06 October 2015

SF Fleet Week (and @CalHacks)

I'm not necessarily tired, but my attention span today (Monday) has been short (OOOOH LOOK SHINY THING!!!) er than it usually is, so getting things accomplished has been difficult. When my brain is in short attention span mode I try to focus on doing smaller tasks that get finished faster, which actually works quite well. This past weekend I was able to fix some bugs in one of my software projects, do some good user interface work, and in general be productive. Today not so much. Last night's lineup of dreams nightmares has a bit to do with that-- it took a good couple of hours and breakfast to get even somewhat dialed in.

I'm beginning my for-reals job search, albeit a little cautiously. I have a few copies of my resume out in the world now, and might have one or two first stage phone interviews in the next couple of weeks. I'm proceeding cautiously not out of fear, but because out of all of the resume, interviewing, and career advice that's available I'm sort of unique. Or maybe it just feels that way. No one ever makes infographics that show how to apply your resiliency in surviving living on the street to software engineering. As always, I have to look at a lot of things and listen to a lot of voices, picking and choosing the things that apply. I'm walking my own path, if nothing else, and hopefully it all adds up to convincing someone that I should be a part of the company they're hiring for. 

CalHacks is next weekend, so Thursday this week I'm headed first to Chicago-- I have an 0600 flight to San Francisco on Friday, and since I live in a place where the transportation network goes to sleep at 1900 (and since I don't own a car) I have to get to O'Hare the night before. This is both kind of a pain, and an opportunity to go exploring in Chicago a little bit since there are trains and they run late at night. I probably won't go anywhere all that exciting, maybe just somewhere for dinner that I've never been before. The 'it's a pain' part comes when I need to get some sleep, because I can't afford a hotel room. The bus transit center at O'Hare isn't the most comfortable place to spend a night, but it's not the worst either, and I'll be asleep on the plane before it leaves the ground.

Leaving so early means I'll get to San Francisco early, and then I'll have more time for exploring there. I don't have specific plans, although I'm trying to set up lunch or coffee with a couple of people I've met at hackathons. Last year before CalHacks I stumbled upon Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (which this year, happened already), so I need to find something new-- which didn't take long, the US Navy Blue Angels will be in town for SF Fleet Week. SCORE.

Intermission while I look for places to watch the Blue Angels on Google Maps. More intermission while I ask Google Maps how to get there on BART and Muni, and get from Pier n to the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and from there to Cal Memorial Stadium. This year I'm going to try to get it right and not end up at a liquor store in Oakland instead. :)


I'm aware even from so far away, of a sort of backlash coming from not just San Francisco, but Silicon Valley in general. It's pretty similar to the 1990's, when the commercial internet was a new thing. People then likened it to a gold rush, as everyone and their brother's dog was setting up a website and trying to get rich. Some of those people did, at least for a short time. I wasn't one of them. I worked for a dot com at the tail end of the madness that was the Dot Com Era, so I saw the carnage. It was ugly. There are a lot of people now trying the same thing-- drop everything, fly out to California, find a mattress to sleep on, fire up a start up, and get rich. I'm quite sure that there are plenty of people in Silicon Valley that are quite tired of kids from back East or the Midwest showing up expecting to be the next Zuck. 

Which puts me in an interesting position, because I'm moving to California next year. It's probable that I'll be working for one of the companies that one of these crazy kids starts up. 

There are a lot of reasons besides tech for me to want to move west, one of the main ones being that I need to be somewhere new. I've taken things as far as I can here, both academically and professionally. I'm looking for a job, yes, but I'm looking for a new school as well. I certainly could stay here, and take one class at a time, and it would take me six more semesters to graduate-- three years-- during which I'll be broke, cold, and unhappy. My love for Madison went away after sleeping on its streets. There's a lot that I really like about Madison, but it's painful to stay here (especially with the way the city continues to treat homeless people). Yes, this is the "greatest college football town in America", but when you don't drink and don't like loud crowds, that kind of thing doesn't matter much.

I'm going to end this rather abruptly. I'm awake later than I probably should be, I've been fighting off a headache for a while now, etc. etc. None of this answers anything, not really, but it's a start. It's also a reminder, to myself and to you, that I haven't given up. I could have, but I didn't.

01 October 2015

Six weeks -- all you get

This past weekend: bus ride to DeKalb IL (specifically, Northern Illinois University) for HuskieHack, a 24-hour hackathon. This time there was a bus sent to pick us up, so other than being the bus captain and making sure that the people getting on the bus belonged there transportation was easy. We made one stop in Rockford IL to pick several students up there-- only one made it, and we ended up being teammates for the hackathon (completely ignoring the assigned team we'd each been placed on).

Y'all, we took 1st place in the Health apps category. We each took home a shiny new Leap Motion. I couldn't have done it without my new teammate-- her input and ideas and hard work made a huge difference. I not only found a teammate, but I made a good friend as well. She's pretty awesome, she knows her shit, and hopefully we'll get to team up again at other hackathons.

This was certainly something I've been working on-- I've said since getting into this whole hackathon business that even winning something once at a hackathon would be amazing, and it really is. I've also been saying lately that I wanted to open up a bit and work more with other people, and I've been doing that these past two weekends (and hackathons).

Work more with others, win stuff. This is a good trend. Even we hadn't won a prize, it was still a very productive weekend. And, a fun weekend.

Speaking of other hackathons, next week I'm headed to UC-Berkeley for CalHacks. More on that shortly.


I got a letter in the mail from the VA Hospital; the Prolonged Exposure therapy group I've been attending on Mondays is now on Fridays. I've missed the past three weeks, Fridays being travel days and Mondays being largely recovery days from being awake all weekend hacking, but this week I'll go again. There were two things that struck me about the letter. One, was that it was signed by the normal provider and a name I didn't recognize, so I'm guessing this is another intern that's been assigned. The other was that they are limiting participation to six sessions within a six month period.

Another intern, fine. I know this sounds somewhere between arrogant and ungrateful, but I've already forgotten the name of the last intern and I probably won't remember the name of this one. I've found that it's very difficult to put much trust (or energy) into a mental health professional that's going to disappear in a few months. I feel really grumpy saying that, but on the other hand I have a valid point. It takes time to really trust a mental health provider, and a residency isn't usually long enough for that to happen.

Even more concerning is the part about limiting participation to six sessions within six months. I've already been there four times, so if the limit is going to be enforced I can go this week and the next Friday I'm free later in October-- and then I'm done until March 2016.

Normal attendance at this group is 2-3 veterans. One week I think we had four (including one guy who telecommuted in). I don't know what the provider to vets in the group ratio is supposed to be, but I doubt that with current levels we're exceeding it. It annoys, and somewhat angers me that there's now a limit. What happens if I show up for my seventh week, is the person running the group going to tell me to go home?

Prolonged Exposure therapy isn't easy. For weeks, you talk about what happened in the Desert, or the Jungle, or Wherever you were that gave you the PTSD in the first place. You record yourself talking about the experience, and you listen to it every day. You learn from this experience how to acknowledge what happened and in doing so, reduce the effect it has on you. The group is meant to help apply what you learned to every day life, hopefully improving it in the process. It's done me a lot of good.

And now, I only have two more opportunities to sit down with other veterans who have been through similar situations as well as having been through the same therapy, because.... why exactly? I don't know. The letter didn't say. This week will be week six, and I'm going to ask about the limit and for an explanation. I'm not expecting a straight answer, really.

If I hear "that's just the VA", I'm not going to be a happy camper. I'll start at the Patient Advocate and go up the chain of command from there. Stay tuned for the next chapter on this.


Back to happier thoughts.

This weekend I'm home (and working), not traveling to a hackathon. This is somewhat by design, as I've been on the road the past three weekends and I'm going to be on the road for the three weekends after this one. Next up is CalHacks at Cal-Berkeley, then BoilerMake at Purdue, then HackingEDU in San Mateo CA. After that will be WildHacks at Northwestern, and HackSC at the University of Southern California.

I'll be in California three times within a month, two of those in the general neighborhood of Silicon Valley. This isn't an accident, and it's also not an accident that my flight gets to SFO early on the Friday of CalHacks and my flight home leaves in the evening on the Monday after-- I want to go exploring. I actually have a couple of job leads and at least one invitation for lunch, so I'm going to do my best to be social and meet up with some people I've met at hackathons. Maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to secure an internship for 2016, which is part of the master plan. A week ago, I was hoping I'd someday win something at a hackathon. This is the next step. Proximity helps. People are a lot more willing to sit down and talk when you're going to be in the neighborhood anyway.

Making the jump from hacker at a midwestern state university to hacker at a Silicon Valley (or Silicon Beach-- LA is also an option) company is a somewhat daunting idea. As much as there are a lot of companies looking for people to hire, there are a lot of people who can write code who are looking for jobs. The past three weeks I've had the chance to talk to a lot of people from a lot of different companies. They've spoken honestly and told me that yes, I'll encounter age discrimination. I'm twice as old as the average hacker coming out of college, and it's likely that the person hiring me will be much younger than I am. (Age discrimination is, of course, illegal-- but it happens, just as other forms of discrimination happen.)

I also have a lot of memories, some of which are from the Desert and some of which are from events that happened after the Desert. There's no definition for "recovered from being homeless", and it's a self esteem hit to even mention that I was homeless-- I don't know if people will view that as "hey, he survived, he must be awesome" or if they'll think "damn, what a loser". It's easy for the PTSD to say the latter, and hard to put into a resume words like "survived the streets for two years".

Still, I'm going to try.

26 September 2015


This week went by quickly. It's zero dark early on Saturday morning, and the time between now and getting home from Canada seems to have been only a few seconds. Now that I stop and think about it, there were some important things that happened this week.

The software development team I'm on at work (finally) had our start of semester meeting. Since the team was formed at the end of spring semester we've lost one developer to graduation, lost one developer to an extended internship, and gained one new developer. Although I've been doing development work all summer, I've also been the only one here all summer. The team hasn't had any opportunity to work as a team. It will be nice having other developers around to discuss ideas, and exchange feedback. As much as I need quiet and alone time to code, it's also really important for me to have people to work with.

I am, of course, the grey bearded UNIX guy who uses vim instead of when I'm coding. This sort of sets me apart from the other guys (yes, all guys) on the team, who cringe at the thought of coding exclusively in a text based editor. During the meeting I mentioned that I've done a bunch of work with automated code tests with Grunt (a command line task runner utility). The response is that PHPStorm (a graphical integrated development environment) can integrate all those things too. I'm fine with that. I give my usual explanation that I'm a grey beard and don't need all those buttons and gizmos and shi stuff, and no one really complains. 

I'm actually not opposed to graphical user interfaces-- I'm not a luddite, for cryin' out loud. It's just that when I'm working I'm trying to figure things out, and it's often hard to concentrate when the PTSD kicks in. If I can get something accomplished in one or two steps, it's easier to keep going. If it takes several steps (or clicks) it's easier to get lost in the middle. So while yes, I am a grey bearded UNIX guy, there's a method to my madness. Simple tools, and simple processes, help when I need to get shit done.

I mention all of this because in looking back at the past couple of semesters where I've been in computer science classes, at least some of the frustration I've had has happened because of the tools that were used. Coping with PTSD symptoms and still trying to get shit done means I've had to do a lot of internal process management. The tools I use (editors like vim being an example) can really have a large impact on how successful I am. It's one thing to try setting up a particular thing on my own time, when there's no pressure to get it done. If I don't make it work today, I can try again tomorrow. Classes have deadlines though, and with deadlines come stress and with stress comes triggers. If it takes too long getting the tools set up, and learning them, and getting to a place where I can actually get something accomplished, it's like pouring gasoline on a fire. It makes the PTSD worse.

Therefore, I stick with vim. It's predictable. It's easy. It does exactly what I need it to do, no more no less. (For the curious, I do a lot with JavaScript and PHP at work; Chrome's developer tools are in fact a graphical interface, and I use them quite a bit.)


School right now isn't easy, but it's manageable. I'm taking two classes, but one doesn't start until the end of October. This is good, because I'm at hackathons damn near every weekend until then. I'm really doing my best to open up, and talk to people, and be engaged at the hackathons I attend. It takes a certain amount of energy, and this week has gone by quickly in part because I've been flat out tired. I'm going to Huskie Hack at Northern Illinois University (which is in DeKalb, IL) this weekend, which is only (!) a 24 hour hackathon. I look forward to this one because it's someplace new, and because I know the person who has been the main organizer-- she came to the hackathon I helped organize to get ideas. I'm interested in seeing what ideas they borrowed, and in seeing what new ideas they've come up with. Hackathon participants are a community of a certain size, but hackathon organizers are an even smaller community. We all talk to each other and swap ideas and war stories.

I'm rambling, I know. My point here is that this weekend is a hackathon that's not quite as intense, since it's only a two hour bus ride away and I'm leaving on Saturday morning when the sun is up, instead of Friday morning before the sun is up. I'm assigned to a team, and I don't know my teammates, so it should be interesting. I don't know exactly what to expect. Hacking with strangers is another way to crack open the shell a little and interact with other people.


All of this is a part of the prolonged exposure therapy I'm working on. The idea is that the more you expose yourself to things that trigger you, the more the effects they have on you diminishes over time. There's an implication, I think, that at some point you'll be 'cured'-- that the PTSD symptoms will somehow go away or be gone at some point in the future. I'm not so sure about that. I still have nightmares, where I wake up and it takes me a while to figure out where the hell I am even though I know I'm in my own bed. I'm still very hyper vigilant, and I have a much shorter anger fuse than I've ever had. It's still hard for me to care about my family. I still see buildings, and people, and cars and trucks and planes, and I see what might happen to them in the form of intrusive images and flashbacks. It's all still there. Some things, simple things, are hard for me to manage. I still double and triple check to make sure the door is locked.

I'm pretty sure that the VA has either decided that I'm fine, or is just too busy to care. I'm not sure which.

Since I've been at hackathons the past couple of weeks, I haven't made it in to the weekly drop in Prolonged Exposure therapy group at the VA Hospital. It helps. It's in that group that I was able to set up some goals for hackathon season, and that's actually going pretty well. I'm holding myself accountable for keeping the PE work going.

I don't know, though, what the future holds with regard to PTSD therapy. To some extent, I'm a little scared because there are so many veterans that have checked out, even veterans who seemed like they were recovering. It's pretty clear that the VA doesn't do much tracking of vets once we're through a crisis like homelessness-- no one from the VA's homelessness program has ever followed up to see how I'm doing. I realize that in a hospital, triage rules and those who are bleeding get treated first. I worry, sometimes a lot, that for all the progress I'm making it still might not be enough. I try not to dwell on it, just as I'm trying right now not to dwell on it, but the thought is there.

That I'm moving to the opposite end of the country next year is a consideration as well-- new VA Hospital, new mental health clinic, new providers. Maybe they'll read my medical records, but probably they'll just skim the last couple of entries like the providers at the current VA Hospital do. Maybe they won't even do that, and I'll have to tell the whole story again, the abuse, the war, the divorce, college, homelessness. I'm looking forward to moving, but that part not so much.

22 September 2015

Hacking in Canada

I'm back from a weekend in Canada (specifically the University of Waterloo ON, at Hack the North). Two 1/2 hours on a bus, then several hours at Chicago-O'Hare, then a flight from Chicago to Toronto, several hours chillin' at YYZ, then a bus ride to Waterloo followed by thirty-six hours of hacking, and then reverse the sequence and I'm back home.

The bus ride from Madison to Chicago is uneventful. It's a trip I've taken many times, so there's really nothing new to see. There's a moment of anxiety transferring buses in Janesville WI, but that's just making sure I get on the bus to O'Hare (where I'm flying out of) and not Midway (which is the wrong airport). Just to be sure, I always ask the driver to make sure I'm getting on the right bus. I like sitting in the far back of the bus, because there's usually a little bit of extra leg room and I don't have to deal with people bumping into me as they pass by. Unless the bus is full, I'm also usually sitting alone at the back of the bus, which is fine by me.

Chicago O'Hare is, well, Chicago O'Hare. There's construction going on, so the bus stops at the Transit Center instead of the terminal, and the bus driver spends several minutes explaining this. I've spent the night at O'Hare before, know the Transit Center (and in face the entire airport) well, and for me the explanation is just an annoyance. As soon as the bus stops, I'm headed towards the terminal. Two people from the bus remark that I look like I know where I'm going, and they follow me.

I've tried to check in online, and even tried to check in at a kiosk, and I can't convince either to produce a boarding pass. I talk to an Air Canada agent, who says there's a computer system issue. Once Air Canada agent leaves the counter to go I know not where, but when she comes back the computer system issue is fixed. She prints me a boarding pass, with a free upgrade to Economy Plus for having to wait. I liked flying Air Canada even before this, but I'm impressed.

The TSA checkpoint is insane; the wait was almost an hour. Several full Delta flights are trying to get through the same checkpoint as I am, and for whatever reason the line is moving slow. I know security is important. I try to take some deep breaths and that helps. I say good morning to the TSA people, some of whom return the greeting and some of whom do not. Me, and my stuff, pass through without question, and I'm headed down the concourse to find some water, because I'm dying of thirst. I pay $2.95 for a bottle of Diet Dew, which is equally insane, but after that I feel a little better. O'Hare is busy in the morning, and there are a ton of people moving around. I'm sitting where I can see outside, talking to the cleaning crew for a few minutes when they come by, and I'm watching the ground crew working. Airports are amazing machines.

On board the plane, as soon as we're at cruising altitude I'm watching a movie on my phone, Good Will Hunting, and filling out the customs form that says I'm staying for three days and not carrying anything that customs cares about. Since I'm watching a movie, the time goes by quickly and then I'm on the ground at YYZ, which like many airports is actually outside the city it's named for (Toronto). I was here almost exactly a year ago, and it hasn't changed. Customs goes very quickly-- I've waited longer for a value meal at McD's. Then I'm actually in Canada, headed for the nearest Tim Horton's, which is exactly where it was a year ago. I chill. (YYZ is, for the record, a pretty boring airport.)

After a while, my Hack the North teammate arrives. Moments of hilarity ensue when she lands at a different terminal, and we figure out how to get her from where she is, to where I am (and where the bus to U of Waterloo is leaving from). Once we figure out she's in a different terminal than I expected, things get smoother. The bus ride isn't anything to report on, other than the road signs look funny because the symbols are different (especially the ones that look like crowns).

At Hack the North: 1000+ hackers from all over North America, and probably a few other places. It's the same building as least year, so once I get my bearings I'm all right. The sponsor table/expo area is full of people with backpacks, so there's a lot of jostling around as people try to get to the tables. It's loud. People have to shout over each other. I've been to enough hackathons now to know that this is a difficult point; I hate being jostled, I hate really loud places, and this involves a lot of both. There are certain sponsors I want to talk to, at this point just to say hi and let them know that I'm there.We'll talk more later when things are settled down. I grab swag-- stickers, t-shirts, etc. Then it's upstairs to find a place to sit and hack. I skip the opening ceremonies, which also tend to be very loud and not a little triggering.

Later, supper. Then hacking begins. From here on, it's kind of a blur of me trying to get a Spark (Particle) Core board working with an Arduino and a Seeed Grove board with breaks for trips to the bathroom and trips to the tent outside for meals and snacks, interspersed with stops at sponsor tables to talk to some people I know from meeting them at other hackathons. I take walks outside, too-- especially at night, it's cool outside, almost crisp. Fall isn't yet in the air, but it's not far away either.

Meals are a fustercluck at hackathons in general; hackers tend to attack the food line as if they haven't eaten in 30 days. Occasionally, they run, and of those that run, someone often runs into me. I don't move, I stand my ground even if I see them coming. (I may have mentioned this before; when I play softball, I play catcher. Go ahead and run into me. I dare you.) There's a PTSD moment when one of the volunteers won't give me supper because I don't have my wristband (but I do have my lanyard/participant badge). I opt out of that meal and go for a walk instead, checking out a couple of the other campus buildings. After a while I'm settled down enough to get more work done.

Hacking: a classroom in an engineering building, perhaps about 50 people. Noisy. People moving around. Lots going on, and of course hard for me to concentrate. I'm getting a little bit done, and once people start taking naps I get a little more done. Taking breaks helps, as does remembering that a hackathon isn't my ideal work environment. I try to give myself some credit for getting done as much as I am. I'm working with some hardware that's very new to me, so I'm having to learn as I go along. The lights are smart lights after a certain time of night, and they turn off at seemingly random times when they think the room is empty. This, of course doesn't help. I catch myself barking at people for turning the lights on and off until I realize it's just some microcontroller trying to save electricity's fault.

Somewhere in all of this, I try Soylent. (Make the next version taste like Diet Dew and we'll talk.)

I talk to almost every sponsor, and give my pitch: I'm an Air Force vet, hacker, computer science major, and I'm looking for a job in California next year. This is one of the things on my list of things from Prolonged Exposure therapy-- at hackathons I've so far shied away from really engaging potential employers. Now I'm in full on job hunting mode, or at least trying to be. I shake hands. I make eye contact. The overwhelming response I receive is that they're interested, that being a veteran is a very positive attribute. More than one asks why I'm not out in California yet. I ask them to be candid, and several agree that yes, I'll encounter ageism in Silicon Valley-- but they also say that I should under no circumstances let that stop me. Many of them say that they know veterans in their companies that are among the best employees.

I also get to meet and talk to Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky, during an appointment set up by Y Combinator. My teammate is both female and an older student, and I'm a veteran and older student, so we both have questions about getting established in Silicon Valley. He's an interesting guy to talk to, and the twenty minutes we're allotted goes by quickly. I'm left with the feeling that I'm not so crazy, doing what I'm doing with hackathons and my personal projects, and learning on my own. I've been looking for some sort of validation, an opinion that says I'm doing the right things, and it's easy for me to look in the mirror and tell myself that I'm right. It's another thing entirely to have the CEO of the company whose smartwatch I'm wearing tell me that I'm on a good path.

Through Saturday night, we keep hacking. The hardware I'm working on doesn't exactly do what we need it to do; after several iterations, it's just not happening. Somewhere in the very early hours of Sunday morning, my part of the project is doomed. Still, I've learned a ton about making a Particle Spark Core do things and now I have ideas for other projects. We pitch the project to several sponsors who provided APIs that we used, hoping to win a prize there, and then the official pitch to the hackathon judges. Our project, a silent car alarm, gets good reviews when we pitch but we don't win a prize.

Sunday is a bit of a mess; my flight leaves Toronto at 1915, which is later than the recommended leaving time of 1915 but not by much. Hack the North arranges taxis for those of us who are flying out that early, so we can get to the airport with enough buffer time to get through security. At 1430 I'm in a taxi. An hour later I'm waking up at the airport, having not slept (except for a short nap) since Thursday night. Things are less of a mess once I get to Chicago; US Customs was handled in Toronto, so I get off the plane and get supper before I get on a bus back to Madison. I'm asleep before the bus leaves O'Hare, and then I'm back in Madison. A short walk, and I'm asleep at home.


This weekend's trip, apart from just being something fun and exciting to do, was for me a direct assault on my PTSD. I simply resolved that I wasn't going to let it get in the way. In prolonged exposure therapy, I made a list of the things that I'm trying to face head on-- the idea being that the more times you expose yourself to situations that trigger you, the more the PTSD symptoms will recede-- and for the most part, did those things over and over again all weekend. I talked to other participants about their projects, and mine. I saw and talked to people I knew from seeing them at other hackathons. I especially talked to sponsors, told them about myself and that I'm making the move to California, and made contacts for interviews. I tolerated the noise and commotion that a hackathon is as much as I could. I also got a lot done, even if what I did didn't end up in the final demo version of our project.

There were times when I'd had enough, when I needed to go outside in the middle of the night and walk around U of Waterloo avoiding people as much as possible. There were times when I just needed quiet, and these times came often. There were some really difficult times when it was really hard to keep going. Today (Monday) I slept all day and I haven't really been worth much this evening; I'm exhausted, physically and mentally. It's going to take me a couple of days to really recover. I pushed myself, hard, all weekend and I'm now feeling the effects. Zzzzz.

Still, I learned a lot about some new-to-me hardware, and APIs from several companies that I hadn't seen before. I got a lot of practice talking to sponsors about me, what I'm doing and where I'm headed-- I especially got more comfortable explaining that I'm a veteran, that my life has been shifted around a bit, that I'm better for it. People-- hackers and sponsors-- remembered me from a year ago, and were happy to see me again, so perhaps I'm making a decent impression on people. I might even have a couple of interviews coming up at Silicon Valley companies.

Most important of all, over the course of the weekend I felt like a hacker and not a guy who spent two years homeless on the streets of Madison who is trying to overcome a disability and succeed in spite of the... well, you get the picture, right? I felt a little bit normal again, and it felt quite all right, mostly.


15 September 2015

That t-shirt isn't worth it

I spent the weekend at MHacks, a hackathon that's held every semester at the University of Michigan, with about 1,000 other hackers plus the people from U of M who run the hackathon and all of the sponsors who sent recruiters and engineers. Participants had 36 hours to hack and build something interesting with either hardware or software, or a combination of both. There were also tech talks and demonstrations, a hack expo where we got to show off what we made, and prizes for the best hacks in a number of different categories.

I've been doing a lot of prolonged exposure therapy work lately with the VA, the idea being that by intentionally facing the things that trigger PTSD, repeatedly over time, eventually your PTSD symptoms should diminish and PTSD should become more manageable. It is, for instance, very difficult for me to concentrate in classrooms-- I'm often very hyper aware, very tuned in to every sound and motion that's going on around me, and then once I'm triggered the noise and motion take me back to the Desert. This applies to the work place as well, where if it's too noisy and there's too much going on, I have trouble concentrating on the code I'm writing (or whatever it is I'm doing). Hackathons are not necessarily known for being quiet. There are always people moving around, collaborating, discussing, eating, drinking, etc., so in addition to the various things that make hackathons fun, hackathons are also a chance for me to be out in the real world without a lot of additional pressure. (Sure, I'd like to win a prize, but if my project doesn't turn out perfect by the end of the hackathon I don't have anything to lose.)

I am also in the beginning stages of looking for an internship at a tech company, and the companies that sponsor hackathons do so in part to recruit new employees and interns. I talked to quite a few companies that do things that I'm really interested in, which is directly confronting PTSD's tendency to make me avoid anything triggering. One of my goals at the hackathon this weekend was to talk to employers, tell them I was looking for an internship, and most importantly, get some practice explaining that I am a veteran and that the timeline of my life was shifted considerably by the time I spent in the military. It's also a goal of mine to get back to thinking of myself as a veteran in a more positive light vs being a veteran who is angry about having been homeless, and presenting myself as such to other people. My elevator pitch needs some work, and I'm okay with that. It will get better.

One of my answers to working in a busy, noisy environment is that when I find that I'm not concentrating well, or I'm having problems with flashbacks, is getting up and going outside for a while, taking a walk, doing something else. I take some quiet time for myself, and sometimes I think about the problems I'm working on and sometimes not. Often I'll refill my coffee cup or water bottle. If there's food to graze on, I'll get something to eat. At a hackathon, I'll walk around and see what other people are doing, or go to a tech talk, or just talk to one of the sponsors. If I'm feeling really anxious, I need quiet for a while, but often just talking to someone for a few minutes is often enough to bring me back to the present.

I've been learning over the past couple of years that when I'm having problems figuring something out, I just need to stick with it and keep trying until it clicks-- as many cups of coffee, or walks around the outside of the building, or whatever it takes, plus trying whatever it is again and again until things work. School isn't always like that-- in school you get one exam to prove that you've absorbed and understand the concepts. It sometimes takes me the equivalent of several exams to get some of the inner secrets of implementing things in JavaScript right, because of all of the interruptions I have to take to stay focused on things. I'm also learning how to cope with this, and it's getting better.


There were a couple of times this weekend where my PTSD became very visible, very quickly.

I avoided the opening ceremony, but went to the closing ceremony. Different hackathons do these different ways. This particular hackathon, the closing ceremony involved taking a chartered school bus to somewhere else on campus, which wasn't the most fun I could think of doing. The ceremony itself involved a lot of yelling, and cheering, and "CAN THIS SECTION YELL LOUDER THAN THIS OTHER SECTION" type of stuff, which to me is incredibly uncomfortable-- I don't like yelling and loud noises, they're triggering. Instead of being excited to see the hacks that are about to be presented, now my heart is pounding and my hands are shaking and I'm in full on battle mode. I'm thinking to myself "This is incredibly uncomfortable but I'm going to stick it out as long as I can and hopefully it will be back to normal voices soon."

Then, one of the organizers announced that he had a box of free t-shirts to give away and that hackathon staff were at the back of the room (where I was, with my back to the handicapped section where no one was sitting) to start throwing them to the people who were the loudest.

People went nuts. Several people started to try to climb over me to get into the empty part of the row I was sitting in, at which point I pulled out my military voice and said "NO. Go AROUND." When they continued to try to climb over me, I had to stand up and physically block them and tell them that they were not going to get past me. One guy, even after that, still tried to climb over me, and I had to tell him point blank that if he didn't stop immediately that I was going to put him on the floor. I meant it, too. Bear in mind I was already feeling triggered by the "WHO CAN YELLLLL THE LOUDESSSTT" competition, and I hadn't slept since Thursday night. It was entirely the wrong time to try to climb over me, especially for something as silly as a free tshirt (sponsors give out lots of t-shirts; I brought 10 new shirts home with me this weekend, it's not like they're a rare commodity).

I have mixed feelings about this.

I know that these greedy fuckers people did not intentionally try to harm me-- they didn't have anything personal against me, we didn't know each other, and they'd all been up for 36 hours or more the same as I was. They're probably not bad people. Still, it took both a verbal response and a physical response-- me standing up and physically pushing them back-- to keep them from literally stepping on me. I don't want to be the angry veteran. I don't like being angry, in general. I have been struggling with having a short fuse, which I know is coming from the PTSD, and I don't want to let the PTSD cause me to be an asshole. I don't pick fights, but if you're inconsiderate enough that you'll risk harming me to get a free t shirt, I am feeling increasingly justified in responding physically (and possibly with force). It's often hard to tell if this is the PTSD talking (in which case I'd like to limit the response) or that I'm actually gaining some confidence and self-esteem and I'm not just going to put up with people being that inconsiderate.

Not long after that, I decided (or realized) that I'd had more than enough excitement for one day, gathered up my stuff, went outside, and let the person I drove there with know that I was ready to be picked up to head home. The closing ceremony ended a while later, and since I'd found a spot that was in the lee of the stream of people coming out, no one who was inside when all the fun was going on noticed me. As I said, I don't pick fights. I avoid them. Once I've made my point-- which someone else has required me to make-- I'm done.

This is new territory for me. I don't like that it happened, but there was a time in my life when I didn't stand my ground as much as I wish I had. The results were, of course, not much fun and I ended up in places I didn't want to be. I'm still learning about standing my ground, it still feels wibbly wobbly sometimes, and I sometimes I feel like I'm just winging it.