What is essential?

It seems the big theme of this year is focusing on the essential and what I'm truly passionate about. That's manifested in me decluttering things that I thought were essential before but really aren't and taking a step back to evaluate how I've been showing up over my life.

I was unemployed from September 2016 through most of 2017. Over that time I thought deeply about what I wanted to accomplish and what my next plan would be. I thought about game design and trying to start to do that full-time but our bills were quickly getting out of hand and our debt started to pile up. Part of that might have been "retail therapy" but most of it was because it's expensive to be unemployed. We were paying for our own insurance (using the Affordable Care Act, which was a godsend because it was cheaper than the usury of COBRA) and all of the other expenses to keep some income flowing. It wasn't great. Worse were the number of interviews and positions that I applied for that either didn't pan out (some of which made for great stories) or didn't even respond. The toll on my emotional state was pretty severe.

I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to learn new skills. Let me tell you: the worst time to try to learn new things is when you feel the pressures of unemployment. Doubly so if it's stuff that you didn't learn while you were employed because it was something you didn't care about or actively repulsed you. Trying to adapt yourself to the perverse needs of the job market is a great way to burn out and exhaust your mental systems. But I kept plugging away at it despite my revulsion. JavaScript ain't going to learn itself.

After a while I started to question whether I would ever work in the computer industry again. I feared that my time in the spotlight was at an end and that the time for me to have figured out my next act was long before I was unemployed. I berated myself for not getting at least some passive income streams started, and for not taking my hobbies more seriously to monetize them. Unfortunately I had plenty of ideas and minimal execution on them. Plus the only way to really make money with creating and publishing your ideas into actual products takes money and time, something that is in short supply when you're unemployed (believe me: unemployed people are hardly left with large blocks of free time).

This was in my late 40s. Being an unemployed computer programmer in your 40s is terrifying. I remember vividly a group interview that I was part of in my 20s where someone in their 40s came to us to interview. The desperation was palpable. Unfortunately the candidate didn't have the skills we were hoping to fill. Near the end of the interview the candidate literally begged us to hire them. They needed something, anything to get the work/income flowing. It left a visceral impression on me that I carry with me whenever I think of older programmers in the field. I faced it myself when I was interviewing: just give me something, anything to get back into the game. In that interview with that candidate we said we couldn't give them what they wanted. We turned away a human being in their time of need. I felt awful that we couldn't do anything, but naturally we needed to keep the sheen of professionalism around us.

If a healthy programmer in their 40s can't excite folks, what about a programmer in their 50s with cancer?

I'm starting to face that now. I'm in a position with folks that are generously working around my medical needs but I doubt that's sustainable. If I need surgery for my cancer then that means I'll be out of commission for however long it takes for me to recover. Plus I'm not sure I can ask folks who are waiting on me to wait for an indeterminate time until I "feel better enough" to be reliable again. That's like calling a restaurant and asking them to hold a table for you "until you get there". Is that hours? Days? Weeks? Months? Never? Only folks named Godot should demand folks wait for them that long.

I'm also starting to feel the pulls that I need to work on things that are important to me. Work does some pretty incredible things, but my heart has been in exploring game design and retro computer programming. My shelves ache with the number of game and computer books on them. I keep thinking that maybe this isn't for me and each time I get pulled back. Since I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be able to work on these things I need to figure out if they're essential or not. This feels like a true calling for me. I'm no expert, but decades of calling seems like it might be important.

So, I've been rethinking this calling of mine. I feel that once my time at work is at an end (and I'm not saying that I'm leaving work anytime soon, just that we're all trying to mitigate my own uncertain future with work) that this will be the last time I try to mold myself around the workplace. My career will no longer be essential to us anymore because I doubt I'll excite anyone into hiring me. Maybe that's not true, but I'm done seeking that out. That's no longer who I am. If I'm truly concerned with what's important to me it's sure as fuck not gussying myself up to try to impress folks on the other side of a table that I'm able to fill whatever person-shaped hole from whatever person-shaped-person that left. It's a shitty game and I'm done trying to "win" it. Instead I'm going to focus on the essential for me: creating things that matter to me and, if someone else likes it, letting them share in the experience.

One of the artists that I follow goes by the name "Dixon's Violin". I was first exposed to his music at Penguicon and it was revelatory. He uses a blend of technology and a violin to create interesting music (gotta love geek musicians). He's given many performances where he talks about his life and how he stuck within what he thought was possible. One of those performances was at Ignite Detroit in which he shows how he makes the impossible possible. I've never been quite good with creating the impossible. I'm very good at blending things together and synthesizing something out of those parts. I used to think that was somehow mundane, but after realizing that all creative folks do this I'm starting to wonder why I haven't done more of this. Why have I kept these old notions around. If it's good enough for Hollywood then fuck it - blend away.

I fully expect things to change in the coming months and I'm ready for them. I'm finding harbingers in my daily life and making connections that feel like the birth of something exciting for me. So I need to drop the clutter and the distractions, grab hold, and hang on for dear life. I'm not sure what the future holds, but I really hope that I'm in it.