More than two weeks ago now, I announced my crazy intention of producing a musical stage play on nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence called American Doomsday. You can’t see me right now, but I’m laughing and shaking nervously. And asking myself, “wait, what?”
In the meantime, I’ve started the novel that will serve as the basis for the stage play. I’ve been reflecting a great deal on what it means to write a story that is 1) compelling enough to attract a broad audience; 2) sufficiently faithful to the complex and technical topics of nuclear deterrence, the nuclear triad, false alarms, perception, machine learning, machine bias, the black box, etc (see, you’re already overwhelmed); 3) AND not too gloomy and doomy, leaving the audience feeling hopeless and unable to do anything about the threat of nuclear weapons. That’s like a megaton order (really tall like a nuclear mushroom cloud).
After all, when I was in graduate school many years ago, members of my family would often ask me a simple question at Thanksgiving or Christmas: What are you studying in class? As soon as I even mentioned the words nuclear and weapons, they’d clam up, wobble awkwardly, and then give me a death glare–like I spoiled the mood or something. Well, excuse me, sorry to bother you with a bit of R-E-A-L-I-T-Y.
I’ve never understood how people can just bury their heads in the sand or cover their eyes and pretend things aren’t there–especially when someone they care about is interested in such things. I’ve never had a problem thinking about nuclear weapons and the end of the world, and then sleeping like a baby at night. Maybe it’s because my dad let me watch the Terminator when I was a tad too young. Or maybe I was just the kind of kid who thought about death and the meaning of life. I suppose I’m a bit weird. Something about my genetic make-up allows me to think about the most horrifying scenarios and then take a large gulp of coffee and move on to the next thing.
Something happened to me recently which opened my eyes to the perspectives of most normal people when it comes to the topic of nuclear weapons. And it involved something I’m truly, devastatingly terrified of…
These days, I walk my dogs along the shores of Little Bay, a cove located on the Gulf of Mexico in the small coastal town of Rockport, Texas–twice a day in the early morning at 5:30am and at dusk before 7:00pm, mostly due to the extreme heat. Since my morning walks are pitch dark, and street lamps are few and far between, I wear a headlamp to make sure we don’t walk directly into the mouth of a hungry alligator or cross paths with a poisonous snake. There are signs in Texas that warn about such things. No, I’m not kidding. This state may kill me.
A few weeks ago, I took my dogs out for their evening walk. The sun was setting a bit earlier, so I took my headlamp with me, just in case. Earlier in the day, we’d experienced torrential downpours. But I didn’t think anything of it as we rounded the bend toward Little Bay. It had already gotten dark, and my dogs were pulling me left and right for some reason. I was distracted and staring at the screen of my smartphone, which provided some light. And then I accidentally stepped on a frog (I believe it survived its brush with the violence of my foot).On the other hand, I was almost not so lucky. Surprised by finding a spongy object under my foot, I nearly tripped and fell before stepping on yet another frog (it also survived). Before you consider me a woman of male-frog destruction (WMD), I assure you, I really do like frogs.
What were the chances of me stepping on not one… but two frogs within a few feet of each other?
I stopped cold in my tracks, stuffed my smartphone in my pocket, put on my head lamp, and studied my surroundings. There were frogs everywhere I looked. Hundreds of frogs hopping on the road and in the grass. For a moment, I thought I might be stuck in the middle of one of God’s plagues or something. That’s how many frogs I could see. Everywhere I looked, the beady eyes of frogs were staring back at me, even from between the blades of grass. But then I looked a bit closer at the multitude of beady eyes. And that’s when I saw something that changed my perspective forever.
Many of those beady eyes weren’t frogs at all. To my shock and dismay, they were SPIDERS. Huge spiders with large beady eyes. My pulse spiked, and adrenalin coursed through my veins. I’m terrified of spiders. Once I saw them, I couldn’t look away. I kept shining the headlamp and searching for the massive spiders. But don’t worry, I moved the dogs a safe distance from the grass. My head moved back and forth, the headlamp shining into the grass as we walked. More spiders. Everywhere.
How did I not notice them before?
My heart pounded against my chest as I imagined the spiders coming together in a dangerous swarm and chasing me down–like the massive spiders in the Harry Potter films. Then I thought about how many times, I’ve walked in the Texas grass in bare feet, and my stomach flipped. Or when I sat on the lawn. Blissfully unaware of the terrifying creatures that lurked among the blades. I finally made it home on what felt like the longest walk in history.
How could I ever walk my dogs at night again? Could I ever unsee what I just saw? After some reflection, I quickly realized the answer was no. What has been seen cannot be unseen.
There’s no way I can pretend that I don’t know about the spiders. And I can’t practically avoid them either. I have to walk my dogs at night because the pavement gets too hot during the day. Instead, I’d have to learn to live with them and walk along side them. In truth, the spiders have always been there. I just didn’t notice them before.
As I reflected about how my perspective changed in an instant, it reminded me about how people feel the threat of nuclear weapons. They don’t want to know about them because if they learn about the reality of nuclear weapons today, they can’t pretend they don’t know. And they feel helpless to change anything. Like me with the spiders, they have to learn to live with them. But truthfully, they’d wish they hadn’t ever learned the truth.
So did I. I wished I’d never seen the spiders and not think about them crawling in the grass. Truth be told, I haven’t walked much on the grass since that fateful night. But I have calmed down somewhat.
On my next dog walk, I managed to take a picture of one of the spiders without dropping the iPhone out of my shaking hand. When I got home, I did some Internet research and identified the spider as a Texas wolf spider. There are 238 species of the wolf spider in Texas alone (shudder). They have eight eyes, which explains why my headlamp picked them up so easily. And they’re nocturnal. Why so many just hanging out in the grass? Well, unlike other spiders, they’re predators and don’t catch their prey in webs. They hunt. Oh fabulous. There was some good news, they’re not poisonous; they can bite, but it’s more like a bee sting.
Armed with the new information, I felt a bit better. I’m still terrified of spiders. I have been avoiding the grass, but mostly at night. And yes, I have spotted these spiders on the hunt every night with my headlamp. Charlie even did her job about five inches from one. (Yes, I still picked it up).
Believe it or not, this experience got me thinking about how to tell stories that make people aware of the very real threats posed by nuclear weapons. If I don’t have a problem thinking about scary stuff and other people do, then I need to figure out a way to tell the story that reaches them without paralyzing them. I think that means giving them enough useful information that can help them avoid the horrifying scenario depicted in the story and getting them to connect with the characters so that they care about changing our current reality.