Monday, May 01, 2017

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

I've been struggling with a case of burnout for a while now. It's a common problem in programming, where we have to maintain a fairly high level of creative energy all the time, and unlike my colleagues in academia or the library, I'm not eligible for research leave or sabbaticals. Vacation is the only opportunity for recharging my creative batteries, but that's hard too when there are a lot of tasks that can't wait. I have taken the day off to work before, but that just seems stupid. So I grind away, hoping the fog will lift.

A few weeks ago, the kids and I joined my wife on a work trip to Michigan. It was supposed to be a mini-vacation for us, but I got violently ill after lunch one day—during a UMich campus tour. It sucked about as much as it possibly could. My marvelous elder daughter dealt with the situation handily, but of course we ended up missing most of the tour, and I ended up in bed the rest of the day, barring the occasional run to the bathroom. My world narrowed down to a point. I was quite happy to lie there, not thinking. I could have read or watched television, but I didn't want to. Trying the occasional sip of gatorade was as much as I felt like. For someone who normally craves input all the time, it was very peaceful. It revealed to me again on how much of a knife-edge my consciousness really is. It would take very little to knock it off the shelf to shatter on the ground.

My father has Alzheimer's Disease, and this has already happened to him. Where once there was an acutely perceptive and inquiring mind, there remains only his personality, which seems in his case to be the last thing to go. I try to spend time with him at least once or twice a week, both to take a little pressure off my mother and to check on their general well-being. We take walks. Physically, he's in great shape for a man in his 80s. And there are still flashes of the person he was. He can't really hold a conversation, and will ask the same questions over and over again, my answers slipping away as soon as they're heard, but as we walked the other day, accompanied by loud birdsong, he piped up "We hear you!" to the birds, his sense of humor suddenly back on the surface. We are lucky that my parents have fantastic insurance and a good retirement plan, courtesy of an employer, the Episcopal Church, that cares about its people beyond the period of their usefulness.

Burnout is a species of depression, really. It is the same sort of thing as writer's block. Your motivation simply falls out from under you. You know what needs to be done, but it's hard to summon the energy to do it. The current political climate doesn't help, as we careen towards the cliff's edge like the last ride of Thelma and Louise, having (I hope metaphorically, but probably not for many of us) chosen death over a constrained future, for the sake of poking authority in the eye. My children will suffer because the Baby Boomers have decided to try to take it all with them, because as a society we've fallen in love with Death. All we can do really is try to arm the kids against the hard times to come, their country having chosen war, terror, and oppression in preference to the idea that someone undeserving might receive any benefit from society. We Gen-Xers at least had some opportunity to get a foot on the ladder. Their generation will face a much more tightly constrained set of choices, with a much bigger downside if they make the wrong ones. I don't write much about my children online, because we want to keep them as much as possible out of the view of the social media Panopticon until they're mature enough to make their own decisions about confronting it. At least they may have a chance to start their lives without the neoliberal machine knowing everything about them. They won't have anything like the support I had, and when we've dismantled our brief gesture towards health care as a human right and insurance decisions are made by AIs that know everything about you going back to your childhood, things are going to be quite difficult.

A symptom, I think, of my burnout is my addiction to science fiction and urban fantasy novels. They give me a chance to check out from the real world for a while, but I think it's become a real addiction rather than an escape valve. Our society rolls ever forward toward what promises to be an actual dystopia with all the trappings: oppressed, perhaps enslaved underclasses, policed by unaccountable quasi-military forces, hyper-wealthy elites living in walled gardens with the latest technology, violent and unpredictable weather, massive unemployment and social unrest, food and water shortages, and ubiquitous surveillance. Escapism increasingly seems unwise. Some of that future can be averted if we choose not to be selfish and paranoid, to stop oppressing our fellow citizens and to stop demonizing immigrants, to put technology at the service of bettering society and surviving the now-inevitable changes to our climate. But we are not making good choices. Massive unemployment is a few technological innovations away. It doesn't have to be a disaster, indeed it could lead to a renaissance, but I think we're too set in our thinking to avoid the disaster scenario. The unemployed are lazy after all, our culture tells us, they must deserve the bad things that have happened to them. Our institutions are set up to push them back towards work by curtailing their benefits. But It could never happen to me, could it?

And that comes back around to why I try to grind my way through burnout rather than taking time to recover from it. I live in an "at will" state. I could, in theory, be fired because my boss saw an ugly dog on the way in to work. That wouldn't happen, I hasten to say—I work with wonderful, supportive people. But there are no guarantees to be had. People can be relied on, but institutions that have not been explicitly set up to support us cannot, and institutional structures and rules tend to win in the end. Best to keep at it and hope the spark comes back. It usually does.