One for the Books

Whoever built the 52 Book Club list knows me way too well.

If you’ve never heard of the list, it’s a quirky approach to getting people to read more in the New Year. Mind you, encouraging me to read is like encouraging Batman to fight crime – it’s not exactly a hard sell – but the list has become a favorite New Year’s tradition of mine because of how it does it.

Like a lot of reading lists, it encourages people to read 52 books in 52 weeks. But only a few entries are as straightforward as “a book in (x) genre” or “a book by (y) author.” Instead, most of its prompts are on the quirky side, such as “a book you meant to read last year,” “sends you down a rabbit hole,” or “a book that ‘everyone’ has read.”

Because of the list’s flexibility, it fits my reading habits well. But because the prompts are so varied, I always find myself exploring some books I wouldn’t have thought to try before. It’s a good match.

But for 2024, one prompt hit me right in the history: “a buddy read.” In other words, two people reading the same book so they can talk about it later.

Naturally, my thoughts went to Dad.

Both my parents are huge readers, but Dad was the one who passed on a love of reading out loud. From childhood all the way into college, we would pick out a book and then read it out loud together, passing it back and forth either at mid-chapter or on chapter breaks.

Together, we explored J.R.R. Tolkien, Farley Mowat, Mark Twain and many more. We’re both a believer in “doing voices” where we can, so our living room or car pool would often resonate with our personal attempts at amateur theater. (He’s always admired my Sam Gamgee while I remain envious of his Treebeard.)

It built a bond. And a habit.

When Heather and I married, we started doing the same thing. And of course, when we began taking care of Missy, it really took off. Missy’s developmental disabilities keep her from reading the story directly but not from appreciating it, and she’s often pointed out favorite characters and moments when we run across them elsewhere. (As a result, I now know where every image of Gandalf is within a 20-block radius.)

Once again, we tied ourselves together with words and memories.

And really, that’s what the best stories do.

It doesn’t have to be performative. Silent readers can certainly share memories, lessons and experiences too (as Mom and I have done many times). But either way, the essence of a story is connection, even empathy. You walk alongside a character and live their life. You enter an author’s head and wrestle with their thoughts and ideas.  What you find may even shape your own personal story – which then touches the stories of everyone around you.

In that sense, I suppose, life is a “buddy read.”

We’re entering the next chapter now, each of us with our own stories to write and share. Together, we can create one that’s worth re-reading … or at least be a character who’s remembered fondly in someone’s tale.

I’m looking forward to that. Even if it’ll never appear on any reading list.

Happy New Year, one and all.

And while we’re at it … have you read any good books lately?

Make Yourself at Holmes

I don’t like to make assumptions about the New Year. But this time, dealing with it may be … elementary.

For those of you who missed it, Sherlock Holmes has escaped copyright, an opponent more tenacious than Professor Moriarty. As of 2023, the Great Detective is fully in the public domain, allowing the free use of the stories and characters in any medium. Why, we could see novels, movies, TV shows …

Hmm. OK, then.

If this sounds a little confusing, I don’t blame you. After all, Sherlock Holmes is already one of the best-known and most heavily utilized fictional characters in history. New stories appear every year, maybe every month. You can find him in board games. You can find him on stage. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find him in breakfast cereal. Could he be any more public?

As it happens, even Inspector Lestrade could predict the answer: lawyers. Holmes, as it turns out, has long lived in a legal gray area. The bulk of his stories by Arthur Conan Doyle did indeed come into the public domain ages ago. But with a small number of the tales still under copyright, Doyle’s estate could and did battle (most recently with Netflix)  over “unauthorized” use of the character. So he was public, but … not that public?

I could get even further into the silliness of protecting an author’s rights for nearly a century after his death. (Doyle passed away in 1930.) But no one wants to start the new year with a thesis on intellectual property law.  Well, except maybe Sherlock’s smarter brother Mycroft, but he hasn’t been returning my texts lately.

Instead, in honor of this year’s literary liberation, I’d like to suggest a few Sherlock-style resolutions for 2023:

  • Pay Attention: Everyone knows the scene where Holmes meets a client and rattles off the person’s complete biography, based on details he’s noticed. Most of us aren’t going to be THAT observant, but we can make sure to focus on the people around us and better understand where they’re at and what they’re going through.
  • Reason, Don’t Assume: Holmes’ most famous proverb is that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” But sifting one from the other takes thought. If a claim seems wild, check it out. If a claim seems to support what you already believe, check it out even harder – after all, how often do the police in a Holmes story jump to the easy conclusion?
  • Find the Right Experts: Holmes talks to people. Constantly. He talks to medical examiners about the state of a corpse, carriage drivers about a suspect’s movements, even informers about the criminal underworld. But he doesn’t ask a street urchin about the Queen. Find the people and sources who can help you learn, and be careful in judging sources.
  • Use Your Down Time: There will be time “between cases,” so find a way to restore yourself. That said, Holmes isn’t always the best model for how to spend that time. When he goes to a concert or peruses the news, that’s great. When he uses his drawing-room wall for target practice … not so much.
  • Keep a Close Friend: Every Holmes needs his Watson, after all.

With that, best wishes for the year ahead. We’ve all been through some strange adventures lately, and there’s surely more mystery to come. But keep working on the puzzle. And whatever success you find, I hope you lock it in.

Or even Sherlock it in.

To the Letter

This December, Missy and I have been reading someone else’s mail. And it’s been magical.

“Ok, Missy, are you ready for Father Christmas?”

The eager smile as I opened the book said it all.

Every year, our bedtime reading with Missy takes in at least one holiday classic. We’ve done “The Story of Holly and Ivy,” “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” and even “A Christmas Carol.” But given how much Missy enjoys magical stories, I’m kind of surprised it took us this look to reach for “Letters From Father Christmas.”

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s a slim volume by J.R.R. Tolkien. Yes, the Hobbit guy. His children, like many, wrote letters to Father Christmas each year … and in their case, Father Christmas wrote them back. The resulting correspondence from the North Pole (which included hand-drawn pictures) stretched from the 1920s until the early 1940s, when the last of the four young Tolkiens finally grew beyond “stocking age.”

During that period, they could count on getting all the latest news. One year might be the humorous misadventures of what the well-meaning North Polar Bear had broken THIS year. Another might tell of an attempt by goblins to raid the storehouses. And always, whether it was a quick note or a long tale, there’d be the sense of so much going on behind the scenes.

But the collection is also an indirect chronicle of the family itself. Each Father Christmas letter gives a glimpse of the children at the other end: the teddy bear collection, the railroad enthusiasm, the year one child tried sending Father Christmas a telegram in the off-season.  And as they grow, it’s clear that the gifts of love and wonder given by the letters lasted far beyond the holiday.

That’s something worth recapturing now.

I know. By this time of year, most of us are pretty exhausted. And lately, when New Year’s starts to appear on the horizon, we greet it with more resignation than excitement. If Dec. 31 had a motto for the 2020s, it would probably be “Well, thank goodness THAT one’s over.”

But long after candles have been snuffed, trees have come down and lights packed away, we still have the gift of each other. And we have to give it well, whatever the time of year.

We give it to neighbors when we help each other face the challenges of the world, whether it’s a snowstorm, a pandemic, or just a chore that’s too much for one person to do alone.

We give it to friends when we celebrate their joys and ease their trials, even if all we can do is listen and understand.

And yes, we give it to our children when we help them grow with an open heart and a spirit of curiosity and wonder. That, most of all, ensures the gift will continue.

It doesn’t require handwritten letters with a North Pole postmark (though I suppose it never hurts). Even in Tolkien’s day, that was just the gift-wrapping.  It starts with awareness – noticing other people, remembering that they matter, and then treating them that way.

Sounds simple, I know. But when we remember to do it, it has the power of a child receiving Father Christmas’s personal attention: a reminder that they’re seen, they’re important and they’re cared for.

So don’t let that spirit stop at Jan. 1. Keep being the gift.

After all it’s always a good time to be living in the present.

Wrapping Up 2021

With apologies to Paul Simon, there must be 50 ways to wreck your wrapping. And I know them all.

Just cut it too short, Mort.

Tie the tape in a ball, Paul.

Make it crude and uneven, Stephen, and listen to me …

You get the idea.

To be fair, my periodic battles with tape, scissors and brightly colored paper have become more hopeful over the years. With much fussing, cussing and desperate prayer, I can finally produce a package that looks like it was wrapped by a 10-year-old. With a blindfold. In the final car of a roller coaster. Hey, it’s progress!

So yes, I have a signature style. So much so that when the bookstore I worked at offered free gift wrapping at Christmas, I was asked to stay at the register. It seems that at “free,” my wrapping was still overpriced.  

Every year, someone suggests gift bags. Every year, I refuse to surrender. 

And every year, the week after Christmas becomes the most magical time of all.

It’s weird to write that because I’m not a huge New Year’s guy. Even before COVID-19, I didn’t hit the parties. I rarely do resolutions. I definitely stay up ‘til midnight, but I’ve never needed the excuse of Dec. 31 to do that, just a night owl’s instincts.

But in an odd way, that last week of the year is a microcosm of what’s about to come.

Start with Christmas Day. The time leading up to it builds with anticipation, curiosity, even anxiety. The holiday’s offerings lie hidden behind boxes and paper. The presentation may be beautiful or clumsy, but it gives only the broadest hint of what lies ahead.

But come Dec. 26, the wrapping no longer matters. By the time you’ve torn into it, all you remember is what was inside. Over those next few days, anticipation is replaced by experience.

And then we get to unwrap one more gift. The biggest one of all.

We’ve got a whole year ahead of us, wrapped away, out of sight. After the last couple, many of us are hesitant to poke the package. (At least, not without a mask and some Clorox wipes.) Don’t predict, we’re told. Don’t project. Just take a breath, walk ahead carefully, and try not to break anything.

I understand the worries. Heck, I share a lot of them. But  one way or another, the box will open. The bag will be cast aside. And the hopes and fears that we wrapped 2022 in will give way to the reality.

No, we don’t get a receipt. (“Hello, customer service? Someone broke my 2021 in delivery; do you give store credit?”) In the case of this present, we’re both giver and receiver. We have to do the best we can with what we get … and that includes giving the best we have in us to make it better for everyone.

It’s demanding. It’s difficult. And it carries no guarantees. But if we keep at it, we can be the best present that someone else has ever received.

If enough of us do that, then 2022 becomes a gift worth getting, no matter what crises and challenges may lie ahead.

So best wishes to all of you for the New Year. Thanks for visiting here each week. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Assuming I can untangle myself from this wrapping paper first.

Hi, Resolution

All right, it’s time for a little bit of January heresy.

I’ve never been a big believer in New Year’s resolutions.

Don’t get me wrong. Goals are great. Commitments are wonderful. But making a big promise just because Jan. 1 happens to show up on the calendar – to hit the gym, to write the novel, to finally understand the offside rule in soccer – always seemed a little odd to me.

Why now?

Yes, I know the answer to that one, or as much of an answer as there is. The New Year’s a symbol of change. Speaking realistically, there’s very little that separates Dec. 31, 2020 from January 1, 2021. But when the date ticks over, it’s a reminder that things keep changing … and in the case of the late unlamented 2020, not a moment too soon.

So it’s natural to want to change ourselves, too. But making a change just because it’s Official Changing Time doesn’t have a great track record. As I noted last year, about 8% of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. The Broncos offensive line performs better than that.

So maybe it’s time for a different approach.

One that’s focused less on what we’d like to be and more on who we are.

I’ll explain.

I’ve learned a lot of important lessons in life, many of them the hard way. About how little control I really have over things. About living with loss and honoring memory. About taking the time to truly appreciate who we have while we have them, and the notes they bring to our common song.

Most of all, though, I have learned and learned and learned how to hope. Not the sort of dewy-eyed “Gee, maybe someday all this will get better” expectation, but a real belief that by acting together, we can make things better – which means that I can’t shirk my part of that.

Time and again, it’s been that ability to hope and that willingness to back it up with effort that have made a difference. It’s been a solution over and over.

So much so, that I’ve started thinking of it as a re-solution.
And that, I submit, is what we really need to look to in this new year.

It’s important to grow. But it’s just as important to examine ourselves, see the worthwhile things that have already grown in us, and commit to reinforcing them. Just like the plants you want to save, those solutions need to be fed, watered, strengthened.  

They’re what got you this far. And they’ll ultimately be the roots for the growth that lasts.

It’s not easy. A lot of times, it’s downright exhausting. I’ve seen my fighting hope sucked into the ceiling fan again and again, taking fresh lumps each time.

But I’ve also seen it helped build a family. A new career. A place to go to when things are at their worst, whether it’s the personal loss of a cousin or the shared loss of a normal reality.

My re-solution is still there.

And like any well-worked muscle, it keeps getting stronger with use.

That’s what will carry us through.

Resolutions help mark a change in time. Re-solutions confirm a change in life. They’re not always as simple as that promise to take guitar lessons (which I still need to do) but they undergird so much of what matters.

Find your re-solutions. Feed them well. Put them to work and don’t let up.

Who knows? Maybe when December comes around again, we’ll actually want to look forward to what’s ahead. I’m sure hoping to.

Just as long as it doesn’t involve that blasted offside rule.

Fair Friends in Fowl Times

Two years ago on stage, I played Bob Cratchit, that kind-hearted soul who unexpectedly receives a turkey for his family at the end of “A Christmas Carol.”

A few days ago on Christmas Eve, I found myself wondering if I’d revived the role.

“This is from a friend,” the masked man at the doorstep said, passing over a King Soopers bag and a Christmas card. The bag contained a holiday turkey, ready for the fridge that night and the oven tomorrow. The card contained a short message of holiday cheer, and a simple signature: “Santa.”

I called Heather over. We both looked at it, amazed.

The funniest problem of the day had just been solved.

**

We’d been laughing and shaking our heads about it just that morning.  On the Night Before The Night Before Christmas, our ward Missy the Great had decided that yes, she actually did want a “fancy” Christmas dinner even though we weren’t going anywhere or seeing anyone – or maybe even because of it.  So Heather put together a grocery list of stuff to be delivered on the morning of the 24th, including a ham for the main dish.

The groceries arrived and the ham with it – sort of.

What arrived was sliced ham. The sort that you use for lunch meat.

“Well,” Heather said after we’d spent enough time being flabbergasted, “I suppose we can always do sandwiches.”

It was one more verse in the Coronavirus Anthem, a glitch in the universe that you had to either laugh at or go crazy. (Well, crazier.) And so we settled into our day, telling the story in amused disbelief to a few friends and relatives, and otherwise moving on.

At least, until the knock at the door came.

I still don’t know if one of our listeners decided to quietly lend a hand, or if an already-existing good intention just happened to “click” with the universe. The latter may sound unlikely, but again, this is 2020.

And good neighbors have also been a verse in the Coronavirus Anthem.

**

It’s easy to forget. We hear a lot about conflict and division these days, and not without reason. There are stark challenges ahead for our country and the world, and people have strongly-held views about how to meet them. Even when everyone’s “playing nice,” that’s a recipe for struggle. And when my oft-quoted Paul Simon verse comes into play – “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest” –  it can become downright disastrous.

But there’s more to us than that.

And it’s what will finally carry us through.

There have been jokes online about how this isn’t the apocalypse that “Mad Max” movies told us to expect, where grimy violent heroes with a deep stockpile of ammunition will win the day. If anything, this is the sort of disaster that the Far West has weathered for generations … the sort where you get through by looking out for your neighbor, in big ways and small.

It’s been true in floods. In blizzards. In high wind and deadly drought. You think about what you can do for the people around you, whether it’s wielding a snow shovel, a mask, or a bit of hope.

And together we overcome what we could never survive alone.

**

This turkey isn’t the first bit of hope and love that’s arrived at our doorstep from a thoughtful heart. But it’s the latest confirmation that we’re not alone in this. And as we head into 2021, it’s one more thing that makes me hope a little harder.

No, things won’t magically transform on January 1. But it can be one more step on the road to somewhere better. As long as we walk that road together in heart, even when separated in body.

A new year’s waiting. It’s time to open the door and see what waits.

May it be a real turkey – in the best sense of the word.

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.

Making the Break

We’re near the end of a year. So I suppose it’s fitting that we’re at the end of an era, too.

Lee Mendelson died on Christmas Day.

In a way, the timing is weirdly appropriate. Mendelson, a television producer, was part of the power trio that created “A Charlie Brown Christmas” along with creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Meléndez. With its unexpected success, the three would continue to make special after special for years, taking the already beloved Peanuts gang into the stratosphere.

Schulz died in 2000, Meléndez in 2008. And now, with Mendelson’s passing, I’m left a little speechless. So let’s take a moment of silence – maybe accompanied by a talking trombone – and reflect on failure.

After all, Charlie Brown is the most famous failure in the world. He never kicks the football, never wins the baseball game, never gets the little red-haired girl.  But for one brief moment, the “Peanuts trio” was at risk of surpassing him.

Schulz, Mendelson, and Meléndez easily could have gone into history as the men who broke Charlie Brown.

That sounds like hyperbole. But Mendelson already knew that producing a Charlie Brown piece was not a guaranteed success – he’d been shopping around a documentary on the little round-headed kid for months without a single bite before getting the opportunity to do a holiday special on an insanely fast turn-around time. And the choices that the three men in creating that special – well, if it had fallen flat, you could have pointed to any of those decisions, or all of them, and said “Good grief! What were they thinking?”

Things like using real child actors and no laugh track.

Or hiring a jazz composer to do the soundtrack.

Or giving the most popular character, Snoopy, no lines whatsoever.

Or making the climax of the entire show a reading from the book of Luke.

Production finished just 10 days before air time – which Mendelson would later say was the only thing that kept it from being canceled by the network executives, since it had already been scheduled.  It seemed as weak and spindly as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

You know – the tree that just needed a little love?

Today, of course, the whole thing shines as bright as Snoopy’s doghouse. It’s mandatory viewing, year after year. It had been taken to the breaking point – and held.

My brother-in-law understands that sort of thing very well. Once, while helping with a home repair, he explained his basic philosophy: “You can’t fix something if you’re afraid to break it.”

That’s a vital lesson. And a hard one.

Because boy, do we love to play it safe.

It’s easy to do what you know. After all, a lot of risks fail – that’s why they’re risks. Nobody wants to be the one who gets burned, gets laughed at, gets left with nothing but empty hands and painful memories.  It’s tempting to keep your head down, do nothing, believe in nothing, risk nothing.

And of course, that’s a path that leaves you with nothing.

Everything worth doing involves some kind of risk, whether it’s as spectacular as a television program or as personal as falling in love. (C.S. Lewis famously said that “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”) It doesn’t have to be a stupid risk, mind you; there’s no medals given for playing in traffic. But when the stake is worth the gamble – when you’re not afraid to break it –  that’s when lives can be transformed.  That’s when the song gets written, or the job gets taken, or the family begun.

That’s when memories get made.

Thank you, Mr. Mendelson, for making some of our own.

For you, and for all of us, it was a lucky break indeed.

Looking From The Edge

It started with the rope.

Maybe you remember what I’m talking about, if you took grade-school PE in the 1970s and 1980s. The long floor-to-ceiling rope in the gymnasium, suspended over a safety mat. The one that students were expected to climb like Tarzan at some point in their elementary school careers.

Correction. The one that most students were expected to climb. I was given an exemption because, well, childhood epilepsy and dangling from a line like Spider-Man don’t mix really well.

Danger anticipated. Danger avoided.

Now fast-forward several years to junior high school. Specifically, to the various track-and-field games in gym. Unlike ropes, long jumps were perfectly safe for an epileptic and I tried over and over again with all the enthusiasm that a nerdy and awkward adolescent could manage.

Maybe a little too much enthusiasm. The sore feet I had after class didn’t go away. It turned out that between that, and maybe some after-school martial arts classes, I had managed to break the growth plates in both my feet.

Danger not even considered.

So what’s the point of all this rambling, besides setting the stage for the Totally-Not-Plagiarized-Diaries-of-a-Sorta-Wimpy-And-In-No-Way-Copyright-Infringing Kid? Well, to start with, it never hurts to remember the limits of our expectations – how, as the adage goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. For all that we plan and foresee and calculate, some things simply aren’t on the radar because we didn’t know to put them there.

But oh, do we try. Especially at the New Year.
The fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett had characters who were drawn to “edge places,”  points where two states of being come together, like doors, or masks, or mirrors, or even theatres. Similarly, something about the boundary between an old year and a new one draws us.  It’s a time when we look back and look forward, when writers everywhere compile their “10 best” and “10 worst” lists, when we try to anticipate what’s next – aside from freezing weather and drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads, of course.

I don’t want to make this sound too idealistic. Many years, the look back is on the level of “Thank heaven THAT’s over” and the look ahead is more like “Well, it can’t be as bad as what we just went through.” But we still like to think we have some sort of control over the outcome. That’s why we make resolutions, right?

We like to think that. Until we get sore feet.

As some of you know, this last year for me has gone beyond unpredictable. It’s had some amazing joys and some crushing blows, and my regular readers have experienced many of them with me. And one of the most challenging lessons I’ve had to take from all of it is that there is only so much I can do.

That’s not the same as saying “There’s nothing I can do.” That’s a trap. Saying “I can’t do everything” isn’t the same as saying “I can’t do anything.” Hope demands effort, otherwise it’s nothing more than an optimistic dream.

But we do have to accept that we’re not the ones in the driver’s seat.

And that’s hard.

We can prepare. We can anticipate. We can make the most of our chances. We can set ourselves up really, really well. But some things will always be out of our control.

In an odd way, though, that can be kind of hopeful.

It means that we don’t have to blame ourselves for every catastrophe in life. Not as much as we want to.

It means that totally unexpected blessings can find us in life. However undeserving of them we may feel personally.

It means we can let ourselves heal. And wonder. And grow.

And that we can reach out to each other as we do so.

Keep reaching. Keep growing. Take the pains and the wonders of this new year as they come. And where you can act, do it with hope.

After all, it never hurts to know the ropes.

Screening the New Year

The lights went dark. The ads went quiet. The familiar words appeared on the screen.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

And with that, it was time to hit the holiday hyperdrive into another universe – even if it was without the usual crew.

Once upon a time, this would have been time spent with my Dad. After I graduated college and took my first job in Kansas, I made sure to come back to Colorado for the holidays. That was when our favorite literary universe of Middle-Earth first hit the big screen, so Dad and I always carved out a night to go see it. From there, it became a habit, even after I came back to the Front Range.

The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit. Jason Bourne. Harry Potter. The Force Awakens. Something big and bold and splashy to wave out the old year and welcome the new one. As a kid, this would have been a summertime adventure, especially since Star Wars movies were always released in May. Now, it was something as brilliant as any string of Christmas lights and as dependable as any Times Square ball dropping.

This year, the count’s off a little bit. This year, with my parents in Washington State, it was my 7-year-old nephew Gil who got to see The Last Jedi with Dad. (Funny enough, that’s the same age at which I saw The Empire Strikes Back with Dad and became a fan for life.) This year, Heather and I watched the movie with friends even while our memories were with an audience far, far away.

And this year, it still felt more right than any countdown with Dick Clark ever could.

I’ve never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Easily made, easily forgotten. But with apologies to Robert Fulghum, everything I do know about New Year’s lessons, I learned from a night at the movies:

The story will go unexpected places. Let it. With the Tolkien movies, it was because Hollywood can never leave a literary adaptation alone, even when it’s done well. With something that’s pure cinema, like Star Wars, the directors will still have something in their back pocket. Maybe several somethings. (“Darth Vader is his what??”) Whatever story you find, take it on its own merits and follow where it goes – arguing about it in your head at the time will just mean you miss the best parts.

Talk with your family. Some of those surprises, of course, fueled many a conversation outside of the theater. The fate of Han Solo. The craftiness of Luke. Talking about them afterward not only drove them in more firmly, they tied us more firmly and created a family story to go with the fictional one.

Never give up hope. OK, this is practically routine for Hollywood, but it still bears remembering. Empire became one of my favorite films because its victory was survival. Nobody blew up a battle station. Everyone came away battered and scarred, sometimes literally. But they did get away. The fight went on, with promises made that friends would not be forgotten. That’s something that I think most of us can identify with.

Remember, and say goodbye. Not everyone gets to finish the story. On screen, we got that memory – and a catch in the throat — as Carrie Fisher performed what would be her last turn as Leia. Off screen … well, we all have our own separations and farewells, none of them at a time we would have chosen. Acknowledge them. They’re part of your tale.

Now it’s time for a new chapter. And whether it enters to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” or of John Williams, it will be yours to tell. Tell it well.

And don’t forget to bring a few dollars for popcorn.