Just Wild About Harry

“All right,” Heather told Missy, “hold still and don’t squirm, so I can draw this on you.”

With a big grin, Missy held still – barely. The excitement lit her face as, piece by piece, her transformation proceeded. The red and gold tie. The round glasses. The dark school robes with her House crest. And of course, the famous lightning scar on the forehead.

“Are you ready to go, Harry?” I asked.

Hogwarts Express, here we come! Or at least, an early Halloween party.

To anyone who knows our ward Missy, this should come as no surprise. After all, what she loves, she loves hard. That includes red purses filled to the breaking point, stereos turned to maximum volume, bowling on days that end in “Y,” … and always, always, anything that has to do with J.K. Rowling’s famous Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived.

The discovery, like many, grew out of our nighttime reading. Heather and I had fallen in love with the world of young wizards and witches long ago, and decided to try out the first book on Missy on a whim. Which was kind of like introducing Clark Kent to phone booths. Soon, we had consumed the whole series amongst rapt attention and shouted cheers, and a powerful devotion had begun.

They became the first books she ever asked me to re-read. And then re-re-read. Potter memorabilia became the birthday gift most likely to generate smiles, from Gryffindor socks to coloring books. And of course, for three of the last five Halloweens, she’s been the boy wizard himself, her dark hair, green eyes, and slight frame perfectly suited to the role.

I’m sure there are at least a few parents nodding as I write this. Twenty years after the books debuted in this country and more than 10 years after the movies wrapped, there’s still a powerful following – kids, adults, maybe even cocker spaniels for all I know. Why?

Some of it is the basic pull of an exciting story, of course. Missy gets amped up every time we hit a sky-high Quidditch match, or pull out the wands for another desperate battle with dark forces. Adrenaline is powerful, and it’s fun.

But it’s not always what lasts.

At heart, I think Rowling’s words have lasted because they HAVE heart.

They remember what it’s like to be an almost-adolescent, entering a world you don’t understand and figuring out where you belong in it.

They bring back how wonderful and how painful it can be to tie your heart to someone else, and how hard their loss can hit.

They rediscover the moments when you find your heroes have feet of clay, and that things you were certain about may not be as simple as they seemed.

And most of all, they bring home the simple truth that everyone matters. That everyone is worthy of love. That closing yourself off to that only tears you apart and works greater harm. And that you can always choose to make a difference for the better – not because you have to, but because you know it needs to be done.

That’s powerful stuff. Whatever your age.

And it’s a power the best stories have always had.

In a couple of weeks, the costume will be put away. The trick-or-treat candy will be eaten. But the magic will remain, ready to be conjured back at any moment.

And when it is, Missy will hold still – barely – as the spell works its charm one more time.

Soccer? I Barely Know ‘Er!

Well, we made it.

In the world’s sport, a game few of us follow and even fewer understand, the United States has survived. More than survived. We’ve advanced with honor in the World Cup, making the “knockout round” with a run that went toe-to-toe with some of the best. Now it only takes one more win – yeah, right, “only” – to get us playing on the Fourth of July as one of eight surviving teams, the best of the best.

So, in honor of the achievement, and in hope of things to come, here’s a “lucky seven” of World Cup observations.

1) Is it just me or do professional sports teams now need a kindergarten teacher on the coaching staff? “Remember, play fair, no hitting and absolutely NO biting!” I’m honestly not sure which boggles me more – that there’s a World Cup-level soccer player with three biting incidents in his record, or that any team would keep him on after no. 2.

Hey, Suarez. If you want a quick nibble, why don’t you get it in the boxing ring like a normal person?

2) It’s clear to me that the United States soccer team learned everything it knows from the NBA. In a long game with a lot of back-and-forth movement, always put the most exciting stuff in the last two minutes for the fans at home. The networks will thank you later.

3) Sorry, my English friends. You guys are the ones who actually invented the word “soccer,” as in the old nickname for “association football.” And if you’re still going to get pushy about where the word “football” belongs, may I remind you that our ball looks a lot more like a foot than yours does.

4) It’s kind of fun to watch Americans get excited about a game where no one’s really clear on the rules. (Myself included – I get into it heavily during World Cup time, then sink into blissful ignorance for another four years.) It’s like taking a date to their first ever Broncos game: “OK, what are they doing now? Who’s that guy moving? Why’s Peyton Manning putting his hand there?” (Pause.) “Did we win yet?”

5) Like any sport, the memories that come with it are half the fun. And when I watch soccer, many of the memories are of my English-born Grandma Elsie, who with the aid of my sister Leslie, valiantly tried to explain the game to us in 1994, when the Cup tournament came to the U.S. (We all, of course, surrendered at any attempt to understand the offsides rules … but then, so does everyone else, including two-thirds of the referees.)

In later years, Grandma’s childhood stories often included accounts of going to the weekly soccer games with her dear sweet mother Annie Phoebe, a demure soul who would sit down, take one look at the action and scream “PUT YOUR GLASSES ON, REF!” So the next time you see me holler at a TV set, know that I come by it honestly.

(I might add that Grandma Elsie’s own passion, from the time she came to Colorado to the day she died, was Broncos football. Yes, football. See note no. 3.)

6) Yes, I know. It’s silly to get excited about 20 highly-paid men chasing a ball over a lawn for 90 minutes or so, while two other men try to stop them. (Watching 22 highly-paid men in armor fighting over a squashed ball on a lawn is much more sensible, right?) But you know what? We need a little more silliness in the world. And while it’s not curing cancer or landing someone on Mars, I’d rather see people get excited about this than the latest celebrity trial. If you get a taste for it, it might even bring you some harmless joy.

Just don’t, um, get too much of a taste for it. (See note no. 1.)

7) I know we’re overmatched. I know we’re probably going home soon. I know we’ve got all the chances of a crayon in a clothes dryer and might leave less of a mark.

But doggone it, I still can’t wait for Tuesday’s game.

Let’s have a ball.

Stolen Chances

I consider myself a forgiving person. But “forgiving” doesn’t mean “patsy.”

No, Alex. No. No. No.

You know the guy I mean, I’m sure. Sometimes it seems like everyone on the planet knows Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, New York Yankees superstar. And to not know about his fight with big-league baseball over performance-enhancing drugs – well, you might not quite have to live under a rock, but it would at least require a unique focus on young Prince George to the exclusion of all else.

He’s been told to leave the game until 2014. He’s appealing.

But he’s not very appealing to me.

I don’t want him back in the game. Not in 2014. Not in 2015. Not ever.

As far as I’m concerned, he’s done.

I know, there’s this little business of innocent until proven guilty. A-Rod hasn’t admitted guilt. Under different circumstances, that’d carry weight with me.

Except he has admitted guilt. Not this time. But a while back, when he confessed to using PEDs between 2001 and 2003.

Old news? Price paid? Move on?

Sorry. Not that easy. Not for me.

We’ve been here before, though last time it was dogs, not drugs. Back in 2009, after the NFL star Michael Vick finished serving his prison time for dogfighting, I made it clear that while I wished him luck in starting a new life, that that life shouldn’t be anywhere near professional football.

“I believe in forgiveness,” I wrote then. “But I also believe in consequences. And some doors don’t open twice.”

For me, the case here is just as clear-cut. A-Rod used stolen ability to win baseball games. Possibly now, certainly then.

In my field, there’s a special word for using abilities that aren’t your own in order to get ahead. It’s called “plagiarism.”  And if I go there, I can be fired.

Worse yet. If I go there, I can probably forget finding a job in this field again. And I don’t really want to go back to bagging groceries.

A-Rod committed the athletic version of plagiarism. He let us watch talent he falsely claimed was his own.

Going easy just because it’s easier to replace my job than his doesn’t make sense. Trust was still abused.

And in the end, this is all about trust.

I think that’s what has made every new drug revelation so disgusting even as the accusation becomes so familiar. We trusted that we were watching Alex Rodriguez, or Lance Armstrong, or Mark McGwire. That we were witnesses to something special, lightning in a bottle not captured twice.

Well … there was something in a bottle, all right.

My first newspaper editor once told me that all a paper has to sell is its credibility. When that’s gone, the paper’s done. I think something similar is true of professional sports. If the stories it writes are nothing more than drug-enhanced fairy tales, we might as well be playing video games instead.

Maybe this is a lot of time to spend worrying about a kid’s game. But that’s part of it, too. The nation’s security doesn’t exactly demand that A-Rod stay in pinstripes. Just the security of the New York Yankees’ bottom line.

I think I can live with endangering that.

I know. I’m not the commissioner. I’m not the authorities. I’m not anything except one more baseball fan, tired of all the chemical cheating, who just wants to get back to enjoying the game.

But that’s what sports comes down to. If the fans stop watching, everyone stops playing. And to some of us, that’s sounding less painful every day.

So hang up the bat, Alex. Say your say, whether in defiance or apology. And then, please, go.

It’s time.

It’s past time.

It’s now.