Simple

I’m nearly two years into my departure from Hanoi, and it’s odd how regular Son La feels, especially given the extraordinary bareness of the city.

There is no supermarket here. It’s all mom-and-pop shops, markets, and a central grocery store that tries its best, but by all measures looks like a mix between a convenience store and a garage sale.

To stay sane, I order weekly shipments of ingredients from the foreigner-friendly delis in Hanoi. I don’t need to do this as often as I do. It’s a distraction from our savings, and we’re more than capable of growing most of what we consume or buying it from a neighbor.

City cinemas don’t exist, so my wife and I watch Netflix religiously. I let her pick the shows and only demand that no horror series enter our room.

Events and culture, in the shallowest sense of the concept, are few and far between. The occasional concert comes to town, but I’m past my mid-thirties now and comfortably set in my musical ways. Spotify helps. So do the Vietnamese festivals that invade our neighborhood at whatever times they please, because they can.

I have no friends in this city. None.

Outside of my wife, my mother-in-law, and the children we teach English to, social interactions that fulfill me are had through iMessage, FaceTime, Slack, Basecamp, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp, Zalo, LINE, Viber, LinkedIn, GitHub, and email. I suspect that if I didn’t have this technology available to me, I’d still find ways to laugh, but the technology helps so much.

Exercise is a word I don’t use enough anymore. When I do, I walk. The street slopes here are quite steep, and mountains are forever in view. I know Trang wants us to walk more, both for my health and for our relationship. When we do get out together, we’re either wearing couple shirts or couple shoes because we’re like that. I pretend to hate it, but I’m into it; it reminds me of a mall-walking old couple I used to admire during my teen years in Longview.

I love her. I got lucky. Unfairly lucky.

We bicker over small, rarely big. When we fight over big, it’s usually diffused within a week, and life progresses. Nothing ever feels severe enough to go longer. The same issues pop up over and over again—she’s a hoarder, I’m a control freak, she’s unreasonably emotional, I’m irrationally cold—and in the big picture, they resemble blemishes that make us into us. Perfect is fake. I don’t need complete. I need genuine. I have that with her.

Our home is both a house and a karaoke cafe. We open at 8 AM and close at midnight, so there’s continuous noise. It’s hard to put into words how noisy it is around here. Imagine a low, deep rumble throughout the day that never ends; the sound of rickety vehicles passing by every few minutes; farm animals whose languages are noisy by default; and inebriated customers who can’t hear themselves yell. It’s like that until midnight.

My favorite days are when Mommy’s made enough money and closes shop early. During my first visit to Son La, she was deeply skeptical of me. She thought I would steal her daughter. She didn’t understand why I let my beard grow out or why I wore short exercise bottoms outside. She didn’t get me, and I didn’t care to appease her.

Slowly, very slowly, she’s turned into a different person. She laughs more. She dances. She jokes, sometimes better than I do. She loves me and cares for me when I’m tired. She’s given her daughter to me, and I’ve given myself as a son to her. When we have friction it’s because of the karaoke shop being too loud or me being annoyed because I hate boiled chicken—small things all obscured by our larger respect for each other.

Star, our cat, is the boss who runs the show. She’s a diva. We spoil her. We can’t help it. Star has a particular way of breaking you down with her whimpers.

This vast chasm of unremarkable living is precisely what I need right now.

I’ve had the lowest anxiety of my life here, and panic attacks are almost non-existent. Money problems aren’t problems like they used to be. We have a home, land, and plan on building our own, separate house next door soon. Cost of living in Son La is low enough that when business is slow, we’re still able to breathe.

A baby will come but the pressure to make it happen sooner than the stars will it into happening is gone; we’re past worrying about it, and our relationship without a child for this many years has only strengthened us. Babysitting and English teaching have been good practice for looking after children, but boy does it feel good to have a little alone time with my wife before our child comes into play.

I don’t miss Texas the way I used to because I’m already home.

I do miss family.

Things are as they should be right now. I want for nothing but the health and happiness of my family and an occasional moment of quiet. Outside of that I dare not ask for more.

I Don’t Write in WordPress

I use Bear and iA Writer now. Sometimes, when online research and deep focus are needed, I’ll use Airstory. And other times I’ll use Notes or Pages.

But it’s never WordPress.*

WP-CLI is where I go to change settings, install themes and plugins, bulk delete comments, update my core installation, and convert normal sites into Network installations.

There are only two reasons why I habitually go into the Dashboard: 1. to see how much more has been crammed into the Customizer or 2. to browse new plugins and themes.

I can’t remember the last time I intentionally logged into my site with the express intention of writing.

Why?

Because the writing experience is so much better elsewhere and I shouldn’t ever need an internet connection to create incredible content.

Gutenberg is not if, but when, and I imagine I’ll use it to design, not write. It may very well end up being the most important design tool that WordPress has ever created.

It’s beautiful.

But as far as actual writing goes my Do Not Disturb mode and single focus writing apps aren’t going anywhere. They make me feel in complete control of my voice, which is the liberation factor WordPress doesn’t offer.


*The WordPress mobile app crashed on me when attempting to publish this post the first time.

I’ve been podcasting.

One of them is on SoundCloud and one of them is on Anchor.

They’re both on iTunes. (We Cobble HQ / PAM)

We Cobble HQ is almost exclusively about running my new business. I love making it on Anchor and it takes me around five minutes a day to make and publish.

PAM is around 10 minutes a week and it covers a wide range of topics. It’s my personal outlet to decompress from a tough seven days.

Give either a listen or one. They’re fun.

Unlimited Premium Themes Now in Jetpack

When I worked with Automattic I always thought to myself, “Wow. Pretty amazing that millions of people are using some of the code I touch.” It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t deployed something at scale. It’s scary at first. After a while it becomes normal and after that it becomes fun. It’s always a little jittery, though. Having to check and triple-check a commit before deploying it, knowing that the rewards are silent and the failures are loud, makes the heart hop.

I’m on the outside now but I still commit and deploy to millions in a few key ways: through Underscores and through the premium themes that my company sells on the WordPress.com premium theme marketplace. Up until today, that marketplace utility was limited to users of the WordPress.com platform. If a self-hosted WordPress.org user (confused yet?) wanted to purchase one of our themes, they’d need to come directly to us for it. That’s incredibly good business for us,—WordPress.com retains a percentage of our sales, naturally—but hasn’t always been the best experience for users. WordPress is fragmented enough as it is and making them traverse one more step in the site building process wastes their time and confuses them. Not all. Some.

The business side of me finds this somewhat troublesome. Not only does this recent announcement by the Jetpack team worry me from a percentage-of-sale perspective, but mostly from a business branding perspective. I’ve long-held the belief that themes are not cereal boxes. Far from them. Anyone who disagrees with me is advised to purchase one from us and purchase one from another shop and determine a few things: how was the purchase experience?; were pre-sale questions answered generously and without expectation?; did the product perform as shown on its demo site?; if it didn’t, did we work hard to make it right?; post-purchase, did we treat you as well, if not better than, potential customers?; and did we leave your business better off than it was before buying from us?

On the other hand, I get it. WordPress is so fragmented, so confusing, and so awful of an experience for the average beginner that Jetpack’s intentions of easing this pain point really do come across as genuine. They most certainly are more worried about providing WordPress users with an excellent experience than they are about how good of a job I have done positioning my company and its products in a market that fluctuates but never goes away. It’s not Jetpack’s job to care about me, just as it’s not WordPress.org’s job to promote a premium theme shop that creates a free theme with the expectation of ROI. Whether or not my company makes 100% of a sale or 70% of a sale or 10% of sale should be, and is, the least of Automattic’s concerns. So I get it.

I’ve gone back and forth on this internally for a while now, both knowing that this was an inevitable shift in how premium themes on WordPress.com would be delivered to users and needing to prepare for it. Two questions that recur in my mind are 1) do we continue to develop WordPress themes with a WordPress.com-first design and build process in mind, and 2) will another distribution platform ever come around that is as reliable and safe as WordPress.com and as ubiquitous and varied as ThemeForest? It thrills me that the premium themes on WordPress.com are immediately within the grasp of the other half of the WordPress universe, but it does confuse me at times with regard to where our interests as a company should rest.

If I’m worried about revenue first, then I frankly do not care how my themes are distributed or what percentage I make from them. All I care about is volume.

If I’m worried about my company’s reputation and branding first, then fragmentation potentially harms us. If a user purchases my theme on WordPress.com or through Jetpack, has an awful experience with a support engineer from Automattic, and confuses that experience with one from my company, I face grave danger in how we are viewed.

If I’m worried about access and democracy, then I couldn’t care less about how Automattic decides to distribute our products as long as everyone has equal access to them.

And if I’m worried about user experience the one thing I want to make sure of is that any premium upgrades on the WordPress.com platform, like custom colors or custom fonts, have a clear equivalent in Jetpack or the WordPress.org free market.

My knee-jerk reaction to this was initially super-defensive and negative. Themes aren’t a hobby for me. They are food, water, and shelter. To have my business needs as an important stakeholder on a platform that largely succeeds due to the efforts of people like me ignored is difficult.

I don’t think it’s insurmountable though. That users will be able to access our themes through Jetpack is a good thing. The inside baseball, behind-the-scenes conversations around what that means in terms of our viability as a company should not be anyone else’s concern but our own.

My only wait-and-see concern, then, is how this will affect our buyers. If they find that purchasing through Jetpack is one less hurdle to leap over when setting up their business, then that’s a win for us. If they become confused, then it’ll only add to the litany of issues in the WordPress world that contribute to user confusion already.

I’ll stay optimistic. The premium theme team at Automattic and the Jetpack team do not lack heart. And mine waits to skip another beat knowing that my next commit has just been introduced to the other half of the pie.