As we roll towards 2015, that video – it’s 30 years old now – would sum things up perfectly if I could just find it: the cyclical nature of life, the way we flow downstream towards some yet unforeseen destiny, the way our children mirror us in ways both large and small.
The year is 1985. I’m rail thin and rocking what my Uncle Bruce lovingly referred to as a bowl job, cut by “Bowl Job Steve” the barber (“That’s the only haircut he knows,” Bruce would say). People are probably smoking in the house as we open gifts. And I am obsessed with my computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 with a whopping 16 kilobytes of onboard Random Access Memory.
Today, a text message can be bigger than 16 kilobytes. In 1985, it’s what powered an entire 16-pound computer.
We’re down to the last present – a small padded brown envelope – the kind stuffed with material that looks like dryer lint when you accidentally rip it in the wrong spot.
I open it up, tip the package downward, and into my hand drops a square piece of silicon.
I take off running across the house like a madman.
“Sixty-four K memory! Sixty-four K memory! Aaaaaahhhhhh! Yes!” Back and forth, back and forth.
I’m 8 years old. All I want for Christmas is a memory chip, so I can write a bigger, badder program. Play a cooler game. Get lost in the 0s and 1s.
And here it is. In my hand.
Pure Christmas bliss.
* * *
I took a long detour from that me. Both on the most literal level – embracing the love of computing and programming – and on a far more allegorical one.
Could the 38-year-old me tear across a room with unhinged joy?
I doubt it.
Adult life is funny that way.
It’s full of choices. Joy doesn’t come uncontrolled, unexpected like it does in the forming minds of youth, at least not very frequently.
Happiness is something we have to choose to find, to embrace, to acknowledge.
And in the daily routine of a 10-hour workday and homework and laundry and cooking and cleaning, it can fall by the wayside.
About a month ago, I decided that was a problem.
So I promised myself this: I’m going to do the things that make me happy.
And that’s what I’ve tried to do, somewhere, sometime every day: an afternoon walk, disc golf in the morning, long runs through the neighborhoods near my home.
A month ago, I also did something I never thought I’d have the chance to do – because of cost and time and life choices: put an application in the mail with the hope of returning to school for a computer degree.
When my acceptance letter came earlier this month, you know what I did?
I danced. I jumped up and down. I got a high-pitched voice and squealed in front of Heidi, “I got in!”
Unbridled joy at 38.
Full circle. There it is.
* * *
This morning (Merry Christmas, everyone!) I saw unbridled happiness again with every present, the beaming smiles on Brody’s face as she unwrapped makeup, a desired blanket, perfume, nail polish, Legos, Taylor Swift concert tickets.
The “whoa!” and “wow!” as Beckett opened each gift, but especially the three-dimensional puzzles: “A stickerless V6 megamorphix gear cube! Holy, whaaa, aaaaahhh, whoa, man!”
He tells us he wants to be a puzzle designer when he grows up. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what he does.
I often wonder if his path will be straight, or if it’ll veer off in some unexpected direction like mine.
I have no regrets about the career path that I’ve chosen. Making a living as a writer and editor has been a rewarding one. I’ve spent much of my life listening to people tell stories and then retelling those tales.
But it can be a challenging one. The internet has made everyone a writer and journalist. When any free-market is flooded with product, the price of that product goes down.
As Beckett’s health problems mounted in 2011, the job market for writers shrunk, and shrunk and shrunk some more. In a 3-year stretch at my old business, I laid three quarters of the staff off. At newspapers and magazines across the country, I watched countless other talented friends lose their jobs.
It wasn’t just Beckett’s illness during those years that wore on me. It was the financial stress.
Heidi wasn’t working and the industry that paid our bills was evaporating before my eyes. My income was shrinking and so was our savings account. I’d stay up late, playing with the numbers on Quicken like an Enron accountant, trying to hide the truth and keep on a brave face.
It wasn’t all bad. We had safety nets, including healthy retirement accounts we’d both funded since our first jobs out of college. But by early 2012, I knew it couldn’t go on like this for much longer. We were on the verge of having to dip into those accounts just to make ends meet.
But a couple things happened in quick succession. Heidi, having raised the kids to school age, was ready to go back to work. And I got a call from SRP about a job in the Internet Communications department.
* * *
What few people knew is that while things were going to crap in the media business, I was silently trying to teach myself programming.
By using things like Codecademy, and volunteering to make people’s websites for free, I slowly learned. Even so, I wasn’t all that good at it. That didn’t stop me from applying for the job at SRP.
By the grace of God, it turned out I was exactly what they needed. Sure, it was an internet job, but what they really needed in that group at the time was a writer, someone who was passionate about the utility business, specifically the water side of it, and could fumble their way through HTML enough to get that content online.
Once immersed in that world, though, my mind took off. Like an expatriate returning to their homeland, the pattern of the languages that drive the internet – HTML, CSS, Java – just clicked. I started encountering problems in my dreams and nightmares, and I would solve them with code.
As my skills evolved, so did the job. Now, I get to merge these two worlds I love – the programming with the written word, the storytelling with the creative process.
It took me a long time to come to terms with how I felt about my job at Salt River Project, about leaving the small media business I helped build and going to work to for the third largest public utility in the United States.
But 2-1/2 years in, I know that it’s been an incredible gift. Last night, I sat at the porch with Heidi and reflected: “I love my closest coworkers, my bosses encourage my personal and career growth, the pay is good, the company has its employees’ backs and I really like what I do.”
It wasn’t even me who had the idea to go back to school. It was directors in other departments who’d see me in meetings. It was my boss and other coworkers.
So in between studying the watershed by helicopters, working on projects to restore Arizona’s forests, getting a crash course on the inner workings of dams and hydroelectricity and creating the company’s digital communication strategy, they’re sending back to school for the very thing I originally came to Arizona to study: computer systems.
Another circle completed. It’s getting to be like an Olympic flag up in here.
* * *
Last Friday, I took Beckett back to his home away from home, Cardon’s Children Hospital; this time to get an EEG to further investigate his seizures.
We got the results yesterday and we got a diagnosis – Rolandic epilepsy. It sounds horrible, sure, but it’s not.
In fact, given the symptoms he was presenting, it was probably the best diagnosis we could have asked for. He’ll have nighttime seizures periodically for the next few years. By the time he’s 15, they’ll stop. And that’ll be that.
We don’t need to medicate; we’ll just observe and stay the course, making sure things don’t get worse. They’ll cause no cognitive defects, they pose no long-term risk.
When I got the diagnosis, I was at my friend Rob’s, visiting for Christmas Eve. On the car ride home, I told Beckett.
“So I have seizures?” he asked.
“Yup,” I said.
“Oh,” he said.
And then on we went, to talk about cubes, or disc golf, or Christmas and every other thing on his mind.
That’s where the kid is at. He responds to being diagnosed with a form of epilepsy like you’d respond to someone telling you it’s going to be sunny in Phoenix.
And, in the end, so do we.
It’s a learned process after all the trials and tribulations of our little family: there are some things you can control and many things you can’t.
Like the old AA mantra, you must work on the things you can control and let go of trying to change those things that cannot be controlled – i.e., I can’t fix the economy, but I can learn a new skill. I cannot control the fact that my son has seizures, but I can work to limit them by ensuring he eats healthy and gets plenty of sleep.
Follow those guidelines, and when the tide swings, you’re often in a much better position to ride the wave.
While finishing that previous thought, I realized: This family has grown stronger, a lot stronger.
What followed then was a swell of pride; then a wave of love.
And then the thought that, damn, I still have to make the mashed potatoes and butternut squash for dinner.
Lofty thoughts and on the ground realities. Yin and yang. Circles, circles, circles.
Lots of complete ones it turns out.
What a Christmas gift.