so, make something

I’ve had a brilliant idea!

I mean, it’s Sunday. Of course I have had a brilliant idea!

For the last year or so, I’ve been dabbling with learning to code. I’ve gone through multiple online tutorials (some pretty good, some pretty bad), read a few books, taken a class, sat in mini-lectures from my colleagues (those are my favorite). And it’s all worked, to a point. My literacy is improving. It hasn’t been quick, but I have more knowledge now than I did a year ago and that counts for something. I’m not happy with what I know though, with what I would characterize as “how little in so long” I’ve learned.

There is this not-uncommon ethos in many aspects of computer science and programming: those who are best suited for this work will find a way to learn it on their own. I can’t say I particularly agree with this mindset. I think it’s dangerous and sets beginners up to fail. I don’t think our failure to teach beginners well is intentional, but I have yet to read a “getting started” guide or introduction to anything that has clicked with me. Many sighs were expressed this week with the lament that “nothing here is written for me.” I don’t have the answer here (that’s not my domain – I’m much more a student than a teacher) but I know I’m frustrated that I can’t learn to code the way I learned mathematics or climatology or chemistry or Shakespeare (that is: lectures + homework + tests).

I’m going on a longer aside here (sorry I’m not sorry). I’m sure I learned those things well in that combination because those were introductory explorations. I’ve never learned “a lot” about something without having hands-on work or interactive exploration. I speak about learning history in these terms a lot. History is not the memorization of dates and events. Dates and events can always be verified for accuracy. The order of events, the impact, the lessons, the story is much more important. Understanding why things happened or the implications of an event, the meaning, is the point of studying history. It does not matter if you know on what date we invaded Normandy, if you know the why and the impact. (However, having a knack for dates can come in handy for passcodes.) It wasn’t the lectures that taught me most in history courses; it was absolutely the conversations I had with other students, the conversations I actively listened to, and the interaction with my professors.

[While I thought I was having burst of clarity this morning, I now realize that someone much smarter than me already told me all of this. See Bob Holt‘s talk from jQuery Conference Portland: Home-Growing Top-Notch Developers. This should be required viewing for anyone (including developers) working with developers.]

All of this is to say that I’ve been struggling with learning to code. I want success here to equal lectures + homework + tests. There’s a structure there that is appealing, but I think I’ve hit the end point of where this structure supports success. While I am somewhat self-motivated (I certainly fall on the motivated side of the line, but not in the top 10%), I have a lot pulling at my time. I have a full-time job that does not neatly start at 9 and end at 5. I have friends I must brunch with and family I must Skype with. I need to be active and I have an insatiable itch to travel more. Weekdays are never long enough and weekends fill up quickly. (In the summer, I simply cannot deny the allure of the sun and shore. As summer ends, it’s practically a biological necessity that I watch hours of football on Sundays.) Simply, I cannot spend all of my time indoors and at a computer. This isn’t just priority setting; this is a simple fact of how I survive. I need all of those things in my life.

This all balances really well right now – my “work-life balance” (a phrase about which I have many thoughts for another essay) is nearly perfect. Nearly. What is missing from this mix is time to learn something new, particularly something which requires dedicated time at my computer. Where do I fit this in? Where is the online class I can take and add this skill to my repertoire in a few semesters? Teaching myself something I don’t know doesn’t make sense in my brain. Don’t you read books to learn things you don’t know? How do you even teach yourself something?

My colleagues have implored me to try this “learning by doing” thing and build something. I’ve been convinced, but even this simple concept has gone through several false-starts. First, I wanted someone to give me a project. You tell me what the goals and parameters are and I’ll figure out how to get an A on the project from there. (Yeah, I really liked school.) Then my colleagues succeeded in convincing me that the project had to be something I wanted to do. So I came up with a project far beyond my capabilities (for now) and perhaps set myself up for failure. I couldn’t stop seeing the whole picture and it was overwhelming. I just felt defeated and frustrated, and consequently, disinterested. This week, I scaled back and decided to just work on my personal website (an idea I had shot down multiple times; sorry, friends).

This is great, I thought; this is where I’ll start. I’ll do this simple task – I’ll create something which will feed a need to show what I’ve done, and I’ll surely learn as I go. Brilliant. I’ve spent the last few days investing a reasonable amount of time into this. It’s basically just html and css, right? How hard can it be?

Answer: not hard. This is great – I have learned enough over the last year to move through this. Sure, I move a little slowly and have to look things up a lot, but I’m at a point where I know how to find the information I need. That’s awesome!

I could be using this post to announce and point to a new cassieirwin.com, but I abandoned that project.

Wait, what? You just said how great this learning project is.

I did. I know. I found the catch to all of this, though. I already love the way cassieirwin.com looks right now and I am completely happy with using WordPress for this. Nothing I can build now will be better – because I don’t have a better idea. And I’m not going to try to recreate something that already exists and fills my needs. Because I don’t actually want it to be any different than it is right now. At all. As it became clear how pointless the result would be, this project became “not fun” very quickly. It felt like another false-start, until it led to something better.

I spent a significant amount of time this morning re-reading all of the blog posts and semi-organized drafts of essays I’ve written about the Boston Marathon bombings. It all got very emotional (I mean, it’s only been a few months), and then I got very frustrated that I can’t yet read these pieces as – well, essentially as sources, as historical documents. I have an intense need to write about this event, but I’m not a journalist. I’m a historian. I don’t write about the now; I write about the then. (Really ready for this to become a “then” type of event.) History isn’t just this thing I love, this side hobby; it’s obviously influenced much of my educational life and professional development.

I needed a deep breath so I switched to working on my website, despite my growing reluctance, and realized I have no place for this huge part of my life, nowhere to document the fruits of my efforts in studying history, nowhere to share with the world these stories I love. I suppose it never seemed important because it’s not my current career path, but it should be here. My website should have a place where I can share all the papers I’ve ever written, maybe as some kind of nod to the C.V. I would have had if I had stayed on the professional historian path.

Work on something you want to see exist… hmm, where have you heard that before?

[It turns out, of course, that this moment of brilliance did not happen in a vacuum either. And for this inspiration, I would point you to Jenn Schiffer‘s amazing talk Learn Code, Make Art at jQuery Conference Portland. Is an essay on the radicalization of Nelson Mandela a work of art? I say – for me, yes. I’ve made it; now I want to share it.]

Is it a tiny setback that I don’t have digital copies of any of my essays? Ah, yep. But not an impossible setback. The time it will take to have my papers sent to me (for everything still lives in Wisconsin) will give me time to play around with the html and css. (There’s structure there but it is uuuugggglllly – css is hard.) This is something that doesn’t exist, that I want to see exist, and that I’m capable of creating. That – that is exciting.

My last aside: maybe this is also an opportunity for me to keep working on history? I do miss it so much, you know. And I fully subscribe to this belief that I should be doing things I love. Maybe I love that learning to code lets me share the other things I love with you, too.

Run a Faster 5k

Last night, I ran my first 5k.

Ok, last night I ran in my first 5k raceI have run 3.1 miles in one outing before. But not that many times…

Previous 5k-ish runs:

  • 5/11, in Wisconsin. Distance – 3.16 mi. Time – 34:28
  • 5/19, Sunday morning run along the river. Distance – 3.38 mi. Time – 39:11
  • 5/22, my first Marathon Sports Run Group outing. Distance – 3.5 mi. Time 38: 12
  • 5/29, Marathon Sports Run Group. Distance – 3.45 mi. Time – 39:00
  • 6/5, Marathon Sports Run Group. Distance – 3.43 mi. Time – 38:15

My runs typically got longer in June because on June 30th, a great group of friends and I ran the City Sports Back in the Day 10k in Porter Square. (So I was training!) This was such an incredible experience for me. My Healthworks trainer, Jason, created this amazing running plan for me to follow in June and I pretty much stuck with it. I put in all this hard work and then at the end of the month was able to run 6.2 miles! That’s the longest distance I’ve ever run! And do you know how incredible it is to see your friends standing around the halfway mark with an encouraging sign, a bottle of water, and high fives all around? (Indescribably incredible!) This was definitely one of my top five highlights for the year, absolutely.

Some of us ran, some of us cheered, but we all conquered!
Some of us ran, some of us cheered, but we all conquered!

Oh, I ran those 6.2 miles in 1:12:35. I’ll take it.

So this tangent leads us back to last night. Now that I’ve run a 10k, I know I can run a 5k, no problem. So I signed up for the Camp Harbor View Harborthon 5k. (It’s another workout fundraiser!) The race was great – organized so well, great volunteers, beautiful location. There was an incredible group of sponsors for this race (lots of delicious post-race craft beer and food from b.good) and an awesome group of runners. The group was smaller this year due to the rain — maybe just two or three hundred people, but that just made us so much more awesome!

Camp Harbor View began in 2007 as a summer camp for Boston teens (ages 11-14). The founders began with an initial goal of raising $10 million over 25 years, and have already raised $46 million! I’m so glad I powered through the rain deterrent and went out there – here’s another organization I’m ready to really invest some time in to support. A handful of the campers were there volunteering, and every “thank you for running” I heard was a little pinch to the heart. Real people benefit from the fact that I ran a race yesterday – and that you supported that effort. In just a few days of fundraising, my friends and family contributed $265 to this wonderful cause (you can still donate here until 8/1). That feels better than any post-run endorphin-rush. Thank you all so much!

So, I can add another run to the list above.

  • July 25th, Camp Harbor View Harborthon 5k. Distance – 3.1 mi. Time – 33:15

Last night’s pace was 10:43, which is the best pace I’ve had since I started running again in May. This is just barely true though. I went on a 5.5 mi run on 6/19 that had a 10:45 pace – so I know I can do better with only 3.1 miles. This race serves as my baseline for my next three-month project: Run a Faster 5k. I’ll spend the next three months focusing on cutting time off my pace for this distance. Then, I’ll run another official 5k in late October or early November to compare. Lucky me – I have a trainer who runs who can help me really push through this.

My goal is to run that three-months-from-now 5k with a 9:30 pace. (I’ll have to sign up for something without too many hills!) I’ll write periodically about the training plan I’m using, how my runs are going, and any other interesting races I participate in (I do have a few coming up). I have been using RunKeeper to track my runs. It’s been great to see those comparisons, but it will be really great to actually write about those runs and be able to compare them on something besides a pace level.

Check back for updates!

Breaking Down Becoming a Bostonian

Most importantly, current countdown status…

9.5 more days of work, 15 days until I leave Chicago for a brief layover in Wisconsin, and 19 days until my flight to Boston… 19 days!

I am ready for this move, better prepared and more excited than any of my other big moves. While that definitely sets me up for success, it also introduces room to take on too much, too quickly. It doesn’t feel as intimidating or overwhelming as other big movies I’ve made, but my logical brain keeps pinching me to remind me that this is a lot.

The job, for starters, is very different than what I do now in some key ways and is going to require something of a paradigm shift for me, in how I think about work and “going to work.” There are going to be long days and a lot of new information and while I am one hundred percent excited and on board with that, it would be irresponsible to deny that it’s going to be an adjustment and that it’s going to take a lot of energy (and caffeine).

Though it’s been a favorite weekend getaway spot for me, living in Boston will just be different. I have to figure everything out from scratch again: what is the best time to leave to catch just the right train to work, where do I get my morning coffee, which local craft beers are my favorite, where will I get my I’m-too-tired-or-lazy-today-to-cook Thai food, etc.

In order to approach this all with a plan, and to avoid the compulsion to blog about every nuance too, I’ve broken the project down into three main areas of focus, one for each month.

October’s Focus: Start work and find a gym.

This is pretty straightforward. I start my new job on October 1st and by the middle of the month, I’d like to have signed up for a gym membership. I already found a place near the office which has a little bit of everything: basic gym equipment, friendly personal trainers, group fitness classes, and a beautiful view of the city. I’m hopeful this will work out well. If I can get into a work-gym-home routine by the end of the month, I’ll be well prepared to deal with transition issues (homesick for home, homesick for Chicago, etc.)

November’s Focus: Explore Boston.

When I was in Boston last November, Caitlin and I went to a great Degas exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. And in May, I went to the Boston Ballet’s staging of Don Quixote. I’ve had a taste of the arts offerings in Boston. November is the time to dive in with a subscription to the ballet and explore museum exhibits in Boston. These weekends will be spent poking around Boston and the surrounding areas then, pushing past some of the obvious entertainment options and finding the things I will love for many years to come.

December’s Focus: Christmas in Boston.

I love the winter holiday season. I love sending Christmas cards and baking holiday treats and white lights and snow and ice skating and gift giving. I have every intention of being in Wisconsin for actual Christmas, but until then, December will focus on exploring how Boston celebrates Christmas. I will fight any homesickness with holiday shows, boutique shopping for gifts, and ice skating – somewhere, there must be ice skating somewhere!

Of course, I will have my constant autumnal touchstone of Packers football during these months. I have already found my Packers Bar and will be trekking there for most games. Wherever I go, whatever “-ite” or “-ian” I become, my fervent dedication to the Packers will never abate, and shall bring me much comfort when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

I’m not exaggerating. The most important countdown I actually have right now is 3 days until Packers football starts!

Cassie Learns to Code: The First Three Months

I’ve alluded to my limited pool of patience and when it comes to doing something, I have practically no skill at making myself wait. So, though I said I would not take on another project until I wrapped up Summer of Austen, there just was no stopping me on my new project: Cassie Learns to Code. This is one project that will certainly take more than three months, so we’ll just call this installment The First Three Months.

Last week, I signed onto Codecademy after a five month break and have now spent probably twenty hours over the last five days learning JavaScript. I spent most of my Friday night (fun night!) making flash cards so I could study vocabulary while on the bus, watching tv, whenever. My notebook is slowly filling up with scribbles as I process more conceptual information, e.g., figuring out why a semi-colon is used, not just when.

What, you didn’t spend your Friday night studying?


This weekend has been full of mini-triumphs and some anecdotal evidence that this is something I can learn. I am a huge fan of the way Codecademy is structured – a combination of teaching, learning by doing, and poking around to find the answer. It’s a community and everyone is excited about coding!

I took this screenshot on Saturday after finishing an exercise successfully: fairly quickly and without having to look elsewhere for definitions or hints. Several things started to come together in my brain here – the whole if/elseif/else concept, the aforementioned eureka moment on semi-colons, and a more thorough understanding of functions.

This morning, Sunday, I flipped through my flash cards while procrastinating on the whole get up and get going thing. Within ten minutes, I had to abandon that plan and pull out a notebook to start jotting down questions and musings. Tiny bits of information are starting to form complete pictures in my brain AND I’m able to use my current professional position to put things in context.

After running errands (and finally getting in to a Ballerina Bum class at MaZi), I came home to work out a problem. I didn’t want to launch into another lesson; I’m afraid of moving through concepts too quickly and not letting them percolate in my brain long enough. And though it took a little bit of trial and error, I did this today without use of note cards or Codecademy’s (very helpful) glossary.

I’m not delusional. This is all very basic, I know, but there is nowhere else for me to start than getting down the basics. You may be concerned (er, mildly interested) that this will take time away from Summer of Austen and Project Ukulele and that might be true. I find the busier I am, the better I am at managing my time, though, and I made significant progress with Pride and Prejudice this weekend. (And tomorrow I will write about how happy I am I stuck with the book.)
This is certainly a multi-year, maybe a lifelong, project but three-month chunks seem like a great way to document and measure my progress.

Up next: WordPress 101 with Nicole Crimaldi and Dabble, Tuesday evening.

Project Ukulele

Originally, I had assumed I’d only take on a new project after I finished one. And then my doctor sentenced me to six weeks in a walking boot to heal a stress fracture (that I had made significantly worse by “working through the pain” for several months). I’m taking my recovery seriously – better six weeks of no activity (even if it’s the absolute best six weeks of the year to be a Chicagoan) than several more months of pain, or possible injury beyond repair.

As one of my most significant hobbies has been dance and dance-fitness, I now have an overwhelming amount of free time available. I love to read and I have been doing so much reading and writing – but my brain needs a break. From the written word, at least. (I have not given up on Summer of Austen! I’m starting
Sense and Sensibility on my flight to Boston tomorrow night.)

I don’t want to get too carried away with overlapping projects – and I realize not every undertaking in my life is a “project,” but this one is worthy.
Project Ukulele. Tonight, I will take my first ukulele class, really my first music class since compulsory elementary classes. The extent of my musical instrument experience is a four-month stint with the violin at age ten and the permanently etched memory of how to play “Mary had a Little Lamb” (3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3…).

I was going to write in this paragraph about how nervous I am. But I’m really not. I watched some YouTube videos last night and practiced the basic chords. I have no doubt that the instructor and other participants will be lovely, welcoming people. (I’m taking the class through
Dabble, a lovely Chicago start-up.) And if it doesn’t go well, if I can’t play the ukulele even after hours and hours of practice? All I’ve lost is somewhere around $60 and some time – worse things have happened.

Project Ukulele has a specific goal: “Moon River.” (You recreate your favorite movie scenes and I’ll recreate mine.)




It’s not an overly ambitious goal, and I might not-so-secretly hope I can master the song in something closer to a month. But it’s so new to me, I have no idea!

I make no promises for the quality of my singing though. Here’s a sneak peek (ha, kidding – she’s fantastic.)