Holding On

Pets have a way of making the holidays unforgettable.

There was our long-ago cat Twinkle, for example, who discovered the joys of Christmas-tree tinsel. She not only lived, she shared the results in glorious Technicolor behind the television for all the family to see.

There’s our mighty Big Blake, the English Labrador who has spun entire trees like a propeller in his eagerness to charge past them and greet a guest.

And of course, any time Duchess the Wonder Dog has met a new-fallen snow, the result has been somewhere between the Dance of Joy and a high-powered Indy 500 winner.

Well, this time around, Duchess is at the center of another holiday memory – this one a little less high-adrenaline and a little more painful.

This Christmas, Duchess appears to have cancer.

We discovered it by accident. Having the genius of a border collie and the curiosity of a Lab, Duch had figured out long ago how to break into our pedal trash can.  She hadn’t been looking too well after her latest garbage raid, so we brought her into the vet to be looked at.

The tummy upset proved to be none too serious. But while looking at her gut, the doctor happened to notice some nodules in Duchess’s chest. That glance and a follow-up soon brought the M-word – metastasis.

This wasn’t necessarily the end of the road, the first vet hastened to explain. Depending on what an oncologist saw or didn’t see, it could be possible to drive things back, to beat this. Still, the shadow of the word had entered the conversation. And it’s a hard one to evict.

Cancer.

I hate the word. I hate even typing it, like pressing the keys might somehow make it more real. Cancer has already made too many marks on people I love. My Mom survived it. One of my grandmothers didn’t. Nor did Heather’s grandma, or her 40-year-old uncle, or … well, the list is too long. At one name, it would be too long.

I hate the thought that, with one bad turn, every Christmas memory of Duchess might become final.

Even before this, we’d been trying to steel ourselves against that possibility. At 13 years and almost eight months, Duchess has been slowing down. Her step is a little more careful, her hearing not quite so sharp – though all bets are still off when food is involved. Her heart is still as big as ever, but the body that houses it has some miles on it.

But she keeps going. And we get used to that. The mind doesn’t like to acknowledge change and especially painful change. Not until it’s forced to.

Even now, I don’t know if we’re there yet.

It’s not the most comfortable thought for the holidays. But then, none of us is assured a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Sometimes “the most wonderful time of the year” carries pain, or anxiety, or uncertainty. Much as we might wish otherwise, the bad stuff doesn’t take a vacation for the holidays.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t hold on to something more.

I refuse to let fear for Duchess’s future poison her present. Whatever the doctors finally say, she’s still our dog, well-loved and cherished by us for over 10 years. Those chances for love aren’t going away yet. And we are going to continue to seize every one of them, whether it’s for one year, or three, or enough to make a canine Methuselah.

We will not let fear drive out joy.

Duchess has amazed us many times over the years. Maybe the Wonder Dog has another miracle left.

But whatever lies ahead, her love is here now.

Powerful.

Unmistakable.

Unforgettable.

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It Came Upon the Small Screen Clear

It’s the simple things that mark the arrival of the holidays at Chez Rochat.
Things like discovering which of our pre-lit tree’s lights have pre-burned out, so that we can have the stimulating mental exercise of finding and untangling our old string.
Or the eternal debate as to whether decorating is better done to the strains of John Denver and a chorus of Muppets, or Alvin and his band of helium-voiced chipmunks. (Making the tally “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!!” versus one “HUUUU-LA HOOOOP!”)
But never is Christmas more surely on the way than when the subsonic tones of  Thurl Ravenscroft begins rumbling from our television speakers.
If you don’t recognize the name, I dare you to read the following words without hearing it in his distinctive voice:
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,
 You really are a heel …”
OK, how many sang along?
Thought so.
In a time when traditions seem to have the lifespan of a Raiders fan on Bronco Sunday, a family’s holiday movie choices are all but unshakeable. I have known people who could do without sleigh bells and snow, but would consider the season incomplete if it passed without just one more viewing of Die Hard. (“Yippie-ki-yay to all, and to all a good night.”)
It’s comforting. Reassuring. Familiar, to the point where if the TV burned out, everyone could quote their film of choice letter-perfect – in between jokes about which Clark W. Griswold light display burned things out this time.
For us, it’s a quartet: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Story (yes, the never-ending chronicle of the Red Ryder BB gun) and the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. These old-school classics have dominated the networks, our shelf space, and significant portions of our family’s  gray matter, to the point where we can mentally count down the moments until Ralphie “didn’t say fudge” or the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come rolls through the graveyard on a hidden scooter board. (Hey, special effects are expensive.)
But these four have a lot more in common than their deathless production values. In each case, the story centers around what we think we want versus what we need.
Charlie Brown sets lights  and aluminum trees  against “what Christmas is all about.” Whoville celebrates not the stolen gifts, but the togetherness that lay at their foundation. Mr. Scrooge famously has his priorities shifted in one night, and even Ralphie’s story, the most materialistic of them all, is less about actually getting the coveted BB gun (which – spoiler alert – loses its charm after one accident, anyway) and more about getting a grown-up to actually listen to him for once and take him seriously.
In each case, it’s not about the stuff. It never really was.
OK, maybe it’s a little corny to say it out loud. But at a time when most of us are frantically trying to get through the holiday decathlon, maybe it’s not bad to claim a moment of quiet and think about why we’re doing all this, beyond muscle memory and social expectation.
Is it just about easily-torn paper and misplaced decorations? Does it really come down to whether we can make enough clicks on Amazon before time and money run out?
Or is there something else? Something not just limited to a few weeks in December?
That’s the real gift. And it’s one we’re all going to need going forward.
Though if you still want that hula hoop, I completely understand.

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Lighting Hope

I’d gotten halfway across town when Santa Claus mugged me.

OK, not literally. There’s no need to call the fine folks of the Longmont Police Department and report a jolly old man with a fur hat and a blackjack, making a getaway in a reindeer-powered sleigh with one (red) headlight. The year’s been strange, but not that strange – yet.

No, this time Santa was part of a yard display that seemed to pop out of nowhere, complete with lights and color and holiday cheer. Normal enough for the holiday season. But a bit striking when it’s several days before Thanksgiving.

Missy, of course, was delighted. Our disabled ward eagerly plays Christmas carols in the middle of July. If Longmont were to break out in colored lights immediately after Labor Day, she’d probably break out in cheers that could be heard as far as Lyons – right before insisting on seeing every display, every night.

Not everyone is in her camp, of course. As stores increasingly deck the halls with holiday merchandise right after Halloween, I’ve seen the more-than-occasional post on social media, all of it set to a common theme: “What happened to Thanksgiving?”

I understand it, believe me. When I worked in the now-vanished City Newsstand bookstore, Christmas music and decorations were strictly forbidden until Black Friday. The dire penalties were never explicitly spelled out, but presumably included a lengthy spell on the Naughty list and a stocking full of coal.

But these days, I’m not really bothered by a chorus of “Oh, Early Light.” For a couple of reasons.

First, I figure Thanksgiving can take care of itself. Where other holidays cry out, Thanksgiving is about drawing in. It doesn’t require fireworks or dazzling displays, just a table to share and a spirit of gratitude. Its one garish parade, the Macy’s march, is really more of a start-of-Christmas celebration, with cartoon balloons and forgettable pop ballads mixed in. Thanksgiving doesn’t need to shout. It just needs a space to be.

Secondly, in this year of all years, I’m not about to refuse light and cheer from any source.

It’s been a hard one, with a lot of fear, anger and uncertainty that isn’t over yet. One (out-of-state) friend has had family threatened.  Another found a friend’s car had been covered with hateful graffiti. In so many places, online and off, battle lines have been drawn.

Mind you, election years are often divisive. But this one has taken it to a power of 10, not least because it’s left so many unsure of their future or fearful that they don’t have one. It’s a time when we need to be standing by each other and saying “You will not be forgotten” – as a promise, not a threat.

But threats are in the air.

I’ll say it again – we need each other. Every time we isolate, every time we declare someone unworthy of a place at the table, we weaken the whole family. Every time we turn aside from someone who needs our comfort, our support, our help, we break one more bond and undermine one more foundation of our common life.

If a few lights can remind us that joy drives out hate, I’ll welcome them.

If an early carol or two can send out the call for peace and understanding, I’ll join the chorus.

This isn’t about burying discord under a carpet of tinsel and plastic snowmen. It’s about recognizing the pain and reaching out to heal. It’s about seeing the darkness and driving it back so that we can find each other … and ourselves, as well.

There’s a Christmas carol I’ve quoted in this space before, taken from the despair and hope of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Its final verses are worth evoking one more time.

 

And in despair, I bowed my head,

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,

‘For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

 

May we give that peace to one another and a true Thanksgiving with it.

May that be our proudest decoration.

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The Next Duty

When I lived in Emporia, Kansas, the week of Veterans Day was always one of the highlights of the year. During the week-long celebrations, all of us would be reminded that we owed our veterans three basic things:

1) To care for the veterans we already have.

2) To create as few additional veterans of war and conflict as possible.

3) To take the nation they protected and continue to make it something special.

The first point continues to fuel many a speech and editorial, often with a nod to the needs of the aging VA hospital system. The second remains a common desire for those in and out of uniform, especially after this country spent so many years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But with Election Day now falling into the rear-view mirror, maybe the final item is worth looking at once more. What kind of America are we building?

I know, we’re all sick to death of campaign speeches. And campaign mailers. And television ads. And telephone surveys that ask for “just a few moments of our time.” (As my old math teachers might have said, “a few” times several calls per day equals “a LOT.”) This isn’t meant to join that particular chorus, and I think all of you might run me out of town if I tried, after dipping me in tar, feathers, and a burning copy of the film from the last Oakland Raiders game.

But the fact is, there’s still a job ahead of us.

True, the most basic job is done. And many of us tend to think of voting as the greatest duty we owe our country, to fill in the bubbles, drop off our ballots, and then either cheer or curse at the results before getting on with our lives.

But it doesn’t stop there. It never did. It’s a necessary first step, but there’s a lot of staircase left to climb.

Yes, we’ve chosen our leaders. Yes, they can make choices that help or hurt a lot of us. But most of what this nation can be is on us.

Do we lift up the weak or chase them from our doorstep?

Do we greet our neighbors with love and acceptance or with jeers and mockery? Do we even know our neighbors when we see them?

Do we carefully watch the steps of those we’ve elected and call them to task when they need reminding? Or do we just hand them the keys and go back to sleep?

Do we look for ways to build, to welcome, to aid, to defend? Or are we more interested in tearing down, in separating, in spurning the unworthy and attacking the strange?

Our answers will do more to define America than any war or legislation ever could.

The Christian songwriter Don Francisco once wrote that God didn’t care about the height of church steeples or the loudness of hymns, but whether the people inside cared for their family, their neighbors, and the rest of the world:

Are you living as a servant to your sisters and your brothers?

Do you make the poor man beg you for a bone?

Do the widow and the orphan cry alone?

I have heard from many people who are afraid of what might happen next, who find their future uncertain. So much of that is in our hands. What we say. What we do. What we’ll tolerate and what we’ll rise up to oppose.

What answer will we give?

The words of the African-American poet Langston Hughes, written more than 80 years ago, still echo:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

American never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!

Today and always, we must build the America our veterans swore to defend.

What America will it be?

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Hitting Reset

The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians had reached the height of their battle for a history-shaking triumph when I heard the thumps, like elephants dancing a tango overhead.

One thump usually meant our 85-pound dog Blake had jumped on the bed for the night. Two could mean he’d gotten down to try a different spot. Multiple thumps from the wrong side of the house meant … what?

I dashed upstairs, traced the noise. Missy’s bedroom. Inside, our disabled ward was on the floor with all her blankets underneath her. She’d fallen out of bed, and then started hitting the ground in frustration rather than get up.

“Missy! Are you OK?”

Physically, she was. No broken bones, no obvious injuries of any kind as I helped her back up and onto her mattress. But still she cried, a night interrupted in the worst possible way.

My wife Heather appeared in the doorway. “Oh, honey,” she said, sympathy in every word. “Do you want a little more of your story?”

Missy nodded. I pulled out the book that had been set down just before the lights went out. And soon, we were smiling and giggling at tales of adventure and ridiculous exertion on a world that would never be.

The world had been made right again. All was restored to its place. And after the lights went out, I went back to our bedroom to thank Heather for the suggestion.

“A lot of times, it just helps to go back to doing what you were doing before,” she said.

A reset button.

It seemed too simple to be true. And yet, I knew what she was talking about.

In case I was too slow to get it the first time, the larger world was re-enacting it downstairs. The Cubs had seemingly been in the midst of one more traumatic collapse, from a 5-1 lead to a 6-6 tie, when a rain delay had hit in the 10th inning. The brief stop gave the Cubs time to come together, rally, and clear their heads before returning to the field to get the job done.

“Because they met, they pumped themselves up and won that inning,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told the Chicago Tribune after the renewed team brought home its first championship in 108 years.

“(Right fielder Jason Heyward) said ‘Let’s forget about everything up to this point. Let’s believe we can do this,’” the night’s MVP, Ben Zobrist, told the paper.

Forget. Reset. Renew.

Easy to say. Easy to forget.

I’m stubborn. Many of us are. It’s tempting to focus on the frustration, on what’s not working, on what’s worse and not getting better. It feels good, in a perverse way, to pound the floor and cry.

But it doesn’t get you anywhere.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked away from a piece I was writing that went nowhere, or a tedious chore that had gone south. Not for good, just to clear my head before taking a fresh run from the last place that worked. As Sir Paul McCartney put it, to “get back to where you once belonged.”

It was going right. And it can be again.

Forget. Reset. Renew.

The night ended with a smiling Missy, back in bed, the covers safely around her.

The night ended with an exultant baseball team, charging the field, sleep postponed by jubilation.

The night ended – but the lesson went on. Simple and clear.

No tango-dancing elephants needed.

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Vote of Confidence

In Colorado, my sister would be a scofflaw.

You’d never guess. I mean, she’s a respectable type, if you leave out the bit about being a Microsoft attorney. She’s got two great kids, she’s a community volunteer, she considers the Colorado Avalanche to be a gift from above, or at least from Quebec.

But if she still lived in Colorado, she’d be at risk of a misdemeanor. Whether her action was a deliberate choice or an innocent impulse, the authorities might decide you can’t be too careful.

After all, those “ballot selfies” are pernicious.

If you haven’t run into them on social media yet, ballot selfies are the latest Election Day trend to come down the pike. With more states going to mail ballots, the cute little “I Voted” sticker is becoming a less common accessory. Instead, folks have begun taking pictures of their completed ballots and posting them online to prove that they’ve done their civic duty. (Despite the name, the ballots themselves have yet to start snapping pictures unless genetic engineering has gotten really spectacular.)

All of this was well and good until the Denver District Attorney’s office and the Colorado Secretary of State began warning voters that Colorado law doesn’t allow you to show your ballot to anyone. Online or otherwise.

As you might guess, the  state is now being sued.

At first, all this seemed a bit amusing to me. I grew up with the idea that my vote is my business and nobody else’s. A bumper sticker or campaign pin might make your sympathies obvious, you might discuss your support or opposition to a particular issue, but putting your ballot out there for all to see seemed a little like sharing your pay stub with the world – unnecessary and maybe even a bit risky.

But the more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. These days, many people wear their politics on their sleeve, as obvious as a Bronco fan dressed head-to-toe in bright orange. Certainly, no one should be compelled to reveal their ballot or have it displayed against their will, but if someone wants to share how they voted, why not?

The official explanation in the states that ban it is to prevent bribery: “I’ll pay you to vote for Councilman Whiplash; you show me proof before cashing in.” But in both Colorado and my sister’s Washington, ballots are mailed to your home, making the restriction almost impossible to enforce, unless there’s a Facebook photo for evidence. (Heck, a husband and wife that fill out their ballots together are technically lawbreakers.)

More to the point, examples of this sort of corruption are vanishingly difficult to find. Now I’ll grant you, this has been a year for seemingly impossible things – Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize, the Chicago Cubs going to the World Series, Alexander Hamilton having his spot on the $10 bill saved by a hit Broadway show – but  when you have to stretch and strain to find any cases to justify a restriction that’s been on the books for over a century, the odds of this one seem pretty small. Even if an instance is out there somewhere, if you want to identify and catch the person who’s offering the cash, you’re still going to need more proof than a single picture.

So why not allow it?

Honestly, I’m not sure anymore. It may or may not be wise to share all your political choices with every passerby – but if your ballot is your business, isn’t sharing it your business, too?

Every so often, there are efforts to amend this law. This year, they’ve gained a bit more energy. Perhaps it’s time they succeeded.

I know the state’s reluctant. But at long last, it may be time to bite the ballot.

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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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