Little Drummer Girl

No doubt about it. Riley has got the beat.

I can hear it when my 2-year old niece visits, pounding away at her toy drums.

I can see it when I play the piano and her eyes grow wide, right before she starts bouncing herself along to the rhythm.

We’ve even noticed it during an otherwise unremarkable Nickelodeon children’s program. When a band of puppets jumped into a song, Riley did the same, banging two toys together, right on the beat.

Did Gene Krupa start out like this?

I know, every uncle thinks their nephew or niece is a genius. (Well – except for the ones who grow up to produce campaign ads. But I mustn’t poke at tragedies.) Still, something special and wonderful does seem to happen when Riley and music are in a room together. It’s delightful to watch, thrilling to contemplate.

Especially when I start to wonder: Did I have anything to do with this?

As some of you might remember, I first met Riley when she was about two hours old. My wife Heather had been in the room when she was born and called me in as soon as the family was ready for visitors.

I’m not sure why I did it. But that first moment I held my niece, I softly sang to her. It was the first time anyone had sung to her outside the womb.


Like a baby when it is sleeping,

In its loving mother’s arms,

What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery …


That set a pattern. It was a rare time we ever came together when I didn’t sing, often to help lull her to sleep.


Train whistle blowing,

Makes a sleepy noise,

Underneath their blankets,

Roll all the girls and boys … .


I was hardly the only one, of course. And soon, Riley had music of her own, whether it was her own efforts of “Old MacDonald” (“Ya, ya, yo!”), or half-remembered scraps of the theme song from the cartoon Caillou. Like the lady with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, it seems that she shall have music wherever she goes.

And like a hiker in the Rockies, I still ask myself “Did I start that snowball? Or would the avalanche have come anyway?”

Maybe the answer’s a bit of both. Maybe a talent or a passion waits inside all of us, but we need each other to find the key.

I started reading at age 2 1/2. No small feat. But for the 30 months prior to that (and many years afterward), I was surrounded by books and family members who loved to read them, both to me and for their own pleasure.

The fuel was there, waiting for a spark.

Many lives can tell similar stories. Albert Einstein had his childhood curiosity triggered at age four or five by the movement of a compass his father showed him. A stuttering James Earl Jones had a teacher who insisted he read a poem out loud every day. Whether early or late, through an incidental gift or a dedicated stubbornness, someone provided the lightning strike.

The firestorm then took care of itself.

It makes me curious to see what paths it’ll light up for Riley. Maybe music will be a passion, or a hobby, or just a pleasant diversion on the road to her real interest. That’s fine. But it’s nice to think that, as she starts to march to her own drummer, it might be with drumsticks I helped shape.

It’s a pleasure that just can’t be beat.

Living in the Eye

It is with deepest regret today that I lay to rest a fine old saying: “Character is who you are when no one is watching.”

Not because character has become obsolete. But the idea of nobody watching has.

Any doubts in that direction were themselves laid to rest by former Governor Mitt Romney, whose unintended infomercial (“The United States! Now with 47 percent fewer taxpayers!”) has become fodder for pundits, comics and chat rooms across the country. Mr. Romney, of course, thought he was in a quieter corner of the campaign trail, a closed fund-raiser where anything said in the room would stay in the room.

But it wasn’t Vegas. And it wasn’t private.

Nothing really is, in the age of the Internet.

Lest you think you I like to pick on Mitt, he’s just the latest victim. A similar event four years ago put Barack Obama on the hot seat, thanks to an infamous remark about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns and religion.” He, too, found that closed doors and an open society don’t mix very will.

If only they had learned the Restaurant Rule.

There’s two restaurant rules, actually. The first I originally read in a Dave Barry piece (and later found he had stolen it from Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson): “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” It’s a useful standard, and for more than just waiters; I find, for example, that I can tell a lot about a person by how they treat our developmentally disabled ward Missy.

But it’s the second restaurant rule I’m thinking of. The one taught by my mother long ago, in two parts:

  1. Always assume that what you say at a restaurant can be heard at the next table.
  2. Never assume that no one you know is at that table.

The last time I brought this up with anyone, I was thinking of Facebook, where a whispered talk at a back table can reach the maitre d’ in moments. But between YouTube, Twitter, camera phones and more, any gathering spot can become an Internet sensation in moments. Never mind Big Brother watching you – it’s Little Brother, the friend or neighbor with curiosity and a smartphone, whose eye can reach farther than any Orwellian bureaucrat ever dreamed.

This could create the most honest politicians on the planet. Or the phoniest ones ever.

Honest, because we can see and hear them in their most unguarded moments and learn what truths lie behind the campaign programming. What point is there to hiding in a searchlight?

Phony, if the candidates realize there are no unguarded moments and start wearing the mask at all times, public and private. Shine a light – and there’s no one there.

Personally, I’d urge the honesty, and not just because it gives me better news stories. Sooner or later, masks slip, even if only for a moment. That’s when the damage comes, not necessarily because of what you said or did, but because you tried to bury it. (Right, Mr. Nixon?)

But remember, candidates and candidates-to-be, there is always an audience. If that tempers your remarks, if it holds back your wilder impulses, if it means more biting of the tongue than biting remarks – that’s not a bad thing.

That’s not phoniness. That’s discretion.

So, let me remind you: You have the right to remain silent. (And when it comes to television ads, we’d really prefer it.) Anything you say can and probably will come back to haunt you in the court of public opinion.

Remember the restaurant. Consider the customers.

And always tip the waiter when you’re done.

Single Source

Thanks to Missy, I think I need to update my resume.

For those of you who joined us late (Hi there!), Missy the Great and Wonderful is my wife’s young, developmentally disabled aunt. We’ve been her guardians for almost a year and a half now, a time that’s been something of a learning experience for all three of us.

And one of the things I’ve learned is that I have many more job titles than I used to.

You see, against the advice of most Wall Street analysts, Missy tends to single-source her essential services. Which is how come my professional credentials now include:

  • Holder of the Pills. Applicant must possess hypnotic power in at least one hand, capable of making ibuprofen seem wonderful and compelling despite the strongest of wills (read:ornery stubbornness).
  • Monitor of the Teeth. Must provide sufficient energy and entertainment to induce the successful and even gleeful application of toothpaste, resorting if necessary to sound effects, foreign accents and play-by-play descriptions. (“And she’s opening with the double-handed technique, a strong start to the evening …”)
  • Opening and Closing Bell. Must be able to rally a determined (read: tired and ornery) young lady upstairs to bed, despite the seductive inducements of Legos, photographs, or a really hot guy on “Dancing With The Stars.” Duties will also include the occasional morning extraction from bed of said young lady, when the usual service provider (Hi, honey!) has submitted an unsuccessful bid.
  • Evening Narrator. Duties shall include the selection and presentation of reading materials prior to final “lights-out.” Wide range of volumes accepted, with prior successes including The Hobbit, The Great Brain, the complete Harry Potter series, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Please note that the job may include occasional overtime along with “on-call” weekend duties.

Now granted, some positions such as Shoe Assistant are still open to a competitive market. And there’s been the occasional outsourcing, as occurred with the job of Morning Chauffeur. But it still amuses me when something on the list arises and I hear Heather tell me “Honey, can you get her to …”

It’s a little like having a superpower, or being the Jedi Knight of bedtime. (“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope of getting her to sleep at a decent hour.”) But where does it come from?

I’m sure every parent’s seen the same thing. Heck, I can remember doing some of the same things with my own parents, with a child’s logic that would boggle the mind. Such as, say, the time I insisted that Grandma had to put on my Band-Aid because she worked at a hospital.

OK, it was changing sheets and cleaning up. But that’s almost a nurse, right?

The funny thing is, I don’t think we ever completely give it up when we get older. There’s some people who remain the go-to’s, some sources we trust beyond all reason, some things even now that we’d still come to Mom to before Dad.

I’m not even sure the reasons of childhood change. Perceived expertise? Familiarity? Lack of familiarity? Possession of a tall frame and a deep voice? (Heck, that last one explains several of our former presidents.)

Logical or not, it can create some powerful bonds. And when that trust is well-placed, some beautiful ones.

Ask Heather. Curator of the Missy Hargett Art Gallery. Brewer of Tea and Maker of Snacks. Igniter of Laughter Through Embarrassing Songs.

And also bearer of the shortest title of all, one granted by Missy herself.


Now that’s one heck of a performance review.

A Rose for Neil

A longtime friend found herself in a reflective mood this week.

“I keep finding myself wondering,” she wrote online, “what Neil Armstrong thought about when he looked up at the moon every night.”

It’s a question that holds its own magic, that maybe has no answer. Or too many. Old friends, staring at each other across the miles? A feeling of pride? Of humility? Of regret for what wasn’t done or gratitude for what was?

The possibilities left me intrigued. They even stayed in the back of my head during my bedtime reading with Missy, a chapter from “The Secret Garden.”

And like the ivy of the garden’s walls, thoughts began to grow.

If you’ve never read the children’s classic, you have something beautiful ahead of you. It deals with a selfish, imperious little girl, Mary, who is sent to live with relatives in England after her family dies, where she discovers a curious mystery – a walled garden, the door concealed, the key hidden, locked away by its owner for 10 years because of a tragedy that occurred inside.

Over time, Mary sets herself to finding it and then to reviving it. And in the course of doing so, she revives herself and others as well.

“However many years she lived,” the author mused, “Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.”

Perhaps, however many years you live, you never forget your first step on another world.

If it had stopped there, maybe the thought would have been enough by itself. After all, it’s something we can all share, even without help from the Kennedy Space Center. Whether that new world is another state, another country, the first morning of being a parent, the last day of being a student – the uncertainty, the excitement, the feeling of starting something new remains.

But the idea took deeper roots still.

At first, Mary wants her garden to stay her secret. Then she slowly widens the circle of those who can come – first to help, then to be helped. In the end, keeping the garden as “hers” becomes less important than sharing its beauty with others.

So few have been within that distant “garden” of rock and dust. Even though most of the world has seen it from afar, the moon remains our world’s secret garden, truly known by only a few – and for years, locked away as surely as any brass key could do.

What good would it do our souls to return? What good to our minds, our hopes, our imaginations, if the miles beyond the sky were to become highways again for us and not just our machines?

What perspective might be gained if more of us were to know the beauty – and to know that that beauty was within our reach, not just an accomplishment of another day and another time, never to be repeated?

I wonder. I really do.

And if I wonder, never having been there – how much more so, perhaps, for one who had seen?

Look at the moon and wink, his family asked. I will. And I’ll continue to keep my own hopes alive that someday we’ll do more than just wink.

You have my envy, Mr. Armstrong. You took the steps beyond the wall, and came to see the roses that lay within.

I only hope, someday, that the key will be found again. And that the wonders of the garden will be open to all who wish to come.