I recently joined podcaster Dave Albert to talk about my adventures with entrepreneurship, what it was like to start, run and eventually wind down a technology business, what it's like to work for someone else, the joys and challenges of distributed work, and some of the cool stuff we're doing at Automattic. We covered a lot and it was fun to look back on all of those different parts of my professional life.
What can I contribute to journalism?
It's a question I’ve been asking for years now.
My questioning has taken a variety of forms, including:
- writing and editing for my high school and college newspapers,
- hosting a weekly podcast with analysis of the local news,
- blogging as a media critic,
- serving on the local daily paper’s editorial board,
- having letters to the editor accepted in local and national publications,
- working professionally to advise and support some of the biggest news publishers on the web,
- helping to organize a three-day national conference for publishers, and
- researching business models for local journalism.
I’ve been rewarded and challenged in all of those things, and in most cases I’ve been told that I’ve made a positive difference. And yet...I feel more concerned than ever about the waning appreciation for journalism and pursuit of the truth in modern society. I also feel more drawn than ever to trying to do something (else) about it.
As I conclude my three-month sabbatical from my work at Automattic, I'm taking a few moments to reflect on what I did in that time, what the sabbatical meant and what I've learned about myself along the way.
What did I do during my sabbatical?
Thanks for asking. It was a lovely mix of world travel, puttering around the house, exercising, tackling fun projects or day trips with my daughter, visiting with friends, reading books, tinkering with my personal web presence and software projects, grieving my mom's death and working on her estate, volunteering for local organizations and political causes I care about, cleaning out my home office, watching movies, listening to podcasts and napping. (I did less writing and structured exercising than I'd hoped to, but I felt creative and in motion in other ways that mostly made up for it.)
And I learned, observed and realized some things during that time:
In a few weeks I'll be starting a three-month long sabbatical from my work at Automattic.
As a benefit provided by the company, it's pretty amazing. After every five years of employment, Automatticians are eligible to take a two or three month paid sabbatical to have a break from work, refresh and recharge. Several people (mostly used to academic versions of sabbatical) have understandably asked what expectations are placed on us during that time: research, writing, professional development? Nope, it's all about having a break.
For me personally it's a really neat opportunity, and one I haven't had before in this particular way. I started my first company when I was 19 and have pretty much been working full time ever since. Automattic has a generous and flexible time off policy but to have such a significant amount of time to pursue hobbies, personal projects and time with family and friends is really quite an amazing gift.
Daniel Quinn died over a year ago, but it doesn't feel too late to offer up some remembrances and tributes to the many ways he made a difference in my life, and the lives of so many others.
Quinn's novel Ishmael, and the lifetime of study, contemplation, research and thinking that led up to it, is at the center of his impact, at least for me. In critically examining the most fundamental stories our culture tells itself about our origins, our purpose and our place in the world, Ishmael and subsequent books from Quinn provided a new framework of understanding and exploration about how human society works, and could work.
It would be over-simplifying to say that it is a novel about environmentalism and sustainability, or uncovering cultural biases, or problematic religious traditions, or human potential and selfishness, although it is deeply about all of those things. For me personally, reading it was a ground-shaking event in my college years, both because it named feelings, experiences, certainties and doubts I already had inside me, and then introduced a slew of new ones that I had to work through. That I am probably still working through. Whereas some novels have to invent a plot device that provides a dramatic twist at the end -- the ancient secret society DOES exist and the magical stone was hidden behind the painting all along! -- in Ishmael all of the secrets that are uncovered are real, buried in our cultural history and traditions, and the implications for revealing them are far reaching in how we live our lives.
As a person, Quinn was not a pushy evangelist for his ideas, nor did have a neatly packaged solution to offer up for the many challenges his books highlighted. Yes, he spent a lifetime trying (along with his wife Rennie) to make his ideas more clear, more accessible, more actionable through giving lectures, engaging with his readers and their questions, traveling to events and facilitating connections between those who were inspired by his work. But he wasn't selling, he wasn't anybody's savior, and his emphasis was always on improving our thinking and what might come from that.
I do not claim to have known Dan very well, but every time I talked with him or saw him in person, I experienced him as a grounded, authentic, kind, and intensely intelligent person. He had a contemplative nature, and I always appreciated that when asked a question about his work or his ideas, he would listen carefully and then pause for as long as he needed to provide a thoughtful, intentional answer. If he didn't know or couldn't form a useful response, he just said so. He was keenly aware of the power of words to persuade, convince, change minds and alter the course of history, and so he also seemed wary of uttering something that could be misinterpreted, re-appropriated or used to stuff his very not-mainstream ways of thinking into a comfortable mainstream box. He didn't have much patience for people who weren't trying to think for themselves or learn from past mistakes.
Because of the power of his books, many people wanted Dan to be their leader: the leader of their movement or their project or their personal journey through the world, or all of the above. I was always careful about not worshipping Dan himself or of not elevating his writing as sacred texts. But I guess I did help to start a group of people and a series of events centered around his work that jokingly referred to ourselves as a "cult of Ishmael" -- sorry, Dan. 🙂
I know, I know. It's the end of March and it feels a little late to be reflecting on a calendar year that has been retired for three months now. But I've gotten in the habit of doing this - see 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011 - and there is part of me that needs any small bit of closure that writing this post might bring.
If you had told me a few years ago that 2018 would be the year I lost my mom, I wouldn't have believed it. But the year was indeed consumed by continuing to accompany her through cancer treatment, worrying about her health a lot when I wasn't with her, and then finally saying goodbye to her in December.
I've written some about what that loss and grief has been like and so I won't repeat that all here. But there was little I did, planned, thought about or worked on that wasn't somehow affected by the constant low-level stress and anxiety of knowing a loved one was facing tougher and tougher odds for survival. I wrestled with finding the right balance of dropping everything to have meaningful and special experiences with mom while I could, and living my own life as fully as I could knowing that she found comfort and pride in hearing about our adventures and accomplishments as a family.
Those struggles and that grief brought out some of the best moments, too, when it comes to the love and support shown by friends, family and community. I still can't fully believe or begin to recount the incredible ways that people have reached out and, through gestures big and small, helped make life easier for us during the hardest times. I am so grateful for this and yet I've felt woefully incapable of expressing that gratitude while the fog of grief still swirls around me.
Parenting a preschooler continued to be an almost all-consuming experience. The year started with me entertaining her with puppet shows and craft activities and now she entertains us by breaking into song, dancing on her homemade stage, telling us the latest scuttlebutt from school and amusing us with endless creative scenarios and ideas for play. Helping a human develop, figure out the world, absorb language and deepen her emotions has been incredibly moving and wonderful. Exhausting! But wonderful.
I was thrilled to have a couple pieces of my writing included in publications beyond my own websites, and I still want to get back to doing more of that.
One morning recently as my preschooler daughter climbed in to her customary spot for breakfast, she remarked out of nowhere, "now you don't have any family left!"
It only took a moment to clarify that she was putting together my mom's recent death with knowing my dad had died when I was 10 years old, and realizing both of my parents were gone. She said it in the same way as when she notices that furniture is unexpectedly repositioned or that some part of her bedtime routine is missed, seemingly unaware of the emotional content of her observation.
In that moment I mostly parented through (around?) the emotion by further clarifying with her that of course I still have family, between her and my wife, my sister and her family, my wife's family, my various aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, the many friends who have become chosen family to us, and on and on.
Part of me wanted to show my daughter just how long the list was, so that I could simply reaffirm to myself that I am not without family.
But the awareness of being without both parents haunted me through the rest of the day and into that night's dreams. I guess it's been haunting me on and off for the last three months after saying goodbye to my mom. Maybe in some ways the prospect of it has been haunting me for more than 30 years after my dad's death.
My mom, Cynthia Hardie, passed away on Friday December 7th, 2018.
There's so much to say about this, what she means to me, who she was in the world, and what the last few weeks, months and years have been like as she dealt with cancer...and yet for now I am without any good words. I am just deeply sad.
Her obituary, written by a longtime family friend, was published in today's Chicago Tribune. I'm including the full text below.
Goodbye, mom. I love you.
Cynthia Engle Hardie, modest but not self deprecating, might have devoted a wall to vanity in her spacious condo on Chicago's Gold Coast. Photos of famous people shaking her hand. Awards for her impressive work in the field of public relations. Thank-you notes for her philanthropy. A Cubs banner, signaling faith in a team that regularly broke her heart. Exotica from her world travels. But instead of framed kudos, when she died December 7, 2018, she left an imposing array of better things.
Last week I had a short humor piece published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency. It's been exciting not only because I adore McSweeney's as a publication and am honored to have a byline there, but also because it reminds me how fun it is to have my writing distributed for others to read. And, it's the second time it's happened that way in as many weeks.
I've had that excitement to some degree or another in a few other places: as a reporter and editor for my high school and college newspapers, as a writer for a satirical high school publication (called The Hierarchy of the Zucchini People, naturally), having some creative writing accepted into literary magazines, as an occasional columnist for my local city newspaper, and as a long-time blogger.
Still, I've been conflicted at times about calling myself a writer. And while I subscribe to the notion that one can be a thriving writer even if no one is reading your stuff, it does feel pretty nice when the universe affirms the value of something I've written.
Yes, this website is a largely built around my writing, my longest standing byline of them all. And some of my posts here have seen thousands of views in a day when they're linked from Hacker News or Reddit. But most of the time there are a few hundred visits per day at most, and many of those are to the same handful of technical articles; I don't publish here consistently enough to draw much of a regular readership. It's easy to think of it as "just a blog."
So If I'd posted the above humor piece on this site and linked to it from my Twitter account, I'm guessing it may have been seen by tens or maybe hundreds of people. I might have gotten a comment or two, maybe a few likes from my Twitter followers, and that would be fine.
By publishing on McSweeney's, it's been very different. My own tweet about the piece has been viewed over 13,000 times, the link clicked many hundreds of times. It's also been fun to see other people sharing and discussing the link on Twitter, and presumably on other platforms too.
Most commenters see it as "that new bit from McSweeney's" and not anything from me in particular, just as we tend to associate writing from The Onion or The New York Times with the publication more than the author. That's okay with me - I'm happy to contribute to what McSweeney's is and does in that way.
It also makes me appreciate publications that are open to submissions and that lift up writing done outside of the traditional publishing model (Longreads, part of the Automattic family, not least among them).
I plan to continue putting most of my public writing on my various personal websites. But I have lots of ideas for other publications and media that I could submit to and work with, and myriad notes on possible book topics, editorials, screenplays, journalism projects, short stories and more that I'd love to pursue. Seeing my writing being enjoyed by others certainly encourages me to spend more time on all that, and to live further into the part of my identity that is and probably always has been, "writer."
It's been over 10 years since I've had the time, space and inclination to have a real garden, so it's been a lot of fun to plant one this year.
The main focus was having an outdoor project my daughter could have some ownership of, and so I gave myself permission to go the easy route where I could: raised beds instead of tilling, a seed starter kit and grow light instead of crafting a setup out of individual parts, rain and the occasional hose instead of a rain barrel, and just a few different crops to manage: tomatoes, broccoli, cilantro, basil, and lettuce.
Here's what it looked like when we'd just moved the seedlings outside:
I also accepted early on that we'd be paying a small tax to the local bunnies, squirrels and birds as a part of encroaching on their yard space, forgoing any fences or chemicals to keep them away. We did have fun making some tin foil "scarecrows" that wave in the wind, and they seem to be working pretty well.
Fresh pesto is one of my favorite foods, so having basil to pick is a joy. Our daughter loves garden tomatoes and has previously mostly relied on the farmers market and the kindness of neighbors; it will be fun to see her harvest snacks and take pride knowing she was the one to plant them in the first place.