What Went Down
Well, here we are. We did it. We made it to 2021.
I skipped the yearly letter in 2019 (no particularly good reason) and so I’ll make this one a twofer, covering 2019 and 2020. I have a feeling it’ll take up a lot of space, and so if you’d prefer just to see the photo highlights, they’re all the way at the end. Also, if you get bored with all the personal narrative, there’s my usual “Ideas” section below that may be of more interest.
2019 was a sort of surprising year for us here at the Muldoon household. Around the last time I sent out a personal update (in early 2019), I was gearing up for a conference I helped to organize in Detroit. That turned out to be a big success. I won’t go into all the details, but I’d strongly encourage you to check out http://www.radicalxchange.org if you’re interested in learning more about what I think is one of the most exciting political/technological movements out there in the world today. It was an honor to play a part in getting that off the ground.
But also, working on that project, compounded on a bunch of other commitments, took a personal toll on me. I was, at that time, in the middle of a really tough project at Amazon – implementing a big change in the freight shipping logistics to (of course) squeeze more efficiency out of the freight network. There were a lot of unknowns and complexities and it was notoriously difficult and old code that I had to wrestle with. And at the same time, after a couple years of great sleeping, our son Kevin started having nightmares (he was 4 at the time) and waking up at odd hours of the night, needing to curl up with us parents to get back to rest. And so there were a couple of months where I’d be doing fairly grueling work during the day, put the kids down to sleep, then code away at the RadicalXChange website after hours, get to bed, and then spend some middle-of-the-night time with Kevin.
And then some time around February, my team at work got assigned to support a new and terribly buggy freight logistics program in Europe. When things went wrong on Monday morning in Luxembourg (and then did, reliably, every week), we’d get the call to come in and fix them at 3am Seatle time.
In retrospect I should have seen this coming, but what followed was that in April, after the conference in March, I hit a wall. For the first time in my life I started having serious sleeping difficulties – and this includes the birth and early years of three kids, including twins. My regular sleep cycles had sort of been chronically disturbed, so that even on the calm nights, I’d wake up at odd hours and have difficulty getting back to sleep. Coming off of a really energizing 2018, I pushed myself too hard in 2019 and was late to really appreciate it.
So in short order the sleep problems started to impact my work and my home life. I had a harder time focusing, and being patient, and being a good partner and parent. In the office, I had to seek out private meeting rooms to take mid-day naps. On the nice days, I’d escape to parks for naptime. But at the end of the day, it was a demanding work environment, and when you’re writing code, you can’t fake it. Not being able to do my job made me feel bad, which also made it harder for me to sleep – a vicious cycle.
I was super hesitant about getting into sleep drugs, and so really the only thing I could think of to get things in order was to stop working. Long story short, I got permission to take a 12-week unpaid leave of absence from work over the summer.
A couple of highlights from the summer. One was that I immediately found that there was a ton – weeks worth – of domestic work to catch up on. Organizing sheds, lawn stuff, home maintenance, keeping the kids’ clothes and artwork and toys in order, sorting and taking trash to the dump, generally digging ourselves out of the trash heap of the modern suburban nuclear family lifestyle (more on that later).
Another highlight was hitting the road in a rented RV. We spent 17 days in it, around Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. We started at the Oregon Country Fair, camping out (as in 2018) at the Elfenwood campground, where for a couple days we get a flavor of village life – a couple hundred people, central barn and campfire and community facilities, kids of all ages meeting each other and playing hide and seek and running free, music in every direction. As a casual guitarist, I had definitively the best jam sessions of my life with a couple other campers nearby. And the Fair itself was brimming with life as always.
The next destination was the Lost Valley Educational Center outside of Eugene, Oregon. Lost Valley is a successful “practical sustainable living” site, a bit less than 100 acres, where some families live and work, and that also hosts guests and retreats. Within minutes of our arrival, a local kid (a blonde boy named Tenzin) invited our kids to go play with him, and they were off biking around, playing legos, finding the trampoline, getting wet. For me personally, that feeling of seeing a five or six year old child feel free to hop on a bike, roam around with other children on dirt roads, and have all of us trust they’re safe is – well, as a parent, it just feels right. It’s one of these things that at the same time is so simple, but also feels like some huge luxury.
Another big takeaway was my tour of Lost Valley’s impressive community kitchen with all the commercial-grade appliances and cookware. When I saw all that, and how they can efficiently feed dozens of people from a single kitchen, it just made my home kitchen feel so primitive, so wasteful, in comparison.
After Lost Valley, we headed to Eastern Oregon for some mountainous camping at Anthony Lakes, hung out at the Oregon Trail city of Baker city, saw a rodeo there, then went to Hells Canyon in Idaho, and up along the Snake and Salmon rivers. The Idaho scenery was phenomenal. We spent a night alongside the Snake river, in a modern RV powered by a clean hydroelectric dam, watching the sunset over the mountains, and something about it actually felt very futuristic. Simple, sustainable, modern, compact.
We rounded out the trip with a rendesvous with my dad near Couer D’Alene, where we camped out near an abandoned mine and spent a couple days at the Silverwood Water Park. Public Service Announcement: yes, there are water parks where you can camp there and stay for many days.
After turning in the RV, I flew with the kids to Chicago to stay with my mom and stepdad (Belkis and Josh), while Luana stayed in Seattle to get some quiet time. Around then was the first time I started to get good sleep. And thanks in particular to my mom’s superhuman kid-care skills, she took care of the kids and I ended up spending much of 10 days trying to put together a bunch of ideas that had been in my head about my parenting experience and work-life balance and the suburban lifestyle.
That all turned into the “Minifesto” – which I finally just put up on my site last month. It’s pretty long, but especially for the young parents, or those expecting kids soon, it may be a useful reminder of what the suburban lifestyle package really entails, and give some food for thought about alternatives. As I’ve probably hinted at elsewhere, I’ve become somewhat fixated on the idea of modern, rural, sustainable, walkable villages and small towns as an achievable alternative. (This all was written before COVID, but it goes without saying that the explosion of remote work due to COVID has also made this whole vision suddenly much more realistic for a much wider pool of people with economic means. If that includes YOU, then I would absolutely love to brainstorm with you.)
But back to 2019. By the last two or so weeks of the time off, I had finally gotten back into a reasonable sleep cycle – able to sleep at night, stay asleep, and wake up without an alarm clock in morning. We spent the last couple of weeks around the house and neighborhood, hosting neighbors, playing with neighborhood kids, still trying to get our home in order.
When I finally went back to work at the end of August, my boss had left the team. I found that I spent a lot of time chatting and brainstorming with colleagues, other software engineers who’d had the same battle scars as me, about our quality of life and how to improve it, given the 3am calls from Europe. But also, I found myself mostly trying to avoid the actual work of writing code as much as possible. I’d just sort of soured on it and have become far removed from that fragile pleasure of writing great code and seeing it work.
But at least having recovered some peace of mind, and ability to focus, I started looking for jobs within Amazon and elsewhere.
That sort of gets us to 2020. I started interviewing at the start of the year. In January, I combined a weekend of guitar in California (there’s a video in my highlight reel with me getting a lesson from legend Martin Taylor) with a job interivew in LA. By chance I flew in to LA on the day Kobe Bryant died (the Grammy awards were also that night) and staying at a hotel a couple blocks from the Staples Center. It was a surreal night, hanging out with a kid on the street (who liked occasionally going to jail “for the networking”) watching the people in tuxedos stream out from the Staples Center and the various mourners from around the city stream in with flowers and Kobe stuff.
Schools shut down in early March here in Washington and I was assigned to work from home indefinitely right around the same time. The twins were having a great time in kingergarten, and part of what made the shutdown tough for us was that it was the first time all three kids were in full-time school for the whole year, and we were just starting to enjoy the extra breathing room that afforded us (especially Luana during the day). Since we only did sporadic preschool, the first school year the twins will complete anything resembling normal full time school will be second grade. But anyway, Luana stepped in to basically personally tutor all three kids throughout the spring, while I was still at Amazon and doing the job search. I was the music and math and PE teacher in my flexible moments. But I also recall really struggling to find energy, being lethargic, and still unmotivated at work now that the colleagial fun was gone.
Around that time, I was in conversations with Blue Origin about a job as a software engineer. For years I’d been trying to apply the software coding work to science (SciTech, as I like to call it) and this was a great chance to finally get into the space. I ended up joining in May, fully in the middle of the pandemic. I’ve been into the office a total of two times since I joined.
But more importantly, the new job has reminded me of why I enjoyed writing code in the first place. Our team uses a small but beautiful language called Clojure that has helped to make coding fun again for me. And there are no 3am calls from Europe, thank Zeus. I work on the software that helps rocket engineers and manufacturers keep track of the parts and designs and safety testing to the exacting standards required for space.
The summer was strange, like the whole year. But it was a relief to have gotten across the finish line with “home school” and to feel a bit less pressure on the academic side. We settled into a routine where the kids would play Minecraft in the mornings and then go to the nearby neighborhood lake in the afternoons for much of the summer, while Luana gave me the time and space to be focused on work during the day. I continued to be the music and PE teacher, and we ended up picking up tennis as one of the few sports we could still do while keeping the social distancing.
For sure, the question of “screen time” for the kids became a big theme of the year. Up to this point, we’d been on a minimal screen “diet” for the kids, only watching occasional YouTube videos together, and that was it. But when quarantine started, the kids all of a sudden needed devices to connect to school. We repurposed an old iPhone and laptops from my sister (the kids’ first computers ran Linux, a point of pride), but we are still in a cat and mouse game as of today. Case in point: I actually just stepped away to hide the Amazon Echo after I heard the kids watching their favorite “Fart of Doom” YouTube video. The kids then climbed up to the shelf where I’d hidden it, and Alexa was back within a minute! And this has played out in so many different ways over the past year – with their school-issued tablets and Chromebook, with the phone we let them use that has piano lessons on it. We’re getting closer to some point of stable equilibrium, but it’s really been a lot of work and headache to teach the kids (and ourselves) how to use these things responsibly. There’s a big niche somewhere for a trustworthy home device consultant who can provide equipment, software, networking, and some therapy for how to deal with the internet in the home with children.
On that note, Minecraft was a very big theme for the year, as it probably has been for millions of households around the world during COVID. It’s pretty fun, and it gets you in a very creative kind of mode, and our setup (on a Playstation 3) makes it social and collaborative. But I worry whether all the curiosity wouldn’t be better channeled towards the real world. For now, though, I like what I see when we all play together.
Back to 2020.
My brother and sister (and respective spouses), both in the Seattle area, both brought new life into the world in the warm months of the year. Baby Elliott Wenger and Jones Muldoon were born mid-pandemic, and have been as healthy and beautiful as their Uncle Mike could possibly hope for. The parents are well, though sleep-deprived. Molly and Dave are doctors in Seattle, Dave a pulmonologist and Molly a pediatric oncologist. It’s been a much wilder ride for them, understandably, this year, and my grumbling always looks petty in comparison to what they’ve gone through as practicing medical professionals.
Also in the summer, we went out to Eastern Washington for a week with my Dad, full of splash time in Long Lake and fishing attempts from the pedal-boat and a handmade pole. We really like it out there.
In the fall at our household, the “screen time” thing only got more intense, as the school district set things up for full-time Zoom school for everyone, and our kids were starting first and second grades. It’s tough to see school done this way, where the first graders can only speak when they’ve “unmuted” themselves, and can really only have conversation with the teacher since free-form chatter rapidly gets out of control over Zoom. But we’ve been trying to be open to the positive sides – there is some great online content, and the kids are learning to be a lot more independent and to manage time and complete tasks – and re-evaluating this whole thing as we go. I’m a big fan of trying different approaches, and this is a radically different approach, but for the next phase we have to balance this out with something very different. Something much more social, less rigid, more cooperative and open-ended, in exchange for the mechanical rigidity of this moment. I’m in favor of a free-form “Montessori for All” 2021-2022 school year in the public schools.
And then the only other big thing of note from the fall was our Thankgsiving. We ended up having a few family members fly out (under very strict protocols) and some others drive from around the country (with no stops in hotels, to stay safe) to make it out. It was a thoroughly regenerative time together, especially on the music-making front.
So here we are. Just rounding out a couple of weeks of vacation from school and work, staying here at home, much of it huddled around the fireplace or in our garage-turned-gymnastics-center.
Standing by for the Great Post-Pandemic Party of 2021 – or 2022.
To cut right along to the chase – and it’s a miracle if you’ve made it all the way here – the one all-encompassing idea theme of this year, and last one for that matter, is about land development. Like I wrote about here (shameless second plug).
And in short, if there’s anything I think (or really, just daydream) about, it’s about the idea of building out walkable, affordable, community-oriented, sustainable, rural towns and villages here in the USA.
A couple of years ago when I shared the idea with close friends and family, it felt way out there. But now, especially with COVID and the remote work explosion, I think the general concept has been rediscovered many times over: there’s a lot of affordable land in the USA, and a lot of jobs that can be done remotely – accelerated this year with COVID, of course, and in the next couple of years, there will be much more widely-available high-speed satellite internet thanks to projects like Amazon Kuiper and Starlink. And e-commerce companies that figure out the logistical side of getting a good variety of goods available in more rural locations. And so if you put all those together, I think that idea of creating new towns and villages – or maybe substantially redeveloping existing ones – seems kind of obvious. A lot of people are content to relocate away from expensive cities and to existing rural areas, and that’s already happening. But also, what excites me is the idea of relocating alongside friends and family. If you have a group of friends and family – and maybe their additional friends and family, too – then there are some really beautiful possibilities for developing villages or compounds that really break the design constraints of the single-family rural/suburban/exurban models. Categories of public goods – everything from community kitchens and shared workshops to more expansive “safe to roam” areas for smaller kids – become possible where they aren’t now. And bountiful volunteer babysitters within shouting distance. To me, that feels like the ultimate luxury.
Nothing really new here – these are fundamentals of village life as it’s always been practiced. But we’ve obviously pushed out that model and it certainly seems to me that it’s time for the pendulum to swing back. So we start to think of the “extended family” as a political unit, not just the “nuclear family.”
Anyway, I’m trying to figure how to help play some role in that. One idea is to start out as an RV park for the growing number of “digital nomads” around the US, sort of catering to remote workers more so than to retired tourists. I think there’s a business model for that. A variant on that is to develop something more like a retreat center (also catered to remote workers) where you don’t need to bring your own RV. And to organize some kind of summer festival around the retreat place to help attract people to it. A third one is to start out as a private vacation property on a larger piece of land and build it out in a fully private way.
Getting strong internet is still a big bottleneck (from what I can tell), but again, by the time something like this comes to fruition, some combination of satellite internet and 5G is going to really change the equation.
If you have any insights or shared interests, please – reach out. I would love to talk more about it.
Incidentally, I’m on the market for a good used pickup truck and 25+ foot RV trailer, so if you’ve got any leads on either of lose, I would love to know!
The Years in Photos
(Note, these links expire on Feb 1, 2021)