Smart Alex

It was the Monday to beat all Mondays.

Missy’s cold had developed a cough that sounded suspiciously like bronchitis.

A basement pipe had sprung a slow leak, leaving a mess to be mopped up by the time the drip was found.

One of our eight birds, a tiny zebra finch named R2 (his sibling is D2) was found dead in his cage. No obvious reason, just … gone.

To paraphrase the commercial, we were stressed more by 11 a.m. than some people get all day. Forget staying in bed. I just wanted to hide under it.

It was more than Monday. It was an Alexander day.

Those of you well-versed in 1970s children’s literature know exactly what I mean. You’re the ones who have read the timeless classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day.

I grew up on the book, which lovingly details all the minor horrors that can happen to a grade-school child in one 24-hour period: waking up with gum in your hair, biting your own tongue, slugging someone who’s teasing you and then getting the blame. It’s an endless rain of trouble, culminating in Alexander’s wish that he could run away and live in Australia.

The curious thing about the book is there’s no magic resolution. No neat tying-up. Just a reassurance from Mom that everyone has bad days, “even people in Australia.”

Sometimes, it seems, all you can do is go along and ride it out. Even people in storybooks.

I’ll add just one thing. If you’re lucky, you also remember the difference between bad and annoying.

We’ve all had plenty of annoying. Go online and you’ll find the litany, mine included. Changes to Facebook. Self-service grocery lines. The latest celebrity nuisance, hyperinflated to Major Media Importance.

It’s safe enough stuff to vent at, I suppose, and we’ve all got to let off a little steam here and there. But too long among the gripes and grumbles can cost you perspective. You forget what bad looks like, the stuff that causes real pain, real discomfort, real problems and loss.

And then one day you see the pipe. You find the bird. You hear the rasp.

You realize where your priorities need to be.

And maybe, maybe, when the day is done, you realize how lucky you are after all.

Because it’s only after the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Days that you can remember that. That’s when you remember the friends who offered help and the strangers who offered understanding. Like the county official who helped straighten out Missy’s paperwork on short notice. Or the smiling friend provided conversation and laughter till 10:30 at night. Or the thousand other small blessings that usually slip by unnoticed – until the horrible days throw them into relief.

I’ll be honest. I still wouldn’t repeat Monday for the world. I don’t think any human in their right mind would.

But the lessons. The perspective. Those I’ll keep.

Those are the treasures buried in muck, waiting to be uncovered. And everyone needs them.

Even people in Australia.

Unexpected Journey

If I had blinked, I might have missed it.

Heather was on the phone. That meant my eyes were on our not-quite-one-year-old niece Riley, our regular Monday lodger, to make sure she didn’t crawl out of the living room at warp speed and into the kitchen, long established as Not For Babies.

No worries. Riley was standing still.

No. No, wait.

“Honey …” I said softly, trying to get my wife’s attention.

Slowly, carefully, Riley had taken a small step forward. Then another. Then stood still again. No pratfall. No leaning.

No kidding.

Her first steps. My first “first.”

And like that, a trying day became glorious.

I’ve always said life’s as much about the journey as it is the milestones. But there is something powerful about being there, then. Of course, many of those markers can be seen a long way down the road, from the first day of school to the wedding day.

Powerful moments to be sure. But it’s the ones that come out of the blue that can sandbag you, turning your world upside down in an instant. They don’t look to any calendar, don’t keep to any schedule.

You’re unprepared. And as you get pushed from the high dive, the rush can be spectacular.

Curiously, for a moment, I couldn’t help thinking of Twinkle.

Twinkle was our old cat, and an old cat she was in the end. Seventeen years she lived with us, queen of all she surveyed and terror of shopping bags and loose pieces of paper.

But for a while, we feared the run would stop at 13.

She stopped eating. We weren’t sure why, though a mini-stroke was the best guess. Feeding her became a daily chore of mashing food and medicine into a liquid and squirting it down her throat, while managing the trick of holding a wet, bedraggled cat in one place.

When my folks left on vacation and left me with her, they didn’t fully expect to see her again. We hadn’t given up – we still set food in her dish every night, just in case – but the trend wasn’t good.

The first night they were gone, I sighed. Gathered up the stuff to feed Twinkle. And looked in the dish.

There was food missing.

I blinked. And out of nowhere, hope came rushing in like an express bus.

No warning. No time to prepare. Just, BAM!

And all the more wonderful for it.

Riley’s first unaided journey didn’t last long. She soon grabbed for the furniture again, side-stepped over, helped herself down. It didn’t matter. Her walking had us flying.

And it was the best unscheduled takeoff we’d ever had.

Game Face

Lexi Peters is a 14-year-old who really has her head in the game.

The video game, that is.

Peters’ face is now the default model for female hockey players in the new NHL video game by EA Games. It’s the first time in the series that the company has ever put virtual women on the virtual ice.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience for anybody,” series producer David Littman told the Tonawanda News after Peters’ letter to the company hit paydirt. A school hockey player herself, she had been frustrated that her brother could put a digital version of himself in the game, but she and her friends couldn’t.

“We wanted girls,” she said.

Now, I know some purists may be a little less than happy. (For the record, there has been one woman in hockey, goalie Manon Rheaume, who played for Tampa Bay in the preseason.) But let’s get serious.

Video game hockey needs no separate locker rooms.

Video game hockey players draw no sexual harassment lawsuits.

Video game hockey is, in fact, a creation of the imagination. A grown-up “Let’s Pretend” where someone can say: “If I were the coach/ If I were the star/ If I could be Matt Duchene for just one game….”

In fact, I’ll go a step further. Professional sports in general is an imaginary passion.

Most of us will never suit up for the Broncos or the Avalanche or the Rockies. In 99.99 percent of cases, our lives will go on the same as ever whether the Nuggets make the playoffs or camp out in the cellar. It’s a game, here today, gone tomorrow – just like many of the players these days.

And for a fan, everything I’ve just said is heresy.

Imagination and passion make every contest a milestone, every controversy a crisis. I suspect there’s more people out there who care about Tim Tebow versus Kyle Orton than did about Michael Bennett and Ken Buck a little while back. I mean, Bennett may be a U.S. Senator, but can he get 13 yards for the first down out of the shotgun?

They’re our players, despite every piece of evidence to the contrary. Through them, we are a piece of some of the best players in the world, somehow belonging even if we can’t do a single sit-up.

Given all that … and given the growing number of girls’ and womens’ teams out there, right down to that fantastic Olympic team … is it any wonder that women want to be part of it, too?

If a video game, a work of imagination depicting a work of imagination, can satisfy that, what’s the harm? Sure, there aren’t any women in the NHL now. But if you’re going to stick to strict realism, you might as well throw out player-created characters all together, throw out trades, throw out any game record that gives the Avalanche more than 30 wins.

Throw out the “game” part of the game, in other words. At that point, you might as well buy a DVD.

And who knows? One day, real hockey may again catch up to its mirror image. It might even be Peters who does it.

After all, she’s already won one faceoff.

Just the Right Thing

A lot of churches like to say they’re built on the rock. But the Christchurch Cathedral may be going down the tubes instead.

The last time most of us on this side of the water saw the New Zealand cathedral, it had been ruined by a massive 6.3 earthquake. But now plans are coming together for a temporary replacement – one built from cardboard tubes.

No, this isn’t April 1. And no, the congregation isn’t grabbing a couple of refrigerator boxes as well and parking themselves under a bridge.

“The strength of the building has nothing to do with the strength of the materials,” Japanese architect Shigeru Ban told Inman News. “Paper buildings cannot be destroyed by earthquakes.”

I suppose I should feel inspired, or amazed, or even amused. And I do. But I suspect my core feelings are ones readily echoed by journalists across the country.

See! I knew those cardboard tubes would come in handy someday!

Like a lot of reporters, I’m a bit of a pack rat. OK, a lot of a pack rat. If there’s a chance something will have a use later – or even if it just seems kind of cool right now – away it goes.

Which is why I still have newspapers from my first job 13 years ago. Hey, I might need those clips for my next resume!

Or notes from a long-ago class on Media Law. It’s always good to have a quick reference handy…

Or even – yes – cardboard tubes from paper towel and wrapping paper rolls. You wouldn’t believe how many uses these things have!

Yep. If you need an emergency church built, I’ve probably got the materials right here. Including at least two old hymnals and a couple of spare Bibles.

I console myself that I haven’t reached Oscar the Grouch levels yet. Though every so often the Muppet’s old song rises up to taunt me:

I’ve a clock that won’t work and an old telephone,
A broken umbrella, a rusty trombone ….

Which leads me in turn to look at the stuff every so often and ask “OK. What on Earth am I actually going to do with this?”

Not a bad assessment, actually, for the physical or the psychic. A lot of us carry a lot more baggage through life than we need and all some of it is good for is weighing us down and holding us to the spot. A little cleanup isn’t a bad thing.

Then again, you never know. I can see where even my most painful memories have built me rather than broken me – the junior high bullying, say, that left a lasting empathy for the pain of others. And even the silliest incidents and little-used skills have found an outlet somewhere. I mean, if even the mock Christmas carols of my childhood can turn into a column (“While shepherds washed their socks by night …”), who knows what else may prove useful?

You can take that to church. Even to Christchurch.

Don’t forget your cardboard.