This New Guitar

I twisted the peg, checked the tone. Way too low.

“Other direction, Rochat,” I muttered as I begin to reverse the tuning on the guitar. Better … better … perfect.

I smiled. Only 70 zillion steps to go.

Music’s never been a stranger to Casa Rochat, but it usually involves 88 keys and some desperate scrambling to turn a page without losing the rhythm or my sheet music. But this Christmas, Heather and Missy decided they were going to expand my repertoire a bit. Which is how I wound up with an acoustic guitar under the tree.
A guitar!

There has always been something about a guitar that sounds like home to me. Like a lot of Colorado kids born in the ’70s, I grew up listening to my parents’ John Denver albums, which probably set the pattern. That got reinforced by a lot of friends and relatives, especially acting buddies who would break out their six-string at a cast party. Often we’d play together, piano and guitar, chiming out folk songs or oldies or anything else we could think of.

When music became more available online, I adapted so many chord sheets that I began to joke about playing “rhythm piano.” And so, over the years, I began to think about chasing those warm, familiar sounds myself.

Easy to talk about, of course. Everyone’s got one of those friendly, fuzzy dreams from writing the next big bestseller to climbing the Fourteeners. They’re fun to bring up and cool to contemplate. But turning them into reality … well, that’s a different animal.

That’s work.

Or at least, that’s the attitude most of us take toward it.

Two attitudes, really. The first is to get disappointed when a new task doesn’t yield success right away. “I can’t draw Longs Peak on the first attempt, therefore I can’t draw.” “I tried auditioning and I didn’t get Prince Hamlet, so I’m done.”

The second … well, the second is viewing it as work in the first place.

Granted, to any objective bystander, work is exactly what it is. But most of us aren’t objective about what we do. Mark Twain hit it right on the money in “Tom Sawyer” when he pointed out that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

I write. A lot. I read about writing a lot. Even when I read for pleasure, I catch myself breaking down the structure and style, like an architect studying a blueprint. It’s effort at times, but it’s not really work. It’s just what I do, how I think, who I am.

At least, until I break into a sort of writing I’ve not done before. Then the sweat comes and the doubt begins. The reflexes aren’t trained, the expectations aren’t familiar, and the work, so second-nature at other times, becomes visible, even awkward.

Arguably, I’m doing exactly the same thing. But my mind doesn’t know that yet. It sees work, and lots of it; a mountain to be climbed rather than a view to be discovered.

If I turned that around, I’d probably have half a dozen novels by now.

Turn it around and there’s a freedom. This isn’t school. Nobody’s making me write a book or learn guitar or become a kitchen virtuoso. This is something I can choose to do or not do, to my own satisfaction or disappointment.

Terrifying? Sometimes. But also attractive. And somewhere, buried beneath the surface of the work, a lot of fun.

We discover that on so many other things we love. Why be surprised to find it again?

And so, this year, I’m strumming. Not as a resolution, forced by the change of the year. But as a dream that can finally be real – and real fun – with some time and effort and joy.

And maybe, in the chords, I’ll even hear an echo of a distant time and a Rocky Mountain tenor.

Take me home.

Spaced Out

I don’t dare show Missy the latest Internet sensation. Not yet, anyway.

Not if I want to preserve the speakers on my computer.

By now, I think most of you know Missy, the developmentally disabled young lady who’s become both our ward and our dear friend. When it comes to music, she’s never seen a volume knob she didn’t like, blasting out rock anthems and Christmas carols alike as though they were the closing act of Spinal Tap. Cool video? Even better – and possibly even louder.

So once Missy makes the acquaintance of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his unique, zero-gravity take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” … well, all bets are off.

If you’ve not run across Hadfield yet, you have my dearest wish that your Internet connection gets repaired soon. Recently returned from five months in orbit, the International Space Station commander capped off his tour – a tour already marked by frequent, and often witty, comments to the folks back home –  by recording an outer-space music video, with the aid of a three-person production team and a handy Larrivee guitar.

“This is a marvelous, marvelous experience,” Hadfield said when he first assumed command. “The only thing that gets me mad is I have to sleep.”

How do you beat something like that?

Now, I’m a long-time space lover. So are many of my friends. There’s a lot of solid, sober reasons ranging from economics to psychology to the value of the numerous spin-off devices. But in making the case, it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic reasons of all.

It’s fun.

Almost sounds childish to say it, doesn’t it? In a way, it is. After all, that’s what gets a lot of kids hooked on space to begin with – not the dollars and cents, or the need for a new frontier, but the fact that space is so cool. A world where you float into your clothes, where Earth turns into a marble, where your music video comes with its own special effects; really, what’s not to like?

That kind of joy is important.

It’s OK to do fun things. In an often grim and cynical world, it may even be important to do them, for our own survival. We’re a playful species by nature, and something about that play – the art we create, the songs we write, the things we build purely for the pleasure of building – gives us the spark to not just keep going, but to make the going worthwhile.

In a recent column, I mentioned the importance of doing what you love. This is part of that. If you have to put it into pragmatic terms, the fun now can open the door to the passion later. A teacher once commented that “I open their mouths with laughter, and while they remain open, I feed them a point.”

That’s not to say that the road to any skill or career is going to be bedecked with Muppets, rainbows and space guitars. Anything worth doing requires work, sometimes very tedious work. But it starts with the joy. And if it doesn’t turn into a career – well, you’ve still found something that makes your mouth smile and your heart glad.

What’s wrong with that?

“Decide in your heart what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction,” Hadfield once said to a student online. “Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow and the day after that.”

And if that direction happens to include a space guitar – well, I suppose you just have to live with that.

I just hope my speakers can.

Come Out and Play

We call her Duchess the Wonder Dog. Usually as in “I wonder what that dog is thinking.”

Take the old game of fetch.

When an object is thrown past Duchess with the words “Go get it!”, one of three results is guaranteed to occur:

  1. Duchess watches the object like Troy Tulowitzki watching an outside pitch. “Huh? Was I supposed to be interested in that?”
  2. Duchess goes calmly over to it and takes possession … and that’s it. “What? You want it back? Why’d you get rid of it, then?”
  3. Duchess takes off after it like the house was on fire, running back forth for about two or three minutes with high acceleration and hard braking. “Vroomvroomvroomvroomscreech ….!”

What she doesn’t do, most times, is keep up the game. Not even after six years with us.


I’m not really complaining. She’s a lovely and loving dog who’s come a long way. At some point in the three years before we got her, she was neglected at the least, abused at the worst. People (except for kids) were something scary for a long time; strangers still make her a little nervous until she knows them better.

A lot of old wounds have mended. But abuse doesn’t just injure. It steals.

And I think it stole some of Duchess’s ability to have fun without reservation.

Not all of it. There’s still a freedom that peeks out when she runs, a joy that escapes when she’s in the mountains. (Duchess grew up a Kansas dog, so the high country remains something of a wonder to her.) But so often it needs the right moment or a bit of coaxing.

Or a rabbit.

Duchess discovered rabbits while we were still in Kansas, where a small family lived beneath a backyard bush. Despite her being half-retriever, she didn’t really know what to do at first. Dog and prey backed up to each other like figures in a Warner Brothers cartoon, noticed each other and then dashed away, startled.

She soon got the idea.

Trips to the backyard tripled in length as she had to sniff every corner, explore every crop of greenery, dash after each long-eared shadow. Squirrels didn’t really interest her (much to the regret of our bird feeder), she wanted a real chase.

There haven’t been any rabbits since moving back here.

I think we’ve all felt the lack.

That, too, was part of her healing.

Duchess loves. And Duchess knows she’s loved. That’s big. She’s become fiercely devoted to us and to Heather especially.

But she still carries her marks. She still has that slight flinch before a pat. That occasional uncertainty before a game.

Just five minutes with the people who did this. That’s all I want.

Well, not all. I want them to understand how long cruelty can scar, how deeply thoughtlessness can rend. I want them to see just how many consequences there are to a callous act, many of them unexpected.

I want them to see how much love can mend. And how much time it takes. Burning down has always been easier than building up; I want them to know the labor they’ve made necessary.

Most of all, I want them to realize. To learn that lesson Kurt Vonnegut considered most vital: how to be kind. To animals. To people. To anyone and anything that crosses your path.

It’s that kindness that will someday make this world a wonder.

And maybe then, all the Duchesses of the world will be ready to go play.

Here, girl.