Of Words and Westings

“Hold on, Missy wants to talk to you,” Heather said over the phone. I raised an eyebrow in surprise, but waited.
“Hi …” came a familiar, querulous voice.
“Hi, Miss. How’s today going?”
“ ‘Kay. … I wan’ go to pool.”
“You do, huh? Bowling, too?” I asked, throwing in an old favorite.
“Yeah ….” she said, adding a giggle.
By the time I hung up, I had to smile. It was one of the longest conversations we’d ever had.
I don’t mean to imply that Missy is unfriendly. Quite the opposite. She smiles easily, hugs warmly and in general is as pleasant a young woman as a guardian could ask for.
But between her disability and maybe a little bit of shyness, she doesn’t say much. Most of what she has to say is done through gestures, expressions, and a brief second or two of speech; brief enough that she gets reminded every so often to “use your words.”
There are exceptions. Sometimes glorious ones. The most notorious came a few years back, when her dad was driving with her and had a close call on the road. And suddenly, the young lady who says maybe a hundred words a week spoke up.
“Dammit, Frank! Are you trying to kill me?”
Jaws dropped. Followed by amazed laughter.
It’s a good reminder that a quiet mouth can hide a busy mind. Frankly, it’s a lesson I started to internalize close to 30 years ago, long before I ever met Missy.
Right about the time I first read The Westing Game.
If you’ve missed this children’s mystery by Ellen Raskin, check it out sometime. It’s a glorious, complicated puzzle of a story that doesn’t talk down to kids, delivering a group of characters that are well worth spending time with.
And one of the best parts – something I didn’t consciously think about until spotting the book on the shelf the other day – is how often appearance fails to match reality.
Bride-to-be Angela seems beautiful and content – but constantly doubts herself inside, wondering what she has to do to be seen as more than a “pretty young thing.”
The elderly delivery boy Otis Amber seems almost imbecilic – but a quick peek in his thoughts reveals someone startlingly perceptive.
Or the greatest contrast of all, the 15-year-old Chris, kept in a wheelchair by a muscular condition, barely able to speak clearly – but his internal monologue is fluent and fluid, revealing the fine mind that his traitorous body won’t let him express.
Words unsaid. But not unthought. And when the window opens, however briefly, the reality can be startling – and sometimes gratifying.
Missy’s been using more words lately. She’s even been singing along with some of our CDs, making up in heart for what she lacks in clarity. Maybe it’s a sign that she’s getting more comfortable. Maybe something’s giving her a little more control. Whatever it is, it’s wonderful to hear.
A word to the wise, they say, is sufficient.
But a word from the silent is golden.

No Room

When the planes struck, the call came. Some of our finest responded.
It’s been 10 years. This time, the call isn’t coming.
And that is a shame beyond words.
I’m sure you’ve heard the news by now. You’d almost have to have been a mile beneath Ground Zero to have missed it. On Sept. 11, New York City is holding a ceremony to remember THE Sept. 11. Political leaders will be there. The family of those killed will be there.
The firefighters and other first responders who came to the Towers won’t be. Not enough room.
At the moment, my indignation is mixed with a reluctant nod toward the logistics of the situation. On the day the Towers fell and in the days that followed, for example, there were 91,000 emergency workers on the site from across the country. Never mind the others who could reasonably claim a right to be there, such as the family of those who survived 9/11 – who also haven’t been invited, by the way; they’re on standby in case someone cancels.
If everyone who had been touched by 9/11 came to the ceremony, New York State wouldn’t be big enough to hold them all. Never mind New York City.
But at the same time, it is a shame.
If ever there was a moment when this nation came together, it was Sept. 11, 2011. It was when firefighters and police became national heroes, when politicians could briefly join hands instead of put up fists, when you could look at your neighbor across the street and say the mantra usually reserved for Thanksgiving: “Maybe we don’t agree on everything, but we’re still family.”
To reduce all that to a squabble over who can or can’t be in the crowd on the day seems silly. Even embarrassing.
A compromise, perhaps, could have worked. I think in our hearts, everyone knows everyone can’t go. The space in our hearts for that day is endless; the space on the ground is starkly limited.
But on a day of symbols, why not a few more?
Why not, say, 100 New York first responders from that day? Why not choose two each from every other state across the country, representing all those who lent a hand in a dark hour? Why not do the same with the families of the survivors, and all the others you can think of – a symbolic number to represent the many, many behind them, united with those who had lost so much?
The actual names could have been chosen by lot. There’d still be some grumbling, sure – we didn’t stop being human on 9/11 – but it wouldn’t be the deep resentment of a just honor denied.
Too late now, I know. Maybe something to consider for the 15th or the 20th.
For now, maybe it’s just enough to try to get some of that old spirit back. To recall that wherever we were, the attacks touched us, that wherever we are, we can remember.
Remember those who fell.
Remember those who lived.
Remember that out of many, we are still one.
I hope, in the end, we can all find room for that.

A Big Thanks to a Small Dog

The news came. We’d hoped it wouldn’t. Feared it would.

Charlie was gone.

You know how families often have two dogs, one regular and one travel-size? Charlie was my parents’ travel-size dog, a probable Schanauzer mixed with just about everything else, small and gray and full of love.

None of us were ready. I’m not sure we ever would have been.

It began a few days ago in a sand pile. While going after something else, Charlie managed to eat a lot of sand. As in the stuff that glass comes from, and about as kind to a canine’s insides.

Then came the vets. The surgeries. The cautiously optimistic messages passed among the family; he was looking a little stronger, recognizing folks. Maybe he’d pull through. So many of our animals had, including Twinkle, Feline of Majesty, who’d recovered from a mini-stroke at 13 and gone on for four more years as though nothing had happened.

And then … it didn’t go so well. A choice had to be made. One too familiar to too many pet owners.

A kindness. We all know that. But it doesn’t make it hurt less.

When a pet enters a life, you invest it with a piece of your heart. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy for it to break when they leave. They’ve become friend and family, companion and partner, needing you and reflecting you at the same time.

It’s especially hard for my folks. They take in rescue dogs, the ones that have been abused and mistreated by others. With Mom and Dad, the animals get to see what love looks like, get to find a safe haven in a world that’s all too often given them nothing but cruelty.

Charlie was one, rescued from a puppy mill. Their full-size, Haley the beautiful, is another, a dog so timid that she made our own Duchess the Wonder Dog (also a frightened rescue pup) look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I had known Haley for four years before she would take food from my hand; before that, she would orbit at a distance, often glimpsed, seldom encountered.

She and Charlie were quite a team, Charlie a little more bold, Haley a little more careful. Each inseperable from the other. Both devoted to my parents.

That devotion, as always, went two ways.

Mom and Dad are protectors. Nothing less. Often much more.

But even protectors can’t stop everything.

Oh, how you wish you could.

And when the time comes – whether by age or accident – all you can do is say goodbye and hold them in your heart, where the memories will neither die nor tarnish.

It never feels like enough. But it’s what we have.

That and a lot of love that may someday find another heart to hold.

Thanks for living in ours, Charlie. Now and always.

Good boy.

One Day More

They called themselves the Battling Bastards of Bataan. Their story is well-known – a 65-mile march as Japanese prisoners of war in the Philippines, a march that killed 11,000 of them, just about one in every seven.

It’s a story Albert “Doc” Brown told a lot longer than anyone expected.

Brown died this week at 105, the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March and the three years of captivity that followed. He’d been battered and weakened by it all, so badly he couldn’t resume his stateside dental practice. So badly, his doctor told him to enjoy life while he could, because he wasn’t going to make it past 50.

He made it just a wee bit longer. And for three generations, a lot of people have wondered how.

“He had this incredible spirit to live and overcome,” his biographer Kevin Moore told the Associated Press.

Amazing? Yes. Incredible? I’m not sure. Incredible is literally something that can’t be believed. And I can believe that kind of stubborn spirit – I’ve seen it in the face of concentration-camp survivors, Battle of the Bulge veterans and others who had to endure constant, unrelenting trial.

It’s like trying to chew your way through solid rock. A bit here, a bit there, not able to see the end but not able to stop either.

Life becomes small bites. It has to. No one starts out saying “I’m going to survive three years in a camp” or “I’m going to tell my story 50 years after I should be dead.” It’s too big to contemplate. It crushes you if you try.

Most, I’ve found, told themselves “I’m going to make it through today.” That was enough.
And a lot of todays strung together look mighty impressive when you come out the other side.

One leukemia survivor I know is fond of the phrase “If you’re going through Hell, don’t stop.” He strung enough one-more-days together to eventually run a marathon.

A friend I met in Kansas, Jack Mandelbaum, survived three years in a ghetto and three more in the Nazi camps, as a teenager. He considered every day a victory over Hitler, another move in a game he planned to win. It’s a game he’s still winning.

Most of us won’t ever face anything like that. But we’ll face our own enduring horror, our own pain that has to be met. Our own trial that calls for just one more day of strength. And one more. And one more after that.

Steps in another march.

In a way, it’s its own kind of heroism. A kind that Captain Brown knew very, very well.

His own march has ended. But his journey lives on, an inspiration to others.

May your own road, whatever it may be, know the strength that he found.

Going With The Grain


“Scotty? I’m still not sick from the crackers.”

Next to “I do,” those were some of the most welcome words I had ever heard.

At long last, wheat was no longer the enemy.

For a while it had been up there like an Al Capone henchman. Not quite public enemy number one on the Heather Allergies o’ Death an’ Doom List – that’s fish, and probably always will be – but high enough to mandate a constant lookout in every hiding place.

Heather’s wheat allergy cropped up (sorry) while we were living in Kansas about 10 years ago. It didn’t take long to realize this was going to be a problem. Not only did that cut out 70 percent of the available Greart Plains dietary choices, it had a nasty habit of sneaking into most of the remaining 30 percent in disguise. The words “cross contamination” and “other ingredients include” became vital parts of our vocabulary.

The one consolation? A minor note Heather had run across somewhere saying that sometimes, after about a decade or so, some adult onset allergies calmed down or burned out. Nice to know, but not something you could count on.

Until about a week ago.

That’s when Heather noticed that some “contaminated” french fries didn’t get the usual response.

And followed it up by trying a few crackers. And a wheat tortilla.

And then, a day or two later, the ultimate test – breaded chicken tenders.

Nothing. Nada. Nyet.


It’s not a complete liberation – there’s still many other things on the Death an’ Doom List, including lactose, that merit careful attention. But it does remove a major roadblock and open up some choices.

It’s interesting, though. She’s glad to have wheat back. But after this long living without it, it’s not the burning need it would have once been.

Part of that’s the wider availability of gluten-free stuff these days, of course. But I think it goes a little farther than that. Just as time can build up a habit, time can break it down. You know you don’t need it. More importantly, you come to understand that even wanting it is an option.

For years, Heather and I couldn’t afford cable TV. Since we often lived in places with lousy over-the-air availability, that meant our TV got used almost entirely for recorded movies and video games. Books, computers and a dozen other things filled the gap.

A couple of months ago, we re-entered the cable world. And yes, we watch more than we did. (It was hardly possible to watch less.) But not heavily. Not compulsively. Just one more thing in a busy day.

All those years of a turned-off set had put things in perspective. And not just by fiddling with the remote.

More balance to a diet. More balance to a life. Not bad things, either of them.

You just have to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Or recognize when the two may be one and the same.

Hiding Democracy



Gutless wonders.

Pardon the temper. But for someone who believes in openness, there just aren’t strong enough words. Not for the Fort Morgan City Council that wants to hide from its voters. Nor for the Colorado Court of Appeals that wants to let them.

The council, you see, wants to be able to appoint committees by secret ballot – no record of which member voted for whom except for the final vote to confirm the winner. The court of appeals, in turn, has said there’s nothing in the Colorado “sunshine laws” to stop them.

“(The law) only requires that the public have access to meetings … and be able to observe the decision-making process,” the court ruled.

OK. Stop right there. First problem.

How do you observe a decision-making process when the most crucial part of the process is kept under wraps?

That’s not open. No more than if our own council debated by notes under the table, speaking only to cast a final vote – and not always then.

A sunshine law that allows that doesn’t deserve the name.

I’ve heard the arguments on appointing city committees before. They usually boil down to one simple stance: Feelings will be hurt. If John Smith applies for the Smallville  Quilt-Buying Commission and finds out that even Smith’s own councilman voted for someone else, he might be offended. Maybe enough to never apply for anything again.

You know something? Tough.

Democracy is not for sissies.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: this country was founded by people who didn’t fear to sign their names to a document that could hang them. Today, we don’t ask that local boards dare the hangman’s noose … just that they be accountable for their actions and that those actions stay in the public view.

After all, that public is who’s really in charge. The boards and councils work for us, not the other way around.

And any court or sunshine law that fails to acknowledge that has all the utility of  a chocolate teapot.

This case may go on to the Colorado Supreme Court. I hope it gets the hearing it deserves. And that Colorado’s voters get the answer they deserve.

Democracy doesn’t just mean being open for business.

In a democracy, being open is your business.

Only a Game

I can see the script now:

CAPTAIN: What’s the status of the fleet?

EXECUTIVE OFFICER: Hit pretty hard, captain. And we’re still no closer to finding the enemy. We’ve never seen opposition like this before …

CAPTAIN: B4? (Checks grid.) Damn. He sunk my battleship!

Yes, I’m serious. The film “Battleship,” based on the Milton Bradley game, is about to come to the big screen.

Talk about contemplating your naval.

Now, before I get too far in, I have to clarify: I’m not automatically against Hollywood adaptations. Some of the best films in history were taken from other works, including “Gone With The Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Ben Hur.”  Heck, even “Star Wars” and “The Magnificent Seven” were slightly reworked from great Japanese films.

But lately, doesn’t it seem like they’vre been scraping the bottom of the barrel?

First, it was the never-ending sequels. “Rocky V.” “Nightmare on Elm Street 23.” “Star Wars III that is really Star Wars VI: Revenge of the Numerophobic.”

Then the marquees began to look like a TV Guide from the 1970s or ‘80s, blaring out the questionable virtues of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Garfield” and now the lowest blow of all, “The Smurfs.” (Sometimes nostalgia is best left buried, you know?)

But the strangest times are when Hollywood needs to ransack the toy cupboard. And for every clever, entertaining film like “Clue,” there seem to be a dozen like “Battleship” or “Candy Land.”

Yes, of course there’s a Candy Land movie coming out. Aren’t you just anticipating those 3-D animated gumdrops? And I hear the gingerbread sequence is mind-blowing …


Still, few things have more inertia than Hollywood in the grip of a bad idea. And even camera crews and sound-effect editors need to eat. So in the spirt of “If you can’t beat them, join them,” may I offer the following? Remember, I get 5 percent of the gross:

* “Slinky.” It was born in a mad scientist’s lab. Now it’s loose. And the soft whisper of its metal coils as it follows you downstairs may be the last thing you ever hear …

* “Monopoly.” Danny DeVito is Rich Uncle Pennybags, out to build an empire. But small things can change your life, and Pennybags is about to learn about love through the unlikely intervention of a thimble, a dog and an old shoe.

* “Risk.” Humanity’s planet is no longer its own, thanks to invaders from outer space. Now, from Irkutsk to Argentina, it is time for resistance to rise in one last desperate bid for freedom.

* “Simon.” The message of lights and tones came from beyond the stars. But can humanity’s greatest computer programmers unravel it before the visitors come and find only “unintelligent animals” on Earth?

Wait a minute. That last one sounds familiar.

All right, Mr. Spielberg. The jig is up. Come along.

Don’t toy with me now.

Off Track

 I woke up to hear KidzBop blaring from Missy’s room.

Well … KidzBop mixed with Woody Woodpecker, anyway.

“…Come tomorrow, it will seem so yester … so yest … so yes-yes-yes-yes-yes ….”

Groan. Stuck CD. Time to skip it to the next track.

Don’t you wish Congress was as quick to figure that out?

We spent most of the summer listening to that broken record, the long, bloody debt ceiling debate that at times had all the intellectual rigor of a playground argument.

“You move first!”

“No, YOU move first!”


And while the politicians played their little game of chicken with the nation’s financial standing, millions were left waiting to see if the oncoming trucks would crush them in between … including Missy, who receives disability aid from Social Security.

That’s not something I take very kindly.

I’m not saying the deficit doesn’t need addressing. It’s needed it for years, especially after the bills rung up in the last decade with no visible means of support. But when there’s an immediate crisis, that needs to be your priority. Put out the fire, then you can handle the dry rot.

Picture a young man named Sammy. He got his books in order about 10 years ago, then decided to go part-time at work so he could enjoy life a little more. No problem, except that he kept up his expenses as though he were still full time. I’ll grant you, at some point, Sammy has to either cut his expenses or go back to full-time to bring in more money – probably both.

But if Sammy has a mortgage payment due in two days on pain of foreclosure, that’s got to be the top of the list. Even if it means borrowing some more cash to do it. It’s not a good situation – but getting thrown out of your house by the sheriff is a worse one.

You know it. I know it. Many in Congress took months to figure it out. They stayed stuck on the same point, unable to move on, convinced that “compromise” meant “I get what I want no matter what.” And why not? Their checks weren’t in danger of getting stopped.

Frankly, Missy’s scratched CD was more entertaining.

Funny thing. If a CD skips too often, sooner or later, it gets replaced with one that works. Think that works with Congresses, too?

Because honestly, this one seems so yesterday.