I have a friend named Nicole who is 11 months old and who took the first unassisted step in her life last week.
She hung tentatively to the tiniest edge of a coffee table, one small finger alternately touching and releasing the corner, and then, with a courage we can only imagine, she walked.
It was not a long journey by the standard of miles she must tread during the years of her life, only a few unsteady steps across the golden tile. But, oh, what a distance.
When she reached the window box that was her ultimate destination, she turned and flashed a smile as sweet as the first sunrise, holding it with an instinctive pride that wanted this moment never to be forgotten.
I admit to a total lack of neutrality toward this dark-eyed girl, who has entered my life with such light and warmth, and regard with special consideration whatever milestone she achieves on her journey from the cradle.
A step has special significance.
First words are less obvious to define, since babies seem to leap from the womb shouting mama and dada, and mothers are always prone to believe that nagobodoodimyma means "Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared."
In Nicole's case, that's probably true, but since she is no doubt saying it in Latin, I can't be sure.
A first step is a more obvious triumph, a visual motion toward the years ahead, a symbolic leap from the starting blocks, arms pumping, energy burning.
The image of that beautiful child standing proudly at her destination stayed with me throughout the day, and that night I tried to imagine where the first step might ultimately take my sunshiny Nicole.
It was after midnight and everyone was asleep.
I sat at my desk in a quiet house and shuffled through stories I had clipped from newspapers over the weeks as possible column fodder, wondering how I might measure Nicole's first step against an era fraught with special dangers.
They weren't clippings of major stories, not blood stains on the Persian Gulf or the death of honor in Washington, but instances of more immediate peril in our own neighborhoods.
A young policeman murdered trying to stop a dope sale. A small boy killed in a drive-by shooting. A pit bull that savaged three innocent people. Synagogues desecrated with Nazi symbols.
Each incident isolated an area of danger Nicole must face as her first few steps grow to a dozen steps and the dozen to millions.
It won't be an easy journey.
Quiet rural neighborhoods have become war zones and our homes exist on perimeters of self-defense, bristling with dogs and weapons and alarms that scream like banshees in the night.
A disregard for life has become so acute that even drive-by shootings on the freeways of Los Angeles are a numbing reality, introducing random factors into urban assault that chill the blood.
We face a growing realization, perhaps not yet a fact, that schools aren't safe, parks aren't safe, neighborhoods aren't safe, freeways aren't safe, buses aren't safe, dogs aren't safe and even the kid next door is suspect.
A night walk invites disaster, an open window risks horror.
I'm not a philosopher and I'm not a social psychologist. I have no idea why violence grows and peril rides the winds. I can't remember when cocaine became a status symbol and gunfire a form of street-talk.
I only know, as a friend of mine says, that it's a distorted time in history and ironies abound in a society that seems oddly out of sync.
Neighbors shout because a woman keeps a miniature horse in her yard, but silence greets the death of a small boy in a bloody drive-by.
Two young women are arrested for selling roses without a license in Los Angeles while Ollie North becomes a national hero in Washington.
The homeless are pulled from the gutters of Skid Row only to complain about the dirt of the earth that surrounds their free tent homes.
Thugs rule our streets and fools run our governments, and the rest of us struggle to survive in a world beyond the looking glass.
Into this, Nicole took her first step, and I worry where the trail might lead.
I walked through the silent house and up the stairs to where she slept in her crib, an angel wrapped in the serenity of warmth and infancy.
How I wish there were ways I could shield her from the calamities of violence and protect her from the hounds of misfortune that bound through the back alleys of night.
But I have no magic to shape her future and no amulets to guard her life, so I kissed her gently on the cheek and climbed into my own bed.
I lay awake for a long time thinking about a little girl stepping tentatively across a sun-splashed floor and then brooded over a magical moment that couldn't last forever.