Birthday Inventory 2021

For the last few years, I’ve been taking the opportunity when my birthday comes around to do an inventory of major aspects of my life. It’s a useful way for me to consider what the last year of life has changed, and to think about what’s coming next. You can read previous inventories for 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 if you’re interested. Remember, these are on or around my birthday in mid-October, so they don’t actually meet up with the calendar year boundaries.

With no more ado, I’ll get started. As usual, I somewhat artificially divide up parts of my life into sections; also as usual, I haven’t re-read the previous years’ inventories in at least a few months, so there might be contradictions, repetitions, or wishes for the future gone unfulfilled.

  • Work. Well, let’s get this complicated one out of the way up top.
    • At this time last year, I was working as a product manager at Wikimedia Foundation, building the new API service for Wikipedia and its sister projects. I was really unhappy. I have some very dear, very old friends who work at the Foundation, I have a deep commitment to the principles and goals, and I’m really concerned with making the projects relevant in the future. But I just didn’t enjoy my position in the organisation, stranded between the Product and Technology departments, and didn’t feel like there was another place for me to go. So I took the launch of our API platform in December 2020 as the opportunity to declare victory and get out while the getting was good.
    • I started work as Director of Engineering at MTTR in January. MTTR’s mission is to reduce polarisation in American media. (A good illustration is the Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed project, which shows how different topics look on social media to Democrats and Republicans in the US.) I’d been looking for other work (see below), but the problem they focused on seemed urgent — the January 6 insurrection happened  just days after I started — and I really was impressed with the team. But as we went further into the year, the company decided to focus more on editorial and outsource product development to an agency, so I helped with that process and started looking for my next next job.
    • That happened in August, where I started as CTO of TRU LUV. The company builds apps for mental and emotional well-being. I’ve been advising the founder, Brie Code, since the company was just an idea, and when I told her I was leaving MTTR, she and her team got me an offer immediately. It’s been great being at the company, and I love the team, the healthy and supportive culture, and the work we’re doing. It feels really good.
    • Probably the hardest part of the last year in work has been my job searches. I have a lot of experience in tech, and supposedly (?) there’s a big demand for people with my skills. But both times I was looking, I had a hard time getting any interest at big tech companies, and the jobs I found that felt very mission-aligned for me (see below) didn’t come through at all. I really like my current job, but getting so little traction took a toll on my self-esteem. I’d like to improve my job-search skills so if I have to do it again in the future, I’ll be better prepared.
  • Family. Since the pandemic, my household (me, wife, and two kids) have been closer than ever. Pushed together by happenstance, I’ve been lucky to spend a tonne of time with both my teens at a time when they’d normally be looking to spend very little time with their parents. It feels like an October summer, unexpected and a little weird but very welcome.
    • My wife and I have been getting along really well over the last year. We’ve had to work at home together, which has been hard — we don’t have a lot of enclosed spaces in our house, so Zoom calls can bleed into each other. But our new shared project (see below) has meant a lot of quality time together, planning and thinking about our next 25 years together. And that’s been very good. We’ve had some breathing room, and perhaps some social permission, to treat ourselves a little more gently.
    • My daughter Amita is in her last year of secondary school in Montreal; 11th grade. She is starting the process of investigating what happens next for her; whether she goes to the intermediate 2-year junior-collegish “Cégep” (SAY-jep) program here in Quebec, or if she looks farther afield for similar programs in other provinces or even other countries. I’m excited for her and for the possibilities in this moment of life for her. She’s also studying for her driver’s license, which I think she’s a little reluctant about; driving isn’t as cool for a climate-conscious urban kid as it was for me in the California suburbs.
    • My son Stavro started secondary school this year. It’s been a good experience, and I can feel him making the turn from being a big kid to being a young man. Just in the complexity of his thought, the way he talks to people, and how he carries himself. But he’ll still come sit next to me and put an arm around my shoulder while I play a video game. I’m glad that he’s growing up in a world where becoming a man is more complex and compassionate than it’s been in the past. We still like to play Minecraft and Dungeons and Dragons together, and we have become workout buddies when riding bikes or lifting weights.
    • My extended family continues to grow closer during the pandemic. We do regular Zoom calls together, although not quite as often as when COVID-19 first started, so I get to see my brothers and parents and niblings pretty often. My father has had some health problems this year, which has been hard to know about since it’s difficult to travel between Canada and the US. But my mother and brothers and their wives have pulled together amazingly well, and I’ve felt more secure knowing they’re there.
  • Friends. Ah, my perpetual sore point. It feels like every year this is something I talk about; how I don’t seem to have the time or the energy to develop and savour my friendships. I think I’m going to let myself off the hook for it this year; I’m doing what I can, when I can. I’ve been lucky enough to get some good Zoom time with people I really care about around the world, and I am going to try to take that for what it is. Since the end of summer, I’ve also been spending more time with people here in Montreal, enjoying the outdoor terrasses while it’s still warm enough. And, as usual, I feel like I have some deep, meaningful connections with my friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, no matter where those people are in the world.
  • Home. This is a high point.
    • In autumn of last year, our family realised a longtime goal and bought a second house in the country in Quebec. We’d spent about 6 months in lockdown together in our home in the city, and we really felt like we needed the room. The house is on the St. François River about 1.5 hours from Montreal. We spent a lot of time there over the holidays last year, and we relocated for most of the summer, too. Plus 2-3 weekends a month. At some point in the next few years or so, we’ll shift our centre of gravity to make the country house our more regular location, and let the kids take our city house if they go to university in Montreal. In any event: furnishing, gardening, landscaping, and just inhabiting our country house has been a source of constant joy. I’m so glad we took this step.
    • Accompanying that new house has meant buying a new car to get us there. We used a car-share service for a while, but I didn’t like what a big carbon footprint we were having. So in May we bought a 2017 Chevy Bolt EV, and it’s been another source of pleasure. It’s the first time we’ve owned an electric car, and it’s taken a lot of getting used to, but we’re starting to get good at it. And it feels like we’re part of something important.
    • Our city house has been… troubled. It was a tight fit for the four of us when both kids were taking classes from home, but since the kids went back to school it’s been a lot easier. But last fall we realised that nearby construction had caused serious plumbing damage which made the house uninhabitable for almost four months. Luckily, we had our country house right in the nick of time, but with the kids in school and a three-hour round trip to the city, we had to use an AirBnB in Montreal so they could go to school during the week. Organising repair work during the second wave of COVID-19 was hard, but we got things fixed up, and we’ve been living in the house since. But it feels a little like the relationship with this house has changed.
    • Somebody comes to town, somebody leaves town. We got a new cat Artemis last year around this time. A few months later, our venerable 18-year-old cat Xe died. It feels like the end of an era in our household.
  • Health. I gained weight during the pandemic. Drinking more often, living a more sedentary lifestyle, and doing more at-home cooking projects, I went up from a 28 BMI to a high of 31.5 to 30.5 now. It doesn’t seem like much, but it feels less healthy. I’m having a harder time taking it off again than I thought I would; I’ve taken off some weight already with diet and exercise, but I’m hoping that I can find a faster path.
    • I also had a scary moment last fall with a venous thrombosis (blood clot) in my left leg. I had to get it examined, and there was a lot of worst-case strategising on my part and that of the doctors, but it turned out to be the least bad kind of blood clot. One silver lining was finding out how many of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances had had the same health issue, and connecting over it. I’m trying to adjust my habits to make a recurrence unlikely in the future.
    • My mental health has been pretty good. I’ve been continuing my meditation practice, and I’m getting myself into a good daily habit. I also started adding daily recurring TODOs to my calendar to make sure I take care of the basics in my work-from-home life (shave, take vitamins) as well as more abstract tasks (learn something, help someone, work on a long-term goal). I’m feeling progress, which is good.
  • Life’s purpose. Another question mark. If you read my personal mission statement from a few years ago, I think it reads as very technology-focused. But I think that the banners of many of my personal causes in technology, especially distributed social networks, have been picked up by other hands. I’ve been involved peripherally in the Blue Sky project from Twitter, but not central. In other ways, I’ve been much more interested in finding the new modalities of interaction that get our technologies to make us happier and healthier, not miserable and separate. That’s probably what’s driven my interest in MTTR, TRU LUV, and other companies I’ve advised.
    • One particular place I have been focusing my thoughts has been on climate change. I think it’s time for everyone who cares about the climate emergency to pick a place to put their shoulder and push — hoping that everyone else also gets more involved, and we move the process forward together. For me, the place I’d like to focus is on using my skills to get people out of gas-powered cars and jet-fueled airplanes, and into more climate-friendly rail transport. During my job searches, I applied for a number of jobs at Amtrak and Via Rail, plus a few third-party rail-management software companies, but didn’t get a lot of hits. I think, as things go forward, I’m going to have to apply myself in ways that don’t have to do with my 9-to-5 job, but I have some ideas. Watch this space!
  • Politics. “Gradually, and then all at once.” When last I did a birthday inventory, we were on the cusp of the 2020 US election, which was perhaps the most stressful period in my political adulthood. If you count it separately, the long period between the election and the Inauguration, punctuated by January 6, was much worse. But since the inauguration, my level of involvement has plummeted. It’s just not the centre of my world any more. I think this is probably a really good thing, although it might also be a good explanation of why progress in Washington has been slow. I think this period of relative calm and focus on problem-solving is soon to come to its end, as we head into the mid-term elections, so I’m going to enjoy it while I can.
    • One joy and disappointment for me has been that my wife and I completed our applications for Canadian citizenship this year, and passed our tests. We’ve been waiting to be sworn in so we could vote in Canada’s federal and Montreal’s municipal elections, but it’s looking like we won’t be able to exercise our franchise until the next round of voting. It will be interesting to see if we’ll have the same level of engagement with our two countries of citizenship, or if one will get more focus than the other. I guess we’ll see!
  • Media. One consequence of working at MTTR was that I thought a lot about my news consumption and what it meant for my mental well-being. I read a synopsis of Rolf Dobelli’s Stop Reading the News as part of my work, and it really resonated. So I took out the ten (!) daily or weekly news podcast feeds from my feed reader, and I now put that amount of time into reading fiction and non-fiction books.
    • I planted a vineyard in our new house’s yard, plus I’ve been making good headway re-introducing native plants. Reading (on audio) Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope have really affected my thinking about owning a home.
    • Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve been putting a lot of my time and thought into streaming series. We have a complex web of relationships among the four of us at home, and each combination of 1, 2, 3 or 4 people has its own series that it’s following. My daughter and I are working our way through Twin Peaks; my wife and I are watching Sense8. My daughter, wife and I are watching Squid Game. I’ve also watched some great TV on my own, like The Wire (done) and The Sopranos (season 5 of 6). We live in interesting TV times.
    • Games-wise, I got into Red Dead Redemption 2, and kept going to try to get 100% completion. It was exhausting, and I got down to the dregs of the game — the most tedious and difficult challenges and searches. I’ve been taking a break, but I’ll probably go back in. Stavro and I have a Minecraft server on a Raspberry Pi 4 at our city house, which is fun, and on my phone I’m playing Knight of the Old Republic II, which is mostly subpar gameplay, especially for mobile, but amazing storytelling.

Well, at this point I’m tired of talking about myself, so I’m sure almost everyone else has stopped reading. Thanks for getting this far.

UPDATE: I realised today that I didn’t mention my moustache. I’ve kept growing it for the last year plus, and it’s gotten nice and long. What should I categorise that under? Gardening?

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