Odyssey: Day 8

You didn’t miss the first seven, I’m just jumping in here. I’m spending September on the most advanced, complex and challenging professional project I’ve ever done, so I’ve decided to journal my month in order to 1) keep myself sane, 2) maintain a light, let’s say rosy-knuckled grasp on my humanity, and 3) maybe build up a little momentum and keep this up after the 30th.

The project is technical in the extreme, but I’ll give a shot at making it accessible to non-technical readers. (God knows if I have any non-technical readers, or, for that matter, technical ones. I’m probably just talking to myself here.) Let me give you a bird’s-eye view, the way an entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might help you make your gentle acquaintance with a spiky topic: imagine a house.

The house has a couple of rooms, and they fit together a little awkwardly. The kitchen is pretty old. It’s well-maintained, and it’s got all the modern appliances—a fridge, a Keurig, a toaster that tells you the weather and whatnot—but take a close look at any part of the room and it clearly shows its age. Still, it’s perfectly serviceable and in good hands. The real problem is the living room. It’s small, it’s awkward, the paint is ugly, we hate the furniture, and everyone stubs their toe on that corner by the coffee table. Also, it has a tendency to burst into flame and kill our guests. So we’re demolishing the living room and building a brand new addition to the house. It’s the sum of all our architectural skills: clean, elegant, functional, rock-solid, big bay windows with an easterly view. There’s just one catch: we had to build it on a remote mountaintop deep in the Burmese jungle. It’s the only place where the exiled gnostic monks know the secrets of harvesting the all-natural space-age polymer we need for our state-of-the-art smoke detectors. Hence, we have to not only finish building the new room, but assemble a fragile sequence of trains, boats, helicopters, cargo planes and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons in order to get the damn thing home.

For almost three years now, my development group has consisted of exactly two people: my friend and colleague Ben, and myself. And Ben’s availability for the project has been somewhat limited by his being put in charge of running two departments in addition to his actual job. So for the better part of the last year, it’s mostly just been me, building the house, in the spare moments between fiery-hot deadlines. But lo, good things do happen sometimes: I now have not one, but two new developers in the office, talented workers and decent humans both. For the first time, I have a bona fide team. Indeed, as the (relatively) senior developer in the office and the person who built the original framework that we’re building upon, I am effectively the team leader, which of course is equal parts liberating and terrifying. But confronting impossible tasks is a thousand times less crippling with a couple of extra brains in the room. So we’ve got that going for us.

It’s a fraught thing when you make a job out of something you like to do. When it works it feels like a heist—it’s easy and fun and you can’t believe you’re getting paid for it. But it comes with deadlines, expectations and consequences, and when the balance tips it’s a lot like a kayak flipping over. I have many moments, whilst arguing with my anxiety-riddled brain trying to make it go, when I’m like wait a minute: you like doing this, you want to do it, why the hell are you fighting me? A few weeks ago I spent an accursed Friday afternoon desperately clawing my way through a very routine and unthreatening web form build. Then, on the way home, I got an idea, stopped at a Starbucks with my laptop, and in less than an hour had banged out a full-featured plugin that parses and displays Markdown documents. The key distinction, of course, was that I didn’t need or particularly strongly want to do it. I suppose the trick, as always, is to somehow reverse the rule. Four hundred and thirty-fifth time’s the charm.

Now, will I have such a paltry modicum of discipline and willpower that I’ll get a bit done this weekend? Or shall I twist my neck and crack my skull tripping headlong over even this diminutive earthbound bar? Find out tomorrow!

Some Darkness and Grit

City View by Robert Kim

Writing is hard and slow. Writing about writing is a little easier and a little faster. So I thought I’d do some of that, being the pretentious wastrel that I am.

Back in 2008, some friends and I started writing a story. It was about resistance, revolution and underground struggle, or at least as we—a gaggle of college kids who were raised on space opera, were in love with the romantic, revisionist narrative of World War II, and thought George Bush was as bad an antichrist as America could conceivably anoint—understood those things. The story was called “White Rose,” after the resistance group formed in Nazi Germany in 1942, whose core members were university students in Munich: kids about the same age as we were, and who, as Christian pacifists, must have rolled in their graves every time our protagonists mowed down a battalion of government jackboots with machine guns.

We did this, basically, for fun. We had a collaborative writing process that was loosely derived from years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. We still called it that, but by then it didn’t have much in common with tabletop games anymore—less math and multi-sided dice, more dialog and plot, world-building, romance, philosophy, political intrigue, and breathtakingly frequent usage of the word “fuck,” because we were edgy. (Again, my deepest apologies to Sophie Scholl.) I personally found this much more rewarding than any of my classes, and as a result it received the larger share of my energy and effort. That wasn’t a healthy choice, and I’m not proud of it; on the other hand, the work I did on and for White Rose has served me better in my life and career than anything I did for my degree. So if I’m being honest, I’m gladder to have the story under my belt.

We arrived at a satisfying conclusion after 15 months and God knows how many thousands, maybe millions of words. I still have them all, preserved in about 180 AIM and IRC chat logs. And you know what? It’s a damn good yarn. For sure, it’s in dire need of editing: a lot of plot holes to plug, names and dates to streamline, portrayals of characters and events that would benefit from a few extra years of life experience, not to mention the handful of political science degrees that we’ve collectively acquired. But as messy and even embarrassing as it is to revisit now, it’s built on a solid foundation. We come back to it maybe once a year and talk about how we could turn it into something publishable. Not in its original format, obviously, but rewritten, as a novel or maybe a screenplay. Whatever it becomes, I don’t think any of us can stand the thought of just letting it sit on our hard drives and gather dust. So consider this the first baby step toward letting the rest of you in on our little world.

Because now’s the time, isn’t it? Our “White Rose” was conceived about the same time as Barack Obama was taking office. Now he’s in his last week as President, and the world we’re all about to enter looks way too much like the one that we’ve naively fantasized about for all these years. The new leader of the free world is an ignorant, vengeful, impulsive authoritarian, supported by people who like him, not in spite of these qualities, but because of them. He’s handing out cabinet seats—and incidentally, slots in the line of succession—to bank executives, oil barons and a serving military general. He’s talking about evicting the press corps from the White House, about jailing his electoral opponent. He lies, daily, constantly, blatantly, intentionally, in order to overwhelm you, exhaust you, make you so sick and tired of the news that you’ll ignore it right up until the moment that you can’t because it’s your job, your house, your insurance, your family and friends, your body and your brain. He acts as if rules about ethics, financial disclosure and conflicts of interest don’t apply to him—and since no one in his party, his Congressional majority or the executive branch appears willing or able to stop or even delay his inauguration, we have to conclude that he’s right. His most consistent behavioral pattern is to attack, delegitimize and punish anyone he sees as an enemy, and that’s a large and growing category of people that, to begin with, includes the majority of the country that voted for someone else. In six days, his available weapons of war will include actual weapons of war. Institutions that we have taken for granted for the last seventy years, that have made the world as peaceful and prosperous as we sometimes forget it is, are on the verge of breaking down or simply evaporating, and nobody has the slightest idea what will happen in their sudden absence.

I wrote a story about a world like that. Eight years ago, it was fantasy and escapism. Now it will have to be something different—or maybe it will be what it always was, and the only thing that’s different is that the author, for better or for worse, will now be able to hear what the story was trying to say.

(Like I said: pretentious wastrel.)

I’ll use this space to talk about the story, and other stories I’m chipping away at, and the fictional (now less-fictional) universe that they all share. Later, some samples. Eventually, maybe, something you can buy and read. Do let me know if that’s something that interests you.

Turn the Page

Well, here we are again.

I’ve been a little absent for a long while. I’ve fallen out of contact with people, and I’ve neglected or abandoned a lot of pursuits. Aside from sporadic stirrings on Twitter and Tumblr, my digital presence has been pretty limited. Truthfully, my non-digital presence hasn’t been much better.

That wasn’t intentional, though in some ways it was a necessary sacrifice. Since 2013, I’ve had a couple of job changes and moved to Virginia. To put it clinically, my capacity for non-essential activity has been limited. That’s not an excuse. There are choices I could have made better, or at least differently. If you’re reading this, you might have been angered or upset by some of those choices. I’m sorry about that. It won’t change overnight.

But after the events of the last week, I know that’s not good enough anymore. We’ve all just discovered—or at least, we are newly aware—that the world is not in good hands. Institutions that were old and strong can no longer be taken for granted. “Everything will be okay” is not a credible belief system.

In the coming days, we will need to turn to each other. For the sake of everyone’s wellbeing, people like me need to get better at talking to each other. At asking for help, and not waiting to be asked in turn. At saying the unsaid—not just about the challenges we’re facing, but about anything that is important, or empowering, or illuminating, or simply joyful. At being present. Being there. Being a person. Just, you know, being.

None of this comes naturally to me. But I’ll do my best.