And The Winner Isn’t

It’s Oscar time again. And I can’t help feeling the statue is well-named.

After all, who but a Grouch could manage to use the occasion every year to concentrate on the losers?

“Leonard DiCaprio, passed over for his portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover …”

“… the first time a Pixar film has not been nominated for Best Animated Feature … “

“Albert Brooks, in a tweet to the Academy, said: ‘You don’t like me. You really don’t like me.’ …”

And this year’s not that unusual.

Oh, sure, once the ceremony arrives, 73 percent of all the Academy Awards coverage will focus on some cute winner’s moment, like Roberto Benigni leaping chairs or Adrian Brody lip-locking Halle Barry. (The other 27 percent will basically say “She was wearing THAT?”) But even then, some snubs will become legendary on the scale of Hatfield-McCoy:

It all started, son, when yer Uncle Oscar went up to that Annie Hall tramp instead of that nice young Star Wars feller. (Spit) Now git lost and git Grandpa some more moonshine.”

Glory lasts a moment. Especially compared to the disbelief of seeing Alan Rickman passed over again.

It’s a strange thing, this fascination with the losers’ circle. And yet it’s oddly comforting, too.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to reaffirm our humanity.

Most of us don’t get to know what it’s like to be President of the United States, or to go to the Super Bowl, or to raise a trophy while Hollywood applauds in envy and appreciation. Granted, we have our triumphs – many of them far more meaningful over the long term – but rarely on a scale that would get that level of public adulation.

But we all know what it’s like to fall short. To not quite make it. To be almost good enough for something – but only almost.

And when we see it in another, however great or small, it’s hard to suppress a moment of sympathy.

The football fans among us know this already. What got more attention this last week? That the New England Patriots would be going to another Super Bowl? Or that their opponents had been one step shy of a winning touchdown, one kick shy of a tying field goal?

So close. So far. So familiar.

It’s different when it’s someone you dislike, of course. The Germans specifically invented the word schadenfreude for the not-so-guilty glee when an Oakland Raider or a Jersey Shore cast member stumbles. Free target, have at it.

But most people seem to have more Charlie Brown than Darth Vader in them. Enough to create that empathy. And maybe even a little hope: If they can do so much and still stumble, maybe it’s not so bad when we do the same.

And if they can hope for a second chance, maybe we can, too.

So here’s to the Rickmans and the Sam Rockwells and all the others who could be great without yet reaching the peak. Maybe you’re even a little happier for it, in having something still to strive for. I hope so.

Because let’s face it. You guys were robbed.

Breaking Through

Some of you may remember that Robert Heinlein once wrote about a cat who could walk through walls. I figure, this once, that I can match him.

After all, I have the dog who walked through doors. The hard way.

She usually appears here as Duchess the Wonder Dog, as in “It’s a wonder this dog hasn’t given herself a heart attack.” Half border collie, half black Lab and all love, she is easily one of the most lovable animals ever issued four legs.

And just a wee bit timid. Which is like saying that Batman is a little bit driven.

It’s not without reason. Dutch, you see, is a rescue dog, one that was never properly socialized as a puppy. We adopted her nearly six years ago, and through love, affection and the careful application of pizza, she had come a long way.

Until our move last April, anyway.

Suddenly Duchess’s world was turned upside down. There was a new house, rich (to her) with the scents of the four dogs who had lived here before. Room layouts were changing by the day, people were coming and going, we even had an infant niece being brought over once a week to be babysat.

And so, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when we came back from a trip one afternoon to find Duchess waiting for us just inside the front door.

“Did you shut her up in the bedroom?” Heather asked.

“I thought you did.”

I went upstairs. And found we had.

I also found a pile of wood shavings. And a Duchess-sized hole in the door.

Duchess had gotten so anxious that she had clawed her way through.

“Oh, Dutch …”

She’s OK now. More love, more affection, just a little bit of medicine. But you can’t experience the Arc du Duchess without it clawing at your soul a bit too.

And perhaps finding a bit of kinship.

We’re a strange species. We change our world more than any other … and often fear change more than anything else could. Something as simple as a new Facebook design can inspire outrage for days; more fundamental shocks can fill letters pages, or council chambers, or the streets themselves.

When I was very young, my Grandma lived with us for a while. On some nights, when she had rinsed out my hair to finish a bath, I would look in the mirror at this face with its drippy, sodden locks hanging down and declare “That’s not me!”

How much of that survives when we get older?

And how much of it must live in the heart of the abused – animal or human – who has been hurt without understanding why?

Perhaps in realizing it, we can fight it a little. Perhaps we can help bring a little peace to ourselves, a little kindness to others. Perhaps at some point, we can actually remember that all of us need all of us, and that love, whether to a fearful dog or a fearful world, is never out of place.

I hope so. I really do.

A hole in the door is easily fixed.

It’s the hole in the heart that needs all the love we can give it.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go hug my dog.

Going Out Of Our Tree

Heather has always loved history. And she’s always loved lists.

Now that she’s discovered genealogy, I might not see her again until June.

“Ooh, Scotty!” she calls, staring at a computer reproduction of a handwritten census record from a forgotten generation. “Look at this!”

To be fair, both of us have always had at least some interest in the family tree. Heather knew that John Chapman, aka “Johnny Appleseed” was a distant ancestor of hers; I knew of a 18th and 19th century relative who’d translated the Bible into Sanskrit, as well as a rumored family connection, through the Careys, to Anne Boleyn. And we both had plenty of relations who had caught the bug, whether it was her grandmother visiting old Kansas graveyards or my uncle, a Rochat family expert who once hosted an 80-year-old Swiss cousin as she toured the country … by motorcycle.

So I guess it was somewhat inevitable. Especially when Heather got a year’s membership in an online genealogical service for Christmas. Suddenly, our nights have been filled with Hargetts and Leatherwoods and much more, many with curious stories of their own.

She’s found Southern ancestors who deeded slaves in their wills.

She’s found a relative who was acquitted of murder, after shooting a neighbor who was trying to stab him. (The neighbor’s family, naturally, told it a little differently.)

And while we knew about her Civil War relatives who had been in Andersonville prison and on the doomed Sultana – a steamship that blew up and killed 1,800 people, many of them returning Union soldiers – we hadn’t known that I’d had a forebear who’d fought in the War of 1812.

I felt a familiar curiosity as I peered over her shoulder at the growing entries. It was only later that I recognized the feeling.

Darned if it wasn’t like being a newspaper reporter all over again.

People have often asked me why I got into newspapers. (Actually, these days it’s phrased more like “Why on Earth would you want to be in newspapers?” but oh, well.) And there’s a lot of reasons, from a love of writing to a teenaged hope that the job might score me Bronco tickets some day. (Again, oh, well.)

But at the root, it’s simple. I love telling stories. I love hearing stories.

And I’ve learned that everyone has a story worth hearing.

I’ve told this to middle-schoolers and heard “Not me!” Usually, within about 20 minutes, I can prove them wrong. Sometimes it’s big, like the tale of a World War I veteran or a fifth-grader who organized her school to raise money for Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes it’s smaller, but no less worthwhile, like a child who’s on the staff of her elementary school’s first newspaper. And sometimes, it’s just plain weird, like the man who’d been mistaken for someone else with the same name since junior high school, to the point where he nearly got arrested for what his doppleganger had done.

It’s all lives touching lives, history being made at the personal level. And in a sense, reading and writing about those lives is almost an act of caring, a way of acknowledging that those lives matter, that there’s more to the world than what’s caught inside our own skin.

Ultimately, in knowing the stories of others, we understand our own just that little bit more.

Maybe even the part that reads family trees at 1 in the morning.

I Now Pronounce Thee …

The wedding crowd gasped as my heel caught the tablecloth.

Audra and Anthony had placed two glasses of sand and an hourglass on the table, intending to combine the sand as they would combine their lives.  Now, for a heart-stopping second, it looked as though the sands would combine a little earlier and more violently than planned.

The cloth pulled a glass two inches to the edge, one … and then stopped. Whew.

My first wedding ceremony would not have to be followed by my own funeral service.

It had all started in November.  Two  of my Emporia “theater kids” – children I had directed and cheered on through five years of youth theater and summer Shakespeare in Kansas – were getting married in the New Year. I had made semi-solid plans to go if vacation time would allow, when Anthony contacted me with an unusual request.

“Audra and I were wondering if you would like to be our officiant.”


Understand, I’ve never been the type to keep a bucket list. If I had, “perform a wedding” would have been one of the less likely items. Usually, people associate reporters less with holy matrimony and more with unholy chaos.

But these were my kids. And I didn’t expect to ever get a second offer. Heck, I hadn’t expected the first.

I said yes.

And so, with a set of Internet credentials and a lot of goodwill, the show was on.

We should have all known. A good show and a good wedding have one big thing in common – there’s a lot of crises and almost-crises that happen on the way to the first ovation.

Just from my own corner, we had:

* A car that refused to start the day before, nearly stranding the “minister” in Colorado.

* The “tablecloth moment” above that almost made the wedding a smashing success.

* The famous Rochat sense of direction – or lack thereof – that lay quiet on the way to Emporia but switched into full force on the way back, giving me a chance to inadvertently explore every back road between Bennett and Brighton.

There were others – largely in the thousand last-minute things that had to be attended to on the day itself.  I truly believe that Audra should have been a candidate for human cloning that day – or else a Tony nominee for stage manager of the year.

But none of the small panics, real or averted, mattered. When the night came, it was simple. It was sweet. And it did what it was created to do.

“No ceremony is ever perfect,” I had told Anthony beforehand. “And you know something? At the end of the wedding, however much did or didn’t happen, you’re still just as married.”

Now that I think back on it, that’s not a bad preparation for the marriage ahead.

We all know it: many people put far more attention into their weddings than their marriages. But it’s the marriage that has to last. There are going to be just as many crises – heck, probably more of them and more serious ones.

But there are going to be moments of love and beauty, too. And if that love can last through it all – not the momentary thrill, but the quiet, lasting dedication – then that’s going to be what gets remembered.

I think Anthony’s and Audra’s is going to be one that lasts.

Congratulations, both of you. Thanks for letting me be part of this. And please, remember one thing.

Don’t put that hourglass anywhere that your kids can reach it.