On Beyond Candy Land

The queen of Candy Land has found new realms to conquer.

This is no small statement. You see, our ward Missy is a passionate Candy Land player. She opens up the board with gusto. She draws her cards with undisguised glee. And she wins. And wins. And then goes on to win some more.

At one point, Missy had won nine games in a row, and her overall record still looks like it belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is no small accomplishment when you remember that Candy Land has no choices – you draw one card at a time and move down a single path, an exercise in predestination. It’s like Lotto, only with less chance to influence the victory.

And she wins. And wins. And wins some more.

So did she get bored? Quit while she was ahead? Pfft. Please. This is Missy we’re talking about – the lady who can play Christmas music with relentless cheer through to July 4, only stopping when the disc wears out.

No, only one thing could seduce her onward. The addition of sheer unmitigated chaos.

You see, we recently got something called Magic Maze as part of a Christmas present. It’s a wonderfully silly idea: down-on-their-luck fantasy heroes raid a shopping mall for equipment and then try to get away before security catches them. The board’s discovered in sections, so it’s different every time.

In the simplest version of the game, the mechanics are exactly what Missy’s used to: draw and move and draw again. But now you’re racing a timer. You’re working together. And you’re going a little crazy trying to get everyone where they need to go.

She. Loves. It.

And as the smile grows wider, Missy’s world gets a little bigger.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Missy’s enthusiasms catch fire several times since my wife and I began caring for her … has it really been almost 11 years now? Each new piece gets added with a fierce joy. We’ve watched her become enchanted with Harry Potter, awestruck by Darth Vader, eager to throw a basketball or start up a Face Vocal Band video.

But the really exciting thing is that she rarely abandons an old love. She still dances, still loves familiar faces and places, and when the pandemic eases up enough, I know she’ll be hitting the bowling alley without hesitation. It’s not like fireworks, flashing and burning out at high speed, but more like a bonfire, growing just a little bigger as more fuel is added.

Her capabilities are what they are. Her physical and developmental disabilities are no less real. But within what she can do, she finds new opportunities to discover and grow.

That’s a prize I think all of us would reach for.

Granted, it’s a challenging prize to win these days. Even before the pandemic, it was always tempting to build a bubble, staying with the safe, familiar and comfortable. Now, in a time of constant vigilance, it’s easier than ever to draw in and hold back.

But the fire doesn’t have to die.

The times are what they are. The need to stay safe is no less real. But within those limits, we still have opportunities of our own. We can still open new pieces of our world, find new joys and become a little more than we were before.

It can be an amazing experience.

And speaking of a-Maze-ing, I think Missy’s ready to set up the pieces again.

The game is afoot.  

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.

 

 

Ad, and Subtract

There are worse things than pulling the muscles in your lower back.

For example, pulling the muscles in your lower back in the middle of a presidential campaign season.

No way to run. Nowhere to hide. No chance of straightening up long enough to see where the remote has gotten to. Just constant exposure to the drumbeat of political ads, to the point where you could create your own campaign Mad Lib.

“In (year), (presidential candidate) said that he would (incredibly mendacious/naive political claim). But what no one realized is that he would really (severe political crime), the first step in selling the nation to alien beings from the planet (name of celestial body). Don’t give (candidate) the chance to (even more severe political crime). Vote (opposing candidate). It’s for humanity.”

After a while, I wasn’t sure if my back or my brain was hurting worse.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoy politics. Throughout my career, people have constantly asked how I can cover a city council week after week; I always reply that it’s the best soap opera in town. Once you know the characters and the ongoing stories, it gets pretty compelling.

More seriously, there’s something kind of fascinating in watching people try to pick their way toward a solution, whether it’s improving housing standards or figuring out how to replace an ancient, leaky swimming pool. Agree or disagree, whisper or yell, it’s being resolved with words, not fist fights, and that always gives me a little hope.

But the kind of dreck we get on our TV screens every four years doesn’t resolve anything. It rarely even tries.

Both major parties have done it. Both will continue to do it. Wildfires can’t stop it. Mass shootings barely slow it down. It’s like the psycho killer in a bad horror movie, lurching on relentlessly no matter what may stand in the way.

I know, it’s nothing new. Jefferson’s opponents accused him of wanting to confiscate all the Bibles in the country. Lincoln’s charged him with crimes up to and including murder. Mud and money have been part of the game since the earliest days and deploring it is a bit like deploring the common cold; you get a lot of sympathy but few solutions.

But does there have to be so much of it these days?

I keep three or four fact-checking websites close to hand these days, just to shovel through the worst of it. I know a lot of friends who do the same – and who argue about which fact-checkers can be trusted.

And a lot of it’s not even all that effective. I’ve heard political consultants before who estimate that 80 percent or more of campaign spending is wasted. The trouble is, no one knows in advance which dollars will be the waste, so the monetary shotgun gets loaded again, to spray where it will in hope of hitting something.

But what do you do about it?

I’ve had a fantasy for a while now. I know it violates all kinds of constitutional principles, that it’d never happen in the real world. But it has an appealing simplicity to it.

Set a spending limit per state, per presidential candidate. Every $5 over that limit takes a vote off your total. Go $1 million over, lose 200,000 votes in that state … and maybe, in a close race, lose the state itself.

I know, yeah, right. But it gets at the heart of the problem. The campaigns and their PACs have to want to rein themselves in. They have to see a situation where holding back gives more benefits than carrying on does.

Until that happens, we’re likely to see more of the same. And more, and more, and more.

Just thinking about it makes my vertebrae hurt.

Call it a spine of the times.