Lifestyles of the Miss and Famous

As we made our way through the crowded downtown, Missy’s face lit up. She quickly waved, calling to a stranger in the crowd.


Did I say stranger? In moments, the excited woman had seen us, returned the wave, and come over to give an ecstatic Missy her hug.

“I used to work with her in school,” the woman said, looking down at the small figure in the wheelchair (our choice for long-distance travel). “But that was .. how old is she? … at least 27 years ago.”

Twenty-seven years ago. And Missy remembered her like yesterday.

I shouldn’t be surprised anymore.

Traveling with my disabled friend and ward gives me a taste of what true celebrity is like. I mean, I’m reasonably well known through this column. But everybody knows Missy. And she always knows them. Always.

“Hi, Missy!”

A trip downtown can quickly become a chorus of that, especially at big events like Festival on Main. We’ll turn around and meet her old softball coach. Or a woman she met at the therapy pool. Or her long-standing “boyfriend,” a guy she’s known since they were in Tiny Tim together.

Mind you, she’ll approach and charm total strangers, too. But once she’s met them, she doesn’t forget them. There’s that look of mutual recognition, the surprise on the other person’s face, the beaming glee on hers.

“Well, hey, Miss! How are you?”

It’s a gift I kind of envy, along with her bump of direction. Travel through Longmont and she’ll quickly point the way to the spots important to her – her day program, her chiropractor’ office, the bowling alley, her favorite restaurant. Her speech may be infrequent and her steps slow, but the pointing finger is absolutely certain.

“Look over the’e!”

As I write it out, I realize how much sense that makes. It’s the same gift. Every face she knows, every place she indicates, is something or someone she cares about. And what she cares about, she doesn’t forget.

In nearly 41 years, that adds up to an awful lot of caring.


I wonder how many don’t see that power? How many just see the small, slight figure with the 100-watt smile and walk past, figuring they’ve summed her up in a glance? A lot of us do that as we go through our day, seeing glimpses and shorthands rather than people.

It’s understandable; the day is long and life is busy. But it becomes inexcusable when that shorthand becomes our sole perception of the world, an over-simplified shadow play of “theys” and “thems” and “those peoples.”

Watch any kind of social media after a major event – the Ferguson conflict, say, or a major immigration incident – and you’ll see it happen. At least half the commenters will have read no more than the headline. Many of the rest will have gone just far enough to fit things into the Procrustean bed of their expectations, whether the usual labels make sense or not.

That’s no way to learn. Or to live.

Truth is complicated. And messy. There are lives and struggles and facets and contexts we know nothing about, that lie hidden to the first glance or even sometimes the seventh. To ignore that is to take the easy way out, to live among stereotypes instead of people.

To avoid having to care.

I don’t mean to suggest that we’re all monsters. This often isn’t a reflex born of cruelty, but of haste and indifference. But reflexes can be retrained. In fact, that’s often a requirement to do anything useful with them.

Thanks to Missy, I’ve got my training regimen. Never forget those you care about. Always be quick to expand that category. And never assume that the first impression is the only one.

Meanwhile, I’d better go find my sunglasses.

After all, I’m traveling with a celebrity these days.

No Laughing Matter

Picture a driver whose wrists are handcuffed to the steering wheel. A short chain, at that, so no hand-over-hand turns. The gear shift is barely reachable, with the fingertips.

Now send that driver on a trip from Limon to Grand Junction. How much of a miracle will it be to make it? If and when the inevitable happens, how many will blame the driver? How many will see that the driver was largely a prisoner of his own car?

In the end, I think that’s where Robin Williams was. Careening off a mountain road in a vehicle he could not control.

The crash has left echoes in all our ears.

There’s been a lot said and written about Robin these days. Not surprising. For many of us, the brilliant comic and actor was one of the constant presences, always there, always doing something new, always on the move, like a lightning storm that had been distilled into a human body. Too much energy to be contained.

My own personal memory is of a performance he gave in London in the 1980s, part of a royal gala for Prince Charles and Princess Di. My family and I taped the show on TV and darned near wore it out, as we watched his hurricane of stand-up over and over again. The effects of playing rugby without pads. The difference between New York and London cab drivers. The sharks watching airline crash survivors bobbing on seat cushions. (“Oh, look, Tom, isn’t that nice? Canapés!”)

At one point, white-hot, he broke off his routine. Running beneath the royal box, he pointed upward, looked to the rest of the audience and stage-whispered “Are they laughing?”

Everyone broke up. Charles included.

But now I wonder. How much of that question lay at the heart of Robin’s own life? Are they laughing? Do they really like me or just the face I show? Does any of this matter?

Those can be uncomfortable questions even without a poisonous brain chemistry. But that is exactly what Robin Williams had.

I don’t have depression myself. Too many of my friends do, including some of the oldest friends I have in the world. From them and from a number of acquaintances, I have at least a second-hand idea, like a reporter in a war zone watching people in the line of fire.

And that’s what it is. A silent war against your own mind.

“Your brain is literally lying to you,” one online acquaintance said. Even when you realize that, he added, it’s still your brain and you still want to believe it.

That’s a terrifying thing to consider.

Mind you, I’m used to the idea that your own brain can ambush you. I’m epileptic. If someday my medication fails or it gets missed for too long, I can have a literal brainstorm. But that’s a sometimes thing, a sneak attack out of the bushes.

This is more insidious. This is the command center taken over by the enemy. When you can’t trust your own mind, your own perceptions and impulses, what do you do?

There are more tools than there used to be. I have friends who use medicine to fight the chemistry, who use cognitive-behavioral therapy to find a path through the labyrinth, who reach for reasons to even get out of bed in the morning: family, faith, pets.

“Unless brain transplants become a thing, I will always require medication,” one dear friend said. “But I’ll always need glasses, too, and that’s the context I try to keep it in.”

But among these tools, we also have one other thing. A society that doesn’t fully understand. A place where the glasses and the pills aren’t seen the same way, where people see depression as a personal failing instead of a mental illness.

Where it’s the driver’s fault for not sawing through the handcuffs in time.

Like many, I wish Robin Williams were still with us. But also like many, I hope his death gives more of us a chance to understand, to see, to ask questions and really listen to the answers. And by listening, to lift some of the stigma so that more people can get more help.

It takes all of us. Together, in understanding.

And that’s no joke.

All’s Fair

When it comes to gardening, my green thumb is more of a shade of black.

My cooking skills, despite many good intentions, stop somewhere south of boiled eggs.

My history with a sewing needle mostly consists of finding one in my feet at inconvenient times. (Come to think of it, is there ever a convenient time?)

In fact, if you go down the list – livestock, shooting, dancing, model rocketry – I’m about as far from a 4-H kid as it’s possible to get.

And yet, I remain fascinated by county fairs.

After 16 years of newspaper journalism, I’ve covered a lot of them, along with the fair-like events that spring up here and there, such as the “Beef Empire Days” of Garden City, Kansas. I’ve been sunburned at the parades, deafened at the demolition derbies and confused terribly by the layout. (“Let me get this straight – the barns go C, A and then B?”)

But always, always, the memory that sticks in my mind is sheer admiration for the kids. This is their show and they make the most of it.

Raise a 290-pound market pig? Sure. Pull 300 pounds behind a pedal-powered tractor? No problem. Take on projects in photography, woodworking, rocketry and jewelry and still have time to raise rabbits? Ask for something hard, why don’t you?

These are, in short, some of the most capable people I’ve ever met. And that’s what truly makes the county fair, any county fair, exceptional.

It’s a place where we still celebrate capability.

I don’t mean excellence. We’ll cheer endlessly at people who excel, sometimes in very esoteric fields. There are pancake races, competitive sauna meets , cow chip throwing contests and the real head-scratcher – curling. However strange the event, there’s someone who wants to be the best at it and more often than not, we’ll sit down to watch the struggle.

But the celebration of practical skill is something else entirely.

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said contemptuously that “specialization is for insects,” rattling off a long list of (for him) basic competencies that he felt any human being should possess, from changing a diaper to planning an invasion. If anything, most of us have gotten narrower since, relying on Google and YouTube to fill in the gaps in our education. (The night that Heather and I had to use an online search to locate our main water shutoff while the kitchen ceiling was giving way was a memorable one, indeed.)

And then there’s the fair. Your hands. Your work. Your competency, in as many fields as you have time and desire to take on. It’s a reminder of something older and more essential, a world that may have become even more distant to us than the farm itself.

At its heart, it’s a reaffirmation that we are more than our tools. That we’re builders, not just watchers.

That’s a statement with a lot of implications.

When even the simplest things are challenges, it’s easy to feel like a helpless bystander. “Fix the country? I can’t even fix my sink.” Get used to competency and it’s addictive. If I can do this, why not that? Or that?

After a while, optimism becomes natural. Even hope. Why not? When you already know achievement is possible, the only thing left to get used to is the scale.

That may be a life’s work. But hey – got anything better to do?

So here’s to the kids of the fair and all those behind them. May there be many more like you and still more inspired by you.

Because let’s face it, you’re more than fair.

You’re outstanding.