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.

A Break in the Action

Gil leaps into discovery like only an 8-year-old boy can. All the fields lie open –  space, sports, cryptography, music – and he eagerly throws open the door to each new passion, exciting him and his parents alike.

Now my nephew is learning something new. Namely, the breaking point of a human wrist after falling from a moving scooter.

Yeah. Ow.

So, Gil’s left arm now sports a bright red cast. It’s a minor bump on the road of a grade-school summer. After all, it’s hard to play tennis or piano with one hand down. But there’s still robotics, camping, clubs, a steady flow of books … just about everything that doesn’t involve experimenting with how to pop a wheelie. (Ahem.)

This IS the injured kid, right?

Cast or no cast, Gil’s still moving. It’s what he does.

But then, whatever the shocks, life keeps moving. It’s what it does.

Sometimes whether we’re ready for it or not.

***

You know what I mean. We’ve all been there. The broken places. The moments where life throws up a big stop sign for a moment and says “THIS. THIS is what you will be paying attention to.”

Sometimes we’re lucky. We get the temporary hurts: the broken foot that heals, the smashed-up car that’s insured, the explosive argument that eventually slips into the past.

Sometimes … not so much.

Sometimes it’s a tragedy, whether personal or national, that leaves a hole in the heart that will not go away.

Sometimes it’s the painful calls of your own mind and body, the illnesses that don’t heal, the weights on the soul that just hang.

Sometimes it’s a break in the road. A realization that life is going to be different from this particular point forward, and there’s no way to turn around  and get the old journey back.

Time moves differently in the broken places, or it seems to. Outside, the world flashes past at high speed. But closer in, things just … stop. Time has been condensed into one event that must be lived, one tale that must be told. Sometimes repeatedly.

I’ve mentioned before how offensive it is to tell someone to “move on” after a loss of any kind, how you don’t just discard grief or pain or emptiness like a worn-out T-shirt. But there’s another side to it, too.

Namely, that you don’t have to feel guilty for being happy.

We’re good at that, you know. We find ourselves re-entering time and letting ourselves forget for a moment – to laugh, to enjoy, to marvel – and then feel bad because we know the cause of the hurt hasn’t gone away. As though we’re betraying a memory, or getting distracted from a crucial issue that needs our focus.

I’ll say it simply. It’s OK.

It’s OK to not think about hurting all the time.

It’s OK to enjoy things again.

It’s OK to  let other things into your life.

You’re not doing anything wrong.

Yes, we all need time apart. We all need time to heal. We all need to acknowledge the hurts, however that has to happen.

But it’s OK to look out from there if you feel like it. To see. To do. To live. To let light shine on the broken places.

As a friend observed, that’s how you make mosaics.

***

Gil’s cast will be off before we know it. Soon, he’ll be more unstoppable than ever, full-speed ahead, charging into all that life has to offer.

But then, his motion never really stopped. It just changed direction for a while. That’s a useful thing to remember.

Along with being really, really careful about those wheelies.

One in a Gillion

One In a Gillion

 

Inspiration hit as soon as Gil saw the old flood photographs. Caught in the moment, he hurried to the piano and struck up his latest composition:

Going on a flood trip,

We grabbed a surfboard,

Surfed all the buildings …

Not bad for 7 years old, right?

It’s been a while since Mister Gil visited this space. That’s because it’s been a while since Mister Gil visited Colorado. My young nephew is a denizen of Washington State these days, which makes random drop-bys about as common as a Seattle Mariners World Series win. But recently, lightning struck – his parents were back in town for a reunion, which meant Gil would be staying the night with us.

Which meant, in turn, that I would be discovering Gil’s many, many talents.

Such as improvisational piano.

And kitchen dancing. (“Uptown Funk” remains a favorite.)

And ciphers of many sorts.

And spur-of-the-moment jokes and puns. (Well, he is my nephew.)

And card games. (I’ve grown rather fond of “Garbage.”)

And … well, anything else he puts his mind to, really. It doesn’t matter if he’s done it before. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t even matter if he’s heard of it before. If it can be managed by an 7-year-old’s hands, feet, or imagination, Gil will give it a try.

I’d call it a fearlessness, except Gil doesn’t know there’s anything to be brave about. It’s just all stuff to try. In that, he’s wiser than a lot of adults, including his uncle.

Down in the kitchen, I have recipes that I want to learn to make one day.

In our guest room is a guitar that I keep meaning to get back to.

Of course, there are the beginner’s drawing tools in my desk drawer. Not to mention the novel that I really will get going on one of these days – promise.

It’s easy to plead time, or exhaustion, or any of a dozen other reasons. Sometimes they’re even legitimate. But for many of us, I think the gap between a Mister Gil and grown-ups like Uncle Scott comes down to two simpler things – habit and focus.

Habit is the behavioral version of Newton’s First Law: we tend to keep doing what we’re used to doing. At 7, Gil is used to doing … well, everything. But the rest of us have comfortable skills, useful routines, boundaries. Talents at rest tend to remain at rest.

And that, in turn, is largely a product of focus.

Have you ever asked a very young child what they want to be when they grow up? Odds are you’ve heard something like “I want to be a firefighter … and a doctor … and a princess … and a tree.” And somewhere along the line, we encourage them to pick something, to find what they’re good at, to concentrate on that so their skill will grow and expand.

By itself, that’s not a bad thing. Every skill needs concentration and discipline if it’s to develop, and no one has time to master absolutely everything. But too often, a corollary comes with it. If a skill doesn’t come easy, or if it’s one we’ve not tried, we learn to draw sharp borders.

“Oh, I can’t do that.”

“I’m no good at that.”

“That’s not my thing.”

No one has to like everything, of course. But like a child in front of an unfamiliar dinner, we’re often too unsure of what we’re seeing to risk a new taste.

It’s OK to try.

It’s OK to learn something you won’t master.

It’s OK to dabble, to play, even to discover you’re not good at something … and that you enjoy it anyway.

That, too, is a joy.

By the time this sees print, Gil will be back in Washington. But I think he’s left a little bit of that fearless discovery behind. All I know is, I’m going to have to dust off that guitar pretty soon.

After all, “Flood Surfing” won’t play itself.

Words to the Wise

The seeker of truth gasped as he reached the summit. The all-seeing oracle stood before him, its single green eye piercing the mysteries of the universe. Surely, understanding was at hand.

“Oh, great one,” the acolyte proclaimed, “share your wisdom with this unworthy pilgrim, that even the smallest crumbs of enlightenment may illuminate his way.”

And lo, the oracle did consider, and the eye did peer, and in what seemed mere moments the deathless words appeared.

“ON A SATURDAY MORNING,” the voice chanted, “WHATEVER YOU MIGHT HAVE FELT CANNOT BE UNFELT.”

Um. Yeah.

No, I haven’t turned my talents toward writing purple-prose fantasy novels, or inspiring the next great cult movement. (Between the Denver Broncos and “Hamilton,” all the good fanatics have been skimmed off, anyway.) Instead, I’ve been quietly amusing myself with one of the Internet’s more curious toys, the “Inspirobot.”

This has actually been around for a couple of years at inspirobot.me, but it’s only in recent months that it’s attracted mass attention. Essentially, it’s an instant “inspirational poster” generator, designed to pull up an enlightening backdrop and randomly generated timeless wisdom.

Trust me. Deepak Chopra this ain’t. So far, the words for the ages have included gems such as:

  • “A dream and a suit kills.”
  • “Quit being.”
  • “What seems cool to musicians, seems uncool to the person behind the mask.”
  • “Prepare for ambition. Not imprisonment.”

It kind of makes the magic 8-ball seem deep and profound, doesn’t it?

Once in a while, it’ll actually hit something kind of … well, understandable, if not actually deep. Things like “Be happy, or forget it.”  Or “Don’t be kind. Be extremely kind.” Or my personal favorite, which cannot be run in its entirety in a family newspaper, “Sometimes one needs to call a s***show a s***show.”

Simultaneously, I find this comforting, and frightening, and maybe even a cause for hope.

The comforting part is simple. Our computers, which have mastered chess, triumphed at go, and embarrassed the greatest Jeopardy masters in history, still create hilariously bad fortune-cookie aphorisms. So there’s still one post-journalism job market left open for now.

The frightening part is how easy it is to distill meaning from even the most awkwardly constructed phrases. ( I’m still waiting for a philosophical movement to begin around “Liars find meaning in grown men” or “A glass of wine beats levitation.”) Many people do it every day with their favored politicians, personalities, and public figures, reinterpreting their words and actions to fit a comfortable world view. Once again, it’s all too easy to invoke the Paul Simon rule: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

And the cause for hope? However badly we may strain the search for meaning, we are still searching for it. We want things to make sense, even if we don’t always go about it in the right way or look in the right places. That’s at least the first step toward building something.

Of course, it still helps to have good material. And that’s why I’ve started to step away from the oracle of the Inspirobot and toward the Way of Gil. My six-year-old nephew has begun writing down his own dictates for life, and I rather like the direction:

“Good sport when you win but be nice.”

“Think, get so you know and reber (remember) so you get a A+.”

“Have fun, don’t play too ruff. But have fun!”

Mister Gil, the mountaintop awaits.

Letter Be

By the time this appears in print, Gil’s letter should be almost ready to arrive.

Gil is my stunningly brilliant 6-year-old nephew. (No, it’s not short for Gilbert, and yes, my sister is an Anne of Green Gables fan.) He’s a budding student of the sciences, who once casually pointed out landmarks on the moon and Mars to me during an imaginary space odyssey. His busy hands have built long, elaborate marble runs, followed by long painstaking videos depicting the “races” between the marbles as they swerve and roll.

And now Mister Gil has discovered the epistolary art.

“Dear Anut Heathr/Uncle Scott/Missy,” he opened in carefully handwritten crayon, with animal and robot stickers decorating each line. “Wut things are you doing? And wut book are you reading? How is the weather? Please wriet back.”

My own response is finally ready for him. I say “finally” because … well, this is an admission that doesn’t come easily to a professional writer. This is between you, me, and a few thousand other readers, OK?

The fact is, I’m terrible at personal letters.

I know, it doesn’t make much sense. I’ve been a columnist for years. I can write news stories and PR pieces easily. And I’m quick to jump on emails, social media, and all the other communications tools of the 21st century. Easy.

But good old-fashioned mail? Too often, my brain resembles a kindergarten playground, trying to get everyone to line up properly and get back to class. “Oh, yeah, I need to send that reply out … oh, wait, we’re out of envelopes, I’ll pick some up at the store tomorrow … huh, the old envelope got recycled, I’d better email Carey for the address … OK, I know I have stamps around here somewhere …. “

If this all took place in one sitting, it might not be so bad. But each gets punctuated with occasions of Life Happening and soon “Scott’s Correspondence” has become the next long-running miniseries, complete with episodic cliffhangers. (“Will Scott and his envelope make it to the post office in the same trip?”)

Nonetheless … we’re doing this. Because it’s important to Gil. And therefore it’s important to us.

He’s learning. And all of us in the family want to encourage that. So we write. We click on his YouTube videos. We keep an eye out for books and toys that’ll fuel his interests even further. And we smile as he constantly finds more for us to encourage.

After all, when you reward behavior, you tend to see more of it.

That’s true for most people, whether we’re talking 6-year-olds or congressmen. Oh, granted, the 6-year-olds usually aren’t as stubborn and willful as the politicians (I blame a lack of regular naps and the occasional time-out), but the principles are the same. Communicate. Show up. Be clear. Encourage. Don’t stop. Packing a town hall or filling up a voice mail box may not be as cute as attending a school program, but it’s part of the same idea.

Smart politicians know this. The ones that forget sometimes become unemployed politicians.

And the best part is, it shapes you too. It makes you a better voter. A better relative. Maybe even a better letter-writer.

What you touch, touches you. And both can be better for the experience.

If you’re lucky, you’ll even get some cool robot stickers out of the deal.

Nice to Meet You

Simon’s coming.

Not right away. There’s still a couple of weeks to go, a little more time to wait. But it’s not easy. Not when I’ve been looking forward for this long.

Simon’s coming.

If you’re a regular here, you might remember Simon. My nephew officially joined the family last February, in the week between Mom’s birthday and my own. Very thoughtful of him, that.

But Simon lives in Washington State. So I don’t get to see a lot of him. One brief visit out here, actually, just three months after he was born.

Long enough to meet someone. Not long enough to really know them.

I know, that sounds funny to say about someone so young. Who can “know” a baby or even a toddler? Most of us struggle to make that kind of connection with an adult when a new job or a first date is on the line. How on earth do you pull it off with a small child, especially one who didn’t stop to prepare a resume first?

It sounds ridiculous. Ludicrous, even.

Until it happens.

I’ve watched it happen three times now.

2010 was the Year That Cried Uncle for me, the year that two nieces and a nephew entered the world in a stretch of about five months. Over the last three years, I’ve watched all three discover themselves and the world around them.

There’s Ivy, the 3-year-old with the 5-year-old’s mind and certainty, enamored of jet planes and picture books and creatures of the sea.

There’s Mr. Gil (the honorific is required) who greets the world with wide eyes out of a Japanese anime, an effortless charmer with a mischievous smile and the smoothest dance moves a toddler ever produced.

And of course there’s Riley, the tornado in human form who lived with us for a while. It’s through her that we discovered the entertainment properties of measuring cups, cookie cutters and big red wagons. She’s also why one room of our house is decked out in “Caillou” trappings, just to warn future guests who may be terrified of bald Canadian children.

People describe these years as exciting ones and they’re right. You can practically see all three of them drawing in the world like a sponge, soaking up impressions and experiences and wonder.

But what nobody tells you is that it’s not a one-way connection.

Their wonder becomes your wonder.

Wonder smothers easily. We bury it all the time beneath routine and hurry, surrounding ourselves with the same people, the same experiences. It’s safe. Wearisome, maybe, but safe.

But watching a toddler chase soap bubbles for the first time, it’s suddenly easy to remember a time when “safe” didn’t matter. When it didn’t matter if you’d ever played a piano before, you just balled up your fists and had at it.

When joy was just a measuring cup away.

I’m not suggesting we go back to eating crayons in the living room. (Most days, I leave that to my dog.) But the interest, the fearlessness, the receptiveness of those times doesn’t have to be consigned to a photo album and a baby book.

To meet a child is to see that door open just a crack. To see a world ready for discovery.

Beginning with their own.

So, Simon, I’m looking forward to seeing you again. It’ll be good to get to know you in between naps – yours and mine! – and to start to see who you are, what you’re beginning to be.

And maybe a little bit of myself as well.

Simon’s coming. He’s coming soon.

But his welcome is already here.

A Letter to Gil (or, A Visit Before St. Nicholas)

To my nephew the giggler, known also as Gil,

I know you’re a wiggler, who can hardly sit still,

And hey, who can blame you? The season’s in town,

With the trees and bright lights, and (please?) snow on the ground,

 

Your momma is whispering to Santa with care,

In hopes that your Christmas list soon will be there

(Granted, you’re two, so the writing’s still tough,

But between Mom and Dad, they’ll note down all your stuff.)

 

I hope you’re excited. It’s a great time for kids!

You bubble like teapots, near popping your lids,

All your energy focused on one magic day …

‘Til that time when you’re older and start to say “Hey!”

 

You see, it’s quite odd just how nature contrives

To decide just quite when a new baby arrives,

Which is why, when you look at December, you’re seein’,

Christmas Day, twenty-five … and Gil’s birthday, fifteen.

 

Just 10 days from your day to the holiday glitz,

That magical moment when everyone sits,

Surrounded by coffee and worn to a frazzle,

From the driving and cooking and holiday hassle,

 

I know at your age that it hasn’t quite clicked,

But I’ve had a few friends who once felt they’d been tricked,

And believed (while they waited in line at the mall)

That a birthday so close was no birthday at all.

 

They’d wish for a time that could be just their own,

like October, July, or in March when it’s blowin’,

Or the first day of school, bringing cupcakes to share,

Or any time, really – except for right there!

 

But I’ll tell you a secret, if you listen close.

The kids in December? They’re luckier than most.

With smart parents (and yours are as smart as can be),

You’ll still get a day to say “This day’s for me!”

 

Those bright decorations? My birthday won’t get ’em.

There’s smiles on each face (just as long as we let ’em),

Folks want to be happy, they want to have joy,

And that’s where you stepped in, you smart little boy,

 

Your party starts early, then builds to a next,

By the time that it’s through, you’ll be truly perplexed,

As to why folks would groan to be born on this date,

The whole doggone time is yours! Isn’t it great?

 

So rest your mind easy and rest your mind still,

There’s enough room to cheer for both Christmas and Gil,

Neither Christmas nor you will be ever forgot,

Never doubt it. I love you.

Signed,

Your Uncle Scott.

Precious Memory

I sometimes joke that I’m paid to be a 24-hour expert. Learn a topic, sum it up, then move on to the next one.

This time, I’m not getting paid. And I’m hoping to hold on to this subject for a lot longer than a day.

Right, Grandma Elsie?

My grandma, for those of you who don’t know, is officially amazing. She’s been through wartime Britain and the Blitz. She started her life over in America when she was just two years younger than I am now. She even survived living with us when my sisters and I were little, full of the energy and innocently impudent questions of childhood. (“Grandma, do you remember the Revolution?”)

But I’d never heard all the stories. And the ones I knew, I wanted a better grip on. Memory can be like an old screen door in the wind sometimes; if you don’t reinforce it quickly, it can be gone before you know it.

It was Mom who had the idea. How about an interview?

“It would be nice for Ivy, Gil, and any other future great-grandkids to know a little about her life,” Mom wrote me in an email, referring to my niece and nephew. “I have some vague ideas – but it would be good to have it straight from her.”

Yes.

I’ve heard a lot of stories over the years. I’ve chatted with a veteran of World War I, with an artist who works in cardboard, with teenage investigative reporters.

None of them were this much fun.

There’s nothing like rediscovering your own family. There’s always one more thing to learn, one more subject that brings a smile to both of you, or a sigh, or even a blink of recognition.

I knew that Grandma’s dad had served in Egypt in World War I. I didn’t know he’d been a voracious reader (like most of this family, to be honest) whose favorite novel was Adam Bede.

I had vaguely remembered that she’d worked in an airplane factory during World War II. I hadn’t known that she and one other lady had been the first two women on the fitting room floor. “The guys worked so hard to moderate their language,” she laughed.

I had known, in an academic way, about the evacuations at the start of the Blitz – but not that her family had been one of the ones to take off, with hastily packed bags and a canary named Bill.

Every piece led to another – childhood friends, old school subjects, jobs and fears long since gone. It was like discovering a patchwork quilt, one square at a time.

No, it was like meeting a friend all over again – a friend I’ve known as long as I’ve been alive.

And it made me wonder. How much do I really remember? How much would I be able to pass on someday?

Plenty of people remind you to capture the memories of others before they’re gone. We’ve all seen projects involving World War II veterans and Depression survivors and many others. It’s a good idea and a vital one.

But we sometimes forget that we’re a link in the chain, too – and a curiously ephemeral one, with so much of our past and present living a virtual existence. Pieces of us live here, there, everywhere in silicon and electricity, but how often do we think to consolidate it all for someone else?

How often do we even do that for ourselves?

Isn’t now a good time to start?

It’s worth thinking about. And as I pull together the “Grandma notes” – and add to them, count on it – I may just begin to jot down some Scott chronicles as well, a piece at a time.

After all, someday Ivy’s and Gil’s kids may want to become an expert on me.

And I hope they’ll want to know it for more than 24 hours.