Hour After Hour

Attention, my fellow passengers. Welcome back to Standard Time. Please make sure all clocks have been restored to the fallback position, and …

OK, I’ll wait for the grumbling to stop.

Twice a year we do this dance. Twice a year, half the country complains about it. And 10 years out of 10, nothing ever changes. Back and forth we run the time-shift tennis match, Standard Time to Daylight Time to Standard Time again.

We all know it’s crazy. But we don’t seem to know how to stop.

We’ve tried with logic, whether it’s “lighter mornings are better for your body” or “lighter evenings are better for the economy.”

We’ve tried with safety, noting the brief surge of traffic accidents when the clock changes in any direction.

We’ve tried jokes, memes and satire – though I should note that a satirical piece by Ben Franklin is partly what got us into this mess.

We’ve even tried legislation and ballot issues, pursued with much fanfare and little efficacy. The one time we did see a change – shifting to year-round Daylight Saving Time for two years in the Nixon administration – the popularity quickly soured amidst wintertime images of kids going to school in the dark. (The counter-experiment of nationwide year-round Standard Time has yet to be run – except of course, for all those years before 1918.)

So whether you’re singing “Here Comes the Sun” with the Beatles or “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” with Neil Diamond, we seem destined to confusion and disappointment for at least part of the year. Kind of like being a Rockies fan, but without the hot dogs.

But there’s something else we can do.

Maybe we can’t figure out how to set our time. But we can consider how we spend it.

For a people who live by the clock, we’re really good at letting it get away from us. It’s easy to let minutes blur into hours into “Where did the week go?” Most of the time, it’s gone to the routine – some of it necessary, much of it just habit.

That’s part of why big events shock us. Aside from any inherent wonder or horror they may hold, they force us to break out of our reflexes and notice. (Or if you’re a Talking Heads fan, to ask “Well … how did I get here?”)

Remember when the pandemic started? Those first couple of months that never seemed to end? With most of our usual options for filling time gone, we had no choice but to notice every single minute and figure out what the heck we were going to do with it. Sure, some of those choices were a little strange, but hey … what wasn’t?

There’s still little bits of that rattling around in our “normal” today. A reminder that our moments hold more than we sometimes realize.

The thing is, it doesn’t require a pandemic. (Thank goodness.) But it does require some conscious effort. Stepping out of the flow always does. But if we take a moment to see beyond the schedule, we can put those moments where they belong: with the people we care about and the calls that need us. To live, not just exist.

If we do that, then we really can define our time.

No matter how shifty it may be.

The Best of the Worst

Written Nov. 30, 2019

From one moment to the next, chaos reigned upon the stage. Maybe it was the panicked baby angels and intimidated shepherds. Or Joseph rallying the Wise Men to put a beatdown on Herod. Or Mary wanting to know why she couldn’t name her own baby, anyway.

Missy giggled. I guffawed. And the audience at the Longmont Performing Arts Center rang the rafters with laughter and applause.

The Herdmans had never been better.

If you haven’t yet met the rampaging Herdman children, I have some wonderful remedial reading for you. They first came to life in the children’s book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and have since stormed their way across stages and television screens around the country (including the current Longmont Theatre Company production). Whatever the adaptation, the core of the story remains the same – the worst kids in town invade the local church Nativity pageant and turn it upside down.

It’s been a favorite of mine since grade school, and not just because of the crazy antics. This is a story that gets the heart of the holiday absolutely right.

Maybe I’d better explain.

Few things are as powerful at Christmas as tradition. There are songs we always sing, decorations we always put up, fights that spring eternal from year to year. (“I told you, the stockings get emptied after the presents are opened, you weirdo!”) That can be a lot of fun – but it also risks changing a wonderful holiday into something routine.

Christmas was never meant to be a china Nativity set, standing peacefully in the corner, unchanging and undemanding.

It’s meant to be transformative.

Disruptive.

Even a little terrifying.

It’s a story of being cold and tired and needing the help of strangers.

It’s a story of having a calm night shattered by visions you don’t understand, and beings that have to remind you “Don’t be afraid.”

It’s a story of having friends you never expected and enemies who fear you without ever having met you.

Most of all, i’s a warning that routine doesn’t last. That the world – that our world – can be transformed in the most ordinary of places, at the least expected of times.

That’s hopeful for all of us.

On the surface, we get it. We see snow transform a familiar landscape into something new – and maybe a little unnerving if you have to drive it. We put out lights that turn cold darkness into beauty for anyone passing by.

But it goes deeper down. Or it should.

It’s not a season that demands perfection, like a pageant where the manger has to be exactly so. But it does demand perception. It calls on us to see that there’s more to the world than our expectations. It asks us to truly see the least of these, even when it’s uncomfortable, and to go where we’re needed, even when it’s inconvenient. It challenges us to see how the worst may be the root of the best.

Even if it’s kids like the Herdmans.

Maybe even especially then.

And if we miss that opportunity in favor of what we’ve always done, then we’ve treasured the wrapping paper and thrown away the present.

Be uncomfortable. Let go. Step out of the usual dance. It may mean that life is never the same. But that can be the most wonderful and hopeful possibility of all.

And if it comes with the chance to laugh your head off at a warm and hilarious story – well, call it an early present.

And then watch that present carefully. The Herdmans may still be around.

Following the Light

“Daddy, look!”

Missy bounced in the passenger seat of the car, eyes aglow. It had to be important. Missy has called me many things since Heather and I became her guardians over seven years ago – “He,” “Frank,” even “Mom” sometimes when Heather’s not in the room – but “Daddy” mostly tends to come out at moments of discovery.

And what a discovery!

Trees glowing with the lines and colors of Dr. Seuss. Lawns stacked with Grinches, with Nativities, with snowmen of every shape and size. Roofs blazing in the night like a multicolored landing strip made for a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, or any UFOs that happened to be passing within 10 light years or so.

Her smile beamed brighter than any of the homes we passed. For Missy, this was the heart of the season – the regular Christmas light run, discovering new homes and new neighborhoods every night, shining with glory in the freezing air.

I smiled, too. And enjoyed. And with a little trepidation, looked to see which of the curving streets might eventually bring us back to a familiar road again.

Like wise men in the East, I could really use a guiding star about now.

***

Longtime friends and readers may remember that I don’t have the best sense of direction. And that may be putting it mildly. In the course of my wanderings over the years, I have wound up following ruts in farmer’s fields, or staring at a Denver-area dead end, or possibly discovering new lands in the name of Spain. I can find “down” without a compass … most of the time … if I’ve left a shoe untied.

Like any long-time Front Ranger, I know the rule of thumb: “The mountains are west.” Like any good 21st-century resident, I know the other rule of thumb: “Google Maps are your friend – except when they aren’t.” None of which helps when it’s too dark to see the peaks, you’re not exactly sure of your current location, and your eager passenger will become an impatient one if you pull over to check your phone.

Besides, on this night, in this place, it didn’t really matter. Tonight wasn’t about the destination. Tonight was about the journey, the traveling, the unexpected wonders ahead. Tonight was about wandering without really knowing what you were looking for, and allowing yourself the excitement of finding more than you expected.

This time of year, that sounds more than a little familiar.

***

From the beginning, Christmas has been about going places you didn’t expect and finding things you never anticipated. Whether the tale is sacred or secular, it’s a season of surprise. Shepherds being startled in the night and called to a manger. Grinches and Scrooges discovering joy and hope in a heart that had grown cold. Charlie Brown finding that just a little bit of love can make the scrawniest of twigs shine brighter than any aluminum Christmas tree.

It’s about breaking expectations. Seeing the world with new eyes. That can be hard to do, and even a little scary, because it means taking roads you don’t know and journeys that might be a little uncomfortable.

Most of us don’t like to do that. We like the familiar. And after a while, we stop seeing it. We go to places without really going through anywhere, exist without really living.

So when the sudden turns come, big or small, it’s easy to panic. But it also may be the first time we truly notice the world around us. And in noticing, wonder. Discover. And learn.

That’s a powerful gift.

So follow the roads. Trust the turns. Find the beauty that you never knew was there. It may take some searching on a cold, dark night. But it could be closer than you think.

Maybe even as close as Missy’s smile.

To Say the Least

“Ma shoe.”

Missy had just finished her bath and gotten into pajamas. She pointed a small finger at her blue sneakers as she had done on many nights, sometimes just to point out they were there, sometimes to ask to put them on or get them out of the way.

“Ma shoe.”

Pause.

“Ma tennis shoe.”

I blinked.

OK. That was new.

In fact, for Missy, that was practically grand oratory.

If you’ve read this column regularly, you’ve probably started to get a feel for Missy, my wife Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt. She is, to say the least, a lady of personality, capable of being roused to high excitement at the prospect of bowling or dancing or even having a bite of peanut butter pie.

But she’s not a woman of many words. Not normally, anyway. People who meet Missy for the first time are sometimes surprised that she speaks at all; those that hang around her longer get used to hearing some of her more common phrases such as “I wanna eat the food” or “I wan’ my book” – the latter of which can mean “book” or “purse.” Many times, her exact meaning has to be decoded from her face, her gestures and a carefully chosen vocabulary.

But lately, that vocabulary seems to be growing.

After a weekly trip to the therapy pool, Missy proudly told Heather that she had been “swimming.”

My own title, which has mostly been “He” or “Frank” (her father’s name) for three years is now sometimes “Scott.” Or even “Dad,” to my startled surprise.

And when our biggest dog started pestering her for food, Missy doubled us all over with laughter with a hearty “Gonamit, Blake!”

A well-chosen word can do that. And Missy has more choices than she used to.

That’s heartening for a lot of reasons.

We’ve never been quite sure what goes on inside Missy’s mind. The incident that caused her brain damage happened in infancy, and even now, I often describe her as “sometimes 4, sometimes 14 and sometimes 40,” based on the various ways she interacts with the world. Her occasional words are a part of that, sometimes reflexive, sometimes hinting at much more going on behind those mischievous green eyes.

In electronics terms, it’s a question of whether the computer itself is damaged – or just the printer and monitor. How much does she understand? How often does she know exactly what’s going on, without being able to express it?

I’ve often suspected the latter, especially since in moments of high excitement, she seems to bypass whatever’s blocking her communication and express herself. (Her question of “Where’s Gandalf?” during a tense moment in “The Hobbit” is now one of our most retold examples.) Every time she adds another word or phrase, another building block, she reinforces that.

More than that. She reinforces my own hope. Missy and I are the same age – so if she can keep learning and growing, so can I.

So can any of us.

Did I say Missy’s words could be reflexive sometimes? Thinking back, that’s true of most of us. We get locked into patterns of speech, of behavior, of life. After a while, it’s easy to stop noticing our surroundings and just fly on autopilot.

Shaking that up can be the healthiest thing in the world. It might be a big trip across the country or just walking instead of driving through the neighborhood. Anything that makes you put on new eyes.

Heather’s joked that in Missy’s case, she suddenly found herself with two guardians who wouldn’t shut up. There may be some truth to that. Certainly, we’ve often talked to her, with her and around her. Maybe her own words started to come in self-defense.

Whatever the reason, it’s happening. And it’s exciting, as new lessons often are. I can’t wait to see what the next bend in the road will reveal.

Wherever it leads, Missy has her shoes ready.

Her tennis shoes.

Nice to Meet You

Simon’s coming.

Not right away. There’s still a couple of weeks to go, a little more time to wait. But it’s not easy. Not when I’ve been looking forward for this long.

Simon’s coming.

If you’re a regular here, you might remember Simon. My nephew officially joined the family last February, in the week between Mom’s birthday and my own. Very thoughtful of him, that.

But Simon lives in Washington State. So I don’t get to see a lot of him. One brief visit out here, actually, just three months after he was born.

Long enough to meet someone. Not long enough to really know them.

I know, that sounds funny to say about someone so young. Who can “know” a baby or even a toddler? Most of us struggle to make that kind of connection with an adult when a new job or a first date is on the line. How on earth do you pull it off with a small child, especially one who didn’t stop to prepare a resume first?

It sounds ridiculous. Ludicrous, even.

Until it happens.

I’ve watched it happen three times now.

2010 was the Year That Cried Uncle for me, the year that two nieces and a nephew entered the world in a stretch of about five months. Over the last three years, I’ve watched all three discover themselves and the world around them.

There’s Ivy, the 3-year-old with the 5-year-old’s mind and certainty, enamored of jet planes and picture books and creatures of the sea.

There’s Mr. Gil (the honorific is required) who greets the world with wide eyes out of a Japanese anime, an effortless charmer with a mischievous smile and the smoothest dance moves a toddler ever produced.

And of course there’s Riley, the tornado in human form who lived with us for a while. It’s through her that we discovered the entertainment properties of measuring cups, cookie cutters and big red wagons. She’s also why one room of our house is decked out in “Caillou” trappings, just to warn future guests who may be terrified of bald Canadian children.

People describe these years as exciting ones and they’re right. You can practically see all three of them drawing in the world like a sponge, soaking up impressions and experiences and wonder.

But what nobody tells you is that it’s not a one-way connection.

Their wonder becomes your wonder.

Wonder smothers easily. We bury it all the time beneath routine and hurry, surrounding ourselves with the same people, the same experiences. It’s safe. Wearisome, maybe, but safe.

But watching a toddler chase soap bubbles for the first time, it’s suddenly easy to remember a time when “safe” didn’t matter. When it didn’t matter if you’d ever played a piano before, you just balled up your fists and had at it.

When joy was just a measuring cup away.

I’m not suggesting we go back to eating crayons in the living room. (Most days, I leave that to my dog.) But the interest, the fearlessness, the receptiveness of those times doesn’t have to be consigned to a photo album and a baby book.

To meet a child is to see that door open just a crack. To see a world ready for discovery.

Beginning with their own.

So, Simon, I’m looking forward to seeing you again. It’ll be good to get to know you in between naps – yours and mine! – and to start to see who you are, what you’re beginning to be.

And maybe a little bit of myself as well.

Simon’s coming. He’s coming soon.

But his welcome is already here.

Back on the Bus

Missy’s been giggling again. And smiling. She’s been doing that a lot since Monday.

Ever since she got her wheels back.

Mind you, Missy doesn’t drive (not that she wouldn’t gleefully try). But Monday is when her bus service got brought back – the large van that takes her to “work,” her program for developmentally disabled adults.

She’s thrilled and rightfully so. It’s a chance to travel with all her friends again, to have a little more independence, to be in a huge vehicle with lots of space. To have her routine back just the way she likes it.

We’re thrilled that she’s thrilled. It’s neat to see her excited, great to see her happy.

And yet …

Well, the morning drive seems just a little quieter than it used to.

Heather and I have been the Official Missy Chauffeurs for about two years now. It’s how we first eased into caring for her before moving in last year, and how she got used to us being around all the time. By now, the takeoff prep is second nature: making sure the shoes are on the right feet, that the coat for the day is heavy or light enough, that a spoon from the morning’s breakfast hasn’t mysteriously migrated into her lunch box, and so on.

But the flight time. That’s where the fun begins.

Most mornings and afternoons, it means Missy the DJ, grabbing a fistful of CDs or tape cassettes and swapping them out through the drive, sometimes at half-song intervals. Oldies rock, Christmas tunes and a cappella groups like the Face Vocal Band get the longest lingers and the loudest volumes. (Ever seen a car vibrate to the tune of “Safety Dance?”)

Some mornings, it’s Missy the Environmental Engineer, adjusting the window from the armrest. Usually this means watching her seal it tight even on a dog-melting summer’s day, but we’re no stranger to the occasional surprise draft from the passenger seat.

More than once, it’s been Missy the Tour Guide, pointing through the windshield at a house Heather used to live in, or the newspaper I work at now, or the next turn we need to take to get to her work. Heather spent a long time wondering why Missy pointed at one particular office building before finally discovering it was the chiropractor that she’d gone to as a girl.

And always, it’s been Missy the Love. Sometimes sassy, sometimes mellow, sometimes ready to “dance” in the car or pat your arm reassuringly.

And now, the dance partner has joined the rest of the party.

Is this what a parent feels when a child goes to school? Or learns to drive? Or takes just one more step out of the house? A little joy, a little regret, mixed with time and bound with memories?

Funny. I’d gotten so used to thinking about Missy’s routines that I hadn’t realized my own. And how they’d come to grow around hers.

But that’s what families do.

And if the last couple of days have shown me anything, it’s how much of a family we have become.

I was there to meet her when she returned the first day. She walked eagerly inside, balancing a bit on me, ready for her tea and her snack, for our hugs and questions, for our reading session later in the day.

It seems we’ve become her routine, too. As much as the bus ever was.

But seeing that smile, hearing that giggle, will never grow routine.

And that’s the best ride of all.