My Alice in Wonderland Year

Personally, 2009 has been a year full of the unexpected. I got a job; Neil discovered a math community; Kelly went to private school; and Peter may be on the cusp of a new direction. I’m not quite sure what to make of it all, much less what to expect for 2010, but it has been at parts so surreal that I have taken to calling it my Alice in Wonderland year.

The year started out with me working part-time on a contract, writing for developers on mobile internet technology. The work was nice, since I learned a lot, and earned money to ride us through the rocky ride the credit crash caused.

Early on, we got a new president, whose cult of personality made me nervous. Happily, that cult seems to have faded from the American populace, but he still has solid Congressional support, which has led to some unprecedented and extraordinary acts of government, like a stimulus bill passed seemingly in seconds; the nationalization of two American car companies; and nationalized health care which, as far as I can tell, still doesn’t give me free health care.

I completed my contract work in March, but in the meantime, I scored a columnist gig at Santa Cruz Magazine. It was surreal, to say the least, to have work fall in my lap while others weren’t able to find jobs, no matter how hard they looked.

Neil went to his first math competition, Math Counts, in February, and seems to have been discouraged out of any competition as a result. It was all I could do to get him to come to the Julia Robinson Math Festival at Stanford in June, and only then with the promise that if he didn’t like it we would go. It turned out to be far better than that: he met mathematician Bill Gosper, who became his friend, mentor, and guide to the math community in the South Bay and the Bay area. When Neil took a computer class at Stanford in June, Bill Gosper would meet us after class, and show off complex mathematical equations in graphic form, to which he added riddles, puzzles, and personal anecdotes. Neil absorbed it; I felt like Alice in Wonderland at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

In July, everything seemed to fall apart. Someone, somewhere, hacked my eBay and Paypal accounts, which ended up with some innocent computer vendor in England sending me an expensive laptop I had never ordered. A few weeks later, it was time to exchange library books for Tamara, the elderly Ukrainian woman I’d been helping since before Kelly was born, but she wasn’t answering her phone. Eventually, I called one of the Russians who lived in her community, and he told me she’d gone to a nursing home, and gave me her number there. But when I spoke to her, she couldn’t remember me. And I haven’t heard from her since.

Then, Comic-Con rolled around, and Kelly and I came down with a flu so bad we could barely move for two days. We quarantined ourselves from Peter and Neil, but nonetheless, it rolled over to them too—exactly as Peter needed to be packing up the van and driving down to the show. So Peter assigned the packing duties to Joe and Mark, which ended up having some consequences. In the end, Peter recovered just in time for the great drive south, albeit with a Neil who mustered himself to the verge of recovery, only due to his desire to keep his record of having attended Comic-Con every year of his life.

At this point, I’d run out of my hard-earned money from earlier in the year. So just about then, the consultancy who’d booked me to do the earlier contract, called out of the blue, and told me they had a full-time contract gig for me, which I could work from home. Regrettably, I had to tell them I could only work part-time, since I was homeschooling my children, and that I would have to take a break in September, because we’d scored cheap tickets to Australia in May for those dates. I still got the gig, though it started out with the Ghastly Powerpoint, at which point I figured my far more unconventional Powerpoints ended it just as suddenly.

And so, we packed up the family to go to Albuquerque, where we got to take part in four days of movie production, thanks to our big Atomic Avenue balloon, playing part of a setting. Yup, on top of everything else this year, we were in a movie. Having lost 10 pounds from the sheer stress and horror of PowerPoint, I put most of my energy into eating food off the craft table, and walking around downtown Albuquerque. Albuquerque is a funky little town, exactly the place where you can imagine a character from a Stan Ridgway song settling in after the car he (or she) was driving breaks down for the last, irreparable time.

When I came back, I was told my job would now be full-time, which left me with a different crisis. I might be able to keep the academics going, but there was no way I could serve Kelly’s social needs, work 40 hours a week, and remain sane. It was a real crisis for Peter and me, but at the last minute (after public school had already started and the Friday before this school began), we discovered there was a place we could affordably (given my job) send her. And so, we sent Kelly to private school, yet unexpected twist in the year.

In September, we went to Australia, which turned out to be both more and less exotic than we expected. Due to a horrendous dust storm, and our fear of a recurrence, we stuck close to the beaches between Brisbane and Sydney. More than anything, Australia struck us as alt.California: a beach- and mall-loving culture, albeit populated by friendly, docile British commonwealth folks. The beaches were stunning. The sky and most animals were weird (i.e. we saw a cassowary, but it still seems like an escapee from a childrens’ movie.) And most surprisingly, there are too few Australians: most of the country is extremely rural, and even Sydney seemed closer in size to a city like San Francisco, than to a big one, like London.

When I returned, I found it I was scheduled to travel out to Maryland for my job. It was several long days of business meetings, which included a fancy dinner at Zaytinya in DC, and seeing the beauty of autumn on the East Coast. My job became a bit more surreal after that though: it was like I’d been switched into a higher gear, and the wheel popped off, but I had to keep driving.

Just as the gig began to veer badly, I received some shocking news: my former neighbor, Dave, had unexpectedly died. It put me in a philosophical mood: was all this worth it, when life is so short? When my job finally sputtered to a halt a few weeks later, I collapsed in sheer exhaustion for 2 days, during which the consultancy had to prod me to do just a few more hours towards future assignments.

So I end the year knowing very little of what I can expect in 2010. This last year has been odd; I can only hope the next one is a little less so, but I don’t know that I can count on that.

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