March 18th dinner party

The last nine months, in two thousand words.

A catch-up on coding, my arts center, travel, and other big events since the last time I updated my journal

Hola, amigos! So yes, after my umpteenth time last September vowing to get more regular again with my personal journal, I then proceeded to go almost nine months without another update. That might indeed become the case again later this year; but for now, I’ve made a new challenge to myself to get a new journal entry posted once a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so with any luck there will at least be lots of new content here to regularly read this particular summer. I thought today I’d start by getting everyone caught up with the last nine months of my life, for those who don’t follow me at Twitter or Instagram and haven’t been keeping up that way.

So let’s start with what you’ve undoubtedly already noticed, which is that the URL for my main website (jasonpettus.com) is currently pointing to my Medium.com account; and that’s because my main site is going to be offline until the end of the year, because for the first time in twenty years I’m in the process of switching the software that makes the backend of it all work, from the now outdated MovableType to the currently hot and trendy WordPress. This is partly for personal reasons (I can do a lot more with WordPress than I ever could with MovableType, since it’s open source and therefore a billion people have now written third-party plugins for it), and partly for professional reasons (I’m out right now trying to find a job as a software developer, and need things to put on my resume’s project list…but more on that in a bit); but since it was more important to start with the overhaul for my arts organization, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (or CCLaP), that’s what I’ve been working on since the beginning of the year, and will continue to do until late this autumn sometime, when I’m anticipating finally wrapping up all the new features I’d like to implement there. At that point I plan on finally tackling my personal website, and doing a top-to-bottom overhaul which includes finally re-formatting and re-publishing all my old creative work which sadly hasn’t gotten updates in over 15 years. (I’m still technically offering versions of all my books for Palm Pilots, if that gives you an indication of how outdated everything currently is there.)

By the way, phase 1 of the CCLaP website overhaul is now finished and online at cclapcenter.com, if you feel like checking it out; it’s fully responsive in both layout and even font sizes, so should show up in an elegant, nicely readable way whether you visit on a big-screen television, a phone, or anything in between. I’ll detail this out a lot more in another coming journal entry this summer, but basically the CCLaP overhaul is being handled in a series of steps from now until this October or so, with the plan being to institute a whole bunch of new stuff since I’m now on WordPress and finally can…

  • Phase 1, now online, was “simply” an overhaul of the blog itself (“simply” in quotes because even this took five months of daily work). The biggest difference now besides simply the look and feel is that we’re now including a lot more information with each book review — descriptive tags, full “image cards” at Twitter when you tweet about a review, new “click to tweet” pre-defined pullquotes embedded right in the reviews themselves, the ability for readers to add their own comments and upvote/downvote others, and the establishment of an entire new database behind the scenes that is now tracking each individual review’s metadata (such as that book’s author, publisher, the year it was published, our score, etc).
  • In Phase 2, I’ll be teaching myself the front-end JavaScript framework React by building what’s called a “single page application” for this new review database, so that you’ll be able to sort through our thousand old reviews by whatever criterion you wish, and even cascading searches via multiple criteria (so that, for example, you can pull up only our reviews of books by Two Dollar Radio that got a score of 8 or above).
  • Phase 3, which I hope to have online by this September, is a powerful new reworking from the ground-up of our online store, into a sophisticated e-commerce destination that will be able to compete with Shopify and other high-level professional setups. It will not only finally bring together everything we sell across the web for the first time (including our original books, the blank notebooks I make and sell through Etsy, the rare books I sell through eBay, and the print-on-demand merchandise we sell through CafePress), but it will give me the chance to offer coupons, run one-day sales on a regular basis, and for the first time sell digital content with automatic delivery, something that’s been crucially missing in CCLaP’s operations so far. (In fact, up to now I’ve just been giving away CCLaP’s ebooks for promotional purposes, because it would’ve been so hard to monetize them and deliver the digital downloads with each purchase; that all changes this fall, when everything we’ve ever published besides the blog gets put behind a paywall at our new online store.)
  • Phase 4, happening around the same time, is that CCLaP will be starting up its publishing and live-events programs again; although to be clear, our publishing plans for the remainder of 2017 will be limited just to public domain books (but more on what these will be in a future journal entry), plus the re-establishment of our weekly small magazine, The CCLaP Weekender, featuring just one short story and one photography feature in a 40-page PDF every Friday. The live events, meanwhile (which will definitely include the revival of “The CCLaP Sessions” in my apartment, aka CCLaP’s “Studio 505"), will have an admission fee for the first time, and we’ll be selling tickets online through our new e-commerce store. And that’s in preparation for…
  • Phase 5, which will get implemented just as soon as all the rest has been proven to be bug-free and working correctly, is where this all comes together — I’ve decided to try something radical and basically turn CCLaP more into a Spotify/Netflix/Kindle-Unlimited-style subscription service and less like a traditional small press. Basically, for five bucks a month (or $50 a year when paid for all at once), people will get a “membership” to CCLaP, which will give them instantaneous free online access to all 40 old books and 100 old issues of our magazine we’ve already published (all the stuff that will otherwise now be behind a paywall starting this autumn), plus free access to all the new books and magazines we’ll be publishing in the future (1 new book and 4 new magazine issues every month), 10 percent off all physical merchandise at our online store, and free admission to all our live events. For at least the next year after that first gets up and running, I’m going to try making this CCLaP’s main means of generating revenue, and to devote nearly all our marketing time and resources into this and almost none into individual books or individual events; but it involves having several other moving parts finished and working well before I can implement this last step, so that’s basically what the rest of the year is all about for me, sitting down and coding for four to six hours every single day, and eventually getting all these different parts up and running at the website. But again, a lot more on this plan in a separate journal entry later this summer.

Of course, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture; I’m doing all this coding not just in the hopes of making CCLaP financially successful (which may turn out to be a huge flop for all I know at this point), but for the equally important reason of being able to put all this on my resume, along with the resulting case studies, design schemes, and code dumps at Github that employers will be looking through when I’m applying for a job with them. I admit, it’s been a tough two years regarding this subject since graduating DevBootcamp in 2015— I’ve felt only half-hearted at best about the coding jobs I’ve been applying for, with resulting lackluster interviews because of it, with no major projects under my belt before this year and not even really a good idea of what exactly I want to be doing in the tech industry in the first place.

After some pretty deep soul-searching over the last nine months, though, I’ve started finally admitting some hard truths to myself about it all, and making some definitive decisions that I think is going to make my renewed job search this summer finally go a little better. Like, finally admitting that I’m just not that interested (nor am I very good) at the back-end part of the “full-stack” coding that I learned in DevBootcamp two years ago, and that I need to give up on the idea of getting a full-stack coding job once and for all, which has really helped me focus in on my private learning time and actually start building some real stuff in the real world. (For the last two years I’ve mostly been futzing around with learning this new protocol and that new protocol, trying to get a general education of stuff under my belt but never actually building anything practical that actually works.) And, thus, finally committing strongly to the idea of getting a job in front-end development (i.e. the people who decide how an app or website looks, feels and works for the end-user like you); which means not only traditional design and HTML/CSS skills, but also what’s called “user experience” (or UX) design. And, realizing that what I really want to do is a job type called “project manager,” which basically brings together the unique combination of skills I already have as a small-business owner (keeping your creatives and tech workers in good communication with each other, bringing in the opinions of end users and corporate partners, assessing the feasibility of implementing this new feature versus that new feature, etc); but also acknowledging that most companies don’t want to hire someone as a project manager until they’ve already had some experience in one of the more specific jobs within project management, and that it’s more worth my time right now to focus my energy on getting an entry-level job as a designer or developer instead of jumping straight into a job in management.

That’s been one of the biggest reasons I’ve decided this particular year to dump the general learning I’ve been doing and to start really concentrating on the act of “shipping code,” i.e. getting actual real-world projects up and running in the actual real world; because I’ve been coming to realize that you simply can’t get hired as a designer or front-end developer unless you do, versus full-stack jobs like I had previously been trying to get after DevBootcamp, where employers are happy to hire people straight out of school with no projects under their belt, because they can simply give applicants a freaking test right during the interview, and those who pass the test get hired and those who don’t are shown the door. Back-end coding is much more about math, science, procedures, algorithms, databases and other “objective” skills (i.e. they’re done the same way over and over, no matter who you are), which is why employers can simply give these people a test to determine whether they’re qualified for the job or not; but front-end work is much more about “subjective” skills like visual design, creative decision-making and clever organization, which is why it’s much more important in those cases to have a resume full of working examples employers can actually look at and assess. So, that’s also what this summer is all about, besides just the coding work; I’m also out attending tech meetups again, meeting new people, making new professional connections, applying for jobs, and beefing up my resume, after taking the long winter off from it all last year.

And let’s see, what else? Well, I’ve started traveling a lot more, which I’m happy about, although “more” is a bit subjective in this case — by the end of June it’ll just have been three trips in the last nine months, but is certainly is a lot more than the “zero” of the last couple of years. The biggest news regarding all that is that my brother now lives in New Orleans, so I’ve made a commitment to start going down and visiting him something like three or four times a year, mostly because it was a New Year’s resolution a few years ago to start spending more regular hang-out time with my family, although of course it doesn’t hurt that he now lives in such an interesting and fun city to do so (and one where I can get around by myself via public transportation, which has not been the case in the last several cities where he’s lived, such as San Diego and Dallas). I’ve had a lot of observations to make about New Orleans over the three times I’ve now been down there (the tl;dr version — their official city slogan seems to be “Ehhhhhhhhh, fuck it,” applied to everything from sidewalk repair to bus schedules to restaurant wait lines, which as an uptight Northern Yankee German Protestant simultaneously delights me and infuriates me), so I think I’ll make a whole separate journal entry about that as well later this summer; but in the meanwhile, the best way to stay up-to-date about my various travels (which also include my first-ever trip to Milwaukee in just another couple of weeks) is to follow me at Instagram, basically the one social media account I have left that anyone pays any attention to. (I quit Facebook two years ago and have never regretted it since; I’m still active at Flickr but that’s basically a dead social network at this point; I’m still active as well at Goodreads [the social network for book nerds] and Letterboxd [the social network for film nerds], but those are both ultra-niche sites; and I’m super-active at Twitter, but apparently no one over there gives a shit.)

Oh, and how’s this for a piece of news? I’m thinking about starting to write some performance pieces again! I’m still profoundly on the fence about this, though, so it might not happen — the only reason I’m thinking about doing it in the first place is because I thought it might be fun to do a little creative writing again, plus I sorta half-promised my friend AJ Sorensen I would, after I goaded her into writing a semi-autobiographical novel about her experiences doing professional horse show-jumping as a teen, but my motivation for sitting down and actually writing the pieces remains mediocre at best. Anyway, more updates on this as well as the summer continues.

And other than all this, things continue to be generally the same since the last time I wrote. I’m still in Uptown; I’m still throwing dinner parties once every month and a half or so; I’m still growing an indoor garden every summer (which is extra-ambitious this particular year — I’m attempting to grow 24 different kinds of plants this time, including a bunch of “medicinal” herbs for the first time like eucalyptus and valerian, and plan on making a series of finished products out of it all this autumn that I’ll give out to my friends, such as flavored teas, bath bombs, aromatherapy oils and seasoning shakers). And I’m still hanging out regularly with my friend Carrie and her two twin sons, who believe it or not will be 14 later this summer. The big new development with us is that the boys have discovered billiards for the first time this year, so we’ve been going out every Friday night to Seven-Ten Lanes in Hyde Park to play a couple of hours of pool, and indulge ourselves with an evening of junk food and unlimited sodas, which I think the boys like as much as the pool itself.

I think that essentially gets you all caught up, and this has gone on long enough as it is, so I think I’ll end things here for today. Next week, an essay I’ve been wanting to write for awhile, on how this year I find myself transforming more and more into what I call a “Buddsto” — half-Buddhist, half-Stoic, two philosophies that I didn’t realize until this year actually overlap in their beliefs by about 75 percent. I’m at a point in my life now where I’m regularly practicing self-compassion and self-care, doing meditation every day and yoga about once or twice a week, and I’ve been wanting to write an essay about how I’ve been able to incorporate these sorta New Agey activities into my life but without swallowing the New Age Kool-Aid, about how for example to learn to cut yourself a break regularly but without becoming some Stuart Smalley loser who’s basically using self-compassion to justify being a complete fuck-up. That’s coming next weekend, so I hope to see you again then.