Review: The Happiest Days of Our Lives (by Wil Wheaton)

December 29th, 2009

I started to write this review last night, and went looking for Wil Wheaton’s blog, where many of the stories came from, so I can link to it from my review.

It was getting late, I was tired, and so I was a bit disoriented for a few seconds when I saw my own words flash up on the screen. At the time, his most recent story had excerpted my review of paper books. Wow, I thought. This never happens when I’m about to review Dickens. And actually, it’s never happened before, ever. I’ll admit to owning a big grin when I saw that one of my favorite authors liked one of my blog posts.

And Wil Wheaton is one of my favorite authors for sure. I enjoy reading others too, of course, but Wil’s writing is something I can really identify with like no other. My parents were never in a London debtor’s prison like Dickens’ were; I was never a promising medical student like A. C. Doyle. But I was, and am, a geek, and Wil Wheaton captures that more perfectly than anyone. After I read Just a Geek a few years ago, I gave it to my wife to read, claiming it would help her understand me better. I think it did.

In The Happiest Days of Our Lives, Wil recounts memories of his childhood, and of more recent days. He talks of flashbacks to his elementary school days, when he and his classmates tried to have the coolest Star Wars action figures (for me: calculator watches). Or how his aunt introduced him to D&D, which reminded me of how my uncle got me interested in computers. Teaching himself D&D was an escape for the geeky kid that wasn’t good at sports, as teaching myself Pascal and C was for me. Between us, the names and activities are different, but the story is the same.

I particularly appreciated Wil’s reflections on his teenage years. Like him, at that age, I often found myself as the youngest person in a room full of adults. Yet I was still a teenager, and like any teenager, did some things that I look back on with some embarrassment now. Wil was completely honest with himself — he admitted crashing a golf cart on the Paramount studio lot, for instance, but also reminds me that he was a teenager then. He recognizes that he didn’t always make the best choices and wasn’t always successful with what he did, but isn’t ashamed of himself either. That’s helpful for me to remember; I shouldn’t be unreasonably harsh on my 16-year-old self, and need to remember that I had to be a teenager too.

I also identify with him as a dad. He wrote of counting the days until he could teach his boys about D&D, about passing on being a geek to his sons. I’ve had a similar excitement about being able to help Jacob build his first computer. Already Jacob, who is 3, loves using the manual typewriter I cleaned up for him, and spent an hour using the adding machine I dug out on Sunday while I was watching the boys. (I regret that I didn’t have time to take it apart and show him how it worked right then when he asked). And perhaps his 2nd-favorite present of Christmas was the $3.50 large-button calculator with solar cell power I got him as an impulse buy at the pharmacy the other day. He is particularly enamored with the square root button because a single press replaces all the numbers on the screen with completely different numbers!

I can’t find the exact passage now, but Wil wrote at one point about his transition from a career in acting to a career in writing. He said that he likes the feeling he gets when his writing can touch people. He’s been able to redefine himself not as a guy that “used to be an actor on Star Trek” but a person that is a good author, now. I agree, and think his best work has been done with a keyboard instead of a camera.

And that leaves me wondering where my career will take me. Yes, I’m an author, but of technical books. Authors of technical books rarely touch people’s hearts. There’s a reason we read Shakespeare and Dickens in literature classes, but no high school English teacher has ever assigned Newton’s Opticks, despite its incredible importance to the world. Newton revolutionized science, mathematics, and philosophy, but Opticks doesn’t speak to the modern heart like Romeo and Jiuliet still does. Generations of people have learned more about the world from Shakespeare than from Newton.

I don’t have Wil’s gift for writing such touching stories. I’ve only been able to even approach that sort of thing once or twice, and it certainly won’t make a career for me.

Like Wil, I’m rarely the youngest person in the room anymore. His days of being a famous teenage actor on a scifi series are long gone, as are mine of single-handedly defeating entire teams at jr. high programming contests. (OK, that’s a stretch, but at the time it sure felt exciting.) But unlike him, I’m not completely content with my niche yet. I blog about being a geek in rural Kansas, where there still aren’t many. I’m a dad, with an incredible family. And I write about programming, volunteer for Debian and a few other causes, and have a surprisingly satisfying job working for a company that builds lawn mowers. And yet, I have this unshakable feeling of unsettledness. That I need to stop and think more about what I really want to do with my life, perhaps cultivate some talents I don’t yet have, or perhaps find a way to make my current path more meaningful.

So I will take Wil’s book as a challenge, to all those that were once sure of what their lives would look like, and are less sure with each passing year: take a chance, and make it yours.

And on that score, perhaps I’ve done more than I had realized at first. Terah and I took a big chance moving to Kansas, and another one when we bought my grandparents’ run-down house to fix up and live in. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to pause every few years and ask the question: “Do I still like the direction I’m heading? Can I change it?”

Wil Wheaton gives me lots to think about, in the form of easy-to-read reflections on his own life. I heartily recommend both Just a Geek and The Happiest Days of Our Lives.

(And that has nothing to do with the fact that the Ubuntu machine he used to write the book probably had installed on it a few pieces of code that I wrote, I promise you.)

Categories: Family, Reviews, TV

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