This Looks Like a Job For …

Heather came home tired. No, exhausted. No … obliterated, as only a woman who has just spent five hours with two tiny nieces can be.

“You know,” my wife said as she collapsed onto our bed, “it’s not easy being Hoofoo.”

At that moment, I had to agree.

OK, I can hear the question: what’s a Hoofoo? It’s not a city in China. It’s not a secret owl-based style of martial arts. (“I now initiate you into the mysteries of Hoo-fu.”) It’s not even the sound someone makes after a long day moving furniture or chasing children, though that comes closer than some.

Instead, Hoofoo is to Heather what Spider-Man is to Peter Parker – an alternate identity with a curious origin.

It started with one of our nieces. Heather had practically been her second mom since the moment of delivery, and the newcomer spent a lot of time in our house. Even so, none of us were prepared for her first word to be “Heather.”

That was the last time it would come out that clearly for a long time. “Th” is tricky for a very young mouth to say and eventually our niece declared her aunt to be “Hoofoo.” And so she stayed. We wondered if the name would go away when the school years started, but by then, our niece not only had the habit, she had a younger sister who also picked up the call.

Hoofoo, it seems, is here to stay.

By now, it’s more than a nickname. Heather has always been the “cool aunt,” the one who can talk to children on their level without patronizing, come into their games and suggest new ones, and otherwise be the relative whom the kids love to see and whom the parents love to have babysitting. And when she’s around Riley and undergoes the Hoofoo Transformation (batteries not included), she seems to have boundless energy and interest, able to keep up with the wildest absurdities.

It can’t last, of course … but most of the time, it lasts just long enough. Only when the kids are safely out the door does Hoofoo surrender her powers and become simply Heather of the bad back, the Crohn’s disease, and the multiple sclerosis that is demanding rest NOW.

It’s a high cost that requires a lot of recuperation. But Heather knows how much the girls love to see her and how disappointing it is when she’s unable to share time with them. And so, she disappoints them as little as possible.

On some level, Hoofoo makes that possible.

Some of you may be nodding now. I think many of us have a face that we put on when we need it, to keep fears and worry away so that the job can be done.

Sometimes it’s relatively small, like the steps that allowed me as a young and shy kid to also be an actor that could trade pratfalls and cue lines with ease – a transformation as thorough as Billy Batson’s into Captain Marvel, and about as mysterious.

Sometimes it’s much bigger – like the face that let my mom keep life normal for three young kids while she endured treatment for breast cancer (an invader that’s long gone now, thank goodness), offering so much reassurance that we had no idea there was anything to be reassured about.

The phone booth moment doesn’t always work; even Superman can’t be everywhere. But it often works for long enough to meet the situation, because in the eyes of someone, we are a superhero. We’re their superhero.

And we’ll do everything we can to keep from letting them down.

No radioactive spider or magic thunderbolt could ever match up to the kind of power that that can create.

Truly, Hoofoo is in the eye of the beholder.

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Hobbit Forming

Harry Potter, of course, was the defending champion. Han Solo nearly beat all the odds. But in the end, the winner of Missy’s annual Halloween costume sweepstakes was a Shire thing.

Yes, after two years of trick-or-treating as the world’s favorite boy wizard, our disabled ward has decided it’s time to pick up a bag and put on the Baggins. She’ll be going door-to-door as a hobbit, a choice that required some careful questioning since Missy is a lady of strong opinions but few words.

Mind you, there will be some key differences, and not just the usual concessions to the Colorado weather. (I know those well, having had to throw a coat on over a perfectly good Hercules costume when I was in sixth grade.) This, after all, will be a Missy-style hobbit, which among other things will mean:

  • That wearing anything that looks like hairy feet is out of the question. There will be shoes and they will have bling, with sparkly shoelaces that can be seen from Omaha.
  • That like Frodo by the end of The Lord of the Rings, Missy will not be wearing a sword. Not because of any virtuous commitment to refuse all weaponry, but because belts are hated with a passion usually reserved for Orcs.
  • That the One Ring will be offered up to everybody so they can see how shiny it is, only to be snatched back in a “gotcha” move when they get too close. Eventually, the fated Ring of Power will likely find its way to the bottom of Missy’s voluminous purse, where even the most determined of Nazgul would eventually surrender the search amidst a mountain of stuffed animals, toy cars, used tissues and wadded-up church bulletins.

But these are mere details, easily overlooked in the quest for One Trick-or-Treat Bag to Rule Them All. Like Harry, this is a character from one of Missy’s favorite stories of all time. So giggles are coming, and smiles, and at least three attempts to hit the Halloween trail before it’s even noon.

And really, it’s understandable. Few characters could fit Missy better.

Like any respectable hobbit, she’s a homebody who likes a comfortable routine with tea, food, and pocket-handkerchiefs close at hand.

Like any less-respectable member of the Took family, she’s curious about newcomers and the outside world, sometimes pulling hard at my wrist or Heather’s so she can look at something more closely or call out a “Hey, you!” to a passerby.

She’s a hardworking Sam who likes to help with the washing-up (even if we do have to watch for dirty dishes that quietly slip back into the cupboard) and an impulsive Pippin who just has to find out what happens if you touch this or pick up that.

But most importantly, like any hobbit, there’s much more to Missy than meets the eye.

In Tolkien’s stories, the diminutive hobbits are a quiet people with hidden reserves of courage, luck, and determination. Missy, too, is quiet – but heaven help the person who thinks she doesn’t understand what’s going on around her. She remembers faces from elementary school days, follows bedtime stories closely, has a better sense of direction than I do (especially when it comes to the bowling alley and the bookstore), and definitely knows when she’s being talked down to.

Disabled does not mean unaware.

Thinking back, maybe that’s part of why Tolkien’s stories still hold such an appeal. They celebrate those who are quiet and ordinary, while promising that there’s so much more  to see behind the scenes. They suggest that in the right circumstances, any one of us might have surprises to reveal and be able to hold their head up with heroes. That simple does not mean stupid or powerless.

How do you beat a storyline like that?

Well, besides adding brilliant purple shoelaces, of course.

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Household Name

Once upon a time, there was Harold, my sister-in-law’s alleged car.

Harold had four wheels, and he would get you where you were going … most of the time. During the exceptions, you couldn’t help wondering if Fred Flintstone’s leg-powered rockmobile wouldn’t have been a better bet. After all, you always knew that your two feet were going to work. The same couldn’t be said of Harold’s less-than-mighty engine.

And yet, despite this infamous standing – maybe even because of it –  Harold had a name. That was never in question. In fact, we had ourselves an unexpected laugh when a card game about apartment living turned up a card called “Harold the Hoopty Car” – a confirmation from the universe that yes, this was actually meant to be.

Some of you, I suspect, are nodding. You know what I’m talking about. You, or someone you know, has christened metal and steel and given it life, like a gasoline-powered Frankenstein.

Heck, we even have our own day.

That, at least, should come as no surprise. When you live in the United States, it seems like everything under the sun has its own day, week or even month. I’ve written about Banned Books Week (Sept. 25 – Oct. 1) and organized Longmont Power & Communications contests for Public Power Week (Oct. 2 – Oct. 8 – is your entry in yet?). Some I know, but keep forgetting about, like National Procrastination Week in March (I’ll get to it next year).

And every year, there’s some odd day that surprises me. Such a day is October 2 – National Name Your Car Day.

Yes, really.

I don’t know who created it. I really don’t know why. But I couldn’t be happier. After all, it’s an impulse I’ve surrendered to more than once myself.

Granted, my vehicle nomenclature hasn’t usually been as dramatic as Michael Knight’s Kitt Car, or even Herbie the Love Bug. Although there was my sister Leslie’s declaration of the Masterful Audi of Death, a used car my family had when we were teenagers. The MAD sounded ominous, but in truth, the death it pursued was mostly its own as it became caught in an ever-increasing spiral of repairs and maintenance needs. We learned a lot from that car – mostly about the need to get a vehicle at the right moment of its life cycle.

The Battered Blue Buick, more ordinary in name, was no less mythic in structure. It gained its name from a Garden City, Kansas hailstorm that produced a lot of cosmetic damage, a nice insurance check, and no impediment whatsoever to its vital functions. It would actually take a major elm tree branch to bring it down, courtesy of a Kansas ice storm.

And so it’s mostly been since. Some have been named for appearances, like my sister-in-law’s Goldfinger, others for a vital quality, like our old Chevy that a friend dubbed the E-Z Bake Oven after a hot summer’s drive. We’ve even occasionally extended the privilege to other products, like the Qosmio laptop that my wife Heather dubbed “Quasimodo.”

It’s an odd tendency. But it makes sense. What we name tends to have a story attached, or sometimes even what feels like a personality. It’s something we can argue with, complain to, even plead with. (“Come on, Harold, just one more mile.”) It gives us the feeling that we can somehow control this assemblage of glass and steel that our lives so often depend on.

And when we’ve moved on, that name means it sticks in the memory a little harder.

I like that. I like having more stories, more memories. They help us not just exist, but live, paying a little more attention to the world around us and how we move through it.

As I write this, it strikes me that Heather and I have never given the Sonata a name. Maybe Mozart would be fitting – brilliant, a host to much music, a little cracked – though in car years, it’s already outlived its namesake.

We could even honor my sister-in-law’s long-gone car. But I wouldn’t want to invoke its luck as well, on this vehicle or any to come.

Our auto that art in future, Harold be not thy name.

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The Kindness of Strangers

Missy often lives in a world without filters. Which can make life interesting for everyone else in the world.

If you haven’t met our disabled ward yet, don’t worry. When you do, it’ll be pretty unmistakable. For somebody who rarely says much, she has a way of making her presence known very quickly.

In a restaurant, she’s the one who bobs excitedly up and down in her chair when a favorite dish arrives, laughing loudly.

In the downtown, she’s the one who’ll come right up to someone interesting with a wave and a “Hi, you!”

At a concert, she’s not just the one who’s dancing and swaying with the music. She’s the one who’s immediately on arm-grasping terms with the person next to her and who has to tap the person in front of her to see if they’re as excited about all this as she is.

Heather and I try to mediate some of it. But until they master human cloning, there are only so many places we can be at once – and even then, Missy would probably be sidling up to the geneticist with a shy smile and an introductory “Hi …”She has simply never met a stranger.

Which is what makes it so wonderful that so many strangers have greeted her well.

I won’t say 100 percent. The world isn’t perfect and nobody’s patience is infinite. To those few for whom Missy’s presence has reached the point of fatigue in the past, I understand and I wish you well.

And to the many, many, many people who have returned her smile with kindness and her persistence with understanding – thank you.

Thank you to those of you with disabled relatives of your own. Or who have worked with the disabled. Or who simply have a deep reserve of empathy and an open heart.

Thank you for the impromptu conversations in stores and lobbies with someone who can’t wait to show off her new brush or her new shoelace or her cup of pop.

Thank you for the smiles from neighboring tables as she takes in her surroundings with curiosity.

Thank you for being the dance partner of the moment when the music gets loud and the rhythm gets strong. And for listening gravely and engagingly to excitement that almost becomes words, and words that almost become sentences, and sentences that emerge at the most unpredictable times.

I know all of you have your own lives to live. And I am sure it is not always easy to share the world with this unlikely neighbor.

But because you have, and because of how you have, you’ve given me a lot of hope for this world.

It’s been a pretty angry place lately, hasn’t it? So many of the people who catch our attention seem to want to divide, to make distinctions, to push apart in hate and suspicion. There isn’t time to welcome a stranger, not when you have to guard what’s yours. And gradually, life becomes about walls, not doors.

But when I travel with Missy, those walls are so rarely there.

Maybe she simply knows how to pick them. (I’ve known for a while now that she has a strong “jerk detector.”) Or maybe there’s something about her that reaches deep on a first meeting. Whatever it is, it’s a powerful reminder that there is something more. That people can still respond like the friends and family they are inside, that  decency and gentleness are not dead.

That whatever the headlines and politicians may scream, there is still good to be found, and a neighbor may be anywhere.

Thank you all. And if you happen to share a piece of audience with Missy and me at Oktoberfest, I apologize in advance for the distraction.

If you happen to see it as a celebration instead of a distraction – so much the better.

Many thanks, stranger.

Many thanks, neighbor.

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A Healthy Respect

When you think about it, we don’t ask for that much from our presidential candidates. Just the agelessness of Superman or Wonder Woman. The steel-clad sweat glands of the Terminator. And maybe the all-around athleticism of Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.

Simple, really.

As you may have gathered from the most recent news cycles, though, we don’t exactly have the Clark Kent candidacy yet. On one side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton’s attempt to continue her campaign through a case of pneumonia drew alarmed coverage from journalists across the country. But there was plenty of criticism left for her opponent Donald Trump as he openly hesitated about releasing his own recent medical information, before eventually presenting the results of his latest physical on-air to Dr. Oz.

Now, on one level, I get it. The presidency is a highly stressful, demanding job. When you look at the before-and-after pictures, our typical Leader of the Free World looks like they’ve aged about 20 years overnight. And when both candidates are among the oldest to ever run for the position, it can be important to know whether they’re one good White House dinner away from saying “Your turn, Mr. Vice President.”

But I’m also not too surprised that a candidate would hold that information back. Or a president, for that matter. In a way, we all but demand it.

Simply put, we don’t do sickness very well.

The Christian writer Max Lucado once noted that if you ever want to stop a conversation cold, ask someone what they think about their impending death. We don’t want reminders. Not as a species. Not as a country. Entire industries are built on the premise that a person can always be young, beautiful, and healthy, a movie star on Main Street.

Illness? Worthy of sympathy, of course. But please, have the decency to get better soon so we can go back to our fantasy. As I’ve mentioned before, even the best-intentioned friend can begin to suffer “compassion fatigue” when continually exposed to the reality of a long-term physical condition.

So we build up an ideal. And to meet that ideal, our presidents lie.

It’s not a new thing, born of reality TV and the celebrity presidency. Franklin Roosevelt concealed the extent of his polio, attempting to “walk” with braces in public and never letting his wheelchair be photographed. Jack Kennedy publicly played rough-and-tumble football games with his brothers to hide his difficulties with back pain and Addison’s disease. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke that basically incapacitated him for the last year and a half of his presidency; the public was told he was suffering “nervous exhaustion.”

Never let ‘em see you suffer. Keep up the face at all costs.

Sometimes, of course, the face slips – and oh, boy, do we react. The elder George Bush famously tried to attend a state dinner despite an illness, and was roundly ridiculed when he threw up on the lap of the Japanese prime minister as a result. Even lesser reminders of physical imperfection become the stuff of late-night comedy – when Gerald Ford, a former college athlete, began suffering an extended attack of the clumsies, it pretty much launched the career of Chevy Chase.

And each moment with derision, we remind our presidential aspirants to build that wall a little higher.

I’m not saying presidential candidates should be dishonest. At this level, the information often needs to be out there. But some of the burden is on us, too. We need to be able to react without hysteria, without mockery, and with as much common sense and calm judgment as we can bring to the table. (A little sympathy might not hurt, either.)

Trying to pretend an illness isn’t there can make things worse. We all know that. But if we insist on the mask, we’ll get it.

And I guarantee, it won’t be hiding a superhero.

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Opening the Door

Hell froze over. Pigs are soaring over the Rockies. The Chicago Cubs can start printing World Series programs.

In other words, Donald Trump just let a banned reporter back in a campaign event.

Not just one outlet, either. According to recent reports, the Donald has shredded his entire blacklist, a do-not-invite wall of spite that extended from the Washington Post to Buzzfeed and maybe even the Daily Planet while he was at it. Anyone who had dared offend him with their coverage or their cheek (one online outlet put their coverage of him in the Entertainment section) had been summarily shown the door.

And then, a wall that had been rising for over a year suddenly came down.

Not with an apology, of course, or any acknowledgement that the candidate had done anything ill-advised. That would be expecting a bit much. If anything, his press ban was lowered with a bit of resignation, a sigh of “I figure they can’t treat me any worse.” But still, lower it he did.

Reality finally broke down the front door.

This is one of those things that remains true whether you love or hate Trump, or for that matter, whether you love or hate the press. If you are a politician – whether holding office or running for it – you cannot do without the press, any more than a modern-day NFL team can do without television coverage or a lounge lizard can do without tacky gold chains and a pickup line. As a would-be representative of a free society, this is your reality.

It’s a reality that our nation’s leaders have tried to dodge on occasion. President Nixon was the most notorious, maintaining an outright “enemies list,” but he was hardly the first or last president to have an antagonistic relationship with the Fourth Estate. Even Thomas Jefferson, who once said he preferred newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers, once wrote in exasperation that “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

Nothing is more tempting than to build a wall – if thy press offend thee, cut it off! But it’s a little like Mom’s warning about picking at a wound. It may feel good at the time, but it doesn’t help things, and it’s almost certainly going to make them worse.

As almost any veteran politician could have told Trump, cutting a press outlet out of your events doesn’t end the conversation. It just ends your control of it. Campaign events are highly staged, positioned to put a candidate in the best possible light and give him or her an opportunity to address the issues of the day. Take that away and – heaven forbid – the reporters may just go off and find news about you on their own.

What a concept, huh?

Add in the fact that a press wall is really leaky – many high-profile events with limited space have pool coverage, where reporters have agreed to share information – and the surrender becomes even more inevitable.

It’s not a bad rule of thumb for any of us: engagement and interaction beats withdrawal and disdain. Granted, there are some toxic people and situations where the best move is to create as much distance as possible. But remember that your refusal to interact with a situation does not guarantee that you cannot still be shaped by it. Pick your spots carefully and with much thought.

Gee. Forethought. Maybe that’s a word that more of our national politicians need to learn.

But maybe they prefer the taste of flying bacon.

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Labor of Love

For some people, Labor Day means the end of summer. Or the start of fantasy football. Or maybe even, heaven forbid, a chance to think about labor unions.

For me, it means turning into a financial archaeologist. If Indiana Jones traded in his fedora and bullwhip for a stack of bank statements and credit card balances, he’d be having a typical Rochat September – not to mention a very strange weekend at the box office.

Of course, for Dr. Jones, all that’s at stake is something like the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. You know, the little things. For “Colorado” Rochat and the Kingdom of the Fiscal Skill, it’s all about the treasure known as Missy.

Regular readers will remember Melissa “Missy” Hargett as a regular star of these columns. For the unfamiliar, Missy is my disabled aunt-in-law, who’s my age physically but often much younger in mind and spirit. My wife Heather and I have looked after her for five years, every day learning more about this woman of few words and much love: her passion for hearing the Harry Potter stories, her eagerness to hustle plates into and out of the dishwasher, her conviction that every stereo speaker in the world should be cranked up to “11.”

It’s been an adventure in a different sort of parenting, and a delightful one. But it also means we get to take an annual Missy Exam of sorts, a guardian’s report that each year goes into how Missy is doing and how her resources are being used.

Most of it is pretty straightforward, of course. But it does take time, especially the “archaeology” as we double-check, review and summarize the year’s expenses. Calling it tedious is like saying Peyton Manning was a little inaccurate last year.

And yet, every year, it’s oddly heartwarming as well.

Every year, the numbers start to become memories.

A restaurant receipt? There she is at Mike O’Shay’s on a Saturday, grinning her 100-watt smile as the staff welcomes her to “her” table.

A run to the grocery store for cold medicine? There we are on the couch together watching Star Wars, as Missy kicks her blanket-covered legs in excitement at the final scenes.

Colored pencils and craft supplies? A hundred art projects lie behind those entries, charged into with abandon and glue sticks.

Piece by piece, the mundane becomes magical.

That’s probably true for most of us, now that I think about it. Everything around us has the potential to evoke a memory. We touch a thousand things and more every day, and each touch leaves an impression.

Computer experts used those principles to build the World Wide Web, where each link and association draws you deeper in. But parents have known this longer than programmers. They know how much can be woken up with just an old report card and a stray stuffed animal, how many things can be released by a crayon-scratched paper in the bottom of a drawer.

And if we leave that many impressions in an object, how many more do we leave on people?

Lives touch lives, and change them piece by piece. We can teach patience or exasperation, kindness or frustration, with the smallest of gestures. It ripples, and feeds back, and reinforces. I know Missy has shaped both of us, with her careful pace and open appreciation (or undisguised disdain) for everything she’s experienced. I know we’ve shaped her, too, and that in both cases, the sculpting is still going on.

It’s an adventure. And it’s still an exciting one.

You might even say, in our own way, that we’re keeping up with the Joneses.

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Getting a Grip

Don’t look now, but the Olympics have been scandalized.

Forget green water in the swimming pool. Never mind the athletes robbed at gunpoint. Doping worries can wait until another day. We have bigger fish to fry. We have – gasp! – two athletes who held hands in a race.

I’ll pause while you recover from the shock.

For those who missed it, a pair of twin sisters from Germany finished the Olympic marathon side-by-side – literally. Finding themselves far out of contention for a medal and near each other as the race wound to a close, the two joined hands and crossed the finish line together.

To some, this might be heartwarming. To Germany, it was controversial, if not outrageous.

“It looked as though they completed a ‘fun run’ and not (an) Olympic (race),” German Athletics Federation director Thomas Kurschilgen told the press, accusing Anna and Lisa Hahner of hijacking the moment for their own glory. The two finished 15 minutes behind their best pace and 21 minutes behind the leader.

Because you know, if you want glory and universal acclaim, finishing in 81st and 82nd place is the way to do it.

I can understand some of the reservations. People train hard to get to the Olympics. It’s a huge investment in time, money, and personal strain. When you reach the Games, you’re in an international spotlight, committed to pushing for the best that you can be.

And yet, the Games have always been about more than the score.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part,” the Olympic creed begins. And while there have been breathtaking performances in the Games, the gestures that burn in the memory are often ones that never go in the record book.

They may be inspiring moments like runners Abby D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin helping each other up after a collision and fall. Or shocking ones, like the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with an Israeli competitor. They may bring attention to a cause, a personal struggle or triumph, or simply to their own shortcomings.

That too, at its greatest and its worst, is part of the Olympics.

How you take part matters.

Granted, that’s Kurschilgen’s point, too. And if he wanted to push them for not pushing harder, that has been every coach’s and athletic director’s prerogative since time began.

But let’s take a breath. The two didn’t try to sabotage their competition or chemically enhance their own bloodstream. They didn’t spout racial epithets or enter the final mile carrying a McDonald’s banner. They didn’t pull something stupid that would endanger other runners or themselves, or throw away a winning position.

Instead, whether by coincidence (as they insist) or design (as Kurschilgen maintains), they finished the race in a gesture of sisterhood and friendship.

And really, isn’t that what the Olympic Games are supposed to be about?

With some high-profile exceptions, our memories of Olympic athletes tend to fade when it’s all over. We remember the abbreviated ski jump of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, for instance, without knowing a thing about what happened to him later. The odds are good that four years from now, or eight, or 16, most people won’t remember the names of the Hahner sisters – they’ll just remember, maybe, “those sisters that held hands across the finish line.”

That’s pretty weak for a (possible) self-promotion.

But for an Olympic memory, it’s not a bad one to have at all.

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Turning the Page

Gee, I might just live forever.

No, I haven’t been listening to the theme from “Fame” again. (“I’m going to learn how to fly – high!”) But I have been getting some encouragement from Smithsonian lately. According to an article there by Erin Blakemore, reading books lengthens your life – and the more you read, the better it gets.

This is an exceptionally good thing for us for two reasons. Number one, our home is practically overflowing with evidence of immortality … which is a nice way of saying that there are books shelved, stacked and scattered in every single room, including the garage. And number two, both Heather and I possess a mighty tsundoku —  a useful Japanese word referring to the “reading pile” that has yet to be whittled down. At the rate we accumulate volumes, we might just need the extra lifespan to imbibe them all.

The details? The article cites a study from Social Science and Medicine that looked at 3,635 adults who were 50 or older. After controlling for other factors, those who read books lived almost two years longer on average than those who didn’t. Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week saw the best effects. And books produced better results than either newspapers (apologies to my former co-workers) or magazines.

It’s not solid proof. But it’s a good suggestion that, like so many other aspects of life, what we emphasize becomes powerful. Push your body and you strengthen your body, as we’ve seen in so many Olympic athletes this week. So why shouldn’t pushing your brain make it stronger, too?

Of course, there’s a corollary to all that, too. If a person builds what they focus on, then we need to be careful what we focus on.

We haven’t done such a great job of that lately.

We live in a social environment that has become increasingly toxic. One where people listen less and argue more – if “argue” is even the right word, as opposed to “overlapping shouting.” One that encourages people to look at differences instead of commonalities, to close out instead of bring in, to form up factions rather than attempt the hard work of compromise.

In a world that reasons by volume, the biggest bullies and shouters look like leaders. Not because they’re right, but because they refuse to let anyone else occupy the stage. And the more that people buy into it, focus on it, imitate it, the stronger they become.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the focus and you can change the reality.

Kindness and empathy haven’t died. Hope and consideration aren’t extinct. Courage hasn’t gone the way of the VCR and the floppy disc. They may not get the 6 o’clock news, but they’re still there. And if those “muscles” get exercised — if we refuse to be bound by fear, if we push back against hate, if we actively reach out to each other at every opportunity – then they, too, become strong.

Curiously enough, reading can be powerful there, too. After all, books are captured memory. They remind us that this is not the first time hate and fear have run rampant. And they remind us that those forces have been overcome before, and can be again. That the fight may be never-ending, but it’s far from hopeless.

And if we’ve been willing to touch a multitude of minds on the page, live a hundred lives that were never ours – then just maybe, it might train us to be aware of the minds and lives of others in the “real world,” too.

It’s all in where you put your time and attention.

The choice may well speak volumes.

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Faster, Higher, Weirder

At long last, it’s time for that display of peace, unity and brotherhood that arises every four years – namely, coming together to hunt down the creators of those presidential phone surveys and dropping them off a cliff.

No, I mean the Olympic Games, of course, brought to us this year by Rio de Janeiro and about a zillion mosquitoes. Athletes have been taking steps to protect themselves from the Zika virus ranging from long sleeves to tent-enclosed beds, though no one went further than Russia, who thoughtfully arranged to get their weightlifters disqualified in advance to ensure their maximum protection.

But despite all the controversy – and really, what’s a Games without controversy? – it’s still the Olympics. That glorious time when we sit on the couch with specially branded cans of Coke, cheer on the Parade of Nations, and then decipher the television schedule to find the five sports we’ve actually heard of.

Granted, the Summer Games are easier to follow than the Winter Games, which for most Americans could best be described as “Skating, gymnastics, hockey, and everything else. Oh … and skiing, right?” We know basketball and soccer. We recognize the track events from long-ago gym classes. In fact, most of the events are pretty straightforward, even if they’re things that, at any other time, the typical U.S sports fan would only happen on by accident while hunting for “Family Feud.”

And of course, there’s always the fun of discovering what’s been added. Every four years, the organizers experiment with something new, whether it’s tae kwon do, beach volleyball, or (this time) rugby.  This time out, though, I can’t help feeling the Brazilians missed a chance to garner some good press by making the Olympics relevant to today’s generation. Imagine the viewership and camaraderie if the organizers had also thought to include:

The Pokémon GO Obstacle Course – Cheer on the players of the world’s most popular virtual game as they attempt to walk across four lanes of traffic, through thick woods, and past strategically placed manholes for the gold medal. Gotta catch ‘em all!

The PotterChase: Held inside a bookstore, this track event requires passionate fantasy fans to climb over every obstacle in their path, including each other, to claim the last copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Bonus points for costumes, of course.

Wrestling with the Facts: Get ready to merge grappling with the fact-check generation, as the wrestlers come armed with speeches from today’s headline politicians. Victory requires pinning your opponent for a three-count and logically refuting at least two of their arguments. (This may be the only Olympic event that gets better with the sound off.)

The $5 Billion Dash: Runners race at top speed while being pursued by an Olympic torch bearer. The loser has to start saving up to put on the next Games.

These could add relevance. These could add ratings. These could add to the joy of discovery that we so often feel when watching the event of the moment, cheering on the best of the best and enjoying a bright moment of hope in the midst of the world’s usual drama.

Or as much of it, anyway, as we can see through the mosquito netting.

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