Unconscious Victory

Talk about someone who was on a roll.

You might not have heard of Delaney Irving. She doesn’t have the grace of a Michael Jordan or the control of a Nikola Jokić. But like them, the Canadian teen has a championship of sorts, a really cheesy one. Even if it’s one she’ll never fully remember.

Irving, you see, took part in the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling in Britain. That’s exactly what it sounds like: roll a wheel of cheese down a hill and run after it until you both cross the finish line. And as the CBC, Reuters and many others reported it, she did it the hard way … by tripping, knocking herself unconscious and rolling across the finish line.

“I think next year I just want to watch,” she confessed to the CBC after waking up to her win.

Now there’s an athlete after my own heart.

If you’ve met me or read this column for a while, you know that I’m … how shall I put this? … not exactly poetry in motion. Unless you consider Mr. Bean or Chevy Chase a poet, anyway. If there’s an awkward, stumbling way to do a simple task, have no fear: I’ll find an even clumsier one.

That’s how I managed to slam the bathroom door into me twice while trying to rescue a puking dog.

It’s how I managed to turn the act of retrieving a grocery bag into a parking lot ballet that required three stitches in my chin.

And yes, as the Longmont theater community will remind you, it’s how I managed to walk completely off stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of an opening-night solo.

To my sort-of credit, I’m still around to write about this. I’ve even learned the vital survival skill of laughing at myself when life decides I really need a slapstick moment. But amid the laughter, there’s an even more vital quality to be found.

It’s equal parts persistence and commitment, but neither word quite says it. It’s the quality of putting it all on the floor. Holding nothing back. Being ready to fail, but only after doing everything you can to put yourself into a position to succeed.

In sports, it’s the team that knows one bad call won’t make or break them, playing a solid game with no effort left unexerted.

In fiction, it’s the Frodo Baggins type of hero – unable to destroy the Ring by his own strength, but using every ounce of strength to make its destruction possible.

And in life … well, in life, it’s a lot like Delaney Irving. Unable to control all the circumstances, but doing everything you can do. And maybe even getting the win despite yourself.

You set yourself up. Even when you fall down.

You may fall down a lot. There’s always the risk of saying “I gave it everything I had and it just wasn’t enough.” It leaves you without excuses or what-if’s.

But it also teaches. It trains. And it stretches you.

And each stretch brings you that much closer to where you want to be.

So by all means, trip. Stumble. Fall. (Heaven knows I do.) But do it because you’re trying for something better. You just might get it, even if you fall.

Keep trying, even if it’s just to roll a cheese downhill.

After all, where there’s a wheel, there’s a whey.

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!”

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 Ring of Support

Among the usual headlines for the week – foreign trips, political accusations, football uniforms that looked like bad Nintendo graphics from the 1990s – a story slipped in that caused an earthquake in the geek world.

Christopher Tolkien has retired.

Normally, a retiring 93-year-old might not draw much attention, aside from admiration for staying on the job so long. But in Christopher’s case, “the job” involved heading up the Tolkien Estate. For over four decades, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien has been the principal guardian of his father’s literary legacy, holding the rights as closely as dragon-gold and weighing on the worthiness of those who would adapt Middle-Earth to their own purposes. Inevitably, he was also his father’s foremost literary scholar, publishing reams of information about how the world of Elves and Hobbits and Rings of Power came to be, along with works by Tolkien that had never seen the light of day.

In The Hobbit, when the dragon’s treasure becomes unguarded, armies come racing to claim it as their own. Much the same has been happening in the real world, but with less chainmail and more contracts. There are already reports that the Tolkien Estate is working with Amazon on a Middle-Earth-based television series, and a lot of speculation about whether this means a new era for the classic tales or the final downfall of the West.

But for me, the real story is both smaller and greater.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to play the guessing game of what a new adaptation will look like and who might be involved. (“Morgan Freeman leads an unlikely band of heroes to death and glory in … A Game of Rings.”) But lost in all of this has been Christopher Tolkien himself, and the role he has played for so long.

A role that I think many of us could empathize with.

Most of us are never going to write a bestselling novel. (Though I do hold out hope.) Nearly all of us will go through life without having won a Nobel prize, or led a nation, or opened the new smash hit of the Broadway season. That’s no judgment on anyone’s skills or talents, just a simple fact of life in a world of more than 7 billion people.

But all of us touch someone’s life. All of us have the chance to take who we are and use it for someone else. A friend. A relative. A chance-met passenger on the bus. Whether for moments or a lifetime, we join our story to theirs. And the tale is forever changed.

in The Lord of the Rings, it’s Sam Gamgee carrying Frodo on his back when his friend can’t take another step … unheralded strength that means more to the world than all the armies preparing to clash miles away.

In the real world, it’s been Christopher Tolkien putting his shoulder to his famous father’s epic for decade after decade, illuminating and enhancing it for millions with maps and histories and tales not told – tales that included The Silmarillion, his father’s lifework of Middle-Earth mythology that was never completed in his lifetime.

For all of us, it’s that someone or something that truly matters. Enough to earn our help, our sweat, our outstretched hand. Not for spotlights or applause, but because it needs to be done and we care enough to do it.

We don’t have to be epic heroes. We just have to be willing to see where we’re needed and take the step. Because enough steps, from enough stories, can scale even Mount Doom.

All it takes is a willing heart. And that’s worth more than all the dragon gold ever forged.

Even with the television rights thrown in.

Fantastic Tales

Beware the dragons. Watch out for the trolls. And always remember that heroes may be hazardous to your health.

Not your usual prescription, I grant you. But it’s apparently second nature to Graeme Whiting, an English headmaster who made international headlines when he declared that fantasy fiction would rot your child’s mind.

No, I’m not overstating it. Kind of hard to, really.

“Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children,” Whiting wrote as part of a lengthy blog post on his school’s website, “yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children.”

You might be surprised to learn that he and I agree on exactly one thing: Parents should pay attention to what their children read. Books do indeed open doors onto many places, and every parent should know where their child is spending their time, whether it’s in the park or in the Shire.

But fantasy can open some wonderful doors indeed.

I’m not writing to disparage the more classic works that Mr. Whiting himself loves and encourages for a growing mind, such as Shakespeare or Dickens, which were also part of my reading. Enough so that I’m a bit amused. After all, Dickens was long considered popular trash by lovers of “proper literature” and as for Master Shakespeare – well, whose life couldn’t use a dose of teen marriage and suicide (Romeo and Juliet), eye-gouging (King Lear), witchcraft (Macbeth), and rape and mutilation (Titus Andronicus), with just a sprinkling of cross-dressing and humiliation of authority (Twelfth Night)?

Sure, they’re wonderful – dare I say magical? – stories. But safe? C.S. Lewis once warned visitors to Narnia that the great Aslan was “not a tame lion” and if a story has any power to it at all, it can never be considered a “safe story.” When books meet brains, anything can happen. Anything at all.

Stories have a power that the great authors of fantasy knew quite well.

“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?” the hobbit Bilbo Baggins declares in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien has been my own Gandalf since about third grade, leading my imagination into places both terrifying and wonderful – as have many of the fantasy authors who followed in his wake. My family and I have cheered on Harry Potter, wandered with Taran and Eilonwy, leaped through wrinkles in time, and stumbled through wardrobes into unexpected worlds.

You acquire many things on a quest like that. Beautiful language. Heartbreak and hope. A decidedly quirky strain of humor. And most of all, the realization that evils can not only be survived, they can be overcome.

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey,” G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in 1909. “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

No, stories aren’t safe. Few things worth having are. But they can be priceless.

So yes, have a hand in your child’s reading. Be careful. Be aware. But be open to wonder as well. And don’t fear the dragons.

After all, that is where the treasure is to be found.