The Doctor and the Professor

In some ways, the Doctor and the Professor couldn’t seem more different.

The Doctor looked toward a fantastic future, built among the stars and shared with a race of mechanical men. The Professor looked toward a mythical past, sheltered amidst the trees and hills and shared with beings older than mankind.

One wrote at high speed in a utilitarian style that kept the stories coming and coming. The other labored over each word, considering the history of every drop of color and whisper of wind.

And for fans of the fantastic like myself, the New Year hasn’t really started without them. Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the biggest names in science fiction, born January 2. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the godfather of modern fantasy, born January 3.

Am I geeking out here? Maybe just a little. But it really is just that cool.

Part of it, of course, is memory. My love for Tolkien was born in elementary school, reinforced by many hobbit-filled reading nights with my dad where we delighted in every new character and voice. (I still envy Dad’s booming Treebeard, just as I think he always appreciated my attempts at the hardworking Sam Gamgee’s accent.) Asimov’s work I met a little later, encouraged in part by a science teacher who felt that no robotics club was complete without the Good Doctor.

Obviously, I’ve got a lot of company – including the Doctor and the Professor themselves, as it turned out. Asimov was one of the few “modern” writers that Tolkien genuinely enjoyed reading; Asimov, for his part, once mentioned that he’d read The Lord of the Rings five times and was genuinely surprised when his own Foundation series beat it out for a Hugo award. But it’s more than pleasure and nostalgia.

The truth is, there couldn’t be a better way to start the year. Because in doing so, we look toward the truly human.

I know that sounds strange. Asimov solidified robots in the modern imagination, while Tolkien introduced us to hobbits and all their kin. But both writers, even in their most epic tales, built everything on the most simple and basic of human qualities.

In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the problems of the world aren’t solved by mighty armies and powerful leaders. Instead, it comes from the compassion and determination of simple folk, knowing they’re not up to the job, but doing their best for as long as they can.

In Asimov’s worlds of the future, the answers don’t come from vast armadas and epic battles – in fact, violence is mocked by one character as “the last resort of the incompetent.” Instead, the key is to use your reason to understand the world and the people around you, knowing that if you can see what the problem actually is, the solution may be simpler than you think.

Heart. Mind. An awareness that other people matter – whatever their origin –  and a disdain for the pride and hatred that often sets them apart.

We still need all of that today. Maybe now more than ever.

And if we let it be nothing more than a fantasy, then we’re writing ourselves a very dark tale, indeed.

So go ahead. Look to the promise of the future. Take heart in the legends of the past. And use the tales of both to see our present moment more clearly. That’s what will give us the humanity to reach beyond the threats and fear that haunt our times – to build a world together rather than destroy it apart.

It’s a vital lesson.

And it’s one the Doctor and the Professor are still waiting to teach.

Hold the Phone

The Digital Age has its new poster child.

On Wednesday, when most of us were learning firsthand about bomb cyclones, an Australian man got out of his car to find a visitor waiting outside his home – with a bow and arrow at the ready. So the man followed normal 21st century safety procedure.

Namely, he pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.

The archer fired. The arrow was on target. And according to Reuters, the homeowner walked away with barely a scratch.  Why? Because the arrow hit and killed the phone instead.

OK, show of hands. How many of us have wanted to do that to a smartphone, just once?

Thought so.

Our world of tiny phones and big social networks has come up for a lot of mockery over the years, sometimes justifiably so. People have walked into manholes while texting (and then, predictably, tried to sue). Fatal car accidents have resulted from drivers with one hand on the wheel and both eyes on a phone. In our time, we’ve been just an arm’s length away from the manipulations of political saboteurs, the boasts of killers, and even the rise of Justin Bieber.

So is it any wonder that when Facebook and Instagram went kersplat for many people on Wednesday, the mass frustration was mixed with a little joking relief?

“Son, I wasn’t alive for the Donner Party or Pearl Harbor, but I am old enough to remember when both Facebook and Instagram were down at the same time during that terrible winter of ’19,” comedian John Fugelsang joked.

The memes! Will no one think of the memes?

More seriously, though – it’s human nature to be frustrated with the tools we depend on. It was true of the first computer. It was true of the automobile. It was probably true of the first ancient human to deliberately set a branch on fire, and then later discover his teenage son had burned up Dad’s favorite spear. “What do you mean, you wanted to see what would happen?”

But for every frustration, our tools also open a door. Sometimes some pretty amazing ones.

My wife Heather is often stuck at home because of chronic illness. Her phone opens the world to her, allowing her the experience and interaction that her body might otherwise bar.

An acquaintance of mine has a love of reading and a tiny apartment. His devices give him access to a library that would overwhelm a four-bedroom house.

I have dear friends halfway across the country whom I’ve never met, yet “visit” regularly. We’ve shared joys, sorrows, and horrible jokes as easily as any next-door neighbor.

I’m sure most of you could add more. The weather report in a pocket. The research library that’s open at 2 a.m. before a term paper is due.  The chance to quickly learn a home repair, or some language basics, or just figure out the lyric you could never understand on the radio. On and on and on.

Sure, our tech can frustrate. It can be used badly, even horribly. But it doesn’t have to dehumanize. Used well, it can bring us together and open up possibilities that put a science fiction writer to shame.

It’s up to us. It always has been. And that is both a frightening and a wonderful possibility.

The future’s in our hands. What will we make of it?

Hopefully, something a little better than target practice.

A Brush With Greatness

With a toothbrush in her hand, Missy becomes the next great Olympic marathoner.

“EIGHT! And we’re beginning to hear the sounds of the runners ahead … NINE! We can just barely see the pack … TEN! They’re drawing closer … ELEVEN! OK, we’re catching the runners at the back of the crowd …”

The commentary is from yours truly, counting off how long Missy has to keep brushing until she’s done. The count gives her a goal, the “race” makes it fun. Boy, does it – more than one sprint to the finish line has ended with a laugh of glee and an impulsive hug that would light up every camera at NBC if it knew.

We’ve done this as cars, as bicycles, even once as airplanes, but the track-star version seems to be the favorite. Despite her disabilities, Missy is a very competitive person, and this seems to get her where she lives. The ordinary mixed with the glorious.

Which actually isn’t too far off from the Games themselves.

It’s been fun watching London. At every moment, we get images of the fastest runners, the most agile gymnasts, the creepiest mascots. The best of the best are on display and all we have to do is drink it in and cheer.

But let’s be honest. It’s not the sports that do it.

OK, quick poll. Everyone who watches water polo more than once every four years, raise your hands.


How about judo?

Oh, I know there’s some. And that’s great. And the marquee sports – basketball, soccer, boxing and so on – certainly don’t have to defend themselves to anyone.

But when it comes to the Olympics, most of us are really cheering two things. One is a flag.

The other is a story.

I know, the networks do the “touching story” bit to death. But there’s a reason. It’s a bridge, a way of bringing out the human in the superhuman. We celebrate the exceptional, but we relish the ordinary, the reminder that these people are still like us.

Or that, maybe, we’re still a bit like them.

So we hear about Im Dong-hyun, the archer with the terrible eyes and the incredible aim.

We marvel at the abilities of Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, and his lickety-split prosthetic feet.

We cheer the teenagers like Missy Franklin, who could almost be our own daughters. We see the oldest of the crew, dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, still doing what he loves at 71 and hope we’re as lucky.

We see the best. And we glimpse ourselves doing it.

Again, the glorious meets the ordinary.

The thing is, it’s easy for us to shrug that off. After all, we do it morally all the time. We see the dedication of a Mother Teresa or the viciousness of an Adolf Hitler and say “I could never do that.” As if they were some separate species that had never been, never could be human.

But what humans have done, humans can do.

That can be a terrifying thought. Or an exhilarating one. It’s one that puts the capacity for greatness – great good or great evil – within the reach of anyone willing to strain and grasp.

And for these couple of weeks, it’s a thought that makes us a family. A dysfunctional one, perhaps. But a family nonetheless.

It might even bring a smile.

In which case, your Olympic toothbrush routine had better be up to date.