On December 18, 1996, I started my first online job. I remember the date because one year and one day later, the company closed its doors.
We sold software online. It sounds quaint now, but we were the first company to do it. This was back when the attitude was apocalyptic about using your credit card online. The internet was a dark, dismal place. No one out here was to be trusted. It was also when people expected software to come in a box with shiny discs and glossy instruction manuals. Customers routinely asked when they would receive these. The idea that you could download a program over the phone-lines, then install and run it on your computer without a disc was still foreign to most.
Sometime in 1997 we were purchased by another software retailer. They made their money through mail-order catalog sales and were curious about potential sales online. They bought us as a placeholder just in case this internet thing took off. When we didn’t show the returns they expected in the time they expected, they shut us down.
It sounds as weird now as downloading software did then, but this kind of turnover was normal in the dot-com era. My coworkers seemed to be split between the glib, who’d seen it all before, and the crushed, who’d harbored dreams of online fortune. We were so far ahead of other companies, many of their jobs didn’t exist anywhere else yet. As one of my friends there said, despondent after being unable to find similar work elsewhere, “I love what I do.”
I wasn’t just glib, I was stoked. I got the only severance package I’ve ever received.
During my year and a day at that job, I got vacation time for the first time ever. So, the month before we were unexpectedly shutdown, I flew to San Francisco to work for a week at Hi-Speed Productions, the offices of Thrasher Skateboard Magazine. I’d been writing for their other magazine, SLAP, which was sort of a little brother to Thrasher, since it started. One of my friends there had just left, so there was a position open. I was vying for it, and there was nothing else I wanted to do with my newly accrued week’s vacation. A few months later, severance check in hand, I moved down there for a brief stint as SLAP’s music editor.
Being at SLAP reminded me of my first days out of my parents’ house, those first attempts at navigating the adult world. Having grown up with an artist mom, I just assumed I’d be an artist. After trying to go to an actual art school, which involved retaking a standardized test in pursuit of a scholarship to offset out-of-state tuition, I ended up at the local community college. When it came time to transfer to a four-year institution, I was still an art major. In an attempt to monetize my waning passion for art, I chose commercial art as my area of study. I met with a professor at a school in Orlando, Florida, who flitted around his office preparing for something other than meeting with me. He told me there was no such thing as commercial art.
I tried a semester at Montevallo University near Birmingham, Alabama. As I was nearing the end of that failed experiment, I decided art wasn’t the major for me. Spurred by the social concerns of the hardcore punk and hip-hop I’d been listening to since middle school, I decided on sociology. I met with an advisor at Montevallo, who also acted as if he was readying his studio space for anything other than my presence. I ended up moving back home to finish a degree in social science.
The SLAP experience was like a second coming of age. It reminded me how my expectations had framed my future and how wrong I was again. To be accepted to school, hired for work, welcomed into a space, and then treated like your presence is nothing special is confusing. To pass the test then be treated like there wasn’t a test is confounding. To work hard to get somewhere and then be treated as if anyone there can do the work is disheartening. It felt as much my fault as anyone else’s. These were not endings, they were turns: paths that branched off from the one I thought I’d follow. The one at SLAP led me back to school.
A year and a half later, I moved to Athens, Georgia to enter the University of Georgia’s master’s program in Artificial Intelligence. After extensive research, I found that their program encompassed so many of my newfound interests: cognitive science, computer science, psychology, philosophy. I was quickly in over my head. I was unprepared for the formal logic the entire program was built on. The formal logic class I was in was the fourth of a series of which I had taken none. The programming class was in a language called ProLog, which means “programming in logic.” The introductory A.I. course also required a final project written in ProLog. I was failing by midterms.
I also didn’t want to be a computer programmer, but that really wasn’t going to be a problem. The one class I never missed was the one-credit survey of all the research going on in the A.I. program and its associated disciplines. Those were all of the reasons I was drawn in the program in the first place. Those were all of the reasons I worked an extra year as a designer at an Alabama newspaper and an Army base to save up the money to go to UGA because I didn’t get in the previous year.
I bounced back into web design, and inadvertently, skateboarding. My next plan was to get a job and save up enough money to move to Austin, Texas. I had heard great things about the city, and I had a few friends living there already. After two months at a web design job in Atlanta, I got a job at Skateboard.com in San Diego.
After another brief and uneventful stint in action sports, I was back in Seattle.
I’ve been thinking about my previous paths and branches because another one split just recently. After seven years teaching at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I took a job at a private art college in Savannah—the very art school I’d tried to get into as an undergraduate! I moved back to Georgia in the fall of 2019. I had my initial reservations but given all of the factors at the time of the decision, it was the thing to do. The new job had a dress code, way less autonomy, lots of rules anathema in academia, and no real room for growth. I lasted exactly one academic year.
Like SLAP and Skateboard.com, from the outside the school looked like the place for me. It is often difficult to convince outsiders otherwise. They see a place for you and you in that place. If it doesn’t work, then you must be the problem. You must have done something wrong. What do you mean you didn’t like working as a music editor of a skateboard magazine?! What do you mean you didn’t like writing and designing for a skateboard website?! What do you mean you didn’t like teaching at an art school?!
Pete O’Dell, my coworker and colleague from that first web job in 1996, once told me to make sure I didn’t repeat my experience. I can’t claim I knew exactly what he meant at the time, but I got it eventually.