Making Change

Duchess the Wonder Dog is wondering how to get up on our bed. It’s no small puzzle.

Not for the mind, I might add. As part lab and part border collie, Duchess is an honor student among canines. She’s especially gifted at the thesis problem of “Removing Objects From the Trash For Later Consumption: A Study in Subtlety,” bringing art to a field where her companion Big Blake has often gained renown through sheer raw talent and audacity.

But even in the most brilliant of dogs, the body has limits. And at 12 years old, those lines are a little clearer than they used to be.

Just a little bit of arthritis in the lower back and hind legs. Eyes that are blurrier than before. Even some recent balance issues (now mostly cleared up) that had my wife Heather wonder if she was trying to join the cool kids’ club, since Heather’s own MS often causes vertigo.

We’re not at the end of the line yet. I hope we won’t be for quite some time to come. And Duchess still has an energy reserve that can turn on at surprising moments, letting her tear around the back yard with great vigor.

But in dog terms, she’s closer to Helen Mirren than to Ellen Page, the Grande Dame rather than the Ingénue. A living reminder that – well, things change.

We’re not always so good at that.

We like to think otherwise, of course. After all, the easiest way to sell something in this country is still to make it “new and improved.” (An old Garfield strip once cracked “Gee, and all this time, I’ve been eating old and inferior.”) We like the latest and the greatest in our toys, our phones, any convenience we can manage.

But when change touches us personally, that’s another story. Rising hairlines. Falling assumptions. Faces that leave the building. A world that moves on regardless of what we like or don’t like – which is why Madison Avenue also does great business with nostalgia and items to fight the clock.

We don’t necessarily want to dip the universe in amber. But just like when we were kids, we often want the good stuff of growing up without the rest. Don’t touch me or the things I care about. Don’t touch my friends or family.

And especially don’t touch the loved ones who can’t speak for themselves.

We know better. Or we should. But that doesn’t make it easier.

My own family’s been fortunate when it comes to pets. Heck, we even had a goldfish make it to 13. But sometimes that makes things even harder as time goes on. The longer they stay, the stronger they grip. I know I wouldn’t trade anything for all the wonderful years – but I’d trade almost everything for just one more.

I know we’re not alone there.

What can you do? What we have to. Live in the moment, regardless of what it brings. Not without thought for the future, but not in fear of it, either. Enjoying the good and adding to it whenever and wherever we can.

We do touch the world even as it touches us. Especially in the lives of those closest to us.

I’ve joked before that Duchess has been Heather’s furry guardian angel for the last nine years. I sometimes wonder if she feels the same of us, taking a timid “rescue dog” and introducing her to a world where cuddles are OK and pizza crust is just a tilted plate away.

Soon our bed will have some pet steps near it. One more concession to a changing life, one more battle to keep things the same for a moment.

Duchess the Wonder Dog may wonder many things. So do I. But neither of us need wonder how much we care.

Some things, truly, never change.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Geeks Bearing Gifts

I never thought I’d say this. But after four years of being with us, it looks like Missy has embraced her inner geek.

Mind you, there are a lot of sides to Missy. More, perhaps, than a newcomer might realize. It’s easy to see the warm smile and note the physical and mental disabilities that have shaped her life. But if you spend even a short time with her, the many Missys beneath the surface begin to emerge.

There’s Missy the Jock, who lives for her weekly swim, her summer softball and any chance to hit the bowling alley. (“I wan’ go bowling!”)

There’s Missy the Prom Princess, who loves gorgeous dresses and hours of dancing to the loudest music she can find.

I’ve met Missy the Artist, who painted up a storm during the 2013 flood, Missy the Socialite who knows half the city and has never forgotten a face, even Missy the Flirt, who can pick out a new male friend within five minutes of entering a gathering, greeting him with wide eyes and a big “Hi!”

By contrast, Missy the Geek is much more recent.

I probably should have recognized the signs much sooner. After all, I’m of the tribe. I was a Tolkien fan by third grade, a D&D gamer by fourth, and by high school, you could have picked me out of a Where’s Waldo lineup or a Hollywood casting call. (“Pipe cleaner body, thick glasses, 300 books in his arms … ok, we can check ‘school nerd’ off the list.”)

Even so, it took a little while for me to realize that I suddenly had an apprentice.

Weekend trips would include forcible pointing at the game store, so she could get a new Pathfinder game book and pore over the lavish illustrations. Oh, and some sparkly dice, please.

A fascinated viewing of “The Empire Strikes Back” one day drew demands to watch Star Wars again – and an equal fascination with the other movies in the series. (Though even she got a little impatient with Episode I.)

And of course, there’s her entrancement with Harry Potter – the first bedtime reading that she ever pushed to repeat, and her favorite Halloween costume ever.

It’s been amazing for my wife and I to watch. And a little humbling. Because I don’t think it’s entirely an accident that Missy is becoming enthralled with this brave new world, even in a country where so many seem to be doing the same.

In fact, if you’ll forgive the brief descent into the world of the cool, it’s something Misters Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reminded us of long ago: “Feed them on your dreams … the one they pick’s the one you’ll know by.”

Whether it’s wards with guardians, kids with parents, or friends with friends, you respond to what you see. And if you see them love something, it’s the most natural thing in the world to try it out.

As you do, you start to become what you love.

I’ve seen it in my own life. When we grew up, my sisters and I saw my parents constantly reading. Today, we could become branches of the Library of Congress – and could probably use its book budget, at that. Their lives became a model for ours.

I don’t mean to make it sound like an imposition or a brainwashing. More of a discovery. In trying new things, you always discover a little more of who you are. And if those things also belong to someone you care for, you discover a little more of what you share.

It’s a way of weaving a family. With or without actual kinship. To see it happen with Missy makes me realize how truly close we have all become.

One more face. One more strand of the heart. One more piece of love made manifest.

Right now, being a geek feels pretty cool.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Run of the Miller

Don’t look now, but the invasion is underway.

Bang on a storm window, and half a dozen visitors may fall from the screen.

Leave a door open just a little too long, and you’ll turn to find 20 of the newcomers in the front hall … or the laundry room … or your office, charging the fluorescent lights.

The silent whir. The soft collisions. The persistence that keeps them coming back more often than robo-calls in election season.

Ladies and gentlemen of Colorado, it’s “miller time.”

Miller moths have been an annoying feature of Colorado springtimes since I was a kid, but every few years they manage to put together a swarm of epic proportions. About 25 years back, for example, they became so numerous that even the cats stopped stalking them.

“They say that to a cat, miller moths are like pizza,” a radio host said at the time. “But if pizza kept falling out every time you pulled down the sun visor on your car, you’d start to get a little sick of it.”

It’s not even anything inherent to the moth itself. One moth in a room is distracting but tolerable. But like potato chips, you never just have one. You get entire flight patterns.

Anything in those quantities, even things we would normally welcome, starts to get overwhelming and hard to handle. It could be an army of puppies. A cacophony of radio stations. A torrent of water …

Ah, I saw some of you nodding with that last one.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I love a good rainfall. I like to claim that it’s in the blood – Mom’s family came here from England, after all, and my sister even lives near the famously soggy skies of Seattle. So when the Colorado landscape turned into “Home on the Range” in reverse – where the skies remain cloudy all day – I gave a mental “hallelujah” and settled back to enjoy it. Heat? Sunburn? Ha!

And then it kept coming.

And coming.

And … well, somewhere after the 16th iteration of “coming,” it began to be just a tad overdone. Even more than a tad, as rivers rose and anxieties climbed with them.

Water is one of the most precious and treasured things in Colorado. But in such relentless quantities, it can officially become Too Much, a curse of house painters and construction workers and anyone who just needs a little sun. A good thing, made horrific through excess.

As I write that, I wonder how well we’re paying attention.

After all, we’re Americans. We’re good at excess. We eat big meals, work long hours, and rack up the highest credit-card debt of anywhere in the world. And of course, anytime the Powerball total starts to climb sky-high, our attention climbs with it.

And yet … deep down, I think most of us know better. We know that too much food makes you fat, too much work makes you crazy, too much debt ties you into knots that can take years to untie. That there’s such a thing as “enough.”

Heresy, maybe, in a consumer culture. But true. Someone once suggested that the real definition of “wealthy” is to have enough that you no longer need to worry. Anything more than that just starts to create its own problems, as the celebrities of the world seem determined to prove every day, and twice on Sundays.

I don’t mean to suggest that we have to become monks, to simply swing our lives to a different extreme. But there’s a quiet beauty in balance. One that lets you truly enjoy the pieces of life – and eventually, the peace of life – without being overwhelmed.

I’m still working on it myself. But it’s worth working on.

Right after I get these moths out of the laundry room.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just My Type

I opened the covers of The Empire Strikes Back Storybook and blinked, stunned. Sure it had been a long time. But how had I forgotten this?

I hurried upstairs to Heather, the thin hardcover volume in my hand.

“Look, hon,” I said, half-sarcastic, half-awed. “Words.”

“Really?” she responded in the same tone.

I held the 35-year-old book open, careful of the ancient masking tape over the binding. There, among the plentiful, full-color photographs of starships and dueling Jedi, was column after column of gray type. Not thin columns, either – roughly 52 pages of words packed like a legion of Imperial stormtroopers, a children’s book that demanded reading, insisted on it.

My wife and I looked at it for a moment in wonder, than at each other. The same thought was on both our minds.

They’d never let this get printed today.

The book had arrived in a stack from Mom, the latest round of liberating the basement from our long-ago possessions. The fact that even my picture books had been so reading-heavy didn’t completely surprise me – I’ve been an avid reader since the age of two and a half, and could even remember using the tattered Star Wars book to act out scenes with my action figures.

But I’d forgotten how much of an honest-to-goodness book it was. As opposed to a picture book with barely-disguised captions.

I don’t mean to sound jaded or old-fashioned here. But I really do wonder if the same book would survive in the hands of modern editors and publishers, when “Show, don’t tell” has all but become a mantra. And not just in children’s publishing.

For a while, one of Heather’s prize possessions was a 1985 issue of Cosmopolitan, just for sheer contrast. Fewer pictures, lengthy articles that might have to “jump” twice within the issue before being completed. Compare it to a modern issue with its splashed photos and large-font one liners and it’s like holding Robinson Crusoe next to Go, Dog, Go!

You could make the same comparison with newspapers, where the emphasis has long been on more photos and graphics, shorter stories. Or in half a dozen other genres and formats, especially when you add digital and online publishing into the mix. Folks want pictures, video, interactive graphics, cute kittens!

Now there’s some truth to that. The author Spider Robinson once noted that reading is a newcomer as a means of acquiring information and one that requires a lot of work compared to just … looking. And with the decline in children who read for fun (31 percent of kids aged 6 to 17, compared to 37 percent in 2010), it might seem like we’ve got to pull out all the stops to hook kids back in to the habit.

But I wonder.

What if the problem isn’t the format, but the content?

Remember Harry Potter? The boy wizard dragged a whole generation of kids (and their parents and older siblings) through seven increasingly thick volumes of adventures. It became a point of pride to have read each book on its publication day.

There have been other crazes since, if not as intense. (What could be?) In the United Kingdom, in fact, series like The Hunger Games and Twilight (yes, I went there) are credited with bringing up the number of child readers.

Give kids a story they’re interested in, it seems, and they’ll chew up text just fine. Adults, too, I’d bet. If you’re interested in the subject, a longer story is a blessing, not a curse.

By all means, have cool pictures and all the other bells and whistles. Heaven knows my storybooks had art that popped. But remember the fundamentals. When you want people to drive, you sell cars. When you want people to read, you sell words.

Good words. And plenty of ‘em.

We can do our part, “selling” by example – it’s almost proverbial that when parents read, kids read, too. And over time, if enough of us reward good words with a good audience, someone’s going to see the chance of making good money.

Someday, just maybe, our prints will come.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If There’s Anything …

I’m tempted to just write the words “Thank you” and be done with it this week. After all, what else is there for me to say?

I’m referring, of course, to the steady stream of comments, offers and good wishes that followed the appearance of last week’s column, where I noted that my wife Heather had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That included the oddly celebratory mood both of us had been feeling, since we had finally ripped the mask off our opponent and knew what we were fighting.

Pieces like that are always a little risky to write. My oldest rule for this column, taught to me a long time ago, is “No navel gazing” – anything said here has to be of interest to more than just me. There has to be a universal tie, something for a reader to latch onto and care about, even in the most personal of stories.

Even so, I was shocked at just how many of you turned out to care very much indeed.

Some of you shared words of encouragement or stories of friends and family with MS that kept living normal lives. Others had suggestions for how diet could help Heather, or how activity could. A couple of very powerful accounts talked of their own struggles to put a name to a chronic condition and how isolating and painful it could be to just not know.

And of course, from friends and family across the board, we’ve heard the invocation: “If there’s anything I can do …”

Simple words. Powerful ones, too.

We’ve all said it, of course. Often when we don’t know what else to say. The times when the mountain seems so large and threatening, a mystery too great to even comprehend – and yet, we know we can’t let a friend go up it alone.

And so, when the hard news comes, we reach out a hand. Maybe with a confident grip, maybe unsure of our own strength and ability. After all, sometimes there isn’t much one can do. The late, great fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who died recently from Alzheimer’s-related complications, once said that he appreciated the sentiment but was only accepting offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

But it does help. More than anyone realizes.

Pain isolates. It can be the physical pain of an illness, the emotional pain of a death, the all-consuming anguish of news too terrible to comprehend. All of it tries to draw limits, to seal us off from the world, to trap us in our own bodies and heads.

Granted, some withdrawal can be necessary to heal. But it’s easy to get trapped in the cycle, to become convinced that you have to deal with this yourself, that you don’t want to be a burden. It feels like a surrender to ask for help, an admission that you’ve lost control.

And then, someone reaches beyond the walls.

It may not be huge. It may not even be much more than the words themselves. But like a candle in the night, it becomes a small gesture that changes the landscape.

Someone cares.

Someone noticed.

Someone wants to help, even if they’re not quite sure how.

Someone’s heart has opened to me.

That is a powerful realization.

A friend recently reminded me that it’s a gift to allow others to give. It’s a harder lesson than it sounds. But a true one.

In admitting our mutual need, we summon our mutual strength. We become a family. No … we remind ourselves of the family that we already are.

Thank you for that reminder.

“If there’s anything I can do ….”

Trust me. You certainly have.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Full View

My wife Heather may be the happiest person to ever receive an MS diagnosis.

“Yes!” she shouted after the doctor’s call came in Wednesday afternoon. “I told them I was sick! I told them I was sick!”

Regular readers know that we’ve been searching to an answer for Heather’s “mystery illness” for some time. The symptoms have been a regular cavalcade, including fatigue, pain, loss of coordination, foggy eyesight, foggy memory, a foggy day in London town …

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, after being introduced to a spinal tap that’s not nearly as entertaining as the Christopher Guest version, Heather can now definitively tie her troubles down to two words: multiple sclerosis. Yes, that ugly disease of the brain and spinal cord, the one that can’t really be cured, only contained.

Of course, anyone who saw our huge, relieved grins after the diagnosis would probably conclude that there wasn’t much brain left to affect, anyway. But in a weird way, it’s exciting.

At long last, something makes sense.

Any chronic pain sufferer should recognize the feeling. You can spend weeks, months, even years in shadow boxing, going through the medical motions without hitting anything solid. You get told that you’re fine, even when you know better. You get medicines that don’t help, tests that don’t show anything, advice that fails to illuminate. Sometimes people will suggest you’re a hypochondriac. After a while, you may start to wonder if they’re right.

And then, BAM – you hit something solid. Or it hits you. Either way, there’s a reality that can no longer be denied. You’re not crazy, you are in a fight, and even if it’s one against Mike Tyson himself, you can finally see the other fighter in the ring.

That’s huge.

You don’t even need to be a patient to understand. We see the same thing every day in the political world, or the business world, or in military strategy, or in the thousand small-scale issues we deal with every day. To solve a problem, the people involved have to agree 1) That a problem exists and 2) What exactly the problem is. What you cannot define, you cannot defeat.

Put down a name and you can have objectives. Goals. Tactics. Hope.

Heather has a name. A nasty name. But a real one.

That means we have a road forward.

Even better, the road may not have as many potholes as we feared. The tests caught her MS early. That’s one reason it slipped through the early scans undetected, and it means the disease may be at a more manageable stage.

Still better: this is something we know from the outside. We have good friends who have been through this, people who still live full lives despite the need to recharge and recover. One even kept up a position in the Navy Reserve until fairly recently.

I know, there are stories of worse as well as better. But again – what you can name, you can know. And some of that knowledge is encouraging.

We’re not alone.

Not that we ever were. But now our friends and family have something to rally around as well. Unease and uncertainty can drain a caregiver as well as a patient; a lifting of the fog can be almost rejuvenating.

Is it any wonder we smile? And even laugh?

No wonder at all. Not when there’s a purpose that can outweigh the fear.

It will not be unremitting joy. We know that. We’re looking at a hard struggle, probably a painful one.

But we’re looking at it. And that makes all the difference.

I hope someone out there can take encouragement from this. The fog can someday lift. The light can shine. The battle lines can be drawn and defended to the inch.

Victory is never certain. But knowing, really knowing, is a victory all its own.

It’s time to celebrate.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making Faces

At the risk of letting my inner geek out, I think I’ve figured out the real reason Spider-Man wears a mask.

Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t one of those oddball columns that discusses Superman’s immigration status or Batman’s patent protection. You don’t have to know the mighty Marvel footnotes in order to hang around here or care about how Hollywood treats caped crusaders. (Though if that sort of thing does light your fire, I’ll track you down for coffee later, OK?)

No, this has its roots in more familiar territory: in hospitals, in family, in simple conversation. And, as with so many things in this space, it starts with Heather and Missy.

My wife Heather got to spend the night at Good Samaritan hospital recently. Regular readers may remember that we’ve been chasing some medical mysteries worthy of Dr. Watson and not getting much in the way of answers. To move things along, Heather’s doctor suggested it was time for a sleepover, so that all the tests Heather needed could be run at once instead of strung out over weeks.

Logical. Helpful, even. Certainly appreciated.

But it did mean explaining a few things to Missy.

Despite her mental disability, Missy can be pretty sharp. Sharp enough to guess that when one of her guardians goes into the hospital and doesn’t come back right away, something may be wrong. Vanishing without explanation was never an option – not only do we respect her too much for that, but she’s stubborn enough to sit in the bay window for hours waiting for someone to come home if they’re not back on schedule.

So I took her up to the hospital in the afternoon and let her see that Heather was in good spirits. Missy lost her own mom to cancer, so we assured her that this wasn’t like that, that the doctor was just having a look around to see what was going on so Heather could feel better.

Even so, on the drive back, I could see Missy wasn’t entirely buying it. Not judging by the sniffs and red eyes and careful glances out the car window.

“It really is going to be OK, Miss,” I told her. And I believed it. But at the same time, as I tried to keep Missy’s worries at bay, I felt a sudden kinship with the ol’ webslinger.

Spider-Man, like I mentioned, wears a mask. The comics always have plenty of good reasons, starting with the need to protect his family from supervillain retribution. The fact that his real-world boss is a Spidey-hating jerk offers some extra incentive.

But masks hide more than just an identity. They hide feelings, too, especially fear and anxiety. Comic geeks know that one reason for the wallcrawler’s constant string of wisecracks in a fight is that he’s covering for nervousness, so that he can keep being a hero, to the world and himself. A mask makes that all the easier.

And it’s one that I think many of us have put on a time or too ourselves.

A good parent doesn’t lie to their child, or a guardian to their ward. I firmly believe that. But there are times when you stay brave to keep them from worrying, when your own fear and uncertainty have to stay out of sight so that you can help them through a tough situation. There are times when sharing everything you know and feel would just make the situation harder, especially when the real quest isn’t for information – it’s for reassurance.

I’ve been on the other side of this long ago, when Mom had to deal with breast cancer while my sisters and I were in grade school. We knew that Mom saw a lot of doctors and even went to the hospital sometimes. But Mom and Dad never weighed us down with stress we didn’t need. We knew we were loved, we knew we were safe, and we never knew about the anxiety they felt in the small hours of the night until much later.

There’s a funny thing about reassurance, though. If you provide it enough times, you can start to feel it yourself. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” Mom is fond of saying. I can’t argue: not only is Missy doing better, so am I. In talking to her, I was somehow talking to me, too, and making both of us stronger.

Sometimes, over time, the mask can create the hero.

And that’s a marvel more real than any radioactive spider.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Words of Honor

“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”

— Rudyard Kipling

 

Slowly but surely, the words are claiming the wall.

Muhammad Ali watches from one point, Saint Paul from another. Novelists share space with masters of social media. It’s a small crowd right now, but I know how quickly it will grow, piling wit onto wisdom onto timeless endurance.

I ought to know. We’ve been here before.

And as before, it’s more comforting than a few rows of taped computer paper has any right to be.

 

“In the garden of literature, the highest and the most charismatic flowers are always the quotations.”

— Mehmet Murat ildan

 

It started, as it often does, with Heather’s health. My wife is a lovely, funny, creative and tough-minded person. But she also tends to attract chronic illness the way a car accident attracts rubberneckers. Years ago, before we met, it was Crohn’s disease. A couple of years after we married, ankylosing spondylitis came along for the ride. Endometriosis used to be part of the mix, and we’ve never been quite sure if lupus was milling about in the crowd or not.

Lately, as some of you have read here, there’s been something new. We’re still pinning down all the details – which is a bloodless way of saying that we’ve been going through a lot of sleepless nights and painful days trying to figure out what in blue blazes is going on.

One morning I had just checked in with my boss to mention that I was going to have to work from home – again – in order to help Heather through the day. She sent back her best wishes for the struggle – and a few words from Muhammad Ali for comfort.

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses,” the words read, “behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

And all of a sudden, I remembered.

 

“Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted, than when we read it in the original author?”

— Philip Gilbert Hamerton

 

The last time something like this happened, back in Kansas, Heather had had to spend far too much time in the bathroom. (Having Crohn’s in combination with severe back pain will tend to do that.) So, to make life a little more bearable – or at least entertaining – I started to paper the opposite wall with quotes.

Like many writers, I’ve always been a fan of the well-chosen word, whether from prophets or Muppets. A good quote is a quick moment in life when your mind suddenly blinks and then laughs, or winces, or nods “Yes – yes, that’s exactly how it is.” They’ve decorated my college papers, my desks, even my email at work.

And now, they decorated my bathroom. Heather found the first one and I quickly gave it a lot of brothers and sisters. Soon, you couldn’t drop a hand towel without coming across the latest aphorism or wisecrack.

Now, we seemed to be in a similar place. Maybe it was time for a similar remedy. This particular illness was keeping her confined to bed for much of the day, so I picked a readily visible bedroom wall and went to work.

Some space went to encouragement. (“We must live lives of unstoppable hope.” – Stant Litore.)

Some was claimed by humorous sympathy. (“I’m not clumsy. It’s just that the floor hates me, the tables and chairs are bullies, and the wall gets in the way.” – Liza Mahone.)

And some, inevitably, went to doctor snark. (“I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not doing anything but using up ink and Scotch tape. But maybe, in its own small way, it helps. It’s a way to bring life over the walls, to remind us that someone’s been there before, that there’s more to think about than “Ow, ow, ow.”

Maybe, to borrow from Miguel de Cervantes, these “short sentences drawn from long experience” are better medicine than we know. I hope so. I really do.

Sticks and stones can break our bones. But words can maybe heal us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Laughter in the Shadows

The “Murder on the Nile” rehearsal had been going well. Plenty of threats, plenty of clues, the body being found just when it should. And then, as a character cracked a minor witticism, I heard a cackle from the audience.

Despite having to keep character, I almost smiled. There was no denying when Missy was in the house.

There are silent theater audiences in the world. Missy is not often one of them. When it comes to a performance, my wife’s physically and mentally disabled aunt often wears her emotions on her sleeve … and on her lips. A funny bit of business on stage may get a whoop of laughter. An injury to a character will suddenly get an “Ow!” from her sympathetic lips.

It’s not constant, like a “Mystery Science 3000″ commentary track, but it’s not held back when she’s there, either. And because my wife Heather hasn’t been feeling well, Missy’s been there a lot, coming with me to practice after practice as the plot falls into place.

So, once in a while, we find ourselves with feedback from the darkness. I can’t really complain. In this, Missy truly is family.

I have never been what actors sometimes call a “smiler” – the sort of person who sits in the audience of a show, smiles and nods, and then ambles off to my car thinking how pleasant it all was. I laugh. Loudly. Strongly. Often infectiously. My actor friends have been accused of planting me in the audience just to get things moving, like a lighter held to a piece of kindling.

One memorable moment came when I took Heather to a long-ago performance of “The Mikado” at the Longmont Theatre Company. The show is GIlbert & Sullivan at its finest: beautiful music, a crackbrained plot and funny as heck. I laughed without hesitation or restraint several times, and I had plenty of company.

And then, at one point, a gentleman in front of me turned around. He whispered “Do you mind? Some of us are trying to enjoy the show!”

I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t. But at that moment, I was seriously tempted to respond with “I’m succeeding.”

Thinking back on that, and on Missy’s moments of shock or joy, the importance of that keeps coming back to me. How often do we show our appreciation? How often do we make it obvious?

An actor beneath the lights can’t hear smiles. That’s obvious. Most people we meet aren’t any more telepathic than that, yet we often ask them to be. Not necessarily with small compliments – as a people, Americans are pretty good at dropping those into a conversation – but with the real joys and worries that drop below the level of small talk and into true understanding.

I know, we’re reluctant to drop that mask of “I’m doing fine” with just any stranger. (Stranger? Missy’s never learned that word yet.) But many times we keep it up even around friends, reserving the true depth of what we feel. What if we didn’t?

I don’t mean striding the stage like a ham Shakespearean actor in mid-soliloquy. Heaven knows my own personality is on the quiet side many times. But loud or quiet, there’s a power to be had when we open ourselves up and lay our feelings bare. It’s why gatherings such as weddings or funerals can be so memorable and have such power; we’ve been given permission to open the gates, tear down the walls and show how we feel.

I don’t pretend it’s always comfortable. Or easy. But it can draw people together like nothing else. If you’ve ever had a friend you could say anything around, you know what I mean. Things come so much easier when the inner guard can relax at last.

It takes practice, of course. Maybe start with a safe, controlled environment. One designed to elicit broad emotions, where you can open up and react in a crowd of strangers, comfortable in your anonymity.

If only I knew somewhere like that ….

Oh. Wait a minute.

See you at the show. And maybe I’ll hear you, too.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taking His Best Shot

Lucas Hinch may have become a new international hero.

Granted, few of us have ever met the Colorado Springs man. But he managed to seize his 15 minutes of fame recently after his computer gave him one battle too many. Mr. Hinch, of course, dealt with his frustrations in a mature and responsible way.

Oh, who am I kidding? He took the computer into an alley, pulled a gun and put eight rounds into it.

I’ll wait a few moments for the cheering to die down.

Naturally, I’m not endorsing this as a method. Spontaneous gunfire is rarely a solution to anything, including the latest televised adventures of the Rockies’ bullpen. (Pillows are the traditional projectile for a television screen bearing bad sports news, at least in the case of my late grandfather-in-law.) But I think anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes staring at a Blue Screen of Death can sympathize entirely with Mr. Hinch.

For my wife Heather, it’s a no-brainer. More than once, she has intoned the magic words “Scotty, I’m throwing this thing out the window!” after our machine of the moment ate a college research paper due in an hour … or dropped a connection in the middle of an online game … or simply got its power button stuck, requiring fingernails worthy of Dolly Parton to pry back into operation.

She never did commit that act of electronic defenestration, by the way. But I think that had less to do with sweet reason, and more to do with chronic illness and the annoyance of putting up new storm windows.

How do so many of us reach that point?

That may seem as obvious as asking whether I-25 will be a pain in the neck tomorrow. But it’s a valid question. Certainly, computers have become vital to our day-to-day life. But not every critical aspect of our life tempts a 9mm sonata.

The answer, I think, comes down to communication.

The other day, I saw a bumper sticker in the grocery store parking lot: “If animals could speak, we would all be vegetarian.” Whether you agree or not, it underlines a larger philosophical point – it’s harder to hate something that has become real to you, that has a face and a voice and a genuine response. It’s why prejudices sometimes wither when an “other” is met personally, or why a famous personality may seem to be so much nicer when met face-to-face.

And, on the flip side, it’s why our blood pressure goes through the roof when communication is hopeless.

The best example may be road rage. If someone accidentally walks into your path on the sidewalk, the most likely response is a quick apology, maybe even an embarrassed laugh. Come just a little close while driving and the results are screams and angry horns. It’s not just the higher speeds and masses of metal, it’s the fact that we no longer have another person in our midst – just a metal box that’s impervious to our hard feelings.

I don’t know how to solve PC rage, short of giving the machine actual reasoning abilities – and that way lies Skynet, or at least a future where humanity never wins at Jeopardy! again. But it does suggest a way to lower the pressure in so many other areas of our lives. Talk. Listen. See the faces around you, not just their positions on the landscape.

We don’t have to agree. But if we can at least see each other as human beings worthy of attention, the rest can follow. Maybe we can even find some common interests to share.

And if those interests include a recalcitrant laptop and a pair of sledgehammers, I’ll be over in five minutes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments