To Tell the Truth

It was so much easier in the days of Snidely Whiplash.

Remember Snidely?

For those too young to have a proper cartoon education, Snidely Whiplash was the ongoing villain of the “Dudley Do-Right” tales. Snidely was evil and you knew it – he had a black coat and hat, a mustache that begged to be twirled, and a dramatic, sinister laugh. There was no secret about who he was –  even somebody as dimwitted as Our Hero Dudley could tell “Hey, this is probably the bad guy here.”

As we got older, things got a little more sophisticated. Oh, there were still blatant figures of evil like Darth Vader with his black armor, blood-red lightsaber, and habit of choking minions who failed their job reviews. But we also got characters that seemed oh-so-charming, ready to smile all the way to the bank, with your money in their hand. Stories like “The Music Man,” “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” gave us flim-flam artists who could talk anyone out of anything – to the amusement of we, the audience, who knew so much better.

After all, we knew the whole script.

We like to think we’re that good in real life, too. That we can spot the phonies and the fakes. That no one is going to spin a line on us, because we’re smart. We’re aware. This is our story and we’re the hero, so that means we have to be right, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It never was.

We’ve had a lot of painful reminders of that over the years. Bill Cosby, loved by millions as America’s Dad, going to prison on sexual assault charges. The sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, where trusted figures proved to have terrible secrets. And now we have in front of us the Supreme Court hearings, where a nation is weighing whether nominee Brett Kavanaugh or his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is more credible.

Nobody gave us the script. Nobody put us in the room where it happened. And that means we’re left leaning on two things – evidence, which is often slow and painstaking to gather, and our own impressions and experience, which can be put together oh-so-quickly.

Maybe too quickly.

A recent piece in FiveThirtyEight noted studies that show we’re a lot worse at gauging liars than we think we are. Even professional observers – police, journalists, prosecutors – turn out to have a success rate that’s only a little above 50 percent. Even the cues we watch for aren’t a sure tell, the piece notes. Since “everyone knows” that certain cues indicate that someone is straightforward or a liar, they’re easy to fake – actors do this all the time – or easy to stumble into by someone who’s nervous about being mislabeled.

The result is that two people, watching and listening to the same individual, can reach completely different conclusions. One person’s “Obviously sincere” is the other’s “well-rehearsed phony.” For one, anxiety is proof of guilt, for another, the sign of understandable stress. And as observers try to convince each other, they often talk right past each other, because they are literally not speaking the same language.

I’m not pretending to be a sage who’s above it all. I have my thoughts and impressions, too; I have a conclusion that seems likely to me. But it is easy for anyone – rightly or wrongly – to reach a conclusion based on the story they expect to see. The charges on Cosby, for example, had circulated as rumors for years before they ever reached a courtroom. And it was easy for most people to dismiss them as merely rumors … until the grinding weight of evidence made it undeniable.

It was slow. Painfully slow, especially for those at the heart of it all. But by taking the time, by persisting in the investigation, a conclusion was finally reached. One big enough to shatter the stories that had already been drawn.

We need to take the time. On this case and any case. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to decide this quickly. But with so much on the line, we need to be sure. It can’t just sound right – it has to be right.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” Sherlock Holmes once observed. “Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keep digging. Always.

It doesn’t have to be as fast as a Whiplash.

Windows in the Wall

It began with a deep family discussion. My wife Heather and her sister Jaimee had become embroiled in one of those topics that can transform an entire autumn: should Jaimee dress as Princess Leia for Halloween, or as a unicorn?

The arguments were weighed and considered with the seriousness of a House investigating committee. (I kid, of course –  it was actually much more serious than that.) In the midst of it, without warning, our disabled ward Missy looked up.

“Unicorn,” she said.

A pause followed.

“Well,” Jaimee said, “if Missy says so, I suppose that settles it!”

I’m not saying Missy is an Old Testament prophet, whose judgments come replete with ominous clouds, rolling thunder, and a lightning show worthy of Castle Dracula. (Well, not until she gets really impatient with us, anyway.) But if you’ve followed Missy in this space at all, you know that she tends to the quiet side. Some people say a word to the wise is sufficient; for Missy, a few words to a conversation is abundance.

But in the time that Heather and I have cared for her – seven and a half years now – there are periodic bursts of new vocabulary, like a river carving new channels. Every so often, the results are striking enough to mention here, like when “ma shoe” became “ma tennis shoe” a few years ago, or last Christmas, when she improbably added “Hallelujah” to the list. Even calling me “Scott” sometimes instead of “Frank” (her dad’s name) or “He” counted as a major milestone.

The thing is … lately, there have been a lot of milestones.

“I wanna go” is a standard phrase. But “Let’s move over here” is new.

“Lookit!” is an old favorite. But “Look at the animals,” said while pointing to a herd of horses, caught us off guard.

“Can you do me up?” popped out one afternoon, as she extended a jacket in one hand.

And even the stock comments sometimes turn into short conversations now.

“Where are we goin’?” Missy asked for the 10th time near the end of a drive one day. Rather than answer again, I lobbed it back to her.

“I don’t know, Missy, where do you think we’re going?”


She was absolutely right.

We’ve always known that Missy understands more than she’s able to say, that a lot hides behind her silence. One night, as I read A Wrinkle in Time to her, the character Mrs. Whatsit was describing the art of “tessering” – folding time and space – by noting how much more easily a caterpillar could cross the edge of a picnic blanket if the corners were pinched close together.

Heather peeked her head in. “How far have you gotten?”

“We’re learning how to tesser,” I responded.

And Missy, quietly, picked up the edge of her blanket and brought the corners together. And grinned.

Lesson learned.

And now, by fits and starts, the words are starting to catch up. Not in a mass wave – the limitations she has are still real ones, an internal wall rarely scaled. But she’s increasingly finding cracks in the wall. And every once in a while, she builds windows.

I don’t claim to know how. Yes, we read to her a lot, we talk with her a lot. Maybe it’s as simple as that – that what you give your attention to flourishes, like seeds receiving water.

But that discounts Missy’s own work. The learning and growth that’s going on inside her, the process that only she can see.

Maybe that sort of growth always seems kind of magical, regardless of your age or condition. We’ve all done it. The lucky ones never stop. And most of us are still powerless to explain it fully.

I’d love to hear what Missy thinks. Maybe someday I will, just a little. After all, she’s already folded time and discovered unicorns. What’s one more miracle?

Let’s move over here, and see.

Tall Tale

The man known as Shi seemed to move through life with ease. Not many could claim a billionaire status, a friendship with the likes of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, a resume that included fighting poverty and directing an internet economic research center. But, inevitably, the Chinese authorities caught up with him.

Why inevitable? Well, to start with, Shi is 17 years old. And a junior high-school dropout. Oh, and one other thing – not one of his accomplishments actually existed. Except maybe for having 10,000 followers on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter until his account disappeared.

“Shi went viral on Chinese social media websites after his crafted online identity was exposed,” Reuters reported in its Sept. 12 story, which noted the Photoshopped pictures, the false claims and even a faked official Chinese  news release that had gone out before northern Chinese police announced their investigation. The story also included a statement from the authorities that “we will punish those who spread rumors online with an adverse impact on the society.”

Is it just me, or could they be busy for a while?

By now, I hope, it’s not exactly news that it’s easy to lie online. In the early days, a New Yorker cartoon famously claimed that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, the fictions and false claims fill our world.

We know about the fraudulent warnings about computer security , complete with viruses ready to infect the unwary.

Or the posts that call for an “Amen” for a (nonexistent) sick child or claim to break a (false) limit on the number of Facebook friends you see.

And of course, there’s the  zillions of political claims and “articles” that fall apart with 30 seconds of research or less, but get circulated and recirculated, because – well, everyone knows it’s true, right? (And the tendency for real articles to get denounced as “fake news” by their subjects doesn’t help matters.)

Like many an old scam, it seems so obvious from the sidelines, yet it keeps going and going. Why?

Easy. We love a good story.

We are storytelling creatures at heart. Where there are humans, there have been stories, whether it’s ancient hunters talking about their kills over the campfire, neighbors gossiping about their friends over the backyard fence, or Hollywood telling yet one more tale of love and glory. Stories excite and entertain, they inform and educate, they give us a way to make sense of the world  even when creating new worlds of the imagination.

It’s one of our best traits.

But … it also means that we can be quick to believe a story when we shouldn’t. Or to see one that isn’t there, pulling together unconnected events into deep conspiracy. And the more we get invested in a story, the harder it is to pull free from it, and the more vocally we defend it.

That’s something every con artist knows. Sure, it’s usually greed that initially hooks the “mark.” But the fuel that keeps a con going is the victim’s investment in the tale. The story has to be true, it must be true – not least because the consequences of it not being true are too embarrassing to think about. A true story means you’re smart or lucky. A false one means you’re a schmuck. Which one do you want to believe?

I’ll say it again – it is not bad to like stories. But like any of the best human instincts, it can be misused or waylaid. Check the stories you hear, especially if you agree with them. Test the claims, examine the evidence. Suspension of disbelief is great for enjoying a novel or movie, but it makes for terrible citizenship.

Be aware.

It’s the only way to know a sure thing from a Shi thing.

Merrily We Roll Along

As evening descended on the St. Vrain Greenway, the typical sights and sounds emerged. The splash of the river. The whisper of bicycles moving past.

And of course, the whoops and hollers of Missy as I swerved her wheelchair left and right, complete with the sounds of an X-Wing fighter on an attack run.


The Greenway is the latest addition to our Missy-powered adventures. It started with a restless evening on her part and a realization on mine that I had never really explored one of Longmont’s landmarks. So it was on with the baseball caps and off to the races.

With, naturally, her racing wheels in tow.

I don’t mention them often because we don’t pull them out often. Normally, our disabled ward moves through the world at her own steady pace, with one hand holding on to either Heather, myself, or the nearby landscape for balance. (The other hand, meanwhile, is often exploring the contents of a bookshelf or grocery aisle, so it pays to be alert.) That means of travel is enough for around the house, across a dance floor, or even through a block or two of the downtown, stopping to admire cute dogs along the way.

When it’s a bit more than that – a long night of trick or treating, a walking journey on a pleasant day, a Niwot concert where you pretty much have to park in Gunbarrel – that’s when the wheels emerge.

And when they do, the world changes a bit.

I’ve said before that you learn your neighborhood best when you walk it. You really learn it when one of you is rolling. Every steep incline. Every broken piece of pavement. Every hedge that’s grown out into the sidewalk or car that’s parked right against it. Your mental radar starts pinging constantly with potential obstacles (while quietly, your conscience pledges that this winter, you’ll do a better job shoveling off the walk).

But it’s more than that.

Missy’s temperament often shifts into fourth gear, even when her body normally maxes out at second. It’s one of the things that’s obvious in our bedtime readings, where she will join into the magical battles of Harry Potter with great gusto, vigorously slashing the air with invisible wands or raising her hands in some unspoken spell.

So when we get rolling, Missy gets to run. Not all the time – we’ve spent plenty of time just moving down the Greenway at a normal stride, watching the reaching trees, the falling water, the cute dogs walking past. (Some things never change). But when the mood takes us, we take off, going faster, faster, faster as the world whips by and her smile grows wider.

Ok. Both our smiles.

After all, it’s exciting to engage with the world in a new way. The key may be a book, or a paintbrush, or a chair that allows warp speeds only dreamed of – but when the key turns, the door opens, and a little more color walks in.

And when it does, it never touches just one person. Joy is contagious. Especially when joy keeps waving at everybody to admire a pair of pink tennis shoes and cool laces.

Find that key, whatever it may be. Open the door and explore the contents. The new world waiting inside may lift all of us just a bit higher.

Sound difficult? It doesn’t have to be.

In fact, sometimes it can be a walk in the park.

Layers of Caution

No doubt about it. Our disabled ward Missy is always the coolest person in the room.

Even when the thermometer outside says 93.

“I’m cold,” Missy declared as she stood near the door ready to go out with an orange sweater jacket fastened over her shirt. And a fuzzy pink heart jacket zipped up over that one. Which would in turn have had a leopard-print jacket zipped up over it, if it weren’t already lying in the car from the last trip we took.

“Missy …” I said with a chuckle as I started to peel down the layers. “It’ll be all right out there.”

That earned me a disdainful look, and an attempt to grab another jacket from the closet. After all, what could mere family understand about the Truly Cool?

The thing is, when it comes to life inside the house, Missy has a point. Chez Rochat is a pretty cool place. My wife Heather has a low tolerance for heat because of her multiple sclerosis, so the air conditioning is often a little bit lower than it would normally be. And since Missy tends to view even a 70 degree spring day as “cold,” a little indoor bundling isn’t bad for her.

The mismatch comes when she tries to take the same precautions before an August walk in the park. Or a softball game in July. Or before heading to bed, where a sizeable comforter awaits.

Once you change the context, sensible steps can become anything but. Actions meant to help simply get in the way.

And doesn’t that sound familiar?

As a species, we’re good at anticipating danger. And there are plenty of times when that caution can be a lifesaver, whether it’s as involved as making plans in case of a possible disaster, or as simple as remembering that some mushrooms can only be eaten once.

But that alertness and wariness can be taken too far.

Without a sense of proportion, it can mean that all threats seem equally likely, or that the threat assessment is based on who screams the loudest or what produces the most shocking images. It’s why we react so vividly to the danger  of being killed by a terrorist attack (1 in 20 million) or dying in a plane crash (1 in 200,000), but can be almost blase’ about the risk of a fatal car accident (1 in 100).

Without a sense of reasoning and empathy, it can mean that instead of reaching out, we pull back. Any difference becomes cause for suspicion, any disagreement becomes a cause for condemnation. Instead of welcoming neighbors, we slam doors and draw lines, so insistent on watching for enemies that we create new ones where we don’t need to.

Without the judgment that should accompany caution, life becomes an exhausting and isolating state of siege.

Life has too many possibilities to be lived with hunched shoulders.

I’m not advocating that we treat the world as harmless, any more than I would jog into a blizzard in swim trunks. But in a world of speedy communications, we can’t jump on every fresh rumor as a credible threat. In a world that needs us to work together, we can’t let fear and distrust divide us and drive out our compassion.

When the heat is on, we need to stay cool.

Which reminds me. I’ve got a few jackets to hang up.