A New-Found Force

A brand new Star Wars fan is about to have a “grand” experience.

You see, a short time ago on an internet not so far, far away, a website called FinanceBuzz put out an offer. They wanted to recruit someone who had never seen any of the nine “Skywalker” Star Wars films and pay them $1,000 to watch them all in release order, from the original 1977 film through 2019’s Rise of Skywalker.

“We’ll use our Wookie Rookie’s analysis for an upcoming story on the franchise,” FinanceBuzz wrote, according to UPI. Naturally, the hiring period closed on – wait for it – May the 4th, the unofficial Star Wars holiday.

Now, if you’ve read this column for any length of time, you know that I am utterly ineligible for this. Star Wars has been part of my life since at least age 7. I watched the films, played with the action figures, even worked out a George Lucas-style “Christmas Carol” with one of my classmates that starred Han Solo as Scrooge. And yes, my wife Heather and I stood in line 25 years ago for the midnight opening of The Phantom Menace (which I still do not regret, despite some jarring moments … or rather, some Jar-Jarring ones).

In short, my chances of cashing in on an offer like this are considerably worse than the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field. (Approximately 3,720 to 1, for the record.) But the pitch still makes me smile.

With or without the money, it means someone’s encountering the stories for the first time. And that’s always an exciting thought.

I’m not just saying this to revel in geekdom. It’s wider than that. Helping someone open the door to something new can be absolutely magical – especially when it’s something you’ve loved for years and get to see the joy reborn.

I introduced my brother-in-law to a post-apocalyptic book series I enjoyed. He became so passionate about it that he read ahead of me.

I introduced my young nephews to Dungeons & Dragons. Saturday night gaming quickly became a “must” for them – and a chance for me to regularly see the awesome people they’re becoming.

And of course, Heather and I accidentally (I swear) got our Missy hooked on Star Wars one fine afternoon – especially the parts involving Darth Vader and Chewbacca.

Each time, a light in the eyes ignites. An enthusiasm rushes out. And you remember why you fell in love with it in the first place.

I wish I could say this was universal. Some people are more than ready to mock others for only just now discovering what “everybody knows.” But as the webcomic “xkcd” once pointed out, every day, there are literally 10,000 people in this country who discover an “everyone knows” fact for the first time – even something as basic as the Coke-Mentos reaction. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of that moment of personal discovery?

It’s a choice we can make every day, to ignite an interest or smother it. And each time we choose to encourage it, we bind all of us together a little more tightly. Almost like … I don’t know, some kind of mystic energy field or something.

And if you didn’t get that last joke, don’t worry. There’s some great movies out there that’ll get you right up to speed. (Or even to light speed, for that matter.) I can’t offer a thousand bucks, but I’d still love to hear what you think of them.

After all, there may be a new discovery ahead. And by George, that would be grand indeed.

Bye-bye, Beebs

Justin Bieber has left the building.

No, the Beebs hasn’t died or retired or volunteered for a manned mission to Mars. (Does that count as a homecoming?) I’m speaking a bit more literally than that.

Namely, Missy’s life-sized cardboard standup of the young JB – a historic landmark in Chez Rochat – has taken its final bow.

How the heck did we get a cardboard Canadian pop star in our house in the first place? To make a long story short, Missy gets … well, enthusiastic about things. She has a lot of energy and a very straightforward approach to sharing it, possibly enhanced by her developmental disability. So when she decides she loves something, she doesn’t hold back.

Like shouting “WOW!” to an entire restaurant after one bite of peanut butter pie.

Or pointing gleefully at a Darth Vader magazine cover, like a metal detector locked onto pirate gold.

Or hugging EVERY single member of the Face Vocal Band backstage after a concert. (Pre-COVID, of course.)

So when a certain teenage YouTube sensation hit mainstream success over a decade ago, Missy was all over it. Light, dancy music has an easy time making it onto her playlist anyway, so the house was soon full of the strains of “Baby” and “Never Say Never.”

Heather and I did what parents and guardians through the ages have done – we rolled with it and tried to make it fun while it lasted. That included a birthday party with a standup of the Beebs himself, for laughs and photographs.

And when the party was over, it was clear that Cardboard Justin wasn’t leaving.

He came to occupy a corner of Missy’s room, eventually festooned with a small tiara from one of her prom nights.  Never mind that Bieber Fever had taken a turn for the weird in the rest of the nation; young-and-innocent Justin lived on in that piece of memory and real estate.

And then, like some pop-music version of Puff The Magic Dragon, things shifted.

Missy discovered Harry Potter. And Star Wars. And a whole lot of music from a whole lot of other bands, past and present. She never outright rejected Yesteryear Justin, but the grown-up JB just didn’t have the same appeal. The cardboard star faded into the background, barely noticed except when trying to explain his presence to guests with a chuckle.

Finally, the moment came. Missy’s room needed a reorganization. Her stuffed animals needed Justin’s corner. And Justin himself was starting to … fold. Just a bit.

Yes, it was time to go.

It didn’t take long. And without its extra occupant, the room seemed a little brighter. Ready for a fresh start.

Funny how that works. Some passions prove lifelong, treasured for ages. Others have their time and move on. And it can be challenging to tell the difference. We hold onto a lot of things that just take up space and energy: unused stuff, worn-out ideas, lingering resentments and more.

Some just need to be gone. Others still leave a fingerprint behind, a memory of past joys. Either way, clearing the space can let a little more light in.

So we’ll salute the fun. Look to the future. And wait with interest to see what Missy the Excited embraces next.

Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll come along Justin time.

Here Comes the Judge

“Can you do me a favor?”

My ears pricked up. These six words may be the most dangerous in the English language. Typically, they precede one of the following:

  1. A request to help somebody move (doubled in likelihood if you own a pickup truck)
  2. Yardwork or cleaning that will take more than four hours to complete
  3. Locating something that has been lost beyond the ken of man, angels or the Webb telescope

This one proved to be a rare exception, a request from a Kansas friend and former co-worker. Not a short task but certainly a delightful one.   

Namely, she wanted me to help judge a high-school journalism contest.

Like a lot of creative professions, journalism has its share of competitions. You can always tell when awards time has come around because editors and reporters start digging through the archives like never before, trying to find that one perfect feature that appeared on page C9 of the Sunday edition. If the contest requires a hard copy sample, you can count on adding several layers of dust from digging through a year’s worth of barely-touched newsprint.

You squint at the categories, you fill out the forms, you send it all off … wondering the whole time what will suit the fancy of those mysterious, unseen, usually out-of-state judges.

Now it was my turn to be on the other end. A virtual stack of 30 opinion pieces awaited my scoring and comments.

Easy? No. In many ways, it reminded me of being a director at auditions, where half a dozen great choices present themselves but only one can get the part. That’s always agony.

But at the other end, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my time. I mean, I had a chance to share what I know, with teens eager to learn the craft and improve. That’s exciting.

After all, good teaching moments always benefit both sides. And that’s not always easy to come by in writing.

It’s an odd craft. Some arts give you the chance to constantly bump up against others: acting, music, dancing. You work with others, you see what they do, and (in the best cases) you each come away the better for it.

Writing, by its nature, is a little more solitary. Both the creating and the learning tend to come when you’re reading and writing on your own. And unless you’re deliberately pushing yourself, a lot of it tends to fall into the comfort zone: we read what we like to read, and we see and learn the same things.

So having to evaluate a beginner in the craft forces you to think. You consider topics and approaches that aren’t your own, you see basic things that you haven’t thought of for ages. And in making yourself notice and call out details – whether to praise or correct – you reinforce that in your own mind too.

That’s valuable. And it goes beyond writing.

Whatever we do, whatever we’re proud of, we’re never so good that we can’t learn more, and a student can be the best teacher of all. We can always lift up someone else by sharing what we’ve gained … and often, find ourselves rising at the same time, buoyed by reflection, enthusiasm and the freshness of something new.

We teach someone to build. And in the process, we gain new materials of our own. Everyone wins.

So as the world opens up a little more (I hope), take the opportunity. Share something you love, whether it’s fishing or guitar or fixing the sink. Watch a rookie and remember what it was like to be there yourself.

I suspect you’ll enjoy it.

It may even do both of you a favor.

Living on the Edge

There are quiet people in this world. Shy, retiring, afraid to let you know what they feel.

And then there’s Missy.

As in the Missy that charges the edge of the stage at a Face Vocal Band concert, witnessing the whole show a shoelace away from the singers.

Or the Missy whose face lights up at the sight of a dog (“Doggie!”), a small child (“Baby!”), or a friendly-looking face in the downtown (“Hi, you!”). Who shouts back at passing motorcycles for being too loud, and then cranks the car stereo to 35 when she thinks no one’s looking.

She’s my age by the calendar.  But she’s miles younger when it comes to enthusiasm and sincerity. For Missy, life is something to be embraced – maybe literally in the case of Face, from whom she collects hugs and hellos after every show.

It’s fun to watch. And a little intimidating to match.

You see, I am one of the quiet people by nature.

OK, you can stop laughing.

Yes, I’m also an actor, a former reporter, a PR guy, and a columnist who shares pieces of his life on a regular basis. This is not necessarily a contradiction. While all of those are social, they’re also situations where the conversation usually has rules. An actor has a script. A reporter has questions, a PR guy a specific field to expound on. A columnist has space to think and a copious supply of caffeine.

Granted, all of these allow for some level of improvisation, or demand it, even, at times. But that foundation is always there, a safe outlet.

When you’re a quiet kid, you learn those outlets early.

In grade school, I sometimes hid behind library bookcases to avoid talking to people. In junior high, I was regularly dodging bullies. High school was a lot better, but there was always the awareness of being a little out of the mainstream – the jokes we’d tell each other about being “theatre geeks,” “choir nerds” or heaven help us, one of those weirdos who liked roleplaying.

It’s a different world now than it was, then. The geeks conquered the cultural universe. Now, things like The Lord of the Rings or Marvel superheroes aren’t nerdy obsessions, they’re coffeepot conversations. The niche has become the mainstream.

But habits don’t change quickly. Inner natures even less so. I think a lot of us – whatever our backgrounds, whatever our interests – still weigh situations carefully. To see if it’s acceptable, or even safe, to show what we feel. To keep that careful distance from the edge, lest we fall.

And to marvel, just a little bit, at those willing to dance there without fear.

That is Missy.

And it’s why we make such a curious team.

The sitcoms would love it – the near-silent extrovert paired with the social introvert. (Even more so when you add my wife Heather, an introvert by nature who loves steering both of us to new experiences and situations.) And, as with any good sitcom, everyone learns a lot from each other by the end of the episode.

A little more listening and restraint on one side. A little more fearlessness and willingness to let go, on the other. A world to explore for both.

If we fall, we fall together. But I’m a lot less worried about falling than I used to be.

It’s a great way to face the world. Or even to be whirled toward Face.

It’s certainly music to our ears.

Rushing to Help

With bowls and ingredients in hand, my wife Heather armed herself to make my birthday cake. Naturally, Missy jumped to help, eyes aglow.

For those of you who remember my previous chronicles of our disabled aunt/ward, who’s 43 in physical age but much younger in heart and soul, you may recall that she lives life with enthusiasm. So when she helps out in the kitchen, Missy throws everything she has into it – in more ways than one. As Heather later related it, the script for the afternoon looked something like this:

HEATHER: “Oooh, hang on.”

MISSY: (Begins plopping spoonfuls of cocoa directly on the cake.)

HEATHER: “Wait, honey, I have a bowl.”

MISSY: (Drops two-thirds of the cocoa and most of a bag of sugar in the bowl.)

HEATHER: (Turns around from softening butter) “Oh, my goodness, hang on, that’s a lot of cocoa!”

The result was perhaps the most well-frosted cake in the sidereal universe, along with a broadly smiling Missy and a thoroughly exhausted Heather. Rarely has a baker been so eager to light the candles.

It’s not the first time Missy has hurried to assist around the house. If we start to hang up clothes, she immediately grabs a hanger and a shirt – though her coordination is such that she often tries to place a sleeve on the hook rather than the base. In dish washing, she’s quick to rinse and eager to help empty the dishwasher – but it sometimes takes a sharp eye to make sure that dirty glasses don’t join the clean ones on the shelf.

So yes, at times, Missy’s help requires an extra dose of attention. It can leave you feeling a bit wrung out by the end of the task. Sometimes it’s even tempting to quote Max Bialystock in “The Producers” and say “Don’t help me.”

But when a willing spirit offers, what can you say but yes?

It’s something that’s familiar to a lot of political movements these days. When groups have a common overall cause but different agendas, a lot of energy can be wasted on internal friction as each decides the other isn’t “doing it right.”

“Don’t you know that …?”

“Where were you when … ?”

“Oh, this is so important, but what about …”

Without careful attention, a movement can end up going sideways rather than forward, unclear where its next step should be and how it should be taken. Again, it’s tempting to say “Go tend your own garden and leave mine alone.”

But that kind of splintering results in a lot of small nudges rather than one big push. And it misses so many opportunities.

As with Missy help, it can be a teaching moment. An awkward alliance can be a chance for everyone to truly learn another’s cause, history, and motivations.

Even more so, it forces you to pay attention to the task at hand. We spend a lot of our life on auto-pilot, doing familiar things in familiar ways. But when you have to keep an eye on how someone else is washing the dishes, you also focus more carefully on your own. If you have to instruct someone else on your goals and tactics, you’re also reminding yourself.

The enthusiasm can make things take longer. But with care, it can also produce a satisfying result – and just maybe, some long-term lessons that stick with everybody for the next time.

As it happens, the cake was beautiful. Sure, the frosting was a bit thick and the sprinkles were all in one small area. But it didn’t matter. The result was something sweet, to the taste buds and the heart.

So thank you, Missy, for helping out Heather.

When it comes to assistance, you really take the cake.

All About That Face

Missy twisted and turned, her hands in the air, her face brilliant with delight. Her knees bent to the rhythm, then straightened, then bent again.

“Yeah!!” she called out, laughing and bouncing as the energized voices of the Face Vocal Band – Colorado’s own a cappella rock band – powered their way to a close. Stopping was unthinkable, sitting down impossible.

“All right, Miss!”

Regular readers of this column know that our disabled ward Missy – eight months younger than me physically, but younger still in mind and spirit – will dance at any excuse or none. She’s the original crank-it-to-11 fan, capable of blowing the speakers off a car stereo with just one cut from a John Denver CD. She’s rocked it to the Bee Gees, to Michael Jackson, to a department store recording of the Hallelujah Chorus.

But since we first moved in with her four years ago, a cappella seems to have zoomed to the top of her list. Face holds down the top spot, whether it’s live in concert at the fairgrounds or over and over again on a DVD never made for ritual abuse. But there’s room for more, discovered on old recordings and through the magic of YouTube. The Nylons. Pentatonix. Straight No Chaser. If it’s got all voices, no instruments and a beat that can’t be stopped, Missy is all in.

I can’t say I blame her. After all, this is fuel for my own personal Wayback Machine.

Back in high school – never mind when – I sang in the Longmont High School men’s chorus. The crew met at the what-time-is-this-class hour of 7 o’clock in the morning, an hour at which basses rumble and tenors gasp. (If you’ve never heard a teenage tenor trying to get his voice started at 7 a.m., I encourage you to watch … but don’t try to swallow any carbonated liquids while you do, please.)

We sang whatever the fertile mind of Mr. Harrison could come up with, from show tunes to cowboy songs. But the best ones, for my money anyway, were the a cappella bits. Mind you, I sang bass, so that usually meant my vocal line was something like “Doo doo, da doo doo, da doo doo, whoa, whoa, whoooa” or some similarly deathless lyric. But it didn’t matter.

This was magic. This was music. This was creating something fun and spectacular with nothing more than what you had inside.

There’s no rush to match it.

You don’t have to be a singer to get it. Any talent, loosed into the world without restraint, will hit a similar vein. One man’s sculpture is another woman’s martial arts is another person’s passion for old cars. No brakes but your own enthusiasm, no limits but your own perseverance.

It’s exciting. Addictive, even.

And maybe that’s some of what speaks to Missy.

Her world is often a silent one, even a little mysterious to someone who doesn’t know her well. But rev up her enthusiasms – for dancing, for bowling, for art or a good story – and she’s a woman transformed. How much more so when her transformation is ignited by someone else’s?

It’s more than imitation. To this day, Missy’s musical tastes don’t perfectly match with mine or Heather’s. It’s something that reaches the core, some alchemy of voices unchained meeting a spirit unrestrained.

How can you beat that? Why would you even try?

So tune the tenors. Strike up the bass. Get that vocal percussion going. Missy’s revved and ready to rock.

Trust me. You’ll never have a more Face-ful fan.

Walking on Dreams

“Look a’ that!”

When I hear those words and that tone, I know what I’m likely to find. I glance to where Missy’s finger is stabbing the magazine page and I’m not disappointed.

“Whoa,” I say appreciatively. “Cool shoes, Miss!”

Anyone who knows our disabled ward knows she has an eye for footwear, the brighter the better. Her sneakers are usually a shade of hot pink most often seen on Barbie dolls, cotton candy and pre-teen birthday cakes with extra frosting. Her current pair literally glow in the dark, not that they need to – even in broad daylight, every eye in the room is pulled to them like Superman to a bank robbery.

“I want a pair like those!” is the common refrain, with a smile and a laugh. My wife Heather even went beyond words to action; she and Missy now have matching Day-Glo footwear. Strategically placed, they may even save us money on nightlights, so there are all kinds of side benefits to be had.

But Missy’s dreams race far ahead of her feet.

Go through a magazine with her, even for a short while, and you will discover every wild, elaborate or fancy pair of shoes to be had. High heels with elaborate fastenings. Pumps with sequins. Shoes straight off the runway, with no practical application at all – ah, but this isn’t about practicality, is it? This is about imagination.

“Look a’ ma shoes.”

Missy’s cerebral palsy rules out nearly every single pair, of course. Her balance is carefully maintained at each step, even in sneakers with good soles and great support; put her in even a low heel and the fun would quickly become dangerous. Were she ever to spend more time in a wheelchair, Heather and I agree, one of the few consolations would be the amount of footwear that would be opened up to her.

And so, she dreams. It’s fun, even harmless, so long as she doesn’t actually step into anything that can’t hold her up.

At this point in the election calendar, Missy may have a lot of company.

Anyone who’s been giving even a glance to the political news – and I can’t really blame you if that isn’t you – has been seeing constant reports of “surges,” presidential candidates catching fire who are sure to be the Next Big Thing. The spotlight may be on Ben Carson, or Bernie Sanders, or the Trump card himself, but the message is always the same: look over here, a star is about to be born!

“Look at that!”

It can be fun to see the enthusiasm (or maybe frightening, depending on the candidate and your side of the aisle) and speculate on the possibilities. But like the shoes in Missy’s catalogs, there’s not a lot of support there.

This is the preseason. Maybe even training camp.

This is the stretch of time that once spurred talk about Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. This is when Howard Dean was a superstar and Bill Bradley a hopeful.

This is six months before the primaries get started. A lot can happen in six months. And usually does.

In short, it’s dream season.

And it’s worth remembering.

By all means, get fired up for someone. It’s good to care, great to be involved. But this early in the game, take each report of a surge with a few shakers of salt. Meteoric rises are common at this stage. So are equally-meteoric falls.

Maybe your guy or gal really is The One. If that’s your leaning, great. Work to make it so. But don’t be seduced into thinking it’s all over but the laurel wreaths. As the SEALs like to say, the only easy day was yesterday. The long work is still ahead.

Dreams are fun, even necessary. But the support has to be there.

If it comes in glow-in-the-dark pink, that’s a bonus.