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.

Weekend Winter

Colorado has many things that define “consistent.” Like the presence of the Rocky Mountains. Or the awfulness of Rockies relief pitchers. Things that stay the same week after week, year after year.

But weather?

If you’ve hung around this corner of the Front Range for the past three weeks, you know what I’m talking about. Mild throughout the work week … maybe cold, maybe warmer, but definitely dry. And then once the weekend arrives: BAM! Snow and ice time.

It’s been regular as a clock. Steady as a metronome. And probably a little frustrating to 1) students hoping for a snow day or 2) anyone hoping for a Saturday that doesn’t involve slip-sliding away.

I know, I know, it’s winter. (My favorite time of year, as it happens.) Snow comes with the territory. But it usually doesn’t come with a punch clock.

Again, if you live here, you get it.

Everyone talks about how their state’s weather is wild. Colorado is the one where you can get all four seasons before lunch. It’s where a meteorologist’s kit includes a dartboard, dice and a voodoo doll of Mother Nature. (Am I right, Mike Nelson?) As the story goes, if your outfit for the day includes a parka AND Birkenstocks, you might just be a Coloradan.

Steady, scheduled weather just doesn’t fit the profile.

It’s not the story we’re used to telling. And that’s always a little unsettling.

We like stories. We’re storytellers by nature, either trying to explain the world we’ve got, remember the world we had or describe the world that could be. Depending on the tools we use, the result may be epic myth, rigorous science, conspiracy theory or the next hit series of blockbuster films. But at some level, it helps us define patterns and discern reasons …or at least, feel like we are.

The trick comes, of course, when we’re trying to impose a pattern rather than discover one. That’s relatively harmless when we’re seeing shapes in clouds. It can be downright marvelous when it leads someone to write an engrossing novel or the next hit song. But it gets more treacherous when a deeply-held story collides with reality and the story wins.

We get comfortable in how we see the world. And when the world argues with us, a lot of us tend to argue back. Better to hold your ground, be consistent, prove you’re right – or is it?

“When events change, I change my mind,” the economist Paul Samuelson once said (later crediting a similar thought to John Maynard Keynes). “What do you do?”

Easy to say, especially from the outside. But it’s harder to do. It requires humility to change your mind in the face of evidence. It requires awareness rather than acceptance, constant questioning rather than confident certainty.

In other words, it takes work. And a willingness to change.

When we can do it, the result is a better story for all of us.

The weekend winters will shift eventually. (Right?) The memory will become another story. As we write our next one, look around with clear eyes and a thoughtful mind. You might find more than you think.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to find a shovel and some ice melt. After all, Saturday will be here before we know it.

RIP, PDQ

With apologies to the Terminator, Peter Schickele won’t be Bach. Not anymore, anyway.

The name might not ring a bell – but it should at least play a kazoo or two. You see, Schickele was better known to the world as P.D.Q. Bach, a “forgotten” final son of Bach whose existence was mostly an excuse to turn classical music into uproarious comedy.

If you’ve not discovered Bach the Extremely Lesser yet, you have an interesting musical journey ahead of you. This was, after all, the man whose classical pieces included parts for the bagpipe, the slide whistle and  the “tromboon” (trombone with a bassoon reed). In a given performance, you might catch dozens of musical references, ranging from The William Tell Overture to Shave and a Haircut. Trying to perform pieces like “Oedipus Tex” or “The Seasonings” with a straight face is difficult in the extreme; hearing them without cracking up is downright impossible.

And the best part? It’s a laughter that opens doors instead of drawing weapons.

Perhaps I should explain.

A lot of comedy calls for a victim – a deserving target who has earned absurd retribution. And the more deserving, the better. When John Cleese co-created “Fawlty Towers,” he made hotel manager Basil Fawlty utterly despicable … because if he were at all sympathetic, Cleese said, the series would become a tragedy.

At times, that can be priceless. Well-crafted humor can deflate the pompous, expose the cruel, or even depose the tyrannical. The concept is an ancient one; Thomas Moore once wrote that “the devil … cannot endure to be mocked.”

But too often, people shoot lower.

When that happens,  it makes comedy about the pain instead of the target. Someone gets hurt and it’s funny because it’s not happening to you. Any empathy involved is on the level of “Oooh, I felt that!” but mostly we just laugh at how the universe has it in for someone. (“America’s Funniest Home Videos,” anyone?)

And as we laugh at someone else’s pain, it coarsens us a little.

And that’s where I think PDQ was a downright genius.

His main target was the reverential aura that often surrounds classical music and makes it seem unapproachable. By injecting a heavy dose of silliness, Schickele not only made it approachable but fun. Anyone could laugh and enjoy … and better yet, if you had any experience with classical music, you’d laugh even harder from all the inside jokes he smuggled in. The more you knew, the funnier it got.

In short, he welcomed everyone. Entertained them. And maybe even educated them a little.

How much better can you get?

Schickele has left the stage now, gone at the age of 88. But the laughs live on. And whenever someone replays one of his off-kilter arias or ridiculous concert pieces, the doors will reopen and the wonderful insanity will resume.

That’s a heck of a legacy. And a great example to follow. Not just to laugh, but to laugh well in a way that brings us together.

All you have to do is sit Bach and enjoy.

Using Your Head

I’ve been a baseball fan for years. But somehow, I had never seen the Canseco Bounce. 

If you just said “Huh?”, you owe it to yourself to start the New Year right. Go to YouTube. Look up the words Canseco, Ball and Head. And don’t drink anything while you’re watching. 

What you’ll see is a 1993 clip of outfielder Jose Canseco going back for a fly ball in deep right field … a fly ball that hits him on top of the head and bounces OVER the wall for a home run.

“Look at this!” the announcer laughs as it gets replayed over and over and over again. “Boink!! And it’s out of here!” 

I made the belated discovery through a book I got for Christmas on 50 memorable baseball moments. (Thanks, Mom!) And while many of the other entries had more significance, drama or heart, this one keeps coming back and making me chuckle. 

First, because Canseco clearly isn’t hurt. (Lasting injury is never funny.) In fact, he’s even smiling. 

Second, because the moment is just so Looney Tunes. You could put it in the middle of a Rowan Atkinson or Jim Carrey movie without alteration – especially since the ball only clears the wall *because* of the head bounce. Way to go, Mr. Bean! 

Third and most of all, because I suspect we’ve all been there. You know what I mean: those moments where you’re trying to do the right thing and somehow manage to make matters hilariously worse. 

Having spent a fair chunk of my life in newspapers and amateur theatre – two highly public arenas – I’ve had my share of misplaced fly balls. Like writing a headline about the discovery of a “Viking horde” in Britain instead of a “Viking hoard.” (No, England did not get invaded.) Or walking on stage with a ringing cell phone in my pocket. Or for that matter, walking *off* stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of a solo. 

But it doesn’t have to be in front of a mass audience or on the JumboTron to have an impact. Most of us are quite capable of replaying those moments endlessly, right behind our own eyeballs.

And so, besides starting the New Year with a harmless laugh, I hope this also starts us with a few reminders.

First: give yourself grace.

We’re not going to win all the time – even if we judge the fly ball perfectly. One of my favorite Star Trek quotes (geek alert!) says simply that “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” And we will commit mistakes. Holding yourself to a standard of perfection is a good way to break yourself; forgiving yourself for falling short helps you forgive others, too.

Next, learn from what happened. Laugh if you can. Tell it on yourself afterward if you like. After all, you’re going to remember it anyway – if you can make it a story, you can take out a lot of the sting and maybe even create a rueful smile. “I’m never going to do THAT again …”

And most importantly, get back in the game. There are a lot of innings left to play. Mark the moment, but don’t stay stuck in it. That’s sometimes easier said than done, I know, especially with bigger goofs that take a while to deal with. (As I said, lasting injury is never funny.)  Take the time you need. Reach out to someone if you can. And then, when you’re ready, play ball.

That kind of focus and mindfulness is a great way to keep your head in the game.

One way or another.

When Christmas Got Purse-onal

We still remember it as the Great Purse Christmas. 

The story starts with Missy, as so many do. Missy has a love for the season that is both passionate and unfeigned, and my wife Heather and I have learned her enthusiasms well over the years that we’ve cared for her. 

Carols? Play them anytime! 

Lights? Let’s go see them every night! 

The Grinch? Yes, please! 

It makes Christmas Day really fun to watch, especially since Missy’s tastes are pretty simple. New puzzles. Coloring books. Exciting stories for bedtime. Music by the score. 

And, of course, purses. 

It’s less pronounced now, but for many years, Missy’s constant companion was a big red purse, packed with half the universe inside it. Anyone venturing into its depths would unearth flash cards, stuffed animals, crumpled-up comics, a partridge in a pear tree …. as well as a ripped lining and bursting seams from holding so much for so long. 

So one Christmas, Heather and I saw the state of her current handbag and decided that a new red purse would be just the thing for Missy to find under the tree. 

As it happens, we had some company. 

Come the day, Missy got not one … not two … but FOUR red purses under the tree. Each one a different size, style and shade. The hilarity grew as the bags multiplied. 

“You mean you …?” 

“Oh, no!” 

“Wow, Missy ….” 

As communicators, we had failed pretty miserably. But as gift-givers, we had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. 

Missy was over the moon with joy, wealthy beyond words. And all of us had unwrapped a new story to share and re-share. 

You can’t ask for a better Christmas than that. 

It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the stuff, tempting to see Christmas Day as the here-at-last finish line of a long December march. But the day was always meant to be a beginning, not an end. And the best present has always been the gift of each other, wrapped in stories and memories and love. 

Here at Chez Rochat, it’s rare for a present to be opened without a tale or an explanation from the giver. It might be as simple as “I never thought this would get here in time” or a mighty seasonal epic of desperate searches and sudden discoveries. But with each telling, we strengthen a bond and reinforce a message: “I thought of you. I care. And I want you to know how much you mean to me.”

After all, we’re storytelling creatures. It’s how we make sense of the world, sometimes even how we transform it. Most of all, it’s how we become an “us,” tied together for the moment – or maybe longer – by a common understanding and shared vision.

The story now begins anew, today and every day. Write it well. Share it often. Celebrate it with others and watch it grow as your story joins theirs, making both richer.

Together, we can write a new year worth remembering. One where the real gifts aren’t just tucked away in a dark corner of December, but shared throughout. I’m confident we can do it.

In fact, I think it’s in the bag.

Peace and a Hula Hoop

“The Chipmunk Song” is a tool of peace. Really.

No, I haven’t had too much eggnog. Perhaps I should explain.

For my wife Heather, the Christmas season doesn’t really start until she hears the Chipmunks Christmas album, including the squeaky-voiced perennial about how much Alvin wants a hula hoop. (Are you hearing it in your head now? I’m sorry.) It’s one of two albums that gets played when we decorate our tree each year, along with my own family’s tradition of “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.”

But never mind our tree right now. The really important one in the story is G-ma’s.

“G-ma” was Heather’s Grandma Marilyn. Every year, Heather and her siblings and her mom (and often the rest of us spousal hangers-on) would make the short trek to help put up her tree. There’d be stories and ornaments and minor chaos and everything else you’d expect at such an occasion.

And, at Heather’s insistence, there would also be “The Chipmunk Song.” Because one does. And because G-ma’s laughter and smile at it never changed.

Time passed. And so did G-ma.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, we lost Marilyn in July. It left a hole. It always does when love and memories have grown strong. When the memories belong to a loving, strong-willed and lively soul, that hole gets even bigger.

Especially at the holidays.

There’s something about the season of togetherness that makes the empty chair stand out even more. And when December arrived, it felt off-balance without G-ma’s tree.

So Heather’s family put one up anyway.

A small tree. By the graveside. Decorated, of course. And there in the cold, Heather’s sister decided there was still just one thing missing.

At her suggestion, Heather pulled out her phone. And soon, the tinny strains of “The Chipmunk Song” were pealing out once more.  

All was right.

And that, at its heart, is the picture of peace.

We often misuse the word, shouting “give me some peace!” when a situation gets too loud or contentious. Peace becomes a simple end to conflict, by whatever means, a way of restoring quiet and keeping order.

But there’s an older meaning. One that’s still in the backdrop of a hundred Christmas carols. As a friend of mine likes to note, in old Greek the word means an interweaving, the connections between others that create harmony. When those connections are strong, when all is as it should be, peace reigns.

That’s a powerful gift. One we need badly.

We’re good at dividing, great at shouting, not always so good at listening. Peace demands that we listen, learn and try to understand. That we see those around us as our strength, not our burden. It calls on us to reach out, lift up, and make each other whole.

It’s not always a quiet process and rarely a simple one. But when we honor those connections, we make something beautiful. A beginning. A space. Something that binds us all, even if it’s in the tones of a novelty Christmas song.

The hula hoop is just a bonus.

May peace find you all. In all its meanings. Together, we just may be able to evoke, with a slight alteration, another, older song.

All is calm.

All is right.

Branching Out

Pinch, pull, twist. Pinch, pull, twist.

It sounds like the world’s strangest football chant. Or maybe a post-Thanksgiving exercise routine. (“And PULL and TWIST … c’mon, burn off that stuffing!”) Both wrong, although the second one’s close.

Namely, this was the welcoming ceremony for our new Christmas tree. An exercise in focus, patience and tedium second only to being a Colorado Rockies fan.

Perhaps I should explain.

I’ve been part of the Fake Tree Faction since childhood, when my folks decided that cleaning up pine needles (and dealing with pets who found the ones they missed) was not how they wanted to spend a significant fraction of December and January. The plastic pine they purchased – say THAT five times fast! – became part of family legend. That was partly because it also became a family journal, with each of us writing a short note about the year gone by as we unpacked the tree each winter.

So when Heather and I struck out on our own, a false fir was de rigueur. For a while, it became a pre-lit tree, with the noble intention of saving our none-too-good spinal columns from having to twist a strand of lights from top to bottom. But of course, a pre-lit tree has its own distinct evolutionary pattern:

  • Stage 1: “Oh, how beautiful!”
  • Stage 2: “Honey, I think some of the lights are out.”
  • Stage 3: “Honey! I think some of the lights are actually ON!”

After dealing with too many Stage 3 situations, we surrendered and bought an unlit pine this year. One that came with a warning that we’d need to spend some setup time to make it look right.

Boy, were they NOT kidding.

The branches on each level looked like sheaves of wheat or maybe rolled-up newspapers, tightly bunched around a central limb. Transforming it from “greenish hat-rack” to “fully-formed pine” would require shaping each branch – namely, by pinching the tip of a smaller sub-branch, pulling it free of the mass and then twisting it in the direction you wanted it to go.

Pinch, pull, twist. Over and over. For at least 20 to 30 minutes that felt like an entire presidential administration.

Remember what I said about preventing back pain? Don’t.

As so often happens, the result was worth the effort. When fully fluffed out, the tree stood tall and proud, a sentinel of the season. Especially that part of it called hope.

We use that word a lot this time of year without really thinking about what it needs. It’s not the magical expectation that a tree will leap to life from the box as soon as you cut the tape free. It’s knowing where you want to be and then putting in the effort to get there, no matter how frustrating or difficult it may become.

Hope starts with a vision. But it doesn’t end there. Real hope stays for the long haul, motivating and pushing until you cross the finish line. It’s the knowledge that “You can do this!”, not the illusion that “This will be easy to do!”

This season of the year is often about a culmination of hope, a promise that after a long darkness, light still comes. The waiting and endurance are still real. But so is the glimmer that waits at the end, shining in darkened streets.

Remember that. Hold on. Keep the vision alive and work to make it real.

And if your vision includes a simpler way to shape a plastic pine, I’ll be sending you an invitation to visit for the holidays next year.

Fir sure.

A Bite of Tradition

At this time of gratitude, I am perhaps most thankful that I don’t have to write a Turkeybiter.

Unless you have friends or family around the area of Emporia, Kansas, you probably haven’t heard the word before. Like lightsabers in “Star Wars,” Turkeybiters are a vestige of a more civilized time – short, simple notes in the local paper about how local families were spending their Thanksgiving. Usually, it’d be something along the lines of:

“Sally Johnson is gathering family from seven states for the Thanksgiving feast, which includes turkey, cornbread and Aunt Willie’s Buffalo-Squid Surprise that she’s made for 37 years. Annual traditions include board games, bad football and keeping Uncle Matthew from talking politics again.”

You get the idea.

Some people would mail them in. Sometimes teachers would assign them for homework. But mostly, the newspaper staff had to go out and hunt down a certain quota themselves. Our regular sources learned to quickly duck for cover when they saw an intrepid reporter approaching with a Turkeybiter gleam in their eye. After all, even the most damaging investigative piece would eventually come and go, but chatting even once in November would mark you as a potential Turkeybiter every single Thanksgiving.

Which, of course, made them a perfect celebration of the holiday. Like the Thanksgiving feast itself, they were:

  1. A lot of work
  2. Grumbled about constantly as the work went on
  3. Seriously appreciated as a special tradition once everything was ready to serve

And they were. People would thank us for carrying on the old-time hometown tradition. Some readers would get a glow from seeing the news of their neighbors. Some reporters would get a glow from seeing column inches that they didn’t have to worry about filling when everyone was out of town. Everybody got a win.

Odd? Sure. But somehow it worked.

And that’s also a perfect description of Thanksgiving.

It’s a strange little holiday, isn’t it? It sits tucked away in a corner like a guest at the kids’ table, apart from the gaudier Halloween and Christmas festivities. Oh, long ago in the early 20th century, it used to be a time for masks and costumes as well (seriously!). But these days, the weirdest things associated with the holiday are “Alice’s Restaurant,” the WKRP turkey drop, and the fact that Detroit Lions football is actually considered worth watching.

It’s quiet. Respectable, even. No decor on the house or giant pilgrims in the yard, just  a lot of work that’s mostly seen by close friends and family. (Unless you’re one of the many who reaches out to the forgotten on Thanksgiving, of course.)

It doesn’t shout. And that’s OK.

In a country that’s so often extroverted, it’s OK to have a time about turning inward and considering gratitude.

At a time of year when the very landscape seems to become a little quieter, it’s OK to have a time that doesn’t need its own  Mariah Carey anthem.

It’s an unheralded celebration that can feel exhausting, even burdensome in the days leading up to it. But oh-so-special when the moment finally arrives.

I hope you get to touch that quiet appreciation this year. To lift someone up or be lifted in turn. To share in a spirit of thankfulness that deserves to last beyond a November afternoon.

Celebrate. Enjoy. Remember.

And if you feel like sharing those memories in a Turkeybiter, I know just the editor to talk to.

A Puzzling Situation

Click. Clack. Click. 

“Hu’p?”

In Missy’s enunciation, that usually means “Help.” And in Missy’s room, with those sound effects, it usually means her favorite puzzle is once again underway. 

In more than 12 years as Missy’s guardians, Heather and I have watched her work a lot of children’s puzzles – ones with planets, dinosaurs, pirates and more. But nothing has equaled the popularity of the Llama Llama puzzle, where the pieces have been handled so many times that the colors are becoming more of a suggestion. 

It’s not that Missy’s a fan of the show. To my knowledge, she’s never watched a single episode. But the Llama Llama puzzle may be unique in the realm of board puzzles. Even by the forgiving standards of that field, its pieces are …. shall we say, highly adaptable? In fact, a given piece may have four or five different spots where it could easily fit without bringing the process to a halt. 

And so, it’s quite possible for Missy to work the puzzle for an hour or more without creating the same picture twice. Mind you, only one of those combinations creates an “actual” picture. The rest of them are a bit more surrealistic, with Llama Llama’s head oddly disconnected from the rest of his body, or a toy train beginning in one corner of the puzzle and continuing in another as though connected by some bizarre hyperspace tunnel. 

But in a way, it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, with or without help, Missy finds her way through. And the answers she finds are indisputably hers. 

That’s truly satisfying. To her. To me and Heather. And maybe to anyone who’s had to assemble a life experience from inconsistent parts. 

Plenty of people have advice on how your picture should look, of course. After all, they know the “right way” to do it. It worked for them, so it’ll work for you, right? 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with learning from the experience of others. That’s how we pick up a lot of things from parents, teachers, employers and even the occasional Muppet. (“Why, yes, Cookie *does* start with C!”) But there comes a point where someone else’s lessons can only go so far.

And sooner or later, we all have to wrestle with the puzzle pieces for ourselves. 

The result may look odd to someone else. Chaotic. Out of order. Certainly unconventional.  But they’re not you. We all start in different places, work through different perceptions, feel the call of different songs. Our lives don’t neatly fit the same box.  

If the picture you build isn’t hurting someone else, chances are you’re doing it right. If it’s removing pain and adding to the world’s beauty, you’re doing it very right indeed.

And if it’s a little weird in the process – well, I’m certainly not in a position to argue.

Llama Llama has now been reassembled for the 1,237th time. (Source: U.S. Department of Imaginary Figures.) His toy box is upside down. His hooves are far enough apart to require a map. But it’s still a scene of celebration.

An answer has been found. Tomorrow’s may be different. But with patience, creativity and a memory of where “edge pieces” go, it will be one that eventually works.

All is well.

No need for Llama drama.

Crowning Thought

When I peeked in briefly on the coronation coverage, I didn’t expect to break down in laughter.

Not at King Charles or the ceremony, I promise. I’m enough of a theatre person to love a bit of pomp and circumstance. And His Majesty’s ears will never get a joke from me – after all, I have enough funny-looking facial features of my own.

No, the part that made me laugh came during the chit-chat by the journalists (of course). An English commentator was trying to explain the benefit of a king to his American colleagues.  “There’s value,” he said, “in having a leader who is not political, who can bring the country together.”

Sorry. I can’t even write that with a straight face. And like any good laugh, it works on several levels.

First, if you’ve seen social media at all, you know that we’re perfectly capable of dividing ourselves on anything, political or otherwise. The color of a dress. The use of an apostrophe. The need for a 27th Star Wars movie.

Second, there’s a minor history of English kings who … how do I put this? … didn’t exactly unite the country. (We even remember one of them briefly each year on July 4.) Even leaving aside civil wars and revolutions, being unelected doesn’t mean you’re non-controversial. Just ask a certain group of nine Americans in black robes.

What he really meant, of course, is a leader who’s powerless. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

These days, unless you’re a member of the royal staff or the Archbishop of Canterbury, there’s not a lot a King or Queen of England can do to affect your daily life. They’re a presence. A face. A walking sense of continuity that gives some speeches and attracts a lot of tourists.

For decades, that’s had some people debating about whether the United Kingdom needs a king at all. That’s a fair question – strictly speaking, nobody needs a king, after all. But as with many things in Britain, utility is only part of the question.

Since a British monarch lacks official power – practically, if not legally – it isn’t their accomplishments that will get them remembered. It’s themselves. Those of us who loved Elizabeth, and there were many, did so not because of what she did but because of who she was or seemed to be.

She earned respect. Not just because of a crown or a loyalty oath, but from her own character. And that meant her words lingered a little longer than they otherwise might have.

Nobody needs a monarch – but everybody needs someone who can speak to them frankly, without any ability to coerce. That’s the sign of a good neighbor, whether they wear a crown or a Broncos hat. (And if you just tried to picture QE2 in a Broncos hat, I’m terribly, terribly sorry.)

In that regard, we could all stand to give each other the royal treatment.

So I wish the best to Charles Philip Arthur George Paddington Skywalker. (Hey, I only promised not to joke about his ears.) At best, he’s in a position to be a considerate voice in often-difficult times. At worst, there’s not a lot he can do to hurt anything.

Either way, here’s to all the other considerate voices that crown our own lives. American or Briton, royalist or egalitarian, we all need that.

And that’s no laughing matter.