2019 Review

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, December 31, 2019, 2:22 PM | comments: 0

It's time for my annual blog therapy/review. This has been an unusual year with a lot of intense highs and lows. Sorting it all out has been an adventure itself. Again this year, we'll start with the boring work stuff.

Career

Last year at this time, I was six months into this gig, and mentally exhausted. I questioned myself every single day. While I liked the people, I wasn't really sure if I had the support I needed to be successful. But by the time I hit my anniversary mid-year, things had changed quite a bit. I went into my review armed with data and felt pretty good about the outcomes of the first year, despite a healthy amount of self-awareness about what had to be better. As I said then, the challenge of the job is all scale. I know what good looks like, it's just different to apply it to 30+ people.

By the middle of the year, I realized that the greatest part of the success was in QA, because my first hire was a QA expert. Thinking back to successful organizations I worked in previously, the best had leaders in each of the various engineering and product disciplines. We already split out product, so we hired a peer to handle that, and it immediately brought focus and priority to what we worked on, so I could look at technical concerns. It was so obvious at that point that hiring leaders for development and operations would round out distribution of that workload, and I was able to get the support for it. Just a few months in, that has made a huge difference. I'm really optimistic about the future. I feel like I have time to think strategically at a high level in a way I couldn't before, and I'm enjoying working with these new leaders.

The last few years, even at my previous job, have been a real swing for me in terms of my mental and emotional investment in work. When I decided I wanted to get back to product work, I was right that it would ultimately cause me to be more engaged. That has the kind of risk that you associate with having a close relationship. The more into it you are, the more intense the pain and joy that comes with it. Balancing that against parenting means that there are frequently times where I'm just spent, and I have to back off from one or the other, or both. It's really hard. But more risk can yield more reward, and I think that's worth it at the moment.

The hobby business

It felt good at the end of 2018 to say that ad revenue had finally gone up after years of decline, and this year tells a more weird story. It starts with the fact that overall ad revenue was back down 14% after a 24% increase. This is actually still "good" because the weirdness lies in the very strange changes in usage patterns and ad formats. On one hand, Google now inserts ads all over the place, so there are more opportunities to generate revenue, but on the other hand, changes I made again to the forums alter how things load, so "page views" don't really mean the same thing year to year. PointBuzz actually saw a rise in users of 3.5%, but they're looking at a third less pages. CoasterBuzz had a more uniform drop in users and page views of 16%. So take all of this into account, and it's safe to say that ad revenue relative to traffic has actually stabilized.

There are two problems with CoasterBuzz. The first is that I simply don't have time to post stuff. I get to work at 8 and I'm doing stuff. At home I'm doing stuff with my family. It's hard to make time to look for news and post it. The second problem is that people aren't writing about the industry like they used to. There used to be a lot of great content out there from local news outlets. But local news can't afford to exist anymore, so I'm lucky to find even half the stuff I did ten years ago. What's worse, even the independent niche publishers who cover the major theme parks are posting link bait crap that I won't link to. It's like the Fox News of theme parks, where I find stuff like, "Disney's new attraction will kill Universal," or some such crap. All of the fake conflict and hyperbole is right out of the playbook of cable news and talking head punditry.

All that said, I have been working on and off on some non-fiction narrative pieces that I think I'll post as part of CoasterBuzz's 20th anniversary, coming up in a few weeks. Initially I thought that maybe this would be book material, but I think it's too niche. I'll write the stuff for me though, and if people are into it, cool.

Some years ago, it became pretty obvious that being in the content business was a losing proposition. Just ask the aforementioned local papers. But I like having the sizable slush fund, and asking people for money beats relying on ad revenue, so I decided that I would try to do a commercially hosted version of the forums. There are a few existing players out there already for this, but not many. This isn't some arbitrary thing that might make money, either, because it's something I'm interested in and care about. It's a better fit for my interests. If it can keep ten customers per month, I'd be perfectly content. My hope is to launch it in a few weeks, if I can get enough heads-down time on it.

Sort of connected to all of this is my prior commitment to make commits every week to the open source forum project. I wanted a little green square in every week for my GitHub profile, and I did it! I optimized the shit out of the project, and even spawned a little mini-library this year. The commits slowed down in the last quarter of the year, in part because I shifted attention to the hosted product, but I did it. That's important to me, because as I've shifted from maker to manager in my day job, I want to stay in the technology in some meaningful way. I want to maintain a little street credibility.

Health

My physical health hasn't changed much this year, but I did gain weight. On top of that, there's an algorithm my doctor uses now that produces odds of you having a heart attack, and those numbers aren't great. My minimum distance on eyesight moved out a few inches and I'm slower to focus. On the plus side, my prostate is working as it should, and I show no signs of developing diabetes or insulin resistance. But those odds... those mess with my mental health. I have to drop some pounds and increase activity to hopefully get the cholesterol under control, or at the very least, understand if it's a hereditary issue or not. The somewhat discouraging thing is that my step count has been up for a few years in a row, 1.8 million in 2017, 2.1 million in 2018 and 2.2 million this year. My eating is up too, I'm sure, since I eat out for lunch most days.

That anxiety though. A year ago, I think I attributed a lot of it to work, but I'm actually rolling with that pretty well these days. The parenting is a bigger trigger these days. I also think there's an underlying, continuous freak-out in progress with regard to aging. I haven't seen my own therapist lately because we've been devoting a lot of time and effort toward Simon's in the short-term, but I imagine it's time to have a meaningful discussion about classic midlife crisis. I don't think I'm going to pursue a Porsche or hookers and blow, but clearly being roughly equidistant between birth and death is weighing on me. Having what seems like a panic attack not triggered by any specific thing in the moment is alarming.

Simon seems to be on a decent med for ADHD at the moment, but that will be an ongoing adjustment. He's obsessively picking his feet now, but his hands and arms aren't bleeding, so that's a plus. The aforementioned focused therapy I think is helping with some of the maturity issues and coping mechanisms, and that will be a long game. Diana's headache calendars this year are getting a little better, in that the doctor can see that naps make a huge difference in that cycle.

Parenting and family

One of my dear friends had a baby this year, and it brought me back to the simplicity, if somewhat offset by frequent physical exhaustion, of having a baby. You might be tired, but it's a simple arrangement overall: Babies need to eat, sleep and have their diaper changed. At some point, they become mobile, and after that, they have opinions about everything, and then you realize how easy wiping butts and feeding mushy food into that little person really was.

We had a lot less experimentation with ADHD meds this year, other than some dosage changes, and for now we're in a good rhythm. The biggest win however was changing schools through yet another redistricting for another new building. The previous school had a principal who was a Type-A micro-manager obsessed with test scores and homework. (I got an email dump of her email on the subject via a records request... you bet I'm gonna share that shit eventually.) Right at the end of March, we saw Simon completely meltdown under the pressure of the goddamn FSA testing, because they emphasize it and scare the shit out of the kids to do well on it, not to mention reduce actual instruction time for test taking strategy. You ever see a person so emotionally drained that you don't recognize them? That was my kid, and it was infuriating.

The principle at the new school avoids talking about the FSA unless she has to, and has no arbitrary homework requirement. Simon has stuff to do that's largely optional, or stuff he can't finish in school (his IEP gives him extra time), but there isn't a ton. Not only is it nice that he can be a kid and do kid stuff after school, but the meds tend to wear off and he's not as focused. It's a night-and-day difference.

Socially, we're always in that place where we want him to work out problems with kids himself, which is hard because kids are dicks at that age, but I struggle with it because I see how unhappy he is a lot of the time. He's probably a year or two behind in terms of maturity, which doesn't help, and he has the stereotypical ASD condition of not understanding social contracts the way other kids do. In fact, that's a problem even with his relationships with us. Cause and effect, understanding consequences, those are still difficult for him. For example, if he talks back and you send his neighbor friend home, he doesn't understand that the talking back was the problem, he only sees that he's lonely and I've taken a friend away from him. And when he can't reconcile that, you certainly can't make it a teachable moment in a meltdown.

We went deep into weekly therapy for a couple of months toward the end of the year, and I think we're understanding him a little better. We know now that what he expresses as a feeling might not be the actual feeling. He's uncomfortable socially and believes that being funny is how other kids like you. Belonging is so important to him, which is hard when he's not athletic and is admittedly the weird kid a lot of the time (he's me as a kid, which is why it's so heartbreaking). I'm trying harder to be a life coach when I can, and when I can understand him, which isn't as often as I'd like. We like Lego, video games and amusement rides, so we bond over those when we can, but it can be demanding to keep up.

Diana is the one who holds it together, managing the doctors and teachers and therapy and swim lessons. I probably call this out all of the time, but I never feel like I have to "manage" our relationship, and it just happens. I don't take that for granted. She looks out for us constantly, and I think she gives more than she takes. All the while she manages to stay funny and interesting and beautiful. We celebrated our 10th anniversary this year, and at this point she now has the honor of having my longest relationship.

Vacations

This was a pretty great year for vacations. Unlike the previous year, I've tried very hard to make sure I'm taking time off quarterly. My goal was to take off four weeks, as if I was accruing time, and I was short by two days. Still, we had some excellent times.

For our tenth anniversary, we went to New York and did a tear on Broadway shows. We stayed in a really nice, new boutique hotel near Bryant Park, met up with more of Diana's theater friends, had a lovely walk through Central Park, visited B&H Photo, frequented the Red Flame Diner. We did it right, too, getting a private car to and from the airport. Didn't get as many subway miles this time, but we did walk from the hotel to Hudson Yards, which was a hike. There is so much to explore in that city, and we've barely made it out of Midtown in our two trips thus far (got downtown to Trinity Church and the 9/11 Memorial last year). I've enjoyed these trips in part because of the amazing shows, but also it's so great to connect with Diana, one-on-one, and connect to her past, when she lived there.

Of course we cruised. We started the new year on a Caribbean itinerary, which was overpriced and frankly the tropics don't feel that different from each other. We really want to get to Puerto Rico. Even more, we want to go to Europe, but don't want to bring Simon just yet, so that's a barrier. We did a long weekend in the spring once we knew Simon was good on missed days of school. We did our annual 5-night with the double hit at Castaway Cay, which wasn't great because Diana had bronchitis. We squeezed out a long weekend as a make-good later in the year, but three nights is too little. On the positive side, Simon has become fairly independent, checking himself in and out of the kids club himself, and using a cheap phone to message us through the onboard app. That means we can sit in a bar and talk to adults or do other adult stuff. We really want to cruise again with friends, because that's always more fun, but haven't been able to align those interests this year.

In the fall, I begrudgingly scheduled a quasi-staycation, where we stayed at Disney's Coronado Springs just a few miles from us, and even closer to Simon's school. Basically, we could be on vacation without him missing school. This trick mostly worked. We had some great adult time, enjoyed the new Star Wars stuff, enjoyed the bus system, had epic eats. A friend was even in town and we did a drink-around-the-world lap at Epcot, for the last viewing of Illuminations, the classic fireworks show. Despite the close proximity to home, it felt like a vacation, and that resort is actually really nice, as it turns out. We want to do a date night back at one of the restaurants there.

I find myself harboring a little resentment about travel, because we can't easily do a long trip without Simon. There are many continents we want to see, or even US cities for that matter, that we can't do just yet. I imagine it's only four or five more years, but we're not getting any younger.

Energy watch

After years of waiting, we finally got our Tesla Powerwall installed. That whole process was a shitshow that I've written about before. Tesla Energy is just terrible to work with, even though the products are awesome. But we now have backup power for all of our standard stuff in the house, so in the event we lose power, we'll still be able to keep the lights and the fridge on, we just can't use the water heater, stove, oven or AC. That's a solid compromise in the event there's a long-term outage due to a hurricane. The trick here is that the battery came with switching equipment that disconnects you from the grid in an outage, which is necessary because you don't want to accidentally back-feed electricity into the grid and electrocute a line worker. So in theory, we could sustain ourselves indefinitely (with cold water) and keep the beverages cold, over-producing solar during the day, then using it overnight.

We've got a whole year of data now, too, and as I expected, spring is the highest producing time of year relative to usage. We got close to net-zero in a few months (production vs. consumption), but we use about 5,000 kWh per year just on the cars, and this silly-large house is hard to keep cool. Still, at almost 14,000 kWh of juice produced per year, our return on investment period is about 9 years and 2 months, as we produce more than $1,800 of power per year, and that's more than 14 tons of CO2 we didn't create by using utility power. Driving EV's 20,000 miles saved another 8 tons, and that's after subtracting for the amount of grid power used to drive them. Americans account for an average of 16 tons per capita, so I feel pretty good that, assuming we're otherwise average, we reduced our 48 tons by almost half.

Finance

What a strange year this has been. Despite making a decent salary, we haven't had a ton of money left over month to month, sometimes for good reason. After last year's difficult timing around car replacement and solar, we finally recast our mortgage early this year, decreasing the monthly payment by $300. We always planned to do that, but those big expenses, combined with the previous house sale taking four months longer than intended, made it difficult to catch up. So that was the first savings drain, but it's obviously good long-term. I immediately offset the lower mortgage payment with larger retirement account contributions, because we're way behind on that (see, midlife awareness runs pretty hot these days). Then there was a big investment opportunity that could potentially make up for the deficient retirement, so I drained the savings again for that, and even borrowed a little. These are all good problems to have, and I know and appreciate that, but it's uncomfortable because I'm not confident about the unbridled optimism toward the economy. The leading indicators don't add up, and there has to be a correction coming.

Where we get dinged a lot is in healthcare costs. The co-pays and prescription costs keep getting worse every year, and I don't know how someone making $15/hour survives. Actually, I know they don't, because there are Type-1 diabetics trying to ration insulin, which will eventually kill them. Our average this year, between co-pays, prescriptions and therapy for Simon, has averaged almost $400 per month, and that's after $380 every two weeks deducted from payroll for insurance. If you're putting $760 monthly into the system (not counting the part the employer pays), it seems like you shouldn't be sinking an additional $400 into the system. But let's keep pretending that this is all fine and normal.

Our biggest single line item is still vacations, as it should be. I don't need fancy things I won't remember, but the memories of our trips, those last. It's the one thing I would emphasize to my 20-something self if I could talk to him, that experiences are better than stuff.

It has been eight years since we left Seattle, and as much as I wonder what might have been if we stayed, I can't argue with the financial outcome of that decision. It was a lot of years of strict discipline, but it was worth it. I can't imagine having all of that financial anxiety on top of the other anxiety.

World outlook

It doesn't seem like there's reason to be optimistic about the world in recent years. Racism seems to be getting worse, people are more tribal than ever, and worst of all, a lack of critical thinking and the rejection of objective truth seems to be a normal thing now. When you have an autocrat who doesn't even try to disguise lies leading the free world, one could easily place the blame there. But I've said for a very long time, we get the democracy that we deserve. It's not a chicken-and-egg problem. People put the guy there.

Despite this, I've found myself defaulting to optimism, because really I don't think I have a choice. I see glimmers of humanity at its best here and there. I see philanthropic effort on the part of people at work, especially the younger folks. I see an energy future that's amazing, and happening faster than I expected. We launch rockets and land them on boats that nobody drives. In my line of work, I see people actively contributing to open source software for the benefit of others. I see my neighbors working to make the community better.

Being present is the way to improve your view of the world. When you look around, and not by way of social media, you can see it. The human race isn't hopeless, it's just a little lost because the loudest voices are not the wisest. We can change that.

Am I happy?

Asking this every year, I think I can say that for much of the year the answer was "yes," and I tend to ask myself more, "Are you anxious?" The answer to that is unfortunately "yes" much of the time as well, but I feel good about the ability to work through that and cope. In the last two months, I've had these extreme moments of peace, sitting on a park bench downtown, or on my patio staring at the sky, or even at my desk in my comfortable office looking at this screen. When I can nail down those moments, they're almost always followed by more happy moments with my wife and child greeting me at the door, and that never gets old.

I'm half-way through life. The first few chapters weren't ideal, but every one gets a little better than the last. If you view that as a path of continuous improvement, how could you not be excited about what's next?

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