Birthday Inventory 2019

It’s early on a sunny warm Saturday morning at my home in Montreal. I’m the only one up. I made waffles for my family because that’s what dads are for; they’re warming in the oven while everyone dozes. We’re leaving for a weekend trip to the Maine coast in a couple of hours. I realize that if I want to leave my laptop at the house, and still get my now-traditional birthday inventory done before Monday, I’ll need to write it up before we leave.

I’ve done a couple of these over the last few years, in 2018 and before in 2017. It’s a good and bad exercise for me. Good, because I get to appreciate my state of living, and acknowledge what I need to work on. Bad, because looking back I see problems that I still haven’t addressed well. I’m going to see what I can do about that.

Anyhow, here’s the inventory. I break it up into sections based on loose areas of my life.

  • Family. My immediate family — wife and two great kids — remains the hub of all my life activity. The rhythm of my day is about coming together and separating, eating, cleaning, fixing, breaking. We spend a lot of time together, and a lot of the things I want to do and see in my life, I couldn’t imagine doing without my family.
    • My relationship with my wife continues to grow. Our work situations have almost reversed (see below for work stuff): I now work out of the house primarily, and she most often goes to the office. We both travel a lot for work, which leaves the other partner home alone, as a single parent. That used to seem daunting to me; now it seems very normal. Our time spent in the same city is good, but very family focused; we’ve really had to fight to find time to spend one-on-one. And often that time gets used up on family and household business.
    • My daughter is now 14, and she looks like she’s 21. She’s mature, funny, cynical, and kind. She has become very deeply involved in our city’s Pour le Futur (Fight for Future) school strike for climate movement. It’s been hard in some ways (see below), but I’m proud of how hard she’s working on it. I think she’s finding out what kind of adult she’s going to be; I think she’s going to be a great one. It’s hard to get her time; but when I do, it’s precious. Right now, our quality time is watching LOST together when everyone else in the house is asleep.
    • My son is about to turn 11. He’s still the person I spend the most time with during my day; still addicted to YouTube; still sweet and funny and wild. His moods continue to be difficult, but we work on how to turn his “big feelings” into an advantage for him. He’ll still walk down the street with me holding hands, if he doesn’t want to race to the corner. He continues to love school, and visiting high schools for his transition next year has him imagining what his next page turn in the book of life will be like.
    • Time with my extended family is happening less and less. I’m trying hard to keep up a regular schedule of calls with my parents, and I see my brothers and niblings and some cousins on Facebook and Instagram, but they’re farther away than I’d like. It’s a continuing issue that I regret a lot. I can’t help feeling that my political positions, which lean towards the green side of the spectrum, might be alienating more conservative family members. I’m trying to keep my heart open to all of them, and let them know I care more about real friends than imaginary ones.
    • My genealogy and heritage have become very important to me this last year. My trip to Jerusalem (see travel) last October brought home how important it is to know your family history. When it comes down to it, who’s done more for me in my life than the people who made sure I’d ever exist? Their work and courage have been hugely important to me, and I want to be more mindful of it, and let my kids know about where they come from. I’ve been working on tracing my family tree, and I did some DNA analysis that found distant cousins in other parts of the world.
  • Life’s work. I was talking to a coworker about my mission statement recently, and re-reading it made me feel distant and strange. Who is this person? Why do they talk so much about technology, when that’s not what my life is about now? Where’s the family time, children’s growth and development, travel, learning about and enjoying the world? Are those part of some other mission, left unstated, or have I just not been accepting that my life is multi-faceted in a lot of ways? I’ve made a point to update my mission statement with more focus on what really matters to me.
    • Artificial intelligence was for half a decade a central part of where I saw my purpose. Making AI something accessible to normal people, rather than an unfair advantage wielded by only the biggest governments and corporations, seemed like a necessary thing for me to do. Since we shut down last December and released our code as Open Source, I’ve found it less compelling. My work (see below) isn’t directly AI related, so I’m not living and breathing the technologies every day. I still advise a number of other AI startups, and I work as a mentor for TechStars AI here in Montreal, but I haven’t been as active talking about and working with AI as I was before. I’d like to get more involved in AI in my current organization; there is a lot we can do to be helpful.
    • Federated social software is another place that I put in a decade of work, culminating in the ActivityPub standard we released last year from W3C. The network around ActivityPub, led by Mastodon, has exploded, with dozens of implementations for all parts of the stack. The project I continue to hack on,, doesn’t yet support the full standard, and I haven’t had the energy and time to put into it. I hope the other hackers and I can get it going soon. My role with the W3C has changed over the last year, too; I’m no longer chair of the Social Web Working Group; I now am the Advisory Committee member for my organization. It’s a good relationship, but different.
    • Climate change has become a big part of my thinking today; in that I think I’m not alone. The release of the IPCC report for 1.5C requiring about 45% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030, as well as the Green New Deal proposal have made many people realize that we need to transition our economy from fossil fuels quickly and immediately. In our house, my daughter’s involvement in Fight for Future has been a source of pride and hope, but it’s also made the generational political divide pretty stark. It’s clear that my generation, which took no for an answer from climate change deniers and astroturfers, didn’t do its part to fix the economy while it was easier. Now, the time is getting short, but we can still avoid the worst outcomes. I am excited by the Pact for the Transition, but I continue to wonder what my role will be in the next 10 years.
      • One place I think I might be helpful is in encouraging the use of trains not planes for regional travel. Where I live, in North America, train travel is expensive and inconvenient compared to air travel. There are a lot of low-hanging improvements that some attention might help with. As the co-founder of a major Website glorifying global travel, I think I might have some karmic duty to promote a lower-emission lifestyle. I’d like to spend more of my time advocating for better train service, and encouraging my friends, family and coworkers to use trains when they can. My trip from Paris to Stockholm in August (see Travel below) by train was a challenge, but also invigorating. My wife and I are planning a cross-Canada train trip next summer; I’m getting pretty excited by it.
  • Health. This has been a mildly rough year for my health. On the most obvious side, my weight has climbed up to 29 BMI, partly because of increasing muscle mass, but partly because I’m all over the place with diet. I’ve stopped eating low-carb, since I found it was a crutch that I was using to justify overeating. I also found the hunger attacks intense and overpowering. I’m now incorporating complex carbs into my diet, like fruit and some grains. I’ve also been drinking more, like 3-5 drinks per week, which is adding on the kilos. I’m still exercising seven days per week, for an hour or two a day, but without more food discipline, it’s difficult to see improvements.
    • I tweaked my back snowboarding in February, and it realllly hurt for a few weeks. Then, I did it again this summer, tripping over some luggage on a train platform in Italy, which made it rough to sit or lie down for any long period of time for another few weeks. I’m working more on incorporating stretching into my workout routines, to make this kind of thing less frequent, and I also had my first in a series of what I hope will be regular massages last week.
    • Mentally, my meditation practice continues. I’ve been in a time of deep reflection over the last year. One of my favourite lines from the great biographical play about Buckminster Fuller, The History and Mystery of the Universe, goes something like, “The universe consists of everything that is physically real, plus everything that we have imagined, plus everything we can imagine.” Partly driven by my changes in work, and partly driven by reading books like Sapiens and the Power of Now, I’ve been really trying to meditate on the boundary between the real and the imaginary, and how they influence and change each other. It’s fun and interesting work.
    • My worries about mental health and aging aren’t entirely assuaged, but I think I’ve gotten through the hard parts of turning 50. Part of that has been taking a more realistic look at my life and my place in the world, and doing more of my work and planning based on that perspective. Part of it has been the financial stability of a new job. I’ve been more content with my achievements, and more realistic about what I need to do to be happy and help my kids become happy adults. I’m not sure what this year and next will bring, but so far I’m in a good place.
  • Work. I started a new job at the Wikimedia Foundation in December 2018, working as Product Manager for APIs. It’s very different for me than my previous decade of work as a startup founder, but it’s also been really satisfying. The impact I can have in this job is huge; Wikipedia alone is a top-10 Web site, with a powerful mission that is helping people around the globe. The organization is small and sometimes chaotic, but it’s also been satisfying to be part of the team’s reorganization and process streamlining. It’s been hard sometimes, but mostly it’s been fun. I’d really like to keep doing this for a while.
    • One thing I’m worried about is sabotaging myself in the job; being too stubborn or egotistical to work with other people effectively. I’m used to being at the top of a small group; being a smaller player in a bigger organization has been a tough adjustment. It feels like a tightrope walk; on one side, losing my ability to be effective by alienating people on my team, and on the other side, failing to support my users by not advocating for their needs. I’m trying to direct a lot of my mindfulness to carefully negotiating this balance. I hope that as I clock in years two and three of this job, I can settle into the role. In the mean time, I’m trying to be compassionate and keep cool.
    • I work at home primarily now, which is comfortable and fun, but also stressful. My team is worldwide, so my workday stretches from 7AM to 7PM or even 10PM on occasion. But I’m encouraged to set my own hours, so I’m able to take a long lunch and run or work out or get errands done. It’s been good being the main person in our house.
  • Friendships. This is the part of the inventory that I’m most frustrated with; year after year I’ve noted that this is something I need to work on, and yet I haven’t been able to get much traction with it. Social network sites like Facebook and Twitter give me the simulation of social interaction, deferring my drive to seek people out in real life. My social interactions with wife and kids are rich and satisfying. Working at home has kept me out of the areas where I used to bump into startup acquaintances, so I’m not even getting that kind of interaction, however limited. I get occasional bursts of friend-seeking activity, but they get overpowered by the inertia of work and home life. I hope I’ll find more organized ways to make friendship part of my routine in the next year.
  • Hobbies. It’s disappointing seeing the list of hopeful hobby-starting from last year’s inventory. I wasn’t able to keep the momentum of keeping going, nor have I been able to find time to record my personal podcast for more than six months. But others are still holding on. Taiko drumming is still a regular weekend activity, and I’m even finding time for some weekly practice.
    • I’ve been playing role-playing games with my group for more than a year, and although we have a hard time scheduling, I think we still enjoy the process. I’ve also been trying to play one-off games, like the one I did at Wikimania in Stockholm this year. I think it’s a great mechanism for exploring ideas and people.
    • It was a year of great travel. Last October, I had a life-changing trip to Jerusalem, where my father grew up. I had a chance to explore that side of my family and learn about the Greek community in Ottoman and British mandate Palestine in a much more visceral way. It was wrenching in some ways, but I want to go back and explore more in the future.
    • My son started a bullet journal this summer to help him stay grateful and appreciative of the things he gets to do. I’ve been doing it in solidarity, and I’ve found it amazingly helpful. We don’t follow strict “BuJo” protocol; we just do three bullet points at the end of the day, plus a drawing, to remember what we’ve done. It’s been really helpful.
    • We did a six-week family European trip through Italy and France, staying in home exchanges from Venice to Florence and Genoa, then Marseilles and Paris. There were some transcendent experiences, like the Venice Biennale or walking up the Eiffel Tower with my kids or birthday dinner for my wife on a bateau mouche on the Seine, and some quiet splendors like running on the coast of Marseilles or eating black vanilla ice cream at our favorite spot in the city. I worked through most of the trip, except travel days, which made for some hard scheduling.
    • I also had a lot of work travel in Prague, San Antonio, San Francisco and Stockholm. I had a great train trip from Paris to Stockholm, stopping to see my good friend Ben in Amsterdam for an energy recharge.
  • Politics. Things have been chaotic again this year, and thinking about politics has taken up a lot of my thought space. I’m worried about the encroachment of right-wing populism around the world, but also hopeful that a more secure, just world for everyone is about to emerge. I’m not sure which way things are going to break, but I’m trying to stay hopeful and do what I can as an individual citizen to push things toward good outcomes for the next generation.

Wow, that ended up being a lot of thought! One thing that strikes me is how much I felt the need to add photos or other visual media to this inventory; I think the changes in our on-line self-expression make it seem strange to say “I went to Jerusalem” without a photo to prove it.

Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate your attention to this self-reflective process. I feel like it helps me a lot to do these; I hope it’s also interesting for you to read.

4 thoughts on “Birthday Inventory 2019

  1. Hi Evan:

    I loved reading this blog. It’s so refreshing to remember how people did stuff like this in the olden times 😉 I’m really interested in hearing more about your trip to Jerusalem, and vaguely touched by your desire to see extended family (me included) more. Hopefully a trip up to Montreal could be in the mix soon. It’s always a pleasure to see the Northern Prodromous. I’ll have to look into train tickets.

    with love

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