A little over a year ago, as the Covid-19 lockdowns were beginning to fan out across the globe, most folks grasped for toilet paper and canned food. The thing I reached for: A search function.
The purpose of the search function was somewhat irrelevant. I simply needed to code. Code soothes because it can provide control in moments when the world seems to spiral. Reductively, programming consists of little puzzles to be solved. Not just inert jigsaws on living room tables, but puzzles that breathe with an uncanny life force. Puzzles that make things happen, that get things done, that automate tedium or allow for the publishing of words across the world.
Break the problem into pieces. Put them into a to-do app (I use and love Things). This is how a creative universe is made. Each day, I’d brush aside the general collapse of society that seemed to be happening outside of the frame of my life, and dive into search work, picking off a to-do. Covid was large; my to-do list was reasonable.
The real joy of this project wasn’t just in getting the search working but the refinement, the polish, the edge bits. Getting lost for hours in a world of my own construction. Even though I couldn’t control the looming pandemic, I could control this tiny cluster of bits.
The whole process was an escape, but an escape with forward momentum. Getting the keyboard navigation styled just right, shifting the moment the search payload was delivered, finding a balance of index size and search usefulness. And most important, keeping it all light, delightfully light. And then writing it up, making it a tiny “gist” on GitHub, sharing with the community. It’s like an alley-oop to others: Go ahead, now you use it on your website. Super fast, keyboard-optimized, client side Hugo search.
It’s not perfect, but it’s darn good enough.
The point being, that a habit of reaching for code is not only healing for the self, but a trick to transmute a sense of dread into something: a function that seems to add, however trivially, a small bit of value to the greater whole in a troubling moment.
I began coding when I was 10 and have been running with it ever since. Self-taught, mostly. I had a preternatural awkwardness with others. The machine was literal in a reassuring way, and seemed to promise access to a world that even the adults around me couldn’t fathom. In this way, the code became a friend — a non-judgemental buddy.
A pattern was set: When the complexities of social situations exhausted me as a child, I turned to code, became an isolate. Ellen Ullman writes in her book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, “Until I became a programmer, I didn’t thoroughly understand the usefulness of such isolation: the silence, the reduction of life to thought and form; for example, going off to a dark room to work on a program when relations with people get difficult.”
Reading assembly language books in middle school or programming BBS software in high school didn’t register, then, explicitly, as a salve. My first conscious acknowledgement of the palliative power of code came a few years ago when I refactored my website from one Content Management System to another. This sounds implausible, but it’s true: I was healed by a CMS, a Google-unique phrase — and for good reason.