Say McWhat?

A couple of years ago, our dog Duchess acquired a middle name for the first time.

“Her middle name is Hunter,” declared a young boy at one of Missy’s summer softball games – a player who, by amazing coincidence, was named Hunter himself. As the pronouncement was made, Heather and I silently tested out the new addition to our timid canine.

Duchess Hunter Rochat. Hm.

It wasn’t bad. And it fit her old habit of chasing down every rabbit in the backyard that she could find, back in her younger days in Kansas. So, without further ado or ceremony, Duchess Hunter Rochat it was.

If only things were that simple for the British.

Some of you may have been following one of the sillier stories in the news cycle: a $300 million polar research boat for the United Kingdom whose name was thrown open to an online poll. The National Environment Research Council was probably hoping for a name connected with penguins, or explorers, or something else sober and traditional.

What it got was over 124,000 votes for “Boaty McBoatface.”

The name had been thrown out as a joke by a former BBC host, then took on a life of its own. By the end of the contest, according to The Guardian, it was crushing the competition with four times the votes of the second-place entry.

Alas, this week, Science Minister Jo Johnson threw cold water on the proceedings. She said the British government would review all the submissions in order to find a more “suitable” name.

McBoo.

“Admittedly, calling a boat Boaty McBoatface was a bad idea, voted on by idiots,” Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage said. “But it was our bad idea.”

I’m often a bit skeptical of Internet democracy. But this time around, I’ve got to agree. It may be ridiculous. It may be downright stupid. But it honestly deserves to survive, no matter what the regret by the gray-faced bureaucrats.

McWhy? Consider this:

1) The National Environmental Research Council wanted to attract more attention to its scientific activities through the contest. It might be fair to say, mission accomplished.

2) As my sister pointed out, it makes an excellent object lesson for anyone conducting an internet contest. When you make a choice open-ended instead of giving a pre-set ballot to choose from, you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. I mean, imagine if Dave Barry had gotten hold of this one. (He didn’t, did he?)

3) It’s fun. Utter, glorious, stupendously silly fun. And to be honest, we need a bit more of that in the world these days.

Sure, we face serious problems everywhere we look. There’s always a crisis to consider, a candidate to defend, a cause that’s earnest and urgent. And as we all know, it doesn’t take much to stir up an online fist fight around any of these, full of sound and fury and not much real conversation.  Often, the sheer heat of the “debate” protects any of it from being read, unless you’re already a partisan of one side or another.

In the midst of all this, a boat that sounds like it came off the set of Thomas the Tank Engine might be a much-needed piece of whimsy.

Not everything has to be life-or-death. In the physical world, something put under pressure too long will deform or break. Minds need to release pressure, too, for much the same reason. And if it’s by laughing at something silly that isn’t hurting anyone – well, why McNot?

The British used to be famous for eccentricity. Surely the nation that gave the world Mr. Bean, Doctor Who, and the makeup artist for Keith Richards can accept one more excuse to sit back and laugh at itself for adding a little more weirdness to the world.

It’s healthy. It’s refreshing. It breaks people out of their ruts for a moment and makes them smile. So why not bow to the inevitable?

Or just call it Hunter. You know. Whatever floats your McBoat.

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Exit, Left

There’s been a Marian-sized hole in my heart this week.

Those of you who read this paper regularly understand. Not long ago, the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of its stalwarts, Marian Bennett. On and offstage, she touched more lives than a workaholic chiropractor. She could communicate volumes about a character with one perfectly timed gleam in her eye and make you breathless with suspense or helpless with laughter.

I want to say she’s irreplaceable. She’d laugh at that and deflate the notion with her familiar Texas twang. And maybe she’d be right. All of us are … and none of us are. We all bring something unique that goes quiet when we leave. And barring a dramatic change in the history of the world, all of us are going to leave. Life is hazardous to your health, and the rest of us have to be ready to carry on when time brings another of us into the majority.

Easy to say. Hard to feel, to acknowledge, to own.

Especially when it’s someone close.

Doubly so when it’s someone who so undeniably lived.

 

Fill  to me the parting glass,

And drink a health whate’er befalls,

Then gently rise and softly call,

Goodnight and joy be to you all.

– The Parting Glass, traditional

 

The phrase “grande dame” can be easily misconstrued. It can suggest someone on a pedestal at best, a prima donna at the worst. But it literally means the great lady. Marian herself was charmed by the title until she looked it up in a dictionary and found that one of the definitions was “a highly respected elderly or middle-aged woman.”

“That (title) made me feel pretty good until I realized they were saying I was old,” she told me with one of her stage grimaces.

But Marian really did fill a room. Some of it was physical – she was a tall woman who naturally drew attention. A lot of it was that she did her best to reach out to everyone nearby. She wanted to talk, to chat, to hug – but you didn’t feel smothered. You kind of felt like your next-door neighbor had just come over to catch up.

On stage, that translated into the most perfect sense of timing I’ve seen in an actress. She could discard her dignity entirely to cross the stage in roller skates, or gather it around her to become King Lear himself, but she was always who she needed to be, where she needed to be.

Part of that was because backstage she worked like a fiend. (She and I often drilled lines on opening night, just to be absolutely sure.) Part of it was confidence, the same confidence that led her to travel, to speak her mind, to welcome a friend on one meeting. A lot of it may have been her willingness to look cockeyed at the world, and enjoy it when others did, too.

She could be nervous or anxious, like any actor. But I never saw her afraid. You can’t be if you go on stage. You have to be able to look inside yourself and then share it with the world.

Come to think of it, that’s true off stage, too. Life is more fun, more alive, if you can live it without fear. Not without common sense (Mar had plenty of that) but without drawing back from what you might find.

Even that makes her sound like a lesson. Granted, we all are to each other. But we’re all so much more, too. We’re friends and family and teachers and neighbors, connected by more than we can see.

And when that connection is broken, it hurts. For a long time. It never quite heals the same way … and it shouldn’t. You’ve loved them, cared for them, taken on some of their memories. Of course, they’re not going to vanish from your mind and soul like an overdue library book.

They’ve touched you – and you bear their fingerprints.

Goodbye, my friend. It was a pleasure to know you, an honor to work with you.

Take your bow with pride.

I’ll see you after the show.

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Five Years On

A lot of things can happen in five years.

Five years ago, Peyton Manning was a badly injured Colt with an uncertain future.

Five years ago, Longmont was talking about how best to prepare for a 100-year flood, given the new, larger flood plain map that had come out a few months before.

Five years ago, the Colorado Rockies were … well, maybe some things don’t change that much.

And in the Rochat household, it meant the biggest change of all. Because it was on this week, five years ago, that Heather and I first moved in with Missy.

I still can’t believe I just wrote that.

For the newcomers to this column, Missy is my wife’s physically and mentally disabled aunt, the same age as I am physically, but so much younger in mind and spirit. We became her caregivers in 2011, arriving at her home with hope and uncertainty and way too many cardboard boxes.

I’ll be honest. I was scared out of my mind.

Heather and I had talked about doing this ever since Missy’s mom had died a couple of years before. Heather was excited, even eager. I was … well, uncertain is a charitable way to put it. Questions seemed to orbit me like race cars on Memorial Day.

“What if Heather gets ill again? She’s had a lot of chronic conditions in the past …”

“What if I don’t know what to say to Missy? Sure, I’ve visited before, but living is different …”

“What if something goes wrong? What if it’s more than we can do? What if What if What if What if …”

It became an internal echo chamber after a while. The questions were no longer really all that coherent, just background noise for a rising theme.

Maybe you know what it’s like. Walking in the dark, one foot forward, not sure if you’ll find a road or a cliff ahead. Wondering if it wouldn’t be smarter to stick to the known trails, the safe odds.

Which, in retrospect, is kind of silly. Life gives no guarantees. Even the safest ground can crumble beneath your feet, while the most threatening cliff can represent a chance to fly.

And for five years, we’ve done more than fly with Missy. We’ve soared.

I’ve had the chance to discover how a woman who says maybe a few hundred words a week can fall in love with the written words of her nightly bedtime story. We’ve explored worlds from the epic sweep of Narnia to the small towns of Homer Price. She even became an eager part of the Harry Potter fandom, complete with Hogwarts blankets and a loud whoop at Voldemort’s defeat.

I’ve learned how a woman who walks through the world with halting steps finds fascination in everything around her, from a classic car parked in the next space to a cute dog walking across the street. And how she seems to know literally everyone in Longmont, even picking her long-unseen grade-school teacher out of a crowded Main Street festival.

I’ve learned how fearless Missy can be about expressing herself, right down to shouting “WOW!” in the middle of a church service.

And through her, I’ve seen the world and myself through brand new eyes.

My questions weren’t entirely wrong. Heather did develop more health problems. (So did I, for that matter.) I do sometimes struggle to understand what Missy is asking or what she wants. There are times when it feels like we’re making it up as we go along.

But what I didn’t anticipate is that it wouldn’t matter so much. That the answers we would find would be worth so much more.

That the love of a new-found family could be bigger than all the fears the shadows could hold.

Five years. It feels like forever. It feels like yesterday.

No. It feels like the springboard to tomorrow. And I can’t wait to find out what the next five years will bring.

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Bottom of the Order

It’s almost time for the Colorado Rockies to break our hearts again.

We all know what I’m talking about. This is the team that routinely leads the league in home runs, batting average, and shattered expectations from about mid-April onward. Possessors of the loveliest field in baseball and the lowliest pitching staff. Blessed with forbearingly loyal fans and cursed with a mascot that’s … well … Dinger.

This is no Curse of the Bambino, where the Red Sox were doomed for decades to be almost the best, almost good enough. This is having to play the game for the love of the game, because even the playoffs are a quixotic dream, never mind the World Series. (Save for one strange, wonderful, painful year, of course.)

Yes, even the worst big leaguer has tools beyond what most people could dream of. Even so, I think a number of us Rockies fans can empathize. We know what it’s like to have the dream but not the reach, especially on a field of grass and dirt.

After all, an awful lot of us played right field.

“Playing right field, it’s easy, you know,

You can be awkward and you can be slow …”

— Willy Welch

I came by my love of baseball early. By the time I was in sixth grade, I could quote all the classic World Series moments and tell you who was up or down in the National League. I had my bat and glove, a batter’s tee, even a “pitchback” – netting stretched tightly to return a thrown ball – to practice my brilliant mound moves.

The one thing I didn’t have was any hint of talent whatsoever.

OK, I could move around a little on the bases. That helped on the rare occasions I drew a walk or (once) got hit by a pitch. But otherwise, my one actual summer on a team wasn’t marred by anything as crass as achievement. My bat lived in a different universe from the ball that was being pitched, my cannon arm was more of a leaky water pistol, and my attempts to catch (dodge? Not be crushed by?) a fly ball probably belonged in a Chevy Chase movie.

Naturally, I wound up in right field. Not the right field of Hank Aaron and Carlos Gonzales. This was the grade school Siberia, where fly balls and grounders rarely intruded upon the peace of one’s meditation.

The funny thing was, I didn’t really mind. (In a way, I may have even guessed what was coming, since I deliberately chose No. 13 for a uniform.) Every game, I was out there, keeping up enough “chatter” for three other players combined, letting my enthusiasm make up for the lack of a stat sheet.

Sure, my glory moment consisted of tapping one bunt that dropped right in front of the plate for the Easiest Out In The Known Universe. But who cared? I was on the team, playing baseball! Sort of!

I didn’t come back for a second season. But I never regretted playing the first one. I still don’t.

After all, it’s important to do things you’re not good at, too.

Sounds un-American, I know. We’re about looking for ways to excel – even if we sometimes put it a little more nicely, like “discovering your gifts and how you can make your own contribution.” But it can be an interesting thing to step away from your talents and struggle.

You break new ground, adding experiences and insights you might not have had. You learn humility and empathy, and how to appreciate the gifts of others. Maybe you even walk away with a little more skill than you had before – my own struggles with math in school, for example, made me an invaluable tutor to my little sister because it hadn’t come naturally to me and I could explain it in a way that made sense.

All in all, a lot of neat things can come at you from right field.

And if an unlikely championship ever does come to our Rocks, we’ll be screaming the loudest of all.

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Riding Out the Storm

The Snowpocalypse returned to Longmont on Wednesday. If you read social media at all, I’m sure you saw the shock and horror.

“A blizzard in March? Really?”

“Go home, Mother Nature, you’re drunk.”

“Happy spring, everybody!”

The thing is, if you’ve lived on the Front Range for longer than a couple of years, you know that this is what happens in a normal March. You’ve heard (probably ad nauseum) that “this is the snowiest month of the year.” We know what to expect, and when.

And yet, when the storm hits, it still fascinates us. Like an old sweater or Christmas decoration, we drag the jokes out of storage to be displayed for another year. Heck, I’ve told them myself. When you go from a 70-degree day to 15 inches of beautiful springlike weather literally overnight – well, as Willy Loman once said, attention must be paid.

So we let ourselves be amazed. We cast aside the other fears and demands of the world to focus on digging in and then digging out, sprinkling appropriate touches of profanity as we struggle to remove the concrete-heavy snow from our driveways and sidewalks or navigate the slushy, soon-to-be icebound roads.

Once again, we’ve survived the end of the world as we know it.

And in an election year, that should feel mighty familiar.

Granted, most of us, if given the choice between surviving a presidential campaign season and a blizzard, would probably pick the blizzard. Especially this campaign season.  There seems to be a feeling, on left and right, that this is the year the Great Democratic Experiment meets its greatest test. Elect the wrong man/woman/alien from Planet Mongo, we’re told, and it’s time to flee to Australia – Canada may just not be far enough.

I’ll be honest. I share in some of that feeling myself. I’d have to be Superman not to be touched by all the fear and worry in the air—and not only did I live my cape in the dry-cleaners, I genuinely feel that some of the candidates for office are worthy of our fear and worry.

But you know something? We’ve been here before. For any given value of “here.” Maybe not with these people, maybe not with this exact set of fears, but we have survived an awful lot, in terms of potential leaders and actual ones.

We’ve seen populist leaders lead movements with the fervor of a revivalist preacher, bringing anxiety to those already in power. (Hello, William Jennings Bryan. Or, from a more authoritarian side of the spectrum, Huey Long.)

We’ve seen political parties fracture and break under the stress of the day’s issues, opening the door to a “plurality president” who might have otherwise never set foot in the White House. (Check out when a Democratic split gave us Abraham Lincoln, or a Republican one Woodrow Wilson.)

We’ve had presidents who were drunks. Presidents who were conspirators. Even presidents who took action to silence enemies, or permitted the deportation or imprisonment of entire populations. (Look up John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson and the “Trail of Tears,” or FDR and the Japanese internment.)

I’m not saying we should yawn or say “oh, well,” at any of this. Some of the things that have happened are truly horrifying. Some of it has even led us to swear at different times “Never again” and justified our vigilance as voters and citizens.

But my point is that we have survived all of it. Admittedly, sometimes by the skin of our teeth. But we have carried through. And we have continued to try to create something better.

We can do it again.

Yes, be aware. Yes, fight like crazy for  the vision of this country you want to see. No, don’t be blasé about what could happen if the person you’re most worried about seizes the controls.

But remember also – we can still survive. And we probably will. Especially if we look past the elections and continue our energy, awareness, and determination to build this country long after the final ballot has been counted.

We can be ready. We can be prepared.

And with enough of both, we can weather the storm.

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Up And At ‘Em

For Missy, all the world’s a trampoline.

It starts with a smile, a sudden drop, and a shout to the skies. With no effort, Missy’s thin, tiny body falls backward onto an armchair, onto a sofa, onto the bed. BOOMF! She strikes the cushion and springs back up again, standing right where she was and ready to do it all over again.

“Wooooo!”

Her face brilliant in its glee, she’ll repeat the bounce twice, three times, still more. It’s contagious, really. By the second or third bounce, I’m usually laughing and cheering along with her – well, as long as the armchair hasn’t been slammed TOO hard against the wall.

“Yeah!!”

It’s not hard to understand the source of the excitement, or some of it anyway. Missy, my wife’s aunt who is my age by the calendar and much younger in mind and heart, has disabilities that keep her moving through life at a careful walk, often balanced on a wall, a chair, or someone’s arm. But when she free-falls, none of that matters. All at once, she can really move. Heck, she can practically fly.

“Look, lookit!”

When she’s really excited, it doesn’t even matter if the chair’s occupied. Not if the person inside is someone she trusts to catch her in time, so she can bounce once more.

“Careful!”

“Yeah!”

When she’s tired enough, the drop guides her to a safe landing and a bit of a rest. The moment was there. The movement was there. For now, that’s enough.

I think a lot of us could understand her just fine.

It’s easy to feel restricted in life. Maybe it’s through high demands at work, or family worries, or money pressures. Maybe all is outwardly fine, but you’re left wondering if you make any mark or leave any impression.

Those are the times we most need to let go into something that wakes us up again. Even if it’s a small thing. Because if it lets you rediscover the joy of the moment, it’s not that small.

A former pastor of mine, who now lives in Maine, once told me that the best advice he had ever gotten as a minister was to take up an activity that he could complete. When you’re in a job that never really ends, the mentor told him, “It’s good to be able to finish something.”

He took up carpentry. Not necessarily the greatest carpentry, he would laugh. But the quality didn’t matter. This was his motion, his letting go, his chance to connect again with the joy of creation.

Sometimes I wonder if something similar doesn’t infuse the various populist movements, for better or worse. At the federal level, we’ve often seen stubbornness that has fused into outright paralysis, where it doesn’t matter if you get anything done, so long as you can prevent the other guy from doing anything. It can be frustrating to watch, even maddening.

In a situation like that, is it any wonder that so many pursue candidates who promise forward motion, a change, a transformation? The call can draw people to the best or the worst, with no regard for the chances of victory – only the knowledge that they’re moving again, part of something bigger than themselves.

Obviously, as we’ve seen with some would-be leaders, that need can be misused. Someone who drops without watching what they’re dropping into might hit something unyielding … or fall to the floor … or smash through a sliding glass door. You have to keep your eyes open. The idea is to fall freely, not blindly.

But just because we can do it badly doesn’t mean the need isn’t there.

Let go. Aim well. Fall into something better and come back smiling.

I’ll be over here, keeping an eye on the armchair.

“Yeah!!!”

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Do I Feel A Draft?

As a species, we humans are really good at hanging onto silly traditions.

For example, there’s the bizarre idea that groundhogs are expert meteorologists.

Or the concept that our lives are immeasurably improved by adding or subtracting an hour of sleep every year. (As always, I promise to give my vote for life to the politician who succeeds in killing Daylight Saving Time.)

But for sheer useless levels of why-the-heck-do-they-still-do-that, it’s hard to beat registering for a non-existent draft.

Most of you know what I’m talking about, especially my fellow male Americans who have turned 18 since 1973. We’re the group who at one time, under the dire penalty of law usually reserved for the destruction of mattress labels, have had to register for … well, essentially nothing. Once upon a time, that small piece of paper could have gotten you sent to a strange land with a deadly weapon. Today, your library card carries more potential to change your life (especially with my overdue fees).

For over 40 years, it’s been a ritual without meaning, sort of like discussing the chances of a Denver Nuggets NBA championship. So naturally, there’s a chance we may expand it.

Yes, really.

Starting this year, American women became eligible to serve in combat roles for the first time. So naturally, in February, someone in Congress decided that meant women should also be eligible for the draft. If, you know, there were a draft. Which there isn’t likely to ever be. But still – the piece of paper must be filled out, yes?

But there’s also a competing bill, drafted (my apologies) in part by two Colorado congressmen, Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Mike Coffman, and which got a hearing on the radio airwaves this week. This one would also make men and women equal in the eyes of Selective Service … by abolishing Selective Service altogether.

Staggering. I mean, think of all the pencils that would suddenly no longer have a use!

I suppose continuing the Selective Service registration for our 18-to-25-year-olds might make some sense if there were any realistic chance that this country might revive conscription again. And let’s face it – there’s a better chance of seeing Peyton Manning change his mind and come back for one more season with the Denver Broncos than there is of seeing Uncle Sam revert to a draft. (Given recent news, it looks like there’s a better chance of seeing Brock Osweiler come back, too, which is another story and requires paying attention to a different sort of draft altogether.)

Conscription is really good at putting together a really large army really fast. When your biggest threat is another nation-state with a big army of their own, it’s hard to beat for effectiveness. Think of Revolutionary France, surrounded by foes (and then deciding to do a little conquest themselves). Or the Union and Confederacy, locked in mortal combat. Or the 1940s U.S.A., needing to quickly bulk up its forces to take down Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

But warfare has changed. Society has changed. In an age of fighting terrorists, insurgents, and other irregular combatants, it’s not as useful a tool. The last time we put conscription to use, we not only generated a large army, we also generated protests, trips to Canada, and really bizarre stories of how so-and-so managed to avoid the draft. (My personal favorite involved a friend who was called for his draft physical during Vietnam, only to be marked 4-F when someone forgot to plug in the device that was supposed to give him his hearing test. “Raise your hand when you hear the tone.” “Uh … OK.”)

We have a volunteer force now, a highly-trained force of people who actually asked to be there. It’s worked pretty well. Barring a massive change in historical trends, it’s liable to keep doing so.

So why keep the pretty, useless (and pretty useless) cards?

Real bipartisan cooperation seems to be pretty rare these days. When we get it, maybe we should listen. By all means, make men and women equally eligible for Selective Service – as in, not eligible at all.

And then, once we’ve got that under our belt, let’s do something about that lost hour of sleep, OK?

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Primary Importance

Not long ago, an offbeat-science webcomic called “What If?” dealt with the question “What would happen if one tried to funnel Niagara Falls through a straw?”

The answer, naturally, was nothing good. Even if such were physically possible, the author noted – which, naturally, it isn’t – the resulting high-pressure stream would have the power of a small star. “(I)ts heat and light would quickly raise the temperature of the planet, boil away the oceans, and render the whole place uninhabitable,” author Randall Munroe wrote.

In other words, too big a flow plus too small a container equals a big mess. Which is something that any Colorado county clerk’s office should be able to attest to after Super Tuesday.

You’ve seen the news stories. If you went to the caucuses – particularly, in this state, the Democratic ones – you may have experienced it yourself. A voting system built for small, orderly numbers of people was pushed way past its carrying capacity. Some voters got to stand in long lines. Some wound up meeting outdoors due to fire codes. Some waited more than an hour to begin the two-hour long sessions and still wound up turning people away.

The participation, admittedly, was exciting. But for many, it was also infuriating. More than one voter told local media that they couldn’t even find a place to get out of their car and vote – and even on the Democratic side, the eye of the hurricane here, the number of actual participants still added up to about 14 percent of active voters, according to one report.

Is it just me, or is something off about that?

Yes, caucuses have a quaint, traditional feeling to them. Yes, among those who participate, they do allow for a very personal sense of community engagement and discussion. Yes, they’re typically less expensive than a primary election.

But if what you want is for people to be heard – a lot of people, as many people as possible – then caucuses just flat out don’t work.

They don’t work for the chronically ill or disabled who might be able to spend a few minutes at a voting booth or on a mail-in ballot, but not two hours at an evening meeting. (Count my wife Heather among those, by the way.)

They don’t work for late-shift workers who can’t take two hours or more away from their job to caucus and debate.

They don’t work for single parents who can’t find a babysitter. For families without a car who don’t have evening bus service. For a number of people in a number of situations, particularly in groups that could be called “the least of these.”

And when the numbers get too high, they simply don’t work, period.

Simply put, as a means of encouraging democracy, a caucus system is better at leaving people out than inviting them in.

Colorado used to have a primary election. Isn’t it time to revive it?

Sure, it costs more. Sure, you maybe lose that sense of neighborhood debate. But gaining increased access to the ballot box is worth it all. Lines may still be long, but they’re no longer insurmountable. No one has to be left out because of limited circumstances, either their own or the polling place’s.

A caucus may have sounded like a good idea to some in 2003. But I don’t think there can be any doubt about its fitness now. It’s like running a Stanley Steamer in the Indy 500 – simply the wrong vehicle for the job.

Just as at Niagra Falls, we’ve simply come to the last straw.

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To Cap it Off

Down in the basement, Heather searched for yarn. And if that doesn’t frighten you, it should.

Some people, I’m sure, must have basements that practically sparkle, ones that could be rented out as living space or wow the judges on a reality program. Mine tends to descend into a state of nature if left on its own for longer than a week. It’s the sort of place that Indiana Jones might explore with torch and bullwhip, or where Gandalf might issue a warning about the things to be found in the deep places of the Earth.

But that’s where the old crafting material had gone – I thought. And so the archaeological expedition began. Past the baby toys. Around the Christmas stuff. Behind the kennel that was too bent to use …

Suddenly, Heather’s eyes widened. She’d found the yarn, all right. And a little something extra.

“I didn’t know any of these were left!” she said as she pulled out a small “elf hat” – a short, knitted, close-fitting cap seeming to hold all the colors of the rainbow. Heather’s Grandma Val had made several of them before she passed away a few years ago, planning to give them away. A few had made their way to Missy – Val’s daughter and now our ward – after she was gone. But those were treasures of another day, presumed to be long-gone.

Except … now they weren’t. Two caps sat in the box, one finished, the other still attached to a knitting needle, needing just a small amount of work to finish it off.

“There’s not that much left,” Heather wondered out loud as she fingered the rows. “I wonder if I could …”

And for a moment, across the years, Val reached out to touch her one more time.

We’ve all known moments like that, I think. Heck, the universe has known moments like that. In a recent experiment that will probably win someone the Nobel Prize, scientists managed to detect gravity waves for the first time – the slightest tremble of space-time left behind by two colliding black holes around 1.3 billion years ago. The event validated a 100-year-old prediction by Albert Einstein and also confirmed a basic human truth: What you leave behind matters.

We all touch lives. There’s no real way to avoid it, short of living in a hamster ball. But often it’s done without thought or realization. After all, we’re just trying to get through today – who has time to worry about tomorrow?

But tomorrow comes. Some of those choices we make will live on. Shouldn’t we make sure that they’re the parts of us that we want to survive?

Grandma Val planted miniature roses. Some of them are still coming up in the garden now each spring, despite my certified black thumb. A small decision that continues to add a little beauty to the world.

Another friend who recently left us planted stories. Some were his visions of the stories of others, brought to life on a carefully-lit stage. Others were the memories and tales he shared in the gatherings and cast parties afterward, with a wry smile and a bright eye. The best of those stories still makes me laugh … and remember.

What are we planting?

We all plant something, whether we intend to or not. With a little thought, it can be the best of us, whether it’s a work of our hands or a kind word at a hard time. It might seem small, something sure to be forgotten.

That’s OK. Forgotten hats get found. Forgotten flowers bloom. Forgotten energy ripples the universe long after its collision is gone.

Reach out. Care. Touch. Make a mark.

And while you’re at it – don’t forget to clean the basement.

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O-Pun My Word

Saturday morning had come, and with it, Missy’s favorite routine: get in the car and go downtown for a visit to the bookstore and a bite to eat. Neither of us could wait.

Standing on the driveway, I unlocked the Honda, opened the door, and then told Missy the words that I’d said a hundred times.

“Ok, Missy, jump on in.”

She looked at me. Smiled her big 100-watt grin. And then very deliberately jumped in place.

I burst out laughing, in surprise as much as humor. She grinned along with me. With one carefully chosen move, Missy had joined the ranks of the Rochat family punsters.

At first glance, that might not sound like much of a shocker. Those of you who know me well know that I am an incorrigible punster – as in “Please don’t incorrige him.” I lived and breathed wordplay around the dinner table as a kid, then inflicted it on my fellow human being over years of headline writing for newspapers. My personal favorite was summing up a demolition derby as “Wreck Creation,” although a street fair that I described as “Planes, Trains, And Audible Squeals” wasn’t far behind.

So to live with me is to live with puns. Simple. Natural. Perhaps a bit painful, like living with an amateur orthodontist who likes to practice at home. (Brace yourself.) But certainly not surprising, right?

Well … not until it comes to Missy.

For those who haven’t met her in this column yet, Missy is my wife Heather’s physically and mentally disabled aunt. We act as her guardians, alternately caring for her and being amazed by the world she reveals. It can be a quiet world at times, since Missy says maybe a few hundred words per week – and at that, she’s gotten more talkative than she used to be.

We’ve suspected – heck, we’ve known – that Missy understands more than she can say. Give her directions like “Could you go to the bathroom, put some water in the yellow cup, and bring it back here?” and she does fine, when she’s not feeling sassy or contrary. Read her a book at night and she’ll sometimes comment on the plot, either verbally or physically. (If an injury is described, for instance, she’s been known to touch the afflicted body part and go “Ow!”)

Like a computer with a dim monitor and no printer, her output is a lot more limited than her input. Enough so that Heather and I often keep track of new words and sentences used, as proof that she’s adding to her capacity.

But punning, even visual punning, is a whole new leap.

Puns are often called “the lowest form of humor.” Like many paronomasiacs (pun addicts), I’ve taken that to mean that the pun is the foundation of all humor. It requires someone to hold two meanings in the brain at once and instantly understand both, to take the normal clarity of language and tie it in knots for entertainment.

It’s small wonder that the sign of approval for a pun is a wince. After all, it knocks out the keystone of language itself, that you can hear the same thing I say without misunderstanding. It’s language as taffy, soft and pliable.

Now Missy had added a bend of her own. And with that simple bend, our window into her mind not only opened up a little wider, it revealed a room we hadn’t even suspected was there.

That is encouraging beyond belief.

So thank you, Missy. Welcome to my hobby and a wider world. I knew you were capable of a lot, but this one went beyond anywhere my thoughts had flown to.

That’s right. The pun was mightier than the soared.

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