Matching Volume

Imagine an on-stage debate.

On one side, we have Bob Boomer. Bob’s bought himself a state-of-the-art microphone and sound system. His every breath echoes to the back of the room – heck, probably to the back of New Mexico.

On the other, we have Eric Lowrent. He’s got nothing but the lungs and vocal cords God gave him. Outshouting Bob is going to be like outrunning a locomotive: not going to happen unless your last name’s Kent.

So, to keep things fair, the moderator gets Eric a mike, too. And Bob cries foul. “I paid good money to be the loudest man in this debate! You’ve got no business siding with him!”

This week, the Supreme Court sided with Bob.

Naturally, the real-world decision had more to do with dollars than decibels. Specifically, the Court struck down a law that let Arizona give additional money to publicly-financed political candidates who were being badly outspent by a privately-financed opponent and his or her allies.

Why? According to the majority, because it violated the privately-financed candidate’s First Amendement rights.

“Burdening the speech of some … to increase the speech of others is ‘a concept wholly foreign to the First Amendment,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. The “burden” in this case, according to the argument, is the private candidate’s reluctance to put more dollars into a campaign that is only going to be countered by automatic funding to an opponent.

Because, you know, his speech has been so little heard and so ineffective already.

I’m not saying Arizona’a law is perfect. It was, after all, created by politicians. But the decision on it seems to be taking place in a fun-house mirror. Just as in our hypothetical debate, the intent is not to shout  priately-backed candidates off the stage – probably impossible in any event – but to make sure that publicly-financed candidates get heard at all.

In an era where free speech can be very expensive, this isn’t squelching debate. It’s encouraging it.

Or it was. Now it’s mainly a set of restrictions on candidates without much in the way of compensating advantages.

Given that, why would any rational human being accept public financing in the first place?

Maybe I’m missing something. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe there’s a good reason for a candidate to tie both hands behind her back rather than dive into the world of high-roller funding … or to simply turn her back on the whole affair and leave politics to the people who can afford it.

I’m willing to listen. Always.

But get your own microphone.

This one’s mine.

Prom Night

Missy hopped in place, a brilliant smile flashing.

She twisted to the left. To the right. Then took my hand and began to swing it to the sky and back again.

After all, if you can’t cut loose at the prom, when can you?

For Missy, this might as well have been heaven on Earth. More specifically, it was a huge dance for disabled adults at a church in Lafayette.  A chance to dress up, eat up, meet up, and dance the night away to a pounding beat played Missy-style – in other words, loud enough to bring down the snowpack on Longs Peak.

Me? I was the accidental date. Exactly one caregiver could come along,  and that was going to be my wife Heather. But when Heather took ill, it was time to dive into the jacket and tie for my first non-wedding dance since …

Since …

Good grief. Junior high school?

If I’m exaggerating, it’s not by much. From seventh to 12th grade, I attended exactly one school dance. I skipped my prom. Even at later functions, like my old church’s “Ground Zero,” I typically hovered around the air hockey table instead of the dance floor.

The reasons were simple:

1) I possessed the agility, grace and dancing skill of an epileptic manatee.

2) I rarely, if ever, had anyone to go dancing with.

3) I somehow knew, with a certainty that bordered on religious faith, that the minute I started my paltry excuse for dance moves, every eye in the room would be on me. Sort of the way you watch a traffic accident, but with more wincing.

Hines Ward, I was not. I’m not even sure I was Montgomery Ward.

But joining Missy that night, I realized how little it really mattered.

Missy picked up the dancing bug from her parents, especially her mom (who used to cut a mean Jitterbug).  And despite everything, she has a dancer’s heart. Physical limitations? Pshah. This is music we’re talking about here!

Shy? Sometimes. But rarely for long. And once she’s out there, it doesn’t matter who sees. It’s not about technique, it’s about joy. About enthusiasm. About fun.

There’s a lot worse ways to approach a dance floor. Or anything else.

That night, we danced on: Missy, me and a couple of volunteers there to guide us around and make us welcome. There was no adolescent awkwardness, no one judging, just more fun than any of us could have imagined.

I’ve rarely seen Missy quite so tired as she was on the drive home. Or quite so ecstatic. She still keeps her water bottle door prize close at hand, a small memory of an unforgettable night.

Me? I’ve got my own memories. And a picture or two. And just maybe a little more confidence than before.

After so long, it’s nice to finally get in step.

I Am Me … Aren’t I?

“Yes, I’m sure I don’t want to further my education,” I said into the phone.

It was the second call I’d gotten that day. And considering I already have a master’s degree, a bizarre one.

“Well, on the survey you filled out …”

“I already said, I didn’t fill out any survey,” I answered. Good grief, was this an identity theft?

“I am sorry, Mr. … is it Ra-SHED?”

Well, that was a new one.

“No, Ro-SHAY.”

“Spelled R-A-S-H-I-D?”

Oh. Good. Grief.

“No. Definitely not.”

I suppose I should have been expecting this. After all, Rochat isn’t the easiest name in the universe to start with. As I’m fond of saying, everyone who can spell it can’t say it, and everyone who can say it can’t spell it.

But even accounting for that, every two or three years,  the name situation falls into the Twilight Zone. .

The most innocuous one started right after I married Heather and moved to Kansas. For some reason, every third piece of junk mail I received was addressed to Steve Rochat of Garden City. Since my Uncle Steve was living in Loveland at the time, it just seemed an odd coincidence.

Then came the bill collection calls in Emporia. Apparently a Scott Rochat of San Diego (yes, another one!) had left some impressive bills and some tenacious creditors behind him.  We’d clear it up, hang up, and a month later, yet another half-recorded robocall would be left on our answering machine to CONTACT US IMMEDIATELY REGARDING ….

Now this. Scott Rashid?

The curious thing is, there is a Scott Rashid in this area. A brief search online found him in Estes Park, a kindly-looking expert in bird rehabilitation, particularly small owls.  For a moment, I almost regretted being the wrong man … his life looked like an interesting and worthy one to have.

It’s an odd feeling, really, to get a brief window on someone else’s life.  Irritating at first, maybe, but ultimately fascinating. It gets you thinking about your own life and identity for a moment, the roads you might have taken, the choices you didn’t make.

It’s funny, the kind of soul searching you can get from a wrong number.

For now, the results satisfy. I’m certainly glad not to be in major debt. I’m satisfied not to be another Stephen Rochat (my uncle and cousin carry off that role quite well, I’m glad to say). I even feel pretty good about the educational choices I made – though I suppose, one day, I may yet consider that doctorate.

Who knows?

Oh, and Mr. Rashid?  If you start getting people telephoning you about some Sunday column you’ve never heard of, you have my deepest, deepest apologies.

Call me sometime, and we’ll sort it all out.

Keeping The Light On

When speaking to a local writing group, some people might talk grammar or style. Others might get into characterization or even publishing contracts.

I talked about light bulbs.


You might have even heard of this one: the undying light bulb of the Livermore, Calif. fire department. Built by a competitor of Thomas Edison’s, the bulb has yet to burn out. After 110 years.

There have been a lot of news articles and just as many theories as to why the bulb still works, I told the Longmont Writer’s Club a few mornings back. Some think the bulb is exceptionally well built,  maybe possessing an unusual filament. Some note that the bulb doesn’t run brightly, maybe four watts out of a possible 60, which may help extend its life. Finally, there’s the fact that it’s rarely ever turned off.

“In all honesty, ” I said, “I can’t think of a better metaphor for the writer’s life.”

I’ve kept at this curious trade for 13 years. I haven’t burned out yet. Some of it may be talent or good training. Some of it may be that I shoot things out 500 or 600 words at a time instead of trying to bite off a full 50,000-word novel at a go.

But I really think the biggest part is that I’m never “off.” I’m still curious. Still interested. And still caring.

At its heart, writing is caring. Nothing less.

I first really learned that in sixth grade, in a writer’s workshop with Dan Simmons. Now a bestselling novelist, Dan was a teacher then, and had given us a basic opening assignment: write a descriptive scene. It could be fiction. It could be non-fiction. But it had to be well-described.

So I wrote about our living room.

Never before or since has a living room been written about in such detail. The number of chairs. The color of the couch. The bean bags, just a hop and a jump from the TV. It was a verbal photograph and, as it turned out, the only non-fiction assignment to be turned in.

Dan took one look and pronounced it boring.

“I want to know a story,” he told us. “What happened here? Is there a bean bag that swallowed someone up, never to be seen again?”

He was right. It was flat. It was dull. It was a homework assignment, slapped together that morning.

It could have detailed any number of things the room had seen. Our terrifying and tragic dog, Daisy. My father’s brief obsession with Atari video games. The sewing needles that my sisters accidentally left in the carpet at times, waiting for an unwary foot. Those had been things that excited fear, or amusement, or memories.

Instead, I didn’t care. And because I didn’t, a reader had no reason to.

It was a lesson that lasted.

To this day, I will often start a column by typing the words WHY DO I CARE? As a reporter, discovering someone else’s answer to that question is one of my great delights in life. Few things are more wonderful to hear someone explain a passion, whether it’s for teaching World War II or building art from cardboard boxes.

They care.

Listening to them, I do, too.

The science fiction editor Ben Bova once said that no one can pay people enough money to do a job they hate. The converse is true as well: no amount of money can beat the satisfaction of a job that is loved. (Though I’d love to make that experiment some time.)

And the best part is, it’s contagious – when a writer, or a doctor, or a pizza maker likes what they do, some of that satisfaction passes outward. To this day, I still remember a chocolatier in Georgetown who sang with delight as he worked, whose shop I could never leave without a smile.

Why do you care?

Find that answer. Pass it on.

And in the end, everyone’s light bulb will burn just a little bit longer.

Virtual Stupidity, Real Consequences

And now for Life Surprise No. 357: When judges say “Don’t talk,” they mean it.

Seems obvious. But perhaps not to Joanne Fraill. She just became the first-ever British juror to be found in contempt of court for contacting a defendant on Facebook.

Yes, really.

The result? One eight-month sentence for Fraill, one wasted trial costing six million pounds, and one seriously ticked-off court system.

“Whether you communicate by Facebook, whether you research on the internet, whether you talk over your garden fence … you must understand when you take an oath as a member of a jury, when you disobey that oath … and it is discovered, you may very well be held in contempt,” Solicitor General Edward Garnier told Reuters afterward.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. For all its ubiquity in our lives – maybe even because of it – we have a way of treating the Internet as not quite real, a virtual Las Vegas where actions have no consequences.


It’s not a black hole. It’s not a Clark Kent-style phone booth. If anything, the Web in general and Facebook in particular is a stadium that seats millions. It feels anonymous, but any neighbor can overhear you, any photographer can grab a quick picture, and any individual can end up on the JumboTron for all the world to see.

And even there, talking remains talking. And rules remain rules.

In a world of virtual crowds and pseudo-anonymity, maybe it’s time for us all to remember Mom’s Restaurant Rule: don’t say anything in public that you wouldn’t want repeated and known. The rule saw its most frequent application when we went out to eat, a reminder that the subject of a critical remark might be sitting at the next table.

And there’s nowhere more public than the Internet.

I hope Fraill learns from this. I hope others can profit from it. If nothing else, maybe it can break through the solipsism that so often haunts the Net, the conviction that no rules, laws or feelings matter except one’s own.

At one time, Fraill might have shared that view.

She has quite a different conviction now.

Her Best Shot

“The doctor says it’s probably a Vitamin D deficiency,” Heather told me over dinner.

Like that, a rock fell off my shoulders.

No getting back on the carousel. Not yet, anyway.

I should explain that my wife Heather has more verified medical conditions than Heinz has varieties, from a plethora of allergies up through Crohn’s disease. But the major culprit in recent years has been ankylosing spondylitis – a jawcracker of a term for something very like spinal arthritis that can, over time, fuse the hip, the neck or the back.

(Still at sea as to how to pronounce it? Put on a recording of Mozart’s Requiem and sing along with me “AN-kuh-LOW-sing …. SPON-duh-LITE-uss!”)

It’s been held in check and even dialed down by a monthly shot, which appears to be manufactured from gold dust, diamonds and the ground-up remains of a Hank Aaron rookie card.  We’ve gladly kept it going, relieved to see Heather re-enter the semblance of a normal life again.

But there’s always been some nervousness, too. Any day could re-open the carousel for business.

The carousel is how I think of Heather’s bewitched immune system. Remember that army of allergies I mentioned? Many of them are to medicines and shots, developed out of a clear blue sky just when something was working. More than once, it’s come after three days or so.

Start that up, and we get to go round and round looking for a new treatment. And with A.S, there aren’t many.

So when some mysterious aches, pains and fatigue began to appear, I was … well, anxious was an understatement. It’s a little like calling Clark Kent mildly concerned about the fate of Lois Lane.

And with each reprieve, I get reminded how lucky Heather and I truly are.

If we lived in a less medically fortunate age …

If we had less access to decent insurance …

If her immune system was even more psycho than it is …

If, if, a thousand if’s.

Funny thing about an uncertain future. It makes you really grateful for the today’s. And really determined not to waste them.

That’s not a bad thing. Not at all.

For now, the carousel’s closed. If we’re lucky, the shots will keep coming as though from an Indiana Jones handgun – plentiful and timely.  But even if the wheel starts up again, we know how blessed we’ve been.

The needles may just be for today. But the point will never be lost.

It’s An Education

I’ve been a government reporter for most of my career. So when it comes to official documents, I’m used to the long, the obscure, the dull.

Even so, when a friend forwarded me the new state P.E. standards, my jaw dropped.

“Two hundred-plus pages?”

Granted, it’s a matter of perspective. Two hundred pages would be a short novel.  As a reference book, it might even seem skimpy.

But when setting forth the list of what needs to be learned, from grade school to high school, in physical education and health, it feels a tad …excessive.  Even at a mere 17 pages or so per grade level.

And then, it hit me.

Of course!

These weren’t just the standards for fighting obesity among Colorado’s young people. This was the solution. Just issue a copy to every student and there’s no end to what you could do, even in the most budget-strapped of schools.

Toss the manual back and forth, and you have a medicine ball workout.

Have the students set their volumes on the track, and you have a low  hurdles course. Do the same on the gym floor, and you have a vaulting horse.

Lie back with it on your chest and you have the start of a bench press routine.

Why, the possibilities go on and on,

Much like the standards, come to think of it.

OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. Still, everyone says we need creative solutions to get our children and our schools in better shape.  The tools for just such a solution may be at hand. Unintentionally, of course, but isn’t that always the way of it?

It’s certainly better than seeing it as a head-spinning amount of paper that’ll be obsolete before a first-grader ever reaches middle school.

And let’s face it. This would give a whole new meaning to the phrase “Pushing paper.”

OK, kids, let’s begin those reps! And one and two and ….

Memory in Bloom

I had come home late when I saw the roses.

Heather had been weeding the garden that day. And there, among the dirt and remains of unwanted visitors, were the little pinpricks of color, just starting to bloom. Yellow. White. Pink. Red.

We hadn’t planted roses.

But once upon a time, Heather’s grandmother had.

I’ve written about Grandma Val. She was one of Longmont’s “English ladies,” a proud daughter of Britain who crossed the ocean with an Air Force husband, a woman in love with dancing and tea and news of the royals.

And like so many women of England, Val loved her flowers.

Her garden was always a place of peace and beauty, a touch of color among the chaos of a large family. It was a welcome, a respite, a lift to the soul.

It, even more than the house, was home.

So when Heather and I moved into her old place a couple of months ago, we knew the garden would be a priority. Not an easy one – there would be a number of weeds to clear, a lot of ground to “awake” — but one we figured would be worthwhile.

We hadn’t expected to find buried – or rather, blooming – treasure, just waiting for us.

Val’s been gone for a little more than three years now. But the miniature roses are almost like a gentle touch from her, a soft smile reminding us of the legacy she left behind.

It’s funny how memories do that, isn’t it?

You can be living your life with all the normal aches, stresses and grumbles – a trio that kind of sounds like a personal injury law firm – and than all of a sudden, you fall into the gentlest ambush in the world. One that can almost bring tears to your eyes.

An old photograph.

A child’s smile that reflects the mother’s.

A scent in the kitchen, a sight in the garden …. all of them lie in wait for the unwary, guerillas of the heart.

And I wouldn’t do without them.

There’s a lot of work left to do. And I’m sure our backs will be regretting a lot of it before we’re done. But not our minds. Not our hearts. Not ever.

Not since the moment that memory rose.

Back to Bases


As the ball hit the infield, Missy came down the base path. One hand clung to her coach as he helped her toward home plate. The other waved as her eyes sought us out in the stands.

“All right, Miss!” Heather and I shouted.

Missy smiled. Brilliantly. Blindingly. Joyfully.

I’ve never enjoyed a softball game more.

Yes, our Miss Melissa has a second life as a softball star.  For years, she’s spent her summers on the Niwot Nightmares, a team of disabled players united by sun-yellow shirts and an unremitting love of the game.

Granted, this isn’t softball as it’s played at the company picnic. There’s no foul territory, no outs, no limit on the number of strikes you can take before a swing (alone or assisted).  There’s not even a scoreboard.

It doesn’t matter. Not a bit.

Don’t me get wrong. I’ve got nothing against games that have winners or losers. To my mind, one of the most harmful trends to ever hit a public school was the “everybody gets a blue ribbon” fixation, where achievement becomes meaningless and character-building is turned into esteem-buffing.

But there’s a place for joy, too. There’s a place for fun, and for laughter, and for remembering that we play games because they make us feel good. And in a life where even walking – or rolling – to first base can be an achievement, that lightness of spirit is all the more important.

Especially since it doesn’t stop with the players.

If you see a Nightmares game, watch the faces in the crowd. Watch the eyes sparkle and the lips smile. The enjoyment is contagious, the most elemental of all: watching someone you love do something they love, and feeling that love enter you.

In my short time of knowing Missy, I’ve felt that love a number of times.

While watching her link hands with my wife Heather and swing them in time to music,  dancing as only she can.

While seeing her reach out ever so gently for the hand of my infant niece, and then be touched in return.

And yes, while watching her swing a bat with her coach’s help and then smile at cute boys from her post at second base.

At those moments, life is good.

At those moments, we are truly a family.

They’re not stopping any time soon. Oh, the game’s in the books and the post-game celebratory dinner with it. But Missy and Heather tell me she’s got another big day coming soon – a bowling trip.

I can hardly wait.

The Wearin’ of the Grin

Attention,  nice guys of the world. Modern Science has something to say to you.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

That’s right. In yet another chapter of Science You Already Knew, researchers have demonstrated that women tend to be attracted to – get ready for this – jerks.

OK, that’s not exactly the conclusion that Canadian researchers reached in their latest study. But it’s close enough. Released in the psychological journal “Emotion,” the study found that smiling made men less attractive to women.  In short, nice guys finish last.

Now, I could have saved these scientists a lot of time and money just by giving them the short version of my high school years. We knew the guys whom girls made friends. And we knew the guys whom girls made boyfriends. A lot of times, the two didn’t have a lot of overlap.  It was sort of like seeing someone buy a “fixer-upper” from a real estate agent, only with more weeds and less return.

Admittedly, I could sit back and gloat to these bygone bad boys about my 13-year marriage and the similar experiences of my smiling friends. But let’s be fair. Let’s take the study seriously for a moment. To be darn-it-all handsome, what do you need to do?

* Be Sullen. Because nothing says sexy like an expression that says “The world can go to hell.”  Or maybe it says “I have terrible intestinal discomfort.”  Think James Dean or Elvis Presley. Preferably before their early deaths.

* Be Arrogant. Hey, it works for James Bond. Of course, anyone who falls in love with James Bond is doomed to either die at the hands of an insane supervillain or else live to be the guest host at sci-fi conventions for the rest of her natural life, so there’s a down side.

* Be Ashamed. You know the look. The Labrador retriever look that says “I’m really embarrassed about what you just caught me doing. And I’ll do it again. But come on … PUPPY DOG EYES!”  Not to be tried around ladies with large supplies of newspaper.

* Be Sparkly. Or don’t. Please, heaven above, don’t. One vampire that looks like Rainbow Brite’s unfortunate older cousin is more than enough for one lifetime.

Yes, with the right sort of effort, any woman can end up spending her declining years happily married to a grumbling guilt-tripping twit of a pretty boy. What joy!

Or they can sigh. Settle for second best. And marry some smiling boy next door who probably likes to bring them flowers instead of mooning over existential angst or his new Camaro.

What can I say? It’s a rough job.  But someone’s gotta do it.

And Modern Science will be forever grateful for our contribution.