just to see if the 100-watt smile can get any brighter—or maybe to see how hard she can throw in our direction with a laughing “Shu’ up!”

The biggest reward, though, comes at season’s end when the four teams come together for one last blast. This year it was an ice-cream social in the Senior Center’s gym, the walls plastered with pictures from every game. Everyone got their roar of applause and their photo album, destined to become Missy’s favorite reading material for weeks on end.

Funny, really, how little it takes.

Or is it how much?

This is something that’s been looked at time and again in the working world. How do you motivate people? How do you make them valued and rewarded? How do you create a team and not just a group of people who happen to show up at the same time and do the same kind of work?

You can’t dismiss pay from the equation entirely, though some experts (and maybe some companies) would clearly like to. But even that most fundamental recognition is more of an effect than a cause. Go deeper.

In study after study (and most common sense observations), the same sorts of things come up: A worker wants a workplace they can be proud of and that’s proud of them. They want to enjoy being where they are. They want respect, recognition, more listening and fewer jerks.

To receive dignity. To know that someone cares. To be wanted and needed, and have it shown.

Really, when you think about it, that’s not limited to the workplace. It’s a human fundamental. Everyone should have value.

It’s when we forget that, when we scorn or patronize or decide that someone isn’t worth our time, that we leave marks on the soul.

Think about some of our greatest challenges and controversies. The neglect of our aging veterans. The children from other lands streaming to Emma Lazarus’s “golden door.” The fear of our daily lives being spied on, by government or business.

What are all of these, if not a test of how much respect a person is due? Of who deserves dignity and how much?

And as the scale gets greater, the stakes get higher. The individual that sets off Missy’s “jerk detector” will see her usually open manner pull back. The company that neglects the care of its employees will see friction and defection. The nation that forgets it exists for all the people and not just a lucky few will stain its name before the world. We’ve seen it too many times: Red Scares, internment camps, segregation and more.

Turn it around and that respect can become the greatest of strengths. For a country. For a company. For a team.

A plastic medal – given by a caring friend in the midst of friends. A book of photographs – capturing memories of great times with loving people. A little ice cream, quickly gone – eaten with teammates who can’t help but linger.

There’s the heart of it. There’s the true reward.

Shining right there in Missy’s eyes.

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The Daily Pay-Per

Forget the lemonade stands and the car washes. If you want to make a quick few bucks, social media may just be your cash cow. Or at least a very small calf.

For those who missed it, the Associated Press reported the other day on two social networks that will pay for your posts. Bubblews starts at a penny per like, view or comment for posts of a certain length (though the full formula gets a little more involved) while Bonzo Me pays its most popular posts a percentage of its ad revenue.

It ain’t much. But it’s something.

“No one should come to our site in anticipation of being able to quit their day job,” Bubblews CEO Arvind Dixit told the AP. “But we are trying to be fair with our users.”

Strangely enough, I’ve got mixed feelings on this one.

On the one hand, my writer brain is ecstatic that someone finally gets it. People go online for the content: to read stories, see pictures, watch videos, keep up with people and things they know and love. And for the most part, the bloggers, posters, video-makers, lovers, dreamers and other members of the Rainbow Connection do it for free.

That’s one thing when you’re putting up a note to friends that Aunt Ginny just got out of the hospital. But when it’s something that takes time and labor … well, as the old sermon goes, the workman is worthy of his hire. In particular, a lot of news agencies (he said modestly) have put a lot of content on the social networks; it’d be kind of nice to see even a modest return.

But – and yeah, you knew there’d be a but – there’s a potential tradeoff. He who pays, says.

I brought this up years ago when I jokingly suggested a federal bailout of the newspaper industry. While I don’t know a newspaper alive that wouldn’t cheer at a new funding source, I know plenty who would be hesitant to go on the government payroll. The reason is obvious: part of the job of the press is to challenge government when necessary, and that’s hard to do when it’s their money sitting in your bank account.

This situation is a little less blatant. And it could be argued that the social networks already have all the control they need. After all, we’re users of a free service, not customers; the Facebooks and Twitters and all the rest pay for the space and set the rules.

But given that, is it wise to offer one more leash?

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s a good thing to make every poster a freelancer-in-waiting. If the control’s going to be there anyway, might as well cash in on it, right? Heaven knows most of us could use it.

But every time we’ve thought the social networks couldn’t possibly go farther, they’ve found a way. (Psychological experimentation, anyone?) And so I hate to open one more door, even if it’s one that holds a small paycheck.

It’s one thing to be a guest. Another to be an employee. For better and worse.

How will it all play out?

I’ll keep you posted.

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Just Bust a Lip

Some people have the moves like Jagger. Somehow, I wound up with the upper lip instead.

OK, not “somehow.” After all, I do live in a slapstick movie that Chevy Chase would envy and Mel Brooks would direct. Part of that privilege is that I can see exactly what’s about to happen – just in time for it to do me absolutely no good.

It’s how I’ve wound up stepping off a perfectly good stage. Or finding sewing needles with my bare feet. Or chasing a barfing dog around the bedroom, running into every conceivable obstacle on the way. (Oh, you’ve heard that one?)

And in this case, it’s how tripping on one broken piece of sidewalk turned a healthy walk to work into “OWWWW!”

I got lucky as I caromed off the concrete. No broken teeth, no broken nose. That seems to be part of the deal with my invisible producer: no lasting injuries that would kill off the chance of a sequel. Short of that, anything goes.

And in this case, “anything” was my swollen upper lip, to the tune of three stitches and enough blood for a Friday the 13th film.

Fun, huh?

Educational, too. For the past week, in fact, it’s been a constant tutorial in the Iron Law of the Universe: “You can never do just one thing.” Consequences snowball, whether it’s the Amazon butterfly raising a typhoon or the casual dinner remark sinking a political career.

In this case, my failure to pay attention to what my feet were doing didn’t just win me a Rolling Stones look-alike contest. It also guaranteed:

 

* That I would be unable to be understood by voice-message trees for at least two days. (“I’m sorry. I didn’t get that. Please try again …”)

* That drinking a glass of water would be on a difficulty level with competing in the Hunger Games.

* That drinking anything ice-cold would trigger expressions best not read in a family newspaper.

* That whistling would not be an annoyance to my co-workers for a while.

* That, contrary to “Casablanca,” a kiss isn’t just a kiss when your pucker feels like it’s hit a porcupine.

* That any kind of lengthy out-loud reading – longer than a page or two – was out of the question for the immediate future.

 

In a way, that last one hit the hardest. Reading is what I do. What I have done since the age of two and a half. Combine a love of books with a love of performing and the result is that I have read to and with anyone willing to listen for years: my dad, my sisters, my grandma, my wife Heather, our ward Missy, the dogs …

These days, it’s the vital bedtime ritual. Before the lights go down and the house goes quiet, I sit on the edge of Missy’s bed and read, a journey of the mind that has roamed from Missouri to Middle-Earth and from secret gardens to open warfare.

But when the stinging of your lip says “stop” after two pages, Hogwarts can take a little longer to visit than planned.

Well, lesson learned. And maybe even a small blessing with it. It only takes a few days of doing without something to discover what your real priorities are – what’s an inconvenience and what’s an essential. Being in a position to recognize that and to make adjustments later is no tiny thing.

It’s better still, of course, to be paying enough attention before a crisis hits. Especially when it’s often inattention that creates the crisis in the first place. Think, plan, imagine, observe. Act, however you need to, even if you don’t think you need to right now.

It may all seem terribly abstract.

But it’s amazing how fast it becomes concrete.

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Fighting Free

OK, last soccer story for a while, I promise.

When our good-but-not-yet-great U.S. soccer team got knocked out of the World Cup, coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t surprised. He’d been expecting it. Even predicting it. And not because his team lacked ability or talent.

What they lacked, he said, were consequences.

“If you have a bad performance, then people should approach you and tell you that,” Klinsmann told the Associated Press. Get criticized, scolded, told off – and get stronger rather than go through it all again.

We’re familiar with that in Bronco country. When the orange and blue falter in the national spotlight, the phones light up at every talk radio station in the area. People write to the paper, post online, erupt across every social media outlet around and a few that haven’t been invented yet. If Joe Biden were found to have sold military secrets to the Purple People-Eaters of Mars, it would get bumped to page 3 to make room for Denver football outrage.

Get outshot four-to-one at the World Cup? Meh. Most folks shrug, walk away and go back to not caring about the “other football.”

So why bother improving?

It’s why I’ve got only lukewarm optimism for our future soccer prospects. But a lot of hope for this country.

Because if there’s one thing we do really, really, really well, it’s argue about freedom.

It only takes 10 minutes with the news, or five minutes with Facebook, to find a constitutional crisis. The Colorado attorney general facing off with the county clerk over gay marriage. Outrage and excitement over the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, and what it means for the religious rights of employer and employed. Quips, wisecracks and sometimes knock-down drag-out arguments over guns, wiretaps, property rights and a dozen other issues.

Some of the results frighten me. Some make me proud. All of them prove to me we still have people who care. Sometimes without a lot of information, true. But it’s a lot easier to educate the ignorant than ignite the apathetic.

So long as we care, we’re still in the game.

More than that. So long as we care, we can decide what the game will be.

We’ve been an argumentative people for a long time. One historian pointed out that if you go through colonial records, one thing you will quickly find is a lot of petty lawsuits. A lot of times, all that energy goes in no particular direction, sparks and cinders, quickly lit, quickly out.

But when it’s focused – then you get a bonfire.

We forget, you see. We forget that while government can lead, while government can set the boundary lines, we can change the entire conversation. That the decision about what freedom means doesn’t sit with a court or a Congress or a president – it rests with us.

The rules said blacks and whites weren’t equal. People fought that and people won.

The rules said women had no voice in the nation’s business. People fought that and people won.

The rules once said our future wasn’t up to us at all, that the most important decisions would be made over an ocean, on an island, by people who had mostly never seen our shores. We told them that if we didn’t like our government, we had the right – indeed, the obligation – to change it.

We hold the power. But only so long as we refuse to be satisfied until we get things right.

(A)ll experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed,” a certain red-haired Virginian wrote in 1776. But test that point too far, he warned, and people will demand change.

True of a soccer team. True of a nation.

I’m not saying complaining is all we need to do – absent any drive or action, it can get a bit tiresome, I agree. But it’s the vital first step. To everyone who says “Oh, it’s easy to complain,” stop and consider those words. There’s plenty of places where it’s not easy at all. There’s quite a few where it’s outright deadly.

Long may we brawl in the best of causes.

Maybe we’ll even get a decent World Cup out of it.

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Soccer? I Barely Know ‘Er!

Well, we made it.

In the world’s sport, a game few of us follow and even fewer understand, the United States has survived. More than survived. We’ve advanced with honor in the World Cup, making the “knockout round” with a run that went toe-to-toe with some of the best. Now it only takes one more win – yeah, right, “only” – to get us playing on the Fourth of July as one of eight surviving teams, the best of the best.

So, in honor of the achievement, and in hope of things to come, here’s a “lucky seven” of World Cup observations.

1) Is it just me or do professional sports teams now need a kindergarten teacher on the coaching staff? “Remember, play fair, no hitting and absolutely NO biting!” I’m honestly not sure which boggles me more – that there’s a World Cup-level soccer player with three biting incidents in his record, or that any team would keep him on after no. 2.

Hey, Suarez. If you want a quick nibble, why don’t you get it in the boxing ring like a normal person?

2) It’s clear to me that the United States soccer team learned everything it knows from the NBA. In a long game with a lot of back-and-forth movement, always put the most exciting stuff in the last two minutes for the fans at home. The networks will thank you later.

3) Sorry, my English friends. You guys are the ones who actually invented the word “soccer,” as in the old nickname for “association football.” And if you’re still going to get pushy about where the word “football” belongs, may I remind you that our ball looks a lot more like a foot than yours does.

4) It’s kind of fun to watch Americans get excited about a game where no one’s really clear on the rules. (Myself included – I get into it heavily during World Cup time, then sink into blissful ignorance for another four years.) It’s like taking a date to their first ever Broncos game: “OK, what are they doing now? Who’s that guy moving? Why’s Peyton Manning putting his hand there?” (Pause.) “Did we win yet?”

5) Like any sport, the memories that come with it are half the fun. And when I watch soccer, many of the memories are of my English-born Grandma Elsie, who with the aid of my sister Leslie, valiantly tried to explain the game to us in 1994, when the Cup tournament came to the U.S. (We all, of course, surrendered at any attempt to understand the offsides rules … but then, so does everyone else, including two-thirds of the referees.)

In later years, Grandma’s childhood stories often included accounts of going to the weekly soccer games with her dear sweet mother Annie Phoebe, a demure soul who would sit down, take one look at the action and scream “PUT YOUR GLASSES ON, REF!” So the next time you see me holler at a TV set, know that I come by it honestly.

(I might add that Grandma Elsie’s own passion, from the time she came to Colorado to the day she died, was Broncos football. Yes, football. See note no. 3.)

6) Yes, I know. It’s silly to get excited about 20 highly-paid men chasing a ball over a lawn for 90 minutes or so, while two other men try to stop them. (Watching 22 highly-paid men in armor fighting over a squashed ball on a lawn is much more sensible, right?) But you know what? We need a little more silliness in the world. And while it’s not curing cancer or landing someone on Mars, I’d rather see people get excited about this than the latest celebrity trial. If you get a taste for it, it might even bring you some harmless joy.

Just don’t, um, get too much of a taste for it. (See note no. 1.)

7) I know we’re overmatched. I know we’re probably going home soon. I know we’ve got all the chances of a crayon in a clothes dryer and might leave less of a mark.

But doggone it, I still can’t wait for Tuesday’s game.

Let’s have a ball.

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Right Out of Their ‘Skins

I’ve thought about a dozen cute openings for this column. I’m not using any of them. The way I see it, if I’m just going to tick everyone off anyway, I may as well not waste any time.

Yes, I think the Washington Redskins should change their name.

And no, it’s probably not for the reasons you’re thinking.

By now, it seems like everyone’s weighed in on the ‘Skins, from President Obama on down to the Friday night pizza guy. (“So that’ll be a two-liter, extra cheese and hold the epithets?”) Now the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has added to the pile-on, declaring Washington’s trademark invalid. Well, once it goes through the appeals process anyway, which at the current pace of the American legal system, should resolve everything by the time Chelsea Clinton’s grandchild is holding office. But it’s the thought that counts.

Now, this is the part where you’re expecting to hear the back-and-forth you’ve heard dozens of times before. And that’s the trouble. You’ve heard it.

You’ve heard the charge that “Redskins” is a racist epithet, that a team name shouldn’t be a word you’d be embarrassed to use in casual conversation.

You’ve heard the counter-charge that “Redskins” doesn’t mean anything but a football team to most people these days.

You’ve heard the famous names opposing it and defending it, the reports that say Native Americans are deeply offended by it, the reports that say they don’t really care.

And after hearing all of it, most folks haven’t really changed their minds. If anything, they’ve fortified their positions.

So I’m going to take a different tack.

“Redskins” needs to go because it’s dumb marketing.

Let me take you back to the last time there was a controversy over the Denver Broncos’ name. Do you remember the people marching in the streets, the impassioned speeches, the critical commentary on regional and national TV?

Of course you don’t. And there’s a reason. It didn’t happen“Broncos” is not the sort of name that inspires controversy. (For that, you want something like “Sports Authority Field at Mile High” … but I digress.)

I know the rule that any kind of publicity is good publicity. But let’s think for a second. An NFL team is an expensive proposition, a multi-million dollar business that’s constantly in the public eye. What kind of conversations do you want people to be having about you?

Do you want them to talk about your players, your trades, your wins and losses, your old coach, your new stars?

Or do you want them getting into flame wars over your name once or twice a decade?

In most other industries, this wouldn’t be an issue. A name that gets in the way of marketing a product is a bad name. If enough customers are turned off by a logo, a color, a product line, out it goes. (New Coke, anyone?) It doesn’t even have to be a majority – just enough to give your company a bad rep.

And from that perspective, the current name of Washington’s football team is one that’s run its course. Yes, ditching it will cause grumbles, but those will eventually die down. (Right, Tennessee Oilers … I mean, Titans?) Keeping it means everyone gets to go through this cycle again and again and again.

At some point, it’s just not worth it.

Of course, if the owners agree, that does leave us with the issue of what the new name should be. This could be a fantastic marketing opportunity by itself, getting fans new and old to come together and find an identity that sums up the essence, the core, the heart of what Washington, D.C. means to people today.

Is “the Gridlocks” taken?

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Sound Off

There are a lot of wrongs to rail at in this world. Hunger. Injustice. The continued existence of the Oakland Raiders.

And since all those are taken, I’m going to snark about the Tony awards instead.

At least, I will if this microphone is working. No guarantee, that.

The Tonys, you see, decided that next year there would be no awards for sound design. Now, don’t everyone riot at once. I know, most of you stay up into the wee hours to see if this will finally be the year for … well, whatshisname. And the other one, too. The one with the hair.

Ok. I’ll admit it. To the general public – even the general theatre-going public – sound designers have all the renown of congressional interns. Unless there’s a scandal, you’re not likely to ever learn their names. And even then, it would have to be one heck of a scandal. (“Imported mayonnaise? Oh, dear.”)

But when you think about it, that’s exactly the point.

The anonymity, that is. Not the mayonnaise. Stay with me here.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to a lot of movies. And at every single one, we stayed until the final credit had rolled across the screen. Dad’s mom had worked in a behind-the-scenes job for one of the studios, you see, so he knew how important those miniature letters zooming past at high speed were.

Always stay, he told me. Always honor the work. For many of these people, it may be the only recognition they ever get.

That stayed with me. Even during the Lord of the Rings films, where half the New Zealand phone book had to roll by before we could leave.

Always honor the work.

It’s easy to cheer the actors. We see them, we hear them, we feel like we know them. And directors are not without honor. We know who’s (officially) in charge, whose name is tied to the success or failure of a production.

But there’s a whole invisible world in theatre that most audiences never consciously notice. Costumers. Light and sound designers. Stage managers. Prop masters. People in the shadows who, arguably, are more important to the success of a show than the cast. Anyone who’s worked in community theatre will tell you that finding performers is easy compared to finding capable backstage crew.

They rarely get bows. They rarely get recognized. But the work of the best can sink into your soul.

And that’s not a story only belonging to theatre. In most walks of life, there are people who serve as a living foundation – all but invisible to a casual glance but vital to keep things standing.

When we do notice, it’s usually because of a crisis. Think back to the flood. Sure, we saw a lot of cops and firefighters, the heroes we justly cheer every day. But we also noticed the folks who build the roads, who fix the water lines, who haul away the trash. (Actually, judging by the reaction to the neighborhood roll-offs, the trash haulers may have been the most popular people on the block!)

The foundation had been exposed. And it held.

And it’ll keep holding long after the spotlight has burned out.

If those people don’t deserve a moment of recognition, nobody does.

So to the ladies and gentlemen of the Tony Awards committee, I offer one word: reconsider. Sure, you might save five minutes on an already overlong night of glitz and glamour. But think of what you’re turning your back on to do it.

Honor the work.

Let it be heard.

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Drawing the Poison

I’ve been walking the yard with the dogs lately. I’m sure most of you can guess why.

If you can’t, I envy you.

Our two dogs, you see, have eating habits that only a canine could love. Our senior citizen, Duchess the Wonder Dog (“I wonder where she’s gone to?”) tries to chew backyard grass and sometimes the … um … stuff that dogs leave behind in backyard grass. Big Blake, meanwhile, has the instincts of a burglar, the stomach of a billy goat and the common sense of Roger Rabbit, leading him to grab any semi-edible opportunity within his considerable reach.

In short, if they see something lying on the ground that looks intriguing, they’re likely to give it a try.

And well … that’s just not safe anymore.

You’re probably sick of reading about poisoned meatballs. I know I’m sick of writing about them. It nauseates me to think that someone could decide that stuffing a meatball full of rat poison and throwing it in the grass could be a solution to anything.

If my neighbor’s been revving his engine, I don’t attach a car bomb to the ignition.

If his weeds are out of control, I don’t spread gasoline and light a match.

And if his dog is making more noise than a Jack London wolf pack, the answer lies in the cell phone, not the d-Con.

To a sensible person, it would be obvious.

But as I’ve said before, there seems to be a shortage of sensible people these days.

In my worst moments, I sometimes think friendly discussion itself is a lost art. Listen? Reason? Compromise? Please. This is the age of planting your flag and venting your spleen, whether it’s in the halls of Congress or the photons of Facebook. Because by jingo, you’re right, and if you can’t carry the day by facts, it’s time to do it by volume.

The old legal maxim goes “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table.”

There’s a lot of table-pounding lately.

In a scary way, this is simply the next step. If debate is unnecessary and the rightness of your cause is assured, why not take whatever measures are needed to end the problem, regardless of its impact on anyone else? At a certain stage of self-righteousness, others don’t matter. At a certain stage, others don’t even exist.

Nothing exists to them but the anger.

I don’t want to overstate the case. There have been and will be people who make selfish choices, even deadly ones. But at a time with so much selfishness on the march, it’s time for the rest of us to draw a line.

We will not be bullied.

We will not be intimidated.

And we will find our way to a better place again.

We’re watchful now, because we’ve been taught to be. It’s a terrible lesson to need to learn. We will watch those we love to keep them from harm, and we will watch for the agents of harm so that they may be stopped.

But our duty goes farther.

On a smaller scale, we must create a place for courtesy and understanding to be. We must be ready to remind people that listening is more than an option, it’s a prerequisite. Yes, the ones who need it most will be the ones who are lest receptive. But the rest of us must keep the conversation open.

It will not be easy. Sometimes I’m not even sure if it will be possible. But I know it won’t be if we let the bullies and the screamers and the brawlers have everything their way.

Only in trying do we have a chance.

I’m aware of the paradox here: to be uncompromisingly for compromise, firmly for gentleness. But it can be done. Any good teacher or parent has done it. They’ve found ways – sometimes through much difficulty – to head off the rude and the hateful so that civility and respect can continue.

We have to find that way again. All of us. Together.

Let’s make a world where it’s safe to feed the dog.

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