Time Travel and Father’s Day

Karen and I are coming to the end of a two week visit with my parents. We were visiting them last year just before the pandemic exploded into all of our lives, and, though we were visiting to deal with specific family obligations this time, it still felt somehow fitting that we came out of the pandemic year the same way that we entered. A bookend, of sorts.

I’m a bit of an unusual case, I suppose, in that my parents still live in the same home in which I spent my childhood. They bought this house when I was not even a year old, and enjoyed a decent amount of land to go with it. I remember as they built additions to it. Whenever I visit lately, I find myself spending time with the realization that I grew up in this house. I played in this yard. The house and property have evolved so much over the last 40-plus years (I don’t want to date myself too closely). There have been so many changes. Sometimes, when we visit, I can see snapshots of various time periods play out in my head, vividly. This is true all the more now that our children are asking me some variation of “tell us a story from when you were a boy!” And, into the way-back machine of my mind I travel.

Our visit this year included Father’s Day. The kids decided to make a gift for me. This isn’t the first time….they’ve been pleasantly crafty of late. They ran into the house the evening before, unable to wait, and dragged me outside to see what they had made. They had carefully composed a heart from selected rocks that they had painted, flowers that they had picked, and topped it with (of all things, but a nod to my obsessive-compulsive tendencies) a bottle of hand sanitizer. They had done this in the lawn behind the house.

It meant so much to me.

Photo of the heart that my daughters made for me on Father's Day.

My parents have a huge back yard. The kids will run and play in it, weaving around various mini-gardens that are the endless hobby of my mother, for hours. When I was their age, we had an outside dog whose house was near the very spot where they had laid the heart for me. That very yard in which I had myself ran and played and had so many adventures with my father, so long ago. I could never have imagined that moment back then, but it seems now to be a marker of something sacred, a thin place…the closest I will know of multiple generations experiencing their lives on the same hallowed ground. I know that this is nothing new for some, but for me it was an epiphany, almost as though I was seeing myself as a child look forward through time to this moment.

I had difficulty putting into words why this gift meant so much, even as my daughter expressed sadness that she felt it wasn’t special enough (she inherited my perfectionism, the poor kid). They kept asking, and so I would do the only thing that I know to do in those moments. I would tell them stories of my childhood that happened in that very spot.

And they loved every moment of the telling, just as I did.

I wonder what they will look back on and remember fondly when they’re my age, and the thought that we are creating those memories now makes me feel outright reckless for not approaching every day with care to make them the best memories possible, because they, in turn, will tell their stories to someone.

Because our stories make us.

I’m thankful that there are more in the making.

A Review of “When You Finish Saving the World”

Screenshot of the cover of When You Finish Saving the World.

Back before Audible “improved” their subscription plans and bundled podcasts in, subscribers used to receive two of their original publications each month. Sometimes there was something compelling, sometimes not, and sometimes I grabbed both several months in a row, resulting in a backlog of reading that I just didn’t get around to. This book was one of those cases. It was referenced as having an autistic character, which drew me in given that I used to work with adolescents on the spectrum, but then it just sort of digitally sat there for nearly six months before I finally got around to reading it. When I did, I found it to be one of the most compelling books I’ve experienced in years.

When You Finish Saving the World” is written by Jesse Eisenberg, who also voices one of the characters. You’ll recognize the voice fairly immediately if you watched the tragedy that was Dawn of Justice, because Eisenberg played Lex Luthor (one of the few performances that was worth anything in that film). Eisenberg’s novella introduces us to a family: Nathan, Rachel, and their son Ziggy, and tells their stories through recordings that each makes: Nathan and Ziggy to their therapists, Rachel to her first boyfriend. This was a deeply compelling way to peel back the layers to this story, because it gave so much space to each character to reveal themselves to the reader. I felt as though I was inhabiting their thoughts and emotions, not deducing them through dialogue. In this way, the work is more of a drama that a novella, and I found it to be a fantastic storytelling device.

We enter the story through Nathan, who is struggling with his inability to connect with his newborn son, and is working through the damage that this is causing to his relationship with Rachel. The reader realizes fairly quickly that Nathan is on the spectrum. I was extremely empathetic to him through his section of the novella (each character has a section), because he is trying to so hard to overcome this challenge that is insurmountable, and he is doing so for the person that he loves. Rachel, in turn, is placing unrealistic expectations on him as he makes his efforts, and the reader finds themselves very sympathetic to Nathan’s efforts and resentful of Rachel’s pressure.

Section 2 takes us to a near future scenario, where Ziggy is now a teenager and is struggling to fit into a society that he finds frustrating and fake, and that his mother, Rachel, champions. I really like that Eisenberg used the descriptions of the future as Ziggy goes to therapy with an artificial intelligence to make some honest societal comments with a backward wave, complete with a new slang vernacular for the teenagers of the future. The discord between Nathan and Rachel has left its mark on Ziggy, who harbors a great deal of anger toward his parents but particularly resents and is angry at Rachel, whom he paints as overzealous in her attempts to save everyone from everything, which becomes a form of oppression to his life. Again, the reader leaves Ziggy’s chapters resenting Rachel.

In both of the first two sections, however, Nathan and Ziggy foreshadow our meeting Rachel by mentioning the otherwise-well-kept secret that, before meeting Nathan, Rachel’s first boyfriend died. We take this knowledge into the final section of the book, in which we meet Rachel, with whom we have grown so frustrated. We pick up Rachel’s story before she meets Nathan, with the boyfriend whose fate we already know. Rachel is compellingly performed by Kaitlyn Dever. We walk through Rachel’s backstory with trepidation, sensing that the glass is about to break, and then we end sitting with this character with whom we’ve grown so frustrated through the preceding chapters…whose hero complex we’ve watched tear down the lives of those dearest to her…and end with such a profound sympathy that I needed to walk away for a few moments after reading the closing words.

Rachel is a mess, but the reader understands why, and realizes that they would be, too.

What I love about this book is that it reinforces that everyone has experienced tragedy, that all of us have issues, and that we didn’t acquire those issues in a vacuum. The concept that the reader leaves with is one of compassion for those that we encounter every day, because we don’t know what they’ve been through, the battle they’ve fought, the losses that they’ve experienced. And, perhaps, we find ourselves less angry at their shortcomings with this in mind.

“When You Finish Saving the World” is an unexpected gift, and simply the most compelling book that I’ve read so far this year. In the midst of our subscription fatigue, it’s difficult to recommend the cost of a membership to read a book (and I deeply hate that one would have to), but this is one of those rare books that is worth going through the extra effort. Hopefully this releases in other mediums soon to become more widely available, but please do yourself a favor and read this book.

And, when you finish, think about how you treat those around you, because it will be different.

Housekeeping – RSS Feed is Moving

Hello, dear readers.

I mean that…you’re really dear. I so appreciate all of you who take the time to read my musings here.

A long, long time ago when I started this blog, I set up an RSS feed with Feedburner. I’m going to be turning that off in a day or so. There aren’t many subscribers to that feed, but if you’re one of the handful, you’ll stop getting posts that way. You can plug the new RSS feed into your reader though, and carry on as though nothing ever happened.

Thank you for reading.

A Review of “This is How They Tell Me the World Ends”

Screenshot of the cover of "This is How They Tell Me the World Ends". by Ncole Perlroth.

This book was an accidental find. I stumbled onto an ad in the pages of a recent issue of the Atlantic and, let’s face, it the title grabs you. The rest of the title, “The Cyberweapons Arms Race,” sealed my desire to read this. The author, Nicole Perlroth, is a cyber-security reporter for the New York Times who covered the Edward Snowden leaks when they broke. I’m interested in how history tends to get lost very quickly, and so I’m always drawn to books that walk through history that I’ve lived. I remember most of the events that Perlroth discusses: Stuxnet, the Snowden debacle, to say nothing of more recent events in our tumultuous political time. I thought that I knew the details of these events. I was honestly shocked at how little I knew. The title of the book is designed to give one a sense of dread, I think, and I would say that it succeeds. You really can’t walk away from this book without a sobering sense of reality settling on you at best, and a sense of digital paranoia at worst.

Perlroth walks us through a detailed underground history of events that led us to the place that we inhabit today. She defines how hackers began exploiting software, traces a tangled web through the way that hacking was weaponized by the governments of the world, and how cyber warfare became commonplace. What I had never realized prior to reading this was that there is an underground market for selling exploits, a market that is extremely lucrative for hackers who want to monetize their time, hackers that are often, by Perlroth’s description, quite mercenary in their approach to doing business. She walks us through how the exploits sold by such hackers were used in some of the world-changing cyber-attacks of our time, such as Stuxnet.

What I appreciate, especially given that I work in web technology for a living, is that Perlroth never paints all hackers with a broad brush. While she never uses the standard terms to deleniate between “white hat” and “black hat” hackers, I think that she avoids this on purpose, because she wants to make it clear that the temptation to label these hackers as either good or bad is misplaced. Their lives, and their vocation, is just not that simple.

This book is remarkably well-researched. The reader experiences key events in the development of the cyber arms race: The Google hack, the election interference of 2016, the politics behind the development of Stuxnet…in deep detail that leaves you with new appreciation for the history behind our current situation. The end goal of this is to leave the reader with an unsettled understanding: we have, through a series of cultural events and technological innovations, set ourselves up for a painful failure, a failure that has the potential to be quite devastating.

Some of my favorite recollections from the author are her own close calls with obvious hacking attempts into her own life. If you’re not digitally paranoid now, you will be after reading these stories.

My biggest issue with the writing of the book is that, in order to achieve a certain tone, the author casually uses unprofessional language that I think detracts from the feel of journalistic integrity that the book should have. The quality of the research and storytelling still stand out, but I think that there would be a more authoritative perception had the author made different choices here. I also was not impressed with the quality of the Audible production: it was poorly edited and the narrator didn’t capture the cadence of the writing. This does not detract from the quality of the book itself, though.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book. Even if you do not have an interest in the topic, this is a subject that effects all of us in ways that we don’t even realize and, if the author’s predictions are correct, will come to impact us more heavily in the future. This is a heavy read, but you will be glad that you’ve experienced this history.

Thoughts on WandaVision

I know, I’m slightly late to the conversation on WandaVision. This isn’t because I watched it late, but because it took a while to unpack this series. Like most viewers, I found it a bit mystifying from the trailers, but I was intrigued from the first episode. This, I thought, is by far the quirkiest thing that Marvel has put on any screen, large or small, and yet held a sense of foreboding that something was just around the corner, something ominous. What I found as the series progressed, and as I’ve had time to ruminate on it a bit, is that there is a deeper theological undercurrent to this series than I’ve seen in any of the MCU to date.

Let me cut to the ending though: I loved WandaVision.

Comic book literature is sort of naturally given to feature length films, because it tends to contain huge battles between good and evil that are epic in scale. Arcs like Captain America’s backstory, or the Avengers, are well-suited to a series of large-screen films. We’ve followed them, loved them, found ourselves invested in them. If you’ve read comics at all, though, you’ll know that there’s more to the characters. Comics give space for the backstory of the characters, as well. They at times devote entire issues to conversations between incidental or secondary characters, developing not only those characters but others in the process. There’s room for dialogue, for the heavy introspection of someone’s thoughts. Were the screenplay writers to include this in every film, they would all easily exceed two hours. What we’ve seen with Marvel’s series at large, though (think of the Defenders series on Netflix) is that their episodic nature provides the writers with the room to unpack backstories, develop characters, help us to know these heroes (and villains) better. Think of the entire episode of Daredevil devoted to Matt Murdock revealing his secret identity to Foggy Nelson. That was incredible dialogue, and the viewer was so much more invested in both Murdock and Nelson after.

That sort of space is something that both Vision and the Scarlet Witch have been in need of since they debuted in Age of Ultron. Wanda Maximof’s story of one of trauma. Repeated trauma. She watches her parents die. She chooses to become an Avenger, and then her brother dies. She still tries to do what is good, and manages to find a strange an unusual love in the Vision, not only to watch him die as well at the hands of Thanos, but actually is forced to be the one to kill him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Wanda is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel universe at this point, not just in sheer power level (we’ll get there), but in the will to even get up each morning and keep going after that amount of trauma. I’m not sure I would make the same decision.

Wanda, however does. The complication is that she is endowed with a level of power that she can’t even comprehend prior to this series, and, when her mind finally breaks under the pain of grief of loss, that power alters reality. The writers riffed on the House of M story arc from the source material, and walked the thin line of introducing the complexities of this scenario without ever allowing Wanda to become a villain. Because, at the end of the day, it just isn’t that simple.

What fascinates me about WandaVision is the theological implications of the story. This is ultimately a story of what happens when any one of us tries to play God. Wanda just wants an end to pain. She has no ill intent. So, she does exactly what any of us would do if we found ourselves in possession of an enormous amount of magical ability to alter reality to fit our will. Wanda departs the realm of hero, but never becomes a villain. She just wants a respite from her grief but, because she’s only human after all, creates a disastrous scenario when she takes matters into her own hands, even though (and this is important) she does so instinctively rather than intentionally.

I don’t want to throw out a post full of spoilers…you really need to watch this series if you haven’t. To continue the theological discussion, though, the best part of the story is that, in the end, when confronted with the decision to maintain the relief from sadness that she so desperately wants and deserves, or to let Vision, her one love, die yet again in order to free the innocent people around her from the prison that she’s inadvertently created, Wanda displays the nature of a hero and places the good of the many before her own. The pain that she’s feeling we cannot fathom, but she repents of her wrong doing and makes an effort to save the lives of others.

There are far more themes introduced in this series than I can explore here. We see an image of temptation by the evil one in the Garden in Agatha Harkness. We’re given a bit of time to ask the question, can a machine love, if we can create as we were created, and what the ramifications of such actions might be. There is so much going on in WandaVision.

WandaVision is the most original idea that Marvel has tried to date. Each episode is superbly written, perfectly performed, and full of layers of significance that one just doesn’t find in any series created in the U.S of late. If you’re a comics fan, and especially if you’ve followed the MCU at all, this is a must-watch. I wouldn’t recommend that this be a jumping-on point to the MCU if you haven’t, though. The good news there is that you have a lot of great material on which to catch up.