Crash Landing

Before Disney and the heirs of Jim Henson sic an army of googly-eyed lawyers on me, I need to be clear about one thing. Cookie Monster did not eat my computer. But his disco past has a lot to answer for.

Yes, you read that right. And no, I have not been eating any brownies of questionable origin.

Like many celebrities, the Muppets cut a disco album in the ’70s. Two disco albums, in fact, which should demonstrate just how close to Armageddon the world was teetering in those days. And in the second album, with the shocking title of“Sesame Disco!”, the Big Blue One himself took the mic for the most heart-rending disco ballad since “Disco Duck.”

I speak, of course, of the immortal “Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco.”

There are portions of one’s childhood that remain unforgettable. And if we ever perfect mechanical telepathy, scientists will discover that entire sectors of my brain are permanently tattooed with a thumping rhythm and the words “Me lost me cookie at the DIS-co! Me lost me cookie in the BOO-GIE MU-SIC!” So naturally, as an adult, I used the vast and awesome power of the Internet to inflict this on others.

My wife Heather nearly lost her own cookies laughing. It became a running family joke, something to dial up when nothing of less epic silliness would do. Which made it inevitable, of course, that we would introduce it to Missy.

At this point, there are three important things to understand about our developmentally disabled ward. Missy loves the Muppets. Missy also loves disco.

But Missy does not necessarily love the Muppets singing disco.

And so, when I mixed it into an evening YouTube session, Missy giggled. Then smiled. Then decided the joke had gone on long enough and punched the power button.

Now, even in these permissive modern times, there are still a few things you just don’t do. You don’t pull a car key out of the ignition at 80 mph. You don’t wear black and silver at a Broncos rally. And you really don’t turn off a computer in mid-stream.

“Wait!”

Too late.

When I brought everything back up, my word-processing files were among the walking wounded. About half of them had to be saved into a new format, document by painstaking document, in order to be usable at all.

I have seen many a parent recite under their breath “I love my child … I love my child … I love my child.” I think I’m beginning to understand.

But here’s the funny thing. It was worth it.

It was worth it because of the time spent laughing with Missy, however wrong a turn it may have taken.

It was worth it because of the enforced trip down memory lane. As I patched and ported my files, I discovered columns I’d forgotten I’d written, scripts I hadn’t performed in years, even parodies that made me smile one more time.

Most of all, it was worth it for the chance to underscore, without mortal injury, two fundamental truths of parenting: that accidents happen, and that even when they do, your people are still more important than your things.

Hug, forgive and learn.

I think if more of us remembered that, this would be a nicer world.

There’s still a few repairs to make. But it’ll be OK. Both the family and the machine will survive to make more memories, even if it occasionally takes a minor crisis to do so.

Sometimes, that’s just the way the Cookie Monster crumbles.

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The Smallest Flame

The coldest night I remember came a few years ago, during an outdoor candlelight vigil.

The outer desolation matched the inner feeling. It was about one degree at best, with the wind driving the temperature far, far lower. The sort of night when reporters carry pencils, so that frozen ink won’t stand in the way of a story. The sort of night where the air seems to turn to blue fire on every exposed piece of skin and no one, man or beast, ventures outside unless they had to.

This crowd had to.

There had been a death, of course. One of those car accidents that claims someone far too young far too soon. Now friends and family had gathered on almost no notice to light their small piece of fire and share one more memory, standing together shoulder to shoulder.

Someone started to sing familiar words.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright …

The melody, still soft, gained strength as others joined in.

Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild …

And then, united in a whisper-strong moment.

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

And for a moment, the cold didn’t matter at all.

***

I’ve always liked winter the best of any season. There are the occasions for family, of course:  the visits for Thanksgiving, the calls at Christmas, the chance to see and joke and marvel at how “She can’t be starting middle school now! Really?” Add in the lights and decorations, the music, and the snow that can transform an entire landscape — when it doesn’t rearrange your spinal column trying to shovel it — and you have a near-perfect team.

But I have to confess, it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate the cold.

Cold is the feared henchman of the winter season: silent, quick, often deadly. It lays siege to you in bed, dogs your steps when you venture outside, rides on a “lazy wind” and cuts straight through you. It doesn’t tolerate the ill-prepared  or the unlucky.

In my mind, it’s always been easier to fight than the broiling heat and humidity of summer since, as I’ve often joked, “You can always put one more layer on, but there are only so many they let you take off before calling the cops.” But that’s like saying it’s easier for a high school football team to play the Detroit Lions than the Denver Broncos — technically true, but you’re still in for a rough time.

I’ve always accepted it as a necessary part of a beautiful season. But there’s a hidden quality that makes it powerful, one glimpsed only in moments.

Cold, like crisis, unites.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that it amplifies our best and our worst. We’ve all driven the major roads and seen the anger, impatience and desperation that result from even an inch of snow on the ground. But we’ve seen the better, too. This is the time for the volunteers that search the streets and staff the warming centers for those in need, for neighbors who shovel out neighbors, for crowds that stand just a little closer together to keep warmth from escaping.

Cold unites. It has to. Because no one can stand against it alone.

Severe need brings us together, whether it’s a 30 mph wind of solid ice or an act of unspeakable violence on a beautiful September morning. Maybe it shouldn’t take that much. Maybe we should know better how to join as the family we are, without the crushing power of mutual need.

For now, we are as we are. But winter’s chill serves as an annual reminder than we can be something more.

Maybe it’s not much. Just a candle against the dark. But candles can be enough, when held together. Enough for long enough.

The air is again blue fire as I write this. A warning, and a reminder.

Let there be candlelight.

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A Hitch in Time

Phil Connors, the fictional weatherman, once lived Feb. 2 over and over. No matter what he said or did, he’d wake up in the morning to find it was Groundhog Day all over again.

What an amateur.

If Phil popped by Casa Rochat these days, he’d find more time loops than an episode of “Dr. Who.” Lately, it seems like everyone has their personal piece of calendar turf that just refuses to go away.

For the dogs, of course, it’s the daylight savings business. Like most canines, Duchess the Wonder Dog and Big Blake aren’t too sure about this whole “Spring Forward, Fall Back” business – especially when it messes with their feeding time. So while I’m rejoicing at the return of a stolen hour of sleep, they’re filling 30 minutes of it with big eyes and urgent tails, wordlessly asking “Don’t we get Food Time yet?”

For Missy, our developmentally disabled relative, it’s Halloween that’s getting recycled. Which is a novelty, really. She’s often gotten locked onto Christmas, ready to play carols on the car stereo at top volume until the back-to-school sales hit. But Halloween used to be a holiday she preferred to avoid – at least, until she made an inordinately successful re-entry into the Trick-or-Treat field this year with the world’s coolest Harry Potter costume. Now, she parades her chocolate-covered winnings for all to see, wanting to know why we can’t grab the glasses and wand and go out for another candy run.

And then there’s the larger world. The one that sometimes seems stuck on Nov.4.

I don’t just mean the phone callers, though that has been a little exasperating. Life in a swing state as it approaches Election Day tends to be filled with polls and surveys, to the point where it seems more worthwhile to unplug the phone, ask friends to text or email, and spend the evening watching an ad-free DVD. But once The Day has gone by, the phone usually becomes safe again – or so I thought until it rang at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.

“I represent an independent market research firm …” Click.

But it’s more than that, really. If you take a look around the press or Facebook, it’s obvious that for many, the election still isn’t over. The fight goes on, My Side and Thy Side, regardless of where the ballots fell or who now occupies the big desk with the box of American flag pins.

I’m not always sure how I feel about that.

On the one hand, I can’t argue with the passion. There once was a time when Americans seemed locked in political apathy. Not anymore. Social media especially seems to enable the launch of a dozen crusades a day, all of them armed with zeal, determination and catchy quotes of dubious origin. Politics needs people who care, and we have no shortage of that these days.

But so often, it feels like an ideological version of the Indy 500. Lots of energy, dedicated to covering the same ground over and over again, without making any real progress.

Please don’t misunderstand. I do care. I’ve got my own candidates and causes that I consider vital, my own list of names that I consider to be utter disasters. I’ve got my own hopes and worries based on the way the ballots came down.

But come down they did. And now we have to find a way forward from there.

Together.

I suspect that the biggest issue for most voters this year was not the economy or terrorism, but simple fatigue. Most of us, I think, are tired of seeing a government whose members dig in their heels and go to war with each other at any excuse or none.

There are a lot of reasons, some of which need serious attention. But the simplest thing that most of us can do is set the example we want to see. We need to still care, to still strive – but without hating our neighbors who have cares of their own. Don’t surrender to evil – but don’t be quick to interpret disagreement as evil, either.

It is not easy. It requires judgment, kindness, endurance and understanding. But if we can do it at a ground level, maybe we can drag Washington along with us – or at least make its bickering irrelevant while we all work together to do what needs doing.

We don’t need to agree. But we do need to live with each other, work with each other, learn from each other. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll find an extra Trick-or-Treat bag along the way.

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Stage Left

There’s a doorknob on my desk from a troupe that ceased to be.

The Doorknob Award usually garners a few questions when people notice it. The simple answer is that it’s a prize given for overcoming technical difficulties, where the set broke down but the actor didn’t. I got it for navigating a grease-covered stage as the moustache-twirling villain in a melodrama, after the audience got a bit too enthusiastic about throwing popcorn.

It’s one of my favorite things that I ever brought home from the Community Theatre of Emporia. And now it has to be a lasting memory.

This week, I found out the CTE is no more.

I’ve never lost a theatre company before. I never really believed one could. Like most disasters, it’s a possibility you can be intellectually aware of without realizing it can happen to you. It seems even less likely when the company has a long run, 34 years in the case of the CTE.

But sometimes, in spite of everything, the show really doesn’t go on.

There were a lot of reasons. There always are. The company had to move out of its base in the Emporia Arts Council about the time I moved out of Kansas, and never really found another permanent home. Toward the end, there was never quite enough money and never quite enough hands on deck, a familiar refrain to many actors and producers. It’s always been easier to get people to see a show than to perform in one, and in this over-busy day and age, even getting them to be an audience takes a lot of work.

Funny. So many times it never felt like work. Not really.

I think many of us have a space like that. The home away from home, the place you come because you want to, not because you have to. And whether it’s a church, or a pub, or a reading group, or a stage – or even an online community – it comes to feel like an extension of your own family, a place where, as the song goes, everybody knows your name.

Losing a place like that can feel like a death. When the bookstore closes or the website goes away or the mall gets bulldozed, it leaves behind questions, confusion and uncertainty about the future. It’s easy to rehash the deed and wonder if anything could have changed it, to get angry or depressed or numb.

For an actor, the poignancy has a jagged edge. After all, we create dreams. We turn sweat and imagination into worlds that never were. To be reminded that the magic has limits, that all our powers of sub-creation still have to bow to the world outside the stage door – it’s humbling. And more than a little frightening.

Like many a mourner, it would be too easy for me to get lost in grief. So instead, I’ll raise my virtual glass to stir the echoes, strengthen the memories, and wake up the ghosts.

Here’s to the CTE.

Here’s to the crew that performed outdoor Shakespeare in 95 degree heat and 95 percent humidity, bringing the same passion whether the audience held 100 people or three.

Here’s to the company that made sets fall apart on command and who improvised fast when they fell apart without one.

Here’s to my role as an actor literally playing God in “J.B.,” complete with a beard that belonged on a Pearl Street busker.

Here’s to blunted swords and guns with blanks, to robber bridegrooms and roaring Roosevelts, to Christmases on the road with “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.”

And yes, here’s to popcorn-covered stages so slick you could skate on them.

Here’s to you, my friends and family. May our creation rest in peace and live in memory.

And someday, like a stage-door ghost, may it rise and walk again.

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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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