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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All’s Fair

When it comes to gardening, my green thumb is more of a shade of black.

My cooking skills, despite many good intentions, stop somewhere south of boiled eggs.

My history with a sewing needle mostly consists of finding one in my feet at inconvenient times. (Come to think of it, is there ever a convenient time?)

In fact, if you go down the list – livestock, shooting, dancing, model rocketry – I’m about as far from a 4-H kid as it’s possible to get.

And yet, I remain fascinated by county fairs.

After 16 years of newspaper journalism, I’ve covered a lot of them, along with the fair-like events that spring up here and there, such as the “Beef Empire Days” of Garden City, Kansas. I’ve been sunburned at the parades, deafened at the demolition derbies and confused terribly by the layout. (“Let me get this straight – the barns go C, A and then B?”)

But always, always, the memory that sticks in my mind is sheer admiration for the kids. This is their show and they make the most of it.

Raise a 290-pound market pig? Sure. Pull 300 pounds behind a pedal-powered tractor? No problem. Take on projects in photography, woodworking, rocketry and jewelry and still have time to raise rabbits? Ask for something hard, why don’t you?

These are, in short, some of the most capable people I’ve ever met. And that’s what truly makes the county fair, any county fair, exceptional.

It’s a place where we still celebrate capability.

I don’t mean excellence. We’ll cheer endlessly at people who excel, sometimes in very esoteric fields. There are pancake races, competitive sauna meets , cow chip throwing contests and the real head-scratcher – curling. However strange the event, there’s someone who wants to be the best at it and more often than not, we’ll sit down to watch the struggle.

But the celebration of practical skill is something else entirely.

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said contemptuously that “specialization is for insects,” rattling off a long list of (for him) basic competencies that he felt any human being should possess, from changing a diaper to planning an invasion. If anything, most of us have gotten narrower since, relying on Google and YouTube to fill in the gaps in our education. (The night that Heather and I had to use an online search to locate our main water shutoff while the kitchen ceiling was giving way was a memorable one, indeed.)

And then there’s the fair. Your hands. Your work. Your competency, in as many fields as you have time and desire to take on. It’s a reminder of something older and more essential, a world that may have become even more distant to us than the farm itself.

At its heart, it’s a reaffirmation that we are more than our tools. That we’re builders, not just watchers.

That’s a statement with a lot of implications.

When even the simplest things are challenges, it’s easy to feel like a helpless bystander. “Fix the country? I can’t even fix my sink.” Get used to competency and it’s addictive. If I can do this, why not that? Or that?

After a while, optimism becomes natural. Even hope. Why not? When you already know achievement is possible, the only thing left to get used to is the scale.

That may be a life’s work. But hey – got anything better to do?

So here’s to the kids of the fair and all those behind them. May there be many more like you and still more inspired by you.

Because let’s face it, you’re more than fair.

You’re outstanding.

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Prizewinner

A plastic medal. A book of photographs. A little ice cream, quickly gone. Not the stuff, perhaps, that a big league contract is made of.

But for Missy, this was her World Series ring.

I’ve written before about Missy’s softball league, the one geared to physically and mentally disabled players. There’s no score, no win-loss record, no single-elimination playoff, just a good time on a hot summer’s day. Throw the ball, take your swings and make your way around the bases at your own speed to the cheers of family and friends.

It’s fun for those who play, maybe even more so for those who watch. My wife Heather and I have done our best to properly embarrass Missy as she rounds the bases on a volunteer’s arm, whooping and hollering like Troy Tulowitzki had just hit .400. We’ve talked about wearing “Team Missy” shirts when she plays, just to see if the 100-watt smile can get any brighter—or maybe to see how hard she can throw in our direction with a laughing “Shu’ up!”

The biggest reward, though, comes at season’s end when the four teams come together for one last blast. This year it was an ice-cream social in the Senior Center’s gym, the walls plastered with pictures from every game. Everyone got their roar of applause and their photo album, destined to become Missy’s favorite reading material for weeks on end.

Funny, really, how little it takes.

Or is it how much?

This is something that’s been looked at time and again in the working world. How do you motivate people? How do you make them valued and rewarded? How do you create a team and not just a group of people who happen to show up at the same time and do the same kind of work?

You can’t dismiss pay from the equation entirely, though some experts (and maybe some companies) would clearly like to. But even that most fundamental recognition is more of an effect than a cause. Go deeper.

In study after study (and most common sense observations), the same sorts of things come up: A worker wants a workplace they can be proud of and that’s proud of them. They want to enjoy being where they are. They want respect, recognition, more listening and fewer jerks.

To receive dignity. To know that someone cares. To be wanted and needed, and have it shown.

Really, when you think about it, that’s not limited to the workplace. It’s a human fundamental. Everyone should have value.

It’s when we forget that, when we scorn or patronize or decide that someone isn’t worth our time, that we leave marks on the soul.

Think about some of our greatest challenges and controversies. The neglect of our aging veterans. The children from other lands streaming to Emma Lazarus’s “golden door.” The fear of our daily lives being spied on, by government or business.

What are all of these, if not a test of how much respect a person is due? Of who deserves dignity and how much?

And as the scale gets greater, the stakes get higher. The individual that sets off Missy’s “jerk detector” will see her usually open manner pull back. The company that neglects the care of its employees will see friction and defection. The nation that forgets it exists for all the people and not just a lucky few will stain its name before the world. We’ve seen it too many times: Red Scares, internment camps, segregation and more.

Turn it around and that respect can become the greatest of strengths. For a country. For a company. For a team.

A plastic medal – given by a caring friend in the midst of friends. A book of photographs – capturing memories of great times with loving people. A little ice cream, quickly gone – eaten with teammates who can’t help but linger.

There’s the heart of it. There’s the true reward.

Shining right there in Missy’s eyes.

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The Daily Pay-Per

Forget the lemonade stands and the car washes. If you want to make a quick few bucks, social media may just be your cash cow. Or at least a very small calf.

For those who missed it, the Associated Press reported the other day on two social networks that will pay for your posts. Bubblews starts at a penny per like, view or comment for posts of a certain length (though the full formula gets a little more involved) while Bonzo Me pays its most popular posts a percentage of its ad revenue.

It ain’t much. But it’s something.

“No one should come to our site in anticipation of being able to quit their day job,” Bubblews CEO Arvind Dixit told the AP. “But we are trying to be fair with our users.”

Strangely enough, I’ve got mixed feelings on this one.

On the one hand, my writer brain is ecstatic that someone finally gets it. People go online for the content: to read stories, see pictures, watch videos, keep up with people and things they know and love. And for the most part, the bloggers, posters, video-makers, lovers, dreamers and other members of the Rainbow Connection do it for free.

That’s one thing when you’re putting up a note to friends that Aunt Ginny just got out of the hospital. But when it’s something that takes time and labor … well, as the old sermon goes, the workman is worthy of his hire. In particular, a lot of news agencies (he said modestly) have put a lot of content on the social networks; it’d be kind of nice to see even a modest return.

But – and yeah, you knew there’d be a but – there’s a potential tradeoff. He who pays, says.

I brought this up years ago when I jokingly suggested a federal bailout of the newspaper industry. While I don’t know a newspaper alive that wouldn’t cheer at a new funding source, I know plenty who would be hesitant to go on the government payroll. The reason is obvious: part of the job of the press is to challenge government when necessary, and that’s hard to do when it’s their money sitting in your bank account.

This situation is a little less blatant. And it could be argued that the social networks already have all the control they need. After all, we’re users of a free service, not customers; the Facebooks and Twitters and all the rest pay for the space and set the rules.

But given that, is it wise to offer one more leash?

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s a good thing to make every poster a freelancer-in-waiting. If the control’s going to be there anyway, might as well cash in on it, right? Heaven knows most of us could use it.

But every time we’ve thought the social networks couldn’t possibly go farther, they’ve found a way. (Psychological experimentation, anyone?) And so I hate to open one more door, even if it’s one that holds a small paycheck.

It’s one thing to be a guest. Another to be an employee. For better and worse.

How will it all play out?

I’ll keep you posted.

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Just Bust a Lip

Some people have the moves like Jagger. Somehow, I wound up with the upper lip instead.

OK, not “somehow.” After all, I do live in a slapstick movie that Chevy Chase would envy and Mel Brooks would direct. Part of that privilege is that I can see exactly what’s about to happen – just in time for it to do me absolutely no good.

It’s how I’ve wound up stepping off a perfectly good stage. Or finding sewing needles with my bare feet. Or chasing a barfing dog around the bedroom, running into every conceivable obstacle on the way. (Oh, you’ve heard that one?)

And in this case, it’s how tripping on one broken piece of sidewalk turned a healthy walk to work into “OWWWW!”

I got lucky as I caromed off the concrete. No broken teeth, no broken nose. That seems to be part of the deal with my invisible producer: no lasting injuries that would kill off the chance of a sequel. Short of that, anything goes.

And in this case, “anything” was my swollen upper lip, to the tune of three stitches and enough blood for a Friday the 13th film.

Fun, huh?

Educational, too. For the past week, in fact, it’s been a constant tutorial in the Iron Law of the Universe: “You can never do just one thing.” Consequences snowball, whether it’s the Amazon butterfly raising a typhoon or the casual dinner remark sinking a political career.

In this case, my failure to pay attention to what my feet were doing didn’t just win me a Rolling Stones look-alike contest. It also guaranteed:

 

* That I would be unable to be understood by voice-message trees for at least two days. (“I’m sorry. I didn’t get that. Please try again …”)

* That drinking a glass of water would be on a difficulty level with competing in the Hunger Games.

* That drinking anything ice-cold would trigger expressions best not read in a family newspaper.

* That whistling would not be an annoyance to my co-workers for a while.

* That, contrary to “Casablanca,” a kiss isn’t just a kiss when your pucker feels like it’s hit a porcupine.

* That any kind of lengthy out-loud reading – longer than a page or two – was out of the question for the immediate future.

 

In a way, that last one hit the hardest. Reading is what I do. What I have done since the age of two and a half. Combine a love of books with a love of performing and the result is that I have read to and with anyone willing to listen for years: my dad, my sisters, my grandma, my wife Heather, our ward Missy, the dogs …

These days, it’s the vital bedtime ritual. Before the lights go down and the house goes quiet, I sit on the edge of Missy’s bed and read, a journey of the mind that has roamed from Missouri to Middle-Earth and from secret gardens to open warfare.

But when the stinging of your lip says “stop” after two pages, Hogwarts can take a little longer to visit than planned.

Well, lesson learned. And maybe even a small blessing with it. It only takes a few days of doing without something to discover what your real priorities are – what’s an inconvenience and what’s an essential. Being in a position to recognize that and to make adjustments later is no tiny thing.

It’s better still, of course, to be paying enough attention before a crisis hits. Especially when it’s often inattention that creates the crisis in the first place. Think, plan, imagine, observe. Act, however you need to, even if you don’t think you need to right now.

It may all seem terribly abstract.

But it’s amazing how fast it becomes concrete.

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