Hymettus

I saw the snow on Mount Hymettus from the bus yesterday and wanted to tell you, like there are often things I suddenly want to tell you. This time, for some reason, it almost made me cry.

I have been thinking a lot about you lately. About us. I used to think that with your death everything suddenly became alright. The things I struggled with. The things you struggled with. The things we should have been working on. The things we should have talked about but didn’t. None of them seemed to matter any more.

But they did. It bothered me that there were questions I could never get an answer to. I hope you don’t mind I found an answer to them myself. I am certain you don’t mind that I have been trying to be more honest with myself. That I want to be the person who would talk about the things we avoided. That I know I need to be that person, even though it doesn’t matter to us any more.

Us is past. Except it isn’t. It’s still our house that I live in. With our things on the wall. Our things in the kitchen. I still get a little sad when I remember that one of the four little coffee cups has broken, for these are our favourite cups.

I got a Christmas tree again this year. A little one, but our lights are in them, as are the hearts you once made. And of course I had the teddy bears sit underneath them, as they used to do every year.

The bears have been travelling the world with me. We have been to eighteen countries on four continents since you died. I look after them well. I know you know I would.

So many good things are happening and I think they would excite you. My life is going well. I know I have said this before and you know I have a tendency to say that too early but I think I am right this time. I hope you agree.

And yet I do miss you. Which is something I have sometimes forgotten to do. The other day I thought I heard you snore in the bedroom and for a second I wanted to check if you were covered well. You would probably find it funny that I miss your snoring.

I miss making you breakfast or ironing your clothes or going out quickly to buy some food. I miss calling you on my way home to ask if I should bring ice cream.

On that July night the previous summer you didn’t make it to the other side of Mount Hymettus, to the airport from which you would fly to Crete. Instead you were taken to the hospital, then another one and then your final resting place at the cemetery. On the slopes of Mount Hymettus.

Yesterday I finished my job. I finished the project that was very much our project. It is good. This morning I took a train to the airport. I waved to Mount Hymettus and flew to Crete, finishing your trip from 18 months ago.

I went for a run along the seashore here this afternoon. You will be pleased to know I finally took up running again, and quite seriously too. I felt so happy running there. And so grateful to you, for everything. And I love you so, so much.

Narrative

After Dimitra died, one of many reactions was from someone who pointed out that there was “no right way to grieve”. For some reason this stuck with me.

Sure, I knew that everyone experiences grief differently. But my grief always seemed really more different than everyone else’s.

For a long time, this was the narrative I held on to. I carefully avoided grief literature and didn’t feel much connection to other people who had gone through something similar. I didn’t look for professional help because, so I told myself, this would only focus on the grief and I didn’t need help with that. I was fine.

If I could go back in time about a year, I would really urge my slightly younger self to be wiser than that. And from my current vantage point I would like to apologise to all mental health professionals for underestimating your ability to see through my narrative.

Grief is complicated. It’s about far more than missing someone. It includes many things people don’t often talk about, including new life opportunities and a relief that certain difficult things won’t have to be dealt with. Those are fine feelings to have. And I am of course far from the only one to have experienced them.

But by sticking to my narrative and my story of my grief being really very different, I slowly got stuck. The past six months, in many ways, have been about getting unstuck a little bit and then every time discovering I was actually more stuck than I realised.

I am fine. It would be wrong for me to claim otherwise: I am healthy, enjoy life, have many friends and good things are happening to me. But being fine isn’t everything and as there is still plenty of work to do, being fine shouldn’t be the defining part.

Even now I often catch myself focusing on the “I am fine” part, talking about professional help in the context of “I want to do great things” as if is below me to seek help with something I have been dealing with for the past sixteen months. I am silly.

And maybe that should be how I define myself at this moment.

Escape

When people hear the story of Dimitra’s death, they often comment on how beautiful our relationship clearly was and how much we loved each other. This always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Yes, we loved each other and I am forever grateful for the time we spent together. And yes, looking back it was beautiful, if only because an unexpected early death makes it easy to see the beauty of what was before. But there were also things that weren’t working and that we both, for different reasons, were ignoring. Things that couldn’t have lasted much longer.

I can only guess Dimitra’s reasons for not facing what wasn’t working. I know mine. I was afraid. Afraid that we couldn’t fix things without doing irreparable damage to the relationship.

When I say I felt very peaceful in the months after her death “because death brings you close to what life is really about” this is only partly true. I also felt a sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to do this difficult work.

That isn’t pretty and it isn’t something I am proud of. I am okay with Dimitra’s death. But as a consequence I got a very easy way out of doing something big and important. I am not okay with that.

There is a famous phrase from The Leopard: “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. I have started to interpret this freely to mean that if you really want to change a situation, you should be willing to accept having to leave altogether, which is still better than not doing anything about it.

Belatedly, I am working on that. I keep saying I want to do “great things” (and then quietly remind myself that merely writing these things isn’t good enough). I won’t be able to do so if I keep avoiding difficult things in professional and personal situations.

I am okay with what happened last year. But I owe it to myself, to Dimitra and to the world to learn from this not-so-great part of our life together and to do better.

Meta

I started using this blog for ‘mental health blogging’ a little over four months ago. The motivation was pretty obvious: I had lost my wife, found processing our relationship to be more complicated than initially anticipated and struggled with moving on. I thought writing could help.

I certainly did help.

I never had a clear idea of where I wanted to take this writing, but in the back of my head, I always had some implicit end goal in mind. Getting over something. Working through something. Being ready for something.

But what if I change that goal and instead try and become a bit better every day for the rest of my life? A better human being. Better at dealing with things that happened in the past. Better prepared for things that may happen in the future.

Of course, I might not always be writing on this blog, which is only ever a means to an end anyway. But making this end a moving rather than a still target seems a much healthier thing to do.

And while doing that, it is good to note that writing on its own is never going to be enough. Writing doesn’t ask questions. It doesn’t ask whether I really was okay when I describe periods when things were fine, or whether that thing I write about is really what had been bothering me as I claim it had.

And thus I need to remind myself that I am not always the most reliable narrator when it comes to my own life, especially when things move beyond facts. Or, as I put it to a friend the other day: on my blog I write what I feel, or maybe what I want the world to believe I feel.

So let me not forget that talking to people, both personally or professionally, will always be very important too.

Onwards and upwards. Forever.

Ciabattas

that day I went to the post office
even though I didn’t want to
but I still did
grumpily
but then lovingly too
and picked up your parcel
and got ciabattas on the way back
for lunch
because you liked ciabattas
and you were so happy
and said you loved me

I often think of that day
to remind myself
that in our own funny little way
we really loved each other

and also
because it would be our last day together

In which I am looking for new work

So I am looking for new things to do. This is a post that provides some background to that.

I joined Virus Bulletin in January 2007. I was hired to do maintain its website and make sure it didn’t fall over when the BBC and Slashdot linked to it, which I did, but then there were more things at the company that needed doing and I realised I kind of liked security so I stayed on. I built a test for email security products (we called them spam filters back then) which is still running. I started doing other things too, such as write blog posts, give conference talks, and build a web security test framework. I also became heavily involved in our conference. Then, in 2014, I became Editor, which in VB’s funny set-up means I kind of run the company and I am pretty involved in just about everything the company does, from making budgets to writing test reports, and from doing pre-sales talks to putting together the conference programme.

But the time has come for me to move on. In part because I think I have done at VB what I can do. In part to close a chapter in my life. And in part ─ and this is actually the most important part ─ because there are so many other exciting and important things to do.

My main requirement for future work is that what I do is meaningful and makes an actual difference. I have a strong interest in work related to civil society, but I know a big difference can be made elsewhere too. I would like my dozen years of working in security, and thus getting a pretty good grasp of how security works beyond the sales pitches and scary headlines, to be turned into something really good.

I am looking for a full-time, or mostly full-time position, at a new location, but I would be happy to work on short term and possibly part-time projects for a while. I do like working towards a clear, tangible goal, so that could actually be exciting.

I think my understanding of security and my experience in it is rather broad, which is one way of saying I am not necessarily good at one particular thing. I can do a lot of things reasonably well and I think I would be most useful in a broad, varied role.

I can do research. Though never a core part of my job, I have analysed spam campaigns and, based on C&C traffic, malware families. I have done many smaller, ad hoc research projects. I have a background as an academic researcher in pure mathematics, which gives me a pretty good understanding on topics such as machine learning and cryptography. I have given a number of technical talks on the latter subject. I am familiar with a wide range of research tools and can program and design technical systems.

I can write. I have written a great many blog posts for Virus Bulletin, as well as guest articles for various sites such as Forbes and Ars Technica. I write a weekly newsletter on threat intelligence. I have written technical reports and edited a many often technical papers written by others. In the past, I have written articles on music, history and mathematics.

In can speak. I have spoken at more than a dozen industry conferences around the world including RSA, Nullcon, AfricaHackon, NorthSec and TROOPERS. I have given talks at private industry events. I have given both technical and non-technical talks, depending on the subject and the audience. I have helped others prepare for talks and sometimes speak to the media.

I can plan. I have been the main organiser for the Virus Bulletin conference since 2014 and have been a member of various industry committees. I currently serve on the board of AMTSO. I was chairman of the students’ association for maths students and a student member of the faculty council at my university. At VB, I have worked in implementing various regulations and managed a remote team.

I also know a lot of people in infosec. This can come useful in future jobs, especially when it comes to using their help in achieving a goal.

I have over the course of my career in infosec come to learn that the challenges we face are far less of a technical nature than we are led to believe. I would like future jobs to be technically inspired rather than purely technical, but I do enjoy the occasional deep technical challenge. Working with an inspiring team is even more important to me though.

Two final things. First, I am a white man working in an industry with an abundance of white men. If you find yourself discussing possible work with me, which undoubtedly will involve me trying to convince you I can do that work, please try and be critical and consider whether it makes a difference to you that I confirm to the stereotype of an infosec professional.

Secondly, it is important for me to work in a diverse and inclusive work environment. Not only do I believe that as individuals we have more to learn from people that aren’t like us, but a big part of information security is about trying to understand other people’s threat models, thus making working with those other people, in an environment that suits them as much as it does me, of vital importance.

I you want to talk about work, please email me at thinksmall on gmail, or find me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Fifteen

“Time heals all wounds” people kept telling me after Dimitra’s death and I never really knew how to respond. I actually felt very peaceful and perhaps more closely connected to her than ever during our relationship. All time seemed to do was trying to disrupt that peace.

Indeed, as I noted three, four and then five months since her passing on Facebook and Twitter, I felt myself shouting: hold on time, not so fast! Please let me live in this moment a bit longer!

But time never waits and so it became six, seven and then eight months and eventually even twelve months, a symbolic moment that made more of a difference than I had expected.

For a long time, Dimitra could have rejoined my life fairly seamlessly. Now, if she were to somehow come back, it would be rather awkward and not just because I mostly sleep on what used to be her side of the bed now.

That is a good thing. This isn’t her life any more. It is my life now.

This evening marks fifteen months since she took that taxi into eternity. Fifteen months since I last heard her voice. Fifteen months too since I last had doubts about our relationship.

I miss her. I miss looking after her, making lunch and making the bed. I miss making her happy. I miss discussing things with her and asking for advice.

I also regret not being brave enough during our time together to fix the many things that weren’t working. Death is underappreciated for making most things okay and these things are okay now, but at the same time, it should be a darn good reason to try and do better in the rest of my life.

It is good to have things to work on.

Today, as I was doing some tidying around the house, I found myself thinking of a temporary place for some not too crucial items. And then I had to tell myself: hold on, isn’t the idea that in not too long, you want to move away from here? Shouldn’t you start throwing things out and giving them away?

So I went and bought a roll of bin bags. I am less focused on the symbolism of yet another month since Dimitra’s death, but it is good day to start throwing things out. Many more bags will follow.

It is really good to have things to work on.

Note to my 4am half-awake worrying self

Don’t worry about things that could get difficult
Of course things will get difficult ─ things always get difficult ─ but know you are much stronger than you think

Don’t worry about loneliness
Remember there are people out there you will have something to give to

Don’t worry about the future being a pad full of blank pages
Focus instead on what pen you will use to write in it

Don’t worry about what people think
People don’t think as much as they should and sometimes that is a good thing

Don’t worry

Have faith

Sleep

Exciting

14 months ago my wife died. My life at the moment is quite exciting.

Now I obviously don’t mean the latter sentence to be a corollary of the former. But they are more linked than it may seem.

Losing someone very close to you, such as a partner, isn’t easy. I have struggled in the time since Dimitra died, have worried about the future and felt pretty unsettled, often more than I admitted to myself.

But, at least in part because I never had to worry about practical things, it never felt like something I wouldn’t be able to overcome. It always felt liked something that, because it wouldn’t kill me, would make me stronger. It did.

This life experience has made me a better person. A stronger one, who can deal with things affecting me and others. The kind of person person who I always wanted to be but someone never really managed to become.

And that is exciting.

Suddenly finding myself single again and after slowly untangling myself from my relationship with Dimitra, I am now forced to look at questions like: who am I? What do I like? What do I really want to do in life? What do I need to do in life. I had not really looked at any of those questions that seriously since my mid-20s.

In the past year, I have discovered more new music than I had in the ten years before. I haven’t read more books, because I already read a lot, but my reading has become more purposeful and focused rather than pure entertainment. I have made many new friends. And I have been thinking about next jobs.

That is really exciting too.

It is still unclear what my future looks like, other than that I have now set things in motion for things to become quite different and also, at least in the journey there, quite difficult. But, as I keep telling myself, things being difficult is a feature not a bug. I need for this to be difficult rather than find some kind of shortcut to a next phase in life.

Really, that too is exciting.

I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity at this phase in my life to get to know myself better, become a better person and to look for where I can make a real difference.

In some poetic sense, Dimitra showed her love for me by stepping aside and giving me this opportunity. I can only reciprocate that love by doing my utmost best to live a good life.

And that is the most exciting thing of all.

Hole

When the you-shaped hole in the universe
Had ceased to exist
All that was left was a you-shaped hole in the earth
For your coffin to be lowered into

Clumsily

Maybe because it was all a bit unexpected
This changing of holes
Or maybe because you were never one to fit easily
Into holes shaped for you