11 August 2016


I'm back from a trip to a hackathon in Holmden, NJ this past weekend. There's a lot going on in my life right now, but it was a very welcome chance to get out of town for a bit, dedicate 24 hours to hacking, and even relax a little.

The actual hackathon was Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon, but I left Madison at zero dark early on a bus to catch a plane in Milwaukee on Friday morning. After several hours delay (thanks United!) I landed in Newark NJ, found the AirTrain, found the right stop, found the right hotel shuttle, and eventually stopped moving at a hotel near the airport. I'm fortunate that my parents taught me how things like airports, buses, and trains work when I was still young; I was flying alone on commercial flights when I was eight years old. (Not such a big deal now but in the mid-1970's being an unaccompanied minor was a very big deal.) With apps and websites and push notifications (all of which I know something about as a software developer), I can get from point A to point B pretty easily.

I like to travel, especially by air, but I'm fine with trains or buses or whatever.  Flights and airports, trains and stations, buses and stops-- these are all systems. They have rules, and they have variables. Once you know the rules and understand the variables, you reach a certain efficiency level and the next thing you know you're in another city without really thinking about it. As a hacker, I see modern transportation is a series of interlocking systems.

Which often means that I sort of look like I know where I'm going, and so I have people ask me directions fairly often. It happened in San Francisco, where people asked me questions about BART. This weekend it happened at the NJTransit station at Newark Liberty, where someone asked me about getting to Asbury Park by train and about how to buy tickets. I often get a nod from the people working the TSA checkpoints, when I've got all of my stuff from my pockets in my hat and my shoes off and my laptop out, and have my ID and my boarding pass ready. Sometimes they'll ask "So... fly often?" and I'll just smirk. Yeah, actually.

Newark Liberty (EWR), for the record, is one of those airports where shit just works. It's not huge and the layout isn't complicated, there are a ton of guest services people around to answer questions and give directions, and it's easy to get to/from the gates and to/from places like the AirTrain and parking and such. It's crowded, there are a lot of people coming and going, but there's a constant flow-- perhaps vibe is a better word-- that suggests that someone has actually thought about the best way to get the most number of people in and out the fastest.


It felt a little odd, being in Milwaukee-- my hometown. There are many good memories of the city I'm from, there are plenty of bad ones too. I've never really wanted to move back; I figure I've left twice, that should about cover it. Even so, while sitting at MKE last Friday, I thought about possibly living in Milwaukee again for just a moment. It wasn't until I was staring out the window of my hotel room in Newark, watching the traffic on the freeway headed towards New York, and then again  out the window of my hotel room in Milwaukee again on Monday night, that it started to make sense.

It didn't really feel any different in Milwaukee than it did in Newark. Now, I know Milwaukee. On the bus, when I woke up a few miles before the airport on Friday morning it took less than a second to figure out exactly where the bus was. In Newark I had to check my phone to see which direction was which, and make sure I was getting on a southbound train towards Hazlet and not a northbound train (which would have put me in NYC).

An airport is an airport, an airport hotel is an airport hotel, a train station is a train station. Each one is different but they each work essentially the same way, they each intersect in predictable ways. I am, in a way, more comfortable when I'm in transit than when I'm home-- I grok travel in a way that I don't grok "home sweet home". Growing up "my home" was never stable, and since then I've always been in motion, so perhaps it just makes sense that I'm more at home on the road than when I'm sitting still.

You'd think that my PTSD would be at least a little worse, in transit-- but I'm not so sure that's true. It's certainly a factor. I routinely carry a set of foam earplugs in one pocket for noisy public places, and I wore them for a majority of the time I was at both EWR and at MKE. I made it a point to sit where I wouldn't be snuck up on when I sat, and I got up and wandered around often enough to keep track of who was doing what where. The symptoms were certainly there, but perhaps not to the same extent as they've been while I've been around Madison lately.

There are of course a lot of things that are triggering for me in Madison. They start with my apartment, follow me to and from work, exist at work/on campus, etc. Being away from those things can't help but help.

I want to imagine a situation where I have a home, a base to work from, something stable-- and I'm in fact working on that, with help from friends, a place that's not perfect but at least is solid and isn't going to disappear. The truth is that I'm leaving Madison on Sunday and I'm not sure exactly which direction I'm going. There's family that I haven't seen for a while, both in northern Wisconsin and farther away in Florida, so I'm going to do some traveling to get to those places.

There's a place that I might be actually moving to, a place that's probably more off the beaten path than I'd like but that is also pretty quiet (and cheap), and I really do need some quiet time (in a place that's cheap). It's farther away from everything that I really would rather be closer to, to travel to other places. So it isn't perfect, but at this point that's really okay. I need some time to open up all of the boxes that I filled up and taped shut two years ago, to sort through the stuff in them. I need to see what I have that I've forgotten that I have. Probably, there's a lot that I need to throw away. I need/want to be more mobile. Being more mobile means having less crap to move when I want, or need, to move again.

Quiet is a really big factor. Madison isn't a large city, but it's really a noisy place. Granted, I live downtown where there's a lot of people and cars and trucks and things moving around-- but people don't care how much noise they make, or when or where. Loud music at 0300? A carpet cleaning crew in the apartment below at 0800? People standing outside my apartment window talking on phones, loud enough that I hear both sides of the conversation? All of these have happened this week. I'm from Milwaukee, a much bigger city, and I think Madison is too loud. (Honestly, unless I'm walking somewhere where I have to have hearing, I'm either wearing noise-limiting earbuds or foam earplugs.)

So the plan is: move to temporary digs. Get settled and unpacked. Walk down some quiet country roads. Stare up at the stars at night. Drink some coffee. R&R, essentially. Then back into school, online. Back into self-training, working on some of the hackathon projects that I've started but not finished. Digging back into algorithms and data structures, some re-learning and some new learning. A big bag of infosec related learning and work that I've not had the change to dig into yet. Catching up on some of the learning and training and experience that I expected to get at my current job but didn't.

Yeah, I'll probably sleep in once or twice or maybe more. I'm tired, the kind of tired that you don't erase just by sleeping in one day. Where I think I'm headed, I've already let people know that I'm going to need some space the first few days until I realize (and accept) that the stress and triggers that have been causing me problems are gone. (There will of course be new ones, but I'm hopeful that being away from where I am right now I'll have more control over them.)

There are some specific job opportunities I'm going to explore, some of which involve travel and all of which involve hacking. I'm certainly not going to be on R&R forever (or for very long).

It is strange to be leaving a place where I've spent so much time and effort and emotion. In one sense, I failed to do the things I wanted to do here-- but in another sense, I finally realized that what I really want from life, I can't find here.

Maybe, somewhere in my future, exists a specific place that is stable, someplace that is "home". Maybe it's actually that "home" is "wherever I happen to be this week"?

(Hit "play" on Freebird now.)

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