What Is Safe?

When our oldest daughter was only a couple of years old, I started a routine of taking her out for “cookies and milk” on weekends. It was intended to carve out special time for her when she had my undivided attention. I was working a lot more then…I do my best to work less these days…but for some reason, we lost the routine. Partly because we discovered that everyone in our family has some variety of a food allergy that makes true “cookies and milk” almost impossible unless it’s made from scratch at home, and partly because, as she got older, life changed a bit. I always said that it might hold as a tradition, or it might not, but the important thing was that we held onto having dedicated daddy-daughter time.

This weekend, I was driving home from that outing. We had spent some time at one of our favorite haunts…a local Barnes & Noble…in which she described all of her favorite characters from a book series she is reading. On the drive home, the driver of a vehicle in the opposite lane appeared to become distracted for a split second. The vehicle began to swerve into our lane. The driver realized instantly and course-corrected…the incident wasn’t even enough to be truly concerning. Even so, I found myself thinking that, although I wasn’t driving fast, had the driver not corrected, there would have been little chance that I could have done anything to prevent a disastrous result.

That’s not just a New England traffic story. There have been countless moments like that in my life, just driving on a daily commute, in which another second could have made the difference in a terrible way. I’m thankful for each one turning out as it did. Like most of the world, I really don’t drive that much these days, but the fact is that, every time I do, risk…sometimes serious risk…is inherent.

Driving…or riding the train, or flying…is a potentially horrible outcome presented to us each time we do it. We’re encapsulating ourselves in a steel vehicle hurtling down a road or a track or through the sky at amazing speeds, and ultimately hoping it turns out for the best. And, to be honest, if you do it enough, eventually it won’t turn out for the best. Most of us have had the accidents to prove that fact.

My point in this is that there are traffic laws and vehicle manufacturing regulations out there designed to keep us “safe,” but we aren’t. We can’t be. And sure, those laws and regulations do good things, and prevent a certain number of tragedies, but they don’t make us safe. We choose to not be safe as soon as we get into the car. It’s a risk we’re willing to take.

The rhetoric of the pandemic has been “stay safe.” We want to know if an event is “safe.” What’s being done to keep us “safe?” I’m going to be honest, I want to scream every time I hear the word safe, because we’re reaching for an impossible state. And while I suppose there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be safer…I’m always reminding our kids of wear their helmets when riding bikes…I think that it’s important for us to recognize that we can’t be truly safe, ever. And giving up our freedoms and allowing blatantly dictatorial actions to happen in the name of keeping us safe never leads to good results.

I’m not a reckless person. I drive so slowly since we had children that it really bothers Karen at times…a drastic change from my single days when I used to just expect speeding tickets. I take reasonable precautions. I think that it’s important, though, to stop whenever we’re about to give up something in the name of safety, and realize that we can’t ever have the ultimate result of that transaction. Safety is simply a state that doesn’t exist.

And constantly striving for it will do more harm than good.

Futurist Retrospective

There are lot of ways that I’m a futurist.

I think that this is much to Karen’s chagrin. I tend to not just adapt to, but seek change in many ways, especially around technology. We were created as creators, after all, and I see the digital sphere as a grand, if occasionally misguided, expression of our creativity. That’s not to say that I grab every new toy that becomes available. Even if our budget were to allow, I believe in a spiritual discipline of avoiding materialism. I also believe that every technology should solve a problem for you, and that, if it doesn’t, it’s likely excessive to have it in your life.

That said, as the technology world goes, I supposed I’m still a bit of curmudgeon. I use some social media, but generally my perspective is that without it, we would have fewer problems. I read my news digitally, but I still prefer to read the paper every morning, even if it is in digital format. I use an RSS reader of sources that I know are reputable rather than allow someone else’s algorithm to feed me information. When I was splitting a lunch bill with some colleagues once, I asked if they had a PayPal account that I could send the money to, and they looked at me blankly as though I were an illiterate luddite.

There are also areas of my life in which I’m anachronistic. I refuse to use modern technology to make my coffee. I grind it in a hand grinder, measure the water carefully, and use a press for my morning caffeination. While my to-do lists are digital because I see a legitimate need to be able to access them from anywhere, any important thoughts or notes that I have about life or inspiration or reflection go into a leather traveler’s notebook that Karen gifted me for Christmas several years ago. There’s something about the discipline of slowing down long enough to write something by hand that is deeply important.

Some of my family finds this amusing. My father-in-law jokingly says that he likes watching me make coffee because I’m a “mad scientist.” I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten some strange looks on flights while journaling my thoughts. It’s just not something that one sees often any longer.

So, while there are ways that I’m a futurist, I suppose that these aren’t among them.

I remember a conversation some years ago with an old friend during our weekly meeting at a local coffee shop. We were discussing how, in Victorian times, everyone kept a journal. Publishing the private journals and papers of influential thinkers, often posthumously, has long been a valued practice in the academic community. I recall making the point in that conversation that blogs were the modern equivalent of this practice, only with the added benefit of inviting conversation from others on the thoughts recorded. Today, I think that I would be more uncertain of whether or not I was onto something there, and, even if I were, the algorithms of social media have all but degraded blogs to the backs of our minds (who has time to ready 200 word posts?) and, even if they haven’t in some circles, the beauty of a blog is the conversation, and almost no one comments on posts these days. So, even if I was correct and we were onto something important there, I think we’ve mostly managed to lose it among the noise.

There’s a theory out there that digital technology never actually makes anything easier for us (I’m specifying digital here, because I don’t think most of would argue against innovations like machines that do our laundry for us). As our work becomes more knowledge-based and less physical, we have developed the capacity to work from anywhere. While that’s a luxury that affords us more time, it also consumes more of our time because we can never switch it off. Sometimes I wonder if the Internet was a better place when it was a place we went to when we intentionally sat down behind a computer and initiated a connection, rather than having it in our pockets all of the time and always on. We’ve rushed to achieve so much, and we have largely succeeded. To paraphrase Captain America, though, they didn’t tell us what we’ve lost. There’s a point of connection that we don’t have if we see each other primarily on a screen.

I guess my point here is that everything becomes progressively more frenetic. And I know that I’ve written about this before, but it’s something that always seems to be on my mind of late, because everything keeps happening faster, and faster, and..it was too fast already when I began thinking about this topic.

I wish sometimes that we could go back. I think I’ve made it apparent here that I’m not against digital progress. It’s that I think that we hit a sweet spot some years ago, and things would have been really great if we had collectively pressed pause and broken free of the illusion that we can never appreciate this great thing that we’ve done, but rather have to immediately rush onto the next thing. And while that sweet spot would be defined slightly differently by different people, I really think that, if we could just rewind a bit…back to before social media spiraled out of control, back to before the web was in our pockets and on our wrists at all times, back to when people read books more than screens…I think that would be collectively better for doing so.

Anyone who has ever tried to downgrade an operating system will tell you, though, that you can’t go back. We can only make the best of what we have and move forward. Perhaps if we just decided to settle in, though, and work on making the best of it before rushing into what’s next….

I guess that wouldn’t be progress, though. And I wouldn’t be much of a futurist if I recommended it.

Or would I?

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.