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I’ve got a good set of survival skills I’ve had for most or all my life. Empathy’s a big one. It makes for good relationships. And troubleshooting, pattern recognition: that’s one that’s kept me in bread and honey most of my life. But there’s one crucial skill I really could have used when I was young: sticking with something when the going gets tough.

This is One Story Today. I’m Dan Shick.

I’ve been working on this episode for four months. It’s been driving me a little crazy. Of course, part of that feeling comes from the fact that it’s taking me forever to finish an episode about my inability to finish things. But actually the main reason is that I’m pretty hard on myself in this episode. I’m not entirely sure I’m on board with the severity I treated myself with when I wrote the bulk of this episode back in June.

But I’ve decided to produce it as-is. Each episode I make teaches me more about audio production, which I really enjoy. And I learn things about myself as I tell my stories. It feels like it’s important. I’m making forays into my own head and changes are happening that it feels like couldn’t happen any other way.

So I’ll share this journey into my past, though my blood has cooled during the course of production. And the next one will be shorter, I promise.

So. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll start doing what I do on this podcast: telling you a story, from my own life, cooked down to a nub that fits snugly inside your ears. Today’s story in four parts: sticktoitiveness.

Part 1: Computers.

In 1984 I buy my first computer from a friend. It’s a used Commodore VIC-20. My friend’s very eager to sell it because he hit a high score in the well-known game “Attack of the Mutant Camels”, and the game company awarded him a Commodore 64.

I find this extremely impressive. I feel honored to be offered even discards like this. A computer of my own! Bought with my own money!

I start buying issues of Compute!’s Gazette magazine, spending hours typing in, by hand, the exciting programs they publish Din text form. I mean, come on, the version that comes with a floppy disk is so much more expensive! What a ripoff. As a nerdy fourteen-year-old with few friends, my time is free.

For my birthday that year I receive a 16K memory expansion module, but I never manage to write a program long enough to fill it up. Still, my early fooling around with computers is the humble beginning of a hobby that alters the course of my life, both personally and professionally. And perhaps most importantly, it’s made me forget my childhood dream.

Suddenly It’s 1995 and I have an amazing apartment in the shining city on seven hills, San Francisco.

But I’m having trouble making ends meet.

This past spring I dropped out of university for the second time. No going back to school now. Dropping out for good means I can no longer work at the student paper as an awkward, overage copy editor. I also lose access to the student computer network, so I have to subscribe to a private internet service provider, an ISP. Despite being nearly broke I also manage to cobble together a little tower computer.

It’s a simple time of home fries and grated cheese, but it feels incredibly rich and exciting.

I have a friend who works at an internet startup, also an ISP. He tells me they need warm bodies to do basically every job imaginable. They pay over minimum wage. Sounds good. Sign me up.

My friend’s referral gets me hired in the billing department. After all, my mother was an accountant and my father was a banker. So it’s not entirely horrible and even a little familiar as I spend the next two weeks processing payments and making bank runs on foot – walking ten blocks back and forth through the wild & woolly South of Market district in the summer heat, clutching envelopes full of checks, bringing back receipts and stuffing them in a binder.

One day I hear a voice emanating from the darkened room behind the front office, where the support team lurks.

“Dan!”

“Yes?”

“Do you really know Trumpet WINSOCK?”

My friend has strategically revealed that I have a clue about the internet, that I have functioning hands and vocal cords and a hobbyist’s home computer.

I’m hired.

This support job is great, because none of it counts. In my heart I know I’m really an artist. I’m just doing this to pay the rent. To accomplish the work itself, I have a decent set of hobbyist skills, a smart noggin and above all social skills, stronger than your average support tech. Most of the time the work is actually deeply rewarding. I get to help people. I understand the customers and they can feel it. It feels good being the best. Especially without having to try.

On my first day on the support team, I eat lunch out. By myself. My small but noticeable raise buys me a surprisingly delicious leg of lamb sandwich from a nearby food cart. I walk out to the edge of the Bay and sit in the noonday sun, gazing out at the water and wondering where my life might be headed next.

At this job I spend most of my time handling support calls from early dialup internet users. A lot of them are very savvy early adopters, but more than a few are completely lost. They’re drunk on information, but to keep the high going they have to hold onto the mechanical bull that is the ’90s internet. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re mostly trying not to get thrown off.

In the San Francisco of the mid-nineties, the deeply strange artistic types still far outnumber the techies. One of my calls is from R. Seth Friedman, the guy who puts out the famous zine Factsheet Five. Another is from the experimental novelist Kathy Acker.

When the phones are quiet I interview the administrators, the ones who set up and run the infrastructure. It’s good these guys are the co-founders, so they’re not going anywhere. If they ever left, the place would grind to a halt. Nothing’s written down.

That summer, on a weekday afternoon, in an era before Google, we five support techs sit by the silent phones and browse the early web with gusto. Into the silence, one of my coworkers makes an incredible discovery and blurts it out without thinking: “Hey, there’s a panties dot com!”

It’s a fun job, but I end up quitting after a year. I launch into a sudden out-of-character shouting match with the owner, who doesn’t care what people get paid elsewhere and obstinately refuses to pay us more than nine dollars an hour. I slam the sliding glass door to his office (which shivers alarmingly but doesn’t break, to my relief) and storm out.

That feeling of independence and strength lasts me a few hours. Then I realize I still need to pay the rent.

Part 2: Childhood dreams.

It’s 1982. I’m twelve. I want to be an astronaut, but I can’t sleep.

For a long time now, I’ve been reading and rereading issues of Sky & Telescope magazine and dreaming of space. Now, at last, it’s time to craft my own custom business cards, rectangles of construction paper that I cut out by hand. With these I’ll tell the world about my intentions. Stand back everybody, I’m going to space!

Later, I read a comic book. It was new when my mom bought it for me a couple weeks ago. By today it’s ratty and dog-eared. It’s called “UFO Encounters”. It’s a nonfiction comic book about real people with real names like Betty and Barney Hill, and their real reports of really seeing and being abducted by aliens. Real aliens!

I eat it all up with a spoon. I want it to be real. I want it so badly that I manage to convince myself that one night, I saw a UFO land in our front yard. I drag my mom to the front door and go out to the lawn. When I kneel down I swear I can make out the circle of compressed grass where it landed. I look back at her and see only skepticism and pity.

My parents endure my insistences for as long as they can. When I find myself too ashamed to admit I made it up, they kindly suggest that it was a “pipe dream”. I agree to this explanation to our mutual relief.

But my mind is still in the stars.

A couple years later I discover hard science fiction.

The light that emanates from our warming star Sol, which today takes the form of a deceptively simple ray of sunlight, falls through my bedroom window.

An hour ago I came bounding home from school and buried my nose in a book. The sunlight dapples its cover. It’s a dogeared Larry Niven paperback that I got at Paperbacks Unlimited for one hundred and twenty-five earth pennies.

The sunlight outside, the fresh California air, kids my age playing outside – none of it is as enticing to me as those dark massive bodies up in space.

That night, I try to fall asleep. I fail. I can feel my shoulder, elbow and hip digging into the bed, like the mattress is strapped to my body as a punishment. In these, the darkest hours of the night, the force of gravity has turned against me. It holds me back from sleep for hours and hours.

When I finally do fall asleep, my body relaxes from crown to heel. I forget everything. The secret to falling asleep is to forget that you’re awake, and I haven’t yet mastered forgetting on purpose.

Later, I dream of being weightless in space. Of sleeping in space. In my dark, soothing dream, the stars shine out of the shadowy black through my spaceship’s round window. Their ancient light finds me floating untethered, smiling gently, sleeping more soundly than I ever have.

Same dream every night.

Once my physical education requirements were behind me, I loved high school. I got top marks and barely cracked a book. According to any number of teen movies, that should have left me plenty of time for a robust social life or a budding criminal career. I had neither. My life was high school: spelling bees; debate team; AP classes that gave me college credit. Lead in the school play.

By the time I was 17 I’d been in school for three quarters of my life. In senior year I was the perfect symbiote: I got to be smart out loud, one of the best. And I got tons of juicy validation from adults.

For example, when I won the county spelling bee, the authorities in their wisdom bestowed my high school library with a giant, brand-new unabridged dictionary. Many times I went to the library to visit it. I may have looked up a word or two, a pretext to flip through its brand-new onionskin pages, but I was really there just to gaze at it. When I graduated a few months later, the school librarian, the most long-suffering individual I’ve ever met, decided to give it to me.

See? Symbiosis. At last I’d achieved comfort and equilibrium – in school, in school, in school – and I never wanted to leave.

Now it’s 1987. I’m eighteen, and I’ve just graduated. It’s perfect weather in northern California, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

And where am I? Oh, I’m in school. Junior college. I just can’t stay away.

Most weekdays I’m on campus longer than the sun is in the sky. When I’m not in class, I work at the tutorial center tutoring math, English, critical thinking. My students are hard working, much harder working than me. Whereas I sailed into junior college with a load of Advanced Placement credits already under my belt, many of my students are making up work they missed in high school. Or even junior high.

My German instructor disdains it all. He calls it “high school with ashtrays”. For me it’s paradise. The classes give me real things to think about. Everyone seems brainy or motivated or both. And I get to be in school.

But things don’t stay rosy. They never do.

I develop a big crush on one of my German classmates: Gretchen, a platinum-blonde bombshell, smart, well spoken and extremely kind. I had no idea people like Gretchen were real. To my eighteen-year-old eyes, she seems perfect in every way. And because she exists mostly in my head, she stays that way.

My first moment of uncertainty comes one day when I see her after class, standing by the library, talking to herself. Literally. Her inexplicable other self is an exact copy, equally gorgeous, wearing different but oddly compatible clothes.

Eventually I crawl out of my own head and get it: she has an identical twin sister. Wow. There’s twice as much Gretchen as I bargained for. But I approach anyway, and they welcome me. Her sister’s name is Gisela. The way they look at me suggests my bewildered leer is nothing new to them. They take it in stride, probably because I seem like the least threatening adult in a ten-mile radius. And indeed I am.

To get conversations started, it’s compulsory for college students to ask each other their majors. When they ask me, I proudly answer “German”.

They glance at each other, expressionless. I see volumes of telepathic information passing between them. Then Gretchen says, “Oh. We’re majoring in international relations.” Only then do they smile.

In that moment my crush is done for, to say nothing of my poor nerdy ego. I see now that Gretchen and Gisela are embarrassingly far outside my league. Even though I find learning German grammar fairly easy, my ostensibly cool and challenging major is for these women just one stride in an all-out sprint toward international prominence. On top of German, they’ll be learning advanced math, economics, psychology, political science and, I presume, intro to Illuminati.

I hurriedly excuse myself. I imagine that, for them, my hasty, brokedick retreat is probably also nothing new. I stagger away into the library and sit down heavily by the dim, dusty stacks.

Sure, I knew all along there were people smarter than me. What I didn’t know is that I would meet them. They would judge me and find me wanting. This undeniable realization of their existence cuts my pride down to a tiny nub. Sure, maybe I never pursued grand aspirations like a free-time criminal career or even a high-school social life, but I thought I could make up for it with my obvious smarts, even though they came factory-installed and I haven’t really modified them at all.

Sitting in the library, I tell myself: those big-fish-in-a-small-pond smarts won’t get you the girls and they won’t get you the big bucks. I start wondering what to do with my life.

I think of my German teacher. Aw, he seems so miserable in his job. I think he dreamed of bigger things than this position at a small-town high school with ashtrays. Seems to me he finds solace only in his small area of expertise… and in having occasional enthusiastic students like me.

Wait, I know – I’ll be a teacher!

It’s spring 1991 in Berkeley, California. The Tuesday afternoon sun is blasting down onto the campus. In response most students are delightedly bailing out of their last class of the day to go bask in April’s lifeblood.

Not me, though. I’m crouching under a table.

On the other side of the room, two people watch in the darkness. On top of the table stands a beautiful blonde young woman, yelling at me at the top of her lungs.

Soon, the others in the room have seen and heard enough. They ask her to come down from the table, and I crawl out. The four of us smile at one another, serious but happy, full of pride in ourselves for what we’re accomplishing.

Which, as it happens, is rehearsing for a play. The two writer-directors, the ones who were watching from across the room, have summoned us here on this beautiful day for a special rehearsal. I’m a college student, but in the play, I’m the soft-spoken elderly husband of a larger-than-life woman, the coolest grandma in five states. She’s being played by an even younger college student.

In our scenes, I’m unintentionally overpowering her, and it’s throwing off the power dynamic of our scenes. We can’t make the lines stick. So our directors hit on this extreme exercise to demonstrate to our lizard brains who’s really in charge in this fake relationship.

I’m overpowering her because on stage, I’m a lion. I learned how to be a human being by starting out pretending. Eventually my skills became very real. Now, it’s the place of my power. After my nerdy childhood spent feeling alienated from my peers, I’ve finally found something I’m good at that brings me closer to others instead of driving them away. The stage was the first place I ever felt not just skill but strength. So if I’m onstage and I let myself go, I’ll eat up every actor on it and the scenery besides.

After the rehearsal we go to my favorite cafe. The four of us sit down with our coffees at a table upstairs and talk about how well the exercise went. When we all get thirsty, my scene partner, who’s been to Italy, gets me my very first Italian soda. It’s delicious. As she shyly drinks hers, our eyes meet. The energy of our rehearsal is still hovering between us.

A week later we’re in love. It’s my first time. We burn very brightly. I cannot remember ever being even close to this happy, not once in all the 21 years that precede this moment.

And it doesn’t last. The reasons why are nothing new, the province of the very young. After years of weakness and some strength at last, it’s hard to make myself vulnerable. Then I meet someone who disarms me so fully I lose all sense of myself – not that it’s that strong to begin with.

My wide-open heartbreak feels like looking directly into the sun. People have told me my whole life that it would hurt like hell if it ever happened to me. But the pain is still a profound shock. And just like looking into the sun, this heartbreak carries the risk of permanent damage. All this from something that in normal doses keeps me alive.

That summer I return from the first solo travel of my life, a trip I took to grieve and to clear my head. After two weeks under the New Mexico sun I stumble back into my shared room in Berkeley and press play on my blinking answering machine. One message stands out.

It’s from one of the actors in my acting class. She’s actually a mole. It’s an open secret that she has her own local theatre group and occasionally invites a lucky performer to join. On the strength of my excellent performances, this time she’s chosen me.

But I delete the message without calling back. I never act again.

Part 3: Careering.

Summer 1996. I’m ironing a shirt for this afternoon’s interview and listening to Guided by Voices. I’m nervous, because, I dunno, maybe I’m not so great at this stuff. Maybe the last job was a fluke… you know, the place I stormed out of.

It turns out I’m worried about nothing. That afternoon I walk in and get a softball interview from a smiling, mild-voiced guy who was once a stand-up comedian.

I’m hired.

In the 1990s it’s unbelievably easy to get a job in the tech industry, because almost nobody wants one. Not yet. Right now it’s still just misfits with skillsets.

But I don’t know that yet. Right now I feel like I’ve grabbed the brass ring. I have the first real, grownup job of my life. And, later, it turns out I excel at it. My mix of skills turns out to be a great match for team leadership.

Pretty soon I notice that my colleagues are a motley crew; I see lifelong nerds sitting next to hobbyist retirees from non-tech careers who are living out of their RVs in the parking lot outside. I work with fast learners, people who were born to the industry, and also with people who I try to give the basic training and mentoring they so desperately need who respond with nothing but mistrust and anger.

It’s the nineties. We techies are a very small demographic, and the rules are still being written. A co-worker stops me in the hallway and quietly asks me if I like “em-pee-threes”. It’s the first time I’ve heard the word spoken aloud. Deeply worried about copyright-related criminal charges, I dismissively say no. He shakes his head like an insider trader, as if to say, your loss, buddy.

One Sunday morning, a different coworker calls me over to his desk. In this pre-streaming era, he’s laid his hands on a bootlegged video: “Jesus vs. Santa”. It turns out to be sort of episode zero of South Park, but it’s months before the show premieres and makes a splash. I disrupt the entire call center floor with my uncontrollable laughter.

One afternoon as I return from lunch, a co-worker spots the book I’m reading and beckons me energetically over. With relish he tells me he’s the author’s ex-lover and launches into a long series of anecdotes. I smile but I’m thinking: is he making this up? Then he mentions the author wrote him into a memorable scene: as it happens, the scene I just finished reading at lunch. And I was picturing someone like my co-worker. I smile genuinely now. As he keeps telling stories, I see his eyes glow with old, unforgotten love.

I’m settling in. I have coworkers. I have wholesome anecdotes. Maybe I’m learning this sticktoitiveness thing?

—-

Meanwhile, something happens to me in real life: I fall in love.

I meet her at the summer temp job I work between the old ISP job and the new one. We’re immediately attracted to each other, but we wait until my temp job is finished. Then we start dating.

It goes well, so well that I consider inviting her home for Thanksgiving even though it’s only been a few months, but at the last minute I decide it’s a bit too early, that we should wait for Christmas.

Thanksgiving night with my family. I have a big turkey dinner in my belly and I’m drinking my mom’s terrible coffee with two sugars as a digestive of questionable merit. The phone rings. It’s her.

She sounds doped up, confused. On her way home from the store, she took a bad step off the curb and somehow shattered her ankle in nine places. She’s back from the hospital now. She’s alone.

When I come back from Thanksgiving I go straight to her place. I spend the next few weeks feeding her takeout and Vicodin in bed. And the inevitable happens: my taking care of her brings us closer. We move in together after eight months, and our wedding takes place only four months after that, in fall 1997.

I tell myself, I’m gonna stick to it.

Four days after our wedding, and five minutes before a work meeting I’m leading, I get a voicemail on my work phone. It’s a message from my new wife. She’s telling my voicemail in a throaty, dazed voice that she hit her head. She’s not feeling so great and is taking herself to the hospital. She doesn’t say which one.

(Later she tells me she hopped up on the foot of the bed, slid backwards to rest against the pillows and misjudged the distance, cracking the back of her head on the wall.)

Still holding the receiver of my work phone, I panic. I leave work. At home I call halfway down the list of hospitals before I hear my wife stumble against the front door. I race over and throw it open: she’s standing there smiling weakly, wobbling, clutching her keys like prayer beads.

She can barely speak. In her other hand is a sheaf of papers: doctor’s instructions for how to care for a severe concussion. So I swallow my terror and fly into caring mode.

That night, as the instructions tell me to, I wake her up every two hours and ask her who the president is. Every time I approach the bed, I see her slack face conked out on the pillow, and I wonder: will she wake up this time? Or, if she does, will she be the same woman I married?

After a couple of nights I can let her sleep till morning. Over the next few weeks she makes a complete recovery.

I’m sticking to it.

At the end of this interminable year we go on a belated honeymoon to Las Vegas.

My wife doesn’t know it, but we’re still broke. I’m paying off the wedding ring in painful installments and living off credit cards. To my surprise and dismay, halfway through the trip I hit my last card’s limit. Try as I might, muttering into the payphone in the hall, I can’t persuade the credit card company to increase my limit.

With the help of the hotel coupon book and the money left in my wallet, I just barely carry off the rest of the trip. At the end of our stay, when we board the shuttle to McCarran Airport, I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s free of charge, because until my next paycheck in three days, we are quite literally penniless.

Back in San Francisco we use our prepaid tickets to ride BART from the airport back home. At the station where we transfer, one of my co-workers is walking agitatedly along the platform. He spots me and eagerly comes over. Whispering a bit, he asks me, today of all days, if he can borrow five dollars. That’s five dollars I don’t have, not in my pocket or even in the bank. I am deeply ashamed and say no without explaining. I blush furiously and walk away.

My wife and I make it home and, for the next couple of days, we eat the food that’s already in the kitchen. My wife is still none the wiser.

I’m sticking to it.

But I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t get any better than that. Sure, on Monday, I get paid. But then the phone company I work for gets acquired by another phone company. I get squeezed out like a watermelon seed.

So, I begin hacking my way through the misty rainforest of Silicon Valley startups. I never stay in one place for long. Somehow, my salary always goes up. It’s fun at first, and I learn a lot. But I notice I’m spending sixteen hours a day at work because I don’t want to go home. And I’m not alone in that — I’m surrounded by bad examples. we all jump from job to job. Always beginning, never staying through the hard stuff.

My marriage doesn’t make it into the new millennium.

Part 4: Unstuck.

After two decades of my internet career, in the middle of the twenty-teens, things fell apart. Most of it wasn’t really my fault. Relationships come to natural ends. Waves of global fascism rise.

New generations of people who grew up with computers make their entries into the internet industry. People who weren’t misfits, people whose competence with technology was totally natural. They came in and they made the work normal, like working at a bank.

I mean, nobody stays relevant forever.

Some of it was absolutely my fault, though, such as, say, the all-consuming anxiety that colored every moment of my life, that I refused to acknowledge.

So now, twenty plus years later, I’m living in Portland, Oregon, in a house by myself. I’m standing in my kitchen finishing a cup of really good hand-brewed coffee.

I find myself staring out the window, hands flat on the wooden surface of the kitchen island. I’m thinking about the last two jobs I interviewed for. I turned out to be profoundly underqualified for both of them. This is an awful feeling. With twenty career years behind me, those rejections plunge me into a state of deep embarrassment and growing anxiety.

I feel the terror washing over me in a bitter wave. My hands ball up into fists, and I stare out the window into my overgrown backyard. All the shit from the years gone by is catching up with me, coming to a head. I feel the bottom of my stomach drop out. I’m in free fall. I’ve been abandoned by gravity.

Then I remember something.

None of this counts.

When I started all this back at my first ISP job, I knew it wasn’t real. I mean, sure, I pursued that career for twenty years. Sure, it paid all the bills and then some. But I didn’t earn it. It just fell into my lap. It was just a hobby, a lucrative hobby. But it wasn’t what I sought out.

So I ask myself: What do I want to seek out now?

Well, for years I dreamed of acting. I might still do it one day. But did I ever jump back into it? Did I take even a single acting class? Did I do summer stock even once?

No.

What I did do is write. All my life. I’ve taken a zillion classes and started a zillion projects, including a novel project every November for the past fifteen years.

Standing there in my kitchen I decide it’s time to embrace writing. After all, my writing ability didn’t come factory installed. It’s a skill I’ve actively honed, year after year. Like a sword. I keep it oiled and sharp but in its sheath, tucked away in a secret chamber against the day I need it to start cutting a new path.

So that’s what I do. I change everything. I leave IT, I leave my house, I leave the United States. I start a new career and a new life. I move to Germany. I start new relationships. And I end up with a technical writing job at an incredibly sincere non-profit.

I’ve been at it for a year and a half. I show no signs of stopping. I think I can stick to it.

This has been One Story Today: Sticktoitiveness. I produced this episode from June through October 2021 with the kind support and forbearance of those around me, notably my girlfriend Christina. I’d like to thank Ben Lorch for the inspiration and guidance. Thanks also to freemusicarchive.org and freesound.org for providing dual treasure troves of sound and music without which this episode simply could not exist. Full attribution for all the music and sounds I use in this episode can be found in the show notes at my website, onestory dot today. Thanks for listening.

Attributions and sources

This podcast bears a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. With great delight I used sounds from Freesound, and music from the Free Music Archive as well as Wikimedia Commons.

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