Full Circle – Losing a Pet

My family had a handful of pets as I grew up. I’ve written recently about a beloved dog, but we also had others. I grew up in a fairly rural area. I remember when our dog died, my father went to the tree line in our back yard, picked a spot, and dug a small grave for that beloved friend. I’m glad that we stood there…a small, graveside ceremony of sorts…laying to rest the pet that we had all loved so much. It provided some closure, which is important in the grief process.

I was thinking about this recently as I woke one Sunday morning to discover that my daughter’s hamster had died. His name was Pepper, and he was her first “real” pet (I say real because I don’t think we really count a Betta fish). His passing didn’t come as a surprise, necessarily…he had lived a good, long life, and hadn’t been doing well for a few days. Medicine from the vet didn’t seem to be helping. She took it hard…and saying that is a bit of an understatement. There was a day of grieving, and, I’m going to be honest, it hit me a bit harder than I thought it would. I loved that little guy. When our daughter would have him out to play, she would bring him up to me and he would brush his nose on mine. It was a family joke. His last evening with us, he did just that. As it turned out, it was one last time, perhaps a “goodbye.”

Our daughter picked out a box and we purchased it…a sort of tiny casket in which to lay him to rest. She painted a huge red heart on the top. The image of the box with that heart on it has stayed with me…a little animal’s life and a girl’s enormous love for him captured in one symbol. I told her later how proud I was of her for loving him so much, and for giving him such a great life.

That afternoon, we were in the yard together as a family. I had a shovel in hand. Just as my father had done decades ago, I dug a (much smaller) grave and my daughter laid her beloved hamster to rest there. As a family, we paid our respects.

As my life came to this surreal full circle…doing what my dad had done for me so long ago…I reflected on grief. I think we shun grief as a culture…almost as though we’re obsessed with eternal youth…and so we don’t engage it. It’s important to engage it, though, because that’s how we handle it in a healthy way. Grief is a difficult lesson to learn, because the only way to learn it is to experience it. We don’t want that, because we’re reacting to a state of being that is contrary to how we were designed to exist. Yet, deal with it we must.

My daughter handled it very well. She’s moved on now because we engaged the grief, and we worked toward some closure.

But it still hurt.

I’ll miss that little guy.

A Review of “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

These are different times.

As much as I love superhero mythologies and as much as I could talk about them forever, it seems out of step that it’s taking me this long to write a review about a movie that opened nearly a month ago. Before the world broke, I wrote about these films on opening weekend because we had scheduled everything else around seeing them. For the last two years, it’s been rare for me to sit in a theatre (the last time was Back Widow), and writing out my thoughts has seemed…less important. So, seeing this in person was a mark of returning normalcy. Given how late I am in writing this, though, I’m not going to avoid spoilers.

First off, let me say that there are some prerequisites for this film. If you’ve been following the Disney + series, and have seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, you should be good. In case you haven’t though, you should (in order) watch WandaVision, What If?, Loki, and Spider-Man. Otherwise, this might not make much sense to you, because the last time you saw Wanda Maximoff, she would not have been the villain.

Yes, you read that correctly.

What slapped me in the face for this movie is that everything that you thought you knew from the trailer is turned on its head in the first 15 minutes. Dr. Strange made some difficult decisions in order to defeat Thanos, and those choices introduced even more loss for Wanda. We saw her grief overtake her in WandaVision, walked through that grief with her, and when we last saw Wanda, she was growing into her own abilities by entertaining the Darkhold. Remember that Wanda is a Scarlet Witch, a wielder of chaos magic, and, as such, has become an incredibly powerful being almost overnight. Also remember that the Darkhold corrupts those who read it. Here we discover that she has learned of the multiverse, and is searching for a way to bring her children into the universe we know as canonical in the MCU (numbered 616). Moreso than when we left the end of WandaVision, we discover the Scarlet Witch quite literally mad with grief.

As an aside, I think a good deal of inspiration for this plot was taken from the Avengers: Disassembled story arc, if you’re familiar with the source material.

For the geeks among us, we also find that the MCU is differentiating heavily between sorcery and witchcraft. Wong confirms that a Scarlet Witch is a being of unspeakable power, who can re-write reality at will. In Avengers: Disassembled, Dr. Strange points out that Wanda, as a mutant, had an enormous amount of magical power thrust onto her without ever learning the discipline necessary to control it. Of course, we haven’t been able to have mutants in the MCU until now because lawyers, but it provides interesting context.

That said, what Marvel seems to be doing here is finding a creative way to bring in not only popular previous films (i.e.: other Spider-Man incarnations), but also to explain why we haven’t had mutants to begin with now that the legal walls in the real world seem to be coming down (hence, we see Charles Xavier in this film). There are simply different universes in the multiverse, and we now know that there can be potential incursions from one to the other due not only to the magic wielded in this movie, but also by the actions of Kang in the Loki series. I think the viewers stand to see a lot more variety due to this.

The visual effects in this movie are nothing short of spectacular, particularly the initial action sequence in which Dr. Strange is fighting a monster rampaging through the city, as well as later jumping between universes. Also, introducing Professor X and Mr. Fantastic into the MCU was accomplished so unexpectedly and almost with a backward wave that the viewer is left in a sort of stunned silence. I want to re-watch the movie now because I’m certain I missed something important here as I was processing what I had just seen.

What I found to be the most thought-provoking part of the story of this second installment of Dr. Strange is watching how other heroes interact with Stephen Strange. As he makes continued, apparently callous decisions in an effort to preserve countless lives across universes (similar to what we saw in Spider-Man: No Way Home), his actions have enormous consequences on his fellow heroes. While Peter Parker rejects this outright and fights to save as many people as he can in the previous film, Wanda turns inward, propelled by grief, holding Dr. Strange responsible for the death of Vision and the loss of her children, and lashing out with violence.

Speaking of violence, there’s a good deal of it in this movie…more than in previous Marvel films, which, while not enough to be off-putting, was enough that I noticed. I haven’t found Disney to be interested in gore in any way, but some scenes of this movie manage to get close.

There are definitely things that I dislike about the film, though, and one of them is the ending. Dr. Strange turns to dark magic, in fact to the Darkhold, using necromancy to win the battle in the end. And, while Wanda ultimately sees the error of her choices and chooses to sacrifice herself for the greater good as a hero, I’m concerned by watching heroes cross the line into dark choices and leaving the audience with the impression that this is a heroic decision. I found this part of the plot disappointing, as Dr. Strange defies the nature of a hero. I also feel like Wanda’s sacrifice happened so quickly that it’s almost missed. I didn’t truly unpack the emotional ramifications of that scene until days later, and, while few characters really die in the comics, I still grieve over the end of a tragic character we’ve grown to sympathize with so deeply.

Overall, I was impressed by Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, even though I wish the ending had been handled better. This takes the story in the only direction it could truly go as the MCU continues to reinvent itself after the Snap, and we see the character development here that keeps us returning to these movies. This is definitely a movie worth seeing, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image attribution: Luka Zou under Creative Commons.

Life After Grad School – My Episode of “The Work Seminar”

A few months ago, I connected via a colleague with Jesse Butts, who hosts a podcast called The Work Seminar. His interviews are with people who achieved graduate degrees in liberal arts fields, and then ended up working in a field or discipline completely different from what they studied academically.

Sound familiar….?

Anyway, Jesse asked me to be a guest on the show, and you can find my episode here. I had a lot of fun recording this, and hey….now I can say that I’ve been on a podcast.

Let me know if you enjoy the episode! You can grab it anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Everything in Moderation

Last week I listened to a great conversation over at FLOSS Weekly regarding social media, conversations, and moderation. In case you don’t read the news often…or social media…in which case this might not interest you but I digress…there’s a been a bit of a stir around Twitter lately. The short version is that it’s about to become a privately held company controlled by an eccentric person with a lot of money who isn’t interested in curtailing anyone’s free speech.

Go ahead, I’ll let you catch up…

So, yes, regardless of how you feel about this…and my feelings are mixed…I think we all can agree that Twitter is about to become a very different neighborhood.

Like most of you, I’ve used social media for a long time. I would even have called myself a power user at one point, although I’ve stepped back from a lot of platforms, including deleting Facebook. Twitter has been the one that I’ve generally held onto, although lately I’ve been staying with the sites that were mainstays back in the day….Reddit, Digg, and so forth…because Twitter is beginning to become a platform for people to scream at each other, as well as making really frustrating and isolating decisions about how it can be used.

On the podcast, there was discussion about how, if Twitter is the public square for conversation in America, what moderation is necessary and appropriate? In short: is Musk’s vision of reducing moderation a pipe dream? The panel talks about how Reddit is heavily moderated, and, as a result, new users are often moderated out and leave. This poses the question, is that level of moderation a good thing?

Some level of governance is necessary for social discourse. However, the idea that the right kind of governance…taking the form of content moderation…can resolve the noisy echo chamber that Twitter has become is faulty at its premise, because it’s trying to fix a cultural problem with technology. We can’t moderate how people feel about each other, even if we can how they interact with each other.

The problem with Twitter, or any other social network, isn’t that there aren’t correct rules. The problem is that it gives everyone a platform to speak, but no one knows how to have civil discourse. To the contrary, it’s become fashionable to not be civil. As the panelists point out, when moderation reaches its extreme and people are banned from a network, they just create a parallel network. These are just echo chambers.

The problem is cultural. The problem is that we view anyone who disagrees with our perspective as “other,” as a hostile. The problem is that no dissenting views are tolerated in our so-called public spheres. The problem is that America’s version of discourse is to scream louder than the other person so that no one can hear them.

Let me say again, a functioning community must have some rules. Classrooms, faith communities, neighborhood gatherings, all have some level of expectations of behavior, if nothing else. If Twitter is indeed our public square, then I also have to wonder if the scope of the rules is different. If so, however, then I think that it has to be pubic and democratic, not private. There needs to be expectations of how to behave, but this will be useless if those engaging don’t care about those expectations.

Of all social networks, Twitter still doesn’t know what it is. It has grown into something unintentional, and can’t facilitate the conversations of a culture un-educated in civility. We can try to fix this with moderation all we like, but those efforts will fail. The problem lies much, much deeper than the platform which gives it voice, and trying to use more technology to resolve this will not be effective.

This is a problem that our tools cannot fix.

Image attribution: Pete Simon under Creative Commons.

I’ll Never Let You Go – The Grief of Losing a Dog

Just before I was in high school, my family got a dog. He was a small dog, and I’m honestly not entirely sure of his breed except to say that there was Chihuahua in there somewhere. We got him as a puppy, and this was at a fairly formative time in my life…I was old enough to take on a lot of the responsibility of him. He grew up through my high school years, faithfully waiting for me every afternoon when I disembarked from my ridiculously long bus ride. I made up funny voices for him to try to verbalize the expressive facial expressions that we came to know and love. I picked on him like a little brother. In college, I would come home on weekends and he was always there to greet me, faithful as ever.

When that dog died, it was a gut punch. If you’ve lost a pet, you know…there’s a grief process on par with losing a family member. I felt it for a while. Even though I didn’t live there any longer, it felt like a betrayal when my parents got a new dog. How could my old friend ever be replaced? It hurt that they tried.

This has come up a few times lately as our children are…passionately….expressing their desire for us to own a dog. I haven’t owned one since we lost that beloved friend. I don’t want to go through that loss again. The grief is not trivial.

Still, to go to the extremely expensive…and, I would argue, unethical…lengths of cloning a pet would be foreign to me. When I read this column about the industry that has grown up around this practice…yes, you read that correctly…I was more than a bit amazed. And, quite troubled, as well. What disturbes me is not so much the cost of doing this business, but rather the underlying assumptions that creep in through the writer’s descriptions.

If you read the column, you’ll notice that the writer feels the need to point out that cloning a pet is like resetting a phone…similar model, but new data. The comparison is to a cloned animal not having the memory or experiences of the original. I find it disturbing that our accepted cultural analogies to living things have become operating systems. I sort of get it…we are created as creators, and the lens through which we see our world is that which we have built…but there is inherent in this a disrespect for the living thing.

I’m not immune to this. Several years ago, we went through a weekend with no power after a nasty ice storm in North Carolina. When we left to stay with friends who still had power, our daughter’s betta fish didn’t survive the 40-degree nights. She was young at the time, too young, we decided, to have that conversation. So, as she hadn’t noticed when we returned, I made a late-night run to a pet store to insist to the mystified employee that I needed a betta that was a very exact color and appearance. They had one, and when my wife texted to check on my progress, I replied that I was inbound with the “Mark II.”

The source of this flippant disrespect for the living world around us can be found in abundance in the wording of the column. The process of a surrogate pet having the cloned pet is described not as a miraculous event of life continuing (even though it has been meddled with), but in purely scientific terminology. The new cat is an “embryo.” The focus is on the DNA of cells from the original animal, as though the animal is nothing more.

In his analysis of C.S. Lewis’ thought, Joe Rigney coins the expression “scientific reductionism.” He is using it to encapsulate one of Lewis’ central thoughts in the Abolition of Man. His definition is the audacity to believe that if we know all of the facts about a thing, that we know the essence of the thing (my paraphrase). That’s what I find at work here. Even though the subject of the column recognizes that her cloned cat is not the same as her first pet, there is a presumption that we have the right to artificially create a Frankenstein animal because of our grief process, because the animal has no substance other than its DNA. Essentially, in this view, the animal is no greater than the sum of its parts.

This reductionism is a fatally flawed premise. While mostly just gallows humor when we think about it in relation to pets, it becomes significantly more dystopian when framed in terms of humanity. Because, at its core, it requires the rejection of the recognition that humanity is more than just chemicals and electrons. There is no more value in life than that. When there is no more value in life, then war is acceptable. Murder of the unborn is acceptable. Mucking around with processes in our bodies that we don’t understand is acceptable.

Despite all of the science fiction through the decades that has warned us of exactly this issue.

Sometimes, when I stop to remember, and especially when I visit my parents today, I still miss that dog. Naively, I sometimes wish that he could have lived forever. I would never presume, however, to have a hand in re-creating his life, because I didn’t create it to begin with.

We’re playing God. And we’re enormously under-qualified.

Image attribution: Shadowgate under Creative Commons.