To Tell the Truth

It was so much easier in the days of Snidely Whiplash.

Remember Snidely?

For those too young to have a proper cartoon education, Snidely Whiplash was the ongoing villain of the “Dudley Do-Right” tales. Snidely was evil and you knew it – he had a black coat and hat, a mustache that begged to be twirled, and a dramatic, sinister laugh. There was no secret about who he was –  even somebody as dimwitted as Our Hero Dudley could tell “Hey, this is probably the bad guy here.”

As we got older, things got a little more sophisticated. Oh, there were still blatant figures of evil like Darth Vader with his black armor, blood-red lightsaber, and habit of choking minions who failed their job reviews. But we also got characters that seemed oh-so-charming, ready to smile all the way to the bank, with your money in their hand. Stories like “The Music Man,” “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” gave us flim-flam artists who could talk anyone out of anything – to the amusement of we, the audience, who knew so much better.

After all, we knew the whole script.

We like to think we’re that good in real life, too. That we can spot the phonies and the fakes. That no one is going to spin a line on us, because we’re smart. We’re aware. This is our story and we’re the hero, so that means we have to be right, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It never was.

We’ve had a lot of painful reminders of that over the years. Bill Cosby, loved by millions as America’s Dad, going to prison on sexual assault charges. The sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, where trusted figures proved to have terrible secrets. And now we have in front of us the Supreme Court hearings, where a nation is weighing whether nominee Brett Kavanaugh or his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, is more credible.

Nobody gave us the script. Nobody put us in the room where it happened. And that means we’re left leaning on two things – evidence, which is often slow and painstaking to gather, and our own impressions and experience, which can be put together oh-so-quickly.

Maybe too quickly.

A recent piece in FiveThirtyEight noted studies that show we’re a lot worse at gauging liars than we think we are. Even professional observers – police, journalists, prosecutors – turn out to have a success rate that’s only a little above 50 percent. Even the cues we watch for aren’t a sure tell, the piece notes. Since “everyone knows” that certain cues indicate that someone is straightforward or a liar, they’re easy to fake – actors do this all the time – or easy to stumble into by someone who’s nervous about being mislabeled.

The result is that two people, watching and listening to the same individual, can reach completely different conclusions. One person’s “Obviously sincere” is the other’s “well-rehearsed phony.” For one, anxiety is proof of guilt, for another, the sign of understandable stress. And as observers try to convince each other, they often talk right past each other, because they are literally not speaking the same language.

I’m not pretending to be a sage who’s above it all. I have my thoughts and impressions, too; I have a conclusion that seems likely to me. But it is easy for anyone – rightly or wrongly – to reach a conclusion based on the story they expect to see. The charges on Cosby, for example, had circulated as rumors for years before they ever reached a courtroom. And it was easy for most people to dismiss them as merely rumors … until the grinding weight of evidence made it undeniable.

It was slow. Painfully slow, especially for those at the heart of it all. But by taking the time, by persisting in the investigation, a conclusion was finally reached. One big enough to shatter the stories that had already been drawn.

We need to take the time. On this case and any case. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure to decide this quickly. But with so much on the line, we need to be sure. It can’t just sound right – it has to be right.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” Sherlock Holmes once observed. “Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Keep digging. Always.

It doesn’t have to be as fast as a Whiplash.

Labor of Love

For some people, Labor Day means the end of summer. Or the start of fantasy football. Or maybe even, heaven forbid, a chance to think about labor unions.

For me, it means turning into a financial archaeologist. If Indiana Jones traded in his fedora and bullwhip for a stack of bank statements and credit card balances, he’d be having a typical Rochat September – not to mention a very strange weekend at the box office.

Of course, for Dr. Jones, all that’s at stake is something like the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. You know, the little things. For “Colorado” Rochat and the Kingdom of the Fiscal Skill, it’s all about the treasure known as Missy.

Regular readers will remember Melissa “Missy” Hargett as a regular star of these columns. For the unfamiliar, Missy is my disabled aunt-in-law, who’s my age physically but often much younger in mind and spirit. My wife Heather and I have looked after her for five years, every day learning more about this woman of few words and much love: her passion for hearing the Harry Potter stories, her eagerness to hustle plates into and out of the dishwasher, her conviction that every stereo speaker in the world should be cranked up to “11.”

It’s been an adventure in a different sort of parenting, and a delightful one. But it also means we get to take an annual Missy Exam of sorts, a guardian’s report that each year goes into how Missy is doing and how her resources are being used.

Most of it is pretty straightforward, of course. But it does take time, especially the “archaeology” as we double-check, review and summarize the year’s expenses. Calling it tedious is like saying Peyton Manning was a little inaccurate last year.

And yet, every year, it’s oddly heartwarming as well.

Every year, the numbers start to become memories.

A restaurant receipt? There she is at Mike O’Shay’s on a Saturday, grinning her 100-watt smile as the staff welcomes her to “her” table.

A run to the grocery store for cold medicine? There we are on the couch together watching Star Wars, as Missy kicks her blanket-covered legs in excitement at the final scenes.

Colored pencils and craft supplies? A hundred art projects lie behind those entries, charged into with abandon and glue sticks.

Piece by piece, the mundane becomes magical.

That’s probably true for most of us, now that I think about it. Everything around us has the potential to evoke a memory. We touch a thousand things and more every day, and each touch leaves an impression.

Computer experts used those principles to build the World Wide Web, where each link and association draws you deeper in. But parents have known this longer than programmers. They know how much can be woken up with just an old report card and a stray stuffed animal, how many things can be released by a crayon-scratched paper in the bottom of a drawer.

And if we leave that many impressions in an object, how many more do we leave on people?

Lives touch lives, and change them piece by piece. We can teach patience or exasperation, kindness or frustration, with the smallest of gestures. It ripples, and feeds back, and reinforces. I know Missy has shaped both of us, with her careful pace and open appreciation (or undisguised disdain) for everything she’s experienced. I know we’ve shaped her, too, and that in both cases, the sculpting is still going on.

It’s an adventure. And it’s still an exciting one.

You might even say, in our own way, that we’re keeping up with the Joneses.