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30Oct/110

Goodbye Dad, Hello "Code Writer's Block"

My dad died just about 5 months ago.  In that time, I have done lots of things.  I have written a ton of blog entries (some good, some okay, and many bad ones), I have changed jobs, read at least 10 books, and started to play hardcore video games (i.e Gears Of War 2, Dragon Age) again after many years.  However, there is one thing I have not done.  I have not written a single line of code for any project other than what was necessary for work.

The morning of June 1st started like any other.  After dropping my girls off at school, I sat down at my computer to continue working on a version of "progressive" Breakout in HTML5.  I wanted to include a version of the game in my book, HTML5 Canvas, but the deadline was too short for me to finish.  I recall, that morning, I planned to work on the in-game sounds and if there was time, add some power-ups that could be caught with the paddle (ala Arakanoid).

I had just sat down to start programming, when my sister called me and insisted I get to my parents house immediately because my dad was "not doing well".   2 hours later my dad's body was carried out of the the house on stretcher, and with it, went my desire to write any code that I was not contractually obligated to create.   At first, I didn't really notice.  I was working so hard for my day job that my inability to write personal code did not surface often. However in August,when I took a business trip to San Francisco, I copied some personal work (including the HTML5 breakout game) to my computer in-case I had time to look at it when I was gone.  I never touched the code, and in fact, I realized that I  did not want to touch it.  Ever.  I've been trying to figure out the reason "why?" ever since.

I've sat down to write blog entries many times in the past 5 months.  Even though this blog rarely gets read or linked these days, I still spend countless hours researching, writing, and re-writing stories in the hopes that something will stick like the days of old, and with it, people will come streaming back to the site in droves.   In all of that time, I could have, very easily, written some code for a personal project.  In fact, instead of writing this piece, I could have opened up text file and coded some HTML5 JavaScript to test in Chrome, or opened Flash CS5 and debugged one of the countless  1/2 finished games that are waiting for a bit of my attentionon my hard drive.   However, I just can't get myself to do it.  I don't have "writer's block", I have "code writer's block" and I know I can't be truly happy until I find a way out of it.

I don't have to think very hard to arrive at a simple explanation for my "code writer's block."  I was working on personal code when my dad died, and until I get over that moment, there is no way to move on.   Sure, this is probably true.  I spent my dad's final months working for a company that afforded me nearly zero time to spend with him, and I'm obviously mad at myself for not visiting him more often.    Why was I spending my limited spare time writing vanity code instead of spending those final few precious minutes with my father as his life slipped away?

However, I think there is more to it than that.  My dad was never keen on my career choice.  When I graduated from high school, he wanted me to become a real-estate broker. He did not want me to get stuck in a 9-5, spirit-killing, life-sucking job like the one he had at Hughes Aircraft for the last 20 years of his working life.  I think that he felt that a real-estate broker would have the freedom to not get bored with life, and to spend time doing interesting things besides wasting away in an office.

To me though, the idea of being a  "real-estate broker" (no offense to those who might love that kind of work) was the exact type of spirit-killing, life-sucking job that he feared. Instead, I got a job programming for a software company, and worked my way into making games, which was my goal all along (even if I did not fully realize it along the way).   However, in the 18 years I was writing software, web sites, games and applications while my dad was still alive, he was only ever interested in one thing I created: an interactive fireworks show that I played on my TV via the Nintendo Wii Opera Browser for the 4th Of July 2007.  Nothing else interested him in the slightest.  It's one of the reasons I still post that application to the site every year.

Maybe I was trying to prove to my dad, for 18 years, that I had chosen the right path.  I was not bored and I did not feel that I was doing anything spirit-killing or life sucking by programming for a living. In fact, it was quite the opposite.  I was making games for kids (even games for my own kids, which was the best part of it all), and I loved every second of it.   However, he never understood it, or if he did, he failed to ever express it to me in any way.  So when my dad died, my need to prove to him that I had done the right thing with my life died too.  When I watched his covered body being pushed into that back of a nondescript van, and taken away forever,  my need to write personal code (at least for him to see), went with it.

But none of that is fair.  It's not fair to my wife (who asks me to make apps for her) or my kids (who are still waiting for games I've promised for years).  It's not fair to my brother who likes to play my games, nor is it fair to book company who want a revision. It's also not fair to me, because I like writing code.  No actually, I love writing code.  I love it like no other activity in the world.   I especially like writing code that I am not obligated to write: the kind of code that comes from the pure joy of making something come alive.  So I need to find a way out of this "code writer's block" and I'm going to try right now.

My died died after deteriorating for years suffering from Dementia.   Maybe the only way I can deal with his death and start coding for myself again, is to make a game about fighting Dementia.  It was something I simply could not do while he was alive, but maybe I can do it now.   I have no idea what a game about fighting Dementia would be about.  Maybe it's about shooting fading photos until they appear whole again?  Maybe it's an iOS game that uses motion sensing to get brain-wave patterns back  in order?  Maybe it's just a regular shooter that gets harder and harder to play as the images fade in and out and the controls stop working. Whatever it might be, it's not important right now.  What's important is that I write some code that is for me, and for me alone.

Here goes:

package {
	import flash.display.MovieClip;
	import flash.events.*;

	public class DementiaGame extends
                flash.display.MovieClip{

		public function DementiaGame() {
			addEventListener(Event.ENTER_FRAME,
                        gameLoop);
		}
		public function gameLoop(e:Event): void {
			trace("A Game About Fighting");
			trace("Dementia Goes Here");
		}
	}
}

Okay.  It's not much, but it is a start.  I just wrote that class and saved it to new folder, and made it the default document for a new .fla file.  That might not sound like a big step, but after 5 months of pure nothing, it's huge.  Can I start the process of "moving on" now?    If I can actually finish this game, then I will know the answer.
-Steve Fulton

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