I've been doing these for years, and I have to say, I never thought I would be revisiting a year like this. It's safe to say that I've never had a year like this, and probably no one else has either. I'll try to break it up into the usual categories, but I can summarize by saying the year was a shit-show, if not always for me personally, it was for the world at large.
To that end, I like to reflect on the previous year, every year. This is just my story, and whether or not it's better or worse than someone else's isn't the point. It's real to me, and that doesn't preclude me from being empathetic to others enduring difficult circumstances. Don't be one of those people who wants to out-woke others and be judgey. There's a lot I'm leaving out this year, so what I am reflecting on is not a complete picture. It never is. This year took a lot from us, and having income did not make up for it.
Obviously the thing this year will most be known for is the Covid-19 pandemic. We end the year with over 340,000 deaths in the US alone, losing 3,000+ people per day because of multiple levels of failure in government and personal responsibility. The enormity of that weighs on me, even though there's little I can do about it.
Early on, in March, we understood so little about this virus that most societies reacted the only way they knew how: stay home and avoid people. The science evolved and it was fairly well understood, but poorly communicated. Avoid the three "C's:" close contact, confined spaces and crowds. This led to some counterintuitive behaviors, where going to Walt Disney World was relatively safe, but having a dinner party or your parents over was not. A lot of people just did whatever they wanted anyway, so you ended up with places where the hospitals were overwhelmed, in both space and staff, and literally 1 in 800 people of the population of North Dakota simply don't exist anymore. Nationally, 1 in 1,000 people in the US have now died.
My friends have lost family members, and those who were infected more often than not had lingering symptoms for weeks. We've done our best to be careful by just observing the basic protocols. With Diana's history of respiratory health problems, Simon's two bouts with pneumonia, and my overweight ass, we all have varying degrees of higher risk factors.
A lot of the things we would normally do this year we simply couldn't, even if we disregarded the risk. We couldn't cruise, we couldn't keep our guest room occupied by friends from Norway or Seattle. We couldn't road-trip up the coast to amusement parks. No Food & Wine Festival. No parties. Instead, we had solitary beach trips and Zoom playdates. School happened through a screen.
Like everything in America, it was disappointing to see a disregard for science and binary, divisive thinking informing people's actions. For people unwilling to go just a little deeper, the binary choices were shutting everything down indefinitely or going about life as usual with no regard to the consequences. Of course, the reality is that we're suffering economic chaos and the greatest public health crisis of our time, but people don't seem to see that either. Meanwhile, Australia has daily cases in the single digits, and is having a proper summer. I hate that American exceptionalism has become about what we can't achieve instead of what we can.
Funny how things change from year to year. I ended last year feeling like I had set up a path for success this year, having reached all the measurable goals I had. After getting back from the holidays and a tech conference, I realized that my enthusiasm was not shared, for reasons I'll probably never fully understand. I spent a lot of time analyzing the situation, to learn from it, but regardless, it was time to move on. The next move came down to two options. The one was a contract gig that would have been the most ridiculous rate I've ever seen. It was yet another fixer-upper kind of gig. I feel like that's where I've landed over and over again since I landed in Florida, whether it was consulting or SaaS companies. Build from the ground, rip and replace, fix all this... it was a pattern, for sure. The other option was to join a growing company where I had to manage a team after the previous manager was promoted. It was not a fixer-upper. I took that job.
We've all had that friend that was in a toxic relationship, where they didn't see how terrible their partner was, and from the outside, you wonder how they could possibly not see it. Professionally, for me, that pattern was the fixer-uppers. I've had a lot of success in that respect, and my special sauce is definitely team building and adapting situations toward predictable outcomes. Grooming people to think for themselves about the outcomes works and scales. I assumed that the challenges in the last decade just came with the territory of my career stage, that it was natural to be in a constant pinch. I was wrong about that, and I just had to see a better scenario to prove it.
Part of this also has to do with company size. Large to huge companies tend to have more opportunities to do whatever you're good at, get promotions and have reliably high compensation up front. Smaller companies require you to do more of everything, probably not as well, with potential but uncertain long-term financial incentive. I've landed in a place that's somewhere in the middle, for the first time. Almost everywhere that I've previously worked had less than 150 people or more than 10,000. This middle road is interesting, because I have many peers with similar backgrounds, while the most senior leaders trust us to create the high level outcomes they're after. It's challenging without being difficult, and no one has made the asinine suggestion that maybe I'm not enjoying work very much or that my talents are underutilized.
In fact, it has given me the room to really think about my own skill inventory, and how I want to develop, without having to waste time on the aforementioned toxic relationship stuff. The consulting on and off for the last two decades has given me a lot of experience in areas of project and product management, team building, development processes and of course all the technical architecture stuff that I now mostly rely on others for. Where I want to grow is a number of areas that are somewhat more abstract, but slowly coming into focus. Most obvious is just navigating and collaborating across a larger organization, and figuring out how best to segment it in ways that continue to be more outcome based and not hierarchical. I also want to better understand where I sit on the vision-operator spectrum (the Steve Jobs vs. Tim Cook spectrum, if you will), and how I can strengthen the end where I am not, or both if I'm in the middle.
I had a great year-end review, which was not unexpected (if you're surprised by any review, your manager isn't doing a very good job). A number of people have tapped me to work on more global things while my directs have given me positive and constructive feedback. It has been a great year. It admittedly causes some survivors guilt in a year where we've seen entire industries suffer in the pandemic.
Continuing with the weirdness theme, this was the year that I thought I'd spin up a new opportunity to counteract the continuing slide in ad revenue. Late last year, I decided I should make a commercially hosted version of POP Forums, and early this year, that's exactly what I did. You give me a credit card, and in a matter of minutes, you have a hosted forum. It has a dozen or so themes built-in, you can roll your own and it can even support ads. The performance is off the chart high and the scale can go a lot further than I've tested it. To prove this out, I moved the PointBuzz forums there so we could decouple the rest of the site and work on it independently. It's. So. Fast.
My intention was to let that marinate a bit, to prove it out, then start to sell it. Then Covid hit, and I started the new job. I never came up with any real marketing plan, and definitely wasn't going to spend money on marketing it, because I didn't have the mental bandwidth, and I've been fiscally risk averse for obvious reasons. So to date, I'm the only customer.
The site revenue took a huge, huge shit this year, by 32%. Traffic was obviously down, because many amusement parks didn't open, or were opened at reduce capacity. CoasterBuzz was down about 20%, so the 20th anniversary was a bust. PointBuzz I'm not sure, because I wasn't tracking traffic on the new hosted forum until late in the year. The club revenue on CB really took a dive with almost no events this year.
On the plus side, I was able to migrate everything to the latest .NET bits, which means that it all runs on Linux now, another sure sign of the apocalypse. What this means is all of that performance and redundancy is only costing me about $200 a month. I've had zero downtime this year.
The forum work led to a lot of code commits early in the year, but that barely scratches the surface of the nearly 400 open source contributions I've made this year. I finally open sourced my blog app, and added the bits necessary to also syndicate a podcast (necessary to migrate the old CoasterBuzz Podcast to Linux).
My biggest and most unlikely accomplishment is that I built my own cloud music service, which I called MLocker (as in music locker). If you would have told me a year ago that I would endeavor to do something like that, I'd say you were silly. But with the death of Google Music, I needed a place to park all of the stuff that I already paid for, because the only music service I'm paying for is the curated one from SiriusXM. I use it every day, on my phone, and it's fantastic, if not perfect. I've got almost 8,000 MP3's that no longer need to be moved from place to place.
All told, I wrote about 12,000 lines of code this year for the open source projects, which doesn't count the proprietary stuff written to host the commercial forum version. Not bad for someone who is more manager than maker.
I also decided to do a radio show called the Modern Gen-X on PRX, and it aired in Alaska, Guam and Maryland. I made 21 hours of radio, and then abruptly stopped. I may pick it up again at some point, because I really enjoyed it. It was just something to pass the time and revisit the old days. I did it "live" style, not scripted or edited, because that's what was fun when I did radio for a living and radio sucked less.
I wrote over 200 blog posts this year, because I really concentrated on doing it more toward the end of this year. My rhythm in recent years has been around a dozen a month. When I do write, I write deeper than I used to, but I still wanted to do more of it. Writing helps me cope with anxiety by processing things out of my head.
I bought eight Lego sets this year, all of them fairly large. This isn't really creating things in the strict sense of the word, because you're following instructions, but it is one of the most calming activities I can do. My favorite of these was the Haunted House, which has a freefall tower amusement ride inside of it, of the most brilliant design. I did time lapses for most of these.
I bought a new camera this year, the only major purchase I made all year, hoping it would spark my video creativity. I just haven't been out in the world shooting stuff in a long time, and I miss doing it, even if I'm not even sure what I would make with it. So at the very least, we're going to make a series of videos with the aforementioned Lego time lapses, some videos about drinks, food and other stuff. I don't really have a formula in mind, and that's why I'm associating it with my now-ancient SillyNonsense brand. Yeah, I brought it back. I end the year with around 10 episodes complete, though they're not all yet posted. I don't really enjoy doing stuff on-camera myself, because I was never good at it, but I'm limited to doing stuff with the people in my house at the moment.
All this stuff made it a lot easier to feel good about doing passive things, for sure. I watched a lot of streaming TV and movies in the last year, and I feel strongly that we're in kind of a new golden age of episodic video. I read a bunch of books, all non-fiction, mostly a combination of memoirs and business advice books. I also subscribed to Masterclass again this year, and watched a ton of classes.
Many of the Masterclass series that I watched were about filmmaking and writing, which lead me to the one thing I did not do this year: Write a screenplay. I did finally buy a Final Draft license though! Judd Apatow's class really stuck with me, for one specific point: You have to write something terrible if you ever expect to write anything good. If I keep that in mind, I'm confident I can write something.
Creating all of this stuff has been incredibly satisfying in a way that I haven't felt in a long time. I don't really care what others get out of it, if anything, because it just feels good to make things. I listen to music every single day on a player that I built myself, which feels really good.
This was not a good year for health for people important to me. Covid doesn't even start to capture it, as we've seen more cancer and death than would seem normal. It's been rough. Those aren't really my stories to tell, but they've certainly impacted us.
For me, I am actually ending the year five pounds lighter, which would feel like failure in any other year where 12 months ago my risk profile was scary and a little more urgent considering I'm not getting younger. But the reality is that this year, with the stress of the pandemic, a work transition and serious parenting challenges, maintaining the status quo is a win considering my history of eating my feelings.
At the end of the previous year, my doctor (who Orlando Health let go of, in a pandemic, without notifying me) had all of the predictable advice: I had to get my cholesterol and blood pressure down, both just a little higher than normal. Weight loss would help with both. He suggested that I try intermittent fasting, which means no eating between 7 p.m. and 11 a.m. I was super consistent about that at first, which is why I lost those five pounds pretty early. It also helped that the job change and working from home meant no more snack closet and chef making meals three times a week. The flip side is that my physical activity basically stopped. It has been mentally difficult to get up and get out most of the year. The thing that probably helped the most is that I finally broke my soda habit by transitioning to flavored soda water. I still get a fountain Coke and a little Sprite now and then, but I've reduced my intake by a significant magnitude.
I'm not sure where my blood pressure is, because I used to measure that at the grocery store I don't go to anymore. I didn't get a blood panel in the summer because the replacement doctor in the office wasn't doing blood draws in the office anymore. I don't expect any material improvement in those because I haven't done the work. The last time I had 10,000 steps or more was February 19. In late spring and early summer, I was in a weekly rut of pigging out and making cocktails every Friday. Like I said, I'm approaching this all as "could have been worse."
The weird thing is that with all of the social distancing and mask wearing, I don't think any of us were "sick" this year. That's weird. All three of us had some interesting allergies, but no colds or flu.
After a crazy run of perfect vision, I've noticed now that anything within 18 inches of my face is harder to focus on than it used to be, but only when I'm tired and/or it's dark. Everything beyond that point in space is sharp as ever. I'm not expecting this to last forever, and genetically I don't know how my sight ended up the opposite of my parents.
Mental health has been a mixed bag, but not all bad. The lorazepam that my previous doctor prescribed has helped me a great deal when I get the panic attack symptoms, and when I observe that I'm not in fact having a heart event, it's calming and reassuring, breaking the anxiety loop around health. I don't need the drug very often, about every three weeks on average. Overall, I feel like I've been able to manage the anxiety better this year, and maybe even reduce it. My IBS symptoms have been less this year, and since my diet hasn't fundamentally changed, I credit the stress management inputs.
The world's apparent disregard for science and America's increasing tolerance of fascism definitely was a grind, but it was really parenting that caused the most mental health discomfort. I'll get into that later, but it's a pretty dark place to be when you feel like you can't steer your little human toward a life of relative success and sense of belonging.
I was inconsistent about seeing my therapist this year, and I don't have any excuse for that, considering it's remote and my benefits cover it. But I still landed some solid realizations this year that help. I've learned that I'm often too eager to give trust to others, to the point of being taken advantage of. I have been lonely for much of my life and compartmentalized that to the point of not even realizing it. I've made up my mind that I don't need validation or affection, so I do not seek or expect it, yet it's clear that when I get it, it transforms me in a big way. I harbor a lot of disappointment toward people, professionally and personally, that were supposed to be my champions but never provided the support I needed. The pandemic reminds me that I don't need to be widely adored or social, but I do need a small number of meaningful relationships, and that's clearer than ever.
What does one do with all of that? I have no idea, but it informs my daily recognition of how I behave in the world, which in turn helps me be a better person for myself and others.
If there's one thing I can take from living in these "unprecedented times," it's that I am grateful for the maintenance-free relationship I have with my darling wife. I know this year has put stress on a lot of relationships, but ours functions as usual, which is to say without a lot of work. People famously say that marriage requires work, and with us, it just doesn't. We have minor, ephemeral frustrations with each other sometimes, as any two humans would, but they have almost no shelf life. Diana and I trust each other to use money wisely, we tag team on parenting, and defer certain responsibilities to each other. There's no score keeping. When one of us needs something from the other, we ask, and don't expect that we should just "know" what the other needs.
I wish I could say that the parenting was as easy, but this has certainly been the most challenging year yet. Some of it is rooted in the developmental delays associated with ASD. Simon is emotionally immature for 10, and the hardest part of this is that he can't deal with any challenging situations. What I consider easy, he considers challenging, so sometimes putting on a shirt is at the same level of difficulty as subtracting fractions. The distance from calm to meltdown is short. As a dad, I can rationally understand his wiring, but I can't always understand his motivations and what behaviors are just him being a stubborn 10-year-old.
For me, things typically go poorly around bedtime in particular. When I gently remind him that it's time to stop playing, to take a shower, he starts to get angry. In the shower, he'll demand help because there is soap over his eyes, and instead of solving that problem, he'll ask for help with a towel or not just put his face under the water. I am getting better at allowing him to just flail a little and not be angry, but as you can imagine, the situation often devolves into accusations that I don't care about him or the usual things that parents are often accused of. What makes that so hard is that it's over things that are not inherently challenging, they're just easier if someone else helps.
There's a thread here that I think helps explain this (one I've not yet talked to his therapist about). Simon is very, very lonely, which was an issue even before the pandemic. He openly expresses this sadness to us. He's a little "different" to say the least, and kids can be real dicks about it. He hasn't really found his people. Now it's even worse, because his social interaction is limited mostly to virtual play dates to play video games with his cousin or some of the area kids he knows. Because of all this, I theorize that his desire to be helped on relatively simple things is in part out of a desire for interaction.
School has been really difficult in the remote situation. His grades have been pretty good, but he's had Mom at his side most of the time, every single day. When he's forced to work independently, he struggles to stay plugged in (we've switched ADHD meds already this year). We see this in testing scenarios in particular. It has been hard to figure out how to get him to understand the relative consequence of failure. The prospect of getting something wrong is an irreconcilable scenario for him, and irreconcilable scenarios are what causes a person with ASD to stop functioning and meltdown.
Next week, he'll be going back to face-to-face school, where he'll have the benefit of more frequent help from his teachers and ESE teacher. We struggled with this decision, but the school has followed the science and created protocols that reduce the risk pretty well. The Covid cases that have occurred have not been the result of in-school spread (because in these sub-communities they are rigorously contact tracing). Honestly, we don't know how he'll do wearing a mask all day (he still has some sensory issues), but if it doesn't work, we can move him back to remote.
For me, I'm trying to approach working with him in a more clinical, intellectual way, but it's hard not to react emotionally to emotions. One of the things we really miss out on is the old "boys' nights" that we had when Diana was regularly working. Sometimes they were as simple as doing something at home, or more often, going to a theme park for a couple of hours (because there's no cooking and plenty of activities). With outdoor stuff happening at Diana's work, she's slowly picking up some time there, and we had a couple of good nights together.
Second only to the pandemic on the list of things that are unexpected, is that we're ending the year with two different cats than those we started with. I think we've been anticipating Emma's end for a long time, because 18 is pretty old for a cat. Oliver was unexpected, and we figured he had at least another year or two. Losing both this year hurt. Maybe worse than losing them is seeing Simon's reaction when saying goodbye to them. Obviously in Covid times, you can't all go to the vet, so Diana took them in while I did my best to comfort Simon. Maybe that was better, because trying to explain euthanasia to a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum would have been rough. We didn't lie to him, indicating that the vets would give them medication to relax without pain as they died. Sometimes you have to settle for a half-truth.
These two were the last of the "blended pride," my cat plus Diana's three when she moved in with me. They traveled with us to Seattle and back to Cleveland, and then her three came with us to Orange County. It's strange now that none of them are with us.
In August, ragdolls Finn and Poe joined us. I can't really put into words how good the timing of their arrival has been, between the loss of the other cats and just the basic need for a distraction that sits on or next to you and purrs. All of the breed stereotypes have come true for these two. They just want to be loved, and don't mind being picked up. They follow you around like dogs, and they're rarely aloof like most cats. They're also enormous, which was one of the considerations for wanting this specific breed. At almost eight months, they're both well over 10 pounds already. They're very robust.
Finn is the ultimate cuddle cat, and almost every night, at least once, he jumps on Diana and kneads around her head while he purrs. He'll do whatever it takes to get belly rubs. Poe also flops on his back for the rubs, but his charm is that he's more food driven. He'll nibble your toes if there is no food to eat. They don't mind sleeping together and groom each other constantly. They're all asses-and-elbows when they chase each other around the wood floor with their fuzzy paws, sliding into each other and the walls. When they've exhausted their energy and crash, they're just adorable, stretching their furry legs and demanding that they be rubbed. There is so much love in these little guys. I can't imagine this year without them.
This was supposed to be an epic year for travel, but it wasn't, for obvious reasons. Right after the new year I flew in to Cleveland for the Codemash conference in Sandusky. It was a good reminder about why I was happy to not live in Ohio anymore, because of the weather. We had two cruises planned as well... a weekend hop in mid-March, and a grand revisit to Alaska in late June, while Simon stayed with his cousins in Seattle. The latter would have been the longest vacation that Diana and I had taken without the boy since his birth. It was going to be glorious.
We were two years into a tradition of going to New York in the spring around our anniversary, and I was hoping we would continue that given the shows and her friends there. And if that weren't enough, my work office is actually in One World Trade, so I have additional reasons to visit.
There were some other things potentially on the table as well, including an east coast driving trip, a DC visit, maybe some time at Cedar Point, and definitely some shoulder time in Seattle before and after the Alaska cruise. Instead, we've not left the state, and let Simon's passport expire. I didn't use all of my time off (a week rolled over), because all of things we like to do, and the new places we hoped to go to, we couldn't because stuff was closed.
In July, we did get a beach rental at a property that had about a dozen guest house units, in the Cocoa Beach area. That was a nice diversion for a few days. One of the neighbors was making noise at night, which was annoying, but being right on the beach in an area that was not in the big public parking beach areas, was great. I'm not sure why we had never done that before, because there are countless rentals up and down both coasts.
We also had a road trip down to Naples to pick up the kittens, which came at the same time as a dead 12V battery in my car, so I didn't enjoy the drive in a rental, unfortunately.
Even in the first half of next year, the good news is that we (as in the world) know how to roll relatively safely with Covid. Things don't need to close in a desperate way unless things get desperate, which is always a possibility while people are having dinner parties and holiday gatherings. But beach rentals and more exclusive outdoor things are very possible to do, and we'll keep looking at those.
I've been working hard for years to right the stupidity of my youth and the debt we were in around the time we were married. This year has been the strangest of all. If you were able to stay employed this year, the odds are good that there were less things for you to spend money on. I had no meaningful interruption in income, fortunately, and with our big trips cancelled, got a bunch of money back that I had considered spent. On top of that, well, we just didn't do stuff, and we didn't really buy much stuff. For the first time in my entire life, I actually have more than three months of savings. A decade ago I had over $30k of debt on credit cards and no savings. It took a long time to fix that.
And if that weren't enough, we just refinanced the house, after living in it only three years. Under normal circumstances, that's not something that people do, but when the interest rates bottom out the way they have, it would have been irresponsible not to. Going from 3.999% to 2.875% is basically like finding a few hundred dollars more per month, and the "pay back" period, to compensate for the costs of the loan, is about nine months. This draws a lot of attention to why home ownership is such an important aspect of American life, and why it creates disparity that is problematic. If you rent, you get nothing back for that expense other than a roof over your head. If you own property, you get the roof and (most of the time) it appreciates in value that you'll get back. This seems like an inherently broken system to me, especially when you can further reduce your cost in a time of economic distress.
On the plus side, I've been able to do more charitable giving this year than I ever have. I've typically preferred to give to organizations that meet needs, but this year I've given to a broader range, including civil rights organizations and museums and such. Vetting non-profits is a lot easier than it used to be, too, thanks to sites like Charity Navigator.
This year being what it is, we couldn't escape completely unscathed. Diana was in a car accident the day before Christmas Eve, and now we're having to consider buying another car, seven months earlier than planned. Her Nissan Leaf was up for a three-year lease in August, and so we expected to save our pennies in those months to put down a reasonable amount for its replacement. Not sure yet how that's going to play out, because we haven't officially received the "total loss" declaration. We may try to just have one car for awhile.
As if the pandemic wasn't enough, we saw extraordinary attention brought to the fact that there are two Americas, and how you are treated by society has a lot to do with the color of your skin. This year I observed presumably intelligent white people proclaim that systemic racism is not a thing. As is the case with a great many things in the world, you can observe with math that this racism is real, and history is pretty clear about why and how it persists.
If that weren't enough, the same people who refuse to see how society has rigged its systems against people of color now believe, with no evidence at all, that the election was rigged against Donald Trump. Then you can pile on the irony that his party is the one that has been persistently trying to suppress voters for decades. They're the same people who think that climate change, another observable fact, isn't real, and then they extended this rage against science toward the pandemic. "It'll just disappear," their dear leader said. These folks can't even see that they supported a racist.
The spread of willful ignorance and war against expertise and experience is one that concerns me a great deal. That people can be manipulated into thinking that experienced experts are the enemy, or valued the same way that anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection is, scares the shit out of me. That 74 million people could vote for a person that followed the same pattern as history's most successful fascists is not encouraging. Again, this pattern is observable fact. And to write it off as "both sides are bad," that tired moral equivalence argument... how do you even get there?
My generation was supposed to right this ship, after our parents' generation showed little follow through with the civil rights movement. We basically got a Black president elected and called it a day. The younger generations show promise, but then you get these stories of entitled white rich kids slinging the "N word" like 8-year-olds making fart noises. It's hard to feel good about where we're headed.
The thing is, I can't live a life of pessimism, because that would be exhausting. If I am to point to the lessons of history, then I am forced to accept that things do improve, even if the rate of positive change is slow and there are setbacks. The old thing about only knowing happiness by way of pain rings true. It's hard to say what "normal" will look like, but vaccines, a boringly typical president and hopefully some real change toward reconciling America's original sin will restore some amount of sanity to the world.
What will I do? I'll stay involved. I'll keep donating to the organizations forcing change. I'll do my part to promote diversity and inclusion. I'll shine whatever light I can on the people who move the world forward.
I'm not sure how I can arrive at a concrete answer to this question given everything I've taken inventory on, but the answer might be mostly "yes." As I discovered last year, a lot of the time, I was dealing with anxiety, and you can multiply that several times over this year, but being anxious and being happy are not mutually exclusive. The crazy thing is just how high the highs are, and ditto for the lows.
As I mentioned up front, this year took a lot out of us in a lot of different ways, well beyond the narrative here. It has been a long time since I felt the world took more than I gave. I think the only reason that I can call it a net win is because most of it is behind us. The transition to a new year is largely symbolic, but I can't think of any time in recent history that we're in more dire need of symbolic change. We just need to get through the next six months or so, and hope that others play along.
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