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?

The Juggling Act

“So, what are you reading these days?”

Every so often, a friend will ask that simple question. Simple and dangerous. Like a dragon deep within its cave, I have to smile in anticipation at an adventurer who does not know his peril.

“Well, I’m getting into a book on the fall of Richard Nixon. Oh, and there’s that new translation of The Iliad. And of course, Missy and I found a really fun modern fantasy series to go through at bedtime, we might have another hit there. And speaking of fantasy, there’s a novel  a co-worker finally got me into …”

No, I’m not just throwing out the coming attractions. This isn’t the to-be-read list, though that particular reading mountain is also impressively high. At any given time, I’m usually juggling anywhere from three to six books. It kind of works out a little bit like a literary version of Mambo No. 5: “A little bit of Asimov in my life, a little bit of history by my side ….”

I know I’m not alone. We’re out there, taking our meandering path less traveled. We’re often the kids who had to be told “No more than five books, OK?” on each library trip, knowing that we’d cart off half a shelf if given the chance – and devour it all.

And invariably, we get two questions from more tightly-focused readers.  “How?” Quickly followed by “Why??”

“How” isn’t something I’m sure I can answer. Like any skill, it seems to be a mix of inclination and practice. It’s not really multitasking (thank goodness) where one to-do interrupts another, lowering your productivity at both. If anything, it’s more like having multiple foods on your plate at dinner: you don’t have to finish your mashed potatoes before starting on the steak, but can alternate bites of both as you like, letting the flavors reinforce each other.

And maybe that’s part of the “Why?” as well. At its heart, this narrative whirlwind may be the most liberating experience I know.

We go through a lot in a day. Everything we touch shapes us, so that we’re not quite the same person from hour to hour, or maybe even minute to minute. Our mood shifts, our energy level shifts, our ability (or desire) to engage with the rest of the world shifts.

And as our life balances and re-balances, the sort of inner world we need may change, too. Like grabbing an umbrella for a rainstorm or a T-shirt for a sunny day, it’s nice to have options. (“The forecast is hopeful and curious, with a chance of random silliness: Yes, this is a great Connie Willis day.”)

It also keeps the stories fresh. We’ve all had the experience where even a favorite book can get a little fatiguing if you KNOW you have to finish it up before you can move on to another story you’re curious about.  Giving yourself the freedom to move from tale to tale as the inclination takes you (with careful bookmarks, of course) can keep all of it fresh and exciting.

It’s also a great reminder that nothing happens in isolation. Like that dinner plate I mentioned, it gives you a chance to combine and compare, bringing out themes you didn’t expect. (This happens to writers, too, by the way. Isaac Asimov once mentioned that the idea for his Foundation series happened when a Gilbert & Sullivan illustration got him thinking about what he’d read of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

So go ahead. Let the worlds collide. It’s your literary universe, after all.

 And when someone asks you that Simple Question – remember to let your inner dragon smile.

Tales of Discovery

The Road goes ever on and on. Especially in this house.

Missy lay back smiling as we wandered the roads of Middle-earth once more, letting the words wrap her like a blanket. Battles with Orcs. Respites with Elves. Wry comments from Gandalf. What better way to finish the day?

In twelve years of bedtime reading, we’ve come back to Professor Tolkien four times. The only other chronicle to get the same demand for an encore performance has involved a certain boy wizard. So you could say our reading nights are magical in more ways than one.

I hadn’t expected it. But then, I hadn’t expected a lot of things with Missy. Caring for a disabled relative has many adventures, so why should it be surprising that some of them involve hobbits with magic rings?

Especially when the same magic seduced me in the same way.

Long ago (if not exactly in the Third Age), Dad introduced me to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” We read them together out loud, trading off halfway through the chapter, storytellers relating an epic.

Entranced? Oh, yes.

Some of it was the sheer sound of the words. To this day, I maintain that Tolkien must be read out loud to get the full effect, letting the narrative surround and suffuse you like a piece of music.

Some of it was the love being shared, the connections formed as my Dad and I discovered a mutual passion and reveled in it.

And so much of it was what it opened inside me and around me. An exciting tale, well told, that spoke of discovering new places and rediscovering old lore. Where compassion could be more valuable than strength and loyalty as important as learning. Where victory didn’t have to mean triumphing over every obstacle, but simply enduring long enough to do the job you needed to do.

That spoke to me. It still does.

I know I’m not alone in my passion. But frankly, it wouldn’t matter if I was. It’s the tale that was there when I needed to hear it, that still fits me in a way no other story can.

We all have a tale like that. Or should.

For one of my friends, it was “The Outsiders,” discovered at just the right moment of adolescence.

For my wife Heather, it was a slim middle-grade novel called “The Higher Power of Lucky” that still has the power to infuse hope.

For others I’ve known, it’s been “The Secret Garden,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or … but that’s the point, isn’t it? There are as many possibilities as there are people, lying in wait like the world’s most wonderful ambush.

Everyone deserves a book that reaches their heart. No matter whether the world acclaims it or just you, it is forever yours and forever you.

Others can guide, suggest, encourage. (Heaven knows my folks did.) But you’re the only one who knows what fits. And when you know, nothing can keep it from you.

Some will try. But it’s a hard door to lock. Neither sneers nor bans will hold in the face of the determined and the curious. Give even the hint of a new possibility and the explorers will come.

And the best of those journeys will last a lifetime.

Tonight, our own journey continues. I don’t know what about Middle-earth hooked Missy’s heart but I’m glad for it. It’s something we can share, a world we travel together with old friends and new thoughts waiting around every bend.

The Road goes ever on and on.

And the next step is just a page away.

Book ‘Em

The Halloween season holds a lot of unsettling experiences. Like the chilling costumes. Or the blood-curdling movies. Or the thought that Election Day is just a week away. (“NOOOO!!!”)

But I think Paddy Riordan’s story may be my favorite hair-raising exploit this year, or at least one that I can sympathize with. You see, Paddy walked into his Coventry library with a book that was … shall we say, slightly overdue?

As in 84 years.

That’s right. According to UPI, the copy of “Red Deer” by Richard Jefferies had been checked out since 1938. For perspective, Neville Chamberlain was still assuring Britain of “peace in our time,” Betty White was still a fresh-faced teenager and the Denver Broncos were still 22 years away from disappointing football fans across the Centennial State.

You hear tales like this every so often, usually resolved with a laugh and a minor fine/donation (in this case, a little over $21 based on 1930s daily fines). But they never fail to make me wince as I recognize a kindred soul.

You see, I’m a bit of a bibliophile – which is a little like saying that Usain Bolt liked to run a little. I read constantly. Voraciously. And since I married a big reader, our combined collections aren’t so much a mountain of books as they are a literary Front Range, running the gamut from ancient history to star-spanning science fiction.

Naturally, I often spent a lot of time at the library – or should I say the “other library”? – joining the happy crowd of browsers and borrowers. But a book-loving spirit is a dangerous thing to have in combination with an absent-minded head. Especially when there are so many books already serving as natural camouflage for the newcomers.

And so, I tended to spend about as much time “settling up” as I did checking out. I can’t claim that my overdue fees personally paid for the new carpet at the Longmont Library, but it wouldn’t surprise me much.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, if I make headlines 40 years from now by unearthing a forgotten Bill Bryson volume and taking it to the circulation desk, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And second, as much as these stories strike a little close to home, they’re also heartwarming in a way. After all, we learn about them in almost exactly the same way, time after time: the person or their descendant uncovers the lost volume and brings it in.

No one would know if they didn’t. It’s possible no one would care. Most libraries don’t have the budget to keep a cold case file with square-jawed investigators seeking the truth. (Although wouldn’t that make a great TV series?) After a book spends decades off the shelf, most would assume that it’s not coming back.

Which means that every time it does, it’s an act of conscience. Someone who remembers what’s owed and wants to do their part to make it right.

When you think about it, this is a great time of year to remember that.

I don’t mean Halloween this time (though if you decide you “owe” really good candy to the kids on your block, bless you). But as I said earlier, Election Day is about a week away. Veterans Day is just a few days after that. Taken together, it’s a time to remember what we owe as citizens in building a country for all of us, as well as what’s been paid by those who came before.

Again, it’s a debt owed in conscience. If someone skips their piece of it, few would know. But when more of us who remember and repay, it’s better for all of us.

That kind of commitment speaks volumes.

I Now Pronounce Thee … How, Exactly?

Once upon a time, I learned the word “brazier.” Sort of.

As a kid, I could write the definition in a heartbeat, enough to know it was some kind of metal bowl or container that held fire. After all, I’d read it in fantasy novels. I’d seen it listed as a treasure in Dungeons & Dragons. My folks had driven by a Dairy Queen sign that shouted it to the world. Easy, right?

Only one problem: I’d never heard it out loud.

And so, one evening, college-age Scott read a passage out loud about a “burning bra-ZEER” … and Dad almost choked himself laughing.

“Scott,” he said, after surviving the mental image of flaming lingerie suddenly appearing in a medieval fantasy scene, “the word is BRAY-zhur.”

Oh.

Hooked On Phonics, you have a lot to answer for.

I bring this up only because Reuters and others recently reported on the hard-to-pronounce words of 2021. And as someone who blundered into the realm of burning braziers/brassieres, I have to show a certain amount of sympathy.

There’s the surname of tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of the rare names out there that’s less intuitive than “Rochat.” (For the newer readers here, it’s roe-SHAY.)

Or the challenge of wrestling with “Omicron,” the virus that not only endangered lives but tripped up tongues.

Some people stumbled over “Chipotle,” others over the last names of stars like Jason Kelce and Billie Eilish. Even a long runner like the city of Glasgow, Scotland caused a few folks to sweat while it was hosting last year’s climate conference.

If you’re comfortable with all those, well done. But there’s probably another stumble spot somewhere. Most people I know have a story of awkward linguistic discovery to share. My personal favorite is my wife Heather’s sudden childhood understanding that Nancy Drew had “titian” hair – TIH-shun, a particular shade of red hair – and not “titan” hair.

“It was the ‘80s!” she told me. “I just thought she had a really big hairdo!”
It’s easy to laugh, easier to blush. And maybe easiest of all to decide “You know, I’m just going to wait for someone else to try this.”

But if you’ve been brave enough to take the plunge – even if it left you with mud on your face – you’ve got my congratulations.

As a writer and an actor, I love the taste of words. And like any kitchen experiment, not everything’s going to work the first time. Some may even be real disasters. But when you get a new one down, you add a little more flavor to your world.

That’s exciting. And not just for words or recipes.

Even in an uncertain world, there’s a lot to discover. If you’re willing to take the step into something new, however small, that’s something to cheer. (As long as you’re not causing lasting harm, of course – would-be Dexters need not apply.) Each new achievement gives a little more understanding: of a topic, of yourself, of those around you.

Sure, it may also give you some laughter at your own expense. But if it’s a laugh that invites people in and reminds us that we’re all human … well, we can use more of that, too.

So have fun. Experiment well. Read aloud. Maybe even get some burgers and ice cream afterward.

After all, I know a Dairy Queen with a great brazier.  

A Place of Peace

“All right, Missy, are you ready?”

Sitting up in bed, Missy grinned her crooked smile and nodded. I set our bedtime book to one side.

“Ok, close your eyes.”

Two hands eagerly went up to her face.

“Take a breath … no peeking now … here we go.”

Carefully, I picked up a tiny photo album of hers, one she loved to page through. And set it with great delicacy on top of her head.

“One … two … three ….”

Missy waited through the count, trembling with excitement as the album balanced precariously … but without falling. On “10,” I removed the book and she broke out in joyful laughter.

“You did it, Miss!”

“Yeah!!!!”

That’s what happens when your nighttime reading takes a turn for the Force-ful.

For about 10 years now, Missy’s bedtime story has been an unbreakable ritual. We’ve journeyed with Bilbo Baggins and studied with Harry Potter. We’ve peeked into The Secret Garden, cracked the riddles of The Westing Game, and laughed loud and long as Anne Shirley broke her slate over a classmate’s head before returning to Green Gables. In the process, my wife Heather and I have seen how engaged Missy becomes and how her developmental disability is no barrier to following the plot or caring deeply about the characters.  

This time around, we’ve been able to mix in something different. The story is a familiar one, a junior-level take on The Empire Strikes Back titled “So You Want to Be a Jedi?” But the take is unusual, placing the reader in the role of Luke Skywalker and offering “Jedi training exercises” in between each chapter.

The first ones simply involve closing your eyes in peace for a few brief moments, learning to quiet yourself and concentrate. Then it adds simple (and often silly) things. Like balancing a book on your head. Or batting aside thrown socks without opening your eyes. Or balancing a book while batting away thrown socks without opening your eyes.

For Missy, it’s a fun way to show off. It also, in disguise, is a neat little lesson in balance, awareness and mindfulness.

And time and again, they start in the same place. Take a moment. Close your eyes. Breathe.

That’s valuable no matter how old you are.

And it’s something that’s oh-so-easy to forget.

We’ve all had a lot more than socks thrown at us lately. From the personal to the national, we’ve had worlds upset, lives overturned, familiar things disrupted and shaken and broken. Stress and worry pile up on every side, and not without reason.

Everything demands our attention and concern, but there’s still only one of us. It’s easy to become a balloon in a hurricane, tossed this way and that before something finally makes everything pop.

In the midst of that, taking a step back sounds impossible. Like Luke trying to lift his own X-wing, the situation just seems too overpoweringly big to get a grip on.

But that’s when a place of peace matters most.

It doesn’t have to be long. But it does have to be. Just for a few moments. Just long enough to set the shouting of the world aside and find your own thoughts again.

It’s hard. We live in a world of urgency and “do it now!” where action is valued over contemplation. And finding that moment doesn’t solve the problem – but it puts us in a better place to understand it, to see rather than just react.

Take that moment. Find that place. It’ll probably take practice. But it may just give a bit of balance in return.

And if that balance involves a photo album, Missy’s got a trick she’d like to show you.

The Next Chapter

These days, Labor Day weekend feels a little novel. If the novel were written by George R.R. Martin, anyway.

Maybe I should explain.

This is the time of year when I usually spend a lot of time looking forward and looking back. The looking forward is one that I share with millions of Americans as I try to stare into a crystal ball and put together two viable fantasy football teams. It’s an exercise in trying to predict greatness, injury, and whether you can scramble to the fridge for another Dr Pepper before the next Draft Day round pops up on your computer screen.

The looking back? That involves Missy. As I’ve sometimes mentioned here, September is when my wife Heather and I have to put together our annual guardian’s report on Missy, combing through receipts, bank statements and memories by the score. It’s time-consuming but oddly rewarding as well as we reaffirm another wonderful year together.

It’s a well-worn routine. In any other year, it’d be utter reflex.

Any other year isn’t 2020.

This is the year when football prognostication means guessing whether there’ll be a full season at all – not exactly a guarantee when the team stats may include points against, yards allowed and positivity rate.

It’s the year when most of Missy’s usual activities and expectations were turned upside down. No bowling. No softball. No hugs with her favorite band (Face) after a great show – kind of hard when you’re crowding the monitor for a livestream performance.

In many ways, life has become month-to-month, if not week-to-week. Grand plans for the future? These days, if we can figure out what’s available at the grocery store, we’re probably doing well.

It’s a little like living in a Paul Simon song: “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Even more, it’s like living in a novel.

Not reading one. Writing one.

Readers, after all, have the benefit of knowing how much of the book is left before major plot points have to be resolved. (Assuming the absence of a sequel, anyway.) They can cheat, skip ahead, look up a review on Amazon.

Writers don’t necessarily have that luxury. Oh, some laboriously outline everything – and still get surprised. Others go in with a starting point, a destination, and a loose idea of how to get there, discovering the path as they go. The reader is almost guaranteed to be surprised by the next chapter because … well, so was the writer.

As E.L. Doctorow put it (and many others have quoted), it’s like driving at night. All you can see is what’s in front of your headlights. But you can make the entire trip that way.

That’s our life at the best of times. 2020 just made it obvious.

The good news is, some truly epic journeys have been made that way.

It’s how J.R.R. Tolkien picked his way across the landscape of the Lord of the Rings, discovering each new bend as he came to it.

It’s how Stephen King walked every step of “The Green Mile,” staying just barely ahead of his readers as he wrote each new installment.

And it’s how we’ve survived crisis after crisis, both as individuals and as a nation.

That’s not saying foresight and planning are useless. When you hit a crisis, your preparation shows, as anyone knows who’s ever plunged the depths of a blizzard-bound grocery store in search of milk and bread. But however well we’ve trained our reflexes, we’re still living life at one second per second. We can only see so far ahead. And we may be wrong about that.

But as long as we’re staying aware – of ourselves, of the moment, of each other – we have a chance of building a story worth remembering.

Maybe we’ll even get a decent quarterback out of it.

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.

Directions in the Fogg

For the last few weeks, bedtime has been a race. And now, at last, Missy has pulled up smiling at the finish line.

A trip around the world can do that.

No, we’re not defying coronavirus restrictions and dashing through international borders one step ahead of the health authorities. Heck, at the rate baseball has been going, even state borders are starting to look like an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

But Missy’s bedtime reading has opened a lot of doors over the years. We’ve journeyed through Middle-earth. We’ve battled evil at Hogwarts. We’ve traveled the stars with Madeleine L’Engle and solved mysteries with Ellen Raskin.  And since Missy’s online activity group has been “visiting” a lot of countries lately, the time felt right  to introduce her to an old friend.

Once again, it was time to travel with Phileas Fogg.

If you’re not familiar with “Around The World In Eighty Days” – is there anyone left? – you have quite the journey ahead of you. I was a kid on summer vacation with my family when I first read Jules Verne’s tale of the incredibly precise 19th-century Englishman who accepts a 20,000 pound wager to circle the world  in the stipulated time without being a single minute late.  It’s a short novel and one that moves as quickly as its characters as they jump from trains and steamships to sailing craft and elephants, efficiently racing the clock (and a misguided detective).

Like a lot of older books, some bits age better than others. But the story still draws like a magnet because the central idea still works.

No, not the idea of circling the globe in under three months. Anyone with access to an airline ticket and a passport – a combination which, admittedly, has become a piece of fiction itself lately – can travel at a pace that leaves Fogg and his friends gasping in the dust.  But the challenge behind Fogg’s wager is still part of us today.

Namely, the idea that with enough planning, even the unexpected can become predictable.

At this stage of 2020, the idea sounds almost humorous. Anything we may have expected on  New Year’s Eve has surely gone through the paper shredder as we’ve grappled with seven months of upside-down events. It’s always hard to grasp how little control we truly have, but 2020 seems determined to remind us of that constantly … with a Louisville Slugger, if necessary.

The thing is, Fogg’s friends back home seem to have already absorbed the lesson. From the start, they remind him of all the things that could go wrong – breakdowns, bad weather, local violence and more. And in a way, they’re right. Fogg’s ability to take advantage of the good and improvise around the bad gets absolutely derailed on the final lap, disrupted by the one complication he hadn’t foreseen. Disaster looms.

It sounds like a pandemic lesson. And I hope it is. Because – spoiler alert! – that’s not the end of the story.

There’s a second complication. A positive one that gives Fogg more time than he thought he had. But without his planning, he would never have been in position to take advantage of it. And without learning to recognize and return the love of others, he would never have seen the opportunity at all.

And that is the lesson we need to learn.

Not to give up. Not to say “Nothing we do will make any difference.” But to plan as best we can, improvise where we have to, and recognize that ultimately it’s our compassion for the people around us that will get us through this. When we look out for each other instead of grasping desperately at normal, we win – because every one of us is “each other” to someone else.

Like all adventures, this will leave us changed. But it can be a change for the better.

Maybe, just maybe, a little Fogg can help us see clearly.

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.