We are all made of star stuff

I don’t know if you watched Carl Sagan as a kid, but a friend shared this poem, and I was instantly transported back to watching him tell me I was made of star stuff when I was 6.

We have calcium in our bones,
iron in our veins,
carbon in our souls,
and nitrogen in our brains.

93 percent stardust,
with souls made of flames,
we are all just stars
that have people names.

93 Percent Stardust by Nikita Gill

First day back

I was off all last week for Thanksgiving, and I had a very hard time getting back into work mode… which I guess is the sign of a good vacation (even though we didn’t go anywhere).

On top of that, I’m prepping for a big allergy test, which means I’ve been off of all antihistamines for 5 days (and have 16 left to go… sign) and I am really starting to feel it. I’ve only got a couple days left of National Blog Post Month and I’m not going to stop so close to the end! The posts just might get dumber from here on out.

Nothing to say

Brian and I successfully accomplished Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, and today I’m very tired.

I think it’s because I’m in the “everything’s worn off” part of the prep for an allergy test that’s happening in a couple of weeks. No antihistamines means I’m a snotty tear-streaked mess, which is both a fashion no-no, and exhausting.

So, this is all I’ve got today. Hope you’re having a happy Black Friday if you celebrate.

Bring me all the joys

I’ve co-lead Gusto’s Employee Resource Group for families for the last year and a half, and it’s been a ton of fun. It’s brought back a ton of memories from when the kids were little, and reminded me (constantly) that parenting never stops being stressful. The stressors just change over time, get more complicated and the mistakes get more costly.

And that gets even more precarious the more “sprinkles” that we discover in the lovely desserts that are our children. I love that phrase. I got it from one of the parents who leads one of our committees, and it’s just lovely.

My kids are both in the “non-boring” parts of the gender and sexuality spectrums, and it took me years to realize how much fear and worry comes with that. I am afraid for them all of the time. It never stops.

Which brings me to the joys.

I just finished Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable series and I loved it. It’s full of queer teens and space battles – and joy. Joy at coming out to yourself, to your friends, and being accepted for your strengths. Read it. You’ll dig it. It was the most recent reminder that while I’m afraid, I also need to embrace all of the joys that come along with life with sprinkles.

More joy? One of the first communities I discovered when I joined Mastodon was the trans community. Seeing happy trans people, celebrating their transitions and the little victories along the way has been such a relief, in a way that I didn’t really understand for a while.

Joy is a vaccine against fear. Does it make the fear go away? No, but it makes it easier to fight and get through.

So, get out there, bask in the joy. It really does make the fear easier to handle.

Proof I can maintain something

The celebration image Duolingo gave me that says "I'm on a 1500 day learning streak!"

Today is my 1,500th straight day of doing at least one lesson on Duolingo. That’s over four years of learning Spanish (and trying out Korean, Chinese, Turkish and Portugese, but I always go back to Spanish). Am I conversational yet? Oh no. Can I understand more than I used to? Yes. I can even make myself understood in Spanish if the topic isn’t technical.

I just want to remind myself that I can stick to something because I missed posting for yesterday. I have a great excuse: I felt like garbage and didn’t do much other than take a nap.

I don’t feel much better today, but here I am, trying to make sure that I only miss one day.

And that’s really the thing with habits, isn’t it? It’s not that you never miss a day – it’s that you don’t let missing one day make you miss two, then three, then stop altogether.

Be kind, but have boundaries

After yesterday’s post, Amy asked another question that I’m ill-equipped to answer, but I’m going to try anyway:

Ok, tough question: a thing I struggle with, (maybe as a woman or maybe just my family of origin), is me behaving in a kind manner often means being seen as inherently weak or (shudder) useable to others. Any insights into how a woman might reconcile or boundary that in a patriarchy?

Amy van der Hiel

I think a lot of people mistake kindness for weakness, and I’ve never understood it. Being kind is work. Being kind when you’re in a bad mood, unwell, or struggling is even more work. So, to anyone who equates kindness with weakness or gullibility, you’re just wrong and I’d love it if you’d stop.

I’ve seen “do no harm, but take no shit” around the internet, and I think “do no harm” is too low a bar, but I definitely agree with the sentiment. We all need to set boundaries, protect our inner peace and make sure we’re kind to ourselves.

I think this can be hard at work – we want to be available to our coworkers and be helpful, but that’s a trap. If we want to be present when we’re working, we need to set some boundaries and make sure we’re taking care of ourselves and our families.

As for how to set them as a woman, as not a woman, this is what I’ve observed: people will try to take advantage of them because they see it as weakness, but if you’re firm with them then hopefully they’ll stop. Hugs are a good example. I no longer just assume people are fine with hugs. I don’t even offer to someone I’ve not hugged before, because I know it’s one of those “openings” men take advantage of. I think setting a boundary that you don’t hug coworkers you don’t already have a close relationship where there won’t be misunderstandings is one a lot of my female coworkers have had – and yeah, it can be awkward, but I think the momentary awkwardness is better than any unintentional (or intentional) misunderstandings later.

Being kind to myself involves the following:

  • No arguing with strangers on the internet. It’s draining and not worth it to me. I just don’t engage, which means I definitely share less than I used to on social media.
  • Turn off all notifications outside of working hours except those that are related to a real emergency (PagerDuty, for example).
  • Don’t try to do more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth and I can’t do my best work if I’m juggling too many things.
  • Treat no as a kindness. Saying yes to something I don’t have time for isn’t kind – because I’ll either not get it done, or I’ll half-ass it. If it’s really important, then something else will have to not happen.
  • Admitting when I’m not well, and taking time to recover. This one’s really hard, because I work from home so the bar to call in sick feels higher than it should be.

I think enumerating your boundaries, needs and wants is helpful. Once you know what they are, you can communicate them to your family, friends, manager and peers. I love having the “exchange of needs” conversation with my manager. It helps set expectations for both of us, and makes working together a lot easier – because we both know what to expect, and have easy ways to measure if we’re asking for something that’s beyond those expectations.

I think a lot of us grew up thinking that taking time for ourselves was selfish, and it just isn’t. We can’t be effective for others if we’re not kind to ourselves – and part of that kindness is balancing the giving with recovery and personal growth.

I hope this helps. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships.

The intersections of kindness, humor and privilege

On Mastodon this morning, as I sat watching football (aka soccer) and drinking coffee, I asked what I should write about. Amy came through for me:

You’ve always seemed to put a lot of thought into kindness and humor (you++). I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on that – not just as a something you decide to do as practice or ethic – but maybe a bit deeper as to why and how and how you receive kindness and humor from others too.

Amy van der Hiel

I think this post from 2019 explains some of the how, but definitely not all of it – and I wrote it almost 4 years ago, and I think things have evolved a little in how I think about the why of it all.

Before I get to the why, I need to talk a little bit about privilege.

Part of the process of accepting that I have privilege was deciding what I was going to do about it, which is constantly evolving and informed by the results of a lot of practice and trying new things. I am a middle aged, cisgender, heterosexual, white man. That’s a whole bucket of privilege – the entire modern world was made to work for people just like me.

I’ve also had a very long career, full of ups and downs, learning new things, failing a lot and learning from a lot of those failures.

That puts me in a place of even more privilege. I work at a very successful tech company, and am a very senior engineer, where I have a lot of influence and yep, a lot of privilege.

I’ve also realized (multiple times, because it takes repeating things before you really learn it) that because of that privilege, I get away with things that other don’t. I’m not invulnerable, but I know where my lines are and am really good at figuring out how to cause trouble in a way that doesn’t get me in more trouble than it’s worth.

And that brings us to why I am the way that I am, and why I believe kindness and humor are the best tools to do good work.

Pushing limits and making space

I have a big Pride flag hanging from the curtain rod in my office, and I wear chunky rainbow glasses when I work on the computer.

I bring up equity issues at work in the open and to leadership fairly frequently.

Why? It’s fun. It’s also important. But it’s really because it pushes the line of what’s acceptable and creates a space for others to do it as well. If I, the normiest normcore dad in the world, can wear rainbow glasses and fly a pride flag that’s visible in every Zoom call I’m on, then others can too. I want to derisk people being their full selves as much as possible – and if that means I get to be weird and a little silly, that’s a bonus.

Humor as humanity permission slip

It’s hard to be nervous or stressed out when you’re smiling. I work with a lot of people who are decades younger than I am, and I see huge confidence issues. Work is also sometimes full of stressful and unpleasant situations: software breaks, projects fail, people screw up, layoffs happen out of the blue, and it all feels terrible.

So, I make jokes. I used to make sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited jokes… it’s taken a long time to fix that. Now, I make terrible puns, jokes about software, or myself – anything to break the tension so we can recenter and get on with fixing whatever it is.

Humor allows us space to admit our humanity. It is a permission slip to take a second, find a little bit of joy, and recenter before we grapple with whatever fresh hell awaits us.

Kindness and humor are invitations

I don’t know quite how to put this part into words, but work is a community, and communities work best when people are comfortable, willing to express themselves, and play along.

Kindness and humor are the best ways I’ve found to help kickstart the vulnerability required to create great teams. I can afford to be vulnerable because I’ve got this super giant soft pillow of privilege, and I know that not everyone does. So, I need to be vulnerable first to show that it’s possible. I then also need to reward and celebrate vulnerability in others.

They’re also a great way to get people to take risks and get out there. Building people up to the point that they get out there and do a presentation or volunteer to lead a project is such a rewarding feeling – and the best part is that I can then praise them publicly, which reinforces feelings of safety and possibility.

A big part of the why for all of this is that I don’t want to be the reason that someone holds back part of themselves. I don’t want my overwhelming normieness to shut people down, make them withdraw or make them feel anything other than completely welcome and appreciated.

I think this might actually be the core of it: I love learning about people, about their loves and lives and what makes them tick. I want to work with people who, like Emile Zola said, “live out loud.” If there’s anything I bring to a situation that would keep them from feeling safe being around me, I want to fix it – and sometimes that means turning my own volume down.

It’s been a huge realization that sometimes, just because of what I look like (resting dad face), and my visible undeniable privilege, that might not always be possible. Just me being there might be enough for someone to withdraw, and I have to be OK with that. But, there are things I can do to make things better, to make people feel more safe, and I think the obligation of privilege is to make more room for people to be themselves, to make room for them at the table – especially the board room table.

And this is where I am today. I’m trying to figure out how kindness, privilege and humor can build equity. If I make other people feel safe, but that safety’s not actually there, I’m not really helping. But, if I can create actual safety, and create more space where people can be seen and rewarded for being their full selves, that’s worth it.

I’m still working on it. It’s still a “practice”.


This post is… I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I feel like I need to write my way through it. Let’s see what happens. But before that, I need to cover some history:

  • 1995 – 2008: I worked at AOL, was very involved in church and had small children. I had two major leg injuries: a ruptured ACL and a dislocated ankle that required major surgery.
  • 2008 – 2021: Moved to Savannah. I worked at a series of small startups and a lifestyle company, quit my church, had growing children, and got very involved in the community, serving on at least one governing board pretty much the whole time from The Creative Coast to Susie King Taylor Community School. Also co-founded a non-profit, TechSAV. Oh yeah, I gained close to 100 pounds between 2008 and 2019.
  • 2021 – now: Started working at Gusto, by that point, had already quit all the governing boards, and COVID stopped us from doing all TechSAV events.

It’s now 2023 and I’m still working at Gusto, and loving it. I love having work/life balance finally, and not having to wear all the hats of being a startup CTO.

I’ve been thinking about looking for a board to join, and what to do with all my newfound time, but… for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on, I was dragging my feet. I just don’t want to.

Why? What changed?

I realized that since we moved to Savannah, I’ve been under a huge amount of stress – both externally and internally applied. This is the first time since probably 2000 that I haven’t been a Single Point of Failure for something at work. Balance wasn’t something I could physically do, much less something I had in my life.

Now that I’m finally feeling some relief from the stress, I’ve lost 50 pounds in the last two years, and I’m not done.

I don’t want to join any boards. I don’t want to lead some great new thing.

I want to get healthy.

I finally have some time that’s mine. I’m not on call for the first time in twenty years. People rely on me, but I’m not a Single Point of Failure for anyone’s livelihood (except my own).

It feels selfish to want to spend time on me, but I need to. I don’t want to commit to something else until I feel like I can do it without sacrificing my health, which I still need to improve.

Clarity. It took me a while to get here, but now that I’m here, I’m at peace with it. I’m investing in the opportunity to be here, to be present, to make sure that I can be here and be active for a long time.

Repurposing Notes: Positive Psychology

We do this thing at work called a Sage Session where someone picks a tech talk, we watch it, and then discuss it. Today was my turn, and I didn’t really want to talk about tech, because it’s not the thing that slows people down. I wanted to talk about positive psychology, so… we did! I liked the notes I came up with enough that I’m going to repurpose them here!

Talks we watched

  • The Secret to Happy Work by Shawn Achor: One of my all-time favorite TED Talks and worth watching, because it’s very funny, and a great introduction to the value of positive psychology.
  • There’s More to Life Than Being Happy by Emily Esfahani Smith: This one was new to me, but I wanted to find a counterpoint to all that happy talk. This is a good one.

Talks I wanted to show, but didn’t

Things to try

3 Good Things: Watch this and then do this.


  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl – One of the best books I’ve ever read on finding meaning in life and relationships
  • Gratitude by Oliver Sacks – Nice and short, written by Oliver Sacks near the end of his life. It’s really good.
  • The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block – great overview of how to do community building based on abundance.


Categorized as love

My Intentions for 2023

I don’t do resolutions. I don’t remember who I first got the idea of doing intentions from, but I really like it. It just feels better than BIG RESOLUTIONS that I inevitably fail. Intentions are things I’d like to do in 2023 but don’t have the same weight or guilt associated with them. So… here they are, my intentions for 2023.

Write more. I signed up for Bring Back Blogs, which means I’m committing to write at least three things here in January (this is one of them, so two to go!). With me less in love with social media than ever, especially the “big” ones, and my fascination with the fediverse (more on that later), it’s time to write more, think more, and revive the blog!

Read more. I think I only finished two books in 2022. I started a bunch, but unless I was trapped in an airplane, I didn’t make time to read books. I think it’s partly because I literally read all day every day at work, but that’s just an excuse.

Contribute to an open source project. Work keeps me pretty busy code-wise, but there’s so much interesting stuff going on in the distributed social world, that it’s time to do something with it. I’m keeping my expectations pretty low for this one, but I expect I’ll at least help with bug fixes and documentation on some interesting fediverse project like mastodon (or maybe I’ll start a federated ficly).

Get out of the house. I almost don’t care what shape this comes in. The pandemic turned me into a full-on hermit to the point that leaving the house now is fairly rare. That needs to change. It could just mean riding my new ebike regularly, or going out to dinner with Jen more often, doing community things, or… something else altogether. We’ll see.

Travel more. We’re empty nesters now! We’ve already got a couple of trips planned for this year, and I want to do more! I want to go back to Europe and explore some places I haven’t been yet. Stay tuned.

I had three or four other things I was going to add here, but this feels like enough.