A World of Difference

Written Nov. 16, 2019

And now, to boldly go where everyone and their brother has gone before.

No, not the well-traveled corridors of the starship Enterprise – though this will take us to the final frontier. Namely, to the vicinity of Pluto, the frozen world with the simmering debate: is it a planet, a dwarf planet, or a really lost California skier?

For the head of NASA, it’s incredibly obvious.

“I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month to the International Astronautical Congress – as opposed to the International Astronomical Union, which demoted our distant neighbor to dwarf planet status 13 years ago, making grade-school textbooks around the world obsolete at a stroke.

If this sounds like a really weird thing to argue about – well, yeah. But the most passionate arguments can flare up over the smallest things. Daylight Saving Time. The “real name” of This-Sponsor-Here Stadium at Mile High. Heck, if you want to inflame a group of Star Wars fans for the next 40 minutes, just sidle up and ask them whether Han shot first.

In the case of the Pluto War, everyone’s got their official-sounding reasons, such as whether the planet “clears its orbit” (or whether any planet does), or the presence of moons or an atmosphere, or maybe even eventually whether there’s ever been an Elvis sighting there. All of which underscores the fact that “planet” is a really fuzzy concept – about as fuzzy as “continent.”

What’s that? Everyone knows what a continent is? Well, sort of. Some of us were taught in school that there were seven. Others learned that there were six, since Europe and Asia aren’t truly separated by anything but history. An alien from outer space might argue that there are four – the big American land mass, the big Europe/Africa/Asia land mass, plus Australia and Antarctica. And is Australia really the world’s smallest continent, or just its biggest island?

It’s a matter of perspective.

Debates like these are safely amusing because whoever wins, it doesn’t really change much. (Except for the textbook budget, of course.) But when they get so passionate, they can edge into a gray area where strongly-held opinion takes on the power of fact.

From there, it’s a short step to the genuinely dangerous area: the belief that facts are malleable. The idea that every fact is just someone’s opinion, and that if the facts disagree with what I think, then the facts must be wrong.

That’s not a funny debate at all.

It has consequences for human dignity. For law and justice. For anything that relies on reason and inquiry – which is to say, our ability to live side-by-side with each other at all. Anything becomes justifiable and correct if you get enough people to agree with you. Our history, past and present, has some very scary examples of that.

Granted, even our capacity for wishful thinking has limits. If you’re firmly convinced that you can fly, and you step off a 500-foot cliff, the physical universe will quickly disabuse your notions. (“See how quickly I flew downward?”)  But if we have to hit those walls, the ones where Captain Obvious gives us a dope slap, then we’re already in trouble.

As I’ve said many times, we all have a story. But our own stories aren’t the only ones that matter. We have to step away. To see the stories of others. To digest the facts that we don’t want to hear but that aren’t going away.

I know. Easy to say. Hard to do. But you have to acknowledge the need before you can start. And as a species, we need some perspective.

How much?

Well – I hear Pluto’s nice this time of year.


A plastic medal. A book of photographs. A little ice cream, quickly gone. Not the stuff, perhaps, that a big league contract is made of.

But for Missy, this was her World Series ring.

I’ve written before about Missy’s softball league, the one geared to physically and mentally disabled players. There’s no score, no win-loss record, no single-elimination playoff, just a good time on a hot summer’s day. Throw the ball, take your swings and make your way around the bases at your own speed to the cheers of family and friends.

It’s fun for those who play, maybe even more so for those who watch. My wife Heather and I have done our best to properly embarrass Missy as she rounds the bases on a volunteer’s arm, whooping and hollering like Troy Tulowitzki had just hit .400. We’ve talked about wearing “Team Missy” shirts when she plays, just to see if the 100-watt smile can get any brighter—or maybe to see how hard she can throw in our direction with a laughing “Shu’ up!”

The biggest reward, though, comes at season’s end when the four teams come together for one last blast. This year it was an ice-cream social in the Senior Center’s gym, the walls plastered with pictures from every game. Everyone got their roar of applause and their photo album, destined to become Missy’s favorite reading material for weeks on end.

Funny, really, how little it takes.

Or is it how much?

This is something that’s been looked at time and again in the working world. How do you motivate people? How do you make them valued and rewarded? How do you create a team and not just a group of people who happen to show up at the same time and do the same kind of work?

You can’t dismiss pay from the equation entirely, though some experts (and maybe some companies) would clearly like to. But even that most fundamental recognition is more of an effect than a cause. Go deeper.

In study after study (and most common sense observations), the same sorts of things come up: A worker wants a workplace they can be proud of and that’s proud of them. They want to enjoy being where they are. They want respect, recognition, more listening and fewer jerks.

To receive dignity. To know that someone cares. To be wanted and needed, and have it shown.

Really, when you think about it, that’s not limited to the workplace. It’s a human fundamental. Everyone should have value.

It’s when we forget that, when we scorn or patronize or decide that someone isn’t worth our time, that we leave marks on the soul.

Think about some of our greatest challenges and controversies. The neglect of our aging veterans. The children from other lands streaming to Emma Lazarus’s “golden door.” The fear of our daily lives being spied on, by government or business.

What are all of these, if not a test of how much respect a person is due? Of who deserves dignity and how much?

And as the scale gets greater, the stakes get higher. The individual that sets off Missy’s “jerk detector” will see her usually open manner pull back. The company that neglects the care of its employees will see friction and defection. The nation that forgets it exists for all the people and not just a lucky few will stain its name before the world. We’ve seen it too many times: Red Scares, internment camps, segregation and more.

Turn it around and that respect can become the greatest of strengths. For a country. For a company. For a team.

A plastic medal – given by a caring friend in the midst of friends. A book of photographs – capturing memories of great times with loving people. A little ice cream, quickly gone – eaten with teammates who can’t help but linger.

There’s the heart of it. There’s the true reward.

Shining right there in Missy’s eyes.

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.