A writer writes. Always.

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For a veteran journalist, learning to write code was a whole different thing.

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

Writing always came easily.

Rhythm, cadence, structure and flow. The deadline never really mattered: I could do it slow or I could do it fast. The pieces always just assembled themselves, first in my head, then on the page. I didn’t much have to think about it. I just knew how to do it.

That was with words. Learning to write code was a whole different thing.

They have a lot in common. But doing one after only having ever done the other — they require different things of a brain. Going from one to the other required relearning, grain by grain, what has long since been a vast beach of unconscious muscle memory.

I was a reporter and editor in newsrooms of all different kinds for 15 years. Longer than I’ve done any other single thing. And I grew up reading. I grew up writing. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, always asked first thing what you had been reading lately. It was expected. It was demanded. It was unequivocal. Not having an answer was not an option.

Which, like a child’s religion or devotion to a favorite family-loved game, quickly gets internalized. There is no stopping to think of the rules or the boundaries or the next move. There is no doubt or delay. You just know how to do it.

And so you do it. Not really with any direction. But you do it.

When I was 10, my fifth-grade class had an assignment: Write a piece in the style of TV news about the coming 1988 presidential election. My teacher, Mrs. Roberts, stopped me before recess the next day.

“This is better than what I saw on the news last night,” she said. “Have you ever thought about doing anything with your writing?”

Nobody had asked me that before. I’d never thought of writing with purpose. So I tried everything. Poetry, stories, journals, plays.

I was a freshman in high school when I took my first journalism class. Our first assignment was to write 1,300 words — researched, non-fiction words — about whatever we wanted. I was 13. I wrote about Guns ‘n’ Roses. Hell yes, I did.

That was my thunderbolt. Whatever I wanted to learn about, wherever my curiosity took me — I could go there and then tell the world about it.

That was all I needed. That was enough. Until it wasn’t.

I met more and more people who wrote code in the service of journalism. I got jobs that brought me closer to workflows and developers and how our own software was getting in our way, preventing us from doing our best journalism.

Code can do a lot of things for a reporter. Does a government agency always dump poorly formatted electronic records on you? If you can write the code to parse and analyze it once, you’ve already done it for the next time those records show up. Does your job involve some repetition? Maybe you can automate it. Do you see a couple data sets you think should learn how to talk to each other in a way no one else is thinking about? You can make it happen. Did you file a records request for data that is technically online but structured badly across hundreds or thousands of pages and annoying to try to download? You can go get it yourself.

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My goal: to progressively suck less.

The more I understood the possibilities, the more I had my own ideas about how to use code to tell stories, to solve problems, to create more of what I wanted to see in the world.

Trouble is, I couldn’t write a line of it. I could no longer execute my best ideas. I couldn’t scrape or analyze data or build a quick little prototype. I couldn’t take a single step in a direction I felt I needed to go without someone’s help — a lot of it.

So I took little day-long code classes at conferences — one of them twice — and tried some online tools. I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t something that came naturally. For the first time in my life, I was terrible at writing.

But I was convinced. Maybe not that I could master it, but at least that I could suck less. I told anyone who asked my long-term and short-term goals were the same — to progressively suck less.

I left my journalism life. A life that got me into college in Nevada and then took me along to Philadelphia, the California desert, back home to Portland, off to Little Rock and then somehow to Pittsburgh. A life that had been mine professionally for 15 years and part of my identity for longer still.

I found a code bootcamp in Provo, Utah. Three months. My wife stayed in Pittsburgh. I rented a room in a house with four dudes all a decade younger than me. I borrowed a bike so I wouldn’t have to spend any money I didn’t have to.

And I started to learn how to write again. How to think about writing. How to accomplish something by writing. How to create. How to fix. How to edit and rewrite.

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I started to learn how to write again.

Confidence came slowly. Impostor syndrome is a vicious and real thing. It has claws and teeth. It has girth. The only way through it was to keep writing. I stayed up late and I got up early and I tried not to throw my laptop out any succession of windows. I asked for and got a key to our lab so I could stay for hours into the night and morning and pound and pound and pound until one of us — sometimes me, sometimes the code, sometimes the machine itself — acquiesced.

Having written words for so long ultimately gave me a framework to use for writing code. They both have grammar, syntax, structure. You make and support arguments. You have several layers of audiences to please, whether an editor and a copy desk and then readers who simply need to understand or a compiler or interpreter and code-reviewer and then an end user who just needs the damn thing to work.

No two writers would tell the same story the same way, even with the exact same information and the same conclusions. The same is true in code.

Having been senior at something else helped, too. I valued the repetition, I knew to start within the rules and guidelines so I could better understand later which ones I wanted to break or ignore. Being junior again was oddly freeing.

And slowly it started to make sense. Slowly I started to suck less. I got home to Pittsburgh and kept writing, kept building, kept asking for help. Kept learning. Kept practicing.

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And slowly I started to suck less.

First I freelanced a bit and created a project or two for myself. One of those projects helped me get a job. A full-time job. My business card says “software engineer.” That never doesn’t tickle me.

It was still hard. It’s still hard. I got that job a year ago. My impostor syndrome followed me. Even when it hibernates, it’s still right there with me.

The difference is now I know that whatever it is I don’t know, I can learn. I don’t think it. I know it.

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It was hard. It’s still hard.

At some point after few months in the job, it happened. Rhythm, cadence, structure and flow. It just happened. The pieces looked like pieces and how they fit was clear.

It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t happen most days. But it happens. If it doesn’t happen today, maybe it happens tomorrow. Maybe the day after.

Meantime, I do what I’ve always done. I keep writing.

***

JacobSanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders grew up on the West Coast and yet lives in Pittsburgh, where he writes code and words and sometimes both together. He still has impostor syndrome and always will. He misses the hell out of salt water, so maybe that’s what he can write about next year.

Editor’s note: Jacob is a journalist friend I’ve known for about 15 years since I was a recruiter and he was a college student. Though we never worked together, we’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and he’s been a regular contributor to VOA. During a visit to Pittsburgh last year, we reconnected at Nadine’s, a Southside bar and restaurant that’s been featured on “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins.”

Tomorrow: Patricia Conover, Water music

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The Steel City

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Despite a 7-1 loss to the Cubs, I still had a smile as I paused on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. (Photo by Lauren Pusateri.)

I’ve got a soft spot for Pittsburgh.

The feeling took root in the summer of 2010, when I drove cross country with my daughter to help her get set up for graduate school at Carnegie Mellon. It grew stronger during two visits my wife and I made, culminating with graduation ceremonies and a baseball game at PNC Park on a clear, summer-like evening. Since then, I’ve been rooting for the Pirates.

When the opportunity came to make The Steel City the starting point for my 2016 baseball road trip, I jumped. Good call.

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Downtown Pittsburgh viewed from the Station Square light rail station.

During a two-day visit last week, I made the most of my time, visiting new and familiar places, hanging with friends and, of course, watching the Bucs play a couple of games.

My anchors were Lauren Pusateri and Kyle Nilson, a recently engaged couple who met in Portland and moved back to Pittsburgh (Lauren’s hometown) last year. I met Lauren through a mutual friend who was organizing a coed team to play cornhole — a popular game across the Midwest that’s similar to horseshoes. Soon enough, I met Kyle, who’s originally from Seattle.

As partial season ticket holders, they offered to have Lauren go with me to one game and Kyle to another. Couldn’t have worked out better.

Here’s how everything played out:

Tuesday: Drove from the airport to Smallman Street Deli, the same Jewish deli in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where Simone and I had our first father-daughter meal all those years ago.

Fueled by breakfast, I checked into the airbnb room I was renting from a young married couple, both medical students, then went for a run along the Allegheny River in the Lawrenceville neighborhood where Simone and Kyndall used to live.

Met Lauren, for a pregame meal at Fiori’s, one of the city’s top pizzarias. Sausage and pepperoni on hand-tossed dough never tasted so good.

Watched the Chicago Cubs — longtime patsies turned juggernaut — thoroughly dominate the Pirates in a 7-1 win behind Jake Arrieta, the best pitcher in baseball.

Wednesday: Met Kyle for breakfast at Pamela’s Diner in The Strip district, a place that’s popular with politicians, notably Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Gotta say, the Pittsburgh Hash is pretty wonderful — kielbasa with sauerkraut, mixed with potatoes, topped with Swiss cheese and served with two eggs.

Went to the nearby Heinz History Center, which was featuring a new exhibit on Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Talk about memories. There was everything from Gumby, Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Cootie and Barbie to Tonka trucks, Star Wars, and Schwinn bikes with banana seats.

Upstairs was the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, which took up three floors with impressive displays of photos, uniforms, equipment and more, ranging from professional sports to all sorts of high school and amateur activities.

Naturally, there was a big focus on the Steelers (six-time Super Bowl champions, folks) and the region’s football history, as well as the Pirates and the Penguins, the hockey team. Proper homage was paid to Roberto Clemente, the first Latin ballplayer elected to the Hall of Fame who died at 38 in a plane crash as he was delivering humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. But there was also lots of space given to Pittsburgh’s Negro League baseball teams and a slew of athletic clubs founded by the city’s European immigrant communities.

From there, we headed to the ballgame for a 12:30 pm game. Same result: Cubs throttled the Pirates again, 6-1.

Said goodbye to Kyle, had dinner at an Asian restaurant down the street from my rented room, then finally got a chance to talk with my hosts, Cecilia and Gil. Had an enjoyable conversation, learning how they met, what they are studying, and probing their thoughts on religion and the afterlife.

(For the uninitiated, airbnb enables travelers to rent rooms in private residences, typically for less cost than a motel room. Depending on circumstances, you may or may not meet the person(s) you’re renting from. And you may share the living space with pets, as I did.)

Thursday: Met for breakfast with Jacob Quinn Sanders, a journalist friend I’ve known for about 15 years since I was a recruiter and he was a college student. Though we never worked together, we’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and he’s been a regular contributor to my annual guest blogger project Voices of August.

We reconnected at Nadine’s, a Southside bar and restaurant that’s been featured on “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins.” As promised, it was a “full Yinzer” kind of place, catering to blue-collar, native Pittsburghers in sports-themed T-shirts and caps. Among a handful of retirees seated at the counter that morning was a younger guy with a man-bun and Penguins garb, sipping on a beer at 8 a.m., no doubt having just finished the graveyard shift.

Jacob left the newspaper industry not long ago to follow his own path as a freelance journalist and web developer. As such, he represents the best of today’s ever-evolving journalists, a writer of content and code and totally at ease in the world of social media.

As I hit the road for Cleveland, it dawned on me that the social aspect of this trip was essentially like hanging out with my own adult kids. My fellow baseball fans, my airbnb hosts, my journalist friend — all are in the late 20s to early and mid-30s, just like my two sons and daughter.

Though it may seem odd or least curious that I’d hang out with people young enough to be my children, I felt totally at ease. I’d like to think they felt the same.

Tomorrow: The city by the lake

2014 in review: For all my R&R readers

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

I’m sharing this report with each and every one of you who took time to visit Rough and Rede II during this past year. I hope you’ll take time to scroll through it and relive some of the highlights with me. Like me, you might be amazed at the international reach: Russia, Sweden, Pakistan, Australia, just to name a few far-flung places.

If you were a contributor — a guest blogger during Voices of August — take a bow. Your piece undoubtedly contributed to the 14,000-plus page views.

This year’s most-viewed post: “The girl on the treadmill” by Taylor Smith.

Others in the top five: “Almost the bad guy,” by Jacob Quinn Sanders; “Know when to fold ’em,” by Lillian Mongeau; “From Portland to Paris,” by Patricia Conover; and myself.

If you were a commenter, take two bows. The online conversation is only as robust as you and I and all of us make it.

A special public thanks to the five most prolific commenters — Elizabeth Hovde, Lynn St. Georges, John Knapp, Lori Rauh Rede (hey, I know her!) and Tammy Ellingson.

Pretty cool stuff. Thanks for being part of it.

Very sincerely,

George

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

VOA 4.0 meetup

From left: Sue Wilcox, Eric Wilcox, Aki Mori, Raghu xxx, Lakshmi Jagannathan

From left: Sue Wilcox, Eric Wilcox, Aki Mori, Raghu Raghavan and Lakshmi Jagannathan

My guest blog project, Voices of August, is now four years old and running. What began as a tentative experiment inviting friends, co-workers and a few online acquaintances to contribute to a month-long collection of essays has evolved into a robust community.

Jennifer Brennock and Lakshmi Jagannathan

Jennifer Brennock and Lakshmi Jagannathan

The annual exercise is something that we all look forward to — in the same way that a sprawling family comes together at the holidays. The comparison is apt because when we come together physically, as we did two weeks ago, it’s an occasion to renew friendships and welcome first-time attendees into the fold.

I hesitate to say that we are a collection of professional and amateur writers because it’s not that simple. VOA is defined more by the friendships that have taken root amongst people who range in age from their 20s to their 60s, whose professions vary widely (a pastor, an architect, a nonprofit executive, an app developer) and whose politics mostly lean left but also tilt right in some cases.

We mostly live in Oregon, but others reside in Washington, California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. This year, we added friends and a couple of relatives from Alaska, Texas, Slovenia and France. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Starr Flavin, Michael Granberry, Natasa Kocevar Gabric and Patricia Conover.)

David Quisenberry and George Rede

David Quisenberry and George Rede

We write about anything and everything. Travel, exercise, joy, despair, music, technology, life and death. Whatever moves us.

As the blog coordinator and comments moderator, I am doubly fortunate as am I the first to lay eyes on each person’s contribution and to view the feedback each post generates. It’s so gratifying to see expressions of support for someone going through a hard time or embarking on a new adventure. It’s also satisfying to see a person view things in a different light upon reading someone else’s piece.

Most of all, it’s just fun to see these online connections come alive in person.

And so it was that 19 of us, including spouses, gathered Oct. 3 at Kern’s Kitchen, the same place as last year, with new ownership and the same great menu. It was a summery Saturday night and we sat at picnic tables under strings of light as darkness fell.

Jason and Alana Cox

Jason and Alana Cox

As always, we took time to recognize those whose essays we voted as our favorites, simply because they resonated with us. Last year, four women swept the honors. This year, it was five men and one woman, including two first-time contributors. Each received a gift to a bookstore or coffee shop, though only two of them could attend.

The VOA favorites, in no particular order:

Jennifer Brennock, “Baby Shower.”

Parfait Bassale, “Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant.”

David Quisenberry, “The dance.”

John Knapp, “They call me dime-bag.

Jacob Quinn Sanders, “Almost the bad guy.”

Tim Akimoff, “Chicago’s mind-numbing numbers.”

Nike Bentley with husband Jason and daughter Remington.

Nike and Jason Bentley with daughter Remington.

Already, I’m looking forward to next year. As of this post, there are only 287 days until 8/1/15 and the start of Voices of August 5.0.

In case you missed any posts, here’s the VOA 4.0 index page. (Never too late to add a comment on any of them.)

Almost the bad guy

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

It’s not every day you get questioned at gunpoint after a triple homicide.

But try explaining that to your second-period teacher.

I was going to be late for school regardless. My mother and father left for work already and I’d missed my bus. It was drizzly, a bit chilly. Maybe February. Maybe March. And I had a 3.5-mile walk ahead of me.

It was 1994. I was 15. My hair was long enough to hide my neck and the collar of my Army-surplus jacket. I was tall — 6-foot-2 by then and still growing. I threw on jeans and boots and off I went.

I didn’t realize I’d forgotten my wallet. I probably shouldn’t have forgotten my wallet.

The author at age 15, sporting a pair of wicked purple pants.

Jacob Sanders at age 15, rockin’ a tie-dye shirt and purple pants.

Seeing The Oregonian before I left would have also been a good idea. Two years earlier was when I first knew I wanted to be a journalist and it was already part of my daily routine. Alas. I was behind.

It wasn’t a hard walk to school — Beef Bend Road, cut through King City to 99W, then Durham Road the rest of the way. Formerly rural suburban road, old people, strip malls, sneak across a highway, more suburbs, school.

Just a long walk. A trudge in the misty rain.

King City was the part I thought least about. A 55-and-older community laid out like a suburban development, not that different than what my father’s mother moved into a couple years earlier in Southern California. It was always quiet. Hardly ever saw people.

And it was that way that morning. I don’t remember seeing anyone. No dogs barking. No cars on the road.

I scooted across a couple lanes of traffic after I passed the 24-hour Shari’s diner that was an unofficial official late-night hangout for half the people I knew. Wide, grassy median. Wet hair matted down. Damp everything. Grumpy.

And there was a cop car. Pulling onto the median. And then another. And then another. And then another. King City and Tigard police. The first voice came from one of the cars’ loudspeakers: “Stop right where you are.”

I looked around like they always do in the movies: Me?

“Stay where you are.”

The cops all got out of their cars. A couple stood behind their open doors, guns drawn.

But ready for what?

tyrom-thiesIn January, turns out, someone killed three women at Leathers Oil Co. in Gresham. In The Oregonian that morning was a mugshot of a former employee the police were looking for. A woman in King City saw it and looked out her window and saw me: also tall, long hair, long face.

Then she called the cops: “I found him!”

“What are you doing here?” one cop asked me firmly but warily.

“Walking to school,” I said.

“What school?”

“Tigard High,” I said. “Just down Durham Road.”

“Do you have ID?”

Damn it. No wallet. It had my school ID — and my money for lunch. This day kept getting better.

And I just remembered: I had a real-looking pellet gun in my bag. I was bringing it back to a friend who’d loaned it to me. It didn’t work but that would have hardly mattered.

Crap, crap, crap.

He asked me a few more questions: What time did school start, why was I walking, that kind of stuff. Something about my story must have seemed plausible. The cop hadn’t decided to trust me yet but got dispatch to patch through a call to the school attendance office. There was a Jacob Sanders enrolled. He had been marked absent in his first-period class.

He wanted my Social Security number to verify that I was the same person. I was a sophomore in high school. I had no idea what it was.

The next plan involved me getting into the back of a police car so one officer could drive me to school, where presumably someone would vouch for me — or not — and I could call my mom at work to check in.

The cops never did check my bag.

The cop pulled up in front of school and let me out. This was visible from the attendance office. We both walked in and we all sorted out quickly that I was who I said I was. I confirmed my class schedule, that kind of thing.

And then I called my mom.

“Hi, honey, everything OK?”

“I need you to excuse my tardy.”

“Well, we’ve talked about this. You missed your bus and that’s your ….”

“Mom. I was just questioned in a triple homicide. I’m standing in the attendance office and I just need you to tell the lady I’m excused. We can talk about it later.”

“What?! Are you OK?”

“Yes, just please tell the lady I’m excused and we can talk about it later.”

“O … K.”

OK. Now, off to class. Second period had already started. Social studies. Mr. Chasko. He didn’t like me much. It was mutual.

I walked in and he was in the middle of something with a projector.

“Mr. Sanders, thanks for joining us.”

I’d been late before. A couple times.

JacobSanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders

“Would you care to tell the class what you were doing that was more important than being on time to my class?”

“I really don’t think that’s the best idea. Can I tell you after class?”

“Let’s hear it. It was important, no doubt. More important than anything I’m doing.”

“I was being questioned in a triple homicide.”

Silence. For a good 20 seconds or so.

“I didn’t do it,” I offered.

“See me after class, Mr. Sanders.”

Great. All that and I was still in trouble.

Jacob Quinn Sanders works as an editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and has never been arrested for anything. These things are unrelated and would have surprised the 15-year-old version of him very much.

***

Editor’s note: I’ve known Jacob since he was a student journalist at the University of Nevada at Reno. We’ve stayed in touch through the years and I’ve seen him progress through a series of jobs leading to his current one specializing in audience engagement — a concept that barely existed when we first crossed paths.

Tomorrow: “Drowning in technology” by Nike Bentley