The Bread-Making Method of Bringing Up Kids



AT   OUR HOUSE WE ONCE called the dinner hour The Witching Hour — a time so bedeviled that my husband often took a deep breath before opening the backdoor by the kitchen after a long day at the office.

This hour gets easier and easier as our three grade school-age sons grow up.

But when a baby and two preschoolers lived under this roof with us, daddy would stroll in at 5:30 and forget to take off his backpack as I squawked over my shoulder while stirring bubbling soup.

I needed him first to change a diaper, then to wipe a nose, and along the way to mop up spilled applesauce, spaghetti sauce, milk, and all the other gross stuff fermenting on the table and tile floor.

“Why are you so grouchy?” he would say.  

At this point I wanted to toss my apron in the air and holler: “WHY ARE YOU SO DENSE?”

How ironic, then, that I got therapy at the stove instead of away from it.

There, as I practiced cooking and baking during quieter hours, I began to see something beyond food in the pans.

The rims of my black cast iron skillets transformed to portals into the meaning of all things.

And no, I was not smoking dope here in Colorado when this happened.

I was thinking more about cooking methods that make sense in the moment and applying them to parenting.

No brilliance here, really. Just connecting more dots.

For instance, I know something simple, but true, about cooking oil.

Sizzling oil tells me it needs to get busy to get better. It needs a dollop of pancake batter or a handful of chopped onions to keep the fire alarm from sounding off and to do its part in getting dinner on the table and into hungry tummies.

So it goes with my sometimes hyper boys.

But the best model is the bread-making method of bringing up kids.

Of all the points of this process to ponder, the first one to mention must be “microclimate.”

I may make great bread here in Erie at about a hundred feet shy of mile high.

But the same recipe might frustrate someone baking at an even slightly different elevation or humidity.

The trick is recognizing the impact of microclimates on bread and on family life and tinkering for quality improvements.

To do this without wasting ingredients, I read information published by the Colorado State University Extension office on how to make high-altitude adjustments to recipes written and tested at sea level.

But this, like so many parenting books, is just a guide.

Success comes from understanding the proven chemistry of bread making, particularly at altitude, and then practicing bread making enough in your own microclimate to develop the touch, the art part.

These days, I know how to knead dough enough for it to become elastic, but not tough.

I also know that if I leave it alone too long, it will rise into a beautiful, air pocket-filled bread with a high dome only to collapse with a crater in the center.

Lastly, I can hurry along rise time in yeast breads by placing loaves in toasty places — say, an 80-degree oven with a cake pan of boiling water on the lower rack.

But slow rising loaves develop more stable structure than the quick risers.

Ultimately, all this practice may convert my breadmaking and perhaps my parenting into something closer to perfect.

But who needs perfection when the whole house smells heavenly –even during The Witching Hour — before the bread is fully baked.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Patty’s Porch Light Shines on Over America

Patty Wetterling is consoled by son Trevor during a news conference after a hearing for Danny Heinrich on Sept. 6 in Minneapolis. Heinrich confessed to abducting and killing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling nearly 27 years ago, recounting a crime that long haunted the state with details that included Jacob asking right after he was taken: "What did I do wrong?" (Jerry Holt / Star Tribune)

Patty Wetterling is consoled by son Trevor during a news conference after a hearing for Danny Heinrich on Sept. 6 in Minneapolis. Heinrich confessed to abducting and killing 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling nearly 27 years ago, recounting a crime that long haunted the state with details that included Jacob asking right after he was taken: “What did I do wrong?” (Jerry Holt / Star Tribune)

USUALLY, I WRITE STORIES ON our kitchen table — the one so rickety that milk spills from the kids’ cups if you bump it and causes everyone else to eye it with contempt as campfire kindling.

It came from Grandma and Grandpa Mellskog’s home and symbolizes for me the bravery, hope, and hard work they flexed to make it in this country as Swedish immigrants.

It is a “can do” kinda table, and I can’t part with it.

But recent news of a man confessing to crimes carried out against an 11-year-old boy in Minnesota nearly 27 years ago drove me upstairs to write instead where my three boys sleep.

I am sitting with a pillow between my back and the wall by Andy and Ray’s open bedroom window. Nearby, a stuffed Spider-Man slumps in a desk chair, and a white cardboard box holds a jumble of electric train track sections.

How many times did Jacob Wetterling’s mother sit as I am in her boy’s forever empty room?

A masked man abducted her son on Oct. 22, 1989, as he biked home from renting a video at a Tom Thumb convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn., with his younger brother and his best friend.

Images of 200 National Guardsmen vainly combing the fields and woods for Jacob near the family’s rural home about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis, where I lived at the time, stick with me.

But mostly I remember the boy’s class picture — one of him smiling in a canary yellow cable knit sweater — because he literally became the poster child for all missing children.

As time went by, the Wetterling family through the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center founded in 1990 to promote child safety distributed the poster with that color photo next to an age progression adjusted color image of their boy as a man.

Jacob Wetterling (Associated Press)

Jacob Wetterling (Associated Press)

They also turned on their porch light every night as a symbolic gesture of their hope for his safe homecoming.

“…For us, Jacob was alive until we found him,” Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, told reporters after she and her family attended Danny Heinrich’s Sept. 6 plea hearing.

There, the killer confessed details of his crime in federal court as part of a plea bargain related to his arrest last year on federal child pornography charges.

She now knows that the masked man held a snub-nosed .38 Smith & Wesson Special to abduct Jacob.

She knows her son asked, “What did I do wrong?” as Heinrich, now 53, handcuffed and stuffed him in a car before driving about 30 miles southwest of St. Joseph to molest him near a deserted gravel pit on Hwy. 23 near Paynesville, Minn.  

He shot the boy within about an hour of abducting him and on Sept. 1 led investigators to the grave to prove it as part of the deal that protects him from prosecution in the Wetterling case.

Knowing this caused me to think more deeply about the hope Patty Wetterling first held out at 39 until this month, when she, as a 66-year-old grandmother, learned the truth.

Are all those years of hoping worthless or, worse, foolish to the Wetterlings now?

Well, here is what we know.

We know that it was hope — not fear or dismay or blind loathing — that inspired Patty Wetterling to lobby for The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act.

Enacted in 1994, the federal legislation requires all states to keep a registry of those convicted of sexually violent offenses or offenses against children. States also must verify the addresses of sex offenders annually for at least 10 years. Offenders classified as sexually violent predators must verify their addresses for life.

Patty Wetterling’s porch light shines over America in this way. And though Jacob never again walked through their front door, her message of hope and advocacy on behalf of missing children reached around the world.

Thousands posted photos of their porch lights on Facebook in support of the Wetterlings when the case closed.

Meanwhile, shopkeepers along the main drag in St. Joseph responded with more hope, not less, through sidewalk sandwich board messages.

One read, “If light is in your heart you will always find a way home.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Love Without Labor

IMG_2536 (1)

WHEN RAY’S BEST FRIEND IN first grade came over for a backyard cookout last weekend, she presented a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses from her family and a heart full of wedding plans.

Gracie reminded her mother several times that week to send a wedding invitation to our youngest son, her groom, and to uninvite her dad whenever she felt mad at him.

It’s not like her affections caught Ray, 6, off guard.

Their friendship goes way back to preschool. They eat lunch at the school cafeteria side-by-side every day and act like a couple, even without matching rings.

But Ray, like his father, could not give a rat’s rear end about wedding plans.

Our boy refused even to hold the bouquet with her for a 10-second snapshot and instead called Gracie, also 6, to join him at the hole beside the garage that he and his brothers have been digging all summer.

The dynamic felt so familiar.

My husband hoped I would go four-wheeling with him in the mountains on our wedding day and resented the long to-do list I handed him instead. Sure, he wanted to get married and celebrate that through a religious ceremony and festive reception with friends and family.

Honestly, though, I suspect only his anticipation of the honeymoon kept him from jilting me at the altar given the onslaught of directions about multi-tiered cakes, boutonnieres, and folding programs.

David feels Ray’s pain, even in the context of a play date wedding. So, I know what Gracie is up against here.

It is in the genes.

This precious girl nevertheless is fond of our boy in the most innocent ways. He is quite fond of her, too.

And as I watched them play together, it blessed me so to see Gracie’s love rollout without labor — to see the ease with which this very chatty, vivacious girl on the autism spectrum delights in our son’s company.

That moment bounced me back to Ray’s birthday at Longmont United Hospital in December 2009. In the wee hours immediately following his birth and tentative diagnosis with Down syndrome, I entertained surreal thoughts about the future of this boy with the extra chromosome.

For instance, I wondered if he ever would wear a tuxedo — something silly that I now think symbolized the formality of adult traditions, such as getting married.

Ray cannot talk much yet due to his speech delay. As he ages, other developmental delays will cause him to fall further and further behind his peers academically as they navigate the world in increasingly complex ways.

But six years into our life together, I now know something that Gracie and Ray’s fast friendship exemplifies — that actions do speak louder than words and that our presence, not just our performance dripping with sweat equity, provides the invaluable.

Happy Labor Day!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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The Summer Catching His Breath Became Cool   


DURING A LEISURELY SUNSET WALK with my son earlier this week, Carl kicked off his red Crocs to sprint what he figured to be 100 meters barefooted.

Then, just before the sidewalk’s straightaway curved east, he lifted his arms and dropped his speed to finish the dash with a victor’s smile.

As he huffed and puffed to catch his breath, I caught up to him thankful for the fairy dust the Olympians in Rio scattered to the ends of the Earth.

Because of them and the hours was as a family spent on the couch watching their televised competitions, Carl, 10, now appreciates the concept of sweat equity a bit more tangibly.

This is the summer that catching his breath — just like the elite athletes in oxygen debt — became cool.

Organizers in the sports world want to tap that enthusiasm by connecting kids, some of whom could become future Olympians, to local training centers via

The very best in the world began this way. They found their athletic talent and built their skills out of public view as children or youth — even Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the sprinter who earned his seventh Olympic gold medal running the men’s 100-meter final in 9.81 seconds.

He left the starting block in that race second to last, but kept his head the whole time.

“I just said (to myself), ‘Take your time, and chip away,’” Bolt told reporters afterward.

He got faster by the second, and Carl watched him go, go, go — something ironically more impressive in slow motion because my boy could see the athlete’s tremendous give to that goal.

Now, Carl likes to ape “the Bolt” — a pose the track star does after winning races by pulling his right arm back like an archer and straightening his left arm to point upwards as a stylized lightning bolt.

We mean to call Kemarly,  Carl’s Jamaican friend who attends another school this year, to congratulate him on his countryman’s Olympic successes and swap impressions of the man’s races at Rio.

But for all the spectacular photo finishes and the timers that can slice a second more exquisitely than any of us can measure beyond the blink of an eye, one athlete’s discouragement made just as much of an impression on me.

Allyson Felix of Team USA won a silver medal in the women’s 400-meter race after Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dived across the finish line for the gold medal.

Only 0.07 seconds separated them.

Felix spent the next 20 minutes catching her breath and processing the controversial defeat by lying on the track on her back with an elbow slung over her forehead.

As they waited to interview her, NBC commentators shared more background about Felix — the world champion of that race and the most decorated U.S. female track athlete of all time with seven Olympic medals then, four of them gold.

When the disheartened athlete rose from the track to talk with the interviewer, she delivered lines I hold tightly in spite of her disappointment:

“It was tough,” she said. “I was trying to dig deep and find another gear.”

The fluke at the finish line — Miller’s dive that caused her chest to cross the line first — make it seem like Felix failed to find that gear.

In reality, the strategy served her so well.

She surged on the final stretch and caught Miller neck-and-neck, and that success translates to every hard race the rest of us face.

At work or school. In marriages and families. In the midst of addiction recovery or a jail sentence. After a cancer or HIV diagnosis.

That’s why we need the Olympics every four years, not only to show kids like Carl and adults like me the will to win, but to show us the will to try.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Boy mystery No. 547: Why dig holes to China?


BEFORE ANYONE CALLS SOCIAL SERVICES, I need to explain why my youngest son upon occasion stands in a deep hole in our backyard with an upturned tomato cage over his head.
Please note that Ray, 6, views the wire structure above him as some sort of spaceship nose capsule, not as cruel entrapment. He clearly feels as proud of his spot as an astronaut must feel before blasting off to the moon.
We know this because as soon as both of his older brothers — Carl, 10, and Andy, 8 — lean on their shovels during our backyard dig, Ray scrambles with Chinese fire drill haste into the hole. Then, he helps them fit the tomato cage on its rim before squealing as they applaud.
This drill could provide all of us with endless cheap entertainment this summer if the boys stopped digging.
Instead, they dig every day, and their buddies hop in the hole to help out during visits.
Their friend, Jack — the boy who lives on the other side of the fence from the hole — monitors progress from his little sister’s room when he is grounded or supposed to be spending an hour of quiet time in his room.
We wonder sometimes if he worries about all three of them popping up in his yard, resurfacing with Alcatraz-level jailbreak euphoria.
Jack would not want to miss this — especially since he, too, has spent time digging in the hole.
If you are a boy between the ages of about 3 and 12, you understand the intrigue of this pastime in ways that a mother approaching 50 cannot.
Until this summer, I considered the hole between our garage and the fence a fad — something my husband and I would backfill during our abundance of spare time.
Seriously, though, how could something so boring and labor intensive hold a boy’s interest for so long?
Now that I have read aloud to my kids 26 of the 50 chapters in Louis Sachar’s book, “Holes” (Frances Foster books), the question seems even more reasonable.
The fictitious story features a boy convicted of shoe theft and sent for 18 months to Camp Green Lake — a dried-up Texas lake where each boy does hard time by digging a hole 5-feet wide by 5-feet deep every day in blazing heat.
Our boys launched their voluntary backyard hole dig months before we opened the book, a John Newbery Medal winner.
So, the story has failed so far to stigmatize digging holes, especially after the main character unearthed a monogrammed gold lipstick tube the warden treasured for reasons yet unknown.
The other homespun fun my sons pursue makes sense to me.
Most recently, that list includes filling the tub to put the plastic Navy destroyer out to sea; burying each other on hot days with wet sand in the sandbox; tying twine ropes on the banister to climb upstairs, Indiana Jones’ style; and sleeping in their Halloween costumes.
What a relief that my husband, David, understands something more about them. The kids recently ratted him out — told me that he dug a starter hole for each of them, though they quickly pooled resources to make more spectacular progress on one.
These days, that hole could swallow both Ray and the tomato cage without a trace.
But as it gets deeper and wider, the boys have given me more hints in understanding their hole digging habit, more hints in understanding the importance –even to young boys — of flexing their muscles to dig to China or some place else.
“One reason that I dig holes is so I can grow up to be a strong man,” Andy said.
Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.


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A Rose Quartz for Keeps


ANTHONY SEEMED LESS BUFFETED BY the hardscrabble lot facing him and the company he kept — about a hundred hungry homeless men and women streaming past the food laden banquet tables at our church in late January.

Above his turtleneck sweater, a snowbird-like tan.

Wavy salt-and-pepper hair, neatly combed.

A clean-shaven face and trimmed fingernails.

Something genteel in his interactions with us.

I could picture him in a suit and tie nimbly climbing a ladder somewhere in corporate America.

Instead, he sat cross-legged on the floor, like everyone else, to eat his dinner on a paper plate with a plastic fork beside blankets piled there for the temporary overnight shelter operated by Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow.

My curiosity about this man deepened when he returned to thank those of us behind the banquet tables for serving dinner and to press a chunk of rose quartz into my palm when I put down the salad tongs.

“Don’t give it away,” he said, smiling.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with passing along things you cannot use or do not appreciate.

“Bless someone else with them,” my mother-in-law often quips when she visits from Michigan and sees my unsorted packrat stashes.

But this interaction with Anthony haunts me still.

Perhaps too many people for too long considered his tangible and even intangible gifts as worthless.

Maybe he started feeling cheap and easily cast off, too.

As we in the Christian community move through the season of Lent — a 40-day stretch before Easter– we reflect on the time Christ spent in a wilderness facing temptations.

A wilderness.

For me, it has taken a wilderness experience — this Lenten season of wandering and wondering — to recognize the temptation of getting good at what I have to offer at the expense of getting good at appreciating what you have to offer.

When weatherbeaten folks schlep into our church in their boots and backpacks, we step into our strengths to welcome these hometown travellers with food and water, shelter and good cheer.

One man hollered into the kitchen after that dinner to ask if he could take one of our stuffed snowman table decorations.

You bet!

But how would these interactions change if I arrived to serve dinner more fully aware of my own dead ends — the places where I feel or have felt stuck and unhappy and in need of help?

What if I arrived believing that someone living at rock-bottom has something to offer that I can’t get from people living someplace else?

What if I accepted the 1.4-ounce rose quartz from Anthony for keeps?

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Why “Bad” Boys Need Our Good Faith


Joe Walsh, right, performs with Timothy B. Schmidt, Don Henley and Glenn Frey in Denver in August 2001.  (Mark Leffingwell / staff photographer)

MR. BRADY BROKE THE STATUS quo for eighth grade English teachers everywhere by zinging chalkboard erasers at students when they ticked him off and by playing “Hotel California” as a case study along with the classics during our poetry unit.

It only helped that he wore a black leather jacket and later rode a 1974 Harley-Davidson.

For all these reasons, he caught and kept my attention during the 1979/1980 school year, even though I never before had heard the namesake title track of the 1976 album by The Eagles.

My mother, like many other local mothers during that era, tuned our kitchen radio to KIWI (pronounced “kee wee”) FM 105 — the elevator music station broadcast from Dubuque, Ia., the city across the Mississippi River from my hometown of Galena, Ill.

But once I heard The Eagles on the cassette tape Mr. Brady rewound many times as we studied the song’s imagery, I never forgot the band.

I began listening closely again to this exquisitely crafted music after the death in mid January of Glenn Frey — singer, songwriter and Eagles co-founder.

Ask my husband.

He is six years younger than me and claims that he got stuck listening to Lawrence Welk-style music on the “easy listening” Christian radio station playing in his family’s Grand Rapids, Mich., kitchen.

So, I have justified playing Eagles music pretty much nonstop in recent weeks to give him an immersion experience and to give us more cultural common ground.

Somewhere during this reverie, I wondered what happened to the surviving Eagles, particularly to my favorite Eagle — Joe Walsh, a guitarist, vocalist, and keyboardist.

His sense of humor and musical chops — his commitment to “10,000 hours” of practicing to rock star excellence — inspire me in my grunt work at a quiet keyboard.

But Walsh’s multiple Grammy Awards and platinum records sort of pale next to his successful bid in 1994 to kick decades-long vodka and cocaine addictions.

Bandmates Frey and Don Henley apparently encouraged him to get sober the year before as they moved to reunite the Eagles to tour after a 13-year hiatus.

Since then, Walsh has stayed on the wagon and used his celebrity to educate around addiction and to share how he sees it now.

“As the disease progresses … it convinces you that you can’t do anything without (alcohol or drugs), and really you give all your power away,” Walsh, 68, told The Washington Post in October before headlining a Unite to Face Addiction rally at the Washington Monument.

He has spent the last two decades rebuilding his confidence to write music, perform and be present for his family without being under the influence.

“My message is there is life after addiction, and it’s really good,” he said, alluding to his 1978 solo hit, “Life’s Been Good.”

“If I had known, I’d have stopped earlier” he continued.

Such statements emphasize why so-called bad boys — whatever their age or stage of life — need our good faith before, during and after hazy times.

I still can’t decipher much meaning from the cryptic poetry in “Hotel California.”  Mr. Brady suggested three different interpretations for the last verse alone.

But the song now reminds me that, regardless of what the “night man” might say, you can checkout of strange hotels, you can leave, and you can head home.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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When Love Means Letting the Bear Sing

IMG_9898-smWHEN THE BATTERIES FINALLY DRAINED, the teddy bear’s mouth gaped like a fish in death throes on the beach.

The bear’s original spirited recording of Toby Keith’s hit, “I’m Proud to be an American,” played out now as if the singer had nodded off in the recording studio sipping whiskey.

But that powering down sound sounded so good to us — at least to four of us in our five-member family — as we listened to what we hoped would be the bear’s swan song while we lounged in our jammies around the livingroom’s gas fireplace before hustling off to church last Sunday morning.

For at least a week we had put up with our youngest family member, Ray, 6, compulsively pressing the paw of the little bear dressed in desert fatigues to start the song.

I appreciated the music as patriotic until it rubbed my eardrums raw. Then, I cringed at the opening measures and blacklisted it forever as jingoistic drivel.

This story nevertheless is a love story — one that Hallmark card writers forgo in their Valentine’s Day lines because it highlights how love means putting up with people and honestly wondering more about how they surely put up with you, too.

So, the story went at our house a week ago, except that we were barely putting up with this bear and his boy.

Most of us unwittingly had memorized the lyrics of the first verse and chorus embedded in the bear’s sound chip. And we applauded Ray for singing another word in the lyrics after another dozen times through the song  — a feat for a boy slow to talk due to Down syndrome: “If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my LIFE, and I had to start again with just my children and my WIFE. I’d thank my lucky STARS to be living here toDAY, ‘cause the flag still stands for FREEdom, and they can’t take that aWAAAAAY…”

Sometimes, Ray would dance around the kitchen with the singing bear. Other times, he would rock the bear in his arms as if it were a newborn. Occasionally, he hauled the bear around in a fireman’s rescue carry.

His life became very quickly bear-centric, and so did ours, and we did not like it.

Eventually, we got so sick of this, that my two older boys — Carl, 9, and Andy, 8 —  devolved with me into the moral equivalent of Gollum, the craven character with pointy teeth, stringy hair, and pale skin in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series and “The Hobbit.”

Carl hid the bear in a livingroom corner where two bookshelves meet so that Ray could see it and touch it for comfort without being able to retrieve it for yet another paw squeeze.

“Mom, it’s like that story about the monkey who reaches in for a banana, but can’t get his hand out without letting it go,” he explained.

Andy stuffed the bear upside down in a corner behind his dresser.

I forced the bear to sit like a hillbilly on a haywagon with his legs dangling off the kitchen counter during meals and eventually hid him on top of the fridge.

But our boy with lots of bear love somehow knew this and frantically would point up, which made us all feel guilty, indeed, for not indulging him in such a simple pleasure.

Still, we kept the bear up there in the peanut gallery for long stretches to spare ourselves aggravation.

Inevitably, we found Ray the day before the batteries fizzled slouching alone on the top step of the stairs with his hands folded in his lap as he quietly became undone.

His IQ may be on the lower end of the spectrum, but his emotional quotient is genius.

Ray felt all of our bear burnout and subsequent meanness, and he took it personally.

The corners of his mouth turned down into a deeply etched frown before a single, Skittle-sized tear rolled out of his right eye.

My husband cracked then, told Ray that he would fetch the bear from its perch, and that Ray could squeeze the bear’s paw with abandon — but only in his room with the door closed.

By Sunday morning, the bear was in danger of being just another stuffed animal in Ray’s collection — not the one whose mouth moved when he sang his special song.

And it would have been very easy for us to justify the malfunction to Ray with two words that he absolutely understands: “Dead battery.”

The boy might buy that, and let it go.

But no.

My valentine, my husband of nearly 13 years, quietly slipped away then and returned within a few minutes to hand the bear over to Ray as good as new– energized.

This whole family drama wakes up a truth about me and perhaps about most of us most of the time.

So much of what we do is predicated upon us playing our favorite songs, not someone else’s.

But because of Ray’s age and developmental stage, which will always be delayed, he rarely gets to deejay.

So, the bear breakdown prompts me to wonder more about what of mine he would put on top of the fridge if he could?

And if he could, would he?

May be this small story is about big love, about letting the bear sing and letting the boy dance and letting yourself enjoy someone else’s song exactly because it is all theirs.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Unpacking the ‘N’ Word

During a birthday party for our middle son, Andy, 8, in early January, he opened this card from a shy classmate. The childish scrawl reminds me that the even the very young appreciate being on equal footing and help getting there.

During a birthday party for our middle son, Andy, 8, in early January, he opened this card from a shy classmate. The childish scrawl reminds me that the even the very young appreciate being on equal footing and help getting there.

WHEN THE WORD, “NIGGER,” ROLLED off Carl’s tongue in midsentence at the dinner table, my husband and I put down our forks and gave him a hard look.

Our boy, a 9-year-old fourth grader, had been reading about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. when he came across the curse, the word used more than a half-century ago and still today by some to express superiority and contempt toward blacks.

Conversations like this with kids can go lots of places, but ours that night went to Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955 — the day the Montgomery police arrested Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American seamstress, for not giving up her seat to a white man on a crowded public bus.

We explained that for about a year after that, black people in that city stopped buying bus tickets from white people with the “N” word likely in their vocabulary.

They were sick of paying the driver and then stepping down to enter the bus through a rear door for a seat in the back; sick of not getting a stop at every corner in black neighborhoods as was the custom in white neighborhoods; and sick of standing in packed buses over empty seats reserved for whites.

Some protesters participated in a complicated carpool system to get to work that involved about 300 privately owned vehicles.

But most black workers — an army of housekeepers and janitors, cooks and maids — still walked miles to and from work no matter bad weather or fatigue.

My little family and I, we together wondered more about these walkers who wanted seats on a first come, first serve basis so badly.

They got that on Nov. 15, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation laws unconstitutional.

Even still, all our talk about buses earlier this month brought up a specter of Jim Crow that I witnessed on a long bus ride I took with some black folks in 1997.

I lived in Minneapolis then and attended a United Methodist church in a black neighborhood. That summer, I volunteered as a leader with the high school youth group during a camping trip to the Collegiate Peaks area outside of Buena Vista.

After travelling about a thousand miles from the Twin Cities with only quick gas station stops, we reached Denver and pulled into a Pizza Hut for a late dinner.

The kids were hungry and excited about the pizza party before roughing it in the mountains. But our driver — a soft spoken black friend of mine named Jon — walked away from the white manager at the counter and boarded our bus full of kids tucking in their shirts to deliver disappointing news.

The manager wouldn’t seat us, even though from the dark parking lot we observed nary a customer on the other side of the windows in the brightly lit restaurant.

The posted closing time was minutes away, but the restaurant officially still was open.

So, my white friend, Scott, then hopped off the bus and strode into the restaurant to inquire again with the manager about serving our group.

As I watched him push through the glass door, I felt anxious about the whole situation — embarrassed at the manager’s refusal to seat us when Jon asked and indignant that Scott should need to ask again.

At this point, a “yes” to Scott felt as bad as the “no” to Jon. It seemed liked the best thing to do would be to move on, something I suspect black people in certain parts of this country grit their teeth and still do to avoid dust-ups.

Yet, I respected Scott, a co-driver on the bus, for leaving his seat behind Jon to protest something that seemed unfair.

Decades after the bus boycott in Alabama that we discussed with Carl over dinner, MLK’s legacy still has feet, still has people walking in the spirit of his unfinished peace and justice movement to level the field for all.

And this movement’s message of equality and cooperation trickles down to the playgrounds as one still relevant, appreciated and needed.

After our middle son’s 8th birthday party last week, I read a handwritten card from a very shy classmate that sums that up: “Dear Andy, you are my best friend because you help me when I fall on the ground.”

Thank you, MLK, for leading us this way.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-746-0942 or at

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All Ears in the New Year

IMG_9801-smAS THE BLACK MAN IN the tweed newsboy cap shopped in the one-room video rental store, my Dad whispered to ask if I recognized him.

A drought during the summer of 1988 forced everyone to crank up their air conditioners, and one hummed in the window as I glanced at the man.


I couldn’t place him until a minute later when he paid the clerk and left the counter with a  “thank you.”

Celebrity glitter sparkled in the short space between us then.

The man’s voice made an unmistakable vocal fingerprint in the air for how it resonated through just two words.

It was James Earl Jones — better known as Darth Vader’s voice — in our small town to play Terrance Mann during the filming of “Field of Dreams” in nearby Dyersville, Iowa.

Crossing paths with Jones and the “wow” power of his voice came to mind this week as I sat in a Grand Rapids, Mich., theater with my husband, brother and sister-in-law to watch “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Vader’s grandson, Kylo Ren, shows up on screen in similar black garb and a black samurai helmet.

But instead of Vader’s quirky communication aura — heavy breathing through an apparatus like that of a ventilated patient coupled with Jones’ commanding speech — we hear something very different in Kylo Ren.

We hear distant, robotic-like dispatches through his mouthpiece until the mask comes off during the movie’s climax, during a tense scene between Kylo Ren and Han Solo on a bridge.

His voice shorts out there. It glitches between the computer generated sound quality and that of a very confused, volatile person.

Such vocal cues, along with the dreamy soundtrack, tell the Star Wars story on a mysterious level — a more difficult level to access that keeps me coming back much more than the visual special effects or the script twists.

Surely the Dolby Surround Sound directs audience attention to the audible texture of these films, the layering of memorable voices, sound effects, and orchestral music.

But ordinary life outside of the theater comes with the same opportunity to understand more deeply the universal themes presented on our natural sound stage through the voices of the characters in our life.

To this end, is the soundtrack around each of us ever just “incidental” music?

Only seven minutes of the 102-minute score by John Williams, Star Wars’ original composer/conductor, refers to musical themes in earlier movies. Instead, the fresh score for the 90-member orchestra gives us moviegoers another chance to appreciate this story as not only couched in musical feeling and mood, but shaped by that.

For instance, Williams interprets the music around Rey — the scavenger girl-tured-“she-ro” — through instrumentation with delicate celeste chimes, flute, and piano.

What would the music in your life sound like? Who hears it, and what does it mean?

Ordinary life invites each of us to listen more closely to all that encircles, enriches, and dramatizes our story — to listen to the score composed daily by the people, places, and things that speak into our moments.

About four years ago, as I pushed my three boys on an empty wire cart from the parking lot corral to the grocery store, an older woman returning to her car stopped as a we passed.

The kids all stood with their feet on the cart’s lower rack and gripped its rim like three little monkeys.

As it rattled across the rough concrete, they laughed and shouted for me to push it faster.

The bemused woman then said something that left as much of a vocal fingerprint as James Earl Jones saying “thank you” at the video store in my hometown.

“Someday,” she said. “Someday, they will be pushing you.”

Happy New Year!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.

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