Interview of a lifetime

When I was a kid I regularly asked my parents to buy a video camera so I could experiment with making home movies. I had many ideas for characters, scenes, angles and even edits I would do, just sure it would result in hours of entertainment for family and friends. I also suspect there was also a part of me that wanted to capture on tape the times when my dad had his energy and playfulness, knowing that his ongoing cancer treatments meant plenty of other times when he wouldn't.

The answer was always no — it was a relatively big expense back then and not a high priority, all things considered — and so I had to let go of my filmmaking ambitions. But I still loved recording things, and would combine multiple tape recorders to make complex mixes and edits of conversations, songs and the world happening around me.

That enjoyment of working with audio (and, later once I could afford my own equipment, video) recordings of real life has stayed with me, and it's one of my favorite media for storytelling. I've soaked in the practices and personalities of radio and broadcast programs, I've listened to and produced podcasts since they were a thing, I've produced, edited or done voiceover work for various audio programs over the years, and I've come to appreciate the deep connection, history and emotion that comes out in the work of oral history projects like StoryCorps. The words people choose, the ones they avoid, the pauses, the chuckles, the wavering and breaks, the highs and lows...they all reveal so much about us.

Today marks two years since my mom passed away from her own struggle with cancer. But it also marks three years since I got to do the audio interview of a lifetime, with my mom.

As 2017 came to a close we didn't know how much time we had left together, but I knew there might be fewer times in the months ahead when she'd be fully herself and able to sit for an extended conversation "on the record." I approached her about the possibility delicately, mindful that she typically eschewed exercises in public self-examination, so I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to it by email, with only a little hesitation: "Interview is fine as time permits. Not sure exactly what you want to collect but I’ll do it. I might need a glass of wine."

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Scenes from a pandemic

Our dog has a drinking problem. That is, when she drinks water there is something in the way her throat works that causes her to regurgitate some or all of the water soon after. In her younger years she would throw up quietly and move on. As she's aged and as her health worsens, it sounds more like a loud, old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the same time. We are home all the time now, and there is nowhere in the house that she can't be heard.

"Oh, Chloe," we say, adjusting her medications, knowing we will also have to say goodbye to her soon.

We clean up the puddles left behind with one of a constantly rotating pile of "Chloe towels," old bath towels called back into service for mopping up slobber. There are discussions and pointed glances around how long a dog towel is meant to last before requiring laundering. You can refold a towel multiple times to make it last across throw-up events, but woe is the one who grabs a heavily used towel in the wrong spot.

Sleep is harder when there is an old man sneezing and coughing and choking at the foot of your bed. Sleep was already hard. At five years old our daughter has slept soundly through the night for a long time, but before the pandemic my body was only just starting to trust this reality. It remembers the early months of sleepless nights, the early years of figuring out sleep patterns and rituals that might or might not last. It has been listening for the sounds of a child wandering the halls in the night, needing a back rub or a book read aloud or a cuddle back to sleep. It has been saying, "don't get too comfortable" as it waits to be needed again. And now it says "don't get too comfortable" as it reminds me of what's happening in the world.

I pretended for a while that when the election was over we might sleep more soundly. Election day has come and gone but its many ghosts remain to haunt us. The yard signs around us proclaiming "we support a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, lying narcissist bully as our leader" have come down but the people who put them there remain. They are our neighbors, our community leaders, our elected officials. We co-exist, but we don't live in the same world. I am trained to look for common ground and my values would dictate that I avoid contributing to further division, but most days I just feel angry or upset. How could they?

It is hard to see the way forward for my country. All we have to do is swim through the fog of hundreds of years of white supremacy and fundamental disagreements about what's factual and true to find some solid ground. I lay awake practicing my backstroke in my mind. I don't get anywhere, and the fog closes in.

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Helping out at the local newspaper

I'm excited to be able to say a bit more about one of the ways I've been spending time professionally in recent months. Since January, I've been consulting with the folks at Hometown Media Group, the parent company of two weekly newspapers here in Wayne County, Indiana, as their Digital Editor to help them update, streamline and manage their expanding digital offerings.

It's been a really fun and challenging application of my longtime interests in news media, technology, small business and community building. It's been rewarding to bring to bear my skills and experience previously helping national and global publishers, now for the benefit of reporters covering the place where I live. It's been a geeky delight to help them shore up their technical foundations with the tools and best practices that I've used, implemented or created elsewhere. And I love being a part of the strategy conversations around how and where people get their news in our region, and what kinds of improvements will serve readers and subscribers best.

All of this work is a part of answering that recurring question around what I can contribute to the field of journalism. I'm so glad for this experience along the way.

And although the ground-shaking that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic makes a lot of the future uncertain for newspapers (and everyone), it's also highlighted the essential nature of local news with high standards for factual reporting. We have some neat projects and updates in the works for the weeks and months ahead to honor that responsibility, so I'm looking forward to helping them out for as long as I can be useful.

At some point down the road I'll look at sharing more about some of the technical work I've done here that might benefit other newspapers working on improving their online publishing efforts.

If you're living in or connected to this part of Indiana, I hope you'll consider buying a subscription and supporting local journalism. Their prices are incredibly affordable, but more importantly the staff and ownership of Hometown Media Group are doing impressive work, especially these days when advertisers are especially cautious and the breaking news is truly nonstop. They care deeply about the community and the people they serve, and would appreciate your business if you're able.

Create a story, join a story, tell a story?

As I have been thinking about and working on "what's next" for me professionally, a theme has emerged around storytelling. Despite the fairly technical nature of my work to date, storytelling is a concept and a practice that has consistently been woven into the challenges and projects I take on. And as I ponder the future, it's been useful to see how each possibility fits (or doesn't fit) with that theme too.

Here are some of the general possibilities I'm considering through that lens:

Create a new story. Found a company. Make something new. Write actual stories or books.

Tell other people's stories. Journalism. Publishing. Podcasting. Interviews. Investigations.

Be a part of someone else's story. For a while, anyway. Get another job at an organization I believe in. Help lead an organization or team through a time of transformation. Give my time and talents to a cause I am excited about.

Work on story-telling tools used by others. Launch a product or service. Build or contribute to software. Do consulting or freelance work.

Learn from the stories already out there. Read books and articles, listen to podcasts. Catch up with friends and colleagues. Browse the aisles of the library. Wander in the woods. Explore new places.

I'm early in my own process of discernment, but I'm settling on one point of clarity: I may be retiring from doing "just one thing." Recalling the different modes of living out my multipotentialite self, I think it's time to shift away from the Group Hug approach ("having one full-time job or business that fully supports you, while leaving you with enough time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side") and instead shift to the Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work"). Embracing my multiple passions and a skillset that spans many different kinds of roles and industries will, I think, mean honoring the time and focus each one deserves, instead of largely relegating everything except a narrowly focused job or project to what I can get done in my spare time. Easier said than done.

I've also had a hard time describing this time of transition to others in any kind of concise or confident way. As one person said, I'm not conforming to normative standards for professional/life changes. It's great to acknowledge that, but still makes for awkward light conversation.

Helpfully, I recently encountered Scott Berkun's article, Changing your life is not a (mid-life) crisis, and it's full of good stuff, including:

I imagine for myself a lifetime of changes initiated by me. I know I’m too curious, and life is too short, to follow the conventional footsteps that everyone is quick to defend despite how miserable they seem in the following. We use the phrase “life long learner” but it’s corny and shallow, suggesting people who quietly take courses or read books after college as if the essence of life were merely a hobby. We need a term for life long growers, people who continue to examine and explore their own potentials and passions, making new and bigger bets as they change throughout life.

A hard thing about this time is resisting the temptation to make safe bets that I know I can win. I've been there and done that, and even when I've taken risks or tried new things that others were uncertain about, I've had an almost embarrassingly good run of professional success as a result. So now I'd like to take some risks make some bold moves and step further outside my comfort zone along the way. I want to create, or tell, or be a part of a story that has some good twists and turns.

Let's see where this dimly lit path (that may not be a path at all) goes, shall we?

Goodbye and thank you, Automattic

After more than 5.5 years at Automattic, I recently decided that I am ready for something different, and today is my last day at the company.

The things about Automattic that excited and impressed me when I first joined in 2014 still excite and impress me today. The mission to democratize publishing and help people to better tell their stories. The pioneering of a distributed model for hundreds of people to work well together. The way even small improvements in a few lines of code could affect millions of websites. The focus on transparency and excellence in communication. Working with kind people from all over the world in a constant flurry of collaboration and creativity.

YOLO

I'm proud of the contributions I made in that time, and I know that I got to work on some of the most interesting projects of my professional life so far.

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An adoption story

It was a sunny Monday morning in August and there we were, standing in the delivery room at the hospital, waiting for a baby girl to be born.

That we were invited by our birth mother to be present for the birth was beyond anything we had hoped for when we first started exploring adoption. We shouldn't have been surprised, though; our birth mother had shown an amazing spirit of generosity toward us throughout her pregnancy and since we'd first met, including us in doctor visits, health updates, name discussions and more. We were continuously touched and honored that she brought us into those experiences even though it might have been easier not to. She was ever focused on what would be best for this child, determined to set her up for the best possible life that we could collectively give her. It was, and is, amazing.

When we had gotten the call a few months earlier that there was a pregnant birth mother interested in meeting us, we were very excited, and very scared. We knew that we had so much to offer a child as parents, but the stakes felt so high for that first in-person conversation, which was to take place over a casual meal at a restaurant. We were fortunate to be joined and guided by a counselor from the agency we were working with, and she was helping both us and the birth mother to create a safe space and set expectations. But as we sat down at the restaurant table to wait we were nervous and anxious all the same.

It was one of many blessings in our story that when the woman who would be our daughter’s birth mother arrived, we connected with her quickly and much of our nervousness melted away. We all talked about our lives and stories that had brought us to this point. We talked frankly of our hopes and fears in thinking about adoption. And we laughed together at the various ways that my and Kelly’s background and interests seemed to intersect so well with the birth mother’s passions. All of the sudden we could really picture this thing actually happening; there was a specific person who might choose us to be the parents of a specific baby!

Our agency had cautioned us against getting our hopes up. "Be excited, but also protect yourselves” was a theme throughout the process of preparing for adoption. We could learn as much about a potential plan as we wanted, but as a birth mother is able to change her mind at any point before signing the paperwork, we had to know that plans could change. We didn’t have a baby shower or decorate a nursery in the same way others might have because we didn’t know for sure if and when we would be becoming parents. We could tell our friends and employers what we thought might happen, but we didn’t know for sure.

Still, when we got the call a few days after the meeting at the restaurant that the birth mother had chosen us, we were ecstatic. We both had a really good feeling about it and we felt that we were at a new and special phase that was changing our lives forever. We set up a call with the birth mother to celebrate this milestone and to offer our gratitude. I can only imagine all of the things she was feeling and wrestling with at that time, but in that conversation it seemed like we all felt clear and grateful to be moving forward together.

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Podcast interview with me

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.

You can listen to the conversation on Dave's site, find it in your favorite podcast directory, or download a mirrored copy. Thanks, Dave, for the opportunity!

What can I contribute to journalism?

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.

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What I learned on my three-month sabbatical

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:

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Sabbatical cometh

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.

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