Directions in the Fogg

For the last few weeks, bedtime has been a race. And now, at last, Missy has pulled up smiling at the finish line.

A trip around the world can do that.

No, we’re not defying coronavirus restrictions and dashing through international borders one step ahead of the health authorities. Heck, at the rate baseball has been going, even state borders are starting to look like an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

But Missy’s bedtime reading has opened a lot of doors over the years. We’ve journeyed through Middle-earth. We’ve battled evil at Hogwarts. We’ve traveled the stars with Madeleine L’Engle and solved mysteries with Ellen Raskin.  And since Missy’s online activity group has been “visiting” a lot of countries lately, the time felt right  to introduce her to an old friend.

Once again, it was time to travel with Phileas Fogg.

If you’re not familiar with “Around The World In Eighty Days” – is there anyone left? – you have quite the journey ahead of you. I was a kid on summer vacation with my family when I first read Jules Verne’s tale of the incredibly precise 19th-century Englishman who accepts a 20,000 pound wager to circle the world  in the stipulated time without being a single minute late.  It’s a short novel and one that moves as quickly as its characters as they jump from trains and steamships to sailing craft and elephants, efficiently racing the clock (and a misguided detective).

Like a lot of older books, some bits age better than others. But the story still draws like a magnet because the central idea still works.

No, not the idea of circling the globe in under three months. Anyone with access to an airline ticket and a passport – a combination which, admittedly, has become a piece of fiction itself lately – can travel at a pace that leaves Fogg and his friends gasping in the dust.  But the challenge behind Fogg’s wager is still part of us today.

Namely, the idea that with enough planning, even the unexpected can become predictable.

At this stage of 2020, the idea sounds almost humorous. Anything we may have expected on  New Year’s Eve has surely gone through the paper shredder as we’ve grappled with seven months of upside-down events. It’s always hard to grasp how little control we truly have, but 2020 seems determined to remind us of that constantly … with a Louisville Slugger, if necessary.

The thing is, Fogg’s friends back home seem to have already absorbed the lesson. From the start, they remind him of all the things that could go wrong – breakdowns, bad weather, local violence and more. And in a way, they’re right. Fogg’s ability to take advantage of the good and improvise around the bad gets absolutely derailed on the final lap, disrupted by the one complication he hadn’t foreseen. Disaster looms.

It sounds like a pandemic lesson. And I hope it is. Because – spoiler alert! – that’s not the end of the story.

There’s a second complication. A positive one that gives Fogg more time than he thought he had. But without his planning, he would never have been in position to take advantage of it. And without learning to recognize and return the love of others, he would never have seen the opportunity at all.

And that is the lesson we need to learn.

Not to give up. Not to say “Nothing we do will make any difference.” But to plan as best we can, improvise where we have to, and recognize that ultimately it’s our compassion for the people around us that will get us through this. When we look out for each other instead of grasping desperately at normal, we win – because every one of us is “each other” to someone else.

Like all adventures, this will leave us changed. But it can be a change for the better.

Maybe, just maybe, a little Fogg can help us see clearly.

Half the Fun

They’d taken Heather’s temperature. Too high. Again.

Time to wait. Again.

For half a moment, I could feel the old station wagon forming up around us.

Longtime readers of this column may remember that my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about two years ago. At the time, we were more relieved than anxious, since it explained so much that had been going on – the periods of foggy memory, the occasional bouts of weakness, and so on. Better to have an enemy you know, right?

Since her MS is of the “relapse-remission” sort, we even managed to get some stretches where things were just about normal again. Well, as normal as you can get when a person also has Crohn’s disease and ankylosing spondylitis (quite a mouthful, huh), but you know what I mean. During that normal time, she and her doctor started planning ahead. A periodic infusion of a “biological” medicine might help her keep on top of things – basically, trading an occasional and very boring five to seven hours in a chair for the ability to keep the MS on a leash.

No problem. Boring medicine days are why God put the Lumberjack Olympics on TV, right?

But something always seemed to keep that medicine just ahead of us, like a will o’ the wisp in a swamp. Things like paperwork that didn’t make it through the mail, or blood tests that had to be rescheduled again and again because another chronic illness had flared up that day and left Heather unable to come out.

Finally, the preliminaries were over. Medicine Day had come.

Unfortunately, so had the Creeping Crud. You know this one. Maybe you’ve even had it, the one that keeps circling back around for another pass? It bumped up Heather’s temperature, just a bit.

Just enough to postpone the infusion. Twice.

It’s a good thing I already have a bald spot. Less hair to tear out in frustration.

That’s when my mind’s eye began to see the Volvo arrive.

When I was a kid, my parents liked to plan long vacations for all of us. This included, more than once, the Great Overland Trek from Colorado to California, with two adults and three children in the confines of one car for multiple hours.

Mom was an expert at distracting us. Dad planned out small jobs that each of us could do. But inevitably, at some point along the highway, the Official Kids’ Chorus of Summer Vacations would arise.

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

“Are we there yet?”

The answer was obvious, of course. Not yet. Not for a long time. (Maybe not for a very long time, if the chorus started while we were still in Wyoming.) But when the good stuff is still ahead and doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, what else can you do?

Some things don’t change very much in three and a half decades.

We still wind up on long journeys, where we’re not at the wheel. We still find ourselves watching the landscape crawl by. And again and again, it seems like each passing hour brings … another passing hour.

It can be maddening. Or at least wearying. Especially if the resolution refuses to come into sight.

All we can do is trust. That California is out there somewhere. That the road does reach a destination. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary. We just have hang on to each other, do what we can on the journey, and keep traveling.

In our case, at least I know we’ll get there. The infusion will, eventually, happen. The treatment will, eventually, begin. And then we can start on a whole new road.

I hope we packed enough snacks.


Keeping Watch

On Wednesday evening, I’m pretty sure Denver International Airport was tracking an Unidentified Flying Missy.

As Heather waved me over to the car, Missy began bouncing in the passenger seat. And bouncing. And … well, you get the idea. She had a cold, she had a seat belt, and at that moment, absolutely none of that mattered.

“Hi, you!” I called out. Missy was too excited for anything but a laugh and a hug. And oh, what a hug!

Longmont was still most of an hour’s drive away. But I was already home.


For a lot of movie fans, Oct. 21 was Future Day, the 30-years-ahead date reached by the time-traveling DeLorean in “Back to the Future II.” For me, it was more like Back to the Present – or maybe Back to Reality.

I had been off to Austin, Texas for four days on my first extended business trip since changing jobs. That meant a lot of planning, and not just for plane tickets and hotel reservations. It also meant dealing with the two biggest unknowns for an out-of-state stay: the health of my wife Heather, and the reaction of our disabled ward, Missy.

As it turned out, we hit a good patch with Heather: the symptoms of her MS began to subside about two days before takeoff. Neither of us were sure how long it would last, but we weren’t going to complain, any more than a pilot gripes about hitting unexpected good weather.

Missy … was a little more complicated.

Mind you, Missy’s dad used to be a traveling salesman. So having a relative away for large chunks of time used to be nothing new. But that had been a long time ago and Missy had always been a “Daddy’s girl” – after Heather and I moved in, one of her most common questions while I was at work was “Where’s he?”

Missy’s perception of time can be interesting. On the one hand, she easily recalls faces from more than 35 years ago. But she can also worry when someone is gone for more than a couple of hours, keeping a vigil in the bay window until their return. Our first real test for an extended absence had been the flood, when I was working 14-to-15 hour days for the newspaper, but even then I was still coming home at night.

Then, she had dived into artwork, her blues and browns evoking the deluge around her. We could only hope to be so lucky a second time.

We weren’t.


“She slept for maybe 2 hours” came a text from Heather on the first day. Part of that was from a head cold, part from waiting up for me.

Further updates: Missy was spending time in her room, except for a little bit of painting and puzzles. She was trying to talk into the telephone. (I had called the other night to reassure her.) She wasn’t taking her bath.

In the middle of it, Heather pointed out the upside. Missy hadn’t done this when other relatives had moved out, or when Heather had taken her big trip to Devil’s Tower. That at least pointed to something special.

“U are very awesome,” the message on my phone read.

It had become a Dorothy moment for all of us, when you realize the value of something through its absence. For Dorothy, lost in Oz, it was the Kansas farmhouse. For others, it might be a lost relative, a longtime job, an old home that had to be left behind.

We were lucky. Ours could be cured in four days, without the intervention of a humbug wizard. And we’d realized more than ever how strong a family we’d become.


Toward the end, Missy began to perk up a little. She worked out her new stereo (especially the volume) and even dressed herself – a bit creatively – for the trip to the airport. Even so, I’m not sure she believed I was coming back until the moment she saw me.

Then there could be no doubt. Or escaping the force 5 hug.

Home was healed. Missy had learned I would come back. And that night as I closed her door, I re-learned the five most magic words in the universe:

“See you in the morning.”

Walking in the Dark

The distance falls away softly, a yard at a time in the still of a Longmont night.

Step. Step. And step again.

Even just a few blocks from Main Street, sounds are muted and far between. The metallic chime of a sprinkler hitting a fence. The odd car. The ripple of the Oligarchy Ditch, making its own muffled and effortless journey.

It’s a short trip that would take five minutes in a car. On foot, it’s closer to 20, with light and activity only gaining a more normal level as the destination grows nearer.

Step. Step. Another step still.

There are worse ways to pick up your groceries.

I’ve always been fond of the late nights and the early mornings, when even a smaller city seems to be a world transformed. And I’ve always been fond of walking, a habit I probably inherited from my English granddad even if I didn’t inherit his love of doing it at the hottest part of the day. (“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” as they say.)

So when the opportunity came to merge the two, making regular forays into the dark for a few supplies and a little quiet, I seized the moment. And night upon night, it’s oddly regenerating – maybe even a bit familiar.

After all, Heather and I have been doing a lot of walking in the dark lately.

Things have progressed slowly since my wife was diagnosed with MS last spring. Days get measured not in hours, but in careful rations of energy – how much can be done today? How far will a window of relief open? How much rest is needed now to turn tomorrow’s plans from theory into action?

Sometimes the calculations go badly awry. We’ve already ridden out one flare, a week stolen by pain and dizziness where traveling to the bathroom requires the timing and partnership of a carefully measured waltz.

Step. Step. And step again.

It’s a longer journey than 20 minutes. Streetlights are few and far between. Once again, it seems to carry us through the world while keeping us somehow apart from it.

And yet. Somehow, slowly, progress does seem to come.

It comes in pieces, the resumption of the ordinary that we had once taken for granted. A few hours of peaceful sleep. A chore as simple as cleaning the bird cage. A realization that she’s feeling tired at the end of a Saturday – not the all-consuming fatigue of illness and pain, but a more ordinary exhaustion from having two young nieces come over to play.

Those are the moments of hope, when the pavement draws near to something at last.

I know how fortunate I am in my actual walks into the night, to be in a place and situation where I can travel peacefully. I’m only beginning to realize how fortunate we are in this larger walk. This is a rockier road, with more than its share of broken pavement, but hope does come. Hope can come. No matter how far away it may seem.

Step. Step. And step again.

Thinking back, the solitude of the night was always more illusion than reality. When walking, it’s a blessed insulation, a chance to put the trials of the day at arms’ length. On the bigger path, it can feel more like isolation, feeling like nothing can touch this topsy-turvy world you’ve come to inhabit. In both cases, friends and neighbors are closer than they seem.

That, too, is regenerating.

Another night. Another walk. Another journey. But every journey leads somewhere eventually, if you just keep walking.

Let’s see what the next step will bring.

A Rose for Neil

A longtime friend found herself in a reflective mood this week.

“I keep finding myself wondering,” she wrote online, “what Neil Armstrong thought about when he looked up at the moon every night.”

It’s a question that holds its own magic, that maybe has no answer. Or too many. Old friends, staring at each other across the miles? A feeling of pride? Of humility? Of regret for what wasn’t done or gratitude for what was?

The possibilities left me intrigued. They even stayed in the back of my head during my bedtime reading with Missy, a chapter from “The Secret Garden.”

And like the ivy of the garden’s walls, thoughts began to grow.

If you’ve never read the children’s classic, you have something beautiful ahead of you. It deals with a selfish, imperious little girl, Mary, who is sent to live with relatives in England after her family dies, where she discovers a curious mystery – a walled garden, the door concealed, the key hidden, locked away by its owner for 10 years because of a tragedy that occurred inside.

Over time, Mary sets herself to finding it and then to reviving it. And in the course of doing so, she revives herself and others as well.

“However many years she lived,” the author mused, “Mary always felt that she should never forget that first morning when her garden began to grow.”

Perhaps, however many years you live, you never forget your first step on another world.

If it had stopped there, maybe the thought would have been enough by itself. After all, it’s something we can all share, even without help from the Kennedy Space Center. Whether that new world is another state, another country, the first morning of being a parent, the last day of being a student – the uncertainty, the excitement, the feeling of starting something new remains.

But the idea took deeper roots still.

At first, Mary wants her garden to stay her secret. Then she slowly widens the circle of those who can come – first to help, then to be helped. In the end, keeping the garden as “hers” becomes less important than sharing its beauty with others.

So few have been within that distant “garden” of rock and dust. Even though most of the world has seen it from afar, the moon remains our world’s secret garden, truly known by only a few – and for years, locked away as surely as any brass key could do.

What good would it do our souls to return? What good to our minds, our hopes, our imaginations, if the miles beyond the sky were to become highways again for us and not just our machines?

What perspective might be gained if more of us were to know the beauty – and to know that that beauty was within our reach, not just an accomplishment of another day and another time, never to be repeated?

I wonder. I really do.

And if I wonder, never having been there – how much more so, perhaps, for one who had seen?

Look at the moon and wink, his family asked. I will. And I’ll continue to keep my own hopes alive that someday we’ll do more than just wink.

You have my envy, Mr. Armstrong. You took the steps beyond the wall, and came to see the roses that lay within.

I only hope, someday, that the key will be found again. And that the wonders of the garden will be open to all who wish to come.

Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Rush

This used to be where the panic would begin.

“Scotty, do you know where the other suitcase is?”

“Hang on, I’m still getting stuff out of the dryer. Did you get that refill called in?”

“Oh, no!”

Christmas chaos, Kansas style.

Now you could say that Heather and I were upholding one of the oldest Christmas traditions of all. I mean, Mary and Joseph not only hit the road for Bethlehem, but they were doing it at a time when everyone else was on the move, too. Throw in highways, cars, and an SUV stuck in the breakdown lane, and you’ve just about got the modern holiday picture.

Of course, our own December odyssey had nothing to do with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Like millions of others, we were heading home – and for seven years, “home” was an eight-and-a-half-hour drive away, from Emporia, Kansas to Longmont.

A lot goes into planning  a drive that long. Especially when you have to account for a dog that has to come with you, a bird that has to stay behind, a wife’s back that has to be accommodated, a dozen medicines that have to go into the bags without forgetting a one ….

What’s that? Presents? We’ll buy those when we hit Longmont. We’re on a schedule, here!

A part of me can still hear this entering the hymn book:

Field and fountain,

Moor and mountain,

Following … oh,crud, did we leave the oven on?

The net result was usually a late arrival in my parents’ driveway, the excitement of the season still in our hearts – somewhere – but the exhaustion of I-70 still in our bodies.  (I’m still not sure how Santa manages 24 hours in a sleigh; his chiropractor must be a rich man indeed.)

Grueling as it was, it had this advantage: you never had any doubts when the Christmas season had arrived. You might be passing through it like Clint Bowyer at Talladega, but those bells had been well and truly jingled by the time you were done.

Now? Now we’ve been back in Colorado for four years. The season comes quieter. Softer. More gradually.

And if in the frenzy, there was a kind of joy, the calm brings with it a touch of peace.

Even in our busiest years, that was always my favorite part of the season – the chance to find a special, even sacred moment, set apart from normal life. “All is calm, all is bright,” as the old song has it.

It’s precious in the midst of chaos. And it’s still valued now. It’s a chance to see the extraordinary behind the ordinary, to keep “normal” from becoming “complacent.”  To not just find the balance, but consciously notice it.

A Kansas pastor of mine once said that peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. It’s when everything is as it should be.

This December, as I look at Heather, at Missy, at all the changes that have come in such a short time, I realize how much is as it should be. And how much more is growing.

And I’m grateful.

There’s still bustle if we truly need it. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of energy as I struggle to wrap the last gift or as we hurtle down the road to my father-in-law’s in Aurora. But the heart of the holiday isn’t in the rush. It never was.

And now, as I think ahead, I’m really looking forward to getting a peace of the action.