Category Archives: General

Little Black Boxes

The refactoring of Ficlatte has begun. I don’t expect this to mean anything to any of you, not even the ones who frequent the site on a regular basis. The work I’m doing right now is 100% completely behind the scenes, hidden by the large curtains that lead to the cold and drafty back rooms of the castle. Let me just put it this way — if I do my job correctly, no one will notice that I’ve even done a thing.

And that’s as it should be. But despite the fact that no one will see the changes, they are necessary ones to make. Right now, it’s a fair comparison to say that all the code that runs Ficlatte, if it was poured into a large, black box, would look like a messy tangle of colored wires looping in and around each other, making snarls here and there, and generally just looking like an entire troop of monkeys got in there and started mucking around with things.

And it gets worse every time one of us on the development team adds a new feature or tweaks a little bit of code. We just keep adding new wires to the box that link existing things together in new and interesting ways and other wires that do new things they’ve never done before. Looking at it right now, for example, you’d probably see a bunch of blue wires in there. Those go to all the authors and users who come to the site. The white wires link to all the stories and interconnect a fair few of them together in long chains of storytelling logic. The green wires are the prompts, there to spark new and creative ideas. And the red wires — well, those are the dangerous ones. You don’t want to go playing with those. No, sir. They lead to the challenges, where some of the heaviest lifting gets done. And somewhere in that tangled mess are these little copper wires. They looks haphazard and random, but they’re really not. They connect some of the most important bits of logic together that keep the site running smoothly. Pull any one of them, and the whole thing comes to a screeching halt. Probably with flames. And smoke.

All that to say, someone has to sort this mess out. The more things we add, the worse the mess gets and the harder it is to maintain. So I’m working on a little project called refactoring, where I take this large, black box of tangled wires and carefully pull it apart — without breaking anything, mind you — and tear it down into several smaller black boxes that are all connected together. The blue wires go into their own box, and I write something like ‘Authors’ or ‘Profiles’ in white Sharpie on the lid. The white wires go into a different box, which gets its own appropriate label. The same goes for the green wires and the red wires. And when I’m all done I should have a separate box for each modular function where the wires inside are all neatly patched together and organized and easy to see where they go and what they do. The copper wires stay in the central box, of course. That’s the beating heart of the whole thing. And all these newer, smaller boxes have new wires that lead back to the primary box, as well, because everything still has to be able to talk to each other. But what that leaves me with is a system that’s clean, neat, and tidy, easier to maintain if something does break, and even easier to add on to as we develop new features for the site.

Fortunately, it’s not overly difficult work. It’s just a matter of doing it, and as I said earlier, I’ve already started on it. In a day or two, the whole refactoring process will be complete and no one but myself and the other two developers on the team will even know I’ve been in here working. But I’m excited about it, because we have some really neat new things planned for Ficlatte, and this refactoring process is going to make it so much easier to implement those features. Some of them are even done already; they just haven’t quite made it down the pipe to the site yet. (And frankly they’re part of the reason why this whole refactoring is even necessary in the first place; we kinda made a little bit of a mess back in these cold, drafty rooms, so now we have to clean up after ourselves a little).

Stay tuned, folks. I love the work we’ve done already for Ficlatte, and I’m excited about what else we have planned. And if you haven’t checked out Ficlatte yet, this is a great time to do so. It looks a little drab and grey around the castle yet, but the interior decorators have already been hard at work to give the place a little more color, I assure you. And it’s a great place to meet some great folks who love words and for you to practice your use of words, as well.

Ficlatte, Code, and Making Use of All This Free Time

For the last three or four weeks, I’ve been coding away feverishly. This, by itself, is notable. I haven’t had the energy or the mental focus to work on any project like this for so long in a very long time. It’s been exciting and fulfilling to finally feel like I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that’s been missing for so long. I’ve also been doing some writing again, micro-fiction of course, but I’ve done more writing since the first of the year than I think I’ve done in the last couple of years combined. And it’s the writing that’s led directly into the coding.

Back in the days when Ficly was still in business, I’d wanted to help contribute to that site’s code base. The site’s owner was the original developer of Ficlets, which was, in turn, owned by AOL. And when AOL effectively all but went the way of the dodo, Kevin migrated Ficlets into the daughter site Ficly. I wasn’t fortunate enough to learn about Ficlets until far too late, but I was an active member of Ficly for a number of years. I wrote quite a few stories during my tenure there, including some really fun collaborative series with a couple of other users.

Active development and maintenance of the site was slim, unfortunately, and for good reason. Kevin had a job, family, and other life responsibilities, and I think Ficly ultimately got relegated to a hobby project and a labor of love for him over time. As a result the code base became somewhat stagnant and outdated, as the Ruby on Rails framework it was built on moved forward and left our little realm of micro-fiction behind. I’d offered at one point to help contribute to the site’s development, knowing I’d have to learn Rails in order to do so. But I ran into technical difficulties setting up a development environment at home, due in no small part to the fact that several of the packages that powered Ficly no longer existed. So the result was that Kevin opted to shutter the site rather than bringing the code up to spec, which would involve basically rebuilding the site from the ground up.

And so we as a community were forced to move on.

There were several of us from that community who made attempts to work up replacements. The one that got off the ground fastest and most completely was Ficlatte. A handful of us from the Ficly community migrated there, but since its inception, Ficlatte has been more of a shell of Ficly. It’s had the basic tools to write stories and interact marginally with other users, but many of the key features that Ficly a community have been missing.

Until recently.

I haven’t particularly enjoyed being unemployed for the better part of a year, but one of the advantages I’ve discovered is that right now I have the opportunity to add to my knowledge and programming skillset. Ficlatte is built on Python and Django. Both are frameworks that would be useful for me to be familiar with, and so a few weeks ago I offered to contribute to Ficlatte’s development and thereby enhance my own skillset.

I’ve plunged in with both feet. Writing code these last three or four weeks has become almost a kind of addiction for me. It’s filled almost all of my free time, supplanting even most of the other hobbies I’ve engaged in the last few months to deal with my anxiety. I’ve always found it thrilling to put together strings of code and watch them come together to do something useful and practical.

I’ve come to love this little community of micro-authors, so it gives me great pleasure to be able to add to the site in this way while developing some new skills that make me more marketable as I search for work.

As always, if you like to write — or think you might like to write — I highly encourage you to visit Ficlatte and check out our little community. All the stories are short, so there’s no pressure to jump straight into writing long fiction. And we now have a development team actively working on new features, so the site is about to change for the better in the coming days.

Pieces of Me

I broke,
Shattered into a thousand little pieces.
And the world broke with me,
And around me.
Or at least so it seemed.
I remained broken for a time,
Fragments of myself lying all about,
The quiet after a great trauma.
But after a time,
And little by little,
I began to gather myself,
Scooping up the shards,
The pieces of me,
And I gathered them into a pile.
With time, and help,
I began to fit them back together,
Piece by little piece.
And in so doing,
I learned something new.
It has taken time,
And courage,
And not a little pain.
But after a while,
I came to a realization,
An understanding, of sorts.
Those pieces,
The pieces of me,
They fit together a little differently
Than they did before.
They had taken on new shapes,
New dimensions,
And some pieces, even,
Were no longer needed at all.
It has taken weeks,
Months, even,
And I’m still working on it,
But I am mostly whole again,
Mostly complete.
But I am not the same.
I look a little different now.
I have a new shape,
A new definition of self.
But I guess that only makes sense
For someone who was as broken as I.
You might not recognize me now.
You might not know me.
In fact, it’s likely.
But I know myself,
Better than I did before,
Because I have picked up
The pieces of myself,
Those jagged little shards.
I have examined each one of them,
Cut myself on them,
And learned where they go.
I have fit each one into place.
No, I do not look entirely the same,
And parts of me are still broken,
Remain to be reassembled.
But I am me,
For perhaps the first time in years.
The cracks are still there,
The gaps still showing,
Scars of my breaking
That may not ever completely go away.
But for all that
I am more whole than ever,
More complete,
And I am stronger than I have ever been.

Year in Review

It’s difficult to know just how to summarize this year, to put it into perspective. 2016 has been a universally bad year for everyone, from the number of celebrity deaths to the fiasco that has been the US election cycle to the myriads of personal trials that so many people have experienced these last twelve months.

For me, 2016 has been the single most difficult year of my life. The fight with my own mental health has reached new levels of hardship, uncovered previously hidden layers of anxiety, and spun my entire life into wildly unexpected directions. During this year I’ve lost my marriage, my home, my job, and my security. I’ve had to wade through some truly deep waters, at many times floundering as my feet have been swept out from under me, nearly drowning in the waves of turmoil I’ve faced.

But I’ve survived it all, even when I was certain I wouldn’t, and couldn’t. I’ve learned more about myself this year, become more self-aware, than I have been in years. I’ve been forced to face my shortcomings and mistakes and deal headlong with illnesses whose severity that before I’d only guessed at. But through it all, I have prevailed, partly due to a rediscovery of a faith in and reliance upon God and partly because I’ve made an effort to surround myself with people who are both supportive and sympathetic. 

There’s still a long road ahead of me, but 2017 is a new year. I’m looking at it as a fresh start. There’s so much that needs to be done, but I’m finally starting to feel like I’m up to the challenge. I’ve gone through several medication adjustments this past year, and I feel like they’re finally starting to make a difference in terms of my ability to focus for extended periods of time and to think more clearly overall. I feel stronger as a person, a survivor, if you will. 2016 was hard, and I’m under no illusions that 2017 will be easy, but I firmly believe that the work ahead of me is work I can do. 

I have good people beside me, encouragers, listeners, and cheerleaders. And I’m grateful to each and every one of you. You all have helped get me through the dark times, and I know I can count on you to see me through the difficult times ahead. 

2017 is going to be my year, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m genuinely excited and hopeful about the prospects before me. I still don’t know the answers the most of the questions I have, but I’m certain God will provide, and I’m eager to see where He leads me this coming year. I’m certain it’s not where I’d originally planned to go, and that, my friends, is a very, very good thing.

Beneath the Surface of Artist Attribution

This image crossed my Facebook feed the other day.

beneath_old

It resonated with me immediately because I had just been thinking about how much deep ocean water weirds me out. (Don’t ask me why; I don’t remember the reason why that particular topic had been on my mind.)

But I also recognized the artwork because I own a hardcover of the book whose cover it adorns. And like so many memes that cross social media, this one came with no attribution for the artist. Normally I click on by such things, my ire slightly raised because proper credit has not been given but powerless to rectify the situation due to the challenges of tracing the art back to its original source. Not so in this case. It took less than five minutes to locate the artist’s name and her website, and less time than that to reproduce the above meme using the entire image with proper attribution.

Beneath the Surface - Julie Dillon
Beneath the Surface by Julie Dillon

I’m all for art appreciation and sharing it in new ways that represent various aspects of the human experience. But I wish people would be more conscientious about making sure the original artists receive recognition for those works. Many hours and much work goes into creating that art, and it’s only fair that due credit be given where it’s due.

Facebook: “It’s Too Hard”

This is just one of many reasons why I harbor a fundamental disdain for Facebook’s policies and management decisions. When you’ve set the almighty dollar in a place where it trumps social responsibility in your decision-making process, it’s at that point you’ve betrayed yet again your utter contempt of the actual people that use your services. BOING BOING: Why Facebook’s “It’s Too Hard” excuse for Vietnam war photo takedown is bullshit

Church, Faith, and Returning to the Fold

I went to church today. The first time since April, and probably the first time in years — and maybe ever — I’ve gone solely for myself. Growing up as the pastor’s kid, church attendance was mandatory. It was the same in college, where church attendance was monitored and enforced. Then I was married, later with kids, and church attendance was simply a part of our lifestyle. But I’m not sure how much of my attendance over all these years was because it was something I wanted and needed so much as it was expected because I called myself a Christian and Christians go to church.

But today I went alone. No wife, no kids, just me. I went because the mental block that has prevented me from embracing my faith for so many years finally came down this last week, and going to church wasn’t just something I realized I needed but that I desired. I saw people I haven’t spoken with in months, had good conversations with many of them, received one or two supportive hugs, sat under teaching from I Samuel and Daniel, made lunch plans, and generally had a good morning. I didn’t pretend that things are all good in my life, and the people I spoke with were gracious enough to be understanding of that and to offer what words of support they could, which I greatly appreciated. I even managed to remain awake and alert throughout the sermon without experiencing a sleep attack, something that would have been remarkable just a few months ago.

There’s still a long road ahead and much work to be done on my part. But for the first time in a very, very long time, I’m living my faith for myself and not because it’s something that’s expected of me. As a result I’m finding it far more fulfilling than at any other time I can remember. Like so many other parts of my life right now, it’s a marathon I’m running and not a sprint. And so it continues to be one foot in front of the other, for as long as it takes to reach the goal. Seems like there’s an apostle who wrote something about that once…

More Than a Figment

There was a time when I thought my anxiety wasn’t real, that it was a figment of my imagination, an emotional ghost conjured by my subconscious to cover up the other mental health issues I deal with on a daily basis. Having a psychology background I have a healthy respect for the way the human brain can deceive itself. My anxiety attacks were infrequent at best and typically over in five minutes or less. They didn’t interfere, so I shrugged them off.

Image by Mariana Zanatta under a Creative Commons license
Image by Mariana Zanatta under a Creative Commons license

Then in April the bottom fell out of my world, and I was hospitalized. Meds were changed. My depression became less severe, almost manageable. One layer of my psyche was pulled back, revealing another layer underneath that I didn’t even know existed. And it was pissed. Boy, was it ever.

Anxiety is new for me. I’ve always been prone to being easily stressed out. But I’ve never been this vulnerable to panic, at least not this way. I view my hospitalization as a pivotal moment in my life. Those four days are when everything changed. It’s like someone flipped a switch in my brain, toggling on a new kind of brain chemistry.

For a while I was still able to pass off my anxiety as circumstantial and irrelevant. I was adapting to sudden and jarring changes in my life situation. I was on new medications that my body needed to get used to. I’d lost my job and was freaking out about not being able to help provide for my kids. I was ‘out’ as an atheist and everyone close to me suddenly knew I’d lost my faith. These are the things I told myself to explain my anxiety and the frequent increases in heart rate and palpitations I felt.

The last couple of days have changed that for me. Life the last month or so has mostly stabilized. I’m getting better sleep now. I’m starting to look for work again. In short, my stress levels as a whole have dropped.

And yet, I step outside into the heat, and my anxiety skyrockets. I worked a baseball game last night for four hours. In a heat index approaching 100 degrees. Over a hot grill. And my heart rate was ridiculously high for most of that four hours. Prompted entirely by physical stress. That was the moment when I realized that my anxiety is a real condition, a real disorder, not just an addendum to a list of other issues I’m living with. There’s a reason why physical activity feels like a kind of living death, why I struggle so much some days to get my body going.

I’ve been afraid for so long that I’ve simply been deceiving myself somehow, that I’ve been subconsciously looking for ways to escape, that I had my brain convinced that it needed to lie for me and to me. I know now that’s not the case. I think this has simply been lying under the surface for a while and dealing, but it was covered up by the severity of my depression. With that better in hand now, it has simply revealed this additional health issue that I didn’t realize existed, let alone needed to be addressed.

It’s almost a relief, really, even in spite of the fact that it’s physically uncomfortable. I know I can push through it, and I do. Frequently. I know it’s not something I can control. It’s not my fault. I certainly didn’t ask for this. And if I could make it go away, instantly, I would. So it’s something to be managed. I’m already learning how to do that. I have good doctors who can help. I have good friends who support me and to whom I can talk when I need it.

Baby steps, people. My mantra. My philosophy for recovery.

Daily Routine – Grinding for XP

I got up this morning, took my meds like I’m supposed to, ate breakfast because my meds require it, started a load of laundry since it’s that time in the week again. It’s been a week since I started sleep treatments with my CPAP, and it’s clear they have made a significant difference. I sleep through the night now with minimal disruptions. My body is starting to feel better rested, even if I still feel tired much of the time. It’s a different sort of tiredness, though, less bone-weary and more “oh, I’m just in the middle of recuperating from some major illness.” It’s a process, albeit a frustratingly slow one.

My depression and anxiety have been constant companions this entire week. The depression itself has been relatively mild. Instead of crippling, it has presented itself more as a lingering melancholy and physical fatigue. The anxiety has actually been the more onerous condition, what with the random heart palpitations that sometimes make it hard to breathe for several seconds at a time. I see my psychiatrist again next week, and this is something that is definitely going to get addressed.

I’m finally trawling for work. I’ve had to lower my expectations somewhat. Every day is an unpredictable set of variables that make it impossible to know ahead of time what level of functionality I’m going to be at. Some days I can glide through with ease. Others require several hours to get started. Applying for the same kind of white-collar jobs I used to be able to do simply isn’t practical right now. So I’m looking for employment that allows me some flexibility while still providing a steady income stream. I have clocks ticking against me, and I’m beginning to feel a sense of cloying panic creep up that’s stifling.

But I’m making progress. Every day of this journey is new and different. I have had to learn patience and self-forgiveness. I have good people near me who support me and prop me up when I need propping. I take large steps when I can and little steps when I have to.

I’m grinding for XP. Maybe sometime soon I might even level up.

 If I Can Do This

There are days when you wake up with your brain already lying to you, when the regret and the pain and the hurt pile up on you so badly that you find it hard to draw breath, when every bit of your energy and attention is devoted exclusively to counteracting the power of those lies, when you want to just give up — on everything — and go back to bed, when the mantra running constantly through your head is “I can’t do this,” followed closely by “Yes, you can. And you will. Because you have to.”

Today is one of those days.

I still have some fight left in me, but I won’t lie and say I’m not stretched a little thin at the moment, because I am. And I have to go work in just about an hour, and I don’t feel like I can do this. But I will. Because I have to, and because I’m stronger than this.