Feb 27, 2021 • 6M

Me Time

From rebuilding grandfather clocks to making websites

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Relatable words on creating, optimizing, and being a person. Essays read out loud by creator, author, and engineering lizard brain Kevin Huynh. Subscribe and read along on Substack.
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My Ông Nội—that's my paternal grandfather—owned a machine shop in the coastal city of Qui Nhơn, Vietnam. That's where my dad grew up, surrounded by the grinding sounds of lathes, mills and other equipment.

Every Lunar New Year, the family business closed for a few days. And during that time off, Ông Nội would carry out his signature New Year's tradition.

A black and white photo of my grandfather machining a part next to one of his employees
My grandpa, Ông Nội, (on the right) at his machine shop in Qui Nhơn, Vietnam

First, my grandpa would change out of his everyday shop garb into set of silk white pajamas. Newly radiant in his pristine outfit, Ông Nội would proceed to disassemble, oil, and reassemble the family's grandfather clock. Every gear was meticulously cleaned. Then, the clock was put back together in perfect working order.

I listened to my father share this anecdote last week. It was the first time I’d seen my parents in a year. We were celebrating Lunar New Year over plates of bánh tét.

My dad felt that the silk-pajama-clock-maintenance tradition was a way to stay busy, feeding Ông Nội's insatiable need to problem-solve even while on vacation.

However, I like to think my grandpa looked forward to this ritual as something more—an annual reset. A chance to get refreshed. Revisit a familiar project. Remember why he liked to do what he did.

The closest thing I have to rebuilding grandfather clocks is rebuilding my personal website. 🙃

In 7th grade, my best friend Sean shared that he was learning to build his first website. On my next trip to Borders bookstore, I remember excitedly searching for a HTML textbook. My mother bought me a copy of HTML 4 for the World Wide Web by Elizabeth Castro that day.

I still remember the slick feel of the book’s yellow and purple laminated cover. Within a week I completed every exercise front to back using one of my dad's old work laptops.

Cover of HTML 4 for the World Wide Web
The book that taught me HTML

When I was a kid, my brother gave me the nickname “Kiwi.” I was chubby, tan, and sported a buzzcut through grade school. So naturally, my personal brand was born. In 2000 (I think), I published my first website, The Kiwi Connection, hosted on Angelfire.

A banner logo for The Kiwi Connection in green and black
Early branding for The Kiwi Connection 😛

I sunk hours into constantly redesigning and recoding that site.

Building one version was immediately followed by building the next, like swimming laps in a pool. The Kiwi Connection eventually became Kiwimonk.com (another nickname gifted by my brother when he signed me up for AOL Instant Messenger).

Middle school me now owned a home base on the internet. I posted updates, published "art," collected quotes, and catalogued a portfolio of websites and graphics that I made for friends whom I met on the internet playing games.

A gif showing an animated scene inspired by The Matrix
A Matrix-themed animation from my middle school “portfolio”

As I got older, revamping Kiwimonk became a holiday-ish tradition. New side projects added. My bio rewritten. At one point, the site housed a popular forum among classmates in high school.

Today, I see my personal website the same way it started: a constant work in progress. The site is my evolving artist statement, from puberty to adulthood. It's always been a personal, public terminal for friends and strangers to learn about me and whatever I consider to be “my work.”

Like Ông Nội, I’ve spent “me time” every year since I was a kid to revisit this satisfying, yet un-finish-able project.

Screenshots of kiwimonk.com
My personal website, Kiwimonk.com, over the past ~20 years.

Making websites started as a hobby for me.

That hobby tricked me into dedicating time to reflect on my relationship with my work. Maybe something similar was taking place for my grandfather.

I never met Ông Nội, but I gather that he enjoyed his work. It was hard work. The machine shop he founded survived the Vietnam War and is still operated by my family today.

But rebuilding things seemed to be more than my grandpa’s way to make money and provide. It was a passion—or at least something he felt compelled to do.

I’ve felt compelled at different times during work and play. I think we all seek to understand “our things” that itch, that move us, that pull us along. They are the beasts we feed. They are practices that enable us to feel more like ourselves.


Music: Complicate Ya by Otis McDonald

Kevin here! I write about creating, optimizing, and being a person. Subscribe below to join a few hundred folks and get notified whenever I publish new words.