Something Went “Click”

The living room had been struck by a toddler tornado.

From one end to the other, the floor displayed the unmistakable signs that my 2-year-old niece Riley had been present. Scattered toys. Well-strewn cookie cutters. Discarded magazines. And not a square inch of carpet to be seen.

But as I started to pick thing up, I realized something was missing.

“Oh, please no …” I muttered, knowing how upset Missy would be if this had been lost or broken. A frantic search finally uncovered the safe-keeping spot my wife Heather had used, out of Riley’s sight and reach. Inside lay a massive Study in Multi-Colored Plastic Brick, an agglomeration that might require its own building code.

Fort Missy was safe.

That’s my name for it, anyway. I’m not quite sure what Missy herself considers it. The broken paths and varied levels could be a city, a labyrinth, a mighty chunk of abstract art. Heather swears it’s an attempt at an airport where a relative once worked.

Whatever it is, it’s required almost every Lego our developmentally-disabled young lady possesses, with minor adjustments here and there to integrate new pieces. Every so often, Heather and I get invited to help with specific bits of the masterpiece, a tiny brick pressed into our hands to make the latest revision.

It’s funny. For months, those Legos had sat in the house, little-used. But lately, they’ve become a passion for Missy, right up there with her morning tea and her bedtime story.

Ever since a certain exhibit hit the Longmont Museum.

You know the one I mean. Everybody in town knows the one I mean. The museum’s “Amazing World of LEGO” exhibit has easily been its most visited ever, and small wonder. Some of the exhibits are jaw-dropping: a Lego-built bicycle, a plastic recreation of Action Comics No. 1, and more.

But the heart of it, and by far the noisiest part, has been the Lego city where child visitors constantly build, demolish and build again. Surrounded by possibilities, they create their own.

Apparently, one visitor took those possibilities home.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, inspiration is a funny thing. It only takes the lightest of touches from the outside to send the mind in a new direction, or unlock a dream that had laid dormant.

For me, a missing word in a Spanish textbook’s glossary helped lead me to journalism.

For my wife, a chance-heard broadcast on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death ignited a lifelong passion for the Beatles. Followed very rapidly by a fascination (if sometimes a joking one) with Bob Dylan.

I suspect everyone has a similar story. Maybe a word in the right place or an image in the wrong one. A picture, a tune, a story that takes root.

It’s a powerful thing. And an unsettling one.

It means we need to be aware of our own actions. A kind word may reverberate longer than we expect; an offhand wisecrack may wound more deeply than we see.

It means we need to tend the fields of inspiration so that they’re there when needed. A museum or a forest. A drama class or a space program. Anything that fills the void with possibilities and imagination.

Because make no mistake, the void will be filled. And if we don’t choose some of those possibilities, they will be chosen for us. Does anyone really want to leave that life-changing touch to the undie-clad pop stars of the MTV VMA Awards?

I didn’t think so.

We all have the power to be givers of dreams. It’s up to us to use it well.

After all, Fort Missy  won’t get built by itself.

Name Dropping

When you work for a newspaper, one thing you get used to is odd baby names.

Sometimes it’s a twist in spelling, like the Sheila named “Shelia.” Or a rising trend, like those angels in a mirror named “Nevaeh.” At one point, place names like Madison or Montana began to take off; a co-worker teased that if kids were going to be labeled with their place of origin, we might see “Chevrolet” before too long.

You smile. Sometimes you laugh. Once in a great while, you wonder what the parents were thinking. (“Marion Butts? Really?”)

But the honorable Lu Ann Ballew didn’t stop at wondering. The Tennessee judge acted, saying a family had no right to name its child “Messiah.”

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has been earned by only one person,” Bellew declared in resetting the baby’s name to “Martin.”

Psst. No one tell her about all the Latino families who have named their children “Jesus,” OK?

The thing is, we’ve been here before. Usually with a foreign court. The one that sticks in my mind is the New Zealand judge who barred a family from naming their child “4real Wheaton.” This act of humanity clearly saved a young boy from years of humiliation and ridicule … or at least, it might have, if Mom and Dad’s backup choice hadn’t been “Superman.”

Phone booth not included.

What can I say? Names are powerful, even the ones that don’t happen to come from Krypton. They reflect who we are. Sometimes they even shape it. They show our hopes and dreams, our values and fancies, maybe even our incipient insanity.

And trust me. Trying to block that force is an exercise in futility.

Don’t like titles as a name? Watch out for Fletcher (maker of arrows), Chandler (candle maker) or Tanner.

No religious exclamations? Then thou shalt not touch Elizabeth (“Oath of God”), Michael (“Who is Like God?”) or Joshua (“God is Salvation”).  Never mind the bus driver a few years ago who legally changed his name to In God We Trust.

We’ve used virtues from Chastity to Justice. We’ve used place names, plant names, colors, promises of royalty. We’ve even hit the produce aisle at the supermarket, not just with the infamous “Apple,” but with more time-tested monikers like Cherry.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that any name out there can really qualify as unusual anymore. Though I’m still grateful to my parents for not naming me “Walter.” (Sorry, Mr. Disney.)

I’m not saying that naming a child should be a frivolous exercise. Quite the opposite. With great power comes great responsibility as Peter Parker (“Rock Forest Ranger”) once declared. And probably a great number of arguments as well, as Mom and Dad swerve between trying to be unique and trying to avoid getting a child beaten on the playground.

But such a powerful choice must be a personal one. It’s really not a place for a judge, except by invitation.

So thank you, your honor. Thanks for recognizing how important a name is. But I think the rest of us can take it from here.

And if we wind up with the occasional Picabo Street, or Moon Unit Zapppa, or even Messiah (762 boys last year, according to the New York Times), well, so be it.

After all, that’s the name of the game.

An Orbit Observed

Halley’s Comet never fails to orbit the sun.

Haley the Collie Mix never failed to orbit my parents’ house.

Yes, past tense. Darn it.


If you didn’t know Haley – well, you were probably in the majority. She was a beautiful but shy dog, one who made our own Duchess the Timid look like Robin Williams. How shy? The first time I met Haley, while I visited home on a Christmas vacation, it took about a week before I could pat her.

Did I say shy? More like scared. She had reason to be. Like most of my family’s animals, she was a rescue dog. She’d endured more by the age of 2 than any living thing should be asked, and had learned that the world could be a frightening place. Anyone who wasn’t my parents would hear the barking as they came in the front door, and then see absolutely no sign that a dog existed.

And then … a quick glimpse.

And another.

Quietly, Haley would circle the downstairs, moving from room to room, keeping her distance while finding out just who had invaded her house.

The orbit was under way.

It’s been about two weeks now since she left us. Probable liver cancer was the diagnosis. In any event, she was failing badly enough to prompt the hardest choice any pet owner has to make, the decision to love by letting go.

And even though it’s been two weeks, even though she kept herself at such a distance – she still floats through my mind sometimes, still offering little glimpses here and there, still staying in sight and out of reach.

Maybe that’s how it always is, even with the bolder and the braver.

Some people touch a lot of lives while they’re here. When I lived in Emporia, Kansas, it was folks like the Rev. Ralph Jackman, whose hands and heart turned up everywhere. Since moving back here, I could name many more, most recently Frank Kaven, the Martini’s Bistro co-owner who seemed to befriend an entire city.

And even with people that known, that loved, we find one more story we didn’t know after they pass. One more surprise. Something that reminds us that all we got were glimpses of a life, pieces that peeked out during an all-too-short time here.

It doesn’t make those memories worth any less. But it holds a powerful lesson for the living left behind.

Make those glimpses count.

Remember that you don’t know another’s whole life and they don’t know yours. Reach out with kindness and compassion for the hurts you may never see. Be patient and understanding for the reasons that may never be explained.

Think of the pieces of life you are showing, the bits of you that cross another’s orbit. What are they seeing? What are they believing because of what they see?

Treasure every moment of true sight, however small. Those glimpses form lives, loves, friendships – and eventually, memories.

They will not feel like enough. But they’re what we get to keep. A moment of blurry light crossing the sky, Halley’s Comet returned one more time.

My orbit was crossed by Haley’s all too few times. But in those times came a building of tentative trust. She never became outgoing – but she did reach a point where she would take food from me without fear.

Our small moments at a distance brought us near, ever so briefly.

May your own moments and memories bring you close now.

Stolen Chances

I consider myself a forgiving person. But “forgiving” doesn’t mean “patsy.”

No, Alex. No. No. No.

You know the guy I mean, I’m sure. Sometimes it seems like everyone on the planet knows Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, New York Yankees superstar. And to not know about his fight with big-league baseball over performance-enhancing drugs – well, you might not quite have to live under a rock, but it would at least require a unique focus on young Prince George to the exclusion of all else.

He’s been told to leave the game until 2014. He’s appealing.

But he’s not very appealing to me.

I don’t want him back in the game. Not in 2014. Not in 2015. Not ever.

As far as I’m concerned, he’s done.

I know, there’s this little business of innocent until proven guilty. A-Rod hasn’t admitted guilt. Under different circumstances, that’d carry weight with me.

Except he has admitted guilt. Not this time. But a while back, when he confessed to using PEDs between 2001 and 2003.

Old news? Price paid? Move on?

Sorry. Not that easy. Not for me.

We’ve been here before, though last time it was dogs, not drugs. Back in 2009, after the NFL star Michael Vick finished serving his prison time for dogfighting, I made it clear that while I wished him luck in starting a new life, that that life shouldn’t be anywhere near professional football.

“I believe in forgiveness,” I wrote then. “But I also believe in consequences. And some doors don’t open twice.”

For me, the case here is just as clear-cut. A-Rod used stolen ability to win baseball games. Possibly now, certainly then.

In my field, there’s a special word for using abilities that aren’t your own in order to get ahead. It’s called “plagiarism.”  And if I go there, I can be fired.

Worse yet. If I go there, I can probably forget finding a job in this field again. And I don’t really want to go back to bagging groceries.

A-Rod committed the athletic version of plagiarism. He let us watch talent he falsely claimed was his own.

Going easy just because it’s easier to replace my job than his doesn’t make sense. Trust was still abused.

And in the end, this is all about trust.

I think that’s what has made every new drug revelation so disgusting even as the accusation becomes so familiar. We trusted that we were watching Alex Rodriguez, or Lance Armstrong, or Mark McGwire. That we were witnesses to something special, lightning in a bottle not captured twice.

Well … there was something in a bottle, all right.

My first newspaper editor once told me that all a paper has to sell is its credibility. When that’s gone, the paper’s done. I think something similar is true of professional sports. If the stories it writes are nothing more than drug-enhanced fairy tales, we might as well be playing video games instead.

Maybe this is a lot of time to spend worrying about a kid’s game. But that’s part of it, too. The nation’s security doesn’t exactly demand that A-Rod stay in pinstripes. Just the security of the New York Yankees’ bottom line.

I think I can live with endangering that.

I know. I’m not the commissioner. I’m not the authorities. I’m not anything except one more baseball fan, tired of all the chemical cheating, who just wants to get back to enjoying the game.

But that’s what sports comes down to. If the fans stop watching, everyone stops playing. And to some of us, that’s sounding less painful every day.

So hang up the bat, Alex. Say your say, whether in defiance or apology. And then, please, go.

It’s time.

It’s past time.

It’s now.

Another Story

My name is Scott Rochat, and I am a notebook addict.

It clicks in without fail, every back-to-school shopping season. Ten- or twenty-cent spiral-bound? Fifty-cent composition book? Drop a few in my basket every shopping trip and never mind the growing stack at home until the sale’s over.

My co-workers would laugh if they knew. After all, they’ve seen how quickly I go through the things at work. My desk isn’t quite the Great Wall of Hastily-Filled Notepads but I’m a strong second-place contender.

But the ones at home – these are different.

Granted, sometimes they’re an emergency reserve. Reporters don’t really have an “off time” and when a call comes from the desk, I need to be able to grab something and run. But that doesn’t quite account for the whole Leaning Tower of Spiral.

There’s been a lot of other reasons over the years. Fantasy football prep. Roleplaying games. Scattered notes for columns and parodies. All of it reasonable, all of it true – and all of it, maybe, putting off the real reason.

Namely, the book.

Sure, there’s a book. Or there should be. Ninety percent of people in newspapers plan to “write a book someday” and 10 percent are liars. Heather’s pushed me to do it since we were dating; friends and family, colleagues and readers have all added their voices every so often. “You know, you really ought to …”
I know, I know.

I don’t disagree. I have some ideas kicking around. And since the age of 5, I’ve known I was going to write something – fantasy or mystery, young adult or non-fiction, a new thought with each passing year.

And each year, the idea waits a little longer.

I’m not quite sure what it is. I’m obviously not a writing rookie. I’ve churned out literally hundreds of news articles and columns, dozens of off-kilter parody songs for theater friends, even a couple of children’s plays. But the book still looms ahead, forbidding and massive, like my own personal Rocky Mountain range.

Or maybe it’s my own Great Sand Dunes.

If you’ve ever been to Alamosa, you know what I’m talking about. Tremendous piles of sand deposited over countless years by an odd meeting of wind and earth. If you haven’t been, picture a gigantic section of George Lucas’s Tatooine picked up and dropped into Colorado, just in reach of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

It’s bizarre. Beautiful. And a little imposing.

Heather and I camped nearby for our first anniversary, about 14 years ago. We looked at that high ridge and knew we had to get up it. But we weren’t sure how much we could push ourselves – even then, her health wasn’t great – and sand isn’t the most forgiving hiking surface, giving you two steps forward, one and a half steps back.

But two things worked in our favor. First, this was “monsoon season,” the week in July when afternoon rains left the dunes more stable than they would have been. Second, as we got higher and higher, we only occasionally looked out at the valley. Heather’s focus was on me, just ahead. Mine was on her, just behind. Each urging the other to make just a few more steps.

Between the circumstances, and the shared tunnel vision, we made it. We found the view from that ridge was even more beautiful than we’d expected.

And we also found there were a whole lot more ridges behind the one we could see.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe any imposing journey is just a matter of steps and circumstance, going just a little farther while you can, as you can. Always with the hope of achievement – and the promise of yet another journey behind.

It’s still an intimidating thought. But there’s some hope mixed in with the intimidation. After all, plenty of people hike the ridges, write the pages, do the difficult. Who’s to say there can’t be one more?

Who, indeed.

This calls for another notebook.