There are more important things than houses

One January evening eight years ago we were visiting my parents, on the way out the door listening to my dad talk about an upcoming cruise when he slurred his words in an odd way. It was just strange enough to give us pause, but then again, he was tiring easily from the chemotherapy.

We don't have a lot of regrets in life but that moment is one of them. Even though we had been visiting regularly had we been spending even just a little bit more time with him we might have noticed the warning sign: in the wee hours after, he had a stroke.

Ultimately an intervention may not have changed the amount of time he had left, the stroke had resulted from a brain tumor, a new cancer was spreading. But his remaining days would have been better spent.

He was on our minds a lot this summer while we sat in hospital rooms with my mom. Her eyes and face bruised and a bloody gash on her forehead, she mentioned often how brave he was. Me, telling her she was equally brave as I watched her heartbeats, powered by a new pacemaker, tick across a computer monitor. In the weeks that have followed her recovery has been remarkable, the stubborn fog of a concussion slowly lifting day by day. This time around, I can see almost imperceptible changes, she's multitasking better, tracking conversations more easily, and sailing through the grocery store.

One day I helped her delete her Facebook account and I realized I hadn't checked my account for a few weeks. Now it's been three months. I didn't set out to quit Facebook I just couldn't summarize everything in a status update.

Yet in that time I have met more neighbors than I have in the past decade. We lived next door to a family for seven years and said maybe a half a dozen words. Now my neighbors are emailing and texting me regularly.

Everyone I know is grappling with loss. This is our new normal: colleagues and their families dealing with cancer, a sibling losing her eyesight, friends around my state dealing with wildfires and floods, all mired in grief.

Whenever I apologized for my slow progress on the house, several neighbors said, "There are more important things than houses."

True. And yet...

One of the oddities of working in technology is grappling with impermanence. It is perhaps the only profession where your work is routinely destroyed right in front of you. Or never finished. Or finished and then torn down and rebuilt (by you or someone else) in a totally different way. Or just cast aside and never used. Even after 17+ years I'm still shocked by this. Early on, it's acceptable in a mindful zen kind of way. But as you work your way through your career, it can be brutal looking back.

For Geek #1, this isn't as troublesome since he sees positive results of his work every day. He's The Fixer and at the end of the day everyone leaves smiling, everything is working, everyone is moving forward. It's the sweet spot of technology.

As The Creative, however, sometimes this throws Geek #2 into fits of existential despair. When you've spent an entire week of your life choosing a font for a website that you designed, built, and then a few years later, deleted from known existence, you begin to question how you're spending your time on this planet. Do it dozens of times and you question your sanity.

So this is a major reason why we bought the house, the opportunity to nurture something that outlasts us. Most people would have children; for us, the house is our new baby, we're welcoming a bit of scope creep into our lives.

Kevin Ashton wrote an outstanding piece on creativity called Creative People Say No, arguing that all of us need to say "no" more often if we ever want to accomplish anything.

I'm terrible at saying "no." So bad at it that my ability to manage my projects often spirals out of control. And I see the consequences: always making room for another request (or idea), no matter how small or big, means something (or someone) suffers neglect. It means nothing (or no one) gets 100% of me, or even 50%. On the micro level, things get done, deadlines are met, food is on the table. But on the macro level - having a life - not so much.

So instead, I'm saying "yes" to the house. At least for awhile. What that means is that sometimes I am making an actual effort to be away. Somewhere other than in front of a screen. Where hopefully, those moments spent will feel more significant than a fleeting "like", or be larger than a few pixels of space, and last longer than a puff of air.


Last built: Wed, Mar 5, 2014 at 6:32 PM

By Betsy Kimak, Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 8:39 PM. All baking done on premises.