What You Read Into It

(NOTE: This column originally appeared online last week and was then accidentally dropped from the blog; the print version appeared today, May 29, 2011.)

“Book,” Missy insisted, pushing the bright-covered volume across the table.

I smiled. “Tell you what. Finish up your dinner and then we’ll go read.”

She nodded, smiled , took another few bites. And then, it was time for the evening’s trip to Narnia.

I couldn’t ask for better company.

Missy’s a new member of the crew. Or, rather, I’m a new member of Missy’s crew. She’s the disabled aunt of my wife Heather and is right about my age, though much of the time she seems far younger.

Heather and I moved in to become her guardians a little while ago, “parents” of a sort to this charming woman with the brilliant smile.  Missy doesn’t have a lot in the way of words  but she’s understood what it’s meant to have us this close and seems to be enjoying it.

Especially when it comes time to read.

I found out later that Missy’s dad used to read to her every night, from The Boxcar Children. Mine had a similar habit, picking up almost anything from JRR Tolkien to Farley Mowat.  So when I plucked a book out of  a half-unloaded moving box and began our own rite of storytelling, I shouldn’t have been surprised that we both got sucked in so fast.

What did surprise me was how much of Missy I began to see.

There’s a world that lives behind Missy’s eyes. Most of us don’t catch more than glimpses of it, amplified occasionally by her love of high-decibel country music or some passing instance that draws a comment.  For someone with so open a heart, her thoughts are often a deep mystery.

But not when we read together.

During those times, I know I have her attention. And that she’s following everything I say.

I recognize the shudders in her when the White Witch is threatening Edmund.

Or the broad laughs when the Gilbreth family of “Cheaper By The Dozen” is learning yet one more unlikely lesson.

It became most obvious of all, I guess, during a night’s reading of “The Hobbit.”  As I read of goblins grabbing Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf friends, this silent young lady suddenly looked at me and asked with deep concern, as clear as a bell, “Where’s Gandalf?”

I was so surprised I could have dropped the book.

It’s become our meeting place, our bridge between fantasy and reality where the two of us can lean on the railing and watch the landscape together. Engaged, curious, ready for what might happen next.

And every moment, becoming just a little more family than the moment before.

I’ve never been a Dad. I doubt I ever will be. That’s OK.

But with Missy, I’ve got a title that’s almost as good.

I’m the Bookman.

“Book?” she asks, our copy of  “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” in one hand.

You bet, Missy.  Any time.

Let’s read.

A Storm-Centered Perspective

Any other time, this would have been a “grumble week.” You know the kind: a lot of late nights, a lot of small irritants.

Not anymore.

Not after Reading.

Not after Joplin.

You’ve seen the pictures. You know what I mean. Utter devestation. Homes gone, trees gone, businesses gone. For some, lives gone … or lucky not to be gone.

“Our sister-in-law in Joplin just about died in the tornado,” Carolyn, an old friend from Topeka wrote me online, once things had settled down a little. Her sister-in-law had pulled into a Dillon’s parking lot, she explained, when the tornado caught the truck and sent it airborne.

“She blacked out; the truck was either rolling and/or spinning,” Carolyn wrote. “(It) ended up at (the) other side of the parking lot, as it smashed into concrete at (a) former mailbox/ATM site. She’s beat up, cut, bruised with debris imbedded, very thankful to be alive. Her left ear (was) totally occluded with dirt.”

It was a weekend for stories like that. I used to live in Emporia, Kansas, just down the road from Reading; I knew places there, knew people there. Many of those people knew still more in Joplin.

I found myself hunting names on Facebook, chasing news accounts, trying to pick anything out of the chaos, post by post.

“Add the (Reading) town hall to the buildings that were damaged, while the senior center, according to KVOE, was ‘virtually destroyed’…”

“They are saying debris (from Joplin) fell as far away as Springfield …”

“I’m fine, just hail damage and a couple of missed heart beats…”

“My sister’s niece was found dead. She worked at a Pizza Hut on Range Line Avenue …”

When all that starts to surround you like a sea, you become strangely charged and strangely numb at the same time. You need to know more, yet you fear to know too much, lest it break your heart.

And in the midst of it all, you learn what important really is.

Important is the friends and family you’d barely thought about until you realized you might never see them again.

Important is the home that’s always been just a place to land until that place became nonexistent.

Important is the job you’ve grumbled at for years, never thinking it might suddenly vanish tomorrow.

When loss threatens to become real, we learn where our heart is. When the tornado’s on the horizon, we know what we have to save.

Let’s find that perspective now. All of us. We need to learn to value these things in the calm before the storm. To live, not just exist. To hold others close and be held while the skies are clear and the time can be enjoyed.

Tomorrow, it could all be gone with a puff of wind.

But today we have.


The Fears of a Clown

Ladies and gentlemen, your next Nobel Peace Prize winner: Ronald McDonald.

OK, that may overstate the case a little. But McDonald’s has been just a wee bit on the defensive lately. Especially since a watchdog group called for the hamburger chain’s world-famous clown to hang up his big, floppy shoes.

Why? Because Ronald McDonald – shh, don’t let this get out – has been encouraging kids to eat unhealthy food.

The horror!

I can only imagine that all of you were as shocked as I was to discover that McDonald’s  — a company built around the sale of hamburgers – has been using Ronald McDonald – the only being in corporate life with brighter hair than Donald Trump – to MAKE CHILDREN WANT TO EAT HAMBURGERS!  I mean, next people will be saying that ExxonMobil encourages folks to pump gas.  Where does it end?

But as horrifying as this undoubtedly was to you and me, it seems to have hit the folks at the top of the Golden Arches even harder.  Ronald McDonald is not just some corporate shill, they’ve insisted. Why, he’s a smiling, happy face for the world, Mother Teresa in barber-pole socks.

“He is an ambassador of McDonald’s and he is an ambassador for good,” McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner said at the company’s annual meeting.

An ambassador for good?


Far be it from me to disparage Ronald’s credentials as our next Secretary of State. After all, one could also make a case that the Marlboro Man encouraged healthy, outdoor living. But let’s be honest. Ronald is there to sell a product and do a job.

Don’t fire him for that.

Fire him because he doesn’t do the job very well.

My sisters and I have childhood memories of Ronald McDonald. They have withstood the years; they may well withstand attempts at psychoanalysis. I suspect many of our old classmates would feel the same.

Because the fact is, Ronald McDonald scared the bejeebers out of most of us.

It’s one of those bizarre facts of childhood.  Clowns are supposed to be fun, jolly, enjoyable. But most young children I’ve known (my youngest sister especially included) find them to be utterly terrifying. Our fears may not go to the extremes of Stephen King’s “It,” but they’re knocking on doors in the same neighborhood.

Now add in a clown who’s all but ubiquitous. One who hangs out with bizarre hallucinogenic creatures like Grimace.  Who could show up without warning  at your birthday party.

That’s not an ambassador of good. That’s an unsettling neighbor you’re just as happy to have stay on the TV, thank you. The public even seems to agree – a 500-person survey by a company called Ace Metrix found that most people considered the grand old clown “creepy.”

So don’t blame obesity on Ronald McDonald. As I’ve said before, parents have wallets and minds and choices. They can exercise all three at their discretion.

But please. Retire the clown. Leave his name on the charity if you wish, but let Mr. McDonald enjoy a well-earned rest in Castle Rock, Maine, or wherever he hangs his wig.

Do it. Do it now.

The parents of a million sleepless children will forever thank you.


When the Donald fired himself, the crowd cheered.

It almost made you feel for the guy. Almost.

But of course, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about.

For those who have holed up in a Montana cabin away from the daily news, Donald Trump threw in his cards on Monday. No presidential run for the abrasive tycoon and reality-show host, even though he was quick to assure everyone that he would have been able to


I know, some people would love to make Hillary Clinton disappear. But perhaps not quite like this.

In case you missed the hoorah, go ahead and Google two words: Der Tzitung. That’s a Hasidic Jewish newspaper out of Brooklyn, one of many papers that ran a photo of President Obama and his advisers watching a recording of the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

However, Der Tzitung’s picture had a slightly less crowded table. Hillary was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the only other woman in the picture, counterterrorism director Audrey Tomason. I don’t just mean they were cropped, they were simply … not there.

You got it. PhotoShop strikes again.

The Great Whom?

OK, quiz time. The Great Lafayette is or was:

A) The town right next to the Great Louisville and not far from the Pretty Decent Broomfield.

B) The French officer who assisted the Amazing Washington before running foul of the Astounding French Revolution.

C) The newest menu item at the Sun Rose Cafe.

D) Some guy I’ve never heard of who’s dead.

Ding-ding-ding! All of you who raised your hands for D, go to the head of the line. Any of you who remembered what was so “great” about this Lafayette can go out for sundaes afterward.

I’m guessing there won’t be a huge throng at the Dairy Queen.

For those ready to throttle me, the Great Lafayette was a magician. No, he was THE magician – the highest-paid magician of his day, which ended rather abruptly in 1911 with a bizarre theatre fire that killed him and a body double. (Yes, that proved rather confusing to investigators at first.)

He was an international celebrity, known especially for a trick of changing a person into a lion. He was loved. He was hated. He was devoted to a dog given to him by Harry Houdini himself.

And until an NPR story about the anniversary of the fire a few days ago, I had never heard of him. Outside of the professional magic community and a few historians, I suspect I’ve got a lot of company.

One hundred years. Enough time to go from “Him!” to “Whom?”

OK, that’s not a new thought. Heck, Percy Bysshe Shelley burnished his own immortality with the idea that fame need not be immortal. Some of you may even remember his poem, “Ozymandias,” about an inscription to a forgotten king by a fallen memorial:

And on the pedestal these words appear,

‘My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings,

Look on my works, ye mighty and despair.’

No thing beside remains …

That’s usually meant to be a humbling thought. But it struck me that it can also be an oddly comforting one.

Think about it. Aren’t there some celebrities you would cheer to see forgotten in a century’s time?

It may be Justin Bieber. Or maybe Donald Trump. Perhaps David Blaine or Paris Hilton is the one who lights your ire, never mind the Charlie-who-will-not-be-named. It’s too much to hope that all their names would disappear from memory, of course. But even if just one or two devolved to some dusty recordings and the odd obscure history book … would that be so terrible?

So here’s to that fascinating, forgotten man, Sigmund Neuberger, the Great Lafayette. May he be remembered kindly as proof of the greatest magic trick of all: the ability to make a celebrity vanish into thin air.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and disappear.

Back Issues

I inherited many wonderful things from my parents. Blue eyes. A love of reading. A light-hearted sense of humor.

I also inherited their backbone. And unfortunately, that’s not a metaphor.

Especially not this week.

This week, my lower back muscles have done their earnest best to remind me that yes, I am one of the family. I’m not quite sure how it happened – bringing in one box too many from the garage? Twisting and reaching to wash the windowsills of my old place? – but one fine day, those muscles conspired to bring me more agony than a double-feature showing of “Ishtar” and “Battlefield Earth.”

Yes. That bad.

Many days later, with liberal applications of medicine, exercise, ice and self-pity, I am slowly on the mend. And in between the usual shrieks and moans, I think I’ve even managed to learn a few things.

I’ve learned that it is possible to get out of bed with a badly wounded back … if you’re willing to allow 40 minutes for experimentation.

I’ve learned that sofas and beds can be painful traps for those who forget lesson one.

I’ve learned that multiple one-to-two-hour naps, strung together, can equal a decent eight hours’ sleep. Barely.

I’ve learned that an inability to sleep can be an advantage when planning to see a royal wedding that starts at 4 in the morning.

I’ve learned just how common back problems are – and that everyone has their own solution. (“Have you tried a chiropractor?” “This stretch worked for me.” “You know, someone told me to sit on a gym ball for a while …”)

Most of all, I think I’ve learned that there’s a time to stop being stubborn. At least once, I pushed myself back to work before I was really ready, and paid for it. Another night, I went to bed feeling pretty good and confident that I’d be ready to go – only to wake up the next day as Frankenstein’s Outlet-Mall Monster again.

Sometimes you just have to be patient and let things take their own pace — and not just with spines. Let it be, as Mr. McCartney once said.

I’m trying. And I think I’m getting better at it. But I’m still looking forward to living another of Paul’s songs instead.

That’s right. I can’t wait to get my back to where it once belonged.

We Got Him. Now What?


After 10 years.

We got him.

If you need to ask who “him” is, then I hope the flight in from Mars was a comfortable one. Have a newspaper – yes, the one trumpeting the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The terrorist mastermind had surfaced and vanished so many times since the Sept. 11 attacks that it became a punch line, a sick and twisted version of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s verses: “They seek him here, they seek him there …”

But no one can run forever, it seems. And with Navy SEALs and the CIA dogging his heels, bin Laden was finally brought to bay in Pakistan and gunned down. The report is that he and his guards resisted. I’ll give our guys the benefit of the doubt on that one, although I suspect that a peaceful surrender was unlikely to be in the cards for this particular man:

“Pity we couldn’t bring him in, but he resisted. Right, boys?”

“Yes, SIR!”

In many ways, this simplifies what could have been a complicated situation: how to try him and where, how to protect the sites of his judgment and incarceration, and so on. It wouldn’t have been pretty, even if it would have been gratifying to see this man made one more prisoner with a roommate named “Bubba.”

But it doesn’t solve everything. And there’s a lot of “everything” left ahead.

Does it mean the end of Al-Qaeda? Probably not, though I suspect the faction fighting is about to become vicious. Ten years is enough time to train some bloody men with bloody minds, one of whom is likely to grab the reins sooner or later.

Does it mean a better, safer world? Maybe a little bit, in the long term. Right at the moment, it may actually amp the danger up a bit, as would-be holy warriors try to avenge the death of their icon.

Does it mean an end to the war in Afghanistan? Again, maybe, maybe not. A lot will depend on how many fighters lose heart, how many steel themselves to go down swinging and how quickly we can take advantage of the internal chaos.

A key chapter is over. But there’s still a lot of the book to go.

Right now, the biggest edge may be psychological – a demonstration that no matter who you are or how skilled you may be, we will catch up with you some day. That sends a message to friend and foe alike. And an important one.

In the end, wars are won by the side that quits last. Firepower, logistics, tactics can all make a big difference but in the end, it comes down to this: a war ends when one side can no longer see a hope of victory. Even the biggest battalions mean nothing if the men and women in them don’t see their cause as worth dying for.

Maybe this will make a difference. Maybe. I hope and pray so, anyway.

For now, we know this: a criminal with blood-soaked hands is dead. Whatever happens next, he will have no hand in it, no chance to shape it with his own will.

For now, that will have to suffice. For now, we celebrate that.

And then, we shall see about tomorrow.