Reaching for Magic

It didn’t come with a letter to Hogwarts. But that was about the only thing missing from the Halloween costume on the kitchen table.

“I have a wand, too,” Missy told Heather. Indeed she did, along with the glasses, robe and tie needed to transform our small, slight, rumple-haired ward into the small, slight rumple-haired Harry Potter. Add in a lightning scar from Heather’s makeup kit – assuming Missy didn’t squirm and Disapparate out of reach – and the look of her favorite bedtime character would be complete.

No doubt about it. This was going to be cool.

In matters of trick-or-treat season, I usually have more enthusiasm than ability. This is despite the excellent foundation laid by my Mom, who in my grade-school years, came up with costume after costume that fit both my eager imagination and the Halloween Commandments.

1) Thou shalt be able to fit a coat over it.

2) Thou shalt be able to fit a doorway around it.

Violating these rules could lead to tragedy, as my wife Heather discovered one year, when her camera costume was too wide for her to enter the Twin Peaks Mall easily. I understand the lack of candy access has scarred her memories to this day – or at least heightened her sense of melodrama.

But within those rules, almost anything was possible. And so, I cheerfully ventured forth as a bowler-hatted ghost, or a crackling scarecrow, or Robin Hood with a homemade bow (thanks, Dad) ready for chocolate-covered glory in the cold October air.

And then I grew up and mostly yielded the stage to others. Time was short and my sewing ability even shorter. (All right, nonexistent.) A third commandment magically appeared on the list:

3) Thou shalt be able to readily assemble thy costume on Oct. 30, after speaking the ritual incantation “How did Halloween come so early this year?”

Sometimes I still had a fun and easy idea, like the year I showed up to work as an IRS agent with a briefcase reading “I’M NOT DEATH – I’M THE OTHER ONE.” But the rest of the time, costumes became something for plays. Or, more often, for other people.

It happens to most of us, I think. Not enough time. Not enough energy. A little too much self-consciousness.

So we tell ourselves, anyway, and not just on Halloween. And so costumes don’t get assembled, books don’t get written, chances don’t get taken. It’s easy. Even convincing.

And often, about as transparent as a Halloween ghost.

There are always limits. Time, money, ability. But within those, amazing things can still be possible. Or at least fun ones.

But first, the dream has to be more important than the limits.

That’s where I think parents have an advantage. Building a costume for yourself might seem silly or self-indulgent. But when it’s your child getting ready for a party or for the chocolate patrol? No contest. You do what you need to do.

Maybe it’s easier to set aside those doubts when it involves someone else. Maybe self-consciousness grows weaker when the moment is no longer just about the self.

Maybe, just maybe, dreams grow more potent when shared.

It’s a magic worth trying. And it doesn’t even require a holly wand or a Hogwarts education. Just a little bit of caring about the things and people that matter.

That’s why Missy Potter has a wand today.

And it’s why we’re all conjuring up more fun than we could have imagined.

 

 

 

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To Say the Least

“Ma shoe.”

Missy had just finished her bath and gotten into pajamas. She pointed a small finger at her blue sneakers as she had done on many nights, sometimes just to point out they were there, sometimes to ask to put them on or get them out of the way.

“Ma shoe.”

Pause.

“Ma tennis shoe.”

I blinked.

OK. That was new.

In fact, for Missy, that was practically grand oratory.

If you’ve read this column regularly, you’ve probably started to get a feel for Missy, my wife Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt. She is, to say the least, a lady of personality, capable of being roused to high excitement at the prospect of bowling or dancing or even having a bite of peanut butter pie.

But she’s not a woman of many words. Not normally, anyway. People who meet Missy for the first time are sometimes surprised that she speaks at all; those that hang around her longer get used to hearing some of her more common phrases such as “I wanna eat the food” or “I wan’ my book” – the latter of which can mean “book” or “purse.” Many times, her exact meaning has to be decoded from her face, her gestures and a carefully chosen vocabulary.

But lately, that vocabulary seems to be growing.

After a weekly trip to the therapy pool, Missy proudly told Heather that she had been “swimming.”

My own title, which has mostly been “He” or “Frank” (her father’s name) for three years is now sometimes “Scott.” Or even “Dad,” to my startled surprise.

And when our biggest dog started pestering her for food, Missy doubled us all over with laughter with a hearty “Gonamit, Blake!”

A well-chosen word can do that. And Missy has more choices than she used to.

That’s heartening for a lot of reasons.

We’ve never been quite sure what goes on inside Missy’s mind. The incident that caused her brain damage happened in infancy, and even now, I often describe her as “sometimes 4, sometimes 14 and sometimes 40,” based on the various ways she interacts with the world. Her occasional words are a part of that, sometimes reflexive, sometimes hinting at much more going on behind those mischievous green eyes.

In electronics terms, it’s a question of whether the computer itself is damaged – or just the printer and monitor. How much does she understand? How often does she know exactly what’s going on, without being able to express it?

I’ve often suspected the latter, especially since in moments of high excitement, she seems to bypass whatever’s blocking her communication and express herself. (Her question of “Where’s Gandalf?” during a tense moment in “The Hobbit” is now one of our most retold examples.) Every time she adds another word or phrase, another building block, she reinforces that.

More than that. She reinforces my own hope. Missy and I are the same age – so if she can keep learning and growing, so can I.

So can any of us.

Did I say Missy’s words could be reflexive sometimes? Thinking back, that’s true of most of us. We get locked into patterns of speech, of behavior, of life. After a while, it’s easy to stop noticing our surroundings and just fly on autopilot.

Shaking that up can be the healthiest thing in the world. It might be a big trip across the country or just walking instead of driving through the neighborhood. Anything that makes you put on new eyes.

Heather’s joked that in Missy’s case, she suddenly found herself with two guardians who wouldn’t shut up. There may be some truth to that. Certainly, we’ve often talked to her, with her and around her. Maybe her own words started to come in self-defense.

Whatever the reason, it’s happening. And it’s exciting, as new lessons often are. I can’t wait to see what the next bend in the road will reveal.

Wherever it leads, Missy has her shoes ready.

Her tennis shoes.

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Into the Cone

Our dog Duchess has gone bonkers.

BONK! She ricochets off the kitchen’s doorframe.

BONK! She bounces off the bookshelf while charging in to get her food.

BONK! She rebounds off the nearest family member as she tries to hurry past.

“Careful!”

Yes, our little border collie-lab mix has been fitted with what the books call an “Elizabethan collar” and what everyone else calls a Cone of Shame. You know the thing. Everyone knows the thing: a big plastic cone fitted around a dog’s neck so that its head looks like it’s growing out of a cheap, old-fashioned record player.

It’s not about humiliation, of course, but about safe healing. A veterinarian uses the collar to keep a dog from getting at wounds while they’re healing – in this case, to keep Duchess from getting at a bandaged-up ear, acquired after an argument with our other dog Blake over whose bone was whose. Blake weighs 80 pounds, Duchess 45, but when her stubbornness is brought to the surface, it can be a pretty even match.

Naturally, he’s curious about her new headdress. Enough so that we’ve wondered if he needs his own, to keep Blake from sticking his big head into her constricted space. But I’m not sure our giggle reflex could survive two dogs in the cone, especially one as clumsy as Big Blake.

BONK!

It’s her first time in the big cone – quite an achievement for an 11-year-old dog. It does mean she has no previous experience to call on, though, so she’s had to figure out exactly what she can and can’t do. Her usual habit of slipping through the edge of a doorway is out, for instance. Meal times took a little practice, though now she’s able to fit her cone directly over the dish as she eats, which not only gives her a private dining space, but makes her look like a vacuum cleaner with fur and legs.

In short, Duchess has had to learn her limitations. And provided some harmless amusement while doing so.

As it happens, the laughs have been welcome. After all, this is fall in a “swing state,” meaning a barrage of political ads from every direction. On the television. On the phone. On the Internet. I’m waiting for one to show up in a Happy Meal. (“Do you want those fries? Shady McCandidate does. And he wants to give them to his special-interest buddies….”)

It’s tedious, repetitive and mind-numbingly counter-productive. If anything, the zeal ad vitriol of the ads make me less likely to vote for their sponsors. What’s needed is a way to lighten the proceedings and maybe inject a little humility into what can be a very proud profession.

Which is why I suggest that all politicians running for election be required to wear the Cone of Shame through Election Day. Both live and in all advertising.

Think about it. Even the most apocalyptic of speeches and commercials lose some of their punch when delivered by someone who looks like a failed auditioner for the Tin Man. Fundraising dinners become a challenge and broadcast interviews nearly impossible. (“Dang it … can someone help me get this microphone on? Please?”)

As with a much-loved pet, it might inspire some harmless laughter while teaching the new “conehead” their limitations and keeping them from doing excessive harm. None of these are bad things in a political process. In fact, judging by many of the candidates, a little less self-assurance might be very welcome. (There’s a reason I’ve pushed Charlie Brown for president before.)

Until that wonderful time, we’ll have to do the best we can with imagination and the mute button. And of course, a lot of patience. We’ll get through this season. Even if it’s uncomfortable and awkward and we can’t quite figure out how …

BONK!

Hmmm.

Maybe Duchess and I have more in common than I thought.

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Putting the Pieces Together

A small hand held the thin puzzle piece in midair for a few moments, then struck.

“Looka,” Missy said, motioning for my attention and pointing. She had indeed put together two more pieces of the Mickey and Minnie Mouse jigsaw puzzle – but with Minnie’s shoe pressed into Mickey’s body.

“Not bad,” I told her with a smile, scanning the landscape and the remaining bits. I found a fresh piece to one side, began a swap. “But what about this?”

Missy’s face brightened into a wide smile. “Yeah!”

My wife’s developmentally disabled aunt is a lady of many talents. When the mood strikes her, Missy will dance endlessly to a full-volume stereo. Or enthusiastically beat me at bowling. Or take a brush, some paints and a piece of construction paper and create one more art work for the family gallery. (The moment when I realized that a green streak and a blue one were actually two of our parakeets remains pretty exciting for me.)

But many times, in the middle of the living room, she’ll reach for one of the children’s puzzles nearby. By now, she knows many of the patterns well. But when she’s tired or frustrated – and while fighting a cold last week, she was definitely both – she’ll take shortcuts, hammering a piece where she wants it to go. Children’s puzzles being what they are, the piece will usually let her.

The result may be a pterodactyl’s wing on a tyrannosaur’s body. Or maybe a princess dress that moves jarringly from Sleeping Beauty blue to Ariel pink. Over the scene, Missy may look down in satisfaction or wrinkle her face as she realizes something isn’t quite right.

“I c’nt do it.”

“Sure you can, let’s take a look here.”

Even with help and patience, there’s always the temptation to go for the “easy” fit, to make the picture work. Even when it doesn’t.

In an alternate universe, Missy’s probably debating politics today.

If you’ve been on Facebook or any online forum – or even just a corner of a party at the wrong time – you know what I’m talking about. There’s always the one friend, who may be from either end of the political spectrum, who’s bound and determined to make their view of the world fit. Anything that supports the picture is latched on to unhesitatingly, anything critical is pushed aside, without hesitation and usually without verification.

At best, the result is approval from the choir and bit lips from everyone else. At worst, things can blow up into a heated argument, all the worse for everyone knowing deep down that they have the right of it and the other person’s just not listening.

And when it steps beyond social media, it can burn a lot more than just friendships.

A lot of national attention’s been given to the Jefferson County school board recently, where a proposed history curriculum would urge that “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

The stated motive, according to one board member, is to make sure kids become “good citizens” and not “little rebels.” But given how much of this county’s history has resulted from civil disorder or social strife, from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights battles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number of students, teachers and watchers are insisting that pieces of the puzzle are being lost or left out.

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” wrote another Jefferson — Thomas, in this case.

The picture just doesn’t fit.

Jigsaw jams can be repaired. It sometimes requires an outside eye, it often requires patience. But the one thing it always requires is the willingness to dismantle the old picture first.

That’s not easy for any of us to do. (Myself included) It’s always easier to believe assumptions and react from reflex, much harder to entertain the thought that we might be wrong. Paul Simon once wrote that “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

It’s fun. It’ll finish the puzzle. But it won’t really complete it. That’s the goal, or it should be.

Ask Missy.

She knows what it’s like to finally get the picture.

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And the Banned Played On

Who knew I’d been reading Missy such awful stuff at bedtime?

It’s been almost three and a half years now since I began reading to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt who’s been a combination of sister, daughter and gleeful friend ever since we became her guardians. We’ve devoured a small library in that time, from the funny to the fantastic.

But maybe we’ve been warping her brain. After all, almost every title we’ve picked has been yanked off the shelves by somebody, somewhere.

Things like that horrid “Wizard of Oz,” dinged for too much negativism.

Or the puzzle-mystery of “The Westing Game,” which apparently shocked at least one parent with its “violence.”

And of course, there’s those utterly irredeemable Harry Potter books, challenged in location after location for supporting occultism. (A curious charge against an author from the Church of Scotland, but there you are.)

But that’s the fun of Banned Books Week. There’s something in it for everyone.

I’ve been a fan of Banned Books Week (Sept. 21-27 this year) for a long time. Which itself is remarkable, since while I’m often fascinated by designated “days” and “weeks,” I’m usually horrible at observing them. I remember Talk Like A Pirate Day only long after my geekiest friends have stopped sounding like a cut-rate Captain Blood. (“Arr, took me car in f’r an oil change, matey!”) It takes me at least 3.14 reminders to tease people about Pi Day. And I really will take the time to celebrate National Procrastination Week – one of these days.

But this one’s different.

I’d like to say it’s because I’m the son of a teacher and a literary omnivore, which is true. I’ve consumed the printed word since the age of two and a half. Around me, talk of banning books is a little like taking a dog’s food dish away at meal time – not advisable.

But that only goes so far.

I’d like to say it’s because it’s a challenge that still goes on, often for the seemingly best of reasons. Again, there’s some truth there. I think every parent should be paying close attention to what their child is reading – but I don’t think any parent should be making that decision for someone else’s child, or restricting the choices of an adult library reader by their actions.

I’d even like to say it’s because of the classics that so often get affected. This one, I have to admit, is only half true. Sure, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” has made the list. But so has the Captain Underpants series. Great fun, but hardly Hamlet.

No, I think what keeps drawing me back year after year is simply this. Banned book attempts are the most unintentionally funny mess since Ed Wood stopped making movies.

We could start with the folks who wanted to ban “To Kill A Mockingbird” for racism if you like.

Or maybe the sheer irony of challenging “Fahrenheit 451,” a book about the damaging effect of burning books.

Someone at some time nearly fainted over the talking animals in Charlotte’s Web. (“An insult to God,” the challenge said.) Or got heated up over how “The Giving Tree” and “The Lorax” would damage a child’s perception of the logging industry. Back in the 1950s, there was even a challenge to “The Rabbit’s Wedding,” about as innocuous a children’s book as you can get – because it had a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit.

Stephen Colbert can’t write stuff like this.

“A very famous writer once said ‘A book is like a mirror. If a fool looks in, you can’t expect a genius to look out ,” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling noted. “People tend to find in books what they want to find.”

But of course, the funniest bit of all is how banning controversies so often backfire – a fact obvious to everyone but the would-be banners. What do people want? What they can’t have, of course.

“Apparently, the Concord Library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums,’” Mark Twain once wrote to his editor. “This will sell us another 25,000 copies for sure!”

So go ahead. Join the comedy. Grab yourself a book. Missy and I will be right there with you.

Let’s make sure readers have the last laugh.

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The Second Thought

On the night before Sept. 11, I wondered what to write.

In retrospect, that was an unusual feeling.

Most years, the choice would have been automatic. My first ever 9/11 column, “The Last to Know,” ran the day after the attacks in New York, scribbled on the back of a napkin while the news was fresh in my mind. I’ve written many since – maybe not every year, but often enough.

But this year, thirteen years since the attacks, the subject didn’t leap to mind. Not until I saw a friend’s memorial Facebook posting.

I wonder very much if I’m alone in that.

September 11 will never be an ordinary day again. Not entirely. And yet, even the most infamous of dates, with time, become something remembered more than felt, dates that steadily pass into the history books instead of the front pages. Today’s sixth-graders have no memory of the Sept. 11 attacks at all. Soon, tomorrow’s high-schoolers won’t, either.

I wonder if this is how survivors of Pearl Harbor felt in 1954. An event near enough that there was still living, vivid memory, but far enough that other events could overtake it, push it into the background, claim the spotlight.

I’m sure no one had forgotten Pearl Harbor. But I wonder how many first remembered it as a date the water bill was due.

There’s a melancholy with that. But also, in an odd way, a freedom.

Those who perished and those they touched should never be forgotten. And I doubt they ever will be. No one’s passing is ever truly “gotten over” or should be, all the less so when the passing is the violent end of a few thousand people.

But it’s OK for the pain to dull, too.

It’s OK to not feel every anniversary as though it were the first one.

It’s OK to be able to look at those memories from a distance and maybe, in a way, see them for the first time with clear eyes.

A lot of powerful things happened in the wake of Sept. 11. Some are moments we’re still proud of. Some are choices that we’re still dealing with the consequences of. All of them, at the time, were tinged with a color of urgency and uncertainty, with the feeling of desperate need.

Now, perhaps, with the colors dialed down a little, we can weigh carefully the things we’ve done and learn from them.

I know, there’s never a time when we’re completely free from crisis. Today, no airplanes are flying into New York skyscrapers. Instead, our headlines are captured by atrocities and beheadings and the prospect of another war in a faraway place. Maybe it’s never possible to have a moment for completely calm, clear judgment.

But maybe, as old horrors grow farther away, it’s possible to be just clear enough to meet the next crisis.

I hope so. Dear heaven, I hope so.

Every year, we say “Remember.” But what is the purpose of memory? Partly, to hold close that which might otherwise be lost. Partly, to honor those whose deeds are worthy to endure. Partly, to learn from what has happened so that the best can be achieved and the worst avoided.

If the fear and pain that once touched those memories so strongly begins to fade – and I recognize that for some, it may never do so – does that mean the memories themselves have been lost? By no means. The closeness, the honor, the lessons can still survive.

Not because they’ve been emblazoned in burning letters that sear the mind and banish sleep. But because we now choose to do so.

And what we take from that choice should be what we pass to the next generation.

Let the fear go to rest at last. Let the best survive. And let life continue.

Because ordinary life is worth remembering, too.

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A Step Over the Cliff

Not long ago, a man stepped off a 60-foot cliff while sleepwalking in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. He survived with only minor injuries – thank goodness for bushes – and an indelible memory of Newton’s First Law. Once started, some journeys are hard to stop.

I suspect David Cameron might have a fair amount of sympathy.

Cameron, for the unfamiliar, is facing the prospect of having the United Kingdom become the “Untied Kingdom.” In just a few days, Scotland will be voting on whether to declare independence from the rest of the UK, and for the first time since the referendum was announced two years ago, polls suggest that the separatists might win.

How did things get here? Because of an agreement that Cameron himself made two years ago with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond after a big Scottish Nationalist win in the local elections. He didn’t have to. Cameron was already deeply unpopular in Scotland; saying “No” couldn’t really lose him any more ground. But it probably seemed harmless. No previous referendum had succeeded, after all, so this could be a way to soothe popular opinion while closing the books on the question for another generation.

Oops.

Once started, some journeys are hard to stop.

With ancestors on both sides of the boundary line, I’m not entirely sure of my own feelings. Is it a good thing for a people to claim its own national identity? It can be, yes. Is it a good thing for a people to stay joined together, to try to make something more than the sum of its parts? It can be, yes. Living in Longmont and not Glasgow, it’s not something I have to make a commitment on, fortunately.

But pardon me if I fail to feel sorry for Mr. Cameron. He’s running hard against a political law as hard as any of Newton’s: decisions have consequences.

It’s a point worth remembering.

A good friend recently forwarded one of the multi-point lists that seem to spring up on the Internet like dandelions in a lawn. In this case, it was “Twenty Daily Practices That Changed my Life.” And the very first point stuck with me – simply asking the question “Do I want this?”

It’s scary how easy it is to forget to ask that. Many times, we make choices feeling there is no choice. We keep the uncomfortable job because of the insurance. We keep the bad relationship because it’s not always like that … is it? And on a higher level, we – whether voter in the street or leader in the capital – go along with a less-than-desirable policy because of the political realities.

But do we want this?

What could happen if it failed?

What could happen if it succeeded?

I’m not arguing for indecisiveness. And heaven knows that compromise is vital to politics and even to life in general. But if you haven’t taken a moment to see your own choices clearly – to weigh what you really want and what costs you’re willing to pay – then you’re compromised before you even begin.

You’re sleepwalking off a cliff. With no guarantee of a bush underneath.

However the Scottish election goes, I hope it works for the best. Because that’s really all that can be done now. No nation makes its own breakup easy to do (as we’ve seen here, even breaking up a state can be quite difficult) but if a free country gives its people that choice, it has to live with the consequences. Whatever they may be. All of Scotland must now ask “Do I want this?” and weigh the answer well — better, perhaps, than Mr. Cameron did.

Mr. Newton said it. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. The actions we start may be hard to stop.

Choose them well. With eyes open.

Or be ready for an abrupt awakening.

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Tower-ing Achievement

As soon as Labor Day weekend hit, my wife Heather packed up her suitcase, hit the road and headed for Wyoming.

Gee. I didn’t think my puns were that bad.

No fear. This was a trip 25 years in the making. Once upon a time in high school, Heather and her grandma had gone off together to visit Devils Tower. Unfortunately, visit it was all they managed to do; the weather had been so foggy they could barely see the famous monument.

Someday, they promised each other, they were going back. And one day, after my own grandma died, Heather realized that a lot of “somedays” had passed.

The time would be now. Lest it become never.

Kilkellys can be like that.

 

Kilkelly, Ireland, eighteen-and-sixty,

My dear and loving son John,
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara’s

So good as to write these words down …

— Peter and Steven Jones

 

“Kilkelly, Ireland” is one of those quiet songs that still makes me swallow hard when I encounter it unexpectedly. It describes a series of letters between an Irishman and his son John in America, drawn out over 30 years. The letters are never harsh, always loving and full of the family news of the day: the latest children, which relatives are doing well or getting in trouble, how the crops in Ireland are going from bad to worse.

And almost always, there’s a wish in closing that John might find a way to come home again.

Years pass. Then decades. And one day, John is the age that his father was when they parted, now with his children grown and thinking he might finally come for a visit at last.

And then the next letter arrives.

 

Kilkelly, Ireland, eighteen-and-ninety-two,

My dear brother John,

I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner to tell you,

That father passed on ….

 

Ever since the first time I heard that song, I’ve referred to “Kilkelly moments.” Times where you realize there is only so much time, that promises don’t keep forever, that the passing world can undo the best of intentions.

That chances with those you love should be grabbed while they can.

Heather and her grandma saw that moment. And they grabbed it. The result was a weekend road trip with all the fun and chaos that implies, including crazy drivers, fatigue-driven giggles and a lost-and-found wallet.

And yes, they finally saw Devils Tower.

“Now I understand why so many Indians thought it was sacred,” Heather’s grandma said as they got close.

Funny enough, I understand something as well. A facet of the song that eluded me for years.

Namely, that there’s two sides to a Kilkelly moment.

Even while overseas, John remained close to his father. He sent pictures, he sent news, he even sent money from time to time. And when time finally ran out, it was John who had been at the front of his father’s thoughts all along.

 

And it’s funny the way he kept talking about you,

He called for you at the end.

Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit?

We’d all love to see you again.

 

With an ocean between them, John and his father had still “visited” each other for 30 years. Enough to keep the bond close, even if it wasn’t enough to keep the last promise.

With Devils Tower still a memory in the fog, Heather and her grandma stayed close. There have been visits and songs and memories in plenty over the last 25 years, including the 16 or so that have passed since I came into the picture.

Even if the second trip to Wyoming had never happened, that bond would still have been there.

It is important to seize the Kilkelly moments before they pass. But it’s also important to remember how many moments there have been in between. How much of a life and a love has grown up.

That’s what gives a Kilkelly its poignancy. We want to keep every promise we make to those we care for, however impossible it might prove to be. But it’s that love those promises grow in that is the greatest treasure of all.

Remember the promises. Honor them when you can. But remember also why they became important in the first place.

That’s a meaning that even time can’t take away.

And a greater monument than even Wyoming can offer.

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Lifestyles of the Miss and Famous

As we made our way through the crowded downtown, Missy’s face lit up. She quickly waved, calling to a stranger in the crowd.

“Hi!”

Did I say stranger? In moments, the excited woman had seen us, returned the wave, and come over to give an ecstatic Missy her hug.

“I used to work with her in school,” the woman said, looking down at the small figure in the wheelchair (our choice for long-distance travel). “But that was .. how old is she? … at least 27 years ago.”

Twenty-seven years ago. And Missy remembered her like yesterday.

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore.

Traveling with my disabled friend and ward gives me a taste of what true celebrity is like. I mean, I’m reasonably well known through this column. But everybody knows Missy. And she always knows them. Always.

“Hi, Missy!”

A trip downtown can quickly become a chorus of that, especially at big events like Festival on Main. We’ll turn around and meet her old softball coach. Or a woman she met at the therapy pool. Or her long-standing “boyfriend,” a guy she’s known since they were in Tiny Tim together.

Mind you, she’ll approach and charm total strangers, too. But once she’s met them, she doesn’t forget them. There’s that look of mutual recognition, the surprise on the other person’s face, the beaming glee on hers.

“Well, hey, Miss! How are you?”

It’s a gift I kind of envy, along with her bump of direction. Travel through Longmont and she’ll quickly point the way to the spots important to her – her day program, her chiropractor’ office, the bowling alley, her favorite restaurant. Her speech may be infrequent and her steps slow, but the pointing finger is absolutely certain.

“Look over the’e!”

As I write it out, I realize how much sense that makes. It’s the same gift. Every face she knows, every place she indicates, is something or someone she cares about. And what she cares about, she doesn’t forget.

In nearly 41 years, that adds up to an awful lot of caring.

Powerful.

I wonder how many don’t see that power? How many just see the small, slight figure with the 100-watt smile and walk past, figuring they’ve summed her up in a glance? A lot of us do that as we go through our day, seeing glimpses and shorthands rather than people.

It’s understandable; the day is long and life is busy. But it becomes inexcusable when that shorthand becomes our sole perception of the world, an over-simplified shadow play of “theys” and “thems” and “those peoples.”

Watch any kind of social media after a major event – the Ferguson conflict, say, or a major immigration incident – and you’ll see it happen. At least half the commenters will have read no more than the headline. Many of the rest will have gone just far enough to fit things into the Procrustean bed of their expectations, whether the usual labels make sense or not.

That’s no way to learn. Or to live.

Truth is complicated. And messy. There are lives and struggles and facets and contexts we know nothing about, that lie hidden to the first glance or even sometimes the seventh. To ignore that is to take the easy way out, to live among stereotypes instead of people.

To avoid having to care.

I don’t mean to suggest that we’re all monsters. This often isn’t a reflex born of cruelty, but of haste and indifference. But reflexes can be retrained. In fact, that’s often a requirement to do anything useful with them.

Thanks to Missy, I’ve got my training regimen. Never forget those you care about. Always be quick to expand that category. And never assume that the first impression is the only one.

Meanwhile, I’d better go find my sunglasses.

After all, I’m traveling with a celebrity these days.

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No Laughing Matter

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

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

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

The crash has left echoes in all our ears.

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

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

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

Everyone broke up. Charles included.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a terrifying thing to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It takes all of us. Together, in understanding.

And that’s no joke.

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