Photograph of the lake and jetty described within the article.I took an unplanned month off from writing here — arguably my first break in the nearly six years since I began Fogknife — due to an interesting collision of minor life events, leading to an experimental change of habit that encourages me to revisit the the ol’ roll-top writing-desk.

In late September, after helping to once again launch this year’s IFComp, I quietly began the followup work to the Perl documentation work that sent me into such a reverie last spring. The job now in front of me involves defining some new documentation standards for Perl — a project once again funded, with my gratitude, by The Perl Foundation.

Unlike the rather cut-and-dried task of editing and improving a couple of extant man pages, this work takes the form of an entire research project. Over the last several weeks I have browsed a number of Perl’s contemporary (and, yes, rather more popular) open-source language projects to learn how they style and manage their respective user manuals. I immediately found myself awash in positive models and inspirational ideas, and I have written a lot. This includes a 6,000-word style-guide draft, whose picking-over by subcontracted editors only now commences, promising more writing to come.

This alone contains the total length of a half-dozen Fogknife articles, and I don’t find coincidence between this math and my dry spell here.

I began this blog as a full-time software engineer who loves and needs to write regularly — and who missed LiveJournal, and for whom Twitter proved a inadequate full substitute. This situation maintained through March of this year, when I retired my single active programming contract in order to experiment with changing up my professional gearing a bit. (Yes, just in time for things to get “interesting”. I envision my controlled exit as resembling a cartoon character bending down to pick up a shiny nickel just as an unseen wrecking-ball swings over their shoulders.)

The new documentation project, begun in earnest four weeks ago, satisfies my need to write on topics I care about — and it also exhausts my energy stores for doing so. For the first time in many years, no blog posts impatiently try to punch their way out of my head while I debug clients’ gnarly old CGI scripts. The post I write today happens only because my work’s reached a natural break-point, and I force myself to think about different things for a little while. (For similar reasons I made myself sit down and watch a movie last night for the first time in weeks.)

I frame none of this as a complaint, and more of an unexpected but perfectly sensible side effect as I gradually achieve my goal, set two summers ago, of redefining myself as a writer.

This shift carries a second-order payoff, too, an equally unpredicted inversion: with my days no longer full of managing other peoples’ code, I have rediscovered my daily need for left-brain-leaning games and diversions. I filled this at first with long-delayed personal programming projects like Whim, but once those shipped I turned instead to pleasures and pastimes that I stopped pursuing with much fervor when I began software freelancing in the late aughts.

It happens that I spent a whole week, earlier this month, in a vacation rental at a North Carolina beach town. I had a fantastic time. While there, in a place so different from the neighborhood I’ve otherwise failed to leave since Covid moved in, I got up every morning excited to start my day, and I did all kinds of things — including, but not limited to, chipping away at the documentation project. And the morning after I returned, waking up in New York as usual, I felt shrouded in the terribly familiar doubts as to my own purpose and function.

Close at hand, though, were memories of how I felt just days earlier, and I resolved to claw some of that mindset back to Manhattan. I wanted, if nothing else, that kick out of bed. Well — as it happens, there literally was one, during those days at Carolina Beach. On a lark, during my first morning there, I strolled down to a nearby artificial “lake”, took a seat in a covered wooden jetty, and solved the day’s New York Times crossword puzzle on my iPad. I would end up doing that every subsequent morning, coffee in hand, surrounded by the squabbling geese who dwelled on the lake.

And so that’s my new habit. Back home now, I drag myself out of my morning tangle of covers and cats, bounce through a few minutes of exercise, make or buy a coffee, and then park somewhere and tap through the Times app until it rewards me with its little “hey you did it” bass-and-piano ditty some twenty-to-sixty minutes later. And then — the theory goes, and has proven true so far — I am fully awake, brain humming healthily, and willing to apply myself to do something productive.

It happens that many of my friends, including the one to whom I am married, are puzzle fiends. (Our friendships all tended to begin around a shared appetite for brainy games, back in the earliest years of this century.) All are only too happy to help teach me the secret language of modern crosswords, and the Times’s in particular. I had already known that they get harder as the week goes on, but I didn’t know which weekdays reliably had themes, or tricky gimmicks, or what forms they tended to take.

I don’t plan on becoming a hint-resistant hardcore solver, like my friends; I “cheat” with web searches freely. This still leaves me on my own to discover the delights I heretofore had no idea the Times puzzles held. Last week, for example, one puzzle hinged on figuring out that several vaguely-worded clues actually described hand gestures (e.g. VULCANSALUTE, HANGLOOSE), which culminated in an in-puzzle punchline. Another had a hidden Australian theme, whose topical answers (VEGEMITE, KANGAROO) fit the grid only when filled in backwards, per the way the water swirls Down Under.

Here ends my check-in. Certainly I do not think Fogknife is in any “danger”, though I suppose that if all this keeps up I may wish to reset its expected update-frequency. For the present, this blog remains central to my identity as a writer, even as I put more energy than ever before into reeling out whole pages for a primary audience other than myself, with mental-health breaks in between for writing predestined letters into tiny little boxes.

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