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06 November 2014

California Dreamin' Part 2 - Flying Solo

Travel by most means for me is pretty routine-- the first time I flew I was too young to remember, and the first time I flew across the country alone I think I was about eight years old. It was on Ozark Airlines and I had to wear a dorky button that identified that I was an unaccompanied minor, and there was Concern about my changing planes on my own in St. Louis, Ozark's hub. I knew even then that airport signs follow the same general rule as road signs, and I knew how to read those, so it was all good. I was far more worried about whether I'd get a plastic set of pilot's wings, a bag of peanuts, a full can of Coke, and what food was being served. Since then I've been across the Atlantic Ocean six times and I've honestly lost track of how many times I've been across the US by air. Flying isn't quite the same as it used to be-- Midwest Express and baked in-flight cookies are a thing of the past, sadly. It's still kinda cool though, and while I usually spend a large part of any flight asleep I always want a window seat so I can take pictures and look around.

There's enough of the eight year old me left that flying places is pretty freakin' cool.

This weekend (as previously mentioned) I'm headed back to LA, specifically to the University of Southern California for HackSC. I'm discussing this hackathon with myself, in the back of my head-- I've more or less hacked solo at the hackathons I've participated in so far. There's nothing technically wrong with working alone on projects at hackathons, but if I'm going to make a living writing software I'm going to be working on teams with other people-- an important statement, certainly, but there's a lot hidden under the surface in that statement.

One of PTSD's biggest symptoms is avoidance. Shit seems like it gets unreal, part of your brain runs into a problem in some algorithm or some API isn't working the way it seems like it should. Your brain looks at the situation and starts making decisions based on the danger that existed in the past-- whatever caused the PTSD in the first place. You can flee or you can fight. Better still, says the brain, you can avoid everything altogether and not have that problem. The brain wants you to avoid potentially bad situations, like being around other people because you can't trust anybody. Raise the shields. Close the gates.

Hack alone. That way, when you run across problems, no one's there to see that you're struggling. No one sees you struggling, you must be okay. You're okay, so you're safe. You're safe, so life is good.

It's time for me to call BULLSHIT. On myself, for doing so much at hackathons and yet doing it all solo.

My current situation is this: I have a disability (PTSD) that limits how much of anything I can handle at a time. Ramp my stress level up to a certain point, and past that point I'm toast. Over the past two years, my ambient stress level has been insanely high because I've been fighting for survival, not just in school but in life in general. People who end up homeless often end up homeless and dead, and no one knows and no one cares. That's a lot to deal with, and being homeless very nearly kicked my ass. It didn't, though, and because I am still here I can make some decisions.

First, stability. Getting my life to a stable point is, and will continue to be, priority one. Rent paid, bills paid, laundry done, food shopped for and cooked, reading and assignments in classes covered, projects and exams passed if not with flying colors, at least with passing grades. I have the option of my life being just that-- keep it simple, work on school slowly, keep going to hackathons, and not really worry about much else. Once things are stable, I have enough income to survive on-- if not like a king, as least in a livable castle. I could stay here in Madison, do my own thing, and let that be my life. Some people (including my most recent Vet Center person), have suggested that it wouldn't be the worst life ever.

This weekend at HackSC, and at every hackathon hereafter, I'm going to try to find someone to form a team, and I we are going to build something. I'm going to sweat, and probably pace, and probably be nervous about it for a while, and there will almost surely be a point where I will be anxious enough to want to scrap the whole fucking thing.

Eight year old me was probably pretty nervous about flying alone that first time. Breaking out of my shell and seeking people to hack with, I'm pretty nervous about that-- but if I'd never gone ahead with flying alone that first time, I might not be flying to LA to hack tomorrow.

























01 November 2014

California Dreamin'

Time flies. October went by, as many months do, really really fast. The rent is paid though, as are the other bills, and I'm headed to LA next weekend for HackSC at USC. Someday I expect I'll head west and stay there-- I'm going to finish school, eventually, and get a job. It's beautiful where I am, but there are a lot of memories here. I am increasingly all right with leaving them behind.

The onset of fall/winter in the Great Lakes  is a pretty strong motivating factor, too.

I am slowly getting life put back together. Most of my stuff is still in storage, but I'm working on getting access to a car. Easy way: rent a truck and do it all at once. Harder way: take lots of trips with a Prius.  Moving sucks. Far too many bad memories. So a little at a time might be the better way for now.

I feel better, sometimes. Lots less stress. Slowly beginning to get used to having an apartment without worrying about being evicted tomorrow. The past two years took a pretty heavy toll on me, there's some healing that has to happen.
I still flip off the surveillance cameras whenever I pass Porchlight where I used to live. Passive aggressive? Yeah. Harmless though, and doesn't cause anyone any damage or harm.

Hugely looking forward to HackSC next weekend. I have a secret project in mind, something that as far as I know, no one has tried before. Won't know for sure if it works properly until I build it, but it'll be very cool if it does. Hacking is what makes me tick, and hackathons are the best therapy ever.

It feels strange still to say that I'm doing ok. Not doing great or fantastic, and not high on life just yet. Headed in that direction though. Headed west someday, too. Maybe it's all the same direction.

16 October 2014

What is it with landlords being assholes?

It appears I'm now feuding with my landlord. I know I'm ranting, but fuck this. Apparently I'm supposed to answer the phone no-matter-fucking-what when he calls. News flash, buddy-- I live a 60 hour week. I'm in classes, I have a job. Anything related to housing is just as much a PTSD trigger as hearing "Scud Alert" over a loudspeaker. I lived on the fucking street on and off for two years before I got this apartment, and my biggest fear right now is that I'm going to lose it right before winter arrives. (There's no way in hell I'm going back to Porchlight.)

I generally don't answer my phone if I'm at work or studying. I also don't answer if I don't recognize the number (ie, it's not in my contacts list). It's nothing personal. Leave a voicemail. Send me a text message. Send me an email. Tweet me. Facebook message me. Tell me what you want from me and why you called. Calling me three times in a day, and leaving me three voicemails demanding that I call you right back? What the hell is that? Who does business and treats their customers that way?

From the latest voicemail, this morning: "We don't discuss the kinds of issues using voicemail". What kind of issues? If you can leave me three voicemails in a day telling me how ridiculous you think it is that I'm not answering, and how you feel I'm irresponsible for not calling when you think I should, what issue is there that's too sensitive for voicemail?

This whole rant isn't me. It's not who I am. I can work with dam near anybody as long as there's a middle ground, and there always is. I hate hate HATE feeling like this, which makes me feel even worse. I've been up all night because I'm so triggered over this. 

Back in the day, my Dad lived in an apartment where he was also the on-site manager/maintenance guy. If he had EVER talked to a tenant like my landlord is talking to me, my Dad (and I) would have been looking for a new place to live. 

If I ever talked to a help desk customer and said "I won't tell you what to do to fix your computer unless you call me at a specific time. I won't leave the information on your voicemail, and no WAY am I going to email it to you!" how long would I be employed? As many seconds as it would take for the boss to tell me to GTFO.

It would be all right if my landlord and I were on friendly terms. I'd like that, but I don't expect it. I really don't need this shit right now, or ever. I pay you money. You let me live in this apartment. If I don't pay you on time or I don't pay you enough, then yes you can ask me where your money is and when you can expect to get it. If I'm doing something stupid like growing pot plants in my apartment (for the record, I am not) that violates my lease, yes you can be upset.

That doesn't relieve you as a landlord of being respectful towards the people who make your nice life possible. 

I can't just go on to the next place to live though. I'm trying to stabilize my life, which has been for the most part pretty chaotic the past couple of years. No one else would rent to me two months ago, and no one else will rent to me now. So I'm stuck.

That doesn't mean I'm going to settle for being disrespected.


14 October 2014

Oakland? WTF was I doing in Oakland?

Stability is supposed to be the key word now, doing what I do and building a sense of stability into my life since the past two years have honestly been chaotic. That's a misconception I think people have, that being homeless means that you sit around all day and do nothing. It's exactly the opposite. You're like a squirrel that started collecting acorns too close to winter, in an open field where hawks circle above you all day long.

My first monthly rent check got to my landlord late.

He called while I was out of town (way out of town, I was lost in Oakland CA on foot trying to figure out how to get back to Cal-Berkeley for Cal Hacks after wandering San Francisco all day). Then he called again, told me that he was scheduling showings of my apartment, and so I should clean up and pack up my shit so I could be out by this past Sunday. He also left a note on my door, and then I got a 5-day pay up or GTFO notice. Shit.  I finally got in touch with him by phone, explained that I was using my bank's billpay service, and that there would be money at the office (last) Friday.

Landlord called today. Twice. I was asleep, having been awake most of the weekend. It's not so hard to fall asleep, it's hard to convince my brain and body to slow the fuck down and get ready for bed. Most of the time I'd rather be up all night than be asleep and deal with dreams. Today I woke up around 1000, ate a bowl of cereal, and then the world started spinning so I flopped back into bed for a while longer.

I didn't call him back today. I will tomorrow, around lunchtime when he's usually around to answer his phone. Either the check didn't get there, or it was the wrong amount, or something. I think I added the late fee. Maybe I added the wrong amount. I don't know. Next month the check will autosend on the last payday of the month so I won't have to worry about it, but I still need to deal with this month.

In order to evict me, he has to file a court case and then we go to mediation. I hope things don't go that far, but I don't know how to explain how difficult something simple like setting up a bill pay for the rent can really be. Not in a way that will make sense, and without making me seem like a totally dysfunctional human being. I can't even think about sending a rent check without remembering everything that's happened over the past couple of years, and once that happens it takes me a while to process it and come back to the present. Paying the rent isn't an emotional experience for most people, I get that. It is for me.

Maybe it's too optimistic to think that everything will be stable in just over a month, but I'd at least like to have housing be stable. I won't give up the fight no matter what, but it gets fucking cold in Wisconsin pretty soon. Although I'm technically eligible, I won't go back to transitional housing and go through that insanity again. So it's either make this apartment work or be really cold for the next six months.

I haven't talked to anyone at the VA Hospital or the Vet Center for a couple of weeks now, too. I probably should need to talk to someone about all of this just to make sure I don't get too far off track. Maybe they'll be able to write me a letter that says "Look, this guy has a disability that makes simple shit like paying the rent extremely difficult and we'd appreciate you giving him a little slack while he gets a system worked out."

In a lot of cases, that's all I need. Some time without the world crashing around me to figure out a system and get things straight.

-----

A week ago at this time I was finally home from Cal Hacks. I say "finally" because I missed the first bus in Berkeley that would get me to BART to get me to SFO on time, so I missed my flight to Chicago. I was able to get on the next flight, but that got me to Chicago too late to get the last bus from ORD back to Madison. The Bus & Transit Center at O'Hare isn't the most exciting place to spend the night, but it's not the worst place either. The birds are entertaining when they hop up on your table looking for food (there are birds that either live inside or they've mastered automatic doors). There is, mercifully, one Starbucks kiosk that's open all night at O'Hare.

You don't want to know how much a sandwich and a cup of coffee costs at an airport Starbucks at 0300. Ouch.

Anyway: Cal Hacks. I flew out a week ago Friday early so I'd have a chance to look around San Francisco for a while. (I've taken a strong liking to California. Very possible that I'm heading that way when I graduate.) I ended up in Golden Gate park sitting in the grass, drinking lemonade, and listening to Buckwheat Zydeco at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass sort of without realizing it. I'd hopped on BART, then hopped on then hopped off a Muni cable car in search of food, noticed a herd of people headed that way, and figured I'd follow to see what was going on. Next thing I know I'm talking to a couple of Hell's Angels about Desert Storm while waiting in line for lemonade (they'd noticed my Desert Storm Veteran hat).

I did fine finding my way back to a Muni stop (uphill, of course) with a Starbucks stop for water. It was like, 95 degrees and sunny, and I'd stopped sweating. Still-- got back on, made it back to a BART station, got pointed to Berkeley once I figured out which track pointed which way and how to read the red LED signs, and even got on the right train. I even got off at the right station.

A couple of hours after that it was getting dark, my feet were tired, my backpack was starting to feel heavy, and I was in fucking Oakland buying a can of soda at a pizza place next to a liquor store. Google Maps wasn't helping, or at least I wasn't reading the map right, and I was in Oakland. The few buses I saw running had "Garage" as their destination, so that option was out.

Oakland is actually pretty nice, from what I saw. When I started seeing bars on windows and tags marking turf, that's when I figured action needed to be taken (I'm from Milwaukee, WI. I love my hometown, but growing up there means I spot certain things). The guy at the liquor store called me a cab, and fifteen minutes later I was in a really nice cab quickly the 3.5 miles I was away from Cal Memorial Stadium.

Persistence.

I got lost, probably, because I was tired and hungry and needed a break. San Francisco earlier in the day was great, but I'd also come across some of the homeless people that, er, call the city home. Some of these people are kinda scary. I don't mean that to put anyone down, it's just that I knew they were dealing with voices that I couldn't hear, and images I couldn't see, and they were struggling with it. It's hard to see people experience that kind of thing anyway, but I think it's worse when you have some idea what it's like. It took an emotional toll on me, because I wish I had an answer. I'm not that equipped to help, and I have my own issues to manage (see rent, above). I'm normally good with maps and getting from one place to another, but I was probably numb enough that I kept walking without experiencing that WTF moment where things don't look right.

I'm a little proud of myself though, because even though I was definitely feeling the PTSD, I managed to get someplace that at least looked safe. I managed to admit that yes, I was lost in a faraway place that I'd never been, and I asked someone for help getting a cab. I made it to Cal Hacks, got signed in, found some food, talked to some sponsors, and found an open spot to hack. And, I had a really good time. It's kind of amazing to sit outside with a laptop and see the entire Bay Area laid out in front of you at night.


I toyed around with a couple of ideas for a hack, but getting there a little late I was without a team. I was also kinda drained, so it took a while for me to get going. I dug back into some of the things I'd learned in therapy to cope with things and that's where the idea for a hack came from.

From my project description:
Lost in... An app that determines how dangerous it is where you are standing, and gives you options for either managing the situation for getting out of the situation. Inspired in part by me getting lost (and not a little freaked out) in Oakland CA when I was supposed to be in Berkeley.
It's not finished, and I don't have a demo up yet, but I'm going to keep working on it. The source code is at github if you're interested.

Give me a little time, sometimes, to figure out which way is up and catch my breath, and good things will result.



25 September 2014

September

Classes are okay. I'm taking two history classes, which I wouldn't necessarily call "easy"-- but they're not computer science or math classes either. They are manageable without a whole lot of managing, at least so far.

I'm not really moved into my new place yet, as September has been busy. I've been to hackathons at the University of Michigan (MHacks) and the University of Waterloo (Hack the North), so my weekends and associated Fridays have been booked up. On the weekends I haven't been at hackathons I've been working, and either way Monday is usually a Day of Recovery in my schedule. Take away class time and normal life stuff and that doesn't leave much.

Strangely I'm okay with not having all of my stuff moved into my apartment. Part of what's going on is that it feels really strange to not have to worry about where I'm going to sleep tonight. It's strange to look at the clock, see that it's 2330, and think about it being time to go home and relax, time to go home and go to bed.  My body is used to looking at 2330 and making sure I'm either somewhere that I can hang out all night provided I stay awake, or finding a place where I can sleep and have a good chance of not getting arrested. I'm used to grabbing a large Dew or a cup of coffee at midnight to make sure I stay awake if I'm going to be someplace that I can't sleep for the next hours until dawn.

It's like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. This can't be real. I don't want to go through moving all of my stuff into a new place only to have to go through moving it all back out when I get myself evicted again. I think I'm strong, but I don't know if I would make it if I had to go through that whole process again. I certainly don't want to try.  I've also trained myself to not miss the things I have in storage, so it's just normal now to not have the things that a lot of normal households have. So, my stuff is still sitting in my storage unit on the other side of town.

I am, in a sense, semi-retired (or so my Vet Center person says). I'm taking classes at a slow pace, because even though I only need 18 credits for my degree I know I have to take them one or two classes at a time to get through them. I'm on disability, so I don't have to work the full work weeks I used to work on top of being in college. I've been able to travel quite a bit to hackathons in the past year, far more than I had been able to travel for several years prior to that. I hack, I study, and I work. I wear sandals because they are comfortable and I sit in coffeehouses like this one because it's comfortable and it's a short walk from home. I live downtown, almost within sight of my state capitol, in a nice neighborhood. Things are actually pretty stable for the moment

That's what it's all about right now, really-- stability. The operational goal is to have a stable place to live, to do well in classes, for a year. Then I'll worry about getting back into the harder computer science and math classes. Then I'll worry about who I'm going to work for when college is done. It's within the realm of possibility that I could spend the rest of my life on disability, just chillin', but I won't. That's not me. I need to do something productive, I need to build shit, I need a reason to get up in the morning.

Someday I'll finish college, and then I'll find a company to work for where I can contribute and be an asset, in spite of the PTSD and other crap that makes it difficult for me sometimes.

-----

Some loose ends to tie up: my Senator's office didn't do shit about my issues with the VA's homeless program. As soon as I found a place to live on my own, and signed a lease, I ceased to be a homeless issue. The local VA homeless office said they'd refer me to an organization that might be able to provide moving assistance funds, but that never led to anything. They did say that if I become homeless again, I'd be "chronically homeless" and that would put me at a higher priority for getting help with finding permanent housing.  So that's one Senator I won't be voting for come next election.

I don't know what the solution to veteran homelessness is; the VA says it will have the problem fixed by next year, but 2015 is coming up real soon now. I still see veterans sleeping on park benches and in doorways outside the state capitol every night on the way home. I wish I had an answer, I just know that the current system is broken.