A New-Found Force

A brand new Star Wars fan is about to have a “grand” experience.

You see, a short time ago on an internet not so far, far away, a website called FinanceBuzz put out an offer. They wanted to recruit someone who had never seen any of the nine “Skywalker” Star Wars films and pay them $1,000 to watch them all in release order, from the original 1977 film through 2019’s Rise of Skywalker.

“We’ll use our Wookie Rookie’s analysis for an upcoming story on the franchise,” FinanceBuzz wrote, according to UPI. Naturally, the hiring period closed on – wait for it – May the 4th, the unofficial Star Wars holiday.

Now, if you’ve read this column for any length of time, you know that I am utterly ineligible for this. Star Wars has been part of my life since at least age 7. I watched the films, played with the action figures, even worked out a George Lucas-style “Christmas Carol” with one of my classmates that starred Han Solo as Scrooge. And yes, my wife Heather and I stood in line 25 years ago for the midnight opening of The Phantom Menace (which I still do not regret, despite some jarring moments … or rather, some Jar-Jarring ones).

In short, my chances of cashing in on an offer like this are considerably worse than the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field. (Approximately 3,720 to 1, for the record.) But the pitch still makes me smile.

With or without the money, it means someone’s encountering the stories for the first time. And that’s always an exciting thought.

I’m not just saying this to revel in geekdom. It’s wider than that. Helping someone open the door to something new can be absolutely magical – especially when it’s something you’ve loved for years and get to see the joy reborn.

I introduced my brother-in-law to a post-apocalyptic book series I enjoyed. He became so passionate about it that he read ahead of me.

I introduced my young nephews to Dungeons & Dragons. Saturday night gaming quickly became a “must” for them – and a chance for me to regularly see the awesome people they’re becoming.

And of course, Heather and I accidentally (I swear) got our Missy hooked on Star Wars one fine afternoon – especially the parts involving Darth Vader and Chewbacca.

Each time, a light in the eyes ignites. An enthusiasm rushes out. And you remember why you fell in love with it in the first place.

I wish I could say this was universal. Some people are more than ready to mock others for only just now discovering what “everybody knows.” But as the webcomic “xkcd” once pointed out, every day, there are literally 10,000 people in this country who discover an “everyone knows” fact for the first time – even something as basic as the Coke-Mentos reaction. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of that moment of personal discovery?

It’s a choice we can make every day, to ignite an interest or smother it. And each time we choose to encourage it, we bind all of us together a little more tightly. Almost like … I don’t know, some kind of mystic energy field or something.

And if you didn’t get that last joke, don’t worry. There’s some great movies out there that’ll get you right up to speed. (Or even to light speed, for that matter.) I can’t offer a thousand bucks, but I’d still love to hear what you think of them.

After all, there may be a new discovery ahead. And by George, that would be grand indeed.

The Juggling Act

“So, what are you reading these days?”

Every so often, a friend will ask that simple question. Simple and dangerous. Like a dragon deep within its cave, I have to smile in anticipation at an adventurer who does not know his peril.

“Well, I’m getting into a book on the fall of Richard Nixon. Oh, and there’s that new translation of The Iliad. And of course, Missy and I found a really fun modern fantasy series to go through at bedtime, we might have another hit there. And speaking of fantasy, there’s a novel  a co-worker finally got me into …”

No, I’m not just throwing out the coming attractions. This isn’t the to-be-read list, though that particular reading mountain is also impressively high. At any given time, I’m usually juggling anywhere from three to six books. It kind of works out a little bit like a literary version of Mambo No. 5: “A little bit of Asimov in my life, a little bit of history by my side ….”

I know I’m not alone. We’re out there, taking our meandering path less traveled. We’re often the kids who had to be told “No more than five books, OK?” on each library trip, knowing that we’d cart off half a shelf if given the chance – and devour it all.

And invariably, we get two questions from more tightly-focused readers.  “How?” Quickly followed by “Why??”

“How” isn’t something I’m sure I can answer. Like any skill, it seems to be a mix of inclination and practice. It’s not really multitasking (thank goodness) where one to-do interrupts another, lowering your productivity at both. If anything, it’s more like having multiple foods on your plate at dinner: you don’t have to finish your mashed potatoes before starting on the steak, but can alternate bites of both as you like, letting the flavors reinforce each other.

And maybe that’s part of the “Why?” as well. At its heart, this narrative whirlwind may be the most liberating experience I know.

We go through a lot in a day. Everything we touch shapes us, so that we’re not quite the same person from hour to hour, or maybe even minute to minute. Our mood shifts, our energy level shifts, our ability (or desire) to engage with the rest of the world shifts.

And as our life balances and re-balances, the sort of inner world we need may change, too. Like grabbing an umbrella for a rainstorm or a T-shirt for a sunny day, it’s nice to have options. (“The forecast is hopeful and curious, with a chance of random silliness: Yes, this is a great Connie Willis day.”)

It also keeps the stories fresh. We’ve all had the experience where even a favorite book can get a little fatiguing if you KNOW you have to finish it up before you can move on to another story you’re curious about.  Giving yourself the freedom to move from tale to tale as the inclination takes you (with careful bookmarks, of course) can keep all of it fresh and exciting.

It’s also a great reminder that nothing happens in isolation. Like that dinner plate I mentioned, it gives you a chance to combine and compare, bringing out themes you didn’t expect. (This happens to writers, too, by the way. Isaac Asimov once mentioned that the idea for his Foundation series happened when a Gilbert & Sullivan illustration got him thinking about what he’d read of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

So go ahead. Let the worlds collide. It’s your literary universe, after all.

 And when someone asks you that Simple Question – remember to let your inner dragon smile.

Tales of Discovery

The Road goes ever on and on. Especially in this house.

Missy lay back smiling as we wandered the roads of Middle-earth once more, letting the words wrap her like a blanket. Battles with Orcs. Respites with Elves. Wry comments from Gandalf. What better way to finish the day?

In twelve years of bedtime reading, we’ve come back to Professor Tolkien four times. The only other chronicle to get the same demand for an encore performance has involved a certain boy wizard. So you could say our reading nights are magical in more ways than one.

I hadn’t expected it. But then, I hadn’t expected a lot of things with Missy. Caring for a disabled relative has many adventures, so why should it be surprising that some of them involve hobbits with magic rings?

Especially when the same magic seduced me in the same way.

Long ago (if not exactly in the Third Age), Dad introduced me to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” We read them together out loud, trading off halfway through the chapter, storytellers relating an epic.

Entranced? Oh, yes.

Some of it was the sheer sound of the words. To this day, I maintain that Tolkien must be read out loud to get the full effect, letting the narrative surround and suffuse you like a piece of music.

Some of it was the love being shared, the connections formed as my Dad and I discovered a mutual passion and reveled in it.

And so much of it was what it opened inside me and around me. An exciting tale, well told, that spoke of discovering new places and rediscovering old lore. Where compassion could be more valuable than strength and loyalty as important as learning. Where victory didn’t have to mean triumphing over every obstacle, but simply enduring long enough to do the job you needed to do.

That spoke to me. It still does.

I know I’m not alone in my passion. But frankly, it wouldn’t matter if I was. It’s the tale that was there when I needed to hear it, that still fits me in a way no other story can.

We all have a tale like that. Or should.

For one of my friends, it was “The Outsiders,” discovered at just the right moment of adolescence.

For my wife Heather, it was a slim middle-grade novel called “The Higher Power of Lucky” that still has the power to infuse hope.

For others I’ve known, it’s been “The Secret Garden,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or … but that’s the point, isn’t it? There are as many possibilities as there are people, lying in wait like the world’s most wonderful ambush.

Everyone deserves a book that reaches their heart. No matter whether the world acclaims it or just you, it is forever yours and forever you.

Others can guide, suggest, encourage. (Heaven knows my folks did.) But you’re the only one who knows what fits. And when you know, nothing can keep it from you.

Some will try. But it’s a hard door to lock. Neither sneers nor bans will hold in the face of the determined and the curious. Give even the hint of a new possibility and the explorers will come.

And the best of those journeys will last a lifetime.

Tonight, our own journey continues. I don’t know what about Middle-earth hooked Missy’s heart but I’m glad for it. It’s something we can share, a world we travel together with old friends and new thoughts waiting around every bend.

The Road goes ever on and on.

And the next step is just a page away.

Beyond the Limits

Once upon a time, 2010 was the Parenthood Year. 

No, not the Steve Martin movie. Rather, that’s the year all our grown sisters started becoming parents and my new job title became Uncle Scott.  We welcomed our niece Ivy into the world that July, followed by our niece Riley in September and our nephew Gil right before Christmas. 

Well. far be it from us to buck a trend. That Thanksgiving, Heather and I stepped up with an announcement of our own. 

“We’ve decided to move in with Missy.” 

And by April 2011, the world would never be the same. 

===

If you’re new here, you might not have met Missy yet. She’s the disabled aunt of my wife Heather, a woman who’s about my age physically but much younger in mind and heart. She also frequently graces this column as an artist, a dancer, a softball star and a ruthless Candy Land player, but that’s another story. 

This month marks 12 years since we began taking care of her. And like many first-time parents of whatever kind, we had no idea what we were getting into. 

We learned. Oh, did we learn. 

We learned that a grinning “Uh-oh!” meant something mischievous had just happened, like hiding a book in the linen closet or a toy in the laundry chute. 

We learned that “Mom” was a job title that could be addressed to either of us and that my other name was apparently “Frank” (the name of her late dad). 

Out of necessity, we learned how to get paint out of cloth (mostly), how to smile when out-of-season Christmas carols were replayed for the 57th time and how to hide a broken purse so it could finally be replaced. We discovered just how magical bedtime books can be, wandering from secret gardens to hobbit holes and beyond. 

Most of all, we learned we could do it. Even on the days when we thought we couldn’t. 

And that may be the most valuable and challenging lesson of all. 

===

Most of us have a pretty solid self-portrait. We like to think we know who we are and what we’re capable of. The trouble is, once we’re past the age of six or so, that picture tends to include a lot of don’ts and can’ts. 

“Oh, I can’t draw a straight line to save my life.” 

“Green thumb? More like a black thumb.” 

“You don’t want me in the kitchen; I think I burned soup once.” 

I’m guilty of it, too. And the trouble is, it becomes self-perpetuating. When you think you can’t, you don’t. Your skills never become sharper and the next failed attempt becomes proof instead of an opportunity. 

But sometimes it’s not as impossible as it seems. 

The one that Heather and I hear most is “Oh, I could never do what you do.” These days, that always has us scratching our heads. Do what? Be a family? That’s a job all three of us take on daily. And sure, some days are harder than others … but when has that not been true for anybody? 

The job that once looked so big from the outside – that frankly had me nervous as heck at the start – turned out to be quite different when it became a life. And a pretty cool life at that. 

Twelve years since we joined the parenthood parade. We’re not ready to surrender yet.

No matter how many times I end up crying “Uncle.” 

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!”

Unmasked

“Think of me, think of me fondly, when we’ve said goodbye.”

– “Think of Me” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

After 35 years, the chandelier will fall for the last time on Broadway. And that’s a strange thing for an ‘80s kid to know.

There aren’t a lot of constants in American life, but “The Phantom of the Opera” has been one of them. As a teenage choir student, I obsessed over every note of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s mega-musical, and I had a LOT of company. It seemed to touch every aspect of our life.

Learning to drive? A cassette would magically appear in the passenger seat.

Practicing piano? The Phantom’s dramatically descending chords had to be included.

Singing along? You were … OK, probably out of luck unless you were a tenor or soprano, but it was still fun to try.

It came as no surprise to any of us when “Phantom” broke the record for longest-running Broadway musical and kept on going. By then, it had become more than a show: it was an institution, as much of a monument as the Empire State Building or Times Square.

But every show reaches its curtain. In February, the AP reported, Broadway’s “Phantom” will take its final bow. Far off in Britain, the original West End run will continue … for now. I type those last two words with hesitation, remembering that mega-musicals with mega-budgets aren’t a great fit for a pandemic world that doesn’t readily produce mega-audiences.

But as the light goes out on the Broadway run, I can’t help wondering – what held us all?

“Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in …”

– “Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

It’s fitting that the symbol of “Phantom” is a discarded mask. Because for all its spectacle and song, it’s a story of discovery.  

Some of the masks are internal:  characters having to discover who they really are and what they want, the basic impetus of any good story.

Some are dangerous, with the Phantom’s obsession disguising itself as love. That’s a mask we still have to watch out for in this day and age – the supposed lover, zealot or patriot who is willing to break what they “love” in order to keep it made in their own image.  

And some of that discovery means reaching backwards, facing the past clearly and deciding what it will be to us. Christine ultimately makes it a source of strength. The Phantom draws pain from it and makes it a weapon.

We still face all those choices and more besides.

“You’ll sing again, and to unending ovation!”

– “Prima Donna” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

In this day and age, of course, no show is every truly gone. We get soundtracks and videos and revivals and even movies (of variable quality). Those who want a taste of the experience can still find it, and without having to mortgage the house for tickets.

But in another way, it really is the end of an era. There’s a magic to live theater that nothing else really touches … the sense of the story coming to life for the first time between audience and performer, never quite the same. Broadway’s “Phantom” kept reinventing that story through the generations and the spotlight is a little cooler for its absence.

But the heart of the story still lives. The essential lessons will outlast any broken chandelier.

All we have to do is remove the mask and find them for ourselves.

Oh, G’s

Stephen Wilhite led an animated life.

OK, his is not a name that leaps to mind like Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs or (heaven help us) Justin Bieber. But if you’ve been online at all, you touched his work. Wilhite, who died recently at 74, invented the GIF, the moving photos that turned social media into a special effect out of Harry Potter.

He also, years after their invention, triggered one of the internet’s most long-running minor debates with just five words:

“It’s pronounced ‘jif,’ not ‘gif.’”

Yes, like the peanut butter. That had actually been part of the documentation for  the Graphics Interchange Format since day one … which of course most people never saw. And in a jiffy (or even a giffy), we reconfirmed two essential truths of our species.

First, that people will argue about absolutely ANYTHING, and the flames only get hotter as the stakes get lower. Online battles over the “proper” pronunciation of GIF still rage back and forth with the intensity of a Star Wars movie, joining such timeless classics as “that stupid call in the Super Bowl” and “who needs the Oxford comma, anyway?”

After a while, the exchange gets pretty predictable:

“Well, the G stands for ‘Graphic,’ so of course it’s a hard G!”

“The U in SCUBA stands for ‘Underwater,’ are you going to start saying scuh-ba?”

“It’s like ‘gap’ or ‘get!’”

“No, it’s like ‘genius’ or ‘giraffe.’”

“Jif sounds stupid!”

“You sound stupid!”

“NYAAAAAAH!”

Verily, this is a philosophical discourse that Socrates himself would envy.

The second essential truth is more subtle. Namely, that the meaning of an idea doesn’t start and stop with its creator.

Any literature fans reading this will recognize this immediately as “the death of the author,” Stripped of PhD language (you’re welcome), this basically says that the author isn’t the only one who gets to decide what a story’s about. Just as an invention can be created for one purpose and used for another, a story can change when it reaches the reader’s hands. Yes, the author has intents and purposes, but the reader brings their own experience to the tale, which may lead them to discover something quite different.

It’s a little scary and a little exciting. It means that reading a story or watching a movie isn’t just a matter of cracking a code (“what did they mean by that?”) but a process of adventure and discovery (“what will I find here?”) J.R.R. Tolkien called it the difference between allegory – a strict this-means-that definition by the writer – and applicability.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” he wrote. “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

That’s challenging.

It means that while stories shape us, we can also shape them right back. It means that we don’t just have to accept ideas in couch-potato fashion. We can grapple with them, challenge them and take them in new directions. All sorts of concepts can be transformed this way, from fiction to ideologies to language itself.

So if 20 years down the road, the “hard G” folks win the GIF battle for good (or even for jood), it’s not an error or a crime. It just means the story wasn’t over.

It’s your tale. Choose as you will.

Just be gentle – or gracious – to those on the other side.

On Beyond Candy Land

The queen of Candy Land has found new realms to conquer.

This is no small statement. You see, our ward Missy is a passionate Candy Land player. She opens up the board with gusto. She draws her cards with undisguised glee. And she wins. And wins. And then goes on to win some more.

At one point, Missy had won nine games in a row, and her overall record still looks like it belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is no small accomplishment when you remember that Candy Land has no choices – you draw one card at a time and move down a single path, an exercise in predestination. It’s like Lotto, only with less chance to influence the victory.

And she wins. And wins. And wins some more.

So did she get bored? Quit while she was ahead? Pfft. Please. This is Missy we’re talking about – the lady who can play Christmas music with relentless cheer through to July 4, only stopping when the disc wears out.

No, only one thing could seduce her onward. The addition of sheer unmitigated chaos.

You see, we recently got something called Magic Maze as part of a Christmas present. It’s a wonderfully silly idea: down-on-their-luck fantasy heroes raid a shopping mall for equipment and then try to get away before security catches them. The board’s discovered in sections, so it’s different every time.

In the simplest version of the game, the mechanics are exactly what Missy’s used to: draw and move and draw again. But now you’re racing a timer. You’re working together. And you’re going a little crazy trying to get everyone where they need to go.

She. Loves. It.

And as the smile grows wider, Missy’s world gets a little bigger.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Missy’s enthusiasms catch fire several times since my wife and I began caring for her … has it really been almost 11 years now? Each new piece gets added with a fierce joy. We’ve watched her become enchanted with Harry Potter, awestruck by Darth Vader, eager to throw a basketball or start up a Face Vocal Band video.

But the really exciting thing is that she rarely abandons an old love. She still dances, still loves familiar faces and places, and when the pandemic eases up enough, I know she’ll be hitting the bowling alley without hesitation. It’s not like fireworks, flashing and burning out at high speed, but more like a bonfire, growing just a little bigger as more fuel is added.

Her capabilities are what they are. Her physical and developmental disabilities are no less real. But within what she can do, she finds new opportunities to discover and grow.

That’s a prize I think all of us would reach for.

Granted, it’s a challenging prize to win these days. Even before the pandemic, it was always tempting to build a bubble, staying with the safe, familiar and comfortable. Now, in a time of constant vigilance, it’s easier than ever to draw in and hold back.

But the fire doesn’t have to die.

The times are what they are. The need to stay safe is no less real. But within those limits, we still have opportunities of our own. We can still open new pieces of our world, find new joys and become a little more than we were before.

It can be an amazing experience.

And speaking of a-Maze-ing, I think Missy’s ready to set up the pieces again.

The game is afoot.  

I Now Pronounce Thee … How, Exactly?

Once upon a time, I learned the word “brazier.” Sort of.

As a kid, I could write the definition in a heartbeat, enough to know it was some kind of metal bowl or container that held fire. After all, I’d read it in fantasy novels. I’d seen it listed as a treasure in Dungeons & Dragons. My folks had driven by a Dairy Queen sign that shouted it to the world. Easy, right?

Only one problem: I’d never heard it out loud.

And so, one evening, college-age Scott read a passage out loud about a “burning bra-ZEER” … and Dad almost choked himself laughing.

“Scott,” he said, after surviving the mental image of flaming lingerie suddenly appearing in a medieval fantasy scene, “the word is BRAY-zhur.”

Oh.

Hooked On Phonics, you have a lot to answer for.

I bring this up only because Reuters and others recently reported on the hard-to-pronounce words of 2021. And as someone who blundered into the realm of burning braziers/brassieres, I have to show a certain amount of sympathy.

There’s the surname of tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of the rare names out there that’s less intuitive than “Rochat.” (For the newer readers here, it’s roe-SHAY.)

Or the challenge of wrestling with “Omicron,” the virus that not only endangered lives but tripped up tongues.

Some people stumbled over “Chipotle,” others over the last names of stars like Jason Kelce and Billie Eilish. Even a long runner like the city of Glasgow, Scotland caused a few folks to sweat while it was hosting last year’s climate conference.

If you’re comfortable with all those, well done. But there’s probably another stumble spot somewhere. Most people I know have a story of awkward linguistic discovery to share. My personal favorite is my wife Heather’s sudden childhood understanding that Nancy Drew had “titian” hair – TIH-shun, a particular shade of red hair – and not “titan” hair.

“It was the ‘80s!” she told me. “I just thought she had a really big hairdo!”
It’s easy to laugh, easier to blush. And maybe easiest of all to decide “You know, I’m just going to wait for someone else to try this.”

But if you’ve been brave enough to take the plunge – even if it left you with mud on your face – you’ve got my congratulations.

As a writer and an actor, I love the taste of words. And like any kitchen experiment, not everything’s going to work the first time. Some may even be real disasters. But when you get a new one down, you add a little more flavor to your world.

That’s exciting. And not just for words or recipes.

Even in an uncertain world, there’s a lot to discover. If you’re willing to take the step into something new, however small, that’s something to cheer. (As long as you’re not causing lasting harm, of course – would-be Dexters need not apply.) Each new achievement gives a little more understanding: of a topic, of yourself, of those around you.

Sure, it may also give you some laughter at your own expense. But if it’s a laugh that invites people in and reminds us that we’re all human … well, we can use more of that, too.

So have fun. Experiment well. Read aloud. Maybe even get some burgers and ice cream afterward.

After all, I know a Dairy Queen with a great brazier.  

A Magical Lesson

“You see a beautiful ballroom, decorated for a feast or party of some kind. Music is playing, but you can’t see from where. In the center of the room, a man and woman dressed in clothes from 300 years ago are dancing, you think you can see through them. What do you do?”

My nephew Gil considered the situation. Then conferred briefly with his mom and Heather. Even for a bold Elven adventurer, this was going to be tricky.

On the other end of the webcam, 1,300 miles away, I smiled. Not the “gotcha” smile of the devious Dungeon Master. But the nostalgic smile of a proud uncle.

A new adventure had truly begun.

My sister likes to say that Gil and I have a lot in common. He’s a big reader on every topic imaginable. He loves good games and bad jokes and weird facts. He even started learning piano after fooling around with the one at our house for the first time.

Now he’s taken another step in the Déjà Vu Chronicles. Gil has discovered fantasy roleplaying, the world of broad imaginations and funny-shaped dice. Not only that, he’s starting at just about the same age I did.

Did someone cast a flashback spell when I wasn’t looking?

My own adventures started in fourth grade, fueled by a love of “The Hobbit” and curiosity about a game I’d seen mentioned in comic books and “E.T.” I quickly fell in love. I mean, I’d already been creating my own stories for fun and this was just the next step, right? (The fact that calculating experience points gave a boost to my math skills – which, frankly, needed all the help they could get – was an unforeseen bonus.)

Gil, likewise, discovered the games in his own reading and wanted to know more. His mom told him “You should really ask Uncle Scott.”

I’m sure she was barely hiding a smile the whole time.

It’s been exciting to see him learn the same lessons I did: the ones about cooperation, creativity, planning and why it’s a really good idea to avoid a room full of green slime. But the most exciting one has come from four words, repeated over and over again.

“I check it out.”

Whether from his reading or his own intuition, Gil has decided that anything could be more than meets the eye. So his character checks for traps. For secret doors. For hidden objects and lurking spiders. If a room the size of a closet holds a spyhole and a single wooden stool, the first words will be “I check out the stool.”

In this day and age, I can’t think of a more valuable reflex to train.

We live in a world where assumptions are easy and conspiracy theories streak across the internet at warp speed. We’ve seen – or been! – the friend who swallowed a story whole because it fit what they already believed, even when 30 seconds on Google would blow it up like the Death Star. After all, why disturb a beautiful theory with the facts?

With so much coming at us, checking it out is vital. And it’s usually not as hard as it sounds. But the hardest step is to realize that something needs checking – that our own assumptions and beliefs might actually be wrong. That requires humility, reflection, and a willingness to learn.

It’s not as glamorous as stubbornly holding your position at all costs and feeling like a hero. But it’s better for all of us in the long run. And if some magic and monsters can help ingrain that in my nephew, then bring on the quest.

It’s adventure time.

Let’s have a ball.