In the Know

When Missy is in a bit of a mood, she can suddenly become the most knowledgeable person on the planet.

“Come on, Missy, it’s time to step out of the tub.”

“I know!”

“Sorry, Miss, the tea’s not ready yet. It should be just a couple more minutes.”

“I know!!”

“Remember, seat belts before music.”

“I knooooow!!”

It doesn’t take two years of living with Missy to discover that “I know” is often code for “I’m tired, I’m cranky, I don’t feel like doing this.” Or occasionally, it means the more difficult “I know, I want to do this too, but I’m not allowed to agree with you yet.”

Except when it doesn’t, of course.

I wonder if U.N. translators ever have days like this?

If you’re joining us for the first time, Missy is my wife’s disabled aunt, a woman who’s nearly 40 physically but often seems much younger mentally. How much younger? It’s hard to say. Many of her actions and activities suggest around age 4, but she’ll follow conversations and even the plots of books like a young adolescent, at least.

The trick is, she doesn’t say much. So it’s hard to say what she truly doesn’t know and what she knows, but can’t communicate.

We encourage her to use her words, of course. But we’ve also learned to listen carefully to the ones she does use.

Some are obvious. “Dumb dog.” “I’m goin’ bowling.” “I want to eat the food.”

Some are more subtle. “I wan’ my book” can mean she’s ready for reading time, or that she’s looking for her big red purse. We think that comes from “pocketbook,” though the purse in question is a wee bit bigger and only slightly less dense than her bowling ball.

“I’m cold” usually means any temperature change (it was a major breakthrough when we heard her use the word “hot” recently). “Work” is her day program. “Mom” is often Heather and sometimes me, though I’ve also been “He” or even “Frank,” the name of her late dad.

And once in a great while, you get something more. My personal favorite, told before, remains the day her dad had a close call in traffic. Missy the Silent, Lady of 100 Words, immediately turned to him and said “Dammit, Frank! Are you trying to kill me?”


So what does she know? More than we think. I’m sure of that. If I were to step behind her green eyes for even a moment, I suspect I’d be shocked by just how much is going on there.

But then, isn’t that true of most of us? So often, we take refuge in routine phrases and conversations, giving little hint to the real landscape inside. Only the trusted, the careful and the lucky get a clue otherwise.

With Missy, I feel like a bit of all three.

So I listen. And I wait. And piece by piece, we build a connection that goes beyond the audible words.

That’s how you make a friend. A family. An understanding.

And if it means climbing a wall of stubbornness at times, it’s familiar territory. Heaven knows I’ve been hard-headed, too; maybe even with less reason.

But the end result will be worth it. Is worth it.

How am I so sure?

Trust me. I know.


Up, Up … And Away?

I really hope nobody’s told Ivy about the Blue Angels.

You know about the Blue Angels budget cut, of course. It’s not like the early end of this year’s performance season for the Navy aerobatics masters hasn’t been splashed all over a thousand news outlets. But then, you aren’t a 2-year-old girl who idolizes the planes and their pilots.

(By the way, if you are a 2-year-old girl reading this column, congratulations! Preschool is going to be no problem for you whatsoever.)

Ivy, my oldest niece, loves the Angels. Adores them. Her Halloween costume was even in the familiar blue flight suit and beige cap – her choice. Tell her they’re in town and she’s raring to hop in that child seat and go.

But of course, they may not be in town for quite some time now.

I know, I know. There are a lot of hard choices to make in Washington. And looked at practically, it makes perfect sense. When any budget has to be cut, whether personal, corporate or government, you usually want to remove the least essential first. Navy air shows, White House tours and Easter Egg rolls on the president’s lawn may be fun, but they’re not highways, troops and Medicare, either.

And yet, and yet …

Looking at some of these higher-profile cuts, I can’t help feeling like I’m back in Kansas all over again.

I was living and working in Emporia, Kan. when a new city manager arrived and faced a $2.5 million gap between what the city wanted to do and what the city had the money to do. So he and the city government went to work drafting a budget proposal that made a lot of cuts.

Including the money for the city band.

And that’s when the fireworks began. (But not with city money; those were to be axed out of the budget, too.)

Rooms were packed for budget hearings like they had never been before. Maybe there would have been good crowds anyway; this was a big crisis with big interest. But a solid chunk of the audience – not everyone, but way more than a handful – said whatever you do, don’t strike out the band.

“Economizing doesn’t mean eliminating,” one supporter pleaded.

It wound up working on both sides. The community was engaged in the decision. And the band saw its funding reduced, but not obliterated.

Even in a hard budget year, not all decisions come down to dollars and cents.

Some things always have to be done, of course. You have to pave the roads, to keep the lights on, to keep the streets (or the country) safe. You don’t ignore those.

But there’s nothing wrong with lighting the eyes and touching the soul, either.

A newspaperman I know of once made a similar point for journalists. He acknowledged that there needed to be investigations, hard looks at serious problems, and all the rest. “But don’t forget,” he said, “that it isn’t illegal to give people cause to hope.”

An air show may inspire a clutch of future pilots. A White House tour might encourage a future politician – or at least, a future involved citizen.
Who’s to say?

One more time: I know you can’t do everything. And the inspiring as well as the mundane have to be considered for the knife. But in a government that’s often self-combative, it’s not illegal to give people cause to smile, either.

Just a thought.

After all, in times like this, even Blue Angels need guardians.

Taking the Cake


I followed my wife’s voice to the scene of the carnage. Heather stood there aghast, with an over-muscled Labrador mix on one side, and a half-empty cake pan on the other.

Big Blake, it seemed, had discovered my belated birthday cake.

At two weeks late, it had been meant as a bit of a surprise. It succeeded. Instead of getting frosted by Heather and Missy, it had gotten a two-minute sampling by our canine connoisseur of all things semi-edible.


At first, I was horrified. Then, a little worried for the big guy (needlessly, as it turned out). And then, finally, amused.

After all this time, my cake karma seemed to have finally come full circle.

It’s an old family story, told by me as often as by anyone. My youngest sister Carey had had a birthday and knew exactly where she wanted it to be: Chuck E. Cheese. (I’ll pause for a parental shudder.) As the joke goes, it was our early childhood lesson in junk food and gambling, and we plunged with abandon into both, gladly running from pizza to video games to Skee-Ball and back again.

Since this was a birthday, naturally there was a cake. Since we were a family of five, naturally we didn’t finish it in one sitting. As the big brother (all of 10 years old or so), I volunteered to carry it out to the car when we left, holding it proudly as we entered the parking lot.

A little too proudly, perhaps. With a timing worthy of Mr. Bean, the cake left my hands.

And with one simple plunge, Abstract Art Piece No. 7, a study in frosting and pavement, had been born.


It’s been 30 years since then. My sister has long since started talking to me again. But the funny thing is, I can remember that incident more quickly and clearly than my college graduation. In terms of sheer vividness, it competes with the opening-night play at the Longmont Theatre Company where I took one downstage step too many, descending into the orchestra pit.

Some things, it seems, your brain hangs on to. With relish.

(No, the cake didn’t have relish. Chuck E. Cheese wasn’t that bizarre.)

Oddly enough, that’s been a subject of major research over the last few years: why our mind clings so hard to mortifying memories. The hope is to be able to better treat post-traumatic stress disorder. And the studies seem to suggest that it’s a combination of a particular brain chemical – norepinephrine, released in times of strong emotion – and an understandable need to obsessively examine a situation and figure out “Why did I do that?”

“It’s our need to control,” scientist Angela Londoño-McConnell told msnbc. com in 2009. “person might have thrown up simply because they were getting sick. It just happened. But it’s very difficult to tell the brain, ‘It just happened.’ So we go over it, trying to figure it out, trying to make sure we won’t be embarrassed again.”

That can actually be a valuable way to learn. But it can also mean you beat yourself up for a long period of time and blow a small event into a huge one.

Gee, that sounds familiar.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “but in rising up each time we fail.” Anyone can screw up – heck, Thomas Edison once burned down the family barn as a child. The question is what you do next.

I’ve had a lot of “nexts.” So have most of us, I suspect. More than enough to let a few cringes go, however vivid.

I know, it’s not often easy. But now that the years have worn this one from embarrassment to amusement, letting go shouldn’t be too hard.

You could call it a piece of cake.

But don’t tell Blake if you do.

In a Dog’s Eye

It’s official. The Rochat house has gone to the dogs.

It’s been coming for a while, of course. For seven years, we’ve been host to Duchess the Wonder Dog, the smartest scaredy-cat on Earth. And as some of you may remember, we recently became the short-term landlords for Big Blake, my sister-in-law’s Lab mix with the build of a linebacker and the grace of an African elephant.

Well. short-term became long-term. It seems some of Big Blake’s neighbors didn’t care for his rendition of the “All Alone In The House Again Blues.” So back he came to us, clicking into the pack for the foreseeable future.

All of this, of course, has been very amusing to Missy.

Granted, many things are amusing to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, whether it’s a cool-looking car or a bit of teasing while brushing her hair. She’s not immune to resistance and rebellion – far from it, sometimes – but the number of things that can light her slightly-crooked smile is astounding.

And with dogs, her habits are long-ingrained. A short push and a “No!” if they go near her food. A gentle pat or even a short hug if they’re lying still. And of course, a quick check of her balance on entering the door – Blake can be something of a one-dog cavalry charge.

But what’s been fascinating to me is watching how the dogs treat Missy in return.

Duchess, the careful, perceptive rescue dog, noticed something was different about Missy from the start. Because of her past, our Wonder Dog tends to be most relaxed around children and most fearful around adult men, with women getting a split decision. Somehow, Duchess decided that Missy fit in the “children” category – not someone to go to if you needed to be let out, but not someone to hide in panic from, either.

She saw the differences and made accommodations.

Blake … well, is Blake, a big heart who will never be mistaken for Einstein. To him, Missy is one more person. He’ll beg from her, fruitlessly. He’ll ask her for a run, to no response. But he’ll also plop by her for some love, or bark as loudly at her departure or arrival as he would for me or Heather.

He saw no differences and welcomed her wholeheartedly.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that the best people and experiences in Missy’s life have been a mix of both.

Missy bowls. She bowls well. But she also bowls with bumpers on the gutters, an accommodation to her physical issues that keeps the day fun, not frustrating.

Missy dances, simply but with enthusiasm. And at her annual “prom” in Lafayette, she gets to be one of hundreds of disabled adults, just one more person keeping the rhythm with joy.

It’s a tricky balance, to help a person compensate while retaining their dignity. But it’s also a vital middle ground to strike.

And not just for the disabled.

Being underrated or overwhelmed can be frustrating for anybody. It takes a lot of perception and compassion to thread the needle between micromanagement (“Here, let me do everything for you”) and myopia (“Everyone is able to do everything I want”).

But it’s when we reach that balance that we really see each other as people. Not victims. Not mix-and-match Weebles. But other people worthy of respect.

Not a bad thing to learn from a couple of pups.

Maybe an old dog can teach us all some new tricks.