Found in Space

You could call it the ultimate tech-support ticket.

For those of you who don’t keep up on space news – I get it, the NBA playoffs are on – NASA just came to the rescue of Voyager. No, not the old Star Trek sci-fi series, the even older space probe that was launched in the 1970s, left the solar system entirely in the 2010s and is still sending back information today.

Well … at least it was until November, when the most distant man-made object ever stopped sending signals.

Mind you, Voyager was still functional. But it couldn’t “speak” clearly – its signals were garbage. And so, armed with paper documentation and a two-day time lag in sending or receiving information, NASA went to work.

Five months of troubleshooting ultimately found that one chip had gone bad, corrupting a tiny piece of Voyager’s code. Uploading a fix meant working with a 47-year-old computer from 15 billion miles away. (Now THAT’S an overseas call center.)

And finally, on April 23, the news came out: Voyager was back on the line.

That lifts me up in so many ways. And not just because I’m a serious space geek. That’s part of it, mind you, but not all.

It also shows how much we can value what’s gone before. And how much we’ll do to save it.

That might sound a little strange. After all, nostalgia has deep roots in us and they get deeper every day. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were looking back with rose-colored glasses on the ‘50s and ‘60s. Today, it’s the ‘80s and so much more. In fact, thanks to the internet, we now get to sample and romanticize almost any era – or a mixture of them – as the “good old days.”

But that’s a surface appreciation and often a nearsighted one, choosing to ignore the worst of an earlier time or the best of today. “Back to the past” movements can even do tremendous damage, bulldozing today’s people and needs in the name of restoring a half-imagined golden age. Ultimately, we can’t live in a memory.

That said, we also tend to swing too hard the other way. Nostalgia trivializes, and if something isn’t lit by the current “Ooh, that’s cool and weird” spotlight, it tends to be rejected as old junk that’s no longer relevant. Tools, ideas, even people get set aside and forgotten in favor of newer and better.

But once in a while, we get a reminder that nothing is totally forgotten, or that the lessons of the past still have value now. And whether it’s programmers blowing the dust off of forgotten code to make a repair or long-ago veterans and refugees sharing their experience with a classroom, we stop for a moment, remember and learn.

Forgotten things can still have value. Forgotten people can still have value.

And when we pull off the impossible to help the forgotten, we remind ourselves what we’re capable of. After all, if we can spend five months to help one scientific instrument 15 billion miles away, how much more can we do to acknowledge and help the person next door?

So I’m happy for Voyager. And I’m even happier for us.

That’s the kind of support and determination that can make space for us all.

Delay of Game

Hold the phone. Stop the presses. Check the stars for once-in-a-century alignment because the universe has gone weird.

It’s October. And Missy’s birthday actually fell on … Missy’s birthday.

No, I haven’t been drinking cold medicine for fun, though the dazed look on my face sure might look like it. That’s what happens when you get ambushed by reality.

You see, this practically never happens in the Rochat household. Or at least, at a frequency reserved for Halley’s Comet, Cubs World Series championships, and smash hit rap musicals on Broadway.

We are the masters of “birthday observed.”

It’s not from spaciness or a lack of care. Missy’s birthday in particular is a major highlight of the year for both Heather and myself. Usually, it means that our developmentally disabled ward gets to hit her favorite bowling alley for an afternoon of pins, pizza, and presents while every available relative in the area cheers her on. That pretty much lifts her into second heaven right there. (Subsequent layers of heaven are unlockable by the presence of dancing, Legos, art opportunities, Harry Potter, and/or live music, especially if the Face Vocal Band is involved.)

But “Missy’s birthday” and “Missy’s Birthday, Observed” have been as much as three weeks apart sometimes. It’s not just a matter of “Oh, this is the closest weekend” – sometimes it’s fighting like mad to keep it in October at all.

There’s the minefield of other birthdays in the family. The wild card of Heather’s health. The challenge of finding a day when even five of us can be in the room at the same time. Heck, one year Missy’s birthday fell in the middle of a major bowling tournament, when there was hardly an alley to … well, spare. (rimshot)

And it’s not just Missy. Between luck and logistics, my February birthday has often gone well into March, or our July anniversary into the back-to-school sales. It’s not the precision of a rifle shot at a defined target, but the run of a World War II bombing raid that lets off all its ordinance in the expectation that something will get hit.

And these days, I suspect that we have a lot of company.

Life happens. And these days, for most of us, life happens at high speed as every moment bombards us with more demands for our attention. Whether it’s the job, the latest crisis, or an electronic environment that sends out more alerts and distress signals than the starship Enterprise, we are deluged.

Is it any wonder that our full worlds collide, bounce, and hold each other off so often?

That makes it more important than ever to step back sometimes, to make some times protected and special. I know, that’s easier to say than do. (Believe me, I know!) But I’m going to say something that may sound heretical.

This isn’t a battle against the calendar.

It doesn’t matter when you make that time. Only that you make it.

The calendar doesn’t care. The clock doesn’t care. They’re tools, and they’re even useful tools. But caring belongs to people.

If a person knows they’re loved and cared for, you can celebrate them any day of the year. After all, in a way, you’re already celebrating them every day of the year.

If you know that this is the moment when you can regain a bit of peace and balance, it doesn’t matter if the sun is high or the stars are shining. It matters that you’re aware, that you know what you need, and that you value finding it.

The world may be chaos. The choices may be limited. But the time you choose will always be the right time – because you cared enough to choose it.

And if that choice lets you cheer on a broadly smiling Missy at a bowling alley, so much the better.

Rules of the Game

Look out, world. Your next dangerous mastermind has arrived.

My 8-year-old niece Ivy has discovered chess.

In case James Bond’s descendants need the data later, some family photos have captured this historic global turning point. In one, Ivy and my dad have squared off across the board in the midst of a carefully thought-out match. In another, my grinning niece is throwing herself into a solo game, complete with self-generated commentary that my mom called “a mix between a roller derby match and the Hunger Games.” (“Let’s get out there and take chances, but play smart!”)

I had to smile. And not just at the thought of the next Bobby Fischer also being the next Howard Cosell.

After all, it hasn’t been that long since I was in the same chair.

Dad taught me to play chess. He taught all of us to play, really, but I was his most frequent opponent, carefully internalizing the values of rooks and queens, the surprises that knights could pull, and why you never, ever touched a piece until you were ready to make a play.

It was absorbing. Mind you, I was grown before I finally won a game against him – Dad believed in treating us with respect by not holding back on the chessboard – but it didn’t matter. It was the game that mattered, the time together, the fun.

And just maybe, the tools I was picking up without realizing it.

From an early age, I had petit mal epilepsy. After a couple of years, it was readily controlled with medication, but there were still some related neurological issues that needed to be addressed, ranging from physical coordination and balance to simple concentration. Among other things, this meant spending some time in the “resource room” at school each week, playing games.

That always sounded cool to my friends – and to me, come to think of it – but it was only later that I thought about what the teacher and I were doing. Sometimes it was card games like Concentration, building up memory. A few times, it was a noisy parachute game called Bombs Away, helping me with my timing and hand-eye coordination. And a lot of times, maybe most times, it was chess.

Chess requires planning. Memory. The ability to weigh choices. And most of all, situational awareness – the ability to be in the moment, thoroughly aware of what’s coming at you and what you have available to meet it.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

I’ve thought a lot about those unspoken lessons. But it’s only recently that I started thinking about the other lessons that were being taught – by that teacher, by family, by the other professionals that worked with me. Not by a game or exercise, but by example.

Things like patience. Persistence. Taking the time with someone who needs it, no matter how small, no matter how much time they may need. Learning to value each person you encounter, to see not just what they are but what they could be someday … and to help encourage that, if you can.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

For all of us.

It starts with pieces on a board. Then grows to people in a life. None of it comes easy. (Thanks, Dad.) But if we learn the real rules of the game, all of us can win. Not by storming our way to checkmate, but by being willing to sit down with the other players in the first place.

So good luck, Ivy. Take chances. Play smart.

And have fun storming the castles.