We Go Together

It didn’t look like much. A fuzzy gray bowling ball, maybe, without holes.

But you wouldn’t want to roll this one. Not the Great Hairball.

I met the Great Hairball in a Garden City museum, in southwestern Kansas. Like most museums, this one tended to accumulate stuff. And like most museum stuff, some of it defied the easy categorization that would get it displayed more often.

So, once in a great while, the museum would do a “Dagwood’s Closet” exhibit – a display of curious or popular items that never seemed to get out at any other time. (Yes, I know, it’s Fibber McGee who had the junk-filled closet. The name stuck anyway.) Anything could turn up and usually did.

But the one thing that invariably turned up, easily the most popular rarely-displayed item, was the Great Hairball. The largest hairball ever retrieved from a cow’s stomach on the IBP kill line.

Sorry. I know some of you are eating breakfast.

The museum’s staff assured me that it had been even bigger before it dried out. They found it weird, even a little disgusting. But they couldn’t deny its popularity. The thing even had its own postcard, with the ball posed next to a ruler to show its true size.

Amazing what we get attached to, isn’t it?

Granted, most of us don’t fixate on a bovine after-dinner comment. But nonetheless, I’d bet that each of us has at least one attachment we can’t fully explain – some object or person or even idea where all we can say is “I like it, OK?”

For Missy the Wonderful, my wife’s developmentally-disabled aunt whom we care for, it’s purses. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big pink duffel bag, a tiny purple handbag, or her iconic red purse of any style – once she has hold of it, it’s her “booky” and will end up 1) Full to bursting and 2) All but inseparable from her.

Why? Well, why did the Lone Ranger carry silver bullets? It’s part of who she is.

My 18-month-old niece Riley has a stuffed duck she’s hauled around since just after birth. It looks like it. More gray than yellow, defiant of washing machines, grungy to a point where even Oscar the Grouch might look at it and say “Meh.”

She won’t be separated from the thing. Not for long. Try it sometime – but bring earplugs.

It starts that young. And I suspect it never really leaves us. At heart, we’re part of a fascinating world, and when we find a piece of it that resonates with us, we cling on. However strange the attachment may seem.

It’s why there’s a doorknob on my desk at work, a tongue-in-cheek award from an old acting company.

It’s why my wife has hung on to the head of a Holly Hobbie ornament since childhood, even after the rest of it vanished one Christmas. We feel like headhunters setting it out each year – but set it out, we do.

They’re objects that carry memory. Or comfort. Or an odd fascination.

And without them, we wouldn’t feel completely “us” for a while.

That’s not a bad thing. Oh, it can be, I suppose. We’ve all run into attachments that hold us back or weigh us down, things we know we should throw away and can’t quite. Objects of the hand or objects of the mind, they may as well be the One Ring for all the power they hold.

But most of the time, it’s more benign. A proof, if you will, that anything can be worthy of love, no matter how small or strange it may seem.

When you come down to it, that’s a very hopeful thought.

Touch the world. Experience it. Let some of it come along for the ride. Have a ball.

Only – not a giant mutant hairball, please?

I’m pretty sure one of those is enough. Really.


Back on the Bus

Missy’s been giggling again. And smiling. She’s been doing that a lot since Monday.

Ever since she got her wheels back.

Mind you, Missy doesn’t drive (not that she wouldn’t gleefully try). But Monday is when her bus service got brought back – the large van that takes her to “work,” her program for developmentally disabled adults.

She’s thrilled and rightfully so. It’s a chance to travel with all her friends again, to have a little more independence, to be in a huge vehicle with lots of space. To have her routine back just the way she likes it.

We’re thrilled that she’s thrilled. It’s neat to see her excited, great to see her happy.

And yet …

Well, the morning drive seems just a little quieter than it used to.

Heather and I have been the Official Missy Chauffeurs for about two years now. It’s how we first eased into caring for her before moving in last year, and how she got used to us being around all the time. By now, the takeoff prep is second nature: making sure the shoes are on the right feet, that the coat for the day is heavy or light enough, that a spoon from the morning’s breakfast hasn’t mysteriously migrated into her lunch box, and so on.

But the flight time. That’s where the fun begins.

Most mornings and afternoons, it means Missy the DJ, grabbing a fistful of CDs or tape cassettes and swapping them out through the drive, sometimes at half-song intervals. Oldies rock, Christmas tunes and a cappella groups like the Face Vocal Band get the longest lingers and the loudest volumes. (Ever seen a car vibrate to the tune of “Safety Dance?”)

Some mornings, it’s Missy the Environmental Engineer, adjusting the window from the armrest. Usually this means watching her seal it tight even on a dog-melting summer’s day, but we’re no stranger to the occasional surprise draft from the passenger seat.

More than once, it’s been Missy the Tour Guide, pointing through the windshield at a house Heather used to live in, or the newspaper I work at now, or the next turn we need to take to get to her work. Heather spent a long time wondering why Missy pointed at one particular office building before finally discovering it was the chiropractor that she’d gone to as a girl.

And always, it’s been Missy the Love. Sometimes sassy, sometimes mellow, sometimes ready to “dance” in the car or pat your arm reassuringly.

And now, the dance partner has joined the rest of the party.

Is this what a parent feels when a child goes to school? Or learns to drive? Or takes just one more step out of the house? A little joy, a little regret, mixed with time and bound with memories?

Funny. I’d gotten so used to thinking about Missy’s routines that I hadn’t realized my own. And how they’d come to grow around hers.

But that’s what families do.

And if the last couple of days have shown me anything, it’s how much of a family we have become.

I was there to meet her when she returned the first day. She walked eagerly inside, balancing a bit on me, ready for her tea and her snack, for our hugs and questions, for our reading session later in the day.

It seems we’ve become her routine, too. As much as the bus ever was.

But seeing that smile, hearing that giggle, will never grow routine.

And that’s the best ride of all.


Closing the Book

Maybe I should blame Jiminy Cricket.

Silly, of course. After all, the Encyclopaedia Britannica had 244 years of history behind it. That’s more than enough to outlast the Disney filmstrips that insisted the word was spelled “E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A.”

But it couldn’t outlast the times. In an age of hyper-digital look-up and research, a $1,395 set of books just didn’t make bottom-line sense anymore. Which is why EB recently announced that the current 32-volume print edition (published in 2010) would be the last.

The thought depresses me.

I understand why they did it. The books weren’t even that big a part of their business these days. A news report estimated that less than 1 percent of Britannica’s sales come from the big, thick, books; the shift to electronic and online editions tipped past the balance point long ago.

But I’m a book person. I always have been.

I don’t mean that I eschew online sources or even (whisper the name) Wikipedia. Far from it. But I’ve always had a passion for physical reference books. Dictionaries, thesauruses, almanacs, Associated Press stylebooks – my wife and I have even sworn that if we ever win the lottery , a full edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will go on the shopping list.

Some of it’s the permanence. My Merriam-Webster isn’t likely to be hit by cybervandals tomorrow or be unreadable if the power goes down. (So long as the flashlight has batteries, anyway.)

Some of it’s the depth of experience you can get. Older editions of the Britannica had articles by Albert Einstein, Harry Houdini and Isaac Asimov, for Pete’s sake. Never mind the unseen watchdogs known as editors, a concept that still seems to elude many online sites.

There’s even a comfort to the heft. When your little sisters are invading your room, after all, you don’t want to be left trying to defend yourself with a DVD.

But for me, that’s all secondary. The real value to a reference book – an honest-to-goodness real, tangible book – is serendipity.

Dip in. Read. Just for fun. No plans, no map.

I love the Internet. And it’s invaluable when I need to track something down. But there’s times when you want to know something, and times when you just want to know.

Which is why, as a kid, I would dip through my folks’ Random House dictionary, swimming through cool words and their origins.

It’s why, as a college student, the AP stylebook became my nighttime pleasure reading, one of the best trivia manuals I had run across at the time.

It’s why my folks grabbed a cheap Encyclopedia Americana at a library book sale, or why I kept getting new World and New York Times almanacs for Christmas every year (one of which even introduced us to this curious search engine called Google). Those weren’t just homework references, they were pastimes.

Knowledge for its own sake. For the sheer joy of it.

For all that we’re in an Information Age, there seems to be less of that somehow.

I hope that survives. Because in the end, that was the real value of the well-bound books with the thistle on the spine: the hope (illusory or not) that you really could know it all, the feeling that you could dive in at any point and come up with something you had never thought about before. Something you had never even thought about thinking before.

The curiosity that leads someone to want to know more.

Not bad for 29 pounds of books, huh?

So thank you, EB. May your physical memories be many and your virtual trials few.

Hail, Britannica. And farewell.

Come Out and Play

We call her Duchess the Wonder Dog. Usually as in “I wonder what that dog is thinking.”

Take the old game of fetch.

When an object is thrown past Duchess with the words “Go get it!”, one of three results is guaranteed to occur:

  1. Duchess watches the object like Troy Tulowitzki watching an outside pitch. “Huh? Was I supposed to be interested in that?”
  2. Duchess goes calmly over to it and takes possession … and that’s it. “What? You want it back? Why’d you get rid of it, then?”
  3. Duchess takes off after it like the house was on fire, running back forth for about two or three minutes with high acceleration and hard braking. “Vroomvroomvroomvroomscreech ….!”

What she doesn’t do, most times, is keep up the game. Not even after six years with us.


I’m not really complaining. She’s a lovely and loving dog who’s come a long way. At some point in the three years before we got her, she was neglected at the least, abused at the worst. People (except for kids) were something scary for a long time; strangers still make her a little nervous until she knows them better.

A lot of old wounds have mended. But abuse doesn’t just injure. It steals.

And I think it stole some of Duchess’s ability to have fun without reservation.

Not all of it. There’s still a freedom that peeks out when she runs, a joy that escapes when she’s in the mountains. (Duchess grew up a Kansas dog, so the high country remains something of a wonder to her.) But so often it needs the right moment or a bit of coaxing.

Or a rabbit.

Duchess discovered rabbits while we were still in Kansas, where a small family lived beneath a backyard bush. Despite her being half-retriever, she didn’t really know what to do at first. Dog and prey backed up to each other like figures in a Warner Brothers cartoon, noticed each other and then dashed away, startled.

She soon got the idea.

Trips to the backyard tripled in length as she had to sniff every corner, explore every crop of greenery, dash after each long-eared shadow. Squirrels didn’t really interest her (much to the regret of our bird feeder), she wanted a real chase.

There haven’t been any rabbits since moving back here.

I think we’ve all felt the lack.

That, too, was part of her healing.

Duchess loves. And Duchess knows she’s loved. That’s big. She’s become fiercely devoted to us and to Heather especially.

But she still carries her marks. She still has that slight flinch before a pat. That occasional uncertainty before a game.

Just five minutes with the people who did this. That’s all I want.

Well, not all. I want them to understand how long cruelty can scar, how deeply thoughtlessness can rend. I want them to see just how many consequences there are to a callous act, many of them unexpected.

I want them to see how much love can mend. And how much time it takes. Burning down has always been easier than building up; I want them to know the labor they’ve made necessary.

Most of all, I want them to realize. To learn that lesson Kurt Vonnegut considered most vital: how to be kind. To animals. To people. To anyone and anything that crosses your path.

It’s that kindness that will someday make this world a wonder.

And maybe then, all the Duchesses of the world will be ready to go play.

Here, girl.