I am immobilized. I don't know what to do. Why did I have to open up the old wound? But it was inevitable. Is this my calling? My destiny, or my addiction?
Today, I give a talk on Tracy Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine, which won both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award. I love the book. I love this book. I hate this book. I hate the book.
It's not really Kidder's fault, though. He did an amazing job on the book. In fact, I'm talking about it because it's written so well. But the topic is painful. See, when I read about the late nights, the stomach aches, the stress, the wall-kicking co-workers, I get this feeling, a twinge of the intensity of my days as a programmer. I read about the mind-numbing insanity of debugging a complex board, and I remember spending three-four days tracing horribly difficult bugs with another programmer, just to find a new bug in Java. I was really mad that day. But it was a proud anger, to know that I had done things right; I had been vindicated three times over. First, it wasn't our fault. Second, we had found Sun's error. Third, I had been suggesting a workaround for days. It worked. I could have gloated, but it wasn't about gloating. It was about meeting incredibly difficult tasks, and getting them done. It was like (as Kidder suggests) climbing Everest every day, with a group of guys you could juggle with at lunch (when I took lunch).
...could I someday combine real (ie challenging, interesting) programming with my interest in Literature, in Electronic writing, and in nonfiction? Mark Bernstein has Eastgate. Could I do something similar? Could I keep my head doing it?
Every time I read about programming or receive a programming job offer, I am very tempted to return to that life. But I made a choice. It eats me, dissolves my person molecule by molecule, leaving me empty inside. Kidder describes that process. And yet I yearn even for the dissolution, like an addict who needs just one more trip. Oh why did I ever stop programming?
But I did, and I think I am better for it. I think I am a better person for it. For I loved that life too much for it to be. I didn't want to be a thirty-five year old burnout. I was on my way to being a twenty-five year old burnout. Starting to program in elementary school aged me rapidly. I sometimes feel like forty. The other students don't understand. And the compsci students just chuckle. Do they respect me? Do they understand how my skills have deteriorated, my knowledge dissolving with every bit of Virginia Woolf or Faulkner or Kerouac I read? With every academic paper that proceeds out of my brain, do they understand that my knowledge is slipping, that it's two years old, that I'm a dinosaur at twenty?
How I wish to be them.