Dad’s Denouement, Part 8: The Benefits of Abandonment

I gave up on something this week, when the thought of my own death and what I’ll leave behind overtook me.

One of my projects for this year has been to watch all the old Disney short cartoons and write about them. It’s a good project, something that fascinates me and that I can happily become obsessed with. I’ve been writing about it on my personal site.

As I got through about the 50th cartoon, I realized that I can streamline this process. I’d been copying the a template for each cartoon, including the date it aired and on which DVD collection it can be found. But instead of all that copy-pasting, I can write an application in which I pull in the data I need about the cartoon, write a review, capture a screenshot, automatically link to the Amazon page where people can buy the set, etc. The app would pull from tvDb, suck in the date the short aired, spit out the HTML I would need to just copy-paste into WordPress, presto! Time saved!

I reasoned to myself that I could abstract this concept. I could save my reviews to an Azure database and then pull them back and save a template for output. That would let me write the review one time and I could output it for WordPress but also if I wanted to turn this into a book I could change the template and, presto, a book! And, you know what, maybe other people would be interested in this. I should turn it into an app so ok let’s think about the clearest way to develop this, how will people use it and now I started sketching out the user interface…

And now it’s been 2 weeks since I’ve watched a single cartoon.

What am I doing with my life?

My dad died 6 months ago, aged only 61. Since then everything in my life is viewed through the lens of his life and his death. All the things he cared about, the passions he had, they’re orphaned. I’m discovering them and adopting them as much as I can, but the fact is that Dad was too big for me. He loved too many things and I can’t adopt them all. Some ideas he had died with him. Some projects he started are forever abandoned. Some threads will never be tied.

This has brought a focus to my own work. What, ultimately, is the point of anything that I do?

Being an Ecclesiastes man, I used to take comfort in the message of that book, which is that nothing we do matters and that we should enjoy our friends, our family, our food, and serve our God. That seemed like wisdom to me 10 years ago. Now I rebel in vain against that message. I can feel its truth in my bones but I hate that truth. I didn’t mind that message when applied to me, but I’m angry that it should be applied to my dad. Dad has to mean more than that.

I don’t mind working on things that help people, even if it’s just a few people. I don’t mind fighting the tide if it helps someone, even for a short time.

I worked at Microsoft on Windows Phone. That was a glorious fight and I don’t regret a single moment of it. Make fun if you want, but Windows Phone was a great OS, built by passionate people, with an amazing developer base. We were building good things. Sometimes good things fail. That’s ok. We did good work.

But that’s not what I was building here with my short cut for writing my Disney shorts blog posts. I was building an app for people who want an easy way to review an entire season of a TV show. How many people like that are there out there? Maybe a dozen? And who would ever use this thing? Any of them? I’m writing software that no one wants. I’m building for an imaginary user. I’m wasting my time. I’m wasting my life.

So I gave up.

I never give up. If I bite off more than I can chew, I’ll scale back and get to minimum viable product, kick something out the door and then move on to the next thing. That’s my standard procedure. I’ve built a dozen “products” that way. I have thousands of users for stuff that I’ve built in my spare time.

But not this time. I turned my user-friendly app into a script that just spit out what I need for this project and nothing more. No UI, no explanation, nothing useful to anyone but me, because no one else will ever use it.

That has been one of the hardest things about losing my Dad: the sense of things unfinished. I smile to myself as I think about this because I know dad could have had another 40 years and still would have left things unfinished. He was always working on something.

It makes me think about what I will leave unfinished. What am I working on that matters? What am I doing that really doesn’t matter? How can I orient my life toward the things that matter?

When my dad died, I started thinking very hard about what we leave behind. For every thing I do, I can’t help but hear a small voice asking me how that thing will last in the long term. As it turns out, very few things last in the long term.

One of the things that became my responsibility after Dad passed was taking care of his data. He had accounts w Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, he spread his data all over the place. I managed to pull everything together and it wasn’t not so bad, just under a terabyte of data.

But such precious data.

Photos from cruises, a high school trip to Europe with his daughter, all his plans for hiking the Appalachian trail (he got a couple hundred miles in, over half of it while sick with cancer). All this would have been lost in a matter of months if I didn’t know where to look for it, if I didn’t know how to save it.

I was lucky enough that he had already relied on me to manage his website. That meant I didn’t have to scrounge around for credentials, figure out his hosting service and charges, cancelled credit cards, and data transfers.

Figuring out dad’s post-mortem data strategy, it made me think about my own. I could die tonight and my online friends would all figure it out in about a month when all my websites start disappearing. I don’t mean this as a brag, but I don’t have anyone who can manage my data legacy like I’m managing my dad’s. This isn’t easy. It takes time, care, attention, and a certain level of technical expertise. Will there be someone who cares enough about me AND has the technical know-how to preserve my digital ghost after I’m gone?

As a point of pride, I don’t give up on things. I see every project through, no matter how meaningless, how small, how stupid, how useless. Giving up was a signal to me that I couldn’t do it and, goddamn it, I can do anything.

But some things simply are not worth doing. Proving that I can do this thing, build this thing that almost no one will use, this might be important, but it’s not more important than the time I have. That time is limited and it’s running out. At the end of the day… at the literal end… was that time trade-off worth it?

I want to end here because this is a sad place to end and I’m very sad. But I want to share where I am spending my time.

I spend a lot of time curating my media library in Plex. Plex is a home media service that allows you to take your movies and TV shows and stream them from a home server to devices within your home network or remotely to your friends. If that sentence sounded overly complicated, don’t bother, Plex isn’t for you. But it is for me.

My obsession with Plex developed in part because of my frustration with Netflix. Netflix is a place where I can watch whatever I want until suddenly I can’t. Shows or movies disappear without warning from Netflix. It bothers me a little bit but it bothers my kids a lot. They would be in the middle of watching a show or have a favorite movie and it would suddenly disappear. I really worry about a generation whose only experience with media is in subscribing to a service, never having media permanence., so I buy my media as DVDs and BluRays and I put them up on Plex. My kids know that, once it is on Plex, we have it forever.

Except that we won’t. I don’t know how long Plex will exist and, even if it turns into a 50–100 year company, the home media server needs to be maintained. There is a process for updating it, for keeping it running, for backing up and restoring the files. I spend a lot of time on something that will pretty quickly disappear the moment I do. That didn’t bother me before Dad died, but it eats at my mind now, corroding every accomplishment I make.

But I feel like bringing media stability for my kids is something worthwhile. They won’t have our movies forever, but maybe I can just keep this up until they can figure it out for themselves.

Maybe that’s what parents are for… to hold the world together just long enough for our kids to figure it out for themselves. I guess that is what my dad did, but I want to keep it up for him now that he’s gone. I can see the horizon of mortality inching closer and I have very little hope that my kids will want to maintain my projects and my data the way I try to maintain Dad’s. I want to think someone will care for and invest in the things I leave behind, but who really ever gets that?

I’ve spent hours and hours ripping and filtering old Looney Tunes and Disney shorts so that they can be streamed on Plex. It’s an almost overwhelming job to rip, encode, and rename all these files, but I’ve figured out a good way to do it and then I’ve shared the code to do that on github.

That brings me joy. There are maybe a couple hundred people in the world who care about this and I hope they find my work and improve on it. I get an occasional email pointing out an error I’ve made and it’s the best email I can get. Someone found me helpful and they’re using my work to help themselves and (hopefully) their family discover the things I love.

Even outside that projection of my work to other people, I would still obsess over my Plex library. It’s for my kids. They use it all the time, they’re used to it, they love it. It’s a quiet connection I make to them, a part of their childhood, a part of their lives. They may never understand the work that I put in to making sure they could always watch their favorite movies and TV shows. But quietly making things better for them feels like the only worthwhile investment.