I Want My Llama

Two hours beforehand, she’d been great. An hour before, she’d calmly gotten in the car, ready to go. But as we entered the office on D-is-for-Dentist Day, Missy finally decided she’d had enough.


We made promises. Offered hugs. Started up some favorite music.


The assistant made all the right moves. She admired Missy’s shoes, looked at her proudly offered comic book (a Darth Vader one), bantered with charm and patience. Missy liked her. Even responded a bit. But there was no way she was getting near that dentist’s chair or giving her new friend a long look inside her mouth.


Finally, we took the Kenny Rogers route: know when to fold ‘em. But before the dentist began to discuss options and tactics for the next appointment, the assistant had one last card to play. After a moment’s departure, she stepped back in the room with someone new to meet … a white stuffed llama, complete with pink-and-white sparkles on its side.

Missy’s smile broadened. Her hands reached. And while it didn’t immediately turn defeat into victory like the final scene of a Star Wars movie, it planted a seed. Tension relaxed, nerves unclenched. The weird and scary became a little more normal and welcome – especially when it became clear that yes, the llama could go home in her overstuffed purse.

Today could only do so much. But tomorrow, just maybe, had gotten a little easier.

And if that isn’t a sum up of the last year or so, I don’t know what is.

Last week, when I bantered about Bernie memes, I mentioned how disrupting a familiar scene can make you see it with new eyes. But there’s a flip side to that, too. When many things are strange and unsettling, having even one “normal” touchpoint can ground you. The ordinary becomes a shield against the overwhelming.

It’s why stories of the fantastic, from King Arthur to Harry Potter, often begin with a hero who knows as little as we do.  They become our interpreter and our teacher, as we learn together about the bizarre new world that’s opening around us while sharing a common starting point of what’s supposed to be normal.

It’s why we reach for the familiar and soothing when a crisis hits – a favorite book or TV series, a friend who’s a good listener, or even a simple and mindless chore that can restore a feeling of control.

And it’s why, in a landscape like today’s, anything that gives a peek of the world before or after COVID-19 becomes a sign of hope.

It can be taken too far, of course. We all know that. Acting like everything’s normal in the midst of a wildfire or a flood or a worldwide pandemic is a good way to endanger yourself and everyone around you. So you take precautions, you learn the lessons, you adapt and survive and grow.

But survival includes the mind and the heart and the soul. If something comforts and restores you without causing harm – to yourself or someone else – that, too, can be an essential part of adapting. Not a leash to hold you back, but a bridge to carry you through.

Missy’s new friend has now joined the stuffed herd at home. Its softness still beckons, its sparkles still gleam. And while it won’t prevent the need for another dental visit, it can at least promise that there’s more than anxiety ahead.

The uncomfortable can’t be avoided. Not wholly. But with enough help, it can be endured.

Especially with a trauma llama close at hand.  

First Gifts

Every year, you could count on it. The Rochat Family Christmas Eve Parade of Nightwear was the most exclusive ticket in town.

You could tell simply by looking at the invited audience, a bustling throng of three people, max, plus assorted pets. The models were not under contract anywhere else. Heck, for much of its existence, the models hadn’t even entered secondary school.

No runway in New York or Paris could touch it. Not when it was Dec. 24, the first packages had been opened, and my two sisters and I were modeling our brand-new pajamas.

“Oooh! Aaah!”

My parents, reinforced by Grandma Elsie, were most appreciative. And well they should have been. After all, they had once again completed an amazing double act: they had gotten young children excited about receiving clothes for Christmas AND ensured that said children would look presentable in family pictures the next morning.

Amazing, did I say? They made it look easy. And maybe it was. After all, they had just harnessed the most primal forces of the universe:


1) The desire of a child to open a gift, any gift, before Christmas morning actually arrived. Pajamas and out-of-town presents were always the exception for us, and thus eagerly torn into.

2) The desire of these children – especially my sisters – to put on a show for their parents.

3) The raw power of accumulated tradition, where something becomes exciting and anticipated simply because it’s always been.


With those forces on their side, even the most mundane items could become something magical. Even wonderful.

That’s a power I think the holidays still hold, though sometimes I think we’re in danger of inverting it. At a time that can be so special, we risk turning the magical into the ordinary.

It’s easy to do. We hurry and we hustle, weighed down with stress and worry and the accumulated cares of the world. December can all too easily become an obstacle course, one more list of things to do and accomplishments to check off before breathing a sigh of relief and packing it all off into the attic for another year.

We don’t stop. And look. And marvel.

Each night, someone somewhere has put out lights. They might be a soft gleam or a Disneyland glare, but it’s a moment of beauty free to any passerby. So routine we don’t think of it anymore.

Each day, you hear music you hear at no other time. And yes, some of it is silly or annoying or cringe-inducing. But some of it touches hearts and memories, different strains for different people. With me, “Good King Wenceslas” and “Here We Come A Wassailing” still bring back my English grandma; “Silent Night” still evokes my family decorating the tree while the vinyl-aided voice of John Denver explained the song’s origins.

Somewhere, always, small acts of decency and kindness and hospitality are offered and accepted, just because that’s what you do. It may not always be visible in a crowded parking lot (all things have their limits) but even if the practice sometimes falls short, the ideal is known and at least attempted. A training ground, maybe, for something quiet but vital.

Before the first bits of paper are torn and the first ribbons cut, these things and a hundred other ordinary things like them are the first gifts of the season. And if we can see the gift, if we can anticipate the gift and even desire to share it, we can re-awaken the magic all over again.

Christmas is coming. Check your gifts. The ones without labels and bows.

If you’re really lucky, there might even be some pajamas waiting for you.

A Brush With Greatness

With a toothbrush in her hand, Missy becomes the next great Olympic marathoner.

“EIGHT! And we’re beginning to hear the sounds of the runners ahead … NINE! We can just barely see the pack … TEN! They’re drawing closer … ELEVEN! OK, we’re catching the runners at the back of the crowd …”

The commentary is from yours truly, counting off how long Missy has to keep brushing until she’s done. The count gives her a goal, the “race” makes it fun. Boy, does it – more than one sprint to the finish line has ended with a laugh of glee and an impulsive hug that would light up every camera at NBC if it knew.

We’ve done this as cars, as bicycles, even once as airplanes, but the track-star version seems to be the favorite. Despite her disabilities, Missy is a very competitive person, and this seems to get her where she lives. The ordinary mixed with the glorious.

Which actually isn’t too far off from the Games themselves.

It’s been fun watching London. At every moment, we get images of the fastest runners, the most agile gymnasts, the creepiest mascots. The best of the best are on display and all we have to do is drink it in and cheer.

But let’s be honest. It’s not the sports that do it.

OK, quick poll. Everyone who watches water polo more than once every four years, raise your hands.


How about judo?

Oh, I know there’s some. And that’s great. And the marquee sports – basketball, soccer, boxing and so on – certainly don’t have to defend themselves to anyone.

But when it comes to the Olympics, most of us are really cheering two things. One is a flag.

The other is a story.

I know, the networks do the “touching story” bit to death. But there’s a reason. It’s a bridge, a way of bringing out the human in the superhuman. We celebrate the exceptional, but we relish the ordinary, the reminder that these people are still like us.

Or that, maybe, we’re still a bit like them.

So we hear about Im Dong-hyun, the archer with the terrible eyes and the incredible aim.

We marvel at the abilities of Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, and his lickety-split prosthetic feet.

We cheer the teenagers like Missy Franklin, who could almost be our own daughters. We see the oldest of the crew, dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, still doing what he loves at 71 and hope we’re as lucky.

We see the best. And we glimpse ourselves doing it.

Again, the glorious meets the ordinary.

The thing is, it’s easy for us to shrug that off. After all, we do it morally all the time. We see the dedication of a Mother Teresa or the viciousness of an Adolf Hitler and say “I could never do that.” As if they were some separate species that had never been, never could be human.

But what humans have done, humans can do.

That can be a terrifying thought. Or an exhilarating one. It’s one that puts the capacity for greatness – great good or great evil – within the reach of anyone willing to strain and grasp.

And for these couple of weeks, it’s a thought that makes us a family. A dysfunctional one, perhaps. But a family nonetheless.

It might even bring a smile.

In which case, your Olympic toothbrush routine had better be up to date.