2013 Review: Personal Life

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 31, 2013, 6:42 PM | comments: 0

I've been doing these year-end posts for a long time, and every year I manage to loosely describe the year in a paragraph or so before diving into the details. For 2013, however, I don't think I can. My initial reaction is to say that I grabbed life by the balls in ways that I never have before, but further analysis shows that my confidence often wavered, and the world shook me up a bit. What I can say for sure is that I'm happy with the outcome.

Mitigating the great mistake of 2011

I've had to come to terms with the fact that moving back to Cleveland was a bad idea. This isn't me hating on Cleveland. It really is a great city with a lot of great things going on these days. It's just we were very much done with it. Professionally, it offered very little for me, and the winters were physically depressing. Cleveland did not have the "scene" that I loved in Seattle.

I still find myself missing Seattle regularly. It's not just the natural splendor of the mountains, either. I hate that Simon is growing up apart from his cousins, and I miss the circle of friends we made there. If money were no object, and I was truly able to do it, I would live bicoastal and spend summers in Seattle. I do think it will get easier over time, however, because I'm not resenting the place I live now. That makes a huge difference.

To recap, part of the motivation to move back was to occupy the house we couldn't sell, and as I've said many times, that really did pan out financially to our advantage. But I can't tell you how many times, often in random circumstances, I thought, "There's something better for me somewhere else."

Diana had a chance encounter with someone at a yard sale who was moving to Florida, and she asked why we had taken it off the table as a place to live. It was the schools, we said, especially in the Orlando area, where we figured offered the most opportunities. I started to look up school ratings, and indeed, many were very poor, but it just depends on where you look. When Orlando came up into the conversation, I had been there several times in the last year. I went last October for my stepdad's memorial, again in November on a vacation, and again in February for a cruise. It always made us happy to go there, so why not live there? That started the conversation, and the career and money parts started to fall into place.

Real estate and the plan

The first requirement for getting out was getting that fucking house sold. It was a good house, made better by the modest improvements we made to it, but I resented it as the primary reason for our move there. Early in the spring, I talked to our Realtor®, and she felt that the house would move quickly if it was priced right. I might even get out at a break even point against the loan (which is still a huge loss, because it meant I had zero equity after a dozen years). When we moved to Seattle in 2009, we did so with two houses to sell, and it was a mess. We didn't want to make that mistake again.

So based on the selling advice, I started shopping for work in Orlando, and once I had an offer, the house went up for sale. It went in 48 hours, for the asking price, and that was that. It was sold before the "for sale" sign went up. Four years of agony were done.

As it turned out, this accelerated a plan we made in the spring. I was doing a contract gig that paid stupid high rates (more on that in a minute), and we decided that I would work that gig as long as I could, bank as much as possible, then spend a little time researching the work market in Orlando, while working on our quilting community project. When the time was right, and we felt it was worth the risk, we'd move to Orlando.

It ended up coming together faster than planed, because of the job offer and quick sale of the house. I didn't have enough time to finish our project either. It all happened very, very fast.

And keep in mind, my attitude toward money is still focused on saving and avoiding credit as much as possible. On the surface it sounds like moving to a new place, potentially without a job there, is a huge risk, but I wasn't going to do it without money in the bank. I'm careful like that.

But wouldn't you know it, all of that new and inexpensive house construction going on in Orlando was very attractive. I'm still not entirely sure that buying a house is the right thing to do, but there were a couple of things that drew me in. Interest rates are still relatively low, but they aren't going to stay that way. We're used to prices up toward $200 per square foot in Seattle, but they're a little more than half that in Orlando. Buying a house is cheaper than renting one in this area. And above all, I think Diana and I want a place that's entirely ours. It could be a bad idea, but we're going with it anyway.

So a few days after our stuff arrived on a truck, we ordered a new house. What followed was a load of crap in getting approved, because lenders can't figure out what to do with someone working on a contract basis. Even now, the deal is still contingent on getting my taxes filed at the end of January. That blows, because it would be crushing to lose the house after watching it go up.

Career, forward

When I left Humana at the very end of 2012, it was with somewhat mixed emotions. The small company that hired me showed a lot of promise, where I could exercise my interests in coding, managing people and product development. I was able to initially stop the bleeding there in terms of process, but things kept reverting and leading to client issues, largely due to decisions by the owners. Things came to a head when I was being asked to be what I felt was dishonest to clients, and it was clear that I needed to get out of that situation. I take pride in what I do, and being dishonest is just not something I can be.

I bowed out of that when a contract gig came up that was likely only a few months, but the rate was so, so high. It was a backward step in terms of career, but being short term, I didn't care. That was largely against my own advice, where I often quote the awful gig I had in 2004 where I had a great rate, but bored me to tears.

I learned on the first day why the pay was high. It was a project with a slipping schedule, and warring personalities on the small team. If that weren't enough, the personalities spent so much time worrying about things that ultimately did not matter (you know, like how many new lines separated your code). It was mentally exhausting, but again, at that rate, I was content to stick with it.

I knew I was selling myself short, and that this wasn't advancing my career. I kept focusing on the money. Then an interesting thing happened at the media event for Cedar Point's GateKeeper. I was chatting with Matt Ouimet, the CEO from Cedar Fair. I'm very fond of him, as he's so far removed from all of the C-level people I've met running public companies. His leadership style and focus is mesmerizing. I told him about the situation, and our desire to move, and he told me what I already knew. You can't focus on the money, because it will make you miserable. I knew this. I decided then and there that I had stop whoring myself out.

I dropped out of the project. All I could think about when I was driving home is how I was squandering my potential, and how there was something better. It was already two false starts since leaving Humana, which also didn't feel good.

The first attempt at an adjustment actually came before leaving the contract gig. Through a strange sequence of events, I ended up in Redmond interviewing at Microsoft in May. It was a PM gig in an area that I approximately wanted to be. While I had my doubts about the suitability of the job, I figured I could rock it for a year and move within the company, as having the company relocate me solved all kinds of problems. I thought it went pretty well at first, but each person wanted to be more and more abstract, which is that thing that makes so many MSFT people suck at interviewing. The "as appropriate" guy at the end in particular seemed annoyed with me because I kept asking him questions about the problem he wanted me to solve. (For reference, the dudes who interviewed me the first time I worked there gave me real problems.) I didn't get the job, obviously, but that may have been for the better.

With the aforementioned plan moving forward, the first gig I had pitched to me in Orlando was with SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. This sounds silly, but it really never occurred to me to try working for a theme park company and work in software. Yeah, I know, two things I'm passionate about. While it was only a contract gig, I flew down in June on my own dime and interviewed. We had a follow up phoner, and I got the job. This moved the whole sell-move-work timeline way forward, but it was a good problem to have.

It's a pretty interesting thing to work on, because it combines the software problems of an amusement park, hospitality business, restaurants, retail and zoos into one business, spread across six big parks and a handful of water parks. I think I've done more work and learned more in the last five months than the two previous years combined. I'm really into it.

My contract goes through June, at which point I'm not sure what will happen. They could renew, convert to full-time, or wish me good luck. In that sense, it's hard to get overly invested in the job or the company, but no matter what happens, I've got fantastic experience and some really excellent niche domain knowledge. What I choose to do with all of that is up to me.

Our big scare

Amidst all of the excitement around our mid-year life reboot, we had what you can only describe as "the big scare." This is the one where your wife goes in for a mammogram, they see something they don't like, they do a biopsy, and then you wait. And if that weren't bad enough, I was going to be on the road or already in Orlando when the results came, since I was going a week before Diana and Simon to start work. Not that there is a good time for this sort of thing, but this was certainly less than ideal.

There are all kinds of things that go through your mind in a situation like this, none of which are that breast cancer is one of the most treatable, and has a high survival rate. Instead what you think of is the worst case scenario, what the person closest to you will go through, with awful treatment and the conversation you might need to have with your child about what happened to one of his parents.

It was a huge relief to get the good news, obviously. I wouldn't wish even the threat of the disease on anyone. It's really awful.

The growing challenge of the growing boy

Simon was a serious handful this year, but I can't tell you how great it has been to be his dad anyway. To see this little personality continue to evolve and grow is completely amazing. I do the best I can to make sure I'm spending quality time with him whenever possible, and I try to remember when I just need "me" time so as not to resent him. It's a hard balance to strike.

His developmental delays were well established last year, but we could see that the birth-to-three intervention program he was in was helping. That is of course, until he turned three in March and they booted him out. The evaluators after that failed to recognize him as requiring more help, and it wasn't until we appealed that decision that he was entitled to public schooling again. By that time, the school year ended, and it didn't matter anyway. Fortunately, we got him back in down here in Orange County pretty quickly, and he's enjoying school five days a week.

We've had him further tested to better understand what causes his delays, and he's been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, as well as dyspraxia. He's also mid-process in testing for Autism Spectrum Disorder, which often goes hand in hand with the other conditions. Of course, there's a wide range of severity in these conditions, so while we don't expect him to labeled as non-functional, knowing exactly what we're dealing with helps us build a plan to get him up to speed. It seems like there's a very intelligent little boy in there, but he's definitely wired a little differently.

Challenges aside, the progress has been amazing to watch, even if it is late. We're finally having something resembling conversations, and he's on a kick now where he wants to describe everything he sees. I think he's very proud to be able to communicate to us. He's starting to take interest in drawing, his block building is more skilled, and he's using his imagination. He's unfortunately excessively physical at times, a symptom of SPD in that he seeks stronger sensations and physical feedback, but he's also a big hugger. The kid is definitely part Italian!

One of the more exciting things for me and Simon is that he's very into roller coasters now. Again, he craves those intense physical sensations, so coasters are perfect for him. It was a proud moment for me when he had his first ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom, his first "grown up" coaster, and he immediately asked to ride it again.

Diana is the mother of all activity planning mothers though. She tries to get Simon involved with all kinds of things, including more domestic things like cooking. Sometimes he's interested, sometimes he's not. I have to give her most of the credit in parenting Simon, since she spends the most time with him. She's a completely awesome mom.

Travel and tourism at home

This started out as an epic year for travel. In January, we had a very last minute trip to Cincinnati for an overnight at Great Wolf Lodge, and a trip to the steel fabrication plant where they build roller coasters, including Cedar Point's GateKeeper. As Diana has been serving on the GWL moms panel, it was a great chance to try another location. I even got to have a few drinks with a friend of mine I hadn't seen in years.

February was even better. My almost-mother-in-law hatched a plot back in September to surprise Diana's dad on a Disney cruise. So the Snoqualmie Mattoni's and formerly Snoqualmie Puzzoni's all stealthily got on the boat, and while walking around the deck, we blew his mind. It was a well-executed surprise. We did a three-night Bahamian cruise, which seemed like an ideal length of time for someone like me who wasn't sure what to make of a cruise. We were aboard the Dream, which is amazing. I loved it, not because of the tropics or ports, but because the service was insanely great, and the ship itself was just fascinating to me.

Between Diana's GWL affiliation and our desire to get Simon swimming, we did quite a few nights in indoor water parks. We went to GWL and Castaway Bay in Sandusky a bunch of times in the winter and spring. Each time, Simon was a little more into it. He seemed to enjoy the whole experience, including eating out, doing the kids stuff in the evening, and of course, using the elevators. In the awful grayness that is the first four months of the year in Northeast Ohio, these little trips made a huge difference.

May brought the start of another season of Cedar Point, the one thing that we consistently loved about Cleveland. It wasn't so much the park itself, though it was particularly fantastic with the new front gate and GateKeeper, but it was our favorite people there. We have such good friends working there, and it just felt like home when we were there. We enjoyed a number of great events there early in the year.

Things changed dramatically in July, because of the move, and the order for the house. We had to bank cash, and frankly, things are different when you're already living in an area that is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. Knowing Simon and Diana would be stuck in a hotel for a few days, and that we no longer had access to Cedar Point, we scored annual passes to Walt Disney World almost immediately.

As it turns out, one of the things that was great about having a pass to CP is also great for WDW. You tend to enjoy it more and at your leisure when there's no pressure to try to do as much as you can in a compressed amount of time. For the most part, our visits have been a few hours at a time, maybe once or twice a week. It felt weird that something that used to be exclusively the domain of once-a-year trips was now at our disposal at any time, but I think we're over that. Visiting the parks makes for great exercise (especially Epcot), and a boy with dyspraxia benefits from walking, roller coasters and circular rides. I don't know if it will get old eventually, but the three of us consistently have a good time, together.

But there is a problem, in that we barely left the county since moving here, going no further than up to see my mom in The Villages. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that taking time off means not getting paid, and that would interfere with saving for the house. And again, when you're already in a place with palm trees and sun, every weekend feels a little like a vacation. Still, we're planning to spend some quality time getting away in the coming months, to explore the state a bit.

The happy meter

Last year, I felt very much like I was in transition, moving toward something, but not entirely satisfied with where life was. This year, it's a different story, and I really am quite happy with how things turned out. I made a lot of deliberate decisions, took some chances, and I feel like I'm better for it. Hopefully I've done right by my family as well. Diana has been a partner in all of this change, and we had many serious conversations.

The challenge in the coming year is to keep the momentum, be present in each moment, and not get too bogged down in what the future might hold.


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