Life Without Filters

Out of nowhere, a shout broke the stillness of the restaurant.


With that energy, it could have been a successful proposal. Or a winning lottery ticket. Or some really, really good news that just came over a cell phone.


It was Missy, taking her first bite of a peanut butter pie.


Super Bowl wins have had less appreciation.

I shouldn’t be surprised. For all that Missy the Great says maybe a couple of hundred words a week, she tends to have a very unfiltered relationship with the world around her.

Some people will inhale and tense slightly as they reach the exciting part of a book in bed. Missy will grin, give an excited laugh and pull the covers up to her nose.

Some people will give soft hugs to a younger relative. Missy, if left to herself, would latch on to my wife’s 8-year-old sister until the seasons changed.

Most people, it’s true, would crank a favorite song on the radio. But they probably wouldn’t bounce in their seat as it came on.

Missy will.

It’s a simple joy, one that crosses boundaries. Missy’s developmental disability can make it hard for her to communicate with the world around her, but it doesn’t always matter. Where some people have their heart written on their sleeve, Missy can have an entire bookshelf.

Simple joys in simple things.

We all started that way, once upon a time. At least, I know I did. Growing up, I was an unabashed “texture junkie.” Reach out and touch wasn’t just a phone company slogan, it was a way of life as I fidgeted with ribbon or ran my hand along the roughness of a brick wall.

The brick might not have been clean. But it sure was neat.

Even better was wind-dancing – feeling something that couldn’t be felt, not directly. Colorado has some great and marvelous windy days, and on the most blustery, I knew exactly what to do: stretch my arms wide and turn with the breeze, making my dizzy way along the playground.

I don’t remember if I said “WOW!” But I know I felt it.

I was going to say something about how most of us lose that ability somewhere along the line. But now that I think on it, that’s not really true. We bury it, maybe, or pack it on a shelf as we grow up. Life holds a lot of experiences, both painful and sublime, as we mature and those crowd their way into the headlines of our mind.

But every so often, something wakes up.

Maybe it’s from a painting or a scrap of melody, an artist who hasn’t forgotten how to feel simplicity directly.

Maybe it’s a remembered smile as we watch a 2-year-old go very seriously about the simple business of having fun, and wonder ourselves how those large Legos would feel in our hands.

Maybe it’s just one of those moments when the rest of the world seems to go away and the simple things are all that remain. The feel of a dog curled on the bed. The spark from a fire on a cold mountain night.

Soft moments. Free of self-consciousness. Free to let something be, and to let it be wonderful.

Maybe we can’t be that way all the time. Maybe we couldn’t function if we did. But maybe, just maybe, we could let it happen just a little more than we do.

It’s all out there. Just waiting to be loved, to be touched.

Even to be tasted.


Exhaustive Democracy

I don’t usually write about my reporting side here. I’m going to make a small exception today.

If I can stay awake, that is.

As many of you know, I cover city politics. And this last Tuesday, city politics covered me like a semi covers a skunk. It was almost 1 in the morning before the final gavel came down, closing a night of often impassioned and sometimes angry debate.

The subject was fracking, of course. It so often seems to be these days. And I won’t be weighing in directly on the issue, just like I haven’t weighed in on airport runways, backyard chickens, or marijuana dispensaries. My job is still to cover the story, not to be the story.

But I do have something to say to the five dozen speakers who pummeled the air with their opinions and concerns. To all involved in extending the debate until deadlines were only a fond memory. To everyone who helped me wake up the next morning feeling like I’d gone 30 rounds with Joe Louis in his prime.

Thank you.


Memorial Day is almost upon us. Every year, we talk about honoring the soldiers who fought for the nation we live in and the rights we hold. The men and women who help keep this a free country.

But the finest military in the world can’t keep a nation free if it loses the habit.

I know. This is the sort of thing newspapers usually get excited about just after Election Day, either praising the public for a higher-than-expected turnout or excoriating it for a low attendance rate. But voting’s only one step in the democratic process. The easiest one, at that.

The hard part is to enter the brawl. To shape the issues that get voted on. To push the officials who cast the votes, maybe even to become them.

To be a voice instead of just a hole-puncher.

I didn’t agree with every speaker Tuesday night. To be honest, there were a few on all sides that had me biting my tongue hard enough to leave marks. Some went so far out on a limb that they were tap dancing with woodpeckers.

But I give them this, good and bad and ugly. None of them stayed home and stewed. None of them decided it was somebody else’s problem. All of them came and made their feelings known.

Sure, we can talk about civility or checking the facts or finding ways to come together. Those things are important, too, even crucial. But the first step, the vital step, is to break through apathy and get everyone in the same room and talking. You can’t have a good public debate if you have no public debaters.

And whatever the other faults of Tuesday may have been, that was not one of them.

So thank you, one more time. Thank you for insisting on being heard. Thank you for being a people, a public, a participant.

See you all next time.

Right after I get myself a nap.

A Face in the Window

As I pulled into the driveway and headed up the walk, I knew what I would see.

Sure enough. A cross-legged Missy sitting just inside the bay window, crayons and tea close to hand. Watching the world. Watching the street.

Watching for me.

I came inside, collected a smile and a hug. “Hey, Miss-a Melissa. Was it a good day today?”

And with that, I know I’m home.

It’s been interesting being on the other side of this. Growing up, I was always the one waiting – though never, perhaps, as intently as my little sisters. They were the ones who would stand in the garage and chant, with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader and the certainty of an invocation “Daddy come home! Daddy come home!”

He always did.

Now, for the past year, it’s been my turn. Granted, I’ve had my lovely wife Heather to return to for long before that, along with the mixed nervousness and excitement of Duchess the Wonder Dog. But Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, is in a class by herself. Sometimes, she may spend an hour or two just waiting in the window, ready for the family to be complete.

It’s a little humbling. Are hugs and stories and “I love you’s” really worth so much?

Of course.

“Parenting and guardianship is on-the-job training,” Mom reminded me over the Mother’s Day weekend. “The main part is consistently being on the job.”

The more I think on that, the more I like it.

In a world that often obsesses on quality time, we often forget the power of big fat chunks of quantity time. The importance of just being there, even if we’re not constantly engaged in enlightening activities that would win the Bill Cosby Seal of Approval.

Looking back on my own childhood, I can remember some great experiences with Mom and Dad: trips to the movies, travel to the Northwest, nights spent reading together. But most of all, I remember them. Knowing they were close, knowing they cared, something more important than any set-piece activity.

I know, it’s not always possible. There may be nights that require working late, blizzards that clog the road home, even military duties that call a piece of the family away for months at a time. The times when someone has to carry you in their heart for a little while.

But it’s a lot easier to carry someone in your heart if you’ve first carried them in your eyes.

The amazing thing – almost frightening, really – is how quickly and quietly it builds. Every morning spent fighting with shoelaces, every evening spent helping with the toothbrush, is another stroke on the canvas. Ordinary moments, even frustrating ones, sometimes.

But give it enough time, and without warning, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

“You go’n to work?” Missy asks, now from the couch.

“Not this time,”I tell her. “Tonight, you’ve got me.”

In the window seat, the crayons wait. Later, we may go there together, to read and smile and watch the world go by.

But for tonight, the vigil is done. Tonight, the watch can wait until the next return journey.

Tonight, I know I’m home.

Wild Thing

The first time I heard Maurice Sendak on the radio, I laughed my head off.

Impossible not to, really. Because while Sendak could be a cantankerous old coot, he was a fun cantankerous old coot. And really, how could you not like someone who admitted that the faces of his Wild Things came from childhood memories of his Brooklyn relatives?

“They came almost every Sunday and there was my week-long anxiety about their coming the next Sunday,” he told an interviewer. “They’d lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses and say something threatening like ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up.’ And I knew if my mother didn’t hurry up with the cooking, they probably would.”

Now, like his misbehaving Max, Sendak has sailed off on a journey of his own. A stroke closed the book at age 83.

I’m saying that about too many authors lately, aren’t I?

It’s a funny thing about Sendak, though. With most of my childhood writers and illustrators, I get a clear picture in my head, a portrait of their work and what it meant to me. With Sendak, the picture is more like a Magic Eye, one image hidden inside another.

Because while I knew Maurice Sendak as the man who knew “Where the Wild Things Are,” I also knew him as the illustrator of Little Bear.

Remember Little Bear? A little two-legged bear cub who always seemed slightly worn, where Mother and Grandmother and a host of friends were always close to hand. His stories were the softer ones of childhood, imagining a trip to the moon, or getting ready to play in the snow, or having a thank-you kiss passed to him from Grandmother Bear through a relay of half-a-dozen others.

A very different style from Max in his wolf suit.

Or maybe not.

Maybe, just maybe, Sendak had a more complete picture of childhood than most. He knew the gentle side, knew that there could be curiosity and learning and affection.

But he wouldn’t ignore the other side. The one where kids can be brats. Where children also argue with their parents, do what they shouldn’t, get lonely, get scared.

“I refuse to lie to children,” he told an interviewer for The Guardian.

“I think it’s unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue sky, white cloud and a happy childhood for anybody,” he said to NPR “Childhood is a very, very, tricky business of surviving it.”

Reading that, I can remember a few less lovely parts of my own childhood.

Like barricading my door against my sisters when I didn’t want them in my bedroom – or pestering them incessantly when I did.

Like my first and only schoolyard fight, which I waited almost two years to tell my family about. (I almost won … which is a nice way of saying I lost.)

Like the night I sat at the table, dinner uneaten, until Dad came home – and he worked late in those days.

Remembering those moments, Max resonates strongly. The moments where the real Wild Things woke up.

But Wild Things can be commanded and made to obey.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”

Don’t blink. Don’t ignore or pretend they aren’t there. Face them down … and in so doing, master them.

That may be one of the first, best lessons of growing up I know.

So thank you, Mr. Sendak. Thanks for both the sweet and the savage, the gentle and the crazy. It’s been a fun ride together.

In fact, it’s been pretty Wild.

Thinking the Unsinkable

I used to want a time machine when I was a kid, something out of H.G Wells or “Back to the Future,” so I could see the great events of the past all over again. Lately, I’m starting to wonder if I succeeded.

So far, I’ve seen a presidential candidate (now former) promise to put a man on the moon.

I’ve seen a member of Congress hold up a list of hidden Communists in Washington, D.C.

And now there’s plans to build an unsinkable ship called the Titanic.

Yes, seriously.

Credit this one to Australian billionaire Clive Palmer. He plans to launch a new Titanic sometime in 2016, built to the same dimensions and even starting on the same route – but designed to avoid the same finish.

“It will be designed as a modern ship with all the technology to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Palmer told Reuters on Monday.

Will someone sign the gentleman up for Missing The Point 101, please?

First of all, there’s nothing remarkable in designing a cruise ship that doesn’t sink. Most of them don’t. It’s like bragging that you’ve built an individual airliner that won’t crash – the odds are good that you’ll never have to test your claim.

Second, there’s no real reason to do it, beyond separating a lot of tourists from a lot of money. (Itself a good enough reason for most businessmen, admittedly.) If Titanic II sails safely into New York, it won’t magically bring back the passengers from Titanic I. It won’t even prove the first Titanic could have done it, since it won’t be using the same tools.

But most importantly, it ignores one of the biggest lessons of the Titanic – how the humility of failure can teach more than the pride of success.

I first heard the theory floated (sorry) by an engineer and author named Henry Petroski during an NPR interview. In it, he noted that if the Titanic had sailed safely, there would have been nothing historically remarkable about it. It would have made money and had imitators, like any other successful product.

But the flaws in its design would have still been there. They might have even been exaggerated as competitors tried to build it bigger and better. Sooner or later, overconfidence would get the same payoff – maybe even worse.

“When we have a success, a prolonged period of success, we tend to become more complacent,” Petroski said. “We tend to become overconfident that we’re doing it right, that we’ve got it figured out finally. And then, of course, a failure occurs and wakes us up out of our dream.”

And that’s when the learning comes – when you’re willing to acknowledge that mistakes are possible, that you can screw up, that’s when you really begin scrutinizing your work.

It almost sounds un-American, I know. We have an ideal of almost hyper-competency, that a free people can go anywhere, accomplish anything. And honestly, I’m glad when people dream big; that’s where a lot of great ideas start.

But it’s that dash of humility – that willingness to admit that maybe this time we don’t know everything – that can keep those big dreams from becoming bigger nightmares.

It’s something teachers drill into their students, that editors drill into their reporters: don’t get cocky, check your work. It’s an attitude all too rare in politics anymore, where the appearance of being right seems to matter more than the reality.

And it’s the only way to guard against a Titanic error.

Mr. Palmer, may you have the best of luck and happy sailing. But if Titanic II arrives on time, it won’t be because of unsinkable confidence. It’ll be because everyone acknowledged the worst and planned for it.

Meanwhile, I wish you well.

In fact, with the headlines lately, maybe I should wish you Wells.