Getting Your Duckies in a Row

The yarn almost clotheslined me as I entered the front room.

“What on Earth?…”

“Sorry!” Heather called out, laughing. “I forgot you’d be walking through here.”

Heather had been busy with our 9-year-old niece, the ever-inventive Riley. Together, the two of them had strung two sharply angled lines of yellow yarn from the bay window to the floor, securing them at each end with packing tape.

“It’s for Ducky,” Heather explained. Riley picked up her ever-present toy duck – the fuzz long since worn smooth by years of loving – clipped him to a coat hanger and hung it at the top of the yarn.

ZOOM! Riley laughed. Heather smiled. I stared agape. They’d built a zip line, sending him as smoothly to the ground as any Colorado rock climber could ask for.

As God is my witness, I didn’t know Duckies could fly.

I suppose by now I should be used to the ingenuity of our younger relations. But that’s the thing about imagination – it keeps creating its own wonder and appreciation. For a moment, you get a flash into someone else’s thinking and it expands your own.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never been that good with my hands, but I’m especially impressed by life’s builders. Particularly in a situation like this where you have limited materials, and manage to create something useful.

That’s not a bad example to have as we head into the primary season.

OK, don’t run and hide. I know that we’ve had election reminders, advertisements, and soapboxes on every side – on the screen, in the mail, on the doorstep, all over the media – and it’s only going to get more intense as we shift from the primaries to the general election. This isn’t a soapbox for one particular candidate … not at the rates they’re offering, anyway.
So why bring it up here? Because like invention, elections are an attempt to get from the ideal to the real with the materials you have.

And sometimes those materials are more limited than we’d like.

We’ve all seen it in so many elections. Nobody gets everything they want. We all have our ideal candidate with just the right resume who would touch all the right issues in just the right way to establish justice, prosperity, and half-price banana splits at Dairy Queen.

And then the actual candidates appear. And they’re … people. Ones with … well, maybe some of what we want. But we start wading through this one’s history, and that one’s attitude, and the one who trips on their tongue every three sentence. Sooner or later, someone says it: “Are these really the only choices we have?”

I am convinced that we could have the reincarnations of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Fred Rogers walk into the room and we’d still find ourselves asking that question.  Even at its best, politics invites criticism and challenge; at its most vicious, it can make a Broncos-Raiders game look like a tea party.

We’re not getting everything we want. Any of us.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t build something with what we have available.

And that’s what all this is about. Building something that makes this a better place for all of us.

Sure, you still have to use your judgment. Not all materials are equally useful and some may burn down the house entirely. But if we focus on what needs to be built – if we keep the hope that something CAN be built, and work toward it – even a limited tool box can make a difference.

It may not look like much. It may be totally improvised. But if we keep working at it, we just might surprise ourselves with the results.

And that would be just Ducky.

Something Went “Click”

The living room had been struck by a toddler tornado.

From one end to the other, the floor displayed the unmistakable signs that my 2-year-old niece Riley had been present. Scattered toys. Well-strewn cookie cutters. Discarded magazines. And not a square inch of carpet to be seen.

But as I started to pick thing up, I realized something was missing.

“Oh, please no …” I muttered, knowing how upset Missy would be if this had been lost or broken. A frantic search finally uncovered the safe-keeping spot my wife Heather had used, out of Riley’s sight and reach. Inside lay a massive Study in Multi-Colored Plastic Brick, an agglomeration that might require its own building code.

Fort Missy was safe.

That’s my name for it, anyway. I’m not quite sure what Missy herself considers it. The broken paths and varied levels could be a city, a labyrinth, a mighty chunk of abstract art. Heather swears it’s an attempt at an airport where a relative once worked.

Whatever it is, it’s required almost every Lego our developmentally-disabled young lady possesses, with minor adjustments here and there to integrate new pieces. Every so often, Heather and I get invited to help with specific bits of the masterpiece, a tiny brick pressed into our hands to make the latest revision.

It’s funny. For months, those Legos had sat in the house, little-used. But lately, they’ve become a passion for Missy, right up there with her morning tea and her bedtime story.

Ever since a certain exhibit hit the Longmont Museum.

You know the one I mean. Everybody in town knows the one I mean. The museum’s “Amazing World of LEGO” exhibit has easily been its most visited ever, and small wonder. Some of the exhibits are jaw-dropping: a Lego-built bicycle, a plastic recreation of Action Comics No. 1, and more.

But the heart of it, and by far the noisiest part, has been the Lego city where child visitors constantly build, demolish and build again. Surrounded by possibilities, they create their own.

Apparently, one visitor took those possibilities home.

I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, inspiration is a funny thing. It only takes the lightest of touches from the outside to send the mind in a new direction, or unlock a dream that had laid dormant.

For me, a missing word in a Spanish textbook’s glossary helped lead me to journalism.

For my wife, a chance-heard broadcast on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death ignited a lifelong passion for the Beatles. Followed very rapidly by a fascination (if sometimes a joking one) with Bob Dylan.

I suspect everyone has a similar story. Maybe a word in the right place or an image in the wrong one. A picture, a tune, a story that takes root.

It’s a powerful thing. And an unsettling one.

It means we need to be aware of our own actions. A kind word may reverberate longer than we expect; an offhand wisecrack may wound more deeply than we see.

It means we need to tend the fields of inspiration so that they’re there when needed. A museum or a forest. A drama class or a space program. Anything that fills the void with possibilities and imagination.

Because make no mistake, the void will be filled. And if we don’t choose some of those possibilities, they will be chosen for us. Does anyone really want to leave that life-changing touch to the undie-clad pop stars of the MTV VMA Awards?

I didn’t think so.

We all have the power to be givers of dreams. It’s up to us to use it well.

After all, Fort Missy  won’t get built by itself.

Just a Minute

Union Station has the words “All aboard!” My niece Riley puts it a bit more simply.


And off the Riley Express rolls again.

The Riley Express is a red Radio Flyer wagon that arrived under the tree this year with a label by Santa, shipping information by Riley’s dad and assembly by a whole lot of sleep-deprived elves. It’s a thing of beauty, capable of hauling every plaything Riley has ever owned.

Or one 2-year-old with a suitable bodyguard of toy ducks.


Since the weather’s been chilly, the Riley Express has stuck to indoor routes, going around and around the first floor of the house. It sometimes means clearing a dog or two from the track, but that’s the price you pay for an all-season infrastructure.

The locomotive, of course, has mostly been the Uncle Scott No. 1. It’s a used engine with an uncertain drive train (as a co-worker pointed out), but so far the on-call record has been fabulous.


Some routes last longer than others. Some have musical accompaniment that ranges from Sesame Street to Johnny Cash. But they all have one thing in common: if the locomotive’s in the yard, the train will be ready to roll.

There’s time.

Even on the craziest days, there’s time.

That’s harder to remember than it sounds.

You all know this. After all, we just started a new year. The time when some of us still make pledges and promises, resolutions and good intentions, to take something we’ve always wanted to do and make it real.

“This is the year I finally learn to cook.”

“OK, I will hit the gym this time. Five days a week, no exceptions.”

“That novel I’ve been thinking about? Totally going to do it.”

It’s sort of like the Mayan apocalypse in reverse. With an old calendar gone away, it’s as though prior history was wiped out with it. This is the fresh start, the new dawn. The time to do what we always wanted to do.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it?


We make the commitment. Sometimes we even start well. And then suddenly it’s June and we haven’t thought about it for five months.

“Things just got so busy. But I’ll fit it in, when I can find the time.”


Now, I know some of us have a genuinely insane situation. The ones working two jobs. The ones trying to be two parents in one body. The ones who probably don’t even have time to read this column, never mind add one more commitment to their life. (If you are reading this column in the midst of all that, by the way, I’m flattered.)

That I understand.

The rest of us, as Ricky used to put it on the late-night reruns, have some ‘splainin’ to do.

I’m not talking about productivity or hyper-efficiency or all the other grand buzzwords that bosses use to mean “Get off your tail and work already!” None of us needs to pack every minute or grind our lives into exhaustion.

But one thing I’ve noticed. If something’s important enough, the time can be found.

It might not be found quickly. But then, J.R.R. Tolkien spent more than 10 years writing The Lord of the Rings.

It might not be found easily. The Russian composer Alexander Borodin had to squeeze time for music while also working as an organic chemist, with friends on both sides of the line convinced he was wasting his time. Closer to home, I once met a children’s author who wrote his first book during stolen minutes on an assembly line.

But more often than not, the time is there if you want it to be. If it’s important enough to be.

I’m going to try to remember that a little more this year. There’s things I’ve been meaning to do for a while: books and plays to write, skills to learn, visits to make. Maybe it’s time to put my clock where my mouth is.

Once I give Riley one more pull in the wagon, anyway.

Because when the really important things call, you simply have to go-go.

Simple Brilliance

Riley’s two-year old face lit up in delight, as brilliant as the Christmas tree in front of it.

“Oh-kay-kay!” she declared, bestowing her highest compliment.

And with that, the slightly worn plastic tree with its strings of carefully untangled colored lights went from “nice” to “magical.”

The march to Christmas had officially begun.

It’s not the first time we’ve had one of our nieces or nephews nearby as the season got underway. Our nephew Gil was born 10 days before Christmas, after all. But it is the first time we’ve been around one of them at an age where they can begin to notice the change around them, and to start getting excited by it.

I’m not saying the rest of us had become Ebenezer Scrooge, in need of a wallop by four spirits and the crutch of Tiny Tim. Heather and I still love the lights, the music, the people who have clearly not attempted to drive since last December. (OK, maybe not that last one so much.)

But for years, we’ve been the magicians as much as the audience. We’ve got a trick to pull off, and by gosh, we’re going to do it right!

Maybe especially when it comes to lights.

My wife Heather comes by her obsession with Christmas tree lights honestly. It was her father who taught her the importance of making a tree “glow from within,” with the strings of lights carefully balanced and arranged. I don’t know if he also taught her the, ah, special incantations used in achieving this effect, or the ritual invocation of “Next year, we’re getting a pre-lit tree!” but they also seem to be a mandatory part of the experience.

And so, it was with mounting horror that she realized string no. 3 was longer and larger than the first two. So were the others. In the chaos of getting everything untangled, we’d plugged in our two “reserve strands” first, the shorter ones used to finish a tree off without holes.

Apparently this is a sin on the level of ordering Fat Tire at a five-star French restaurant.

“Now it’s going to look all weird!”

“Honey … “

“There are gaps in the lights!”

Oh, yes. I had forgotten the gaps. My failure to pay attention to proper spacing on a rare Christmas when I lit the tree had resulted in an immediate re-decoration that year. (I usually figure that throwing a barrage of ornaments into the branches is enough to paper over any errors, like a freshman pulling his bookshelf over a hole in the wall.)

“It’s going to have too many lights on top and not enough on the bottom,” Heather declared, reviewing it with an artists’ eye. “I’d better unplug that last strand.”

As she reached to unwind the string, Riley protested.


Bring the pretty colors down? Even for a few minutes? No way!

We paused.

Which, when you think about it, is what this time of year’s about anyway.

Sure, we’ve collectively made it a race to a brightly-wrapped finish line. But that’s not its true heritage. It’s a time set apart, for expectation, for watching, for joy and love and peace of spirit.

And maybe, just for a little while, to stand in wonder and realize the beauty we’re helping to create.

The tree’s lights are still up, gaps and all. Maybe it’s not perfect. But it is magic. A two-year-old told us so.

The same two-year-old who was pressing lights into the carpet as they were plugged in, watching them “glow from within.”

Oh, boy. We may have another artist coming.

But for now, everything is oh-kay-kay.

Home Schooling

I knew that having our 2-year-old niece Riley stay with us for a while would be an experience. I didn’t realize it would be an education.

I can already hear my parents laughing in the background.

Don’t get me wrong, she’s hardly a stranger to us. Because of my sister-in-law’s work schedule, we’ve usually looked after the amazing Riley-bug at least once a week since she arrived in the world. My wife Heather has known Riley since her very first seconds in the hospital room and is officially the co-mom, dryer of tears and maker of waffles.

But there’s something about age 2 – and about extended exposure to age 2 – that almost feels like I’m back in class again. And I don’t just mean learning the art of fresh diapers, which Riley herself solemnly handed me one day.

No, it’s a full-bore curriculum, with credit hours offered in the following topics:

English, principally focused on the literary oeuvre of “Caillou,” the world’s baldest Canadian 4-year-old. Seminars shall be held multiple times daily.

Art, concentrating on large-scale abstract expressionism. Projects shall be completed in the medium of Legos, spread in wide patterns across a living room carpet.

Dancing, scheduled whenever a bare foot comes in contact with the large-scale abstract art project.

Modern Cinema, where viewing shall be centered on the complete television run of “Caillou,” the world’s baldest Canadian 4-year-old. Seminars shall be held multiple times daily and may overlap other sessions.

Political Science, in which participants shall explore the delicate art of debate, compromise and appeasement, beginning with the proposition: “Caillou has to go night-night for now; why don’t we do something else?”

Music Appreciation, which shall have three core subject areas: Introductory Percussion, Contemporary Approaches to Old MacDonald (“Ya, Ya, Yo!”), and Contemporary Youth Opera; The “No” Chorus.

Logic, more familiarly known as “Where did your Duckie go this time? Let’s see if we can find him!”

Time Management, in which three adults shall attend to the needs of a 2-year-old, two canines, way too many birds, and the developmentally-disabled adult who actually lives in the house. This only sounds easy.

Physics, in which a toddler will be observed navigating stairs (sometimes on her feet, sometimes on her behind). Participants shall observe the balancing point – including any adjustments made by the canines – and be ready to restore equilibrium.

Physical Education. Need you ask?

Like any worthwhile field of education, it has its stressful moments. Especially since life doesn’t stop going on to accommodate classes. (“Honey, remember that basement where we moved everything to make room? The one that used to be un-flooded?”)

But if the attention and weariness are magnified, so is the joy. That’s true of any subject worth learning, too, and none more than toddler-ology. For every scream-signaled nap time, there’s a smile, or a giggle, or a hug around the knees that makes it more than worthwhile.

And the best part is, none of us – Auntie, Uncle, or Mom – has to worry about boys for a good long time yet.

Well, except for Mr. Caillou. And really, he’s much too old for her.

I won’t tell the teacher if you won’t.

Little Drummer Girl

No doubt about it. Riley has got the beat.

I can hear it when my 2-year old niece visits, pounding away at her toy drums.

I can see it when I play the piano and her eyes grow wide, right before she starts bouncing herself along to the rhythm.

We’ve even noticed it during an otherwise unremarkable Nickelodeon children’s program. When a band of puppets jumped into a song, Riley did the same, banging two toys together, right on the beat.

Did Gene Krupa start out like this?

I know, every uncle thinks their nephew or niece is a genius. (Well – except for the ones who grow up to produce campaign ads. But I mustn’t poke at tragedies.) Still, something special and wonderful does seem to happen when Riley and music are in a room together. It’s delightful to watch, thrilling to contemplate.

Especially when I start to wonder: Did I have anything to do with this?

As some of you might remember, I first met Riley when she was about two hours old. My wife Heather had been in the room when she was born and called me in as soon as the family was ready for visitors.

I’m not sure why I did it. But that first moment I held my niece, I softly sang to her. It was the first time anyone had sung to her outside the womb.


Like a baby when it is sleeping,

In its loving mother’s arms,

What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery …


That set a pattern. It was a rare time we ever came together when I didn’t sing, often to help lull her to sleep.


Train whistle blowing,

Makes a sleepy noise,

Underneath their blankets,

Roll all the girls and boys … .


I was hardly the only one, of course. And soon, Riley had music of her own, whether it was her own efforts of “Old MacDonald” (“Ya, ya, yo!”), or half-remembered scraps of the theme song from the cartoon Caillou. Like the lady with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, it seems that she shall have music wherever she goes.

And like a hiker in the Rockies, I still ask myself “Did I start that snowball? Or would the avalanche have come anyway?”

Maybe the answer’s a bit of both. Maybe a talent or a passion waits inside all of us, but we need each other to find the key.

I started reading at age 2 1/2. No small feat. But for the 30 months prior to that (and many years afterward), I was surrounded by books and family members who loved to read them, both to me and for their own pleasure.

The fuel was there, waiting for a spark.

Many lives can tell similar stories. Albert Einstein had his childhood curiosity triggered at age four or five by the movement of a compass his father showed him. A stuttering James Earl Jones had a teacher who insisted he read a poem out loud every day. Whether early or late, through an incidental gift or a dedicated stubbornness, someone provided the lightning strike.

The firestorm then took care of itself.

It makes me curious to see what paths it’ll light up for Riley. Maybe music will be a passion, or a hobby, or just a pleasant diversion on the road to her real interest. That’s fine. But it’s nice to think that, as she starts to march to her own drummer, it might be with drumsticks I helped shape.

It’s a pleasure that just can’t be beat.

We Go Together

It didn’t look like much. A fuzzy gray bowling ball, maybe, without holes.

But you wouldn’t want to roll this one. Not the Great Hairball.

I met the Great Hairball in a Garden City museum, in southwestern Kansas. Like most museums, this one tended to accumulate stuff. And like most museum stuff, some of it defied the easy categorization that would get it displayed more often.

So, once in a great while, the museum would do a “Dagwood’s Closet” exhibit – a display of curious or popular items that never seemed to get out at any other time. (Yes, I know, it’s Fibber McGee who had the junk-filled closet. The name stuck anyway.) Anything could turn up and usually did.

But the one thing that invariably turned up, easily the most popular rarely-displayed item, was the Great Hairball. The largest hairball ever retrieved from a cow’s stomach on the IBP kill line.

Sorry. I know some of you are eating breakfast.

The museum’s staff assured me that it had been even bigger before it dried out. They found it weird, even a little disgusting. But they couldn’t deny its popularity. The thing even had its own postcard, with the ball posed next to a ruler to show its true size.

Amazing what we get attached to, isn’t it?

Granted, most of us don’t fixate on a bovine after-dinner comment. But nonetheless, I’d bet that each of us has at least one attachment we can’t fully explain – some object or person or even idea where all we can say is “I like it, OK?”

For Missy the Wonderful, my wife’s developmentally-disabled aunt whom we care for, it’s purses. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big pink duffel bag, a tiny purple handbag, or her iconic red purse of any style – once she has hold of it, it’s her “booky” and will end up 1) Full to bursting and 2) All but inseparable from her.

Why? Well, why did the Lone Ranger carry silver bullets? It’s part of who she is.

My 18-month-old niece Riley has a stuffed duck she’s hauled around since just after birth. It looks like it. More gray than yellow, defiant of washing machines, grungy to a point where even Oscar the Grouch might look at it and say “Meh.”

She won’t be separated from the thing. Not for long. Try it sometime – but bring earplugs.

It starts that young. And I suspect it never really leaves us. At heart, we’re part of a fascinating world, and when we find a piece of it that resonates with us, we cling on. However strange the attachment may seem.

It’s why there’s a doorknob on my desk at work, a tongue-in-cheek award from an old acting company.

It’s why my wife has hung on to the head of a Holly Hobbie ornament since childhood, even after the rest of it vanished one Christmas. We feel like headhunters setting it out each year – but set it out, we do.

They’re objects that carry memory. Or comfort. Or an odd fascination.

And without them, we wouldn’t feel completely “us” for a while.

That’s not a bad thing. Oh, it can be, I suppose. We’ve all run into attachments that hold us back or weigh us down, things we know we should throw away and can’t quite. Objects of the hand or objects of the mind, they may as well be the One Ring for all the power they hold.

But most of the time, it’s more benign. A proof, if you will, that anything can be worthy of love, no matter how small or strange it may seem.

When you come down to it, that’s a very hopeful thought.

Touch the world. Experience it. Let some of it come along for the ride. Have a ball.

Only – not a giant mutant hairball, please?

I’m pretty sure one of those is enough. Really.