Charles Harries

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June 2022

A full month: catching COVID, going to Riga, getting back out on my bike, & thinking long & hard about what I want to do next.

June was dominated by a couple of big events: (finally) getting COVID, going to Latvia for a long weekend, and plenty of reading. A good month overall!

Health

Got COVID at the beginning of the month after getting exposed to it one way or another: it might have been the Jubilee party, it might have been a birthday that I attended; it might have just been a fateful crossing of paths. Sam caught it as well, so we were laid up for a weekend, stuck indoors and in the garden while the sun wheeled overhead and our fridge slowly drained of snacks and suppers, til we were left with little other than sauces and cans of beans. As we recovered, we ordered supplies from Ocado, the automated grocery store with the grid robots and the partnership with Waitrose, so we were richly rewarded for our inadvertent austerity.

Not to say that COVID was a cakewalk—thanks to being triple-vaxxed it wasn't a massive punch in the gut, but I'm not lining up to catch it again. While the main symptoms passed in a couple of days, a sort of weariness remained for like a week afterwards, where I'd get to the top of a flight of stairs not out of breath by any means but sort of bodily weary. The way that you feel after a long day of standing continually: desparate to sit down, in need of a beer.

I guess this interval was a reminder that COVID isn't over—that it'll never really be over. While I was laid up, the question of whether I'd be one of the 2 million folks in the UK reporting lingering symptoms of COVID (the dreaded "long" variant) hung over my head, and while I’ve escaped relatively unscathed, the threat lingers. No guarantee that I won’t catch it again. In the meantime I’m continuing to be as cautious as I can.

At home

With the trip to Riga looming, I fell into a kind of quarter-life funk (here's hoping I can hang on to 120+ years old) that I found hard to put words to. I think it pertains to my historic effort-averseness: though I know that I should do certain things—like take a vacation, go on a long bike ride, text a friend back, get a dog—I tend to blow the prospect of the effort involved way out of proportion and then neglect to take action.

I think that a lot of people my age fall into similar-type cohorts. The Reply All podcast's famous "Email Debt Forgiveness Day" absolves people whose guilt around unanswered emails has ballooned to the point that they can no longer respond; subreddits like r/2meirl4meirl harvest tens of thousands of likes from posts about being too burnt out to function, even in one's own self-interest.

In most cases—for me, anyway—being hustled into doing whatever I wanted to originally do usually ends in a positive outcome: pride over something accomplished, a fun experience to cherish with people I love, a richer life more deliberately lived. I rarely look back on a task I struggled to start unpleased that I was able to finish it.

I know it's not as easy as just getting over it, but I've been trying to say yes more, even in the face of overwhelming effort, since the effort is usually well-spent and not even that great in most cases anyway. So in the name of saying yes...

Travel

...we travelled to Riga, Latvia, for a long weekend.

Old church at the Ethnographic Open Air Museum, Jugla, Latvia
Old church at the Ethnographic Open Air Museum, Jugla, Latvia

I'm not great with travel in general: in most cases I really want to just blend in and look normal, and that doesn't jive well with tourism, where I'm usually singled out by a puzzled look on my face and approached by touts hawking roses and trinkets. But the cost of the flights to Riga—just £25 return—made the trip hard to resist.

Latvia is a beautiful country, with a wild history and a powerful national character, all of which can be intimately felt and experienced in its capital, Riga. We visited the ex-KGB headquarters, we wandered around an outdoors ethnographic museum, we rode a bobsled down an actual bobsled track, we tried a bunch of pickled food with copious amounts of sour cream, we took in the sights and sounds. We didn't have some unique experience: we did tourist stuff, surrounded by Germans and Russians and Scandinavians on holiday. But we had a spectacular time, escaping from daily life for a long weekend and collecting a bunch of new experiences along the way. Latvia's a wonderful country and we're already planning to go back.

Hallway in the dungeons of the KGB museum in Riga
Hallway in the dungeons of the KGB museum in Riga

Outdoors

When my dad came to the UK back in May, one of the things he brought over was my bike, an old Schwinn Super Sport from the 80s (I think) that I used for commuting during the year I lived in Florida. I haven't done much riding since I first moved here and fell off a very sporty road bike and sort of lost my appetite for cycling, but, having ridden the Super Sport a few times to the top of Wingate for supplies at the local Coop, I decided that I was ready to try another trip further afield again.

Nothing flash, just a 20km round trip to Horden and back to pick up some groceries—while I like riding for the sake of it, I like riding for a purpose even more, even if that purpose is just e.g. to get to a beach party in Shosanbetsu on the west coast of Hokkaido. So—down to Horden it was. The way back up from Horden was emphatically Not Fun, riding uphill into the wind with a backpack on, but it helped me get over my latent fear of riding on the roads in the UK and gave me immense pride in myself. Some of the strongest memories of my time in Japan were of slowly putting sweaty miles behind me with friends in the heat of the Hokkaido summer, so I'm glad to be back at it—even just here in County Durham.

Books

Lots of reading in June—every couple of weeks I get into a good swing where I can resist picking up Twitter and reach for a book instead, and June saw maybe my best effort yet, finishing:

It's amazing how many pages you can get done when you really heartily enjoy what you're reading. Makes me wonder why I'm so often on Twitter, which breeds in me a low, slow anxiety that grows daily.

Also got started on No Fixed Abode, by Douglas Legg, about an older fellow who walks around the coast of Great Britain depending almost solely on the kindness of strangers. Not sure what I think of it so far—Sam thinks that Legg is "a bit of a chancer"—but it's a curious perspective of the island that I now call home. Expect a review in the next little bit.

Online

While I was meticulous about posting book reviews as I worked my way through them, I've sort of fallen by the wayside on the Stream. I had intended to post from Latvia, but then didn't, and then intended to write about Latvia when I got back, and then didn't—and I've felt so busy with everything else since then that I haven't really posted much of anything. So it's been quiet on the blog.

I did build a simple Markov generator in Go, though, of which I'm pretty proud. It's based on Jordan Scales's markov.rb, so it's not totally de moi, but I can at least say that I understand the concepts behind it. Markov chains are pretty simple when it comes down to it, a fancy name for what's effectively a chain of probabilities.

Working through this, along with a check-in on progression at work and a sort of uneasy feeling about frontend web development, has given me a bit to think about from a career standpoint. For a long time, I've thought of myself as a front-end web developer—not as a result of purposeful effort, but just because I sort of fell into that role at the jobs I've worked previously. I've done some backend-type stuff, hooking up APIs to internal services; but I've always been fascinated by the web browser specifically and the world of possibilities that it opens up for interacting accessibly with networked applications. Within the browser, you don't need a specific computer or specific requirements to run an application: the browser itself is a runtime for universal applications—whether you're on a 10-year old Thinkpad running Linux with no desktop environment or the latest silicon coming out of Cupertino.

What's been giving me pause lately is the increasing sense that the better part of front-end web development is effectively just a popularity contest. A lot of solutions don't seem to be judged by the end-user experience, but by the blog posts that can be written about the build, the mindshare of the framework, the developer experience. Accessibility is a worthwhile pursuit, but only insofar as you can lord it over those for whom accessibility is an afterthought; building performant, responsive experiences is just a means to a 100 Lighthouse report that you can post to Twitter or embed in your website's footer. It's not all bad, but it is frustrating. It makes me wonder how much more I ought to invest in learning to build out technically excellent front-end applications (of which, admittedly, I've built extremely few), vs. getting better at creating highly-available backend logic to power front-end experiences that others can build. I've long been interested in the backend but have viewed it as the domain of CS-Masters'-degree-holders, not of lowly self-taught code jockeys like me. Maybe that's not the way it is. I think I'm only seeing a part of the whole.

Anyway, that's June! The sun is well & truly out, there's nary a cloud in the sky, and the thermometer's measuring a cool 23 degrees. I'm gonna go sit outside.

Monthnotes Travel Career