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Shutdown Sequence

Not-quite-four years ago, I launched The Trephine, my fourth blog, with a now-deleted post reviewing a lot of painful backstory that connected old readers to my new life as a divorcee. The experience that followed has been incredibly rewarding. Some of the emails I’ve received as a result of this blog, in which strangers poured out their hearts to me, will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I’m proud of the stories I’ve been able to tell here, because they are true and because I earned them. I got rid of all my stuff and fit my entire life into my car. I helped start a roller-derby league in my hometown that is still there today, and my last event with them raised almost thirty thousand dollars for cancer research. I took a huge leap of faith (and of geography) for love after knowing Andy for a very short time. With his support, I became a software engineer using nothing more than a couple hundred dollars’ worth of materials, and in two weeks I am marrying him.

These years have certainly been interesting, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

During this era of my life, the “rolling memoir” format has served me well, but at this point, I’m not sure what I could really do to top myself. Frankly, it’s not particularly healthy for me to be epic all the time. Many of my accomplishments throughout these healing years were fueled by fears and anxieties that had to go somewhere. They were tough, joyful, stressful, and sometimes even euphoric experiences, but they could not have happened without that tinge of desperation that bloomed in my chest the moment my marriage ended and I had to start actively figuring out how the hell my life was supposed to proceed. I see people who can’t stop, the famous if not legendary ones who must do amazing things until the day they die, and I both envy and pity them, because their lives are both wonderful and fraught in a way that I have personally found to be rather tiring.

There is such a thing as ordinary happiness, and if you find it, you may be better off than your own heroes.

(But if you must do epic things first, if your ego drives you compulsively onward, that’s not such a terrible way to go about things either. Maybe you find ordinary happiness by becoming extraordinary, and enjoying it, but also realizing that it won’t fix everything, that you still have to wake up the next morning and find some other way to get by and feel okay about it.)

The other problem here, aside from the impending boringness (which I not only sense in my life, but welcome with open arms) is that I’m becoming more technical. I don’t really want to talk about feelings that much anymore. I want to talk about APIs and AngularJS and a lot of other stuff that very few people reading here are going to care about, because programming has made my brain so happy and I’m so excited about everything I still don’t know.

It’s funny, how guilty I feel about that, how I wince a little when my tweets get too technical. It can be hard to feel okay with change in yourself. Big changes in you are always going to disappoint someone. Happiness is often boring under the very best circumstances, and I think we can all agree that “she’s happy because she now studies a ton of crap I do not care about, and when she talks about it she sounds as if she is speaking in tongues” is not ideal for most.

That said, I am ready to accept my fate. I am not ready to stop writing, Internet. But I am ready to start disappointing you in the name of finding the ones who can’t wait to hear what I have to say. I’m sorry if it isn’t you.

I’m not sure when my Trephine posts will go offline, but I’m fairly certain that most of them will. If there’s something I’ve written that you want to keep, you may want to copy it into a Google doc or otherwise hang onto it. People sometimes email me to ask about a post they remember but can’t look up, and I try to find it and send it if I can. If you have your heart set on a post and you can’t track it down, let me know.

If you use a feed reader, you’ll stay posted on whatever I’m doing until you choose not to — I’ll attach this feed to whatever new (boring, decidedly less literary) blog I wind up with, which will probably take me many months to get together among other priorities. I’m also yapping about liberal politics and my cats on Facebook more than my relatives would probably like me to be. I’m also on Twitter.

But: no pressure to stick with me at all, in any form. Even if you don’t, it has been an honor to have your trust. It has been an honor to share my life with you.

Once more, with feeling.

I’m getting married again.

You cannot think of one marriage without the other, or at least I can’t. I squint at other second-time brides, wondering if they’re experiencing the same duality, as if they’ve walked all the way around the world only to arrive in familiar territory as completely different people.

It’s hard for me to believe they can put on a white dress and stand up there and make those promises while thinking, Nope, none of this reminds me of anything in particular, but if they’re thinking anything else, they’re too polite to say so.

Me, I pause when making the music playlist for my wedding, awash with the weirdness of debating whether to add any of the songs that played last time. I only know of so many love songs, of so many ways to carry any of this out.

I let the cake lady explain the entire ordering process to me, because I didn’t have the heart to tell her she had made my last one eleven years ago. “But it was delicious!” I’m sure I would add hastily. “I mean, clearly it was, because you earned my repeat business! Ha ha ha ha ha!” (Seriously, she makes the best cake in town. What was I supposed to do?)

Lucky for the cake lady, I save those jokes for my mother, who indulges me by laughing in her special “I am so glad you just said that in front of me and not the neighbors or anyone else we know” way.

In other situations, my first wedding is an unseen force that bends the second one away from itself. My dress, the venue, the decorations … I chose them both because I love them and because they are nothing like the first ones, or maybe sometimes I even love them simply because they are nothing like the first ones, because they help me believe other things are different, too.

And things are different, of course. That’s starkly obvious, especially in this whole split-screen format my brain seems to insist upon.

Eleven years has turned out to be a very long time. I don’t want to share the particular comparisons, because I think describing my priorities and philosophies as a 22-year-old bride would unfairly trivialize my first marriage. That would be convenient, wouldn’t it, to point out all of the ways I’m older and wiser now. But it would also be a disservice to 22-year-old me, who I can only assume was doing her best. There has to be a statute of limitations on such scrutiny, I think. Casting a spotlight onto some naive girl who has never left the country and is barely old enough to drink doesn’t strike me as a very sporting way to prove I’m doing much of anything right today.

If “it’s better than what a 22-year-old would do” is the best argument I’ve got going for my life, you really shouldn’t be impressed.

Divorced people will often tell you they knew all along that their relationship was headed for disaster. Married and engaged people take comfort in this idea; it’s reassuring to think that, instead of enjoying the same sort of optimistic wedding as everyone else, their divorced friends chose to enter a failing marriage through paralysis or cowardice or whatever helpless feeling would prompt a bride to walk down the aisle anyway. But I cannot bring myself to really believe that so many otherwise conscientious and loving people knowingly entered into a failing marriage.

I think what most divorced people mean to say is that their problems, the ones that ultimately split them up, were there all along in a way that can make their divorce seem inevitable in hindsight — they just considered those problems surmountable when they started, the same way we all do when we’re walking toward someone wearing a really pretty outfit with our hands full of flowers. The same way I do, right now.

I refuse to make my case in the the usual ways, is what I’m telling you. I don’t want to tell you that I know better this time, that this time is different, because I believed in my marriage the first time and I believe in this one too, which is your logical indication that my word is not worth much.

I haven’t decided whether I even really trust people who keep such promises to keep them for the right reasons. If Andy keeps that promise to me, I hope it’s because he actually wants to. I can’t think of any other reason to bother.

I’m not getting married because of some ironclad confidence that I know what I’m doing. “But I know you of all people must have thought carefully about it,” people press, and I have to laugh. Of course I have, and I’m flattered that they’re so eager to believe I’ve come up with a logical explanation. I take it as a compliment that they assume I have charts and graphs stowed under my bed and a pros and cons list in my Google docs. They’re not entirely wrong.

So here is what I do know. Here is why.


Every time someone implied that my first marriage had been a mistake just because it ended in divorce, I felt really annoyed — we had a lot of fun! We traveled the world! Stop trying to shove six years of my life into a little Mistake Box just so you can put a bow on it!

But it took me years to realize the most important reason my marriage could reasonably be called a mistake: it saved my financial ass. I can honestly say that if I had not been married, my future would have been much darker.

It’s very easy to lament divorce without considering how much worse a plain old breakup would have been. I reaped the benefits of marriage all over the place — I just took those benefits for granted to such an extent that years had passed before I acknowledged them.

Had Jeff, my ex-husband, been an ex-boyfriend instead, I would have been up shit creek thanks to years of mopping the floor and picking up groceries while he flew airplanes around. Jeff would have supported me in any career I wanted to pursue, but the truth is he preferred for me not to work full time, and I agreed with him. Commercial pilots don’t get standard days off; we wouldn’t have had much of a relationship without our Tuesdays and Thursdays and Mondays.

If Jeff and I hadn’t gotten married, I would not have had the financial resources to start my life over again when we split up. All of the work I put into the household, all of that traditionally undervalued feminine work, would have gone unpaid. Instead, I walked away with enough assets to allow me to get my life back together. I was still poorer than I had been when we were together, but I can only imagine how bleak the financial landscape would have been without half of our bank accounts, most of which had been funded by Jeff’s career.

I don’t think it’s antifeminist to stay home and do the laundry if that’s what works best for your household. Someone has to do those tasks. But I do think it’s antifeminist to do it for nothing, because those tasks have value. Yet, in a plain old breakup, no one, including me, would have seen any of that money as mine.

Divorcing can be vastly preferable in the legal sense to breaking up, but we all forget that because we see breaking up as less embarrassing, less of a failure.

We also see the idea of everyone getting half, no matter what each of you make, as unfair and antiquated. I think a lot of women consider it feminist for each person to keep/spend their paycheck, splitting all the expenses. I used to believe that, but now it seems simplistic to me. Paychecks aren’t earned in a utopian vacuum free of sexist influences like the wage gap or male privilege. They’re earned in a world where the majority of women still do more than their fair share of housework, if research is to be believed.

But maybe we’re talking about a gay couple, where feminist logic doesn’t quite apply the same way, or maybe she’s a renowned brain surgeon and he is a part-time painter who stays home with the kids and does the dishes. Still, in any relationship, either side can make sacrifices that aren’t necessarily going to show up on a spreadsheet.

If each person’s respective paycheck accurately reflects their share, well. That seems like one hell of a coincidence to me.

When I decided to switch careers, Andy supported me financially while I studied. My wages have greatly improved, and he reaps the benefits of that, because I share with him, thanks to our years-old habit of pooling resources, originally established to keep me from starving to death when I agreed to move to a very expensive part of the country for the sake of Andy’s career.

I can no longer wrap my brain around an arrangement in which anyone is holding anything back in the name of modernity. It’s not really a romantic thing. I just have no idea how one would even begin to keep score, unless we’re all willing to work under the ridiculous assumption that earning money is the only way to contribute to a household.

Having contemplated the impact that marriage will have, and already has had, on my personal financial situation, it shocks me that most of us still see marriage as a primarily romantic decision, this fluffy thing you choose to do when you’ve lost your senses enough to believe in everlasting love. We would all be smart to consider marriage to be a lot more than that. I find it really dangerous that a lot of legal benefits are overlooked because of marriage’s conceptualization as an emotional endeavor.

And, in choosing your spouse, if you want one at all, it might be a good idea to consider why you’re with someone if you don’t think they’re contributing their 50% to the partnership. And if they ARE contributing their half in one way or another, you have no business becoming that bitter person who acts as if you were robbed by your own spouse because he or she didn’t let you keep all of “your” money when she left.


I’m probably going to take some heat for this one, and Younger Me would be horrified at the argument I’m about to make, but here’s the thing: in our society, if you love each other a whole lot, you get married. You don’t have to. No one is going to make you. But that’s the norm, and it’s what people will start to assume has already happened. People already call Andy my husband all the time.

If you are youthful or if you just happen to be more energetic or more willing to constantly explain yourself to other people than I am, you can fight that. Good for you! Or, if you’re me, you can realize you are weary of fighting every last cultural assumption just because it’s a cultural assumption.

Some assumptions round the corners off of things. They make life less work for all of us. They exist so we don’t have to think so hard all the time, or so we can think hard about even more complicated situations staring us in the face every day. I can understand why you might distrust marriage, an institution our society has accepted from its predecessors without too much examination, but cultural protocol is not necessarily inherently evil.

(Your coworker pressuring you to get married, on the other hand, IS inherently evil, but she isn’t doing that solely because marriage is standard practice. She’s also doing it because she’s rude and nosy and possibly tragically unimaginative, and marriage itself can’t be blamed for that nonsense.)

Here is what I have learned in my thirties: Sometimes it is okay to do something solely because it is easier. It is okay to do something simply because you want to. It’s not something any of the intellectuals in your life need to forgive you for, no matter how graciously indulgent they might act about it. You have lost nothing. We don’t all get points at the end for our relentless intellectual integrity, for our dedication to making perfect sense at all times.

Maybe that’s not a revolutionary idea to you, but I would never have accepted it even a few short years ago, and let me tell you, it’s a brutal way to live. I’m not sorry that phase of my life is over, even if I’ve lost points with whatever faction of humanity is still worshipping philosophical unimpeachability.

You can just be lazy and get married because you’re sick to death of the word “boyfriend.” You aren’t a thoughtless sheep just because you looked at this particular fight and decided it wasn’t a battle you were willing to choose. You can find plenty of other cultural norms to fight against, many of which are a lot nastier than I’d allow any marriage of mine to become.


Not getting married would make me a coward, and I abhor cowardice, because it’s unhealthy and depressing and anxiety-inducing and full of shame. Not getting married might not make YOU a coward, of course. It really depends on whether you want to get married in the first place.

And I do want to, heaven help me.

Most other people have always made me feel lonely. I used to joke that in my love life, I had “graft versus host” syndrome; the personality differences between me and another person, at first so small and manageable, always seemed to spread and infect everything until they proved fatal.

Several of my exes could tell you, with the appropriate measure of exasperation, that I am a woman who often simply cannot go on any longer once some sort of obscure tipping point has been reached, a point at which I would rather die alone than continue to allow some repetitive and small-yet-somehow-ominously-broadly-representative behavior to slice through everything, neatly separating us into two people over and over again.

If some selfish little habit of theirs didn’t do it, my reclusive tendencies usually would.

I’m a strange one, I can tell you that. Even if I adore you I won’t talk to you on the phone, and your arm slung over me in your sleep will begin to make me want to scream after just a few minutes. Even if I love you, you are not allowed to watch me dance, or hula hoop, or back the car out of the garage. Ever. I could probably list a hundred other occasions in my life to which even those dearest to me are not invited. I don’t like anyone to hear my footfalls on the treadmill, or listen to a podcast I intended to listen to by myself. It sounds shy, and I guess technically that’s the case, but to me it feels more like annoyance that you won’t just go away and let me experience something all by myself, the way I like to, where my ears are the only ears, where I get to own everything that’s happening without your five senses sitting around and mucking it up.

Many of the beloved things in my life are not anything I’m interested in sharing. I carry around a heap of mundane and gleeful secrets, the ones that make me sing while driving alone down the highway, and no one can have them.

But anyone I get close to always wants them, and my refusal is so often taken personally.

“You can trust me,” they say, because they don’t understand the difference between trust and territory. They see my refusal to let them in as a weakness, which is funny, because to me it’s mostly been a stronghold.

At any rate, the inevitable resentfulness of it all gives me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach the moment I like someone who likes me back.

Andy was different from the start.

Oh, I am so cynical about these stories, so suspicious that revisionist history is afoot the moment someone says something like this, but he was, and everyone could see it even if I didn’t want them to. It’s not that I loved him more than I’ve loved other people, if such comparisons could even be made between wildly different relationships. It’s that being in love with him did not fill me with that odd sort of dread. He has always been so plainly disinterested in crossing any of my boundaries that I can love him without feeling the urge to chew through anything or wrench everything away from itself.

The first time I stayed the night at his house, loath to drag myself into the car for the 45-minute trip home at 2 a.m., he said, “I have a guest room,” and it’s still a little sad to me that I was so surprised at the sincerity of the offer. I didn’t take him up on it, and he was happy to let me decline.

But still, he had meant it. The man has no guile. If nothing else, I should probably stick around to make sure he doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Andy makes me feel safe and loved and he supports the shit out of me. He takes me seriously, which is a sad thing to praise someone for, but a woman can tell you that it’s actually kind of rare for a man to look at her and listen to her intently, with no hint of dismissal or condescension. He makes me laugh and he thinks my dreams are important, AND he picks me up from the airport. The subtle boost of his presence has done a startling amount of good in my life, with more impact on my career and my overall well-being than I would have thought a relationship could have. I think that’s because I had gotten used to thinking of relationships as enjoyable inconveniences, not empowering foundations that prompt friends and family to comment on how happy I’ve seemed for such a long time now.

There are all kinds of love out there, but moon-boots love is the best, man, because life is already challenging enough.

The only other exception to all of this has been Jeff, which is exactly why I married him and why I’m not at all sorry that I did. And if Andy got hit by a bus tomorrow I would be angry at myself for not becoming his wife when I had the chance. I would feel as if I had failed to offer him something he had fairly earned. Plus, I wouldn’t get to keep any of his stuff, and I’ve gotten somewhat attached to the ice maker.

I know the old saying about how those who refuse to learn are doomed to repeat history. But this time, I can’t beat the past by refusing to repeat it. I can beat it by refusing to let it stop me.

My original urge to elope, to not make a fuss, to indulge in a second marriage behind closed doors like a properly chagrined woman, has more or less vanished like the specter of guilt that it was. I’m going to get all dolled up and have my picture taken a bunch of times like some kind of marriage-hungry floozy. I got a beautiful dress that goes to the floor, and I let a woman make me paper flowers by hand, and I’m getting a two-tier cake even though my tiny 15-guest farmhouse wedding in no way requires it.

I did all of this because the past is not Andy’s fault, and I am tired of honoring it over the present. I did it because the present is worth celebrating.

I am lucky it was willing to wait for me to get here, and I’m ready to enjoy it for as long as it will have me.

Part 5: Thousands of “wrong!”s do make a right, after all.

Learning programming was exciting and exhausting and frustrating and scary for me, but I don’t think the technical particulars make for much of a story. What can I tell you? I studied for days, weeks, months. I steeped myself in it. I remember attending a coding workshop at one point and impressing a fellow student with my progress. He asked me which books I was reading, which online programs I was working through.

“But how do you do all of that and still make time for friends?” he asked. “I’ve found that balance so hard.”

I’m sure my stare was completely blank. Friends? Were people really still trying to have those?

I slept fitfully, like my entire body was changing instead of just my brain, a milder unfolding of the sort that you see in vampire movies.

I dreamed in code all night long. It would often just scroll past, not making any sense, but sometimes I had beautiful dreams of maneuvering forking streams of conditional statements in a canoe, all Pocahontas-style, or of being truly free to move around inside a program as a piece of data. I sleep with a fat little pork chop of a cat in the crook of my arm, and he was perhaps the most taken aback by all of this, considering how often I tried to call him as a method or patted him anxiously to figure out which instance of a Cat he was.

I dragged myself through bewildering tutorials while fighting the sometimes chest-crushing urge to give up. I would struggle, and struggle, and occasionally break through into 15 minutes of sheer euphoria when something clicked and I could feel myself leveling up.

That feeling of embiggening … my God, there’s nothing like it. It can become your religion. I don’t know why I spent so much time on romance in my twenties. Forget that shit, ladies. Passion fades. Infatuation fades. Invest in something you get to keep.

At its core, this era of my life wasn’t really about programming. It was about the same heartbreaking realizations I made as a coach: The human intolerance, and perhaps especially the feminine intolerance, of imperfection steals away so much of what we could become. As a coach, I would watch women give up, even though they loved their teammates, even though playing roller derby had brought a happiness to their lives that they had never before experienced. They would give up, tearfully, because they just couldn’t stand it. They couldn’t stand feeling small, inferior, stupid, or foolish, and those are feelings you must somehow reckon with if you want to grow. Some of them knew they were being irrational — they knew they were getting better all the time, and logically understood that they would without a doubt continue to get better if they kept going.

But they simply could not keep going. The doubt and humiliation and frustration were too hard to cope with, so I would watch them leave something they loved behind. Because that is the cost of leaving those tough feelings behind: you leave your potential behind, too, along with the joy of accomplishment and the sheer wonder of watching yourself do more than you have ever previously been capable of.

As long as your goal even remotely suits you, as long as it isn’t something completely absurd, as long as you can see logically both point A and point B and how you might get from one to the next, you just have to keep going. That’s all.

It should be easy, but it’s the opposite of easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ve ever had to face down my ego like this before. I hated feeling stupid. I hated not understanding what I was reading. I wanted to throw the books across the room half the time, and why?

Because I didn’t perfectly comprehend everything right away. What a ridiculous, suffocating, paralyzing standard to live with.

I shouldn’t have had to cling quite so desperately to the knowledge that if I kept going, if I fell asleep every night knowing a little more than I had when I woke up (no matter how much of it I hadn’t absorbed), I would get there. But if I’m being truthful, I probably had to remind myself a hundred times a day.

There were setbacks. Rough ones. I got rejected from bootcamp-style coding schools I applied to, for instance. I got rejected for one apprenticeship I had my heart set on, and that rejection showed up in my inbox almost before I’d even left the building. I felt some very big feelings and I ate some very big sandwiches.

But ultimately, it comes down to having faith in the most basic, obvious tenets of cause and effect, the ones we want to ignore in order to keep ourselves safely off the hook. Either programming is dark magic and a human like you couldn’t possibly ever learn it, or it’s just something that takes time and effort to learn, just like a lot of other subjects and disciplines that could possibly wildly enhance your career or your personal life. Either I learned how because I am an amazing human being whom you have no hope of emulating, or I learned how simply because I kept going, because I believed deep down that it is downright impossible to invest lots and lots of time in something and not eventually become better at it.

I also have had to come to accept that programming is such a broad field that I will die feeling ignorant about it. No one knows everything in programming anymore. And that’s okay. It can even be an exciting way to live, knowing there’s always something more out there to learn. You just have to get over yourself first, that’s all.

It’s funny, how often people reassure me (or just themselves) these days that I learned to program because I am special. I’m not saying I’m not intelligent, and my quick reading abilities certainly helped. But if you are waiting for someone exactly like you to accomplish something, just to make sure you won’t personally be wasting your time, you will be waiting for the rest of your life.

There is no one exactly like you. You are the only person alive who can prove that someone just like you can do it. And if you want to, you can keep on exonerating yourself from the responsibility of personal accomplishment by pointing out all of the differences between you and the people in your life who make their dreams come true.

That would make you full of shit, though, just so you know. We all have our limitations and shortcomings, and I am not denying that, but to have been born with the inability to grow, you would have to be far more incapacitated than anyone capable of reading these words.

I regretted giving up programming for twenty years. Along the way, I had multiple opportunities to redeem the situation, and I didn’t, because I thought it would take too long.

But, as my mother is fond of saying in these situations, “That time is going to go by anyway.” And it is. It did. It always does.

In the end, once I decided to fix it, I only had to spend most of my time wanting to cry (and the rest of the time wanting to shout joyously from the rooftops because I had finally found the missing comma that had been ruining my code) for a few months. Those first few months, when you don’t know how to debug your code or get yourself unstuck, are by far the hardest. I still get stuck these days, of course, but it’s no longer the three-day hair-pulling ordeal it once was.

I accepted a job offer as a software engineer in April, a title that may never stop seeming surreal. (Anytime anyone asks me what I’m up to at work, I want to say, “Oh, you know, just ENGINEERING some SOFTWARE.” What.)

And, in a plot twist that surprised even me, it’s also every bit as fantastic as I thought it would be. I did not know it was possible to love a job this much while simultaneously getting paid this much to do it, but here we are.

If you are a creative person who is good with English and grammar, you can learn to program. The idea that you need excellent math skills to do any sort of programming is completely antiquated; expressions in many programming languages these days more closely resemble grammatical sentences than mathematical equations. You do need excellent logic skills (if A, then B, and so forth), but many of the best editors and writers are in possession of those.

Mainly, above all else, you need to be stubborn as all get out, and you need to be prepared to keep going. If you do, you might be less than a year from programming for a living. Only 227 days passed between my first leap and my first day of work.

They were the most challenging and imperfect 227 days of my life. They were also the most empowering 227 days of my life. Inconveniently for humankind in general, that’s not a coincidence.

I recently got in trouble for accepting too many projects. But how can I not? Every time someone runs an idea by me, I want to start building it right that moment, because, twenty years later, I finally know exactly how.

If you regret something, you should fix it if you can, even if it will take a while. I’m with my mom on this one: That time is going to go by anyway.

Part 4: Little things add up to big things, sometimes.

If you want to work with copy for a living, you have a lot of awesome options, like writing a bestseller and getting rich and famous HA HA HA HA HA, writing award-winning screenplays, crafting hard-hitting pieces of journalism that change the world, and so on.

Unfortunately, relatively few writers wind up with cool gigs like that. In fact, fewer and fewer writers and editors can make a decent living these days without supplementing their finest work with a little lowbrow freelancing action.

Let’s talk about those less-ideal assignments. They generally involve one of more of the following:

1. Selling stuff.

2. Editing/writing copy a fourth-grader could understand so that a broad demographic can read about parenting, fashion, or another widely held interest.

3. Writing copy a fourth-grader could understand, except this time it’s about which celebrities are going to jail or having babies or kissing each other.

4. Writing sweet blogs named after trephines to a chorus of critical acclaim but for no money, so this option sadly doesn’t count.

I don’t necessarily think that selling stuff is bad, or that writing copy for fourth-graders is bad. Having done a great deal of both in my writing/editing career, I will say that sometimes it feels dirty and evil (you need this lip gloss, ladies! or you’ll be ugly and no one will love you!), and sometimes it’s sort of pleasant to compose bland paragraphs that won’t change the world but won’t overexert any brain cells, either, including mine.

We all need our articles to flip through in the doctor’s office. I understand that. The world would be earnest to the point of being tiresome if every article were rife with meaning.

But I will say that over time, I’ve become more sensitive to how my work aligns with my own values. In my relatively thoughtless youth, I was far more willing to encourage people to buy something they don’t need, or write the sort of vapid copy that would now make me feel lonely in some way that’s difficult to articulate.

Simply put, I’ve come to realize that everything I do has consequences. I’m not saying they’re necessarily significant consequences. I am simply saying that they are mine, and I want to be proud of them. I explained this realization here (in #1), so I won’t describe it in detail again, but this feeling has only gotten stronger:

“I’m not saying I’m important, or not important, because those semantics become impossibly tangled impossibly quickly. I’m saying that, like it or not, I’m a shareholder.”

And often, when I was writing or editing professionally, ethical neutrality was often the best I could hope for. Sometimes, I got to contribute something to humanity by polishing up a textbook (I’m helping people learn!) or selling a product that really was greener, more economical, and of better quality than the big-box competition (score one for the little guy!). Sometimes I got to fight for good things.

But a lot of the time, I didn’t.

A lot of the time, I contributed to societal values I don’t agree with. They weren’t abhorrent values — I’m talking about words that subtly endorse materialism or gossip or the idea that we will all be happy as soon as everything in our lives is organized into artfully stenciled cubbies, not words that make up the KKK Monthly Newsletter or anything — but they weren’t mine.

I think that those of us who care about social change naturally focus on the big problems, the Steubenvilles and the Newtowns. Meanwhile, when I stop and really contemplate it, I’m convinced that the little things matter more, those tiny exchanges we’ve popularized into invisibility. A lot of written media is steeped in those subtleties … or, as the case may be, not-so-subtleties. (10 Surprising Ways To Trim Your Tummy So You Can Finally Manage To Scrounge Up Some Worth As A Person!)

I never became miserably plagued with guilt or anything, but I was uneasy.

I think that’s why I didn’t fight for my career when times got harder. I wasn’t sure whether I was okay with what I was doing. Jostling other people out of the way with both elbows just for a chance to continue on that path was more effort than I could justify.

When I knew layoffs were coming, I was afraid, yes. But I didn’t have it in me to seek out one more desk to sit behind while I carried out assignments that I often suspected of making the world just the tiniest bit worse by making you think, just one more time than you would have, about what you look like or what you wish you had or who you wish you were.

So I didn’t wait to get laid off. I quit with the announcement that I was going to become a programmer.

I based this decision on about three weeks of studying, and on the fact that people I trusted had assured me it was possible for someone like me to get hired even without a computer science degree. I haven’t blogged much about my boyfriend, Andy (well, uh, except to mention that one time we decided to move to California together a few years ago after having known each other for three weeks), so this would be an excellent time to say that he did everything right when it came to encouraging me. He saw how desperately jealous I was of his ability to write code (he’s an engineer himself, which is part of the reason I was wildly attracted to him), and how unmoored I was in my career. Before I had even seriously considered going for it, he was sending me links to tutorials and schools and anything else that might help me learn.

He believed, and if you were starting a journey like this and I could grant you one thing, it would be someone who believes in you as wholeheartedly as he did in me — enough to not only support me financially, but to talk me off the ledge anytime I became convinced that the entire endeavor was a huge mistake, a realization I was particularly fond of making right around the time that he would very much like to go to sleep.

On my last day as an editor, I said goodbye to coworkers awesome enough to make me a little teary-eyed. Then I carried a box of my stuff down a sunny San Francisco sidewalk, and I did my best to believe, too.

Part 3: I boarded a sinking ship.


I could spell the crap out of some words when I was a kid. Taking first place in the schoolwide round was a given — we won’t talk about the seventh-grade mishap that ruined my otherwise perfect streak — and my focus was generally on higher levels of competition, though I never made it to the national level. What can I say, “sequoia” suddenly has a shit-ton of vowels in it when you’re onstage with a camera in your face.

If you didn’t pick up on it already, anyone with a lot of spelling trophies can tell you every word they’ve ever stumbled through only to hear that goddamn bell ding and crush their overachieving dreams. (”Cholesterol”? Really, fourth-grade self? You’re going to experience a premature wave of triumph and then rush through it and forget the freaking H and then have to hand the district championship over to the kid whose head you had on a platter only a moment before? Get it together!)

Don’t worry, I came back to take the district a few years later with “dachshund,” and I don’t think it’s overly small of me to point out that it also has a silent H and I still nailed it, so hey, IN YOUR FACE, Kenny from Bolin Elementary.


I was praised for my writing as well, but my grasp of grammar and syntax bordered on freakish. Again, my failures in this arena were so few (and my ego so large, apparently) that I remember every single one of them, including the only question on my ACT that kept me from a perfect score in the English section.

As for the Math section … did I mention I did really great in the English section? Is that not accomplishment enough? What is it with you anyway? Have you been talking to Kenny from Bolin Elementary?


Because it will be relevant shortly, let me emphasize that 95% of my ability was completely natural. Beyond reading voraciously just because reading is fun, I did nothing to earn it. I’m grateful for the talent, because it allows me to represent myself well in all sorts of professional situations. I still mentally frame this uncanny knack as a big part of my identity.

But I want to talk about what can happen when you have a rigidly defined idea of yourself and you are afraid. Because a lot of us conceive of ourselves as This Type of Person or That Type of Person, and a lot of us are afraid.

I am afraid of poverty and homelessness. I have always been terrified of this. I used to blame my impoverished upbringing, but some research out there indicates that homelessness, like public speaking, is just a common gut fear, the sort of fear that harkens back to our days of hoping we could find a cave to hunker down in before a tiger ate us for lunch. I read an article somewhere recently that implied that a surprising percentage of women who make more than $200K a year still fear homelessness, ridiculously enough. There you go.

And yes, these days, it’s easy for me to categorize this fear as irrational. I am very financially blessed these days, so when I walk past a homeless guy and think, “That will probably be me by NEXT TUESDAY,” I can at least laugh ruefully at my overblown anxiety.

But when I was in college and making career decisions, it didn’t seem at all obvious that I would be able to make my way in the world and earn a living.

I still remember the first time I realized that it was possible to edit text as a career. I couldn’t believe anyone was willing to pay me good money, like FULL-TIME MONEY, just to smooth out a bunch of paragraphs. Finally! My prayers for a failsafe route to guaranteed not-homelessness had been answered!

It’s not that editing is easy; it’s not. But for me, the process of becoming one, at least, was easy. It wasn’t a huge leap to polish my skills to a professional level.

And ultimately, that’s why I did it: not because I felt a burning desire to rearrange dangling modifiers for the rest of my life, but because I was scared and it wasn’t a huge leap. There’s also the cultural belief that it would be pretty clever of us to turn our pre-existing abilities into careers.

We think it makes logical sense to choose the career path leading us to a paid version of whoever we already are.


Our fanciful society has produced a lot of romantic movies, books, and stories about destiny and self-discovery. These can make you feel as if it’s your job to find out who you are, instead of becoming who you want to be. We’re trained to believe that the right decisions in our lives, romantic or otherwise, are the ones that feel as if they fit us, the ones that feel like foregone conclusions.

There’s just one problem with that: some skills don’t come to anyone naturally. I would never let an untrained person build a skyscraper or perform heart surgery or do any number of things that nervous people everywhere are missing out on because they weren’t willing to choose a career they weren’t sure they could handle. If you are going to insist on staying in your comfort zone, you are going to close the door on a tragically large number of your career options. Women are especially guilty of this, if the research can be believed.

Programming is one of those career options. No one comes out of the womb with a grasp of variables and methods and arguments. Natural aptitude does exist in programming, of course, but if you understood any of the terms I just used, it’s because someone taught you how. No amount of natural talent in the world will make the vast vocabulary of programming less intimidating for you if you’ve never encountered it before.

Editing, though? That suited me perfectly. I thought my goal was to find a relatively painless paycheck. It would be years before I realized how much potential joy I was stealing from myself in my life by choosing easy targets across the board.

Don’t get me wrong: editing is hard. But it’s hard in a gritty sort of way, because maintaining your focus through 900 misspelled pages of an anatomy textbook requires serious mental discipline. It’s not hard in that exciting “ooh, can I accomplish this?” fluttery sort of way, at least not for me, because of course I can accomplish this. It’s just English, and even Kenny from Bolin Elementary would probably grudgingly admit that I can handle that.

I often do enjoy editing. It can be really rewarding to help clients communicate more clearly and effectively, especially the ones who have poured their hearts and souls into their work. Helping someone achieve their publishing dreams can feel like an honor instead of a gig.

But there are only so many grammar and spelling mistakes in this world, and I think I’ve fixed each of them at least a thousand times. How often have I lovingly removed the “e” from “judgement” or adjusted “dietician” to “dietitian”? Do I even want to know?

Editors are so much more than spell checkers (trust me, editors just love it when they tell someone at a dinner party what they do and the response is “Oh, like spell check?” … yeah, just like that, thanks), and the best editors are truly inspired individuals who can create a reading experience so painless that it feels natural, when it was in fact an enormous amount of work. But, admittedly, a big chunk of my time was always going to be spent on errors that I suspect I could train a typing parrot to fix.

He could just tap away at it with his little beak and croak at me anytime the full force of my editorial finesse was actually required. His name would be Norman.


Despite the drawbacks, I think I would have stuck with editing, because I wasn’t getting any younger, and the idea of abandoning my hard-won list of clients and starting over in a new career was exhausting. I got to work in my pajamas every day, and I wasn’t enraptured by the situation but I was a thousand miles away from miserable, and I had the good sense to appreciate that.

Lucky for me, if not for everyone else, technological advances have been driving publishing downhill since the day I collected my diploma. Fittingly enough, the rapidly evolving technology I had decided to ignore would, eventually, nearly eclipse the easier path I did choose. Serves me right.

Part 2: In which algebra drives me to tears.

Just to catch you up: I learned to program when I was eleven. I loved it.

And yet, once that section of the class had ended and we moved on to another unit, I stopped programming, though I still enjoyed computers and would sit up until all hours playing video games or toying with silly novelty programs, like the one with the parrot who would repeat anything you said into a microphone … BUT IN A PARROT VOICE! (It … it seemed worthwhile at the time.)

These days, learning about something is as easy as Googling it, but any given little girl who could potentially learn to code is still fighting tough odds unless several resourceful adults make a point of empowering her. This was 1991. I didn’t have access to a computer set up for programming, nor did I have learning materials or, apparently, the ability to articulate my desire for them.

Besides — or maybe I should say “quite relevantly to this discussion about young girls” — I wasn’t thinking about my potential. I was thinking about surviving junior high.

Above all else, I desperately wanted to be pretty and well-liked. I was from a very poor neighborhood, and sixth grade was the year that several elementary schools fed into one bigger school. I encountered middle-income children for the first time, and I felt ashamed of my background for the first time. Technically, thanks to my parents’ recent years of success, I was technically middle-income myself, but that didn’t seem to matter when the only kids I knew were the ones who couldn’t afford brand-name clothes. The kids from my neighborhood were the ones who smoked or at the very least reeked of it due to circumstances beyond their control. They were the ones who got pregnant (yes, even in sixth grade, which is mind-boggling to contemplate now).

They were the ones I had grown up around, and while I didn’t fit in with them at all, I also didn’t know how to converse with the other kids, the ones who went to Florida or Mexico in the summer and had gone to camps and parties together since they were toddlers. I alternated between praying these strange creatures would befriend me and resenting them for how blissfully ignorant they got to be about everything.

Had a genie popped up out of my locker one day after a particularly soul-crushing social encounter, I would have wished for beauty and popularity without hesitation. We will pretend I would have devoted the third wish to world peace.

Mumble boyfriend mumble cough.

Sure, I thought programming was great. But in that era of my young, dumb life, a lot of things had seemed and would seem great, from crimping my hair in the most seamless pattern possible to sneaking a glass of champagne at a wedding. The year before, I had realized at a slumber party that most girls my age had already kissed at least one boy. It didn’t occur to me that they might be lying, and it most definitely didn’t occur to me that such accomplishments might not even be important in the scheme of things.

Even as a completely asexual late bloomer who still secretly adored stuffed animals and bath toys, I was afraid of falling behind in developing the sort of skills a boy might want me to have. Most of my goals and aspirations boiled down to some kind of attempt to reckon with aching insecurity.

I’m not trying to sell you a sob story. I don’t think my life was any harder than anyone else’s. Quite the opposite: I lived with two invested parents who made good money and cared about my future. Plenty of kids were up against a greater struggle than I was. The childhood I’m describing to you is normal, if not downright privileged, and it still seems to have taken place on a tightrope in gale-force winds.

It sickens me a little to remember how badly I needed to be liked, and how desperately I wanted to be seen as perfect and desirable. Young girls endured such an enormous amount of pressure back then, and that was before Bratz dolls smirked their way into our hearts and Candy Land got all sexy and people started marketing thong panties to kindergartners. I can only imagine what they cope with now. God help thirteen-year-old-girls everywhere.

The situation did not improve in high school. You don’t seem surprised.

Thanks in part to then-undiagnosed ADD, I had begun to struggle in math even before I was assigned to the same math teacher for three years. He made admiring comments about his female students’ short skirts and once described an equation as “so easy a girl could do it,” a line too obnoxious even for satire. (Even now, I want to believe he thought he was being … ironically funny … somehow?) I was terrified of him and preferred that he not even look at me, much less attempt to assist me with my homework. I hadn’t seen any indication that he would think much of me, a gangly boobless girl who looked and felt as if she were going to vomit every time she was expected to finish a geometry proof.

I would write the first step and the last step of those proofs, and then stare at all the blanks in between while panic spread from my heart to the tips of my fingers. Every damn time.

Through it all, I woke up at 5 a.m. just to hot-roller my hair. I shaved my legs every day because the boy who sat behind me in French class had somehow, do not even ask me how, encountered and become fascinated by my silky skin. It made me somewhat uncomfortable, yet I was unwilling to disappoint him, which just about sums it up for high school.

I finally got away from my math teacher, only to move on to my physics teacher … who had a confidential conference with my mother and then, the next day, told our class all about his interesting talk with my mother the day before. He then recounted the embarrassing things she had said about me: I was bad at math, and I often didn’t pay attention in class. I went home humiliated.

My mother marched furiously back into the school, and I wound up quietly excused from physics and reassigned to a completely unrelated subject for that period.

For obvious reasons, I came to associate math with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was otherwise a pretty good student, but my arguments with my well-meaning parents over my math grades would leave me sobbing in the bathroom, wringing tissue after tissue into damp twists. By the time I was applying to colleges, I had gone to extra tutoring for years.

I did briefly consider it, and my conclusion was not without a pang of regret. But majoring in computer science was out of the question.

Part 1: Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Programmer

Sometime around sixth grade, I was introduced to programming by my computer-science teacher, a man who apparently had an incredibly obvious toupee.

Or so I continually heard. The man taught me two important things at that very young age: first, programming is magical, and second, I am a member of that unlucky fraction of the population who suffers from profound toupee blindness. Apparently that thing was just sprawled on top of his head, brazen in its disregard for the average human capacity for perception, but no amount of staring on my part would reveal it to me.

Either my condition persists to this day, or I have never encountered another toupee since, despite living in a densely populated area. You be the judge.


Older now.

I used to dread the day when I would no longer be attractive to men. I was never a supermodel, but, thanks to obsessive spackling/whitening/dabbing/eyelash-curling tendencies and my ability to maintain a very slender figure into my thirties, I was Attractive Enough.

Or, you know, just easy prey. Only in later years did it occur to me that my feminine efforts to be attractive may have done more than make me look good — those efforts may have broadcasted my vulnerability to manipulation. I want to say that appearances don’t matter, that what you look like says nothing about your personality, but there’s a certain logic behind the idea that anyone maintaining such a carefully constructed facade can be easily set off balance or even knocked completely askew by challenges to his or her ego. Such a thoughtfully curated personhood communicates a certain anxious self-preoccupation that, if leveraged properly, could be used as a strategic diversion. (I believe we call that “negging” these days. I don’t know. I’m not a pickup artist.)

I don’t get wistful about how put-together I used to be, how I could pull that off as a daily routine and now I can’t or won’t most days. If anything I want to give those women hugs, the ones who are in their thirties or forties or older and still would not be caught dead in public in sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt, not even at the grocery store, not even at midnight.


Doing good out loud.

In keeping with Rule 5 of my Do-Good Manifesto, “Do good out loud,” I want to tell you about a new effort I’ve been making toward moderation — toward walking that line between barreling onward in a life of privilege versus disconnecting from my social circumstances, changing my name to the Chinese symbol for “heart”, swearing off all wealth and material possessions, and starting some kind of agnostic evangelistic sect.


Triptych: 3.

So, hey, the whole point of this blog series is the fact that I came up with ten rules for how I want to go about altruism in my daily life. Without further ado, I give you …

Jennifer Gilbert’s Do-Good Manifesto