Balls to the Wall

It’s not so much a limitation of any language but more a difficulty in human conceptual capability that the words and concepts of “joy” and “happiness” can be both nearly identical and completely different depending on the context and intent. Not that I’m a linguist — bet you a real linguist would mock the dumb physicist for venturing so far outside his field — but I think there is a good way to think about these concepts as distinct. For now, I like to think of “joy” as an emotion that is fleeting and often called “happiness;” whereas “happiness” is a state of being that is the agglomeration of several different emotions and is for more persistent. Much like how the weather on any given day can be either hot or cold while the climate of a region is much more fixed and consistent, emotions can be very fleeting and spurious while one’s state of being is fairly consistent; especially compared to how fast one’s emotions can turn around and then back again. Consistent may be a bit of an overstatement. It’s something that usually persists though the one’s days or weeks of troubles and reliefs, but surprisingly fragile when struck just right (or wrong) at the right (well, wrong, really) time. Everybody intuitively knows this.

Even the amateur armchair philosopher (or as we call them now, social media influencers) will make a solid argument that virtually nobody aims for a life of joy, or what they might call a simple pursuit of happiness. Even the most short-sighted of people still balance the choice of doing what brings them joy at the moment against many other factors like social expectations and internalized morality and ethics. The more adept philosophers (or perhaps YouTube content creators) will point out that the “pursuit of happiness” better describes an ongoing drive to reach a state of contentment, experiences of joys and successes, and a place of belonging. How this happens can be vastly different for each individual. The psychologist will quite correctly point to any number of mental and emotional mechanisms tied into fundamental biological needs that contrarily point out that the overwhelming majority of people really are just looking for the same thing. But for practical purposes it’s fair to think of the devoutly faithful homesteader raising a family in the privacy of a rural community to be vastly different from the political activist looking to build an engaged community within a metropolitan city. This is perhaps just a very long way of pointing out (again, what everybody kinda intuitively knows) that everybody has to build their own happiness.

The conundrum for me is that for having felt quite a bit of joy in the last decade, I don’t know if happiness has ever really graced me for more than brief periods. Then, too, whether it was genuine happiness or just as much wishful thinking. There are certainly very specific times I can say I was happy. At certain events, the kind which when I think back on them bring me joy, I was definitely happy. And many other times I felt close-but-not-quite-there to happiness, or rather my over-analyzing brain told me I ought to be in a state of happiness. Such times were far and few between, though. And they had been more frequent earlier on and have slipped away steadily in recent times. The paradox is perhaps that joy is something I’ve felt more and more often, almost as if it were taking place in lieu of happiness.

My life now is objectively good by any reasonable standards. I have health, wealth, job success, and none of the encumbrance that has befallen so many others I know. There must be quite a few in my age group who would dream of having my life. Every day I remind myself how lucky I am in this regard. I can easily count ten people I know personally who undoubtedly have had a harder life than I have. But people aren’t stones. We’re not sitting on a line from mud to diamond, and certainly the forces driving life that blindside some completely miss others. And even the hardest rocks will have their weak-points where even the slightest impact will shatter the whole thing.

Certainly only the very luckiest of us live in a state of mostly happiness, and among them only the wisest will realize it. At the same time I feel it’s almost self evident that some have at their disposal more means of attaining happiness than others. And while surveys and such studies — even the ones that are properly conducting and peer reviewed — ought to be viewed with a critical eye, there does seem to be shifts in overall happiness between times, ages, and peoples. There is something to measure there, and being in a population that ought to, statistically speaking, be happy, is still only a probability. That one ought to be happy is certainly not the same as being happy.

So for me, for having much joy in my life, while also having success in so many other ways, stands in extreme contrast to the lack of happiness I perceive.

Certainly one large culprit is my career being trashed through 2020 and 2021. My work environment was my most-frequented social environment, even if it was the one I valued least. As the job became difficult and I was ostracized from my leadership position, the amount of positive social interaction I had, which already felt like a trickle, became virtually nothing. And during that time period, even though I was able to maintain a much better degree of social interaction than many others, covid completely annihilated so many of my plans and hopes for the future. But in the end this is only a small part of the problem. I’d felt my happiness decrease steadily prior to all this. The drive to succeed in my career masked this as I still had something to focus on and weigh against it. My career getting upended was perhaps less a cause for loss of happiness so much as it was just giving a looking behind the curtain.

If only I could this easily figure out all the thing that are dragging me down, I could just fix them. Or at least try. Or at least try to work around them. Not much else is as clear in my mind about how much it impacts me. Over the years I’ve certainly spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, though, and a few things are coming into focus for me. And a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, as more pieces fall into place the bigger picture gets clearer. And for me it’s clear that I just have far too little interaction with peers.

I have some wonderful friends who share my ideas, interests, and intentions in life. They are the kind of caring, compassionate, and considerate people I want in my life. But the rate at which we have any kind of meaningful interaction is slim — something going forward I will assume is largely consequence of my own inability or inaction to foster interaction. Well, that’s second in line to a world which has somehow made it more difficult to stay in touch in spite of our fantastical technological advances. (And again, covid highlighted this but only because it was something that was already an issue.)

While a world limited by physical mail isn’t one I want to be in, we can often see in those old letters how much care and thought was conveyed by them. It was something real to literally hold on to, the scarcity of communication made it that much more precious, and the cost in time and effort to write really kept front and center how important such communication was. Meanwhile today we could span the globe with an instant call to anybody, though various social, technological, and political problems drive people away from sharing that time with their loved ones and instead idling away with doomscrolling or inane-but-entertaining dance trends. This is one of those topics I could write a whole separate blog post about… some other time.

Back to me, though. Try though I might, the internet just isn’t useful for social interaction of any meaningful type anymore. Covid has isolated enough people that even safe gatherings were simply not (and still aren’t) much common. But more importantly, having a lifestyle of fitting my life into my career was probably one of the biggest dampers. Not that with everybody having jobs, family obligations, and a thousand other things there was much opportunity there, either. But perhaps I can look at the bright side and say that I’m now unburdened by the need for a career. One holds the keys to their own misery and happiness, and having exhausted all tools at my disposal to manage both, it’s clear I need to try a new approach.

The only way is forward.

Not that I’m clear yet on what that exactly means. But I’ve certainly felt a shift inside me to push harder and move faster. I’ve tried to live most of my life attuned to the idea that it’s better to cast away from safety to try and explore instead of risk the regret of inaction later in life. And that has been highly successful in avoiding regret. But it’s not making me happy, and the only option I seem to have is to really push headlong into the storm and accept the battering that will come. I don’t know that I have any time left to be delicate and prudent. Dedication and patience have certainly kept me out of trouble in many ways. Lack of a negative isn’t the same as a positive. Not that I’ve even really tried to avoid trouble; it’s just always been a matter of trying to find the best path forward. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, what is supposed to work just… doesn’t for me. So damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

My life has really accelerated over the last few months. Call it desperation or inspiration, I’ve found the motivation to tackle a lot of things I’d been putting off as unimportant or unpressed. In retrospect this started earlier on when I started aggressively paying off my house. Since then I’ve cleaned out old boxes from as far back as high school, reorganized the many material things I have (including disposing of some genuine refuse that I had no reason to hold onto so long), and opened up time in the week to spend on actual important things. But in the bigger scale, I’m looking to really push forward hard. The new job has me traveling to Chicago often, and it might make sense to move there (temporarily, or not?) so I can try something else. Or maybe I should just become unemployed, stay at home to relax, and “take time to find myself.” While that’s a fairly cliched saying, and not something I seriously intend to do, there’s certainly a kernel of wisdom in there. And since I’m bypassing the limiters of the reasonable and rational, perhaps I get one of those “teach English” jobs and live in Japan or Korea (or both) for a while.

One way or another change is coming. A lot of it certainly has. But I’d be a complete fool to keeping doing what I have for the last decade and expect anything to get better. I certainly can’t think of the last decade since I graduated as wasted. I doubt that who I was back then would be up to this challenge. But that same decade has seen my happiness dwindle to a thread at times. Hanging on just isn’t an option anymore. The gloves are off, the limits removed, and I’m going to fight to build the life I want with everything I have.

Means to an End

Chicago was a much needed and very healthy trip. Ostensibly it was for work. And I did get some good work done. But half my job is wrangling code and the other half is managing spreadsheets, and even the best of that isn’t in any way personally fulfilling. I wouldn’t inflict even the best stories of that work on anybody unless I wanted them to feel pain. Why I was there is the important part.

But before I get to that, take it from me that business travel is an underappriciated present. Okay, if you’re on site working 16 hours to a deadline, that won’t be fun. But that means you (or probably somebody who can send you on the trip) fucked up. But normally it’s like a convention: about as good or bad as you make it out to be. Me, I can’t afford not to make the best of every situation I can.

Go on site for a few days and you’ll have your expenses comped and lodging provided. Work your job and then you have a nice evening with nothing to do. That only sounds boring until you just think of it as a 6 hour vacation, several days in a row. Don’t worry about the chores not getting done. You’re not around to do them anyway. Take your time eating dinner. There’s nothing you have to do afterwards. Watch TV until you fall asleep. Smell the flowers if you can. You will have time.

Time is one of the things that you can trade for if you’re willing to take a raw deal, but you’ll never get it back. Time to relax, time to think, time to surrender to yourself are in short supply these days. We’ve done it to ourselves, of course, needing the next thing or confirmation or attention or whatnot. That’s society’s currency now and you can either get yours or be a functional pauper.

But when you have to slow down, you can use that time you’ve been given on the old things like deep thoughts and resting. Get 12 hours of sleep for once! Sit in the shower and put a thought into each little drop, and just observe as each one that falls over your body disappears while countless new ones come to be. Learn to be with yourself, even if just a few hours.

So I got to thinking. I got to step away from life for a bit and let those spurious thoughts work themselves into shape. They’re not deep. They’re mundane. But they’re important to me. And now I’m going to jump to talking about work, not to create false suspense but just context.

If you hadn’t heard about my job situation, here’s what I’m calling the polite version (pretty much the drama- and judgment-free version). I was in charge of Software Development for a Business Unit after showing great improvements in my lab. When I put all the plans into action, enough people with pull all decided they wanted to make my decisions for me while holding me responsible. I fought that. And I lost. Any more of the story is for something more personal than a blog post.

So it was a painful time for me. All my efforts tossed aside, my career wrecked, a decade of my life dedicated to something I no longer had any control over. It really sucked even after I found a new position. But that position brought me to Chicago. And now I feel better.

The details are of no importance. It’s just regular business stuff, though a less demanding and stressful role than I held. And a chance to build a new team after losing my old one. I felt appreciated and valued again. It’s nice.

But what I needed to think about was what this meant for me. This was a chance to mentally sort it out. My former job gave me great opportunities, great pay, and great satisfaction that can’t be taken away no matter how badly things ended. But it also cost a lot. It sucked up a huge part of my life and energy. Certain things in life had to be sacrificed for it. I chose that path, the rewards are great, but nothing came for free.

As much as I wish things ended differently, this trip helped me see how things ending might be good in the long run. It’s brought forth new opportunities. Yes, opportunities for things I would have found and taken anyway. Probably. I think. But this soon? Maybe I would have wasted the time in doing it slowly. Maybe it would have slipped by while I wasn’t watching.

Frankly, for those of you readers who thought “too long; didn’t read,” I’m just not upset about my job situation anymore. Angry with people, yes. Frustrated at what happened, yes. But not upset anymore. Maybe I paid a heavy price, but to be free of chasing a career is perhaps for the best.

And with that out of the way, I had more thoughts to ponder as they dripped onto my head, rolled through me, and for the most part just vanished again as quickly.

When I thought this job would have me move to Chicago it was exciting! A bit of a new start but with so many of the hassles out of the way. I wasn’t exactly disappointed to be staying in Maryland after all, since that is the easy, quick way to pursue life goals. But I already then felt like I needed a bit of a shake up.

One of the thoughts that stuck with me was that maybe moving really wasn’t the right thing right now. That it might be, but later. That it was perhaps a weak middle ground between better options. Looking inward, I can pursue things without the excuse of a move, even if that’s the normal way to do things. (The normal way, I’m truly sad to say, never seems to work for me.) Looking outward, maybe Chicago would still just be too close and too familiar. I’ve entertained the idea of an extended stay in Japan for quite some time now. Maybe I need to think about that first and fit my job around that. Maybe it’s really time to fit my career into my life instead of the other way around.

What it means to me is that my life is about to get accelerated. It’s been retarded until now. (That story won’t come later; it’s one for a late night on a comfortable couch with the right combination of booze and whispers.) I’ve missed out on some things that I know about and probably scores more that I don’t. I’ve been aching for this change for a long time. Ready or not, here I come. Got some catching up to do.

But none of this really wouldn’t have happened on its own. As much as I wax and wane philosophical about using travel time as thinking time, I need my catalysts, too. The weekend was for seeing friends. Two years is painfully long even if “seeing” was only a few minutes every couple months before we all got our lives shackled down. We caught up, we talked, we comiserated. We shared stories and ideas and plans. We just lived again for once.

And that’s why it was healthy for me. I’ve neglected living life for too long. Not that I’m going to just abandon this great new career path (or the great pay). It’s what brought me here in the first place. But I’m feeling a bit more ready to let life wash me away to places unknown and unfamiliar. This inflection point was going to come at some point, and perhaps fate is just things happening at opportune times. But I’m on the other side now and it looks nice.

Life as Degrees of Destiny

Everything’s got to end sometime. Otherwise nothing would ever get started.

The Doctor

Everybody has a thousand things going on at once. You can keep track of one, maybe two, at a time. But the rest of your life is happening, like it or not. At any given time some things will be good, some bad, and some pushing your life in a random direction. Usually the chaos actually keeps us grounded. When nine-hundred ninety-nine things pull in different directions they end up mostly canceling each other out. Then there’s the times they all coincide. The astrologist will call it the stars aligning. The devout will call it divine intervention. The statistician calls it inevitable over long enough time periods.

You can fight it, but I’ve yet to meet anybody who can fight against everything in his life pushing him in a direction and succeeding. Then again, anybody who can probably ascends to a higher plane of being and isn’t interested in what must then be mundane things like death of loved ones or happy life milestones. Best most of us can do is pick a distant point downstream of fate and hope to shift our destiny by a few degrees. And that’s where I am now. Again. But this time with the preceding wisdom.

Don’t think that’s bad.

If anything, there’s a comfort that can be found in between the existential horror of seeing the path of your life open like a paper map in front of you. You might as well look forward and bid adieu to the nine-hundred ninety-nine other directions you could have been pulled in. Maybe one or two are worth thinking about, but you can know you’ll never have to worry about most of them. Life has given you a road sign and you’re standing where the pavement ends.

“That’s a story I might share some time,” is something I’ll probably be saying a lot going forward. Like about how my job went from great to horrible to actually kind of good again. Or how I managed to really get on top of my finances. Maybe about how getting a real, genuine, old school Dungeons and Dragons game going was on my bucket list. And a whole bunch of other things that I won’t even allude to yet. So if you want those stories, feel free to ask. Or wait until the whim to put them here hits me.

For now though, I certainly feel like one chapter of my life is ending. All the big things in life people worry about, mostly, have changed for me in 2021. But I’m thinking about starting new things. Or maybe it’s better to say I’m thinking about doing the old things I have wanted to do, but doing them right. It can be a little hard to tell the difference because in some ways I feel free and confident. In others I feel depressed and hopeless.

Just as an example, I’m finally in a position I can just travel about as I wish… with virtually nowhere to go because of lockdowns. I finally feel the confidence to be a social person… with nobody around to be social with due to lockdowns. Story of my life in so many ways. Set a goal, work hard to get there and when I’m finally there, turns out I’m a day late and a buck short. Great that I can meet my goals, depressing that I’m always close enough to think that next time it’ll work out.

So maybe it’s the same as it ever was. 2022 is me thinking, this time, it’ll be better. If the path to success were easy and straightforward you wouldn’t have to think about it. Since I’m throwing around idioms like they’re hot potatoes, often the journey is more important than the destination. And this journey has really sucked since it feels like it’s all been alone. That’s a story I might share some time.

But it’s also not done yet. The world is changing mightily fast. And I’m ready for it. So I’m picking a point so far away I can’t describe it to you, but I know it’s there and that’s the degree of destiny I’ll angle towards.

What Happened to Your Website?

This is the “later” part of a previous post, where I’ll explain a bit about what happened and where things are now. The long and short of it all is that I’ve lost almost nothing important. All my photos are safe and sound, which is what the vast majority of this site was for. So starting at the end of the whole story, going forward I’m going to repopulate all the pictures and add new features! Past that, unless you want to know the technical details or otherwise have some interest in my website, feel free to stop here.

The briefest history of my website is that I bought the domain a long time ago so that I wouldn’t have to remember an IP address. Back then, the domain just pointed right at my own computer, sitting under my desk! I was sharing a folder, not even a website, of con photos. And it was so that I could access them easily, never thinking anybody else would really even know. Well, as I got more into photography the folder became a website, and I moved it onto a proper provided hosted website. That was with LunarPages, who (no surprise) are no longer around. After years and years of being a customer, their service started to suffer once a new owner came into the picture. At this time I was ready to get a VPS and run my own hosting. After an incident that is worth its own story and post in the future, I left for HostBrew.

HostBrew was (note, “was”) a small, new company and at first very enthusiastic about building their reputation. They worked with me! They even let me run a mail server! (Now that’s a story I won’t blog about and would rather forget.) That worked great for a while, then they had hardware problems. The first red flag was a RAID controller dying without any replacement. HostBrew just said, effectively, “lol sorry,” and moved us to new bare metal servers, all data lost. The next was a week-long outrage for all customers, again with the basic response of, “lol sorry.” The last problem, after which they went under (you’re not surprised, I bet) was just a complete failure to respond by their systems. Everything timed out. Tickets asking for help were never answered. That was November 2021. End of December 2021 they sent out an email saying, effectively, “lol sorry (download your data before we sell our equipment).” Not that we could, since the systems were unresponsive.

Thus I decided to finally finish my project of moving my website to docker. I had started that in 2017, but stopped because of runtime issues between my (admittedly old, no-longer-supported) version of my website software. Hey, it didn’t really need fixing, did it? Well, over the holiday break I tried again, only to realize that there was no easy solution. It was inevitable. I would have to rebuild my website starting from scratch. Well, like all things, starting over again is really just starting again, now with a lot more knowledge, experience, and wisdom. Since the time I started my website, I obtained two undergraduate degrees, a PhD, and had years of experience as a systems engineer. I’m ready for the challenge, and a new hosting provider (RackNerd).

So that takes us back to the beginning of the blog post and the end of the story so far. The website is back up, though most of the content is missing. I’ll be adding that back over time. Luckily, I have all the old logs and sufficient backups to get things back into where they belonged. But it’s also an opportunity to improve things. On the backend, everything is run and managed through docker. I also have some ideas for new things to add now that managing my website isn’t a headache. We’ll see where it goes. But I’m enjoying it so far, and I hope all my visitors do, too.

Of New Beginnings

The Year 2021 was in many ways the worst year I’ve had that I can remember. It’s also the year I started a lot of things new again. The details of that will come later. But for this first post, it’s to mark the occasion.

One thing that died in 2021 was my website. Again, details to come later. But in short, the hosting company abandoned their clients (including me) and emailed us all something that can be summed up as “good luck, suckers.” So I lost my website, and my backups just weren’t enough to drop it all onto a new server.

Luckily I lost nothing more than a few access logs and one convention report, which I’ll just rewrite. Frustrating though it is, I’ve rebuilt my website from the ground up. It’ll take a while to get where it would have been, but such is life.