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.

Say My Name

Once again, Holmes had found his way onto a kitchen chair. And while it looked cute to have his fuzzy black canine head peeking above the table, some things Cannot Be Allowed™.

“Oliver! Down!”

Oliver? Where’d that come from? Oh, yeah, my sister-in-law’s dog. Try again.

“Blake! Get off!”

Blake? Big Blake hadn’t been in the house since last summer, when he passed away at 15.

“Oli … Bla … Hol … whoever you are, get over here!”

I’ve heard of this happening to parents, but it’s a first for Heather and me when it comes to pets. And other than the fact that all three are or were black dogs in occasional need of correction, they don’t have that much in common. They’ve never even been in the same house at the same time.

But reflex is strong. So when you need something quickly in the moment, you reach for whatever comes to hand first. Whether it fits or not.

But of course, the wrong name gets you nowhere.

Call a dog by the wrong name and they’ll be either oblivious or confused.

Get a name wrong in the newspaper and you’ll see upset phone calls or emails.

Using the wrong name in a conversation may draw laughter, frustration or outright offense.

Names matter. They’re tied into who we are and how we see ourselves. And they have a power beyond just commanding a dog to “sit!”

My wife’s middle name is Lyn. It ties into her mother’s name (Debra Lyn) and her grandmother’s (Marilyn). It’s a part of her heritage.

My own name was the product of a hasty family compromise: Dad wanted to name me “Walter,” Mom and Grandma hated it, and suggested naming me after him instead.

Some of my friends have been known by a nickname for most of their life. Others I know changed names as they grew up or changed circumstances: a BJ who became Brad, a Michael who became Kavya and so on.

It’s something fundamental.

But then, we’re good at getting fundamental things wrong. Especially when we act on reflex.

All of us have a story we tell ourselves about the world  and everything in it: beliefs, expectations, preconceptions. And inevitably, we bump up against something that doesn’t fit. What we do next says a lot about ourselves:

  1. We can look at the mismatch, see where we got it wrong, correct ourselves with a shake of the head, and go on a little wiser.
  2. We can decide we know better, keep insisting on our version of reality and wonder why the rest of the world is bring so stubborn.

Looking at the world today, we seem to have a lot of people in group B. And that’s a recipe for trouble. Sure, it feels good to tell yourself what you want to hear, but if you’re not calling something what it is, you’re not going to make progress.

And when a bunch of mutually exclusive versions of reality bump up against each other? You only have to look at the headlines to see the result of that.

Naturally, we may all draw different conclusions from the same facts. That’s human, and it can even be helpful. But when we can’t even agree on the facts … well, that’s where the problem arises.

So don’t always trust the reflex. Take a step back and think. It’s not always easy – sometimes even outirght uncomfortable – but it gets you farther in the long run.

Just ask Oli …I mean Bla …

Sorry, little buddy. Sooner or later, I’ll find the way Holmes.

Holmes is On The Case

I’m constantly amazed at how fast Holmes’ mind works. He’s capable of amazing leaps. And once something catches his interest, he’ll stop at nothing to pursue it.

No, not Sherlock Holmes, the Great Detective.  Holmes Rochat, the Great New Dog.

Yes, for the first time in way too long, we’ve got a dog in the family again. Small-ish. Black. One year old. About as mixed as a mixed breed can be. And one of the fastest learners I’ve ever seen on four feet (or maybe even two).

Mind you, some of that is in contrast to what’s come before. Duchess the Wonder Dog was brilliant – as a combination of border collie and Lab, she could hardly be anything else – but also quite timid from some bad early experiences before we got her. Big Blake was 85 pounds of solid muscle, including his head: loving, devoted, but not exactly a canine Einstein.

With Holmes, we’re learning how to do this all over again. Largely because he’s so ready to learn himself.

Maybe it’s because he’s so young. Maybe his previous owner worked with him a bit. But Holmes listens.  Not always perfectly: we’re still working on concepts like “vets can be trusted,” “grass isn’t edible,” and “a flying hug isn’t the perfect greeting for all occasions.” But for the most part, he listens. He tries to do what you tell him. And he’s steadily forming a picture of the do’s and don’ts.

That’s awesome. And a little terrifying.

It always is when you have the power to be the Example.

“Into the Woods” put it well, with its closing advice to parents everywhere:

“Careful the things you say, children will listen,

Careful the things you do, children will see … and learn.”

We teach constantly. Not just in the conscious lessons like helping a dog learn to “sit” or a child learn to count and read, but in the thousand different ways we meet the world.

When someone shoves a dog roughly from their lap, they teach it to be fearful, even around those it should love.

When someone claims to love their neighbor but greets actual people with contempt or neglect, they teach that their word can’t be trusted … or worse, that it’s OK to mistreat those you say you love.

With our example, we teach what’s acceptable and who’s accepted, whether it’s by passing a law or paying a bill. (Dave Barry refers to the latter as the Waiter Rule: “If someone is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.”) We teach what we want to see by how we behave … and too often, we find the lessons coming right back at us, learned perfectly.

 If we want to see respect or compassion, we need to show it.

If we want to see justice, we need to confront injustice.

And if we want a nation that values everyone in it, we need to look at who’s being left out.

It starts with the small, daily actions. That’s how a dog learns it’s loved. That’s how a child learns it’s valued. It’s how a world learns the way we see it.

Big thoughts from a small dog, I know. And for now, that’s where my own attention is: watching Holmes chase butterflies, explore his new home, and learn just how much his new family loves him.

It seems so simple to put it that way.

Maybe even elementary.

A Frank Conversation

I spent a lot of Christmas Eves sitting in the corner.

Not because I’d landed on Santa’s “naughty” list, by any means. (No matter what my younger sisters may claim to the contrary.) But because that’s where Frank was. And Frank had a strong gravitational pull.

If you’re a regular here, you’ve met my wife Heather and our developmentally disabled ward Missy. Frank was Missy’s dad and Heather’s grandpa. He and his wife Val would open their home to the entire clan on Christmas Eve. And they came. And came. And came. You could barely move the width of a jingle bell without rubbing elbows with family who’d come from Texas, or Kentucky, or England, or even just down the road to join the festivities.

It was a time of trading presents and stories and occasional jibes – the Year Of The Burned Carrots would never be forgotten – where everyone would get to come together and reconnect as a family. At least, that’s how I’m told it happened. I witnessed a lot of it second-hand.

Because while the merry chaos was going on, I was sitting in the corner with Frank.

Frank was a traveling salesman most of his life and was very good at keeping the conversation going. So good, in fact, that it could be difficult to find a departure point – especially for a young man who’d just married into the family and didn’t want to seem rude.  Heather used to joke that the rest of the family would watch us talking from afar and plan ways to “rescue” me from the world’s most relentless raconteur.

“How long has he been there?”

“Shouldn’t somebody do something?”

“*I’m* not going in there.”

The funny thing was, I really didn’t mind.

We both had a love of history, and Frank knew a lot of it, both national and family-related. We both had a love of bad jokes, and Frank knew a lot of those, too. We both had our share of unbelievable stories, whether it was some of the crazier things that had happened to me on stage or his own belief that he’d seen a UFO while in the Air Force.

Most of all, I think, we were both observers of the world. Sometimes with very different opinions about it, true, and sometimes pushing back a bit on those opinions. But at the heart of it, we had a very real respect for each other – what we’d seen, what we’d learned, who we were.

When you come down to it, that’s the heart of a family.

Maybe the heart of any people that hold each other in love.

Love is a word we throw around a lot, especially this time of year. Too often, we don’t go deeper in examining it than the sentiment of a Hallmark movie or  maybe the Grinch’s heart suddenly swelling by three sizes. It becomes something warm, desirable, even special – but like a tuxedo, a little too special to be everday wear.

Go deeper.

Love starts with respect. The ability to step behind someone else’s eyes. The capacity to acknowledge their joys and pains and needs. The willingness to take someone where they are – and sometimes the refusal to leave them where they are, as well, helping them become something even better.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about enduring abuse, or putting up with gaslighting, or tolerating the outright intolerable. Respect goes both ways. There’s a difference between acting from love and being a victim, just as there’s a difference between political wrangling and outright obstruction or corruption. But when it’s really there, even the most ordinary acts can become gifts as precious as anything under the tree.

May that gift find you all, wherever you may be.

And if it finds you in the corner, get comfortable. You may be there a while.

Another’s Story

This week, I wanted to be teasing the royal family about their new arrival, Archie, and ask if Prince Jughead was next.

Didn’t get to.

Or maybe I could be celebrating and lamenting the Colorado Avalanche season gone by, with so much accomplished on the ice and so much left to do.

Uh-uh.

Heck, at any other time, falling back on Mother’s Day would be a valid plan.

But not this week.

This week, we had it all shatter again. Death in a place that’s supposed to be safe. Violence where it shouldn’t be. A lost child celebrated for heroism when his family only wanted a graduate.

School shootings are my least favorite topic. But it’s one that keeps coming back. And it has a way of erasing everything else that crosses its path, leaving no one sure what to say.

So this time, I’m going to start by saying nothing.

***

It sounds unnatural, I know. When someone is grieving, we want to help. We’ve all seen it – or done it – so many times: this friend helps a hurting neighbor clean things up, that one helps get them where they need to go, and everyone brings them dinner.

It’s one of our best traits. It’s what makes us a community instead of a bunch of people that just happen to live together.

And like any good trait, it can be taken a step too far.

Because what we also try to do, so often, is tell our story.

“I had a cousin who went through the same thing …”

“Oh, my gosh, I remember when that happened to me …”

“I bet I know exactly what you’re feeling right now …”

It’s natural. It’s human.

And unless it’s invited, it’s also taking over. All of a sudden, if we’re not careful, we’re making someone a spectator to their own grief while we make it all about us.

The best help starts by listening.

It’s hard. We don’t like silences. Or unanswered questions. Or pain.

But the pain of grief lives in a sacred space, a time and a place set apart. A time and a place for the one who’s living it.

It’s a space they can fill with their memories of what happened, their need to examine the details again and find their place in it.

It’s a space they can fill with their memories of who they’ve lost, reminding themselves and the world around them of the treasure that was here.

It’s a space they can fill with their anger. With their hurt. With their uncertainty. With their need. And (with time) their hope.

And yes, it’s a space they can fill with silence when they need it.

When we enter that space, we’re not the author. We’re the audience.

That’s challenging enough when the pain is a private, local one. It becomes even more so when it’s something so public that re-opens so many of our national wounds. There are issues that have to be dealt with, alternatives that need to be discussed, policies that need to be addressed – if only because it seems like we can never get anyone talking about them at any other time.

Those are conversations we need to have as a nation. They shouldn’t be delayed.

But we still need to respect the space.

Those who are at the center of all this have their own stories, their own priorities and needs. They’ll join that conversation if and when they choose to do so. If it’s forced on them – from any side – they have every right to say “not here, not now,” just as they did at a recent vigil.

Our hearts may break at their grief. But it is their grief. We don’t own it, any more than we own the new royal baby just because Harry and Meghan let us share a piece of their joy.

“A time to keep silence and a time to speak,” the old verse goes. We have our time to speak, in abundance. And I don’t doubt we’ll fill it.

But remember the silence. Remember to listen. Remember whose story this is.

If we don’t have the words – maybe they were never ours to begin with.

Rules of the Game

Look out, world. Your next dangerous mastermind has arrived.

My 8-year-old niece Ivy has discovered chess.

In case James Bond’s descendants need the data later, some family photos have captured this historic global turning point. In one, Ivy and my dad have squared off across the board in the midst of a carefully thought-out match. In another, my grinning niece is throwing herself into a solo game, complete with self-generated commentary that my mom called “a mix between a roller derby match and the Hunger Games.” (“Let’s get out there and take chances, but play smart!”)

I had to smile. And not just at the thought of the next Bobby Fischer also being the next Howard Cosell.

After all, it hasn’t been that long since I was in the same chair.

Dad taught me to play chess. He taught all of us to play, really, but I was his most frequent opponent, carefully internalizing the values of rooks and queens, the surprises that knights could pull, and why you never, ever touched a piece until you were ready to make a play.

It was absorbing. Mind you, I was grown before I finally won a game against him – Dad believed in treating us with respect by not holding back on the chessboard – but it didn’t matter. It was the game that mattered, the time together, the fun.

And just maybe, the tools I was picking up without realizing it.

From an early age, I had petit mal epilepsy. After a couple of years, it was readily controlled with medication, but there were still some related neurological issues that needed to be addressed, ranging from physical coordination and balance to simple concentration. Among other things, this meant spending some time in the “resource room” at school each week, playing games.

That always sounded cool to my friends – and to me, come to think of it – but it was only later that I thought about what the teacher and I were doing. Sometimes it was card games like Concentration, building up memory. A few times, it was a noisy parachute game called Bombs Away, helping me with my timing and hand-eye coordination. And a lot of times, maybe most times, it was chess.

Chess requires planning. Memory. The ability to weigh choices. And most of all, situational awareness – the ability to be in the moment, thoroughly aware of what’s coming at you and what you have available to meet it.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

I’ve thought a lot about those unspoken lessons. But it’s only recently that I started thinking about the other lessons that were being taught – by that teacher, by family, by the other professionals that worked with me. Not by a game or exercise, but by example.

Things like patience. Persistence. Taking the time with someone who needs it, no matter how small, no matter how much time they may need. Learning to value each person you encounter, to see not just what they are but what they could be someday … and to help encourage that, if you can.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

For all of us.

It starts with pieces on a board. Then grows to people in a life. None of it comes easy. (Thanks, Dad.) But if we learn the real rules of the game, all of us can win. Not by storming our way to checkmate, but by being willing to sit down with the other players in the first place.

So good luck, Ivy. Take chances. Play smart.

And have fun storming the castles.

Back to the Neighborhood

I don’t remember much of my high-school French, with one notable exception. A simple little song that I translated for a silly little sketch, one where I knew that even if I didn’t have the words quite right, the tune would be unmistakable:

 

C’est un jour ravissant dans le voisinage,

C’est un jour ravissant pour un voisin …

 

It was, indeed, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Especially when you realized your classmates would have Fred Rogers’ signature song in their head for the next three class periods.

***

It’s now officially been 50 years since Mr. Rogers first appeared on a television screen. Looking back, it’s kind of a marvel he was ever there at all.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had no boisterous gags or bellowed punch lines. Instead, it had a quiet man putting on a cardigan and welcoming friends to his home.

The show had no animation or state-of-the-art tech. It got by with a trolley, a traffic light, and a collection of hand puppets that interacted with only one live actor – a mailman – and that, rarely.

And in an age where even the most educational of shows is developed with an eye to the toy budget, the biggest thing Mr. Rogers sold was respect.

He didn’t talk down to children. He didn’t avoid hard subjects like divorce, or war, or the death of a goldfish. But he also made it clear that the world need not be a scary place, and that it never had to be faced alone.

“You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is loveable,” he once said in a documentary. “And consequently, the greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

***

But that was then and this is now, right?

For most of us, it’s been a long time since we heard the dulcet tones of Mr. Rogers’ sleepy voice, soothing and reassuring and with a dozen small questions in every sentence. We’ve gotten used to a scarier world. A dangerous and frightening one where no one seems particularly neighborly. A world where it’s harder to tell what’s real and what belongs to the Land of Make-Believe.

Oh, putting on sneakers and singing about how you won’t fall down the drain is fine for kids, we tell ourselves. But surely we’ve outgrown all that. It’s time to face a bruising, bustling world that gives you 24-hour stimulation and where “special” is just one more demographic to be measured, analyzed, and marketed. Right?

And yet … and yet.

The world was a chaotic place in 1968, too. The headlines screamed of assassination, war, and protest; of a political process that seemed to be turning meaner by the day; of a world that seemed to grow increasingly hopeless.

That was the world in which the Neighborhood first began.

To meet such a world with quiet tones and pleasant songs might seem an act of futility. But that was only the stage dressing. The core was always the same. To hope. To learn. To respect. To care. To look out for each other. And especially to trust that everyone had value – including yourself.

Those are still the tools that can light a world today, whatever form they take. Those are still the essentials that must be wielded before any change for the better can take place. We remember them in the hands of a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister, but they have been held by many others.

Workers and teachers.

Rescuers and friends.

A myriad of “helpers” from every walk of life – the very thing that Fred Rogers’ mom once told him to look for in scary times. “Look for the helpers.”

Their actions may be as simple as welcoming a new face to town. They may be as earth-shattering as giving their life to save students in danger.

Large and small, these are the neighbors of today.

And so long as we continue to seek them out, and strengthen their number, and teach their lessons anew, we can again make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Prizewinner

A plastic medal. A book of photographs. A little ice cream, quickly gone. Not the stuff, perhaps, that a big league contract is made of.

But for Missy, this was her World Series ring.

I’ve written before about Missy’s softball league, the one geared to physically and mentally disabled players. There’s no score, no win-loss record, no single-elimination playoff, just a good time on a hot summer’s day. Throw the ball, take your swings and make your way around the bases at your own speed to the cheers of family and friends.

It’s fun for those who play, maybe even more so for those who watch. My wife Heather and I have done our best to properly embarrass Missy as she rounds the bases on a volunteer’s arm, whooping and hollering like Troy Tulowitzki had just hit .400. We’ve talked about wearing “Team Missy” shirts when she plays, just to see if the 100-watt smile can get any brighter—or maybe to see how hard she can throw in our direction with a laughing “Shu’ up!”

The biggest reward, though, comes at season’s end when the four teams come together for one last blast. This year it was an ice-cream social in the Senior Center’s gym, the walls plastered with pictures from every game. Everyone got their roar of applause and their photo album, destined to become Missy’s favorite reading material for weeks on end.

Funny, really, how little it takes.

Or is it how much?

This is something that’s been looked at time and again in the working world. How do you motivate people? How do you make them valued and rewarded? How do you create a team and not just a group of people who happen to show up at the same time and do the same kind of work?

You can’t dismiss pay from the equation entirely, though some experts (and maybe some companies) would clearly like to. But even that most fundamental recognition is more of an effect than a cause. Go deeper.

In study after study (and most common sense observations), the same sorts of things come up: A worker wants a workplace they can be proud of and that’s proud of them. They want to enjoy being where they are. They want respect, recognition, more listening and fewer jerks.

To receive dignity. To know that someone cares. To be wanted and needed, and have it shown.

Really, when you think about it, that’s not limited to the workplace. It’s a human fundamental. Everyone should have value.

It’s when we forget that, when we scorn or patronize or decide that someone isn’t worth our time, that we leave marks on the soul.

Think about some of our greatest challenges and controversies. The neglect of our aging veterans. The children from other lands streaming to Emma Lazarus’s “golden door.” The fear of our daily lives being spied on, by government or business.

What are all of these, if not a test of how much respect a person is due? Of who deserves dignity and how much?

And as the scale gets greater, the stakes get higher. The individual that sets off Missy’s “jerk detector” will see her usually open manner pull back. The company that neglects the care of its employees will see friction and defection. The nation that forgets it exists for all the people and not just a lucky few will stain its name before the world. We’ve seen it too many times: Red Scares, internment camps, segregation and more.

Turn it around and that respect can become the greatest of strengths. For a country. For a company. For a team.

A plastic medal – given by a caring friend in the midst of friends. A book of photographs – capturing memories of great times with loving people. A little ice cream, quickly gone – eaten with teammates who can’t help but linger.

There’s the heart of it. There’s the true reward.

Shining right there in Missy’s eyes.

Sound Off

There are a lot of wrongs to rail at in this world. Hunger. Injustice. The continued existence of the Oakland Raiders.

And since all those are taken, I’m going to snark about the Tony awards instead.

At least, I will if this microphone is working. No guarantee, that.

The Tonys, you see, decided that next year there would be no awards for sound design. Now, don’t everyone riot at once. I know, most of you stay up into the wee hours to see if this will finally be the year for … well, whatshisname. And the other one, too. The one with the hair.

Ok. I’ll admit it. To the general public – even the general theatre-going public – sound designers have all the renown of congressional interns. Unless there’s a scandal, you’re not likely to ever learn their names. And even then, it would have to be one heck of a scandal. (“Imported mayonnaise? Oh, dear.”)

But when you think about it, that’s exactly the point.

The anonymity, that is. Not the mayonnaise. Stay with me here.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to a lot of movies. And at every single one, we stayed until the final credit had rolled across the screen. Dad’s mom had worked in a behind-the-scenes job for one of the studios, you see, so he knew how important those miniature letters zooming past at high speed were.

Always stay, he told me. Always honor the work. For many of these people, it may be the only recognition they ever get.

That stayed with me. Even during the Lord of the Rings films, where half the New Zealand phone book had to roll by before we could leave.

Always honor the work.

It’s easy to cheer the actors. We see them, we hear them, we feel like we know them. And directors are not without honor. We know who’s (officially) in charge, whose name is tied to the success or failure of a production.

But there’s a whole invisible world in theatre that most audiences never consciously notice. Costumers. Light and sound designers. Stage managers. Prop masters. People in the shadows who, arguably, are more important to the success of a show than the cast. Anyone who’s worked in community theatre will tell you that finding performers is easy compared to finding capable backstage crew.

They rarely get bows. They rarely get recognized. But the work of the best can sink into your soul.

And that’s not a story only belonging to theatre. In most walks of life, there are people who serve as a living foundation – all but invisible to a casual glance but vital to keep things standing.

When we do notice, it’s usually because of a crisis. Think back to the flood. Sure, we saw a lot of cops and firefighters, the heroes we justly cheer every day. But we also noticed the folks who build the roads, who fix the water lines, who haul away the trash. (Actually, judging by the reaction to the neighborhood roll-offs, the trash haulers may have been the most popular people on the block!)

The foundation had been exposed. And it held.

And it’ll keep holding long after the spotlight has burned out.

If those people don’t deserve a moment of recognition, nobody does.

So to the ladies and gentlemen of the Tony Awards committee, I offer one word: reconsider. Sure, you might save five minutes on an already overlong night of glitz and glamour. But think of what you’re turning your back on to do it.

Honor the work.

Let it be heard.

Drawing the Poison

I’ve been walking the yard with the dogs lately. I’m sure most of you can guess why.

If you can’t, I envy you.

Our two dogs, you see, have eating habits that only a canine could love. Our senior citizen, Duchess the Wonder Dog (“I wonder where she’s gone to?”) tries to chew backyard grass and sometimes the … um … stuff that dogs leave behind in backyard grass. Big Blake, meanwhile, has the instincts of a burglar, the stomach of a billy goat and the common sense of Roger Rabbit, leading him to grab any semi-edible opportunity within his considerable reach.

In short, if they see something lying on the ground that looks intriguing, they’re likely to give it a try.

And well … that’s just not safe anymore.

You’re probably sick of reading about poisoned meatballs. I know I’m sick of writing about them. It nauseates me to think that someone could decide that stuffing a meatball full of rat poison and throwing it in the grass could be a solution to anything.

If my neighbor’s been revving his engine, I don’t attach a car bomb to the ignition.

If his weeds are out of control, I don’t spread gasoline and light a match.

And if his dog is making more noise than a Jack London wolf pack, the answer lies in the cell phone, not the d-Con.

To a sensible person, it would be obvious.

But as I’ve said before, there seems to be a shortage of sensible people these days.

In my worst moments, I sometimes think friendly discussion itself is a lost art. Listen? Reason? Compromise? Please. This is the age of planting your flag and venting your spleen, whether it’s in the halls of Congress or the photons of Facebook. Because by jingo, you’re right, and if you can’t carry the day by facts, it’s time to do it by volume.

The old legal maxim goes “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table.”

There’s a lot of table-pounding lately.

In a scary way, this is simply the next step. If debate is unnecessary and the rightness of your cause is assured, why not take whatever measures are needed to end the problem, regardless of its impact on anyone else? At a certain stage of self-righteousness, others don’t matter. At a certain stage, others don’t even exist.

Nothing exists to them but the anger.

I don’t want to overstate the case. There have been and will be people who make selfish choices, even deadly ones. But at a time with so much selfishness on the march, it’s time for the rest of us to draw a line.

We will not be bullied.

We will not be intimidated.

And we will find our way to a better place again.

We’re watchful now, because we’ve been taught to be. It’s a terrible lesson to need to learn. We will watch those we love to keep them from harm, and we will watch for the agents of harm so that they may be stopped.

But our duty goes farther.

On a smaller scale, we must create a place for courtesy and understanding to be. We must be ready to remind people that listening is more than an option, it’s a prerequisite. Yes, the ones who need it most will be the ones who are lest receptive. But the rest of us must keep the conversation open.

It will not be easy. Sometimes I’m not even sure if it will be possible. But I know it won’t be if we let the bullies and the screamers and the brawlers have everything their way.

Only in trying do we have a chance.

I’m aware of the paradox here: to be uncompromisingly for compromise, firmly for gentleness. But it can be done. Any good teacher or parent has done it. They’ve found ways – sometimes through much difficulty – to head off the rude and the hateful so that civility and respect can continue.

We have to find that way again. All of us. Together.

Let’s make a world where it’s safe to feed the dog.