2016 August 6

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Topics

Portion of the Washington DC Metro System map

Many people have written to share their appreciation of these posts. I'm so glad they're proving helpful and entertaining. (Glad I'm not just talking to myself, at least.)

A few folks have expressed some surprise: «Creative writing? I thought you were a computer guy!»

A valid point. I often forget how defining a career can be, even though I see it as only one facet of who I am. So since there's no news yet (four days to next oncology appointment), I thought I'd ramble on for a space about how I ended up managing websites.

I always assumed I'd be a writer, because growing up I loved nothing so much as losing myself in a good book. Even though I had a terrific math and science teacher in 5th and 6th grade (here's to you, Mr. Pelenberg!), I never had the intense connection to numbers that I had to words. Words have always intrigued me, from their connotative nuances to their etymological histories and how they migrate across languages.

Of course, I'm also a child of the computer age. I've written elsewhere about the magnetic fascination these shiny toys have exerted on my generation. When my school got two TRS-80 computers in my 6th-grade year, I spent precious after-school time typing in obscure commands that were supposed to produce an «Adventure» game. It never ran properly, but I was hooked.

Still, computers were just a hobby. As was theater, although I spent more and more time during high school with the drama club (acting, directing, even building sets). When I arrived at Yale in 1988, I was expecting to leave in four years as an English major.

I remember the exact moment that changed. I was in a Freshman literature class on «English Poets from Chaucer to Eliot», and we were just starting a discussion of Paradise Lost. The professor read the opening lines («OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree…») and then paused. «Note how Milton opens his masterpiece with the letter 'O',» he intoned. Huh? «The roundness of that letter, its perfect circularity, evokes in the reader the perfection of Heaven to which Milton is alluding.»

Unbelievable! Not for a single second did I think Milton had chosen a particular letter to start with, as opposed to selecting a particular word. And this kind of textual analysis, as far as I could see, had nothing to do with enjoying great literature. It was all about spinning some bizarrely esoteric interpretation to make yourself look clever. That class, for me, had the same effect on English poetry that Mark Twain ascribed to explaining humor.

I never took another English Lit class.

Not that I started taking computer courses. I used computers for exactly two things: writing term papers and sending email. In fact, thanks to AP Calc and Chem in high school, I didn't take a single math or natural science class in college. It's true! (My crowning glory, however, was arranging my senior year schedule so none of my classes started before noon. I am not a morning person.)

Instead, I flirted with history, sociology, and anthropology. But in the end, I most enjoyed the immediacy and energy of live theater as well as the intellectual breadth and imagination of philosophy. I couldn't choose one or the other, so I took advantage of Yale's «combined major» and graduated with a degree in Theater Studies and Philosophy. My uncle asked, «What are you going to do, sit around and think about plays?»

I suppose it's emblematic of the uneasy truce between the two sides of my persona. Half of me aspires to creative pursuits—writing, theater, calligraphy. Yet half yearns for logical endeavors—puzzles, bridge, philosophy, programming. I'm happiest when I can combine the two, as when devising a Treasure Hunt or writing about some ethical issue.

Although I had a Theater Studies degree, I didn't expect to get actual theater work right out of college. Nor are there copious job openings for 20-something philosophers. I suppose I could have gone the grad school route, but after 16 years of schooling I wanted to live instead of study. So I fell back to my standby strengths in writing and applied to various literary agencies in the Big Apple. When those didn't pan out, I landed an internship with Circle Repertory Company that failed to advance my theater career but did introduce me to my future wife. 

The pocketbook couldn't afford more than one year of interning, so I started temping while looking for permanent work. As one drama professor had cautioned about life in theater: «If you can be happy doing anything else, do something else.» One extended temp job was for Stanley Greenberg, a publishing executive who ran a one-man shop putting out directories. Turns out Greenberg was a close friend of William Ziff Jr., owner of the Ziff-Davis magazine publishing empire. When their flagship journal PC Magazine advertised for a copy editor, Greenberg wrangled me an interview.

I crammed Strunk & White the night before and landed my first real job—Assistant Copy Editor for PC Magazine. This was 1993, and computers were really hitting the mainstream. PC Magazine was huge. (Our editorial retreat was to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. I kid you not.) I enjoyed polishing prose and reading about the amazing accomplishments of current computers. Each issue was laid out using QuarkXPress, which also taught me desktop publishing.

One of the biggest computer trends in 1994 was a new way of navigating online information sites that promised to be much simpler than gopher or even AOL. Launched just three years before, it was called the WorldWideWeb. (Coincidentally, today—August 6, 2016—is the 25th anniversary of the first website ever. Happy birthday!) As I read articles about the Web and how its pages were written in a language called HTML, I thought «I can do that.»

The Internet Service Provider I used for email allowed users to have personal websites, and soon I had staked out my claim to a piece of cyberspace. This post is part of the latest iteration of that original site, some 22 years later.

With an actual publishing gig on my résumé, I landed work as an Assistant Editor at Toby Levine Communications, Inc., when we relocated to the DC area. TLCI compiled and published The Guide to Math & Science Reform, along with Teachers' Guides to accompany public television educational programming. Working on guides for shows like Life by the Numbers, Fresco, and Chicano! History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement was a blast. I progressed to Editor, and then Publications Manager. Meanwhile, the Chicano! team asked TLCI about developing one of those newfangled «websites» all the cool kids had. I told Toby I had a website, and shortly thereafter I had built my first professional site.

By 1998 we were contemplating parenthood, and it was clear that working from home would be much easier for me than for Anne. I'd also starting feeling an itch to work on more personal projects, so I quit TLCI and sought occasional work under the etg Design banner. For the next five years, I freelanced as a copy editor, graphic designer, and web developer while keeping an eye on Aidan.

One of those personal projects I mentioned was building a genealogy site. I'm terrible with faces and names, so a few years earlier I'd started a database to keep track of my relatives. (Most live in California, and I see them infrequently.) By this time, I had hundreds of individuals and families and needed some way of sharing that information on my website without manually coding myriad web pages. Turned out a scripting language called Perl was quite good at reading databases and generating HTML on the fly, so I learned enough to be dangerous and soon had my online family tree running.

Then in 2003, I got an email from the spouse of a high school friend who needed a Perl programmer. Stephanie Fears (married to Bill Fears, a fellow member of B-CC Class of 1988) worked on NIH websites for a small communications firm called Eagle Design & Management. I took on the Perl job as a freelancer, and when Eagle needed a part-time web developer I decided to retire etg Design. I'd always been terrible at drumming up new business, and Aidan was in daycare, so the timing seemed right.

That part-time position soon became full-time, and when Eagle was acquired by Westat I tagged along—and I've been there ever since. I don't do quite as much coding now that I manage other developers, but I do keep up with latest technologies and sometimes teach web development courses. My colleagues are consummate professionals as well as good friends; the company is employee-owned and committed to «Improving lives through research». It's a great place to work, and I'm lucky enough to live less than 15 minutes away.

But I still think of myself as a writer. All this computer stuff is just a lucrative hobby. Really.


If you've read this far, you deserve some kind of reward. Unfortunately, all I can offer is more of the same… I've uploaded a short-short story of mine that you can read. It's called Butterfly Effect (50 KB PDF).