Books for cold autumn days (and other seasons too)

It’s been a little quiet here for a while (and one day, maybe, I’ll get to all that happened and mostly led to silence). What also happened is that there was the summer that never was, and now autumn has come and stayed with us here in Berlin, mostly in the shape of leave-less trees, brown leaves on the streets, grey clouds, rain drops and wind (so much wind).—To say: it’s the season for getting the pillows, the blankets, the big mugs for many hot beverages, the cookies, and everything else to get us through the next about eight months until there’s another realistic chance for warmer weather again. And: books. Books are good companions anytime, but even more so in times like these.

And in case you’re looking for new companions to spend time with, here are some of the books I read and enjoyed so far this year.—


Bella Bathurst: Sound

A woman loses her hearing in her late 20s. Twelve years later, she regains it. This is a book about the before, during, after of these twelve years. It’s a book about moving from the world of hearing into another world, about what shapes our worlds, and it’s a book about sound. I loved it for the mix of autobiography and the explorations of sound and hearing, and for all I learned from it (including lots of great things about how hearing works, and many things about music). I came across this book because I walked past a book store window, saw it, thought “this looks interesting; I’ll come back for this”, came back, got it, read it, loved it. By far the book I recommended the most to others this year.

Rebecca Solnit: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Read this at a time where I was trying to get lost, but, most of all, felt very lost. I love Solnit’s writing, and this book is great for the times when one knows that being alone is not the same as being lonely, but is still longing for a good thought to spend the day with. This book is a wonderful companion (plus great source of amazing musings and fun facts about the world).

Roxane Gay: Hunger

Roxane Gay is a very important woman and this is a very important book (and her most personal one so far), and nothing I could ever say could do her or this book justice, except: read it.

Briohny Doyle: Adult Fantasy: searching for true maturity in an age of mortgages, marriages, and other adult milestones

A book about being alive in these times and happening to be in your early thirties. A book about relationships, fertility and family, money, class, migration, aging (and ageism), careers, dogs, and what it means to be an adult in times when many things that we were once told were important actually don’t mean anything anymore, to no one—including us. I enjoyed the way that Doyle managed to write a very personal book, but managed very well to talk about the big picture and the important conversations we need to have as a society.

Carolin Emcke: Wie wir begehren (DE)

Incredibly personal, touching and gut-wrenching. A fantastic book that I couldn’t put down. About the tragic, beauty, societal and political relevance, and, in the end, personal meaning and impact of desire (and finding out what it entails). Very beautiful.

Alastair Bonnett: Off the Map

Great tour of places off the map: places that were never there or disappeared, places that were only made up or didn’t officially exist, and many others that weren’t what they seemed to be. With only short bits and pieces on the many places Bonnett introduces, but this also means that he talks about a lot of places, and the way he talks about them got me very curious to find out more about them.

Cory Taylor: Dying: A Memoir

This is one of those quiet books that hit you when you’re least expecting it. Cory Taylor, a novelist, reflects on her life at a point when there’s not much left of it. This book is a great celebration of life.

Brené Brown: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

inhaled this book. I mostly read it for things related to my work in management, and greatly enjoyed it for that, not just for what it is, but also for what it’s not (which is: a management book; most management books suck). It’s a book about vulnerability and what it means, about how shame and a work culture that’s shaped by scarcity impact us and influence how much we are able to dare to say and do; it’s a book about learning to practice empathy, gratitude, and to collectively embrace imperfection, and building shame-resilient organisations with cultures that honest, constructive, engaging feedback is part of. It’s a book about trust, and, in the end, about being human.

Matt Nelson: #WeRateDogs: The Most Hilarious and Adorable Pups You’ve Ever Seen

They’re good dogs Brent.


Poetry


That’s all I have so far. I still have about five books that I’m reading at the moment (it’s very likely that there are more and I, again, lost one in my backpack), namely:

and a bunch of books in the queue that are all next. If you have any recommendations for autobiographical books by women, let me know, I’d love to hear them. It’s gonna be a long winter.

New talk online: Debugging the tech industry

In December 2016, I had the honour of closing JSConf Australia, and getting to spend a few wonderful days in Melbourne (if you want to see and read what that was like, this is for you: 12 days of summer: Melbourne in November 2016).

More than seven months later and just a few weeks ago, I got to go back to Australia to give a similar talk at the Software Art Thou meetup – this time a 60 minutes long talk though (insert scream Emoji here). This also meant that I had a chance to think about and look at the topic again after some time had passed and after I’d had some more time to think about it (and figure out an entirely new narrative and pace for this talk). The result is a talk about the reason why we’re in tech. It’s also my most personal talk so far, and the sum of all I’ve talked about over the last years.

A few days ago, the lovely meetup organisers put the video online – here it is. And if you (like me) prefer reading: you’ll find a transcript of the talk on this page. Enjoy!

(Oh, and I’m working on a few notes / stories / photos about the time in Melbourne at the moment. More on all that soon. I hope.)

I want to ride my bicycle (actually, I don’t)

My first bike was named Terry. As most of the bikes I’ve had, other people had it before me, and while its name stayed the same (no one ever found out who came up with that name in the first place), every time it was passed on to another kid, it had even more scratches and bits of rust where the white varnish had chipped off. Before me, seven other kids had already learned to ride a bike on it, and it’s a miracle that it hadn’t fallen apart yet. (I would be the second last child to have it before that happened.)

I loved cycling around our neighbourhood. As I got older and my bikes grew as fast as I did, I slowly explored more areas, often together with friends. Sometimes we’d drive through the forest and up the hill, buy apples at a farm, or pick flowers, which I’d take home in the little basket on the bike. In my teenage years, I would do long day trips of up to 80-120 kilometres per day, either by myself, with friends, or family.

Many years later, after moving to the city, I found a beautiful old bike in a thrift shop that I loved so much. I rode my bike to the office every day, used it to run errands, get to friends’ places, or meet people in the park and lie in the sun next to it. For a long, long time, cycling was a big, very important part of my life.

 

 

Until a few years ago, when I had a bike accident. It was bad, and I ended up being hospitalised. But I was also incredibly lucky: I only had a few (albeit bad-looking) scratches and a major shock to recover from. I would be back on the saddle in no time.

At least that’s what I thought.

A couple of days after my discharge from the hospital, I had to pick up my bike at the police station. It turned out that the bike was really broken, and, as became clear much later, irreparably so. I had to carry it because the wheels didn’t turn anymore. I cried all the way home, because seeing this pile of what had turned into just metal garbage made me realise how lucky I had been.

 

 

When I picked up the bike, a police officer advised me to get back to riding a bike basically immediately, “because if you don’t do it now, you never may.”

I didn’t do it. I even got a cheap bike a few weeks later. But I was so scared. There was just nothing I could’ve done differently to prevent the accident. And that frightened me. This whole event became a reminder that being careful only gets you so far. That’s life, but that’s also messed up.

I rode the replacement bike a few times around the neighbourhood, and took it to the park twice. But I had lost all confidence and trust in myself, and cycling stressed me out so much: I was in a mode of hyper-awareness and extreme nervousness, hands right on my breaks and the bell, ready to stand on the breaks at any given moment. Any scenario that even remotely resembled the accident scenario freaked me out. As soon as I got on the bike, my heart was racing. By the time I’d get to my destination, I was a wreck.

 

 

But then, I also kept thinking about cycling. I missed the days of getting around easily without depending on public transport, missed getting to parks and places that take forever to walk to, missed bike trips in nature outside of the city, I missed the exercise and the general awesomeness that cycling is.

Was.

Friends and partners encouraged me to take cycling back up, and sometimes I’d even go on short rides with them, but only on quiet roads, and never by myself. And even that stopped at some point.

Cycling had always been such an important part of my life. Now, my bike got downgraded to an accessory for my apartment.

 

A couple of months ago, a friend who knew about the accident, and how much I kept thinking about it, very carefully suggested to take me on bike tours – just super short trips with no rush, to get food, ice cream, or coffee (finding appealing destination to add an incentive for me would be part of the plan). I liked the idea (and I loved even just the fact that they had thought about how they could help me). And it got me thinking again.

A week later, I dragged my bike out of a corner in my flat and back into the corridor. Another week later, I did my first short bike ride in over a year. I was nervous all the way and relieved when I got to my destination 15 minutes later. But I was also happy about trying it. A few weeks and short rides later, I decided to try and do one bike tour per week – still only super short ones, in quieter areas with little traffic where I feel comfortable. But I hoped that the increased frequency and some small, positive experiences would help wash the scare away.

Today, I had a lazy day. In the evening, I saw the sun shining from inside my apartment, and felt like I could use some time outside. I went on a short bike trip, and it was pretty nice for a bike ride: I saw the sun, I smelled the lilac and the blossoming chestnut trees, and saw the lake in late afternoon sunlight. I probably walked half the trip, but I felt really relaxed when I was on my way home. Then, as I was almost back, a car cut me off at a crossroads (they were turning right, I was going straight ahead), and I’m trying not to let that get to me too much. I’m trying to remember the sunlight. But it’s a process.

 

 

Right now, this is all I got. This is not a glorious inspirational “here’s how I overcame this frightening thing” piece. I’m still scared, and likely always will be, and it will take a long time for me to rebuild some confidence and trust in myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that fundamental feeling of being okay with things again. I’m not sure when or if I’ll feel more comfortable again on my bike, and whether I’ll find the great joy it always brought me again. Sometimes, the thought of having lost that joy saddens me very much. But all of this, and all these feelings that I’m having around it, is also okay.

The dream would be to get to a point where I can take longer tours, maybe to a lake in summer, or to the great ice cream place at the outskirts of the city, or even ride my bike to work again every day. But none of this is going to happen anytime soon, and maybe never at all. Right now, I’m back to where I was by the time I had Terry: slowly, carefully increasing distances. Again.

It’s a ride, but at least I’m on my way.

Along this way, I understood that the phrase “it’s like riding a bike” is technically true sometimes, but also just very wrong. But most importantly, I learned something big about accepting my boundaries. I learned that I can also keep figuring out where my boundaries are, understand if they change over time, and work with these changes (and my stubbornness), while constantly watching out for myself. And then there’s the last thing I learned: always, always, always wear a helmet.

 

Bats

I grew up in a small village somewhere in the countryside, in an area of rivers, hills, small forests, and castles. Scattered all over the region around the small village were even smaller villages, often made up of just one, two, three farms, some of them abandoned for many years already. Many hills around the smaller villages were covered in meadow orchards full of old, gnarly trees, bearing rare varieties of fruit: ancient apple varieties in different shades of red, yellow, and green; weathered plum trees; peach trees, strong enough to stand the harsh winters, bearing small, juicy, sweet peaches in late summer; giant walnut trees, and pear variants, like the very small, firm, brown ones that smell so good and taste so sweet at first, until they suddenly numb your mouth. Some of these trees had died a long time ago and their hollow trunks were now inhabited by the bats. The bats also lived in the wood paneling of the abandoned farm houses, in the attics, the churches, the sheds. There’s something equally scary and fun about walking into a dark shed in the back yard in the early evening, and suddenly hearing the sound of what might as well be a million flapping wings right above your head.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the bats. The nights aren’t dark enough anymore, and I’ve been gone for too long. I recently thought of the bats when I thought about how navigation works when you can’t see what’s ahead of you, and that was when I thought of you.

At the point in life where finding someone or something to miss is not more than wishful thinking, it’s very easy to suppress how fucked up missing as a concept and emotion actually is.

We’re 349,854 characters into this, and each character I type could be another step towards turning the haze of ideas into a reality that’s made up of more concrete parts than imagination. Right now, all that’s tangible are the phone screens, the keyboards and the books; routinely executed touches on plastic, in an attempt to create something to hold onto; fingertips working to build another reality made of taps and swipes; fingerprints trying to weave meaning around it.

These are the times when the vibration of a phone still means something.

The meanings are our windows into each other’s lives. The windows are never big enough, and the sun never shines through them, and if it does anyway, it breaks things. The windows are small frames for a hope that’s hard to grasp, with diagonals measuring exactly 4’’ and 13’’ and 26’’. And what we see through the windows are the server status updates, the piles of giant pixels, the red icons with numbers on them. Every single pixel that’s visible might as well disappear any second, and we already know it will. Every connection that’s stable for a minute will not last more than seconds beyond that. Everything that’s present also serves as a gentle reminder of the fragility of things. Everything that we have comes with ten things that we don’t.

This is a heart beating at the rate of a blinking cursor.

This is a head that still hasn’t understood all realities. I look at the pile of all that was, that is, that may be. I take this pile of our realities, sort them, and put them into mason jars. Lined up on a shelf in my kitchen, they look like this: There is our first reality which appeared out of the blue; the second one that is mostly made up of two kinds of wishful thinking; the third reality that starts with a wooden door and ends with a glass door; the fourth one that looks like turning around and walking away, looking at the rain falling from the sky. The fifth reality is a monologue of questions. All of these realities are very different, and between each of them and every single time, something fundamental changed. I would like to understand what they have in common except the obvious element. There have to be constants.

But like everything (and you), they’re hard to see these days.

For months, I’ve been waking up every morning with the taste of the absurdity of things in my mouth. The taste of absurdity is the taste of plastic coloured in silver and black, of wavelengths that are just about 380 nanometers long; the taste of the ones, the zeros, and the nothing in between. Absurdity has the bitter taste of crying in front of a wall, the sour notes of all the times I should’ve been there and wasn’t; it has the butteriness of subjunctive, and the smokiness of longing to listen to another person breathe and only hearing the sound of a computer fan. Absurdity tastes as salty as calendars and endless hours to count, it tastes like holding on to the memory of coming home to you, and like an idea kept alive by fibre. Absurdity is the taste of the berries that are only in season where I am.

On average, things are very normal around here.

I walk along a path from a month ago and it’s not the same and there is something touchingly disturbing about having the familiarity of a decade changed so quickly by something so intense and fleeting. On a train back home, I suddenly find myself accidentally holding a stranger’s hand very tightly; find myself surprised by its warmth, softness. I let go as soon as I notice it, but I still feel the touch on my skin hours later; it makes me think about preservation techniques. Back home, I get water colours and paint more mason jars in bright colours, and line them up next to the ones that hold our realities. No matter what their content will look like, at least they will glow when we hold them up to the light.

None of us know how this is going to work. No matter how good things looked that were there for a moment that ended too soon: there’s nothing to see beyond.

Bats sometimes crash into windows, no matter if they navigate visually or acoustically. The good news is that bats crash into windows less often when they cannot see.

Well that’s right, and that is fine.

Working in management and feeling productive

I like the sound of big machines. Sat somewhere by a window, looking out, listening to the steady, soft humming of a bus motor, an airplane, a train, I will fall asleep within minutes. The big machines calm me down.

The Human in the Machine is a project where 365 authors write about productivity in 2017. As part of it, I wrote about my work in management, and what I strive for instead of productivity. This is the article, and it’s called: Tap Dance.