Sunday, February 5, 2017
Friday, January 27, 2017
When stability disappeared as it did last summer -- twelve years and a third child later -- I anguished about the change. I don't cope well with change. I'm a software engineer! We're practically the textbook definition of autism spectrum in my field: people who generally find it easier and more satisfying to spend their days unpacking logical puzzles than to interact with illogical humans. I'm sure there's more than a few in my field who wish we were Kirks, but know deep down we're Spocks. So I reacted in the most Spock-like way possible, looking for exactly the same job in exactly the same area so I could have exactly the same life.
And then, thank goodness, a few amazing coincidences happened.
First, a massive ego boost because of this:
I commented on some new pulp-style covers his publisher had done for re-issues of his novels. It was a total bit of fanboy sycophancy, though the sentiment was genuine. The first was for American Gods, which is an excellent, and deeply weird book. I love that this cover looks like it was pulled off a shelf of vintage paperbacks in some funky secondhand shop with a pay-what-you-like public coffeepot and a pair of bookstore cats.
The cover announcement came the day of my dismissal. I think this tweet was the day after. Mood: elevated.
And then this bit of also-fanboyism from J. Michael Straczynski ("JMS" to the Internet) who is a creative force and a writing wonder. He has touched many mediums over the years, and right around the time all this was happening in my life, he revealed that he was leaving behind comics because of severe vision-related medical reasons
that he had mercifully managed to get past, and was now literally and figuratively seeing things in a new light. I could relate to the fear and the worry that he felt, and then just to kick it up a bit, he gave a talk with a Q&A session in which an audience member presumably asked a question about "advice for the recently fired."
JMS' response was so excellent, so personally relevant, that I transcribed it, overlaid it on a still from the talk, and carried the quote with me to interviews. Here it is:
Seeing this clip, and writing these words, and feeling all the many, many feels finally clicked something in my mind. I missed San Francisco. I missed the ugly commute, the semi-permanent smell of urine. I missed the weirdos and the tech bros and the hipsters and the hippies and the tourists. I missed the energy of The City. I missed being in with "my tribe." I missed it, so very, very badly. One interview convinced me, and subsequent ones reinforced it. I wanted back in. I missed my spectrum tribe.
And it took a lot of time, and a lot of trips, and a lot of anxious night-befores and nervous whiteboard exercises and code tests and reviews and refreshers and tutorials to really lock that in my mind. And now I had the wisdom of those twelve years, plus the eight before when I was surfing dot-com 1.0. I'm better attuned to sniff out the dreamers from the doers, and hopefully am better at navigating the whole Professional Developer process. And I was also humbled. Laid low by interviewing with coders half my age, asking about now-hot skills that simply passed me by in the 'burbs. Keeping my chin up and the search going through screening after screening, interview after interview, and the dreaded "we appreciate your time, but..." email.
Spoiler: I did, in the end, find a job. A job I'm very happy with, with people I like very much, being challenged and pushed and poked out of the comfortable rut I'd worn for over a decade. I reassessed, but I reassessed on my terms. With the code-test for my current job, I did what I thought was more Kirk than Spock and made it my own Kobayashi Maru. And I thought of Tim Gunn, one of the co-hosts of our household guilty-pleasure TV Project Runway.
Tim acts as mentors for the contestants, who get gradually more and more stressed and sleep-deprived as the season progresses. Every few days, they are called upon to create a piece of clothing out of a limited budget, sometimes out of ludicrous "unconventional" materials, and often to play nice for a judge. They have a day to do this, are judged severely, and those who pass the judging move on to do it all again in a day or two (a week in TV time.) The show casts right along reality-show types: the Outspoken One, the Quiet One, the Sassy One, the Old One, the Young One, etc.. They're all trying to win, and win big, and keep their sanity in front of the cameras. This season especially, I felt I could relate. Through it all is the kindly, guiding voice of Tim Gunn, reminding the designers to stay true to themselves, regardless of the absurdity of the challenge. And so when the code challenge crossed my desk, I did just that -- stayed true to the skills and experience I had, and presented something I was proud of.
It didn't get me the position, but it gave me more confidence in the interview, more persistence to keep calling back over the holidays, and I'd like to think those lined up for a second interview for something else entirely.
Today was my first official payday in six months. Mood: relieved. Six months to the day since I stuffed the last box in the back of my car, shook hands with everyone, and drove off. Six months of stress and worry and snug budgets and tight belts and lower thermostats and postponed haircuts and resume after resume after resume.
Totally worth it. Thanks Neal. Thanks JMS. And thanks, Tim. I made it work.
Monday, December 26, 2016
"Yes ma'am. I said it looks like you have elves."
"Yes ma'am. About a dozen or so I'd suppose, th0ugh it's hard to tell for certain. They tend to keep out of sight, most times."
"Yes ma'am, you heard correct. Right around Boxing Day we start getting the calls in. Looking for a place to nest down for the season, you know." He looked around at the home: brick and neat white cladding, two-storey with shutters over the windows, icicles dangling along the edge of the roof. Pretty as a Christmas card. "Yep. This is the sort of place they flock to, your basic elf."
That he parked in plain sight in the driveway was bad enough. Now this? What would the neighbors think? She lowered her voice. "This is a good neighborhood," she hissed. "The realtor said nothing about… infestations."
"Oh, it's a fresh bunch," he said. "Probably smuggled in on one of them Alaska cruise ships. Real problem up north, you know. But global warming… well, they're losing habitat."
She shivered in her robe, clutching her cocoa for warmth. The candy cane tinkled against the edge as she shivered. It had taken hours to roll them out and get the twists just right, and dammit, they were going to get used. Except they'd been disappeared. A few here and there -- easy enough to blame on the kids -- but then this morning, over two dozen, just vanished. And two empty cookie tins, out in the yard. And all the decorating sugar, gone. The gingerbread village disappeared without a trace. Rats, she thought. Or mice. And she called the exterminators, and they sent this… person.
"I'm really having trouble with this," she said. "You know, yesterday was kind of a busy day…"
The exterminator nodded. "Perfect time for them to slip in, you know. All the hustle and bustle. But you can't miss the signs." He'd showed her the gap in the basement wall, lined with leftover tissue paper like a paper wasp nest. The neat piles of cedar shavings in the corners ("Probably tinkers," he said. "Mind you lock up your tools.") And of course, the little piles of peppermints stacked neatly under the stair. ("Droppings," he told her. "Fresh ones. Still sticky.")
"Isn't there anything you can do?" she said. "A spray or something?"
"Oh no, can't spray," he said. "They're a Protected group, your basic elves. More'n my job's worth to cross that line."
She felt a headache coming on. "Traps, then?" she said. "What do they do for raccoons? My sister had a raccoon up the chimney in their cabin once."
"No good," said the exterminator. He was filling out a complicated-looking form. "Far too clever to fall for that. Most of 'em could build better, anyway. You can't get 'em by outsmarting."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, then?" she said. She tried to ignore the noises coming from the dryer vent. It sounded suspiciously like Christmas carols, being sung by tiny, childlike voices.
"Well," said the exterminator. "There's no guarantees, but if you get all this down and packed away, nature tends to take its course, if you know what I'm saying."
"But these wreaths are handmade!" she said. "White pine from Scandinavia! Hand-woven grosgrain! Blown-glass bulbs from Austria!" It was enormous, too, and well-lit. She made sure the whole neighborhood could see it.
"I understand, ma'am, I truly do. But there's nothing for it. They look well moved-in now. Maybe you'd have a chance with an artificial tree…"
"An artificial… we are not barbarians you know."
"No ma'am, sorry ma'am. I'm just saying that you've made it all so nice, it's no wonder they flocked to you."
"Flocked? You said it was six or seven!"
"I said 'probably' six or seven, but there's no way to be sure. Two tins of cookies and a stack of peppermints. You have any sort of chocolate in the house?"
"Cocoa powder, of course. Baking chocolate. I know the kids have some candy from their auntie."
"Make a list," he said. "And check it. Twice. Basically, you need to get your supplies down now, before the hibernation season. See, they fatten up good for winter, maybe wake around Easter for a snack, and then again at Halloween before their migration. That's your best chance. Make sure you don't bring out any decorations until at least December first. Maybe St. Nicholas' Day, to be safe. The last thing you want to do is give them an excuse to stay through next winter." He tore off the back sheet of the form and gave it to her in a mittened hand. "Giving that it's the holidays, this call's on me. Merry Christmas."
She snatched it from him. "Christmas was yesterday, and thanks for nothing," she said. She slammed the door hard enough to dislodge a few icicles from the roof.
"You're welcome," he said to the door knocker. From a vent down by his feet, he heard the sounds of jingle bells and laughter. Checking that no one was watching, he left a stack of cookies next to the basement window. Chocolate chip. Still warm. "See you next year," he said to the window. A pair of tiny hands snatched the cookies and disappeared again.
And laying his finger aside of his nose, he climbed into his van, and out the cul-de-sac he drove.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
I always have trouble sleeping at this time of year. My long-suffering wife blames it on the very true fact that mentally I turn into a raving seven-year-old during the Christmas season (actual quote from me yesterday: "Why is there no Christmas music playing [in the living room]? How will Santa know we're ready for him?") It's anticipatory now, knowing what's waiting for my family under the tree and looking forward to the surprise, the laughter, and the inevitable meltdowns as we try to take our family through the motions one more time: the 6:00AM sharp commencement of activities enforced by the youngest child, the mandatory extra coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls required by the adults. This is life in a normal year.
Of course, 2016 has been far from a normal year.
With dread and anxiety, we're all hoping we can just make it through the few days we have left without some new bleak piece of news. I won't rehash all the terrible events of the year. I'm already sleepless, and there's no reason to get miserable before the sun has even risen. I'm sure you have no shortage of reasons to want to see the memory of 2016 dropped in a hole and buried as soon as possible. My more faithful friends say that this has been a year that Tests each of us, and I would not be surprised if that's the tone and tenor of the Christmas Eve service we'll be attending later today. But even they are struggling with the ongoing drumbeat of terrible things that happened this year, and which continue to happen. The horrible news and pictures from Aleppo leave us all haunted and feeling powerless, for example. Any cheer and seasonal joy we muster feels artificial and fruitless, honestly. This is the legacy of 2016 -- one ass-kicking after another, for those of us left who can still stand.
And here this gets political, especially United States-political. If you have the stomach for it, hear me out. Have some coffee and a cookie if it helps. I'll wait.
The political pendulum swings as always, and for a large number of American voters, we feel that we're now swinging in a very bad place, dangling over the very swamp infested with the worst sort of creatures. It's just One More Thing, and it's haunting and demoralizing. Social media drains directly into that swamp. The water's turned foul, and just keeps pouring in. It's easy to feel like you're doing something when you're fighting the current all day, and the echo chamber of outrage, dismay, and anxiety grows in sound and fury, if not significance. It's no accident that my nation chose a President-elect that can think only in easily digestable and resharable word-bites. This is where discourse has landed now. That haunted and powerless feeling is here at home, too. And this is what woke me up this morning. Not the promise of excitement in the next 24 hours, nor joy, nor breakfast with my loved ones -- the fear that we've all slipped into a place where everyone is yelling, and nothing is changing.
And then I realized the True Meaning of 2016. 2016 existed to Piss Us Off.
2016 showed us the frailty of life, the horror that man is still capable of in the name of "peace" and the throwback ugliness that still lies beneath the surface of voting populations of the world. And we have a choice, here, with about a week to go in the year. We can look to the turning of the calendar and pretend that all the terribleness is behind us and that 2017 cannot possibly be as terrible as 2016 -- and I admit, that's a high bar -- or we can be realistic, and realize that 2016 may have just been a warm-up for tough times ahead. Much as I'd like to believe it's the former, I'm steeling myself for the latter. I'm tapping into the despair of 2016 and planning to punch back in 2017, and I want to encourage you all to do the same.
IN 2017 I PLEDGE:
* To become a better-informed citizen by following local, state, and federal legislative activity
* To post my elected representatives numbers by every phone and to call, regularly
* To do the same with the office of the President
* Not to confuse "shares" and "likes" and "retweets" with direct action
* To donate blood as often as I can, and encourage others to do so
This year was terrible. Next year will probably be terrible, too. But I'm kicking back.
What do you pledge?
Thursday, December 1, 2016
So, my tenth Nano come and gone -- and quite a year it was, too. It reaffirmed my need to be team planner versus team pantser as I struggled to bring the two complementary story lines I had in my head together for a dance. But all was not lost, not at all: I uncovered details and backstory that had not even been hoped for in my pre-writing process, and amid all the rambling dialogue and word-padding, I've uncovered some potential bones for future work. I don't have a novel to show for the month, but I've got over 50,000 words spread across scenes and dialog that will be seeds for something bigger and better to come.
Now December's here, and I'm looking forward to really-and-truly having written every day of 2016. I'd like to say it's been easier as the year has gone on, but this has been a hell of a year to face with creativity. It's been anchoring and grounding, and more than a little therapeutic at times. And I've been doing it enough that the thought of "getting in my daily" is a sense of something I need to do instead of something I ought to do. It's become a vital piece in my life now, and I'm glad for the addition. Even if the output doesn't amount to anything, it's been good for me to work through. Fitting this year together has been like working a massive, at times frustrating jigsaw puzzle, and there have been points where I was afraid to look up to see all the work yet to do.
As always, I'm grateful for the madness that is the NaNoWriMo Typewriter Brigade, the collective crazies that insist on banging out their own creative pieces year after year, on manuals, electrics, wedges, or (shhh) AlphaSmarts. Literacy and creativity and the joy of making feels like it's in short supply this year, in a season of political divides, fear and doubt, accusations and blame. And more than a few creative minds were taken this year, and left holes in many of our hearts. It's been tough to spackle over all those cracks. Seeing the Brigade reform against all common sense is heartening.
I'm also glad for the relative normalcy of the typosphere, and its doged determination to keep growing despite all my shameful neglect. Social media seems to have turned largely into Antisocial Morass this year, so a cheery picture of a custom-painted Lettera or gleaming typebars or some truly dazzling typewriter art is a welcome smile. I'm glad we can all celebrate the little positive pieces of our lives, too. Thanks for being here, Typosphere, and if you're a Brigadier, too, thanks for jumping into the annual fray!
Sunday, October 30, 2016
By the anticipatory vibratings of my youngest child, I can only assume that Halloween is nigh, a night promising sugary riches in exchange for minor scares and occasional suburban mirages. (One year: a horse dressed as Pegasus being walked on a lead.) Finishing touches on costumes are being applied, reworked, and revamped. Pumpkins have been agonizingly rejected and selected, sliced and scooped, carved and positioned. Careful attention is being paid to playlists: blood-curdling sound effects before or after the Disneyland Haunted Mansion music, and how much Danny Elfman is too much? It's more logistics than most military manuevers. As a parent, I'm obligated to carry bags and flashlights and hoods when they get itchy, and masks when they are too hard to see through, and (very likely) tote umbrellas, too. My rate is one Reese's cup or mini Baby Ruth per block walked, payable at the stop sign at the corner. I think this is being more than reasonable. And sometime after we've all walked about two blocks too far, and the kids are cranky, and the parents' arms are tired, and at least half of the group needs a bathroom stop and/or coffee, we call it a night, say farewell, and close our eyes on October.
And wake to November.
Of course I'm NaNoing again this year, marking a decade of dubious novel-writing (or the writing of dubious novels.) I "planned" my first year on Halloween night, set off into November with high hopes, and came thisclose to a full crash and burn before the end of the month. I had high hopes and grand plans and good intentions, which was all but inviting Disaster and Doubt onto my laptop for thirty days. I had not then had the experience I have now: the knowledge of just how "rough" a rough draft can be, of the power of free writing, of both the pain and the pride of a good edit. Our family grew by a child, faced all the usual things young growing families face in a ten-year span, plus the outliers. I've learned to be more flexible in my personal life, less self-critical, more outgoing. I've tried to get back in touch with my creative side, and take better care of my professional side, too. And I don't know if I can lay all of that at NaNo's feet, but I put a lot of it there, for certain.
Facing a Big Scary Thing once a year has been like a booster shot for life. My family and I have faced Big Scary Things together in these ten years, things that we anticipated and things that we did not. I'm reminded of these when we pull the big costume bin out of storage every year and remember the Octobers past, the people our kids have been, and look to who they've become. I think about all our annual rituals and how they anchor us even when we're being tossed around, and I can appreciate the importance of keeping those rituals alive even when we'd Rather Not This Year. And this year especially, we've recited our mantra of This Too Shall Pass to help us keep perspective on what matters, and what we need to do to get by. Rarely will we ever get anything right on the first try, and rarely do we need to. A best effort is better than no effort at all, and it's possible to get through even the most overwhelming task if you sit down a little every day.
I'm way off on my usual planning routine this year, a fact I've bemoaned in the NaNo forums. Ten years ago I didn't think I needed to plan. Ten years later I believe it. The bar to winning NaNo is set very, very low if you think about it. It's just words, one after the other. It's not life. It's not even a walk down the block in the rain. But you can bet there's going to be candy waiting at the end.