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.

Thinking the Unsinkable

I used to want a time machine when I was a kid, something out of H.G Wells or “Back to the Future,” so I could see the great events of the past all over again. Lately, I’m starting to wonder if I succeeded.

So far, I’ve seen a presidential candidate (now former) promise to put a man on the moon.

I’ve seen a member of Congress hold up a list of hidden Communists in Washington, D.C.

And now there’s plans to build an unsinkable ship called the Titanic.

Yes, seriously.

Credit this one to Australian billionaire Clive Palmer. He plans to launch a new Titanic sometime in 2016, built to the same dimensions and even starting on the same route – but designed to avoid the same finish.

“It will be designed as a modern ship with all the technology to ensure that doesn’t happen,” Palmer told Reuters on Monday.

Will someone sign the gentleman up for Missing The Point 101, please?

First of all, there’s nothing remarkable in designing a cruise ship that doesn’t sink. Most of them don’t. It’s like bragging that you’ve built an individual airliner that won’t crash – the odds are good that you’ll never have to test your claim.

Second, there’s no real reason to do it, beyond separating a lot of tourists from a lot of money. (Itself a good enough reason for most businessmen, admittedly.) If Titanic II sails safely into New York, it won’t magically bring back the passengers from Titanic I. It won’t even prove the first Titanic could have done it, since it won’t be using the same tools.

But most importantly, it ignores one of the biggest lessons of the Titanic – how the humility of failure can teach more than the pride of success.

I first heard the theory floated (sorry) by an engineer and author named Henry Petroski during an NPR interview. In it, he noted that if the Titanic had sailed safely, there would have been nothing historically remarkable about it. It would have made money and had imitators, like any other successful product.

But the flaws in its design would have still been there. They might have even been exaggerated as competitors tried to build it bigger and better. Sooner or later, overconfidence would get the same payoff – maybe even worse.

“When we have a success, a prolonged period of success, we tend to become more complacent,” Petroski said. “We tend to become overconfident that we’re doing it right, that we’ve got it figured out finally. And then, of course, a failure occurs and wakes us up out of our dream.”

And that’s when the learning comes – when you’re willing to acknowledge that mistakes are possible, that you can screw up, that’s when you really begin scrutinizing your work.

It almost sounds un-American, I know. We have an ideal of almost hyper-competency, that a free people can go anywhere, accomplish anything. And honestly, I’m glad when people dream big; that’s where a lot of great ideas start.

But it’s that dash of humility – that willingness to admit that maybe this time we don’t know everything – that can keep those big dreams from becoming bigger nightmares.

It’s something teachers drill into their students, that editors drill into their reporters: don’t get cocky, check your work. It’s an attitude all too rare in politics anymore, where the appearance of being right seems to matter more than the reality.

And it’s the only way to guard against a Titanic error.

Mr. Palmer, may you have the best of luck and happy sailing. But if Titanic II arrives on time, it won’t be because of unsinkable confidence. It’ll be because everyone acknowledged the worst and planned for it.

Meanwhile, I wish you well.

In fact, with the headlines lately, maybe I should wish you Wells.