Behind the Mask

Missy loves Christmas, year-round.

She’ll dunk Easter eggs with great energy.

But Halloween – that’s another story.

Heather and I have never really been sure why. But even before we became guardians for our favorite disabled adult, we knew that fact: Missy and the Night of A Thousand Costumed Beggars just don’t mix.

Maybe it’s the incessant ding-dong-ding of the doorbell. Though she certainly enjoys visitors at any other time of year.

Maybe it’s the creepy imagery, the cobwebs and skulls, the looming spiders and leering pumpkins. Yet scary scenes have been some of Missy’s favorite parts in our nighttime reading together.

Heather, long more versed in the art of Missy-ology than I, has her own conclusions.

“It’s the costumes,” she theorized.

Huh?

“You know – people dressing up as something else, being something they’re not. I think that weirds her out sometimes.”

Huh.

Two thoughts crossed my head. One was just how many things I had been over a childhood’s worth of Halloweens. Robin Hood and Hercules, a scarecrow, a ghost … the transformation was always my favorite part, even if I did have to throw a coat over it in deference to a Colorado October.

The second thought was a sudden burst of understanding.

“So that’s why they put Election Day right afterward!”

Think about it.

People going door to door, asking for a small donation?

Folks trying to look like anything but themselves, assuming an appearance that will impress, amuse or terrify?

An atmosphere changed to add uncertainty and nervousness, where neither would be justified in real life?

That’s such a perfect summary of the campaign season, I’m amazed we don’t vote on Halloween.

And it’s why I think a lot of us can sympathize with Missy’s uncertainty.

Ideally, an election should help us learn who the candidates are and what they stand for. But between the handling of their managers and the negative ads of opponents, that seems to be the most difficult thing of all. Back in 1992, when Admiral James Stockdale opened a debate by saying “Who am I? Why am I here?” he summed up voters’ questions in a nutshell.

Who are these guys? Really?

Which is the mask and which is the man?

It’s not a comfortable feeling.

Perhaps the one advantage to a (tediously) long pre-election season is that there’s more chances for the mask to slip: an unguarded word in front of cameras, an overly-honest moment spurred by fatigue. But we shouldn’t need that.

I know, “shouldn’t” is a dreamer’s word. But I can’t help wondering. If our would-be leaders spent as much time showing us who they really are as they now do trying to be what we want them to be (and keeping their opponents from doing the same), what would be the result?

Shock? Disgust? Appreciation?

Who knows?

In the end, Missy had a softer feeling toward Halloween this year. Heather and I smiled across the room as she danced at a friend’s costume party, a crowned princess among the various monsters and heroes.

Tonight the masks were harmless fun.

May they come to be so for all of us.

Debatable Value

The binders have been shelved. Big Bird has nested. The death stares and Joker leers have gone back to the DC comic book from whence they came.

Debate season, at long last, is over.

Can I hear an amen!

I kind of thought so.

It’s funny. I cover politics for a living. I love diving into a sea of government and coming up with a pearl of fact; I like turning the turgid mass of bureaucratic “English” into something that makes sense to you and me. Overall, I think democracy’s a pretty good system – one that asks a lot, but one that gives a lot, too.

But every election year, without fail, there comes a point where I start thinking “You know, monarchy doesn’t sound so bad.” One too many mailers, one too may robo-calls, one too many screaming ads on television.

And then, to cap it off, there’s the debates.

The debates!

Ideally, this should be the spotlight moment of any democracy. At a local level, it often is. You get a forum where the moderator gives an issue, the candidates give their take on it, and the audience comes away a little more enlightened than before.

At the presidential level? Give me leave to doubt.

It’s revealing, I think, to look at the question that gets asked when the dust has cleared. Ideally, there’s a few things people should be asking: “What did they say?” “Is it true?” “Will it work?”

But what do we ask when the debate is over?

Come on, you know this one.
“Who won?”

One more reality show. “Survivor” with a moderator.

I never really thought I’d say this. I kind of hate myself for it. But I think we’ve reached the point in the presidential race where the debates don’t really add all that much.

What do we get from them?

There’s still a few things, I know. A sense of how a candidate carries themselves. How they respond when challenged. Whether they’ve been able to get any sleep the night before. I’ve heard this called the job interview, and there’s still a little truth to it.

But a job interview where two applicants answer simultaneously, interrupt each other and compete to see who can come up with the most effective “zinger” about the other’s resume’ doesn’t sound all that useful to any employer I’ve ever met.

Is there a way to take it back? To make it about content and thought instead of charisma and talking points?

Or let’s ask the scarier question. Will it matter if we do?

Voters arguably have access to more information about their candidates now than ever. You can see their positions, and then see those positions fact-checked, criticized and defended to a fare-thee-well. And by the time the actual debates come around, most minds have been set.

I know, it’s fashionable at this point of the year to talk about the undecided voter. But I think that’s an endangered species. What we’re seeing now is the highly decided voter. Ones who have already decided which facts they believe, which narratives they’re plugging into. In a case like that, the debates are even less likely to inform, even more likely to confirm an existing bias.

I’ll grant that the first debate this year gave a fresh momentum to the Romney campaign. But was that because he convinced new supporters? Or because he was able to rally the existing ones?

If that’s the case – if the debates are becoming a pep rally with factoids – do they still serve the purpose they should?

I hope I’m wrong. I really do. Because if I’m right, we might get just as much value – and maybe even more information – from watching the candidates compete on a revived Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Actually, that sounds kind of intriguing. But I’m not married to it.

It is, after all, open to debate.

Riding the Dips

“OK, Missy, get ready!” I shout to the small figure in the passenger seat. “Got your hands up?”

“Yeah!”

Just the slightest touch of gas and VROOM! VROOM! Our Hyundai rides through two dips in Gay Street like a champ, popping up and down in the world’s shortest roller coaster.

“Wooo!” our voices echo through identical smiles.

Now that’s a ride!

I’ve mentioned before that when you travel with Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, even simple things can be a lot of fun. But even before we met, I knew about riding the “ripples” in north Gay Street.

For those who don’t get up that way much, there’s a series of drainage channels that cross the road in that neighborhood. As a kid, I used to think of these dips in the road (as opposed to the dips on the road) as “reverse speed bumps,” especially after seeing cars new to the area creep through them at 5 mph or less.

I was an adult before I knew those things were built to hold water. But I was still a teenager when I learned the twin secrets of the dips:

  1. You went through them more smoothly if you applied a little more speed, not less …
  2. …except for the ones at each end of the run, which would smack your undercarriage like Mike Tyson if you didn’t watch the road.

The result: a combination of brains and nerve, learning to pick out which spots were opportunities and which were threats.

There are worse life lessons to have. Especially these days.

Let’s face it. A sense of proportion isn’t much in style. Everything has to be the end of the world, with or without ancient Mayan calendars to prove it.

I’m not saying it’s new. I was, after all, a child of the ’70s and ’80s, when we all got warned about the razor blades that could be slipped into any Halloween treat without a wrapper. (The real danger, then and now, was generally from cars not seeing you on a darkened street.) But it seems to have hit a fever pitch over the last decade or so. Maybe even an apocalyptic one – anyone else noticed a theme to the popularity of the Hunger Games, zombie fiction, the “Revolution” TV series and so on?

Now obviously, this isn’t a world of cotton candy. Real dangers are out there, real problems need to be solved. But when we over-fortify our airports for fear of dying in a terrorist attack (odds: 1 in 1.7 million) while seeing people step outside to watch a tornado (odds of dying: 1 in 60,000), something’s a little out of whack.

It’s time to learn from the dips. Scout the ground. Learn where the dangers really are. And learn which risks are actually opportunities in disguise.

Missy reinforced that last one for me.

When my wife Heather asked if we could become her guardians, I was terrified at first. What if Heather’s health failed? What if my job went away? What if we couldn’t hack it, if we ended up screwing up a life so dependent on the lives of others?

But eventually, after a lot of talking and a lot of thinking, we took the plunge. No holding back, hit the gas.

And what looked like a canyon turned into a sweet spot. Ups and downs, yes, like a small roller coaster, but no damage. No regrets for taking the ride. None at all.

I’m still glad we drove ahead.

Because if we hadn’t, I’d feel like a real dip.

In So Many Words

Blame Maggie. It started with her.

Maggie’s the youngest of my newsroom co-workers, a “Millennial” who’s endured so much wordplay from me that it’s probably raised her blood irony levels to the danger point. Even so, she’s quick with a phrase, as I rediscovered while explaining the City Council’s decision to urge a “No” vote on a statewide measure.

“It’s not exactly an endorsement, since they want folks to vote against it,” I told her.

“Oh,” she said. “So they’re de-dorsing it?”

Cha-ching!

And the glossary grew a little richer.

If you know me at all, you know I love words. I like hearing the bubbles of “discombobulate” or the whisper and ring of “machine,” like a Hollywood blade being drawn from a sheath. There’s a rhythm to “majestic,” a tease to “sinuous,” even a quick chuckle in Jim Henson’s “Muppet-ational.”

And the only thing more fun than luxuriating in words is creating them.

It’s a growth industry, to say the least. However rapidly the language expands, there always seems to be another word or phrase needed – and soon, ready and waiting. That song you can’t get rid of? An earworm. That clever comeback you thought of after the argument was over? Staircase wit. Heather and I have even coined a few of our own here and there, such as “Swiss Army doctor” (a multi-competent physician), “egg ice” (an eggshell-thin ice sheet over visible water) and “try-g’nite,” a goodnight wish between two people who doubt their ability to sleep.

Well, with Maggie’s “de-dorse,” I began to wonder: what other vital areas of the political conversation deserve a term and lack one?

So, I threw it open to Facebook. And with the help of my friends and relations, I think we’ve got 2012 covered.

Among the best so far:

  • Advalanche (Self): The barrage of political mailings, phone calls and TV ads endured by a swing state resident. If I don’t get out from under the presidential advalanche soon, I’m moving back to California.
  • Sourcery (Mike Zimmer): The act of claiming an unnamed study in support of a highly disputable statement. Through artful sourcery, no one realized his “Stanford-backed” claim of 85 million illegal immigrants was actually based on the high score of the campus pinball machine.
  • Anecbloat (Ross Shingledecker): To pad out a political speech with stories from “a woman I met in Ohio” or “a father I talked to in Florida” that may be poignant, but never actually support or challenge a particular position. By the time he finished his anecbloat, I knew everything about hard-working Midwesterners but nothing about his views on Social Security.
  • Camfeign (Self): To run for office on principles that bear no resemblance to the ones you actually hold. His heartfelt declarations for the American rubber duck industry were shown to be merely camfeign promises after his investment in Peking Duck, Inc. was revealed.
  • Factsify (Mom): To say something so often and so strongly that it sounds true. After three months of relentless hammering, the senator had factsified her opponent’s misdeeds until even he believed he had slept with a rubber duck.
  • Hoodlink (R. Shingledecker): To either 1) write a blog post or online news piece containing a hotlink to a seemingly reputable source, inaccurately summarizing the post to support your conclusions or 2) pepper your piece with so many hotlinks that your argument seems irrefutable. That piece was a complete hoodlink; it had 37 Web links and half of them were Rickrolls!
  • Tarisma (Leslie Boyd): The ability to tar an opponent with negative connotations in a manner that seems charming and not slimy. Oh, I know he’s implied the Congressman scatters razor blades in preschool for fun, but he’s such a gentleman about it; how can you dislike that kind of tarisma?

If you have ideas of your own to contribute, I’m all ears. Send an email to srochat@times-call.com with the subject “Brave New Words” and share the words you think are missing from the political scene. (Well, leaving out the ones like “integrity,” “fairness” and “trust,” of course.)

Done right, maybe we can enrich the process. Or at least have a little fun with it.

And anyone who says otherwise has my full de-dorsement.

Signs of the Times

Do you know the way in San Jose? You’d better.

According to Reuters, the Puerto Rican city of 1.4 million is just now installing its first street signs. It’s a $1 million project meant to head off a recurring $720 million problem: undelivered mail.

“My current home address is 200 meters north of the Pizza Hut then 400 meters west, but in a few months, I will be able to give a proper street name and a number,” Mayor Johnny Araya told the news service.

Trust me, Mr. Mayor. They’ll help a lot. But I suspect you’ll be giving directions a long time yet.

I speak from experience.

I have, it may reliably be said, one of the worst senses of direction in the continental United States. Where some people have an internal compass, I have a metronome. (“It’s this way – no, that way – no, this way …”) The one direction I can reliably find is down.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time getting directions from people. Nothing against Google Maps, mind you. It’s been a lifesaver, as well as a source of semi-harmless amusement when it sends me half a county away from my real destination. But hey, what’s a couple dozen miles between friends?

But for a true education, there’s nothing like getting directions the way God intended: half-understood over the phone while scribbling madly to get it all down before your pen runs out of ink. Just what those scribbles add up to, of course, depend on the school of thought your erstwhile guide subscribes to.

Historic – I ran into this method a lot in Kansas, where a small town can have a lot of communal experience. The outsider, lacking this background, is probably doomed. “OK, now keep goin’ until you get to where the church burned down in ’07 – no wait, it was ’06 – then hang a left. You’ll want to go three houses past where Jimmy used to have his bike shop ….”

Artistic – My Aunt Carolyn is the living master of this technique, which involves describing every building, cross-street and minor landmark along the chosen route, regardless of whether they indicate a turning point or not. The good news is that if you get lost, a good set of watercolors will let you paint the description and sell it for enough money to hire a cab.

Orienteering – This one seems to be the dominant method in the Colorado communities I’ve known. “So you’ll want to go three-quarters of a mile past 17th, turn right, then after about 200 yards, you’ll want to turn left again …” Alas, for years, I had a Chevy with no “tenths” position on the odometer, reducing all this careful military science to hasty guesswork. “Oh, crap, is it that … no, wait, it’s here … no wait, it was back there …”

Zen – For some people, all directions seem to be one, because they’re either new, clueless, or traumatized from being off the Google. The one constant beyond a shrug is the ability to point inerrantly to the road you just left, refer vaguely to a turn, and give you the Four Most Dangerous Words: “You can’t miss it.”

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Just like losing your script forces you to learn lines, a directional fog can force you to learn the route. And you can make some interesting discoveries when you go along the road less traveled. Mine include the limits of my patience, the resilience of my blood pressure, and the depth of my religious convictions. (Praying for guidance takes on a very literal meaning when gas and time are low.)

And oh, yes, one thing more: a sense of humor about my limitations. The author Spider Robinson once said there are two kinds of people in this world: those who step on a rake in the dark and swear, and those who do so and laugh. The second tends to make for nicer people and a more comfortable world.

So good luck, San Jose. Enjoy the new signs.

And if you see a driver making random turns in 4/4 time … come on over and say hi, will you?