Sunset 6/8/22

What a sunset looks like during a tornado watch. In case you were wondering.

(We’re fine.)

— JS

Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 8: “Sweet Surrender” by Sarah McLachlan

A quarter of a century ago — so long ago that this site did not even exist — I wrote a long essay entitled “Why I Have a Soft Spot for Sarah McLachlan.” To get right to the spoiler, it was because, in no small way, I identified with her. As I wrote at the time:

We are both about the same age (she’s about a year older than I), and we both toil creatively, she as a musician and I as a writer. What’s more (and this is where I feel the greatest point of connection to her), we both started doing what we do right around the same time — she making music, and I writing humor columns and criticism. In that respect, I’ve seen an arc to her career that I’ve also followed (in a much more obscure and less financially remunerative way). I see where she is on her career path, and I see some parallels to my own.

I’ll include the actual essay as the first comment to this post so you can see it in full.

Looking back on the essay a quarter of a century later, some things strike me about it. The first is that I was, and this is no real surprise, unbelievably arrogant to compare my then-extremely modest career to McLachlan’s in any way. I was not so foolish that I did not take care to larder my comparisons with caveats and qualifications — even in my twenties I knew that comparing myself to a multi-platinum artist at the upswing of her career when I had produced nothing of note was, at best, hubristic — but no matter how you slice it, “Hey, this immensely successful person and I are sort of following the same career arc,” is a pretty nervy statement to make.

(Plus there are other wildly arrogant things in there, unrelated to Ms. McLachlan, among them me at 28 saying “I’m as good a writer as I ever wanted to be.” Oh, child. No. No, you weren’t. You were as good as you could be. There’s a difference.)

The second thing is that I still understand why the me of 1997 wanted to make that connection to McLachlan, and to the path she was taking in her career. To me at the time, it really did seem like she was carving her own determined path to success, more or less on her own terms; perhaps a little fumblingly, but even so. And, you know, that’s what I wanted for myself, too: To make my own way, on my own terms, maybe occasionally making mistakes and misfires, but even so. It helped that her music was right in my zone as well — vaguely alt-y with just enough drama and sincerity that I could see some of myself in there as well.

“Sweet Surrender,” which I offer here as an example, is a very good example of what attracted me musically to McLachlan in the first place: A desire to be loved and wanted and understood, the hope that the person being addressed can provide those things, and might want to — and at the same time some uncertainty that the singer’s desire for these things will interpreted correctly. What’s happening in this song can be confused with passivity, but it’s not that; conscious choices are being made, along with the recognition that not every choice in play here is the singer’s. All to a mellow-yet-hooky groove. Musically, McLachlan was never a shouter, but it didn’t make her less persuasive when telling her stories. She knew her strengths and played to them. Those strengths worked for me.

So, you may reasonably ask, what about now? A quarter of a century on from this song and the essay I wrote about McLachlan, and two decades into a writing and publishing career with its own share of successes, do I still identify with her?

I don’t, but I think it’s been replaced with something maybe more realistic, and better. The parallels between us that I saw at the time were always tenuous at best; she was doing her own thing and I mapped my own progress to hers in a way that highlighted certain facts and elided others. The facts fit because I made them fit, not because they did so naturally. I did it because I admired her creativity and her path, and because she was close enough to me in age and apparent sensibility that I wanted to see myself as her peer.

I wasn’t her peer, twenty-five years ago. I’m not her peer today. I don’t need to be her peer, or to imagine myself as one. I’m at a place in my own life and career where I am content to be what I always actually was: A fan of McLachlan’s, an admirer of how she moved through her professional world, and appreciative of the music she’s made, which is now part of my life. She had, and has, her own path, and I have mine. They intersect in her songs. That’s enough.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Ren Hutchings

They say not to meet your heroes, but that’s exactly what Ren Hutchings’ protagonist, Uma Ozakka, does by means of time travel. Travel through the Big Idea behind Under Fortunate Stars and see how their fates intertwine.


I’ve loved time travel stories for a very long time. As a child, I was fascinated by the movie Flight of the Navigator, in which a kid returns from an alien encounter to find that several years have passed, and his little brother is now older than him. Truth be told, I was terrified by the premise, and I would sometimes lie awake at night wondering if that could ever happen to me. But I was also enthralled with the concept of time travel. I needed to know more.

And so, I went on to read every time-twisting story I could get my hands on, starting with a children’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I read A Wrinkle in Time, A Handful of Time, The Starlight Crystal… My introduction to speculative fiction was inextricably entwined with stories that played with time, and it’s no surprise that I went on to write time travel stories of my own.

Time travel comes in many forms, but the unexpected kind has always been my favorite. I love stories where the protagonist is not a well-equipped adventurer stepping boldly into a time machine, but a regular person who gets thrown into a weird situation, totally unprepared. The book that became Under Fortunate Stars has always been about accidental time travel in space, but the premise was a little different in the beginning – it was originally going to be about a group of historical re-enactors who accidentally travelled back to the event they were re-creating!

The book is still very much about a history nerd – engineer Uma Ozakka – who meets heroes from the past after encountering a time anomaly, although her ship is now a corporate research vessel. When I introduce the book, I often focus on Uma and on the question posed by her plotline: What if you got to meet your historical heroes and they were nothing like you imagined? But there’s another character story in Under Fortunate Stars that’s just as central, one which turns the lens toward the would-be heroes. What happens when you’re told something about your own future and it’s not what you expected?

Eldric Leesongronski has always been Uma’s favorite historical figure. She collects his biographies, and knows him as the famous leader of the peace mission that saved humanity from annihilation. But at the point when Uma meets him, Leesongronski views his own life as a failure. He hasn’t done anything of note yet. He’s depressed, broke, and jaded, and he has no interest in being heroic. He’s just been convinced to join his best friend on an ill-advised smuggling trip, trying to escape from the very interstellar war he’s meant to be stopping. So when he’s faced with Uma’s version of his future, Leesongronski doesn’t know how to cope.

We’ve all had a moment when we wished we could see what our future holds. But would we really want to know? We might learn things we don’t want to hear – that our lives won’t turn out as we planned, or that we didn’t accomplish as much as we’d hoped. But how would someone deal with the knowledge that they were meant to do something extraordinary in the future, something that literally changed the trajectory of humankind? That, to me, is a really intriguing question in time travel stories.

There’s a moment in the Star Trek: The Next Generation film First Contact that has always stuck with me. The Enterprise crew travels back in time to Earth’s past, where they find Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive and the instigator of humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans. But the version of Cochrane that the crew meets hasn’t made his historic flight yet. His life is in shambles, his ambitions shattered after his prototype warp ship was damaged. He doesn’t see a way forward to accomplishing anything. 

In one scene, the Enterprise crew members approach Cochrane with awe, telling him they’ve seen statues of him and buildings named after him in the future. They’re starstruck with the sheer wonder of meeting him. And yet, Cochrane reacts to this information not with pride or excitement, but with visible discomfort. He never wanted to be a hero, he explains. He didn’t invent the warp drive because he wanted to change the world; he did it because he wanted to make money. In the aftermath of discovering his own historical significance, Cochrane panics and flees, overwhelmed by the prospect of living up to his presumed legacy. I’ve always found that moment so achingly believable. And the reality of this imperfect, fallible character was so much more interesting than the crew’s idealized vision of Cochrane.

When Eldric Leesongronski first discovers that the future exalts him as the captain of a peace mission, he reacts very much like Zefram Cochrane did. Under Fortunate Stars is, in a lot of ways, a story about the weight of that revelation and its aftermath. It’s about someone grappling with the idea that they’re supposed to do this heroic thing, while feeling absolutely certain that they’re undeserving of praise or redemption, much less adulation. It’s about how Leesongronski’s perspective on his life changes right alongside Uma’s when they enter each other’s orbit.

Sadly, most of us probably won’t ever get to experience time travel, or see historical events unfolding firsthand (never say never, there’s always a chance!) But the big idea, in the end, is that behind every ‘heroic’ action that history recorded, there was a living, breathing, complicated person. And if past and present ever do collide, it will be people’s humble, imperfect and flawed humanity that actually connects them.

Under Fortunate Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

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