On the Roll Again

Missy beamed a 500-watt smile as we strolled through a warm Colorado afternoon. Every neighbor got a wave. Every dog earned an eagerly pointing finger. And every block, the rolling of her wheelchair made its soft song against the pavement.

Rumble, rumble, rumble.

Heather and I don’t break the chair out often. Even with the challenges that our ward Missy has – a developmental disability and cerebral palsy, for the record – she usually gets around pretty well as long as she has someone or something to balance on. But when she’s got a long way to go, then it’s time for us to get rolling. And since Missy just got a brand new chair with great new tires, she’s been more eager than ever to hit the road.

Rumble, rumble, rumble.

Yes, it doesn’t get better than … what was that?

Rumble, rumble, rumble … plink.

I turned around.

A shiny screw looked back at me from the sidewalk.

Now, friends and family have often accused me of having a screw loose. But it’s usually not this literal.  Which meant … 

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” 

Sure enough. The brand new wheelchair had shed a brand new part, a small fastening in the right wheel. An easy fix, and a quick check found everything else still secure. But as we continued the journey, I mentally kicked myself for half a block. 

You see, I thought I had noticed the slightest wobble in that wheel a day or two before. But the major fastenings had all looked good when I tested them, so it seemed like a worry over nothing.

Instead, it became a reminder of the two-part lesson we all get again and again: 

1) Little things matter, and can easily become bigger things. 

2) Trust your intuition – or at least give it a hearing. 

The first part is something that every homeowner learns sooner or later as the First Law of Maintenance. But the second is a little trickier. After all, we live in a world that shouts for our attention constantly, most of the time adding more anxiety than information. To survive, we have to filter – and we don’t always do a great job of it, often picking the stuff that fits the easy answers we’ve already reached. 

But somewhere in the rush we have to pause. To think. And to listen for the things we may have noticed in the background. After all, that’s what good intuition is – unconsciously putting together facts you didn’t know you had to reach a conscious conclusion. 

Is the gut always right? Of course not. Sometimes a worry is just a worry. But we have to step back to be sure. To trust the “wait a moment,” dial down the pressure and take the time to see things clearly.

It’s not easy. But it’s essential. 

And when you get everything screwed down tight, it’s amazing how easily you can get rolling again. 

Just ask Missy. We should be rumbling by any minute now.

Remember to wave.

A Step Into Memory

“This popular game show brought attention to Longmont, Colo. and memories to a local columnist.”

“Ken, what is ‘Jeopardy!’?”

“Correct!”

Like a lot of former reporters, I’m a “Jeopardy!” fan. Journalists have a habit of picking up a lot of odd facts in a wide variety of fields – someone once called it a ‘wastebasket mind’ – so the trivia game with the guess-the-question format has a natural appeal.

So when Longmont resident Stephen Webb began racking up the big bucks on the blue board, I got as excited as anyone. At this writing, he’s been the champ for three straight games, living the dream for all of us armchair trivia buffs.

Including one who really ought to be here watching.

My friend Mark Scheidies had a mind made for “Jeopardy!” That’s not just hyperbole. He made the contestant pool six different times. Had the world been different, he’d probably be trying yet again to become the third Longmonter to win big on the show (following both Webb and previous champion Jennifer Giles).

An accident claimed Mark in 2020. But even without a “Jeopardy!” appearance, he still left behind some indelible memories. As a treasured Longmont Theatre Company actor. As a gentle man with a wry sense of humor.

And, for a few months in 2013, as the “Longmont Street Walker.”

It’s not what it sounds like. (That wry humor again.) In 2013, Mark set out to walk every mile of every street in Longmont. It took him over 1.5 million steps, but he did it, blogging the journey after each new expedition.

In the process he rediscovered the city he’d been living in for 30 years. And reintroduced a lot of us to it as well.

“Even though I’ve driven a street many times, there are still things that I will notice walking that I have never noticed driving,” Mark wrote.

Yes. Yes. A hundred times, yes.

I’m not in Mark’s class as a walker OR a trivia champion. (Our epic battle of Trivial Pursuit never did happen, and I’m probably less humiliated for it.) But in my own lengthy walks across Longmont, I’ve noticed the same thing. Driving gives you tunnel vision. Your mind locks on your destination and (hopefully) the drivers around you, but you don’t really experience much beyond that bubble of thought.

Walking forces you to pay attention.

You learn where every dog in the neighborhood is – or at least what their bark sounds like.

“Where the Sidewalk Ends” is no longer just a Shel Silverstein poem, but an occasional reality. (And a challenging one if you’re also pushing a relative’s wheelchair, but I digress.)

You discover shortcuts. Faces. Interesting sights that get missed at 30 mph but become glaringly obvious at one-tenth that speed.

In short, you learn to see. And that’s a rare skill.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote of the importance of “recovery,” the ability to clean off your mental windows and actually notice things that have become commonplace. It means not just telling yourself “oh, another tree,” so you can put it in its box and move on, but actually seeing the tree as though you had never seen one before: its texture, its color, its life.

Life at walking speed makes a good window-cleaner. No bubble, no isolation – just a world close enough to touch, or at least to notice.

Mark’s blog Is still up at www.longmontstreetwalker.com. The sidewalks await any time. It doesn’t have to be an epic journey. Even a few steps can make a big difference.

And if you plan it right, you’ll even get home in time for “Jeopardy!”

A Failure of Imagination

Once in a while, Missy and I will decide it’s time to roll. Literally.

We don’t break out the wheelchair too often. But when we’re headed for somewhere where the distances are too great or the durations too long to be easily handled by Missy’s uncertain balance, we’ll load her up. Most of the time, it’s great fun for us, especially when I put on bursts of speed or sudden swerves to get her laughing and cheering.

And then, there are the other times.

Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk rises, just a bit. Not enough to be noticed by a pedestrian. But enough to temporarily turn a small wheelchair into a stuck grocery cart, until I lean and lift to pop it over the seam in the pavement.

Sometimes we find a place where the sidewalk runs high and the nearest slope to get on or off is far away.

Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk ends. Not the beginning of a Shel Silverstein land of whimsy and enchantment, but where the sudden appearance of dirt, grass, or broken landscape in mid-block says “Oh, you wanted the other side of the street.”

When it happens, Missy growls. And I fume or sigh and look around.

For a moment, we’re not just anybody else. We’re living in someone else’s world. A someone who didn’t see us coming.

***

Of course, you don’t have to be disabled to have a walk made challenging. Sometimes you just have to be the wrong kind of astronaut.

Most of the country heard about a planned spacewalk a few days ago. It was supposed to be historic, the first NASA walk into the Great Beyond made by two female astronauts.

One of the women had to stay aboard the station instead. Why? Because there was only one medium-sized spacesuit ready for use. And both of them needed it.

Yes, getting to orbit was actually easier than getting out the door.

Funny. For a moment, I thought I heard a Missy growl.

***

In many ways, we’re an amazingly imaginative species. We’ve sent people to the moon, sent data around the world in an instant, brought superheroes and fantastic adventurers to life on the movie screen (even if we can’t always give them decent dialogue). From biology to fashion, we constantly push back the borders on every side.

But in other ways, we can be just as amazingly limited.

Ask a left-hander who’s ever had to use an old-style school desk or a random pair of scissors.

Ask someone who’s 6’4” walking through a building made when the average male height was 5’6”.

Ask the 9-year-old girl last year who found that the basketball shoes she was excited about had labeled all the smaller sizes as “boys.”

I’m sure many of us could add to the list of examples, from the seemingly trivial to the potentially life-threatening. Usually not from active malice, but because “we never thought of that.”

It’s so easy to do. We get used to a type, so much so that we stop seeing it.

And then the assumption gets challenged. And everyone gets to do a double take.

It affects the things we make and the stories we tell (and who gets to be the hero in them). It  affects how we interact with the world, and with each other. It affects whether we even see that there’s an “other” at all.

It’s where imagination meets empathy. And in that place, we not only remember that other people matter, but try to envision what “mattering” means. Beyond our own race, gender, level of ability, or anything else.

We’ll screw up. It’s inevitable. We’re human. But if we’re making the effort to see, to learn, to understand, to put ourselves in the place of another – just maybe our vision wont be so nearsighted, so often.

The more we can do that, the more easily we can all roll along.

Right, Missy?

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.

Just Bust a Lip

Some people have the moves like Jagger. Somehow, I wound up with the upper lip instead.

OK, not “somehow.” After all, I do live in a slapstick movie that Chevy Chase would envy and Mel Brooks would direct. Part of that privilege is that I can see exactly what’s about to happen – just in time for it to do me absolutely no good.

It’s how I’ve wound up stepping off a perfectly good stage. Or finding sewing needles with my bare feet. Or chasing a barfing dog around the bedroom, running into every conceivable obstacle on the way. (Oh, you’ve heard that one?)

And in this case, it’s how tripping on one broken piece of sidewalk turned a healthy walk to work into “OWWWW!”

I got lucky as I caromed off the concrete. No broken teeth, no broken nose. That seems to be part of the deal with my invisible producer: no lasting injuries that would kill off the chance of a sequel. Short of that, anything goes.

And in this case, “anything” was my swollen upper lip, to the tune of three stitches and enough blood for a Friday the 13th film.

Fun, huh?

Educational, too. For the past week, in fact, it’s been a constant tutorial in the Iron Law of the Universe: “You can never do just one thing.” Consequences snowball, whether it’s the Amazon butterfly raising a typhoon or the casual dinner remark sinking a political career.

In this case, my failure to pay attention to what my feet were doing didn’t just win me a Rolling Stones look-alike contest. It also guaranteed:

 

* That I would be unable to be understood by voice-message trees for at least two days. (“I’m sorry. I didn’t get that. Please try again …”)

* That drinking a glass of water would be on a difficulty level with competing in the Hunger Games.

* That drinking anything ice-cold would trigger expressions best not read in a family newspaper.

* That whistling would not be an annoyance to my co-workers for a while.

* That, contrary to “Casablanca,” a kiss isn’t just a kiss when your pucker feels like it’s hit a porcupine.

* That any kind of lengthy out-loud reading – longer than a page or two – was out of the question for the immediate future.

 

In a way, that last one hit the hardest. Reading is what I do. What I have done since the age of two and a half. Combine a love of books with a love of performing and the result is that I have read to and with anyone willing to listen for years: my dad, my sisters, my grandma, my wife Heather, our ward Missy, the dogs …

These days, it’s the vital bedtime ritual. Before the lights go down and the house goes quiet, I sit on the edge of Missy’s bed and read, a journey of the mind that has roamed from Missouri to Middle-Earth and from secret gardens to open warfare.

But when the stinging of your lip says “stop” after two pages, Hogwarts can take a little longer to visit than planned.

Well, lesson learned. And maybe even a small blessing with it. It only takes a few days of doing without something to discover what your real priorities are – what’s an inconvenience and what’s an essential. Being in a position to recognize that and to make adjustments later is no tiny thing.

It’s better still, of course, to be paying enough attention before a crisis hits. Especially when it’s often inattention that creates the crisis in the first place. Think, plan, imagine, observe. Act, however you need to, even if you don’t think you need to right now.

It may all seem terribly abstract.

But it’s amazing how fast it becomes concrete.

Free Period

Leave it to Margaret Thatcher to throw two worlds into a tizzy on her death.

Certain things happen when a famous person dies, and the former British prime minister was no exception. Long-prepared obituaries were hurried into print; long-readied speeches were given and commented on.

And in the universe of Twitter, the 140-character announcements flew around the world. One chosen “hashtag” got to the point, labeling the announcement “Now Thatcher is Dead.” Or, in Twitterese, #nowthatcherisdead.

All at once, the British found entertainment fans in mourning with them. You see, spaced differently, the post could also be read: Now That Cher is Dead.

What a difference one period makes.

Cher isn’t dead, of course. (At least, not so anyone can tell.) And the error, I suppose, can pass into the history of great publishing errors, along with the misprinted Bible that declared “Thou shalt commit adultery,” or the dictionary that accidentally coined the word “Dord” for density, when it meant that density could be abbreviated as “D or d.”

But I think the tale of Cher’s fictional demise actually points to something important. Pauses mean something. However small.

I get reminded of that a lot with Missy.

Missy, for those of you who joined us late, is my wife’s young aunt, a developmentally disabled adult whom we began caring for two years ago. In that time, Heather and I have done a lot of things with her: a regular reading night, an occasional art night, trips to the bowling alley and the softball diamond, moments of listening to music at Missy-volume (i.e, loud enough to stun passing blue jays).

But there have also been plenty of days and nights when the agenda included – well, nothing in particular. When Missy simply sat in the window watching the world go by, or rocked in an armchair with her mind wandering, her hands absently busy with a puzzle ball.

A precious emptiness of time. Silent, and blessed.

Other reminders come now that I’ve started walking more again. When you’re walking just for the sake of walking, there’s not a lot to do but concentrate on the act itself and the surrounding neighborhood. (Well, there’s the iPod or smart phone option, but that way can lie traffic accidents and dates with open manholes.) Areas that had flickered by at 30 miles per hour now acquire texture and detail and barking dogs; a mind busy with a hundred frantic details has a chance to slow down and become aware of its contents – or maybe just to settle to peace and be.

We don’t do that a lot these days. If we ever did.

The idea’s there, of course. Most major faiths teach the value of a day set aside for rest, or of time set apart for contemplation and meditation. More secular minds have noted the value of quiet in terms of their own, whether in noting the health problems that arise from too little sleep, or the economic value of vacation days and sick time in keeping an employee sharp and ready.

And yet, we continue to fill and fill and fill, as though laziness would send us to the principal’s office. Even our vacations are sometimes constant activity, a need to experience everything, lest something unique get away. (And that’s leaving aside the folks who bring their cell phones with them, of course.)

There’s nothing wrong with doing. There can be plenty that’s wonderful in discovering new things, or creating new accomplishments. I’m not arguing otherwise. But a life without pause, like sentences without a period, can run into chaos and confusion.

Even fields need to lie fallow for a while, to recover their strength.

It’s a hard habit to acquire. Frustrating, even, at times. Sitting back and watching Missy watch the world, it’s easy to think at first of the things I could be doing. And then, all at once, I realize 30 minutes has gone by, the things are still there – and both of us feel pretty good.

Maybe the old ad company hit on something when they talked about “the pause that refreshes.”

Take a moment to think about it. Take several. That’s what they’re there for.

If you like the idea, if you find it helps, pass it along. Take some time to share.

Just … don’t take the time to Cher instead.

The poor woman’s suffered enough as it is.