One for the Books

Whoever built the 52 Book Club list knows me way too well.

If you’ve never heard of the list, it’s a quirky approach to getting people to read more in the New Year. Mind you, encouraging me to read is like encouraging Batman to fight crime – it’s not exactly a hard sell – but the list has become a favorite New Year’s tradition of mine because of how it does it.

Like a lot of reading lists, it encourages people to read 52 books in 52 weeks. But only a few entries are as straightforward as “a book in (x) genre” or “a book by (y) author.” Instead, most of its prompts are on the quirky side, such as “a book you meant to read last year,” “sends you down a rabbit hole,” or “a book that ‘everyone’ has read.”

Because of the list’s flexibility, it fits my reading habits well. But because the prompts are so varied, I always find myself exploring some books I wouldn’t have thought to try before. It’s a good match.

But for 2024, one prompt hit me right in the history: “a buddy read.” In other words, two people reading the same book so they can talk about it later.

Naturally, my thoughts went to Dad.

Both my parents are huge readers, but Dad was the one who passed on a love of reading out loud. From childhood all the way into college, we would pick out a book and then read it out loud together, passing it back and forth either at mid-chapter or on chapter breaks.

Together, we explored J.R.R. Tolkien, Farley Mowat, Mark Twain and many more. We’re both a believer in “doing voices” where we can, so our living room or car pool would often resonate with our personal attempts at amateur theater. (He’s always admired my Sam Gamgee while I remain envious of his Treebeard.)

It built a bond. And a habit.

When Heather and I married, we started doing the same thing. And of course, when we began taking care of Missy, it really took off. Missy’s developmental disabilities keep her from reading the story directly but not from appreciating it, and she’s often pointed out favorite characters and moments when we run across them elsewhere. (As a result, I now know where every image of Gandalf is within a 20-block radius.)

Once again, we tied ourselves together with words and memories.

And really, that’s what the best stories do.

It doesn’t have to be performative. Silent readers can certainly share memories, lessons and experiences too (as Mom and I have done many times). But either way, the essence of a story is connection, even empathy. You walk alongside a character and live their life. You enter an author’s head and wrestle with their thoughts and ideas.  What you find may even shape your own personal story – which then touches the stories of everyone around you.

In that sense, I suppose, life is a “buddy read.”

We’re entering the next chapter now, each of us with our own stories to write and share. Together, we can create one that’s worth re-reading … or at least be a character who’s remembered fondly in someone’s tale.

I’m looking forward to that. Even if it’ll never appear on any reading list.

Happy New Year, one and all.

And while we’re at it … have you read any good books lately?

All Together Now

The dreams of October have come true. 

Back then, I found myself startled by an unexpected prophecy. If you’re a regular reader, you may remember it, too: 

“No illusion. The sports analysis still said the same thing: the Nuggets were the favorite to win the West. With about one chance in eight of winning it all – better than anyone but the Boston Celtics.

“This had to be a joke. Or at least a Jokić.” 

Well, we’ve hit the punchline. And it’s a lot better than we dared dream. In a few weeks of near unstoppable play, the Denver Nuggets have tamed the Timberwolves, dimmed the Suns and dried up the Lakers. And based on what we all saw in Game 1, they should be ready to make like an air conditioner and beat the Heat. 

I know, I know. Prediction’s a dangerous game in the sports world – ask any number of NFL teams who held a fourth-quarter lead on John Elway. It’s not over ‘til the last buzzer sounds, you’ve gotta play all the games, etc., etc., etc. 

Fine. True. But it’s not just THAT the Nuggets have been winning that impresses me. It’s HOW. 

In theatre terms, this team is a true ensemble production. 

Most plays, movies and TV shows have a simple structure: they focus on the leads. Sure, supporting roles can be memorable and beloved, but most of the action is dominated by a small number of key characters.

Ensemble shows are different. Even if there’s someone whose name is officially on top of the marquee, it’s often in name only. Everyone’s got a heavy lift and the show rises or falls on the strength of all the performers and the connections between them. Think of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” or Marvel’s “The Avengers,” or for the stage buffs, the wild lunacy of “Noises Off.”

That’s Denver. It’s not just Nikola Jokić and his Backup Band. It’s a full cast of characters, all of them dangerous in the moment. Shut down one, and you still have all the others bearing down on you. 

That’s hard to beat on the court.  Or off it, for that matter. 

Sure, we’d all like to be the lone gunslinger. And heaven knows a lot of us have experience with “group projects” that were mostly an excuse for one person to do the work and five people to get an “A.” Sometimes the crowd even feels stifling; I’m an introvert at heart, so I understand just how healing and powerful some time alone can be.

But a real team, one that plays to everybody’s strengths … that’s a force of nature.

Even the best of us aren’t strong enough to do everything alone all the time. We need each other. That came through with razor-sharp clarity in the early days of the pandemic, when isolation exposed just how many connections we relied on in the world – connections that had to be rebuilt in new ways – and how daunting “alone” could be at times.

When other people are just extra bodies on the stage, that’s frustrating to navigate around. But when each of them is a source of strength, it opens up the world. New solutions become possible. The story changes.

So once again, best wishes to Joker, Murray, Porter, KCP, Gordon, Brown and all the rest of the Team-with-a-Capital-T.  Together, you’ve reached the brink of a dream.

And if that isn’t a Nugget of truth, I don’t know what is.

What Oscar Forgot

Oscar needs a football helmet.

Don’t worry. I’m not predicting yet another Slap Heard ‘Round The Academy. Not unless Jimmy Kimmel sets up a gag, anyway. But now that the nominees have been announced and the countdown is under way, the Academy Awards really should have the proper gear.  

After all, they’re getting more and more indistinguishable from the Super Bowl.

Yeah, I said it. Hollywood’s golden night and football’s biggest stage are separated by about four weeks, some turf and not much else. Take a look from 1,500 feet – the typical altitude of the Goodyear Blimp – and think of what we have here.

There’s weeks of hype from every conceivable angle and a few inconceivable ones. A huge splash on the day itself. A main event that goes on and on and on. (And on.)

And more often than not, regardless of who wins or loses, it’s the weirdness that steals the headlines.

To be fair, the NFL at least plans for it. It’s practically a cliché that nine times out of 10, the Big Game is less interesting than the Big Commercials. (Or occasionally the Big Power Outage or the Big Wardrobe Malfunction, but that’s another story.) But when Oscar takes the stage, the possibilities are as endless as the running time. Will the wrong winner be announced? Will angry celebrities storm the stage? It’s a night that’s seen more on-stage nightmares than a Halloween special:  garbled names, awkward kisses, and even an on-camera streaker to liven up the evening.

Granted, some of that is the risk of a live performance. I get that. Things happen. But when year after year, the flubs, cringes and oddities are more interesting than the show itself, there just might be a problem.

We’ve known this for years. Heck, we’ve known it for decades. And the surface reason isn’t a secret: the show runs too dang long. Last year’s Oscars dragged out for nearly four and a half hours. The longer it goes, the more tedious it gets and the more time you have for something to go wrong.

But it goes deeper than that. If it was all about running time, people wouldn’t binge entire seasons of TV. Oscar audiences have fallen like a rock, but an “Avatar” sequel that’s more than three hours long is burning up the box office.

No, it’s something more fundamental. Something so simple, it’s Performance 101: a show isn’t about the performer. It’s about the audience.

If they don’t buy your story, you have no show.

That’s true for blockbusters. It’s true for art films. It’s true for any performing venue, from the smallest stage to the biggest stadium. The audience has to care. It can’t just be about you.

And for an awards show – a night designed for self-congratulation – there’s no easier trap to fall into.

That’s an important lesson to remember. And not just for Hollywood. Most of us will never get a multi-million dollar movie contract. (Mine just got lost in the mail, right?) But we all have the same chance to be aware of the people around us and hear what matters to them. To understand why they care and where they hurt. To connect their story with ours.

When we can do that, we can make a difference.  

I hope Oscar eventually learns that. I know we can. And on a smaller budget, to boot.

Listen. Care. Come together.

And if you come together at a Super Bowl party, let me know how the commercials went, OK?

Greater Scope

Wow. Wow. And wow again.

In the rich variety of the English language, with all its nuanced shades of meaning, there really isn’t a better word. Not for a space geek suddenly faced with the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope.

WOW!

If you haven’t seen the images yet, make the time. Right now. I mean it, I’ll still be waiting here when you come back. The rest of us can tell you: They’re just. That. Good.

When I went to college in the 1990s, the first photos came back from the recently repaired Hubble. The world was floored then, too. Over the next two decades or so, we saw the universe as it had never been seen before: rich, vivid and inviting.

I still treasure those discoveries. But the images arriving from Webb now make Hubble look like a pinhole camera.

“It’s amazing how gorgeous, scary, mind-blowing and hopeful it all is,” one person commented to the NASA Twitter account. Someone else called the pictures “the most INSANE BEAUTIFUL things ever!!!” Amidst the brilliance and wonder of the galaxies and nebulae shown – so close, so beautiful – more than one person said how small it made everything else feel.

I get that. I really do. But I want to flip the direction for a second.

Because in the face of all of this, I don’t feel small at all.

It’s true, starting the universe in the face has a way of putting things in perspective. Earthly matters seem to dwindle by comparison: our prejudices, our conflicts, even the Avalanche’s third Stanley Cup. But it’s not like there’s a spot labeled “You are Here” where The Universe sits just beyond the fence line, the next-door neighbor with the awesome photo albums.

We’re in it. Of it.  Right here. Right now. Not a disconnected viewer, but a participant tied in to all the rest.

“It makes me feel more important,” my wife Heather told me after we’d both absorbed it all for a while. “Like there’s this wonderful, beautiful universe and I get to be a small part of it. And it’s part of me, too.”  

I promise, I’m not going to turn into Yoda on you. Not today, anyway. But I want to linger on that point.

It’s easy to feel small. Many of us do it every day. We face a world that constantly seems beyond our strength, with more and more weighing us down, from the personal to the global. And so we decide we’re insignificant, that nothing we do could possibly matter.

But when we look outward, we rekindle hope.

A fan of time-travel fiction once noted that we write story after story about how taking a small action in the past can transform the present. And yet, he wrote, we remain skeptical that a small action now could transform the future.

Perspectives in space. Perspectives in time. Either way, we see the connections. We see ourselves: not small or insignificant, but part of something bigger, where every tiny piece is part of the greater beauty.

Maybe, just maybe, that view can help us shift our bit of the universe. Right here. Right now.

So go on. Take another look. Let yourself “wow” again.

It’s amazing what can happen when you get tangled up in the Webb.

Inside Out

If anyone is feeling a little confused these days, you have my complete sympathy.

On the one hand, coronavirus news has flooded the airwaves, the front pages, and the social media outlets from here to the asteroid belt. (I’m happy to say that Ceres has yet to report its first case.) In among the unceasing reminders on how to wash our hands – our kindergarten teachers must be so disappointed – we’re constantly told to do our bit to make sure the virus doesn’t spread. “Stay home if you’re sick.” “Isolate.” “Quarantine in place.”

Introverts everywhere, our hour has come.

On the other hand, this is also an election year. And so we’re also being bombarded with images of campaign rallies on every side, urging people to let the nation hear our voice. “Get up.” “Get out.” “Show your support.”

So we desperately need to engage … and we desperately need to separate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence – the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind simultaneously and still function – is making more and more sense.

I know, we’ll work through it. Not just because both elections and public health are necessary. But because frankly, this kind of chaos and tension is nothing new for us.

We’ve been dealing with this for generations.

It’s a phenomenon that Bill Bishop addressed 16 years ago in a book called “The Big Sort.” Given the ability to live where they want, he noted, people mostly choose to live near people like themselves. By itself, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. After all, who doesn’t want to get along with the neighbors?

But politics in a democracy depends on multiple voices engaging and finding common ground. That’s one thing when you may be constantly brushing against friends and neighbors who hold different perspectives and maybe challenge your views. But if more and more of the people you encounter are ones like you, where your beliefs and assumptions are taken for granted, that skill of engagement and compromise has less opportunity to be used.

What doesn’t get used, withers.

The process had already been accelerating with the increased mobility in the decades since World War II, when the internet and social media came along and sent it into hyperdrive. People had more power than ever to choose their “neighbors,” to choose their news sources … in a way, to choose their reality.

And when that reality finally collides against another, when the bubbles burst, the result becomes not compromise but conflict.

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of American democracy or too dark a picture of the online world. There’s always been a certain amount of conflict within the process, and even outright violence. (You could ask Alexander Hamilton, for example … but better do it quick, he’s got a duel at dawn.) And the same internet that can isolate has also introduced friends that would have never met, opened up experiences that would have been unreachable for many, and allowed outright explosions of imagination and creativity. It can and does allow for increased connection, even when isolated by disability, circumstance, or, yes, illness.

Politics and the internet are tools. They can be used for good or ill. And right now, they’re throwing one of our most basic conflicts into stark relief.

The need to engage. The desire to separate.

Long after the coronavirus has been dealt with, that clash will still be there. And it’ll still be the real challenge. These days, even under a quarantine, one can stay within the walls of their home and still be connected to the world.

But the quarantines of our minds – now THAT’S a barrier. And one we’ll have to resolve for as long as we’re living together on this planet.

Though I hear Ceres is very nice this time of year.

Behind the Words

Every once in a while, someone who’s new to this column will ask me what it’s about. My usual response is “It’s about 600 words, give or take.”

Ba-dum-bum.

OK, it’s a wiseguy answer. But not a wrong one. Over the years, this column has dealt with puns and politics, sports and sorrow, news of the weird and news from home. Many of the most popular have been about family – my wife Heather, our disabled ward Missy, our cousins and nieces and nephews and pets.

If there’s been one consistent theme, though – aside from my beating my forehead against the monitor until the words come pouring out – it’s that this column is about all of you.

Allow me to explain.

Long ago, I dwelt in a fabled land known as southwest Kansas, where the distances are vast and the people few. Within this land, there dwelt a sage known as Ava Betz, copy editor for The Garden City Telegram. And after I wrote my first weekly column ever as a newspaper reporter – a light piece on the beauty of words – it was Ava who came up to me to compliment me and pass on a bit of advice.

“You can write anything you want,” she told me, “but no navel gazing. Got it?”

“Got it.” And I did.

Writers spend a lot of time in their own head. It can be very tempting to not come out again – to cut out the rest of the world and make it all about ME, spending paragraph after paragraph on the beauty of your own belly button lint (figuratively speaking) without a thought to why anyone else in the world should care about your deathless prose.

But other people matter.

And “why should anyone care?” is the most vital question any writer can ask.

Let me revise that. It’s the most vital question any human being can ask.

Writers need readers. And writers who never give a moment’s thought to the readers’ world haven’t created a story. At best, they’ve created a still life, objects without motion, references without resonance. At worst, they’re posing in a mirror.

People need people. And people who never give a moment’s though to the other lives around them pass through an empty world – or worse, create one. Neighbors without empathy are just folks who happen to live nearby. Leadership without reflection is just preening, or maybe even bullying. Failing to recognize someone else’s pain is to not truly understand your own.

That’s one of the secrets that shouldn’t be so secret. We learn ourselves better when we see others more clearly. When we reach out, something also reaches in.

And together, we create a story worth telling.

It sounds easy. It isn’t. It means taking time to consider other perspectives and other hearts, and maybe having your own broken a few times. C.S. Lewis once wrote that “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” and when you try to find the things that tie your soul to another’s, you are committing an act of love. Leaving yourself vulnerable.

But you’re also making the world just a little closer. And yourself a little more alive.

In acting, a performer is sometimes derided as “only playing himself.” Actors know the truth – that every actor plays themselves, but the most limited ones don’t have enough self to play. You stretch yourself by breaking out of familiar patterns and experiencing those around you. By caring.

This is a space where we come to care. This column. This community. This world.

That’s what it’s about.

And if it’s also about 600 words – well, that’s a bonus.

You bet your belly button.

Laughter in the Shadows

The “Murder on the Nile” rehearsal had been going well. Plenty of threats, plenty of clues, the body being found just when it should. And then, as a character cracked a minor witticism, I heard a cackle from the audience.

Despite having to keep character, I almost smiled. There was no denying when Missy was in the house.

There are silent theater audiences in the world. Missy is not often one of them. When it comes to a performance, my wife’s physically and mentally disabled aunt often wears her emotions on her sleeve … and on her lips. A funny bit of business on stage may get a whoop of laughter. An injury to a character will suddenly get an “Ow!” from her sympathetic lips.

It’s not constant, like a “Mystery Science 3000” commentary track, but it’s not held back when she’s there, either. And because my wife Heather hasn’t been feeling well, Missy’s been there a lot, coming with me to practice after practice as the plot falls into place.

So, once in a while, we find ourselves with feedback from the darkness. I can’t really complain. In this, Missy truly is family.

I have never been what actors sometimes call a “smiler” – the sort of person who sits in the audience of a show, smiles and nods, and then ambles off to my car thinking how pleasant it all was. I laugh. Loudly. Strongly. Often infectiously. My actor friends have been accused of planting me in the audience just to get things moving, like a lighter held to a piece of kindling.

One memorable moment came when I took Heather to a long-ago performance of “The Mikado” at the Longmont Theatre Company. The show is GIlbert & Sullivan at its finest: beautiful music, a crackbrained plot and funny as heck. I laughed without hesitation or restraint several times, and I had plenty of company.

And then, at one point, a gentleman in front of me turned around. He whispered “Do you mind? Some of us are trying to enjoy the show!”

I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t. But at that moment, I was seriously tempted to respond with “I’m succeeding.”

Thinking back on that, and on Missy’s moments of shock or joy, the importance of that keeps coming back to me. How often do we show our appreciation? How often do we make it obvious?

An actor beneath the lights can’t hear smiles. That’s obvious. Most people we meet aren’t any more telepathic than that, yet we often ask them to be. Not necessarily with small compliments – as a people, Americans are pretty good at dropping those into a conversation – but with the real joys and worries that drop below the level of small talk and into true understanding.

I know, we’re reluctant to drop that mask of “I’m doing fine” with just any stranger. (Stranger? Missy’s never learned that word yet.) But many times we keep it up even around friends, reserving the true depth of what we feel. What if we didn’t?

I don’t mean striding the stage like a ham Shakespearean actor in mid-soliloquy. Heaven knows my own personality is on the quiet side many times. But loud or quiet, there’s a power to be had when we open ourselves up and lay our feelings bare. It’s why gatherings such as weddings or funerals can be so memorable and have such power; we’ve been given permission to open the gates, tear down the walls and show how we feel.

I don’t pretend it’s always comfortable. Or easy. But it can draw people together like nothing else. If you’ve ever had a friend you could say anything around, you know what I mean. Things come so much easier when the inner guard can relax at last.

It takes practice, of course. Maybe start with a safe, controlled environment. One designed to elicit broad emotions, where you can open up and react in a crowd of strangers, comfortable in your anonymity.

If only I knew somewhere like that ….

Oh. Wait a minute.

See you at the show. And maybe I’ll hear you, too.

A Time to Remember

Missy’s been down lately.

Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’ve all been there. To parody the old title, Even Disabled Women Get the Blues, and Missy has occasionally had her own reasons to need a little comfort. Sometimes it’s an illness. Sometimes it’s an emotional moment in a movie. Sometimes it’s because Blake the Canine Trash Compactor has just eaten her crayons. All the usual motives.

But what’s interesting now is the timing. This one keeps a schedule.

My wife Heather first noticed it a few years ago when she was still just visiting and helping Missy, before we became guardians to the woman of few words and many mischievous smiles. At first we thought it was a coincidence. Then, after the second or third year, we realized what it had to be. By now, we’re positive.

This particular stretch always hits in late January. Right around the time that Andy died.

Andy was Missy’s brother and Heather’s uncle, a man who liked to tease and joke about as much as he liked to fly. And like many a brother, one favorite subject of his teasing was his little sister – not in a mean-spirited way, but in one that often set her laughing, too. Not a big , boisterous man but an open and friendly one that no one could help but like and smile along with.

But nine years ago, our favorite high flier came to Earth too soon. Brain cancer. It hit all of us pretty hard and still does.

But I’m not sure any of us realized at the time just how deeply it touched Missy.

Sometimes Missy almost seems to live in a world without time. Oh, not in the small sense. She remembers the daily routines: when her “bus” is supposed to come for her day program, when lunch is supposed to be, when to start arguing about having to go to bed. But on a larger scale, it’d be forgivable to wonder how much of an impression time makes, outside of major events like Christmas or Halloween (which carry their own rather obvious cues). Both she and her world seem to go on much as they always have, moving at her own pace in her own way.

But when the same “down” period always seems to hit in late January, centered around the same day each year – well, it becomes harder and harder to not notice.

Understand, we’ve never made a big deal of it around her. We’ve put up pictures and memories on Facebook like the rest of the family, but it’s not like she sees us stalking around the house in crepe and gets reminded. In so many ways, it could seem like just another day.

But to her, it obviously isn’t.

And while that’s sad, it also leaves me impressed. Because once again, it shows there is so much more to this lady than anyone would realize at first sight.

The mental disability that took or blocked so much has not taken her memory.

Not where it counts. Not where it ties her to the larger world.

It’s easy for that world itself to forget. To look at someone like Missy and dismiss her as “other,” unaware, apart. But she notices. She learns. She understands, even if it isn’t always the same understanding that an adult of her age would usually have.

Open and welcoming, she will avoid someone she’s been given reason not to trust.

Normally near-silent, she will react to the plot twists of a loved bedtime story – often with comments.

And for all the seeming changelessness of her life, she too holds close the ones no longer there.

It sounds obvious when you think about it. But how often do we?

The time will pass. The blues will lift. And soon we’ll be dealing with a restless Missy again, eager to bowl or swim or venture out on a Saturday morning trip downtown.

I think Andy would be pretty proud of her.

I know Missy still has one more smile for him.