There Are No Sides

No title could be more ironic on the day of U.S. mid-term elections of 2022, but it’s true. There are no sides. Americans have been duped into hating each other to a degree not seen since the Civil War in the 1860’s. This observation was by far the most jarring facet of culture shock I experienced upon returning to America in 2020 after a decade in Japan. A lot happened in America during those ten years, but as horrible as some of those things seemed to be for both of the supposed sides, they weren’t so bad when viewing the situation from afar.

“But you just don’t get it! Have you seen what the other side has done?!” It’s weird how people who identify with one side or another are as taken aback by a non-sider like me as they are by the other side they presume to exist. Sometimes they assume I am the other side, because not being on a side is too hard to comprehend. A few things about me might help to explain how such an audacious worldview came to be:

  1. I do not belong to a political tribe.
  2. I lived outside of America for a very long time.
  3. I do not use social media of any sort (since 2007).
  4. I have worked in Tech for thirty years.
  5. I have a natural tendency toward balance over conflict.
  6. I love individuals of all sorts, but hate groups.
  7. I am highly critical and skeptical of everything.
  8. I enjoy reading political science from one extreme to the other.
  9. I have a degree in political science (1993).

Item 1 came from item 2. It just didn’t make sense to belong to an American political tribe when seeing the whole dynamic from outside the fishbowl for so long. It wasn’t so much the geographic separation that allowed this perspective, but rather a separation from the daily brain droppings that people receive without thinking much about it, little thoughts here and there that form into opinions held by a particular “side”.

I can’t overstate how awesome it was to have a conversation about politics in Japan with American and British ex-pats from all walks of life, because none of them were afflicted by this mental virus. There was always a broader understanding, tolerance, and acceptance that doesn’t seem to happen anymore at “home”.

America has always been a Coke or Pepsi nation. In the mid-20th century, our commercialism took binary thinking and cranked it up a notch. “What beverage do you prefer?” The only possible answers are “Coke” or “Pepsi”. You can’t say that you don’t like cola at all, or you mix the two together, or you drink one on Saturday’s and the other on Monday’s. It’s either Coke, Pepsi, or fuck you. That’s how we roll. More to the point, it’s how we sell ideas.

There are color-coded signals to help us define where we stand. As much as this might seem like kindergarten, it’s true. There has never been much room for nuance in this country, only red and blue. Coke is red. Pepsi is blue. CNN and Fox, one red, one blue. Republicans and Democrats: red and blue. America has an infinite number of breakfast cereals from which to choose, as George Carlin once pointed out, but when it comes to the most important things the choice is always binary, this or that, red or blue. This is by design. It’s the most efficient way to get people to buy things, whether it’s a carbonated beverage or political ideas.

Then social media happened. Giving America social media in the early 21st century was like giving cocaine to someone already struggling with mental health. Social media is Coke versus Pepsi on speed, with its thumbs-up / thumbs-down, binary take on the world. It started with the goofy sales pitch of “bring people together,” but it achieved the exact opposite. As a set of technologies, it became the biggest and most sophisticated advertising (mind control) machine the world had ever seen.

Social media thrives on division, because that’s where the money is. There is no Dr. Pepper in this equation. Only this or that.

This artificially-induced mass-neuroticism seeped out into the greater culture, to those who didn’t use social media at all. Mainstream media bowed down to their new social media masters, and became Downstream Media instead. Real investigative journalism disappeared. There once was one truth, but now there were two: either red or blue. Pre-existing tribalism deepened, and social media companies doubled down. They engineered their technologies for more divisiveness, more outrage, deepening the tribalism even more. As a result, these companies became some of the richest and most powerful organizations on earth.

The U.S. president elected in 2020 was a product of this insanity, not the cause (though he would succeed in making the divisions much worse).

To complicate matters further, there are foreign powers who aggressively seek to undermine America at every turn, and they know how to use our technologies to social-engineer us on a mass scale.

America is still portrayed as being red versus blue. There are the traditional conservatives who are typically religious. I am not a religious conservative, but I support their freedom of religion 100% (as long as they’re not telling me what to do).

Then there are the Obama Democrats, who believe America can be united, that as a country we share a common dream. For the most part I put myself in the latter camp, but I tend to take it issue by issue, like the ancient Romans did, back when there were no sides.

There emerged two new camps in the ten years I was gone: MAGA and Woke, though I view them both as part of the same phenomenon. The MAGA / Woke dragon is forever chasing its tail. This horrific monster was summoned from a wicked brew, the final ingredient of which was Social Media. For now I’ll describe the dragon and its tail as if they’re separate because that’s how they’re known. It’s the best I can do in a two-truth world.

MAGA types have pledged allegiance to an obnoxious, would-be dictator who rejects the legitimacy of the current presidential administration (not to mention the legitimacy of the government itself). They don’t seem too fond of Democracy, though in my opinion the labels of “fascism” and “racism” are used too loosely to describe them. They seem to think anyone who opposes them are baby-eaters and pedophiles. (I still don’t know if this is a real belief shared by MAGA types, or some kind of joke.) They ended a 246-year tradition of peaceful transference of power in America. Whatever “making America great again” might mean, this is not it. They believe America is under threat by its own tail. Whether or not this perception is accurate or not does not matter. It’s how they see things, and I empathize with some of their concerns.

Then there is the new left, generally known as Woke. They don’t want to make America great again. They want to make America great for the first time. This camp sees America through the lens of oppressor versus oppressed, where those with the most grievances are most revered.

(Hey, wait a minute, this sounds suspiciously like the Marxist hierarchy of oppression described by to me by a self-proclaimed communist professor I had in my political science studies of the early 90’s, but I’m sure this is just coincidence.)

These days, Woke culture dominates American entertainment, media outlets, and the corporate world. It is divisive because it seems tailor-made to infuriate the people it ostensibly wants to convert and protect.

Woke reminds me of the religious conservatives I grew up with in Texas, the finger-wagging, Bible-banging Southern Baptists who just might let a Catholic boy into heaven (if I’m lucky). Woke is just another religion to me, except without the spirituality. If I virtue-signal enough in front of Wokesters (many of whom are rich white people) then this male of European descent just might make it into Woke Heaven (if I’m lucky). I don’t know what Woke Heaven looks like, but I’m sure it’s equally as horrible as spending eternity in a Southern Baptist church.

From a practical point of view, Woke is a catastrophe for Liberalism and for the Democrats’ efforts to win. It is impossible to convince those who would bring you to power by insulting them and calling them idiots for not understanding your ideas.

In order for Liberalism to work it must be tolerant, patient and wise, in the tradition of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. It must rise above everything and call for unity, as Obama did. If it included EVERYONE in the working class then the Democrats would never lose again. The left must never cancel people who express different ideas. This kind of anti-liberal approach is the biggest irony ever, as it leaves conservatives as the only defenders of traditional liberal ideals.

It’s possible I’m not seeing any of this clearly. I’m back in the fishbowl now, so it’s hard to tell. How many Woke / MAGA are out there? I’ve seen numbers that vary widely, depending on what source you check. Some numbers I’ve seen cannot be true. Whatever the case, the perception that there are inconsolable sides is the mainstream view. At the end of the day reality is based on perception, even if the perception is delusional and artificially formed.

I wish this worldview could be understood by all Americans, because it would instantly put everyone at ease. But it’s the kind of thing that must be experienced, not taught. For now all I can do is hope for the best, and treat all people with respect. The issues that supposedly divide America aren’t any more severe than in times when Red and Blue got along, and in many ways things are just plain better today.

Differences are good, sides are bad.


The Demon Inside

There was a demon inside of me that had to be exorcised every so often before it devoured me from the inside out. The demon’s name was Creativity, or, in more poetic terms, The Muse. The demon was a fallen angel, of course. My greatest challenge had always been including this pesky bastard in my daily routine where work and family came first.

My favored means of exorcism was writing. It was the creative skill I had developed the most. But for over a year I had been too shell-shocked from the big trans-Pacific move (The Great Return) to write much beyond journal entries and a blog post here and there. This did not satisfy The Muse, so other things happened instead.

Aside from being a writer, I was also a maker, which seemed like a trendy way of saying “hobbyist,” someone who made stuff in his spare time. There was a fine line between vocation and avocation, and that line was money. If at some point a hobby paid the bills, then its status was elevated to “job”. None of my hobbies paid the bills, but they did exorcise the creative demon inside.

One activity that helped me recover from The Great Return was chopping wood. There was something meditative about splitting logs. I spent many a snowy afternoon in the mountains swinging an axe, and then using a skill saw to cut the pieces in half to fit a small fire pit.

I did this so often last winter that it became ceremonious, and every ceremony required a ritual instrument. That was where creativity came into play. I bought a pyrography kit and decorated an axe. Then I decorated another, and it became a regular thing. I bought more axes, burned in my own designs, and gave them away to friends.

I got into woodworking, making shelves for the garage, and other odd items like a nice little cabinet to organize the kids’ Nintendo stuff and surge protector on the floor below the TV.

These hobbies kept the demon docile. Regular exorcisms became part of my routine.

At some point in the previous year my kids had given me the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Kit. They had asked me to learn the rules so we could play, but I had skimmed through the books and then put it on a shelf.

By the spring of 2022 the regular exorcisms had strengthened my creative musculature to the point I was ready to geek out. I took the D&D Starter Kit off the shelf and learned the rules. It had been over twenty years since I had played D&D, so for me 5th edition was new.

I spent a month or so reading the Players Handbook and play-testing combat and spells. At some point I became ready to ref the game. My boys loved it. Together we exercised (not exorcised) our collective creativity to have fun and create an imaginary world.

I also bought miniatures and gained inspiration to paint them during a visit with a game-enthusiast friend in Japan. The minis were used to play D&D, but painting them was a separate hobby from the game itself. Eventually the whole family got into painting them. It was good, creative fun.

Dungeons & Dragons got me in the mood to write again, so I came full circle back into the fold. How had I ever come to think of my creative gifts and talents as a demon that needed to be exorcised? The demon was a fallen angel, a product of my own flawed view of the world.

At times I had assumed to live a dual life: on the one hand the person who I was, and on the other, the person who I had to be for monetary income in the world. Creativity became the enemy to the things I had to do in life. But obligations had nothing to do with who I really was.

Often people attempt to live their lives backward: They try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.

Creative Visualization, Shakti Gawain

When it came to work, I was an artist first and everything else second. I remembered who I was, did the things I was meant to do, and in that way came to have what I was grateful to have.


A Basic Necessity – Part 3

“What can we buy?” This was what most prospective home-buyers asked. It was the wrong question. The right question to ask was “what should we buy?” Or, “should we buy at all?”

For us it didn’t make any sense to buy, even though we had zero debt, enough cash, and liquid assets. “Cash” sounded great in years when the markets were down, but it was the worst possible situation during times of super-inflation and every equity market at record highs.

So we needed a place to put our cash to protect it from inflation. Was an expensive house the right place? My instinct told me no, at least for where we had chosen to live.

The featured image showed Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) on the median sale price of a house over time, as of 2020. It would shoot up another 25% to around US$600K by the end of 2021. This was the median price for all Salt Lake City. In communities where people actually wanted to live, it was closer to US$800K.

So was it cheaper to dump our cash into an eight hundred thousand dollar house, or was it cheaper to rent a house worth that much? As it would happen, my brother’s friend owned a house valued at US$800K around the corner from us, and he wanted us to rent it. We were probably in the top 5% of most reliable renters in America, but when I spoke to the landlord it felt less like a renters’ market and more like a prospective tenant’s market.

They wanted US$3000 per month for the place, and they were giving us a discount over what they’d charge strangers. We were a single income household (sacrificing a second income for parental childcare), so this rent would put us in the “distressed” housing category, paying more than 50% of our pre-tax income on a place to live. However, it was nothing unusual around here and it kept us in the neighborhood where the kids went to school and our friends lived. Plus, we had cash that was burning up due to inflation, and we had to spend it somewhere. Was it better to pay a landlord’s mortgage, or our own?

Rent versus buy on a US$800K house, monthly expense.

Rent: $3K. This included the water bill.

Buy: there were a couple ways to go here. Buy it all or pay the minimum. For now, I’d go with the minimum, 20% down on a fifteen-year mortgage, as we were not staying in the U.S. more than fifteen years.

20% of $800K was $160K down, so we’d take out a $640K loan. According to an amortization calculator I found online, this would be around $1800 interest per month, plus $2700 toward the principal. So, $4500 per month. (This payment alone was more than our total after-tax, after retirement investment, monthly income.)

$1800 interest per month was throw-away money. So was an estimated $500 per month maintenance, $500 per month property tax, and $100 per month property insurance.

Not to mention there would be at least $25K in closing fees, amounting to an extra $140 per month for FIFTEEN YEARS!

Total throw-away money to buy: $3040 per month.

Total throw-away money to rent: $3000 per month.

And these calculations assumed that housing prices would continue to go up forever, which seemed like an unsustainable economic situation.

It wasn’t very often that equity markets shot up 50% in two years. I was betting on a crash, and so was everyone else.

Everyone we knew who wasn’t a current home-owner was in the exact same situation. They preferred to rent over own. One family we knew finally gave up settling here permanently, and moved back to Japan. Some other friends of ours moved to rural Vermont. These was anecdotal examples, but a good sign of what was to come. Housing price had outpaced household income for decades, the gap between what people earned and the cost of living continuing to rise. In Salt Lake, it median home price to median household income was around 10:1.

It was no surprise to see American household debt was at an all-time high as of early 2022.

The last time household debt was this high was in 2007, and around that time I visited my dad in Las Vegas. He had lived there many years, and was looking for a house to buy. We went around with a realtor together, and she made a statement that would stick with me forever: “I don’t know how people are avoiding these prices. I guess they’ll just have to make more money. That’s how the economy works!”

I was no economist, but the real estate agent’s comment was jarring. Sure enough, a year later the housing market crashed through the floor nationwide. There would still be houses in Las Vegas underwater fourteen years later, worth less than the original price. The Las Vegas realtor was nice, but I would always remember her as one of the biggest idiots I had ever met.

In early 2022 the atmosphere in Salt Lake City felt the same.

We had done the math. It was still cheaper to rent, even considering skyrocketing rental rates. Why pay someone else’s mortgage when you could pay your own? Paying rent was throwing money away? These old adages no longer applied. So yeah, we were happy to pay someone else’s mortgage until the bottom fell out of the market, or for as long as it made sense.


A Basic Necessity – Part 2

Housing is not a right…

The other day I went to the local hardware store to buy a 1’ x 6’ board to make some shelving. At the register I was shocked to find this single plank of wood cost US$65. I took it back to the lumber section and asked them to cut it in half. Three feet would do. Back at the register, I remarked to the cashier, “Holy crap, wood is expensive! Good thing I’m not building a house.”

“You can thank the president for that, honey,” she replied.

At first I thought she meant the president of the hardware store company, but then realized she meant the President of the United States. For a moment I couldn’t even remember who the president was. Did it matter? I had lived overseas for a decade and had never given it a second thought.

I disregarded the cashier’s comment as typical American political polarity, but decided to research it when I got home.

As it turned out, the cashier lady was not incorrect. According to an article on NPR, the previous president had jacked up tariffs on Canadian lumber, America’s number one source of foreign wood, to about 9%; but the current president had double-downed on this move, raising the tax on Canadian wood to almost 20%. This gave the American lumber industry a virtual monopoly, so they could sell it at any price. And if an industry could sell something at any price, well, then things got expensive, and the hardware store could charge sixty-five freaking dollars for a single board of wood.

The NPR article related these facts in an apologetic kind of way, because, presumably, even to a news outlet that could be expected to support a Democratic administration this seemed insane.

We were in the middle of a full-blown housing affordability crisis in America. Housing prices in many American cities (including the one to which we had decided to move) had tripled in the past decade (TRIPLED!), mainly due to low supply, and supply would not increase if building costs were high.

The current level of housing inflation was unprecedented in all of American history. Was this really the best time to jack up tariffs on foreign lumber? The U.S. lumber industry must’ve had some damned good lobbyists, was all I could conclude.

The apologetic NPR article attempted to end on a positive note, stating that at least the current administration was pushing the multi-trillion-dollar “Build Back Better Plan,” whatever that was. How were they were going to build anything back better with lumber prices through the roof?

For me, this topic hit much deeper than the price of a single board of wood. I was on a twenty-seven-year employment streak. Every weekday for the past quarter century I had done the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. For ten years straight I had dragged my physical meat mass through a two-hour round-trip commute aboard the trains of Tokyo metro to serve my daily sentence as a wage slave. Every day for a decade I had grit my teeth, gazed down at the tracks as the train approached, understanding why some chose to end it all. But I got through it.

Two prevailing ideas had kept me off the tracks and repeating this routine for five hundred consecutive weeks: one, my extra “hardship” pay allowed my family to enjoy a unique life in one of the best communities in Japan; and two, I was saving enough to buy a house in America when we finally moved to the States.

Housing was a basic necessity, but it was not a right.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel I deserved the opportunity to buy a house for my family at a price that would not jeopardize our financial future. I was probably in the top one percentile of most financially responsible people in America, having maintained steady income for three decades and provided for my family without incurring a single penny of debt. Hadn’t I earned my way into decent housing at a fair price?

It was entirely possible that my sense of entitlement came from a financial worldview that was no longer the norm. In my world, debt was bad. In the real world, debt was good. Everyone was in debt. Low-interest debt allowed financially average people to “own” a big house. So what if the loan was eight times what your household made in a year, if monthly payments were low?

Even cold, hard math favored debt. In a lot of cases it was just cheaper to maintain massive debt than it was to pay off a house in cash. But life wasn’t all about math. Sometimes it was worth paying more to have the feeling of actually owning something (as opposed to claiming you “own” when you were really paying rent to a bank). Actual ownership also massively lowered monthly expenses, allowing for more financially flexibility and opportunity in life.

For a long time there was this old adage, probably started and propogated by real estate agents, that used to be true in most cases: renting was throwing money away. In early 2022, even with elevated rents, this was clearly no longer true.

I did the math on a few rental houses in our neighborhood, each listed at about US$800K, and determined the throw-away money in buying a house was actually more than the throw-away money of renting the house. There was the maintenance cost, the property tax, the insurance, and all interest stacked in the first decade of a thirty-year loan.

Not to mention that we were at the peak of a titanic housing bubble. It was one thing to buy now with the funny money of inflated housing equity on the sale of your old house, but we were basically first-time home-buyers again. A 20% drop in the housing market seemed an imminent (and perhaps conservative) occurance, which for us would mean kissing that cash down payment goodbye. That was the equivalent of a college education for one of our kids that would take a decade or more to recover. We may have had the money to buy, but we also had brains.

In most cases, “owning” a “home” was fundamentally the same thing as renting anyway, except more expensive and less flexible. Banks owned two-thirds of American homes, so in most cases renting was like paying a middleman, a landlord who skimmed a few percentage points off our rental payment before giving the rest to the bank. In exchange, we renters enjoyed a tax-free, insurance-free, maintenance-free, hassle-free living experience.

These were the kinds of things I told myself during the biggest housing bubble in all of American history. Things were changing fast, and I believed they were changing to favor first-time home-buyers like us. Interest rates were going up, and residential real estate sales were going down. Soon the prices would go down, too.

In a year things would look much different indeed!


2021 Year-End Reprieve

I spent my time off working on personal projects, or, to use the pejorative phrase, exploring hobbies, pursuing endeavors of the creative sort.

Vacations with the family were good, too, but if I never travelled anywhere again then I’d be fine with that.

A few weeks ago it was brought to my attention that I had some time off that had to be burned by year-end, so I scheduled five-day weekends for the last few weeks of the year.

My family and I decorated the house for the holidays, and for a few weeks we enjoyed more than the usual number of family nights, ate good food, and generally had good times.

My first week of free time coincided with the last week of school before Christmas break, so for a few sweet days I was at home alone during school hours without the wife and kids, basking in beautiful silence, free to engage in whatever work I wanted to do.

I loved spending time with the family, but for me, alone time was a mandatory mental health requirement that almost always went unfulfilled.

What did I do on my holiday break?

As noted in a previous post, I reset and refreshed my PC. I also modified some code I had written to help back up and organize our data.

Outside, I shoveled thousands of pounds of snow, and in the process created a sledding hill for the boys. It snowed over a foot one night in early December, and the snow continued throughout the month.

Most days were sunny and bright, in typical Utah fashion.

Despite the snow I took the usual walks in the foothills, and around parks.

We skied.

One day, I drove up the canyon and skied alone. There were a few moments of awe in nature, among frosty mountaintop pines.

I reorganized the garage and cleared the work bench.

I bought an axe, chopped wood, lit camp fires in the back yard fireplace. This brought deep comfort on a level I couldn’t quite explain.

I began teaching myself the art of pyrography, burning engravings into wood (see featured image, my new year totem for 2022).

I prepared several masterful breakfasts for the family. The kids were fond of pancakes, but I prefered omlettes and such.

I wrote, which still felt like an activity someone else used to do.

Bottom line: in these precious moments alone the true “me” emerged, and I was drawn toward creative work. In the future, there would be no lazy retirement for me. I didn’t need anyone to keep me busy. I was naturally motivated to get stuff done.

Unfortunately, like most people, the kind of work I was drawn to do happened to not pay well, and I had a family to support for the next decade and a half. So I stuck with the day job that left little time, energy, or mental space to do what I was intended to do with my one shot at life. And as a result, my muse burned with fury, every moment of my life.

A few months ago I wrote something cheesy about the magic of writing, about how everything I wrote – everything that became the object of my focus – eventually came to pass.

What would be my focus for the next year? What would I write? How could I frame my perspective in a way that would result in a better quality of life for my family?

At times it was impossible to see beyond this all-encompassing employment thing I was obligated to continue. The final week of 2021 would be the 1,391st consecutive workweek I had punched the clock and collected a paycheck. It had all started in June of 1995, over a quarter century ago. People in my life have suggested this was a positive thing, something from which pride must emerge. Was it? Still, after twenty-five years, no clue.

At times I was too deep in the well of total work to shake the money slave impression of my existence, but these little holiday breaks of freedom helped. I remembered who I was, and I had the mental space to imagine who I might become.

Life was more than a series of workweeks ending in death. Or was it? Going forward, I’d need a set of goals to advance me through the next year, to remind me there was more to my existence than the obligatory routine. But what were these goals? How did I fit into the world, aside from money slave? What would I write?


Slacker Reset

I was psyched to get my first PC in the autumn of 1992. It was what they used to call an “IBM clone,” as IBM was the only Intel-based PC back then and there was no Dell or big name home computer resellers. There was no real internet yet either, but to me this offline PC was 33MHz of pure joy. It was my senior year at Colorado State and I logged more hours playing games on the computer than writing papers for school. Thus the PC earned the name “Slacker,” and this name would be passed down to future incarnations of my primary gamer rig in the decades to come.

Now, almost thirty years later, the current incarnation of Slacker ran a quad-core 3,300 MHz Intel CPU with a decent graphics card. It was a modest rig by contemporary gamer standards, but still enough to run the games I played.

Last weekend I got the idea that wanted to wipe and reload Slacker. There were no glaring technical issues, no malware or spyware known to me (the PC had never seen a single bit of downloaded data from nefarious web sites and I was ultra-paranoid about PC and browser security). It was just that I had been using the same build of Windows for a really long time.

During the move from Japan, I had disassembled Slacker and stored the parts in static-free bags, wrapped in tape and neatly packed into a suitcase. Upon arriving in the States I assembled all the parts in a new case, and by some miracle everything booted up and worked fine. (See featured image for Slacker resurrection in November of 2019).

Slacker remained functional, but I was still using the same OS and some stuff was a bit quirky, like the fact that it took at least ten minutes to load one of my favorite games, Total War Shogun 2. This was an older game that should’ve loaded in seconds. There was also a persistent problem with a mouse driver that aroused my fury when it spun out of control and randomly scrolled through my choice of weapons during a critical moment in a first person shooter game.

Plus, I just wanted a clean slate, the feeling of having the disks wiped and the underlying OS fresh and trim, which was perhaps the same emotion as loving that smell of new car interior.

Bottom line: Slacker needed a fresh start.

Windows included an option to “reset this PC,” with a choice of keeping data and reloading the OS, or nuking everything from orbit. My choice was the latter, of course, because what idiot would keep personal data on the system drive? I maintained a few elaborate scripts that kept my data secure and squared away, but there were a couple things to consider before blowing away the system, mainly regarding licensing. Licensing wasn’t the most exciting topic in the world. Most people threw money at it to make the problem go away (i.e., the software subscription route).

Me, I was still holding on to the more economical option of using the same Windows license I had been using for more than a decade (that had started with a FREE copy of Windows 7 snagged off Technet before Microsoft shut the doors on that program, and had been carried over through subsequent upgrades). Would my ancient licensing legitimacy get dropped in the reset? Microsoft wasn’t very forthcoming about what went on under the hood in this reset (as usual). So, to be safe I backed up the system disk to a USB drive using a great tool called Windows 7 Backup, still included in Windows 10.

There was also the issue of Microsoft Office. I was still using the last purely desktop-based version of Office (2013) because I didn’t care for the idea of paying Microsoft a minimum of $100 per year for the rest of my life, just for the privilege of occasionally opening a spreadsheet or using Word. Plus, Office hadn’t improved in a decade or so. It didn’t need improvements. It was done a long time ago. Microsoft Office used to be desktop software that seemed a bit pricey even twenty years ago, like $300 or more. Now, with a subscription to Office 365, it was at least $3,000 over time, considering I’d be paying for at least another 30 years. So, I double-checked my ISO library to confirm I had Office 2013 and the license key handy. (I had also grabbed this off Technet … for free!)

And because I’m a super-paranoid neat freak when it comes to everything, especially computers, I also decided to take this opportunity to zero-out and triple-wipe (by DoD standards, of course) EVERY DISK in use, including (3) half-terabyte SSD disks in the PC, and (3) two-terabyte external USB drives. Two of these external USB drives were a mirrored, secondary copy of all my digital keepsakes, making the operation a tricky juggling act. (The primary copy was in the cloud, a private and secure solution offered by a Swiss company that matched my level of paranoia.) But despite its trickiness this kind of activity was nothing for any decent IT person, and I had been in the game for a while.

It went like this:

  1. Backed up the system disk to USB drive 0, and noted the size was around 90 GB used space. (This backup would not be needed, thankfully.)
  2. Uninstalled all games from Steam that were no longer played by me or my boys.
  3. Backed up local saved game files for games we still cared about. (This turned out to be not needed, of course, as Steam saved games to the cloud; but I wanted to be 100% sure not to lose anything.)
  4. Uninstalled Steam.
  5. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 1 (games).
  6. Uninstalled cloud storage service agent.
  7. Confirmed backups to Swiss cloud and USB.
  8. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  9. Ran the Windows reset with nuke-from-orbit option. It did wipe the OS partition on SSD disk 0, but did not wipe the two tiny reserved partitions. This was probably how it retained Slacker’s core consciousness … and the license key, too?
  10. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 1 again.
  11. Triple-wiped internal SSD disk 2 again.
  12. Set up new Windows environment, which didn’t seem as much of a hassle as in years past. Really it was just installing Windows updates, Firefox, the video card driver, Steam, and the Swiss cloud storage agent. Later I’d install Office 2013.
  13. Created Steam library on internal SSD disk 1 (games).
  14. Started synch of cloud data to designated vaults on internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  15. Made backup of USB drive 1 to temporary location on internal SSD disk 2 (backup).
  16. Triple-wiped USB drive 1.
  17. Mirrored the designated data vaults on internal SSD disk 2 to USB drive 1.
  18. Triple-wiped USB drive 2.
  19. Mirrored USB drive 1 to USB drive 2.
  20. Triple-wiped USB drive 0 when it was confirmed the new Windows install was functional and was confirmed that I did not need a new Windows license key!

All this took a couple hours, but as mentioned, it wasn’t too bad. I was loving that fresh, new PC smell.

As an added bonus, Total War Shogun 2 now loaded in ten seconds instead of ten minutes, and that infuriating mouse problem went away.


A Basic Necessity – Part 1

Eighty years ago, on December 7th, 1941, the median house price in America was ~US$7K, or around US$130K in 2021 dollars. Median, annual household income in 1941 was about US$2,500. That’s a ratio of 3.5:1, house price to household income.

In the 50’s the ratio evened out at around 2:1 in favor of buyers, and stayed that way for a couple decades, until it started ramping up in the 70’s, culminating at 4:1 in 2020 nationwide. However, in many American cities the ratio is more like 8:1 or above, even in the so-called fly-over states.

My family and I live in a fly-over state, and our house-to-income ratio is around 6:1, at least for houses we’re willing to consider a home. And even those houses aren’t that great, compared to the house I bought in Dallas in 2003 (which happened to be in line 1941 median house prices, around US$130K, as compared to the median price of $400K today).

Bottom line: housing is expensive as hell.

Welcome to the new normal. It’s probably not going down. My instinct tells me the whole market is rigged, but it’s hard to get solid facts on what’s happening because there’s high-dollar incentive to obscure the facts.

One thing’s for sure: we’re entering uncharted territory for the price of one of three basic necessities, a house.

Equity-poor, first-time house-buyers are screwed. (Including me, as I haven’t bought a house in the U.S. in over three years).

Note that I will never use real estate lingo like “home”. A cardboard box can be a home, as George Carlin once pointed out.

Residential real estate is property and a structure that supports living. If you pack emotion into what will most likely be the most expensive thing you ever buy, then you are a fool.

Like most people, I don’t want to be a fool. I want to understand the trends and new realities, because we are entering a new reality, for sure.

Is owning still a thing? In real estate lingo, “owning” means paying another landlord, the bank, with many more expenses tacked on (insurance, tax, maintenance, time). So how do these expenses compare to rent?

This is the first of a series of residential real estate explorations. At this point, I don’t even know where to start. But I’ll find out.

Oh, and December 7th, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy, as one of our greatest presidents phrased it. Having dedicated a decade of my life working with forward-deployed Navy in the Pacific (in Japan, no less), the day resonates with me. In those days people had resilience. I will, too.


Ever Onward

These three interrelated thoughts could’ve been separate posts but they make more sense when read in sequential, ascending order.

The Magic of Writing

Everything I have ever written has come to pass, more or less, although not necessarily how I expected. In general, the process of converting thoughts, dreams, and ideas into written words forges my reality, for better or worse.

This may sound like suspicious nonsense, akin to “The Secret,” the so-called “law of attraction,” or some other form of wistful woo; but no doubt visualization makes real things happen, and for me the first step to visualizing something is crafting thoughts into written words.

A long time ago I had a writing teacher who claimed that she had shaped all of her success in life through writing. At the time I thought she meant that she had written some amazing stuff. Maybe she had, but now I understand this was not what she meant. Putting thoughts on paper, so to speak, has a very powerful effect.

This magic works both ways. Like most people, I spend too much time retelling inaccurate, obsolete stories about myself, and visualizing the wrong things. Writing keeps me in check.

If there’s one thing that separates my approach from wistful woo it’s this: I do the work. But the questions remain: what work shall I do, and why?

Work Week #1,354

It is the morning of the day before the work week begins and already I’m feeling blue. If my calculations are correct, this is work week number 1,354.

Two weeks ago marked the 26th anniversary of the start of my so-called career. That’s 1,354 weeks in a row of dreading Monday, but I also had that many weekends off, too.

I’ve been working some kind of job almost continuously since the 1980’s, when I began laboring away at my dad’s paint and body shop in Dallas, Texas, at the age of twelve; but I got my first post-college, office job in August of ’95, and that change 1,354 weeks ago was the start of what became a career.

The boring office job led to working in Information Technology, and as of now, twenty-six years of uninterrupted employment. Don’t let anyone tell you it goes by quickly. (It didn’t, at least for me.) I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who think working for a corporation is the best thing there is. For me, it was (and remains) the easiest way to keep the money rolling in, and to keep everyone off my back.

In high school I saw what was coming. I used to refer to myself as the “future slave to commerce,” or “money slave” for short. Did I fulfill my own prophesy? Or (dare I wonder) was I the luckiest guy in the world?

In ’95 I wrote a lot about how I wanted to get into working on computers. I visualized working in a shop like a craftsman (or like Mr. Robot, for anyone who has seen the TV series). This would have minimized my exposure to groups of people. Socially, I was fine one-on-one. This was what I wanted to do.

Then lightning struck. A random, miraculous opportunity appeared. On a personal level, the past twenty-six years of working Monday through Friday may have at times crept along like a prison sentence, but in macroeconomic terms it was like surfing one big wave.

How I Surfed Through Two and a Half Decades of a Career

The Great Information Technology Wave came to a peak in ’95 for everyone, though I wouldn’t catch the wave until the end of ’96. It was a colossal wave, the kind an economy sees once every hundred years. It brought with it all kinds of opportunity. My weird, masochistic hobby of breaking and fixing my old IBM 33MHz computer was now a viable economic skill!

(1996-1998) WAVE STAGE 1: Lightning struck, and by come stunning coincidence I scored my first IT job at the CompUSA call center in Dallas, Texas, and pursued it with vigor, navigating the wave with a series of beginner moves: bottom turns and awkward cuts that allowed me to carve out enough experience and credentials to advance to the next stage of the wave. I joined CompUSA at its peak and left during its decline. Within a few more years the company would cease to exist.

(1999-2009) WAVE STAGE 2: My time at Nortel Networks was one big tube ride as the crest of the Great IT Wave began to curl, although there was plenty of subtle navigation necessary to stay topside during the tumultuous 2000’s. First there was 911, then the great tech bubble burst of 2001, and (for me) the outsourcing to Computer Science Corporation (CSC), numerous rounds of layoffs, reorgs, an in-source from CSC back to Nortel, Nortel’s declaration of bankruptcy, and the final outsourcing to CSC India during the economic collapse of 2009.

I endured a few miserable months at CSC India, and wrote a lot about what I’d rather be doing, and my future direction in life. Then, another random, miraculous opportunity appeared, taking me across the Pacific to work in Japan. This unexpected and dramatic professional opportunity opened the door to life-changing personal events. Meanwhile, Nortel would be divested and non-existent within a year of when I left.

(2010-2020) WAVE STAGE 3: I transferred to the CSC Federal division and ended up working ten years with the U.S. Navy in Japan. This change required what surfers would call a severe “cutback,” taking me from the shoulder of the wave back into the energy of the pocket. This ended up being another lucky tube ride through tumultuous waters, during which time I kept my feet firmly planted on the board. In ten years I switched from CSC to CSGOV to CSRA to GDIT, all without ever changing jobs. The first three organizations would all cease to exist during my decade overseas, and the GDIT contract terminated within a year of my return to the States.

(2021-????) WAVE STAGE 4: My current employment situation is an awesome professional opportunity. In the greater macroeconomic view I am the luckiest guy in the world. Throughout the years I imagined what I wanted (the easiest way to beat back the financial requirements to exist in the world), I wrote it out, and watched it come to pass. But still, it’s a means to an end. If money had not been a factor, then what would I have done instead? More to the point, what should I do now?


The Great Return

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The plane lifted off the runway at Narita with me onboard. There was no going back. I was soaring against a strong emotional headwind: ten years of memories, dozens of tearful good-byes. My wife and kids would stay in Kamakura for a couple more months to conclude the school year, liquidate our household belongings, and move out of the house. On the other side of the Pacific I would start a new job, get settled, and prepare a suitable stage for the next act of our lives.

The plane banked east and leveled off, giving me a clear view of a crimson full moon over Mount Fuji on Halloween night. I had arrived in Japan just before a mega disaster (the great quake of 2011 with the tsunami that killed twenty thousand and the panic over the nuclear plant), and I was leaving during a disaster (the 2020 worldwide pandemic). In between those two disasters had been the best years of my life. So now it felt like I was leaving home and not going toward it.

I had imagined having some emotional reaction to leaving Japan, but instead I was numb. There was just too much to process, a lot of doubt and uncertainty, and too many various emotions weighing me down. For sure there would be many months of hardship ahead. But that was later. For now, I stared out the window at Mount Fuji until dark clouds obscured the view.

NOTE: ten months passed before I could bring myself to write anything about the transition. Part of the delay was due to being busy. (Imagine juggling chainsaws while getting sprayed by a fire hose on a relentless roller coaster ride that lasted for months.) But the bigger reason was that I lacked the emotional energy to re-live the experience in writing. The transition had taken everything out of me. There would be no definite “end” to the effort; but after ten months in America most of the various stressors had tapered off and my creative side began to reemerge. As part of my creative reemergence I wondered how I could get back on track with beneficial tech. What had I overcome? What had I learned? Where would I go from here?

Saturday, August 22, 2021

On paper the goal was straightforward enough: repatriate to the United States after ten years away, and settle my foreign-born family in a home where they could be happy and thrive.

In reality, it wasn’t so simple.

The only way out is through, or at least that was how I saw it. This would be my personal mantra for the better part of a year as I persevered through the most prolonged and intense gauntlet of challenges I had ever endured.

I had already conquered one great challenge, overcoming incredible odds by scoring a job that would allow me to work remotely and leap from working on legacy systems right to the bleeding edge of computing technology, and I had done this from the other side of the world, during a global pandemic. This had required hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and paperwork. Now the next set of challenges would begin.

In my first few days in America I experienced an unexpected euphoria, something similar to vacation, mixed with an unsettling undercurrent of doubt and sorrow.

I stayed with my brother and his family, in the foothills of the majestic Wasatch Mountains of Utah, of all places. I took lots of hikes and explored the mountain trails.

My brother and his wife helped me find a suitable rental house down the street, and I snatched it up, not wanting to spend any more time looking for a place to live.

I started my new job on the second week, working remotely. The first couple of days I was sitting on the floor hunched over my work-issued laptop in an otherwise empty house.

There were the initial trips to big box stores, Costco and what-not, where I bought all the millions of things we’d need to supply a household. We were shipping only clothing and personal items from Japan, but there would be another shipment of furniture coming from Colorado, along with all my other stuff that had been gathering kitty litter dust in my mom’s basement for ten years.

By the second week there was a realization of the tsunami of tasks that would crash down on me in the next few months, and the details were starting to become clear.

Our seemingly straightforward goal had its obvious, ordinary challenges: the coordination of hundreds of details involved in moving from the other side of the world, furnishing a household, unpacking a garage full of boxes, assembling twenty-three pieces of furniture (I kept track), physically squaring things away, and solving all the residual problems that appeared.

The tsunami of ordinary tasks would have been manageable enough by itself, but there were other factors at play.

For most of America the biggest stressors during this time were the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest surrounding the U.S. presidential election. I didn’t care much about politics, and a double dose of COVID seemed downright delightful compared to the pack of extraordinary demons on my back.

At first, the worst of these demons was reverse culture shock. It was so severe that I read a book about it, just to understand what was going on. The shock of returning home after a long stay overseas was always more severe than going away in the first place. How could this be?

Homesickness was something else that came along with reverse culture shock, because after ten years overseas the place from which I was returning felt much more like home.

Separation anxiety was another source of stress, especially in the first couple of months when I was away from my wife and kids. As a family unit we had never been apart.

But they weren’t the only ones I missed. In 2010 there had been a single tearful farewell when I left the U.S. for Japan (my mom). In the month before I returned to the U.S. there were dozens of emotional goodbyes, from our large circle of close friends (maybe a sixty people total, including kids), and from many others who I had come to know over the years.

This “farewell month” reminded me that we had been part of something essential to human life, something I had never experienced before living in Japan: a supportive community of associates, family, and friends. Now, in America, where everyone lived in their own isolated enclave, I wondered if I’d ever experience anything like this again.

Financial shock was another persistent demon gnawing at me from week to week. The actual moving costs weren’t too bad, but we spent the equivalent of the U.S. median household income on setting up a home for a family of four.

For many months it seemed the red tape would never end. I paid over US$25K in back taxes due to leaving Japan too early (twenty days before I would have satisfied the physical presence requirement for foreign-earned tax exclusion), and I made the mistake of hiring a bumbling tax account who cost us thousands more than we should have paid.

We were lucky to have the resources to pay all this out-of-pocket, but it still hurt. To mitigate the financial stress I came to think of the transition as the single biggest investment of my life, but what would it yield?

Two of the other demons following me around every day were professional burnout and so-called midlife malaise. On the one hand, it was a miracle I had been able to score a job that allowed me to work remotely, keep my tenure (most notably that sweet time off), and also revive my career. But on the other hand, the past decade of working directly with forward-deployed military overseas had worn me out. In my current frame of mind I did not want a job. Really, nobody did, ever.

Earlier in life I was driven to establish a career, but for the past decade or so it had felt like I was being pushed too much by outside forces, obliged to burn my precious time on this earth fulfilling the requirements and needs of everyone (society, employer, family, whoever) suppressing indefinitely the more creative and optionally less lucrative person I was meant to be. This notion became most intense at midlife. The clock was ticking. There was only so much time left.

On good days “malaise” was an accurate description of my attitude toward what I was required to do for income; but on bad days it was more like existential agony, the stresses of the day narrowing my vision into an endless series of workweeks and meetings that stretched into the horizon to my grave.

The muse defined the person I was meant to be. I was never sure what pronoun to use for my muse, but perhaps feminine was most accurate. The muse should have been an angel, but in a world dominated by time thieves and total work she was just another demon: an annoying, nagging bitch.

To appease her, I continued to write. I had written over a million words in the past decade, a small fraction of which had made it into published works. Throughout the transition I wrote almost daily, filling up a small stack of yellow legal pads with journal self-talk. Now, attempting to write something that other people might actually read was like waking up from a coma and trying to walk.

On top of everything else there was the actual stress of starting a new job, at a time in my life when I least wanted one. This was the hell where all my demons came to play, but somehow it was still preferable to the stress I’d receive over not having a job.

Furthermore this was no ordinary job change. It required major adjustment on multiple levels:

  1. From having worked with legacy technology, to working with the bleeding edge of technology (requiring intense learning and retooling of skills).
  2. From having worked a decade as a defense contractor with forward-deployed military overseas, to working in a soft, OSHA-protected corporate culture.
  3. From having worked at a soul-sucking, windowless data center on a Navy base to working remotely. (The move would have been impossible without this perk.)
  4. From not having worked not too much to working a lot (for much less pay).

Along with the professional transition came imposter syndrome. All my skills were outdated. It took a half a year or more to prove to myself I was worthy of the job.

Social anxiety was another demon. My natural inclination was to be quiet, imagine and observe. I loved spending time with my family, but didn’t need much more social interaction beyond that. The physical environment of the old job may have been horrible, but its demands on my social musculature had been minimal, allowing me to languish in my comfort zone for years. By contrast my new job required me to speak and present on a weekly basis. It was a major struggle every week.

Family was both the source of great joy and great stress. Kids didn’t stop being kids just because we were in challenging times. There was the continuation of thousands of days and nights of chaos, attending to everyone’s endless needs, and never quite fixing all the stuff they broke. Somehow the kids always reached peak insanity right before bed in the moments when I most needed peace, silence, and rest.

In the first few months, I shouldered all the family organization and errand-running, all while struggling to start a new job and build up a household from scratch. It was months before my wife got a license to drive.

During the first part of the year it also became apparent that my parents (who had been divorced and living in separate states since the 80’s) were probably in their last decade, and this created its own kind of stress. My dad was incontinent, half blind and mentally fuzzy. My mom had a seizure during this time related to a brain tumor that had been removed five years prior. Neither of them needed care-giving help yet, but it wasn’t looking good.

No surprise, I struggled with physical exhaustion. My knuckles required frequent cracking from the moment I had received the job offer in October. This oddity was accompanied by a mild case of arthritis in my arms and wrists and a bad case of tendonitis in my right elbow (after lugging hundreds of heavy objects around in the move, falling down the stairs and smacking my arm on the banister twice).

I hadn’t slept well since the 90’s, which by coincidence coincided with the start of my corporate career. During the transition my insomnia had become extreme, at times medically untenable.

Oh, and then there was the unexpected return of a condition I hadn’t experienced in a decade: mini-blackouts, sudden heart palpitations and loss of breath.

So, to recap, there was the maelstrom of ordinary details involved in moving a family across the Pacific to a land where they had never lived; plus, for me, separation anxiety, homesickness, reverse culture shock, financial shock, midlife malaise, a nagging muse, family issues, the background noise of American politics, a global pandemic, professional burnout, a difficult job transition, imposter syndrome, social anxiety, physical exhaustion, and, finally, what appeared to be panic attacks.

The blackouts and heart palpitations were an obvious sign that something was wrong. I sought help from a speech therapist, as these attacks always seemed to happen while I was speaking to groups of people in conference calls on the new job. The speech therapist recognized a few of my coping mechanisms and suggested I see another specialist. I took some behavioral tests, sat through a couple of interviews with a doctor, and received a medical diagnosis of “high-functioning” autistic.

This label seemed overly optimistic, as I didn’t feel very high-functioning at all, but it did make sense. I had always been overly sensitive to sensory input, obsessed with symmetry, freaking out when the tiniest detail was out of whack.

Now, in this transition, EVERYTHING was out of whack, and there were just too many concurrent challenges, changes, tasks, problems, people, opinions, anxieties, emotions, obligations, details, details, and more details, requiring me to operate far outside my mental capabilities for far too long.

According to the doctor I was experiencing something called autistic burnout (or relapse), that occasionally put me in a very low-functioning state.

The diagnosis created the meta-dilemma of awareness versus the danger of playing the victim card. On the one hand, there was this peculiar assumption that all of us believed to some extent, that any adult should be able to handle anything that came along, and if you didn’t handle it then shame on you. My default stance was to make goals and tackle challenges head on, but it was now clear I was taking on too much.

What I needed was an extended break, similar to what James Bond received in the film Casino Royale (in which he spends months rehabilitating in a lakeside chateau in the Swiss Alps after getting his balls pounded in a gruesome torture scene).

But there would be no luxurious break for me.

The only way out was through.

This paraphrase was taken from the Robert Frost poem, A Servant to Servants. The actual phrase is “the best way out is always through,” and this was still pretty good advice most of the time. I had overcome many challenges, but what had I learned? How did I know when I was “through”?

It was more of a feeling than a definite milestone. For many months I was fighting to get through each day with no clear idea of where I was headed or why. It was like punching a brick wall every day and having no effect. Then one day the wall cracked. Encouraged, I kept punching, until weeks later the wall crumbled to the ground.

No joke, meditation (and the failure to do so) helped. There was no such thing as “enlightenment,” but meditation was a constant reminder that all experience was transitory. It was always possible to begin again.

Daily physical exercise was another key component of getting through. I hiked the local mountain trails and parks in every kind of weather, from blizzard to scorching heat, never missing a single day. One month I walked over one-hundred-fifty miles, much it in inclement weather, on challenging terrains.

Nature was a huge factor to my normalization. Spending time in nature allowed me to reset and temporarily shed those demons off my back. As a family we skied in the winter and hiked in the warmer months. We camped in southern Utah, and for five days in Wyoming, at Grand Teton National Park.

Family support was another a key component to getting through. At the nine month mark we had conquered most of the projects and major tasks on our list. We were starting to meet new friends. The balance of good times with family greatly outweighed any challenges we had.

Most of all, though, it was perspective. Conquering any challenge required knowing why the struggle was necessary in the first place. In my case, I returned to my journal entries of two years past, to the part where my wife and I met for a date night at a beer garden in the bowels of Yokohama Station to discuss our future plans. There in a journal entry dated August of 2019 were the reasons we were enduring this transition in the first place: the dreams we had for our kids’ futures, and the employment situation I was trying to escape.

Japan would always have a special place in my heart. I loved Kamakura and the Shonan Coast. We could have stayed there forever, but my soul would have continued dying a slow death at the place I was required to exist in exchange for money.

My journal contained the breadcrumbs that were key to my eventual survival, all thanks to the muse. She was no nagging demon, but an angel after all.


2020 Job Search Journey

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the launch of my job search. What’s the status now? Well, so far no offers, but I’ve got a couple possibilities in the works.

To be clear, it hasn’t been one year of intense, continuous effort. Unlike other long-term projects in the past, I have not given this thing everything I’ve got. There were several extended periods when I did nothing at all on the job front, for as long as six weeks at a time.

I may have been more motivated had the situation been dire, but fortunately the financial pressure on me was close to none. Nothing’s going to happen if I don’t have a job. Nobody’s going to stave. Our bills will still be paid. If my career matched my true calling in life then I’d be more invested in this thing, but I’ll save that riskier and less lucrative career change for a couple years down the road.

Normally I’m not negatively motivated, like someone who says they need a personal trainer to get them in shape. But negative pressure seems almost required in a job search, as it’s an activity that almost no one would voluntarily pursue.

I suppose there was some negative pressure on me, in the form of wanting to have more flexibility with my time and greater well-being.

My only real goals have been to do something new and interesting in a job that allows remote work. I want more flexible working conditions and I want to move my family to the States. The job search is unpleasant and time-consuming, but just like in Shawshank Redemption, I’m crawling through this shitty sewer pipe to reach the next stage in life.

With that said, here are the stats, the most important first.

Job Offers: Zero

Looking back, there are a multitude of reasons I haven’t crossed the finish line yet, but I’ll examine these at the end.

80 Applications

I take my time with job applications, customizing my resume and cover letter for each. The process usually takes about ninety minutes per application, though some of them required personality assessments that took a couple of hours or more. At ninety minutes each, this comes to 120 hours total.

Oh the Research

Over the course of one year I dumped at least 200 hours into researching companies, browsing job postings, and training to update my skills.

25 Interviews

The combined 320 hours of effort scored me 25 interviews with 16 different organizations. This resulted in 18 initial interviews (some were screenings with the same organization, different roles). A couple of times the initial interview turned out to be a full-on technical ambush, but usually it was a screening talk with a recruiter. A few times I chose not to pursue the process after the initial interview, due to bad vibes over the people and-or organization, but more often I’d receive a rejection email within a week of our first talk.

I made it past the screening stage 7 times, for 2nd or 3rd interviews with 5 different organizations.

As of this writing I’ve got one job pending decision after a third interview last week, and this one’s good. I’m hoping for the best.

32 Rejections

This number includes 21 rejections with no interview (which in most cases probably meant my application made it past the scanning algorithms, only to be rejected by an actual human being); 10 rejections after the initial interview; and 3 rejections after a second or third interview. The other 46 applications got no response.

Believe it or not these are decent numbers. According to one career site:

“Anywhere from 10% to 20% (positive response) is considered average and 20% to 30% is a good application to interview ratio.”

(18 initial interviews from 80 applications is 21%.)

True Interest?

Of all 80 job applications, how many of these were for jobs that I’d do if I had all the money in the world? How many were based on pure, honest interest alone? Maybe one or two.

And therein lies my greatest challenge. If I ask why I didn’t seal the deal on any of these interviews then I’d have to conclude my biggest challenge was that I didn’t care enough.


Aside from my mental handicap of apathy, there were a few other challenges that came into play.

This job search comes with certain built-in disadvantages, like being on the other side of the world from where I’m trying to get a job. Sometimes I have to speak with people during business hours in the U.S. Eastern time zone, which is almost exactly my normal sleeping hours. I’ve crawled out of bed at wee hours of the morning for interviews, or stayed up late at night. Pacific or Mountain Time zones aren’t much better. Seven AM my time is the end of the business day in Salt Lake.

Some organizations still insist on contacting job candidates by phone, and they’re not going to call a number overseas. I have a U.S. phone, just so I can put the number on resumes, but it’s in the States. I can work around the annoying phone issue by getting a number and calling interviewers on VOIP, but the coordination and time zone difference are still a pain.

Luck played a part too, some good, but mostly bad. There were technical problems that prevented the use of video in a third and possibly final interview, for example, which probably cost me that job. Hell, even natural disasters conspired against me. There was an earthquake in Salt Lake on the morning when I was scheduled to “meet the team” for a technical interview. They cancelled, apparently spooked by the event (which happened to be just as COVID in America was heating up). They never replied to me again.

Two other companies discontinued the hiring process in the height of the pandemic.

COVID was also the source of miraculous luck, as suddenly every organization in the world was working remote, and willing to hire based on video call alone.

What Else?

What other challenges were there? Rejection notices are never specific, so sometimes it’s difficult to know what lessons to learn. I could’ve been turned down for a number of reasons in any of these interviews. It’s anyone’s guess.

Sometimes I applied to jobs for which I was overqualified. I didn’t mind taking a salary cut if it meant having flexibility and learning something new. I’m not sure I always did a good job of explaining why I had no interest in climbing up the technical ladder of success. For this reason I’d rather be under-qualified than overqualified for most jobs.

There may have been some ageism involved, but honestly I never detected this to be the case. If anything, some interviewers may have been spooked over potential costs, suspecting they’d have to pay too much for senior experience in a less-than-senior role.

Speaking of costs, I learned early on that organizations can be turned off by job candidates who are not local, because they don’t want to pay moving expenses. An international expatriation can cost fifty grand or more, but in my family’s case the expense will be a small fraction of that, as we aren’t taking any big stuff like furniture or appliances. So I got in the habit of letting interviewers know up front that I don’t expect any extra compensation for the move.

I may have zero offers to show for all my efforts, but there’s change in the air. I can feel it. Or maybe it’s the sudden cool weather signalling the end of summer, and the approaching typhoon?

One thing’s for sure: looking back years from now, scoring a job in tumultuous 2020 with all my unique challenges will look like a heroic feat.

UPDATE: five minutes later…

Just checked email after publishing this post. After one year of half-ass effort, this journey might finally be over. I have a pending offer. Well, how about that?

UPDATE: five days later…

It was a rather tense five days of working out the details of compensation and benefits, but I’m very satisfied with the final result. I’ll receive the official offer letter early next week. My current location might present some challenges with the logistics and timing of starting the job, but we’ll get everything worked out.