Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
—from the song “My Way,” made most famous by Frank Sinatra
Ol’ Blue Eyes lived such an enviable life—wealth, fame, a successful career, parenthood, success in romance—it’s hard to imagine he had any regrets. It might be fun to speculate what they may have been. And we can only speculate, of course, since he doesn’t mention them.
I have a closet full of regrets. It’s the same closet I came out of, but unlike the truth of my gender identity, my regrets aren’t secret and hidden behind a closed door; they mewl and grumble, wafting through the house like the smell of a cracked sewer main.
At the beginning of 2002, I was working in IT support at a company I won’t name, but it’s an international beverage manufacturer based in Atlanta. I was a software and hardware technician, helping employees solve problems with their computers; I talked them through error messages, got their files to print, showed them how to recover unsaved documents (or held their hands if the documents were gone forever), reconnected them to the network, and fixed broken parts (most often cracked laptop displays; beverage salespeople have tempers). My logical mind helped me figure out what was going on. My calming demeanor helped bring my clients back from the brink of losing their shit. I was good at this work, but I wasn’t happy doing it. In fact, I was miserable every moment I was there.
This was the career I fell backwards into after the Navy instead of making use of my degree in journalism and my lifelong interest in writing. I’d let myself get sidetracked, seduced by the security the job provided. I wasn’t fulfilled, but it looked at the time like IT would always be an in-demand vocational path, and the money was really good. After just a few years, I owned a house, carried no debt, had significant savings, and I went abroad for vacations every year. I was safe and content. I hated my job, but, I told myself, aren’t you supposed to hate your job? That seems to be the theme of most of Western culture, from Bob Cratchit, to Dagwood Bumstead, to the movie Office Space. My path seemed acceptable. Even somehow pro-American.
But the path ran out of pavement, you should pardon the tweeness of the expression. First the dot-coms foundered, and then the horrible attacks on New York and Washington transpired, taking the country into a recession that hit the digital industry especially hard. It caught up with me, and I was laid off in September 2002. I’d seen it coming, but I was still pretty lost when it happened. I marched out of my office cube that day carrying a great heaviness on my shoulders—emotional and psychological heaviness; not just the weight of stolen office supplies.
Once I got home, had a good cry, and bolstered my spot on the couch with cats, I did some overdue soul-searching, trying to figure out what was important to me. No, I didn’t consider transitioning. I still held up the bargain I had made with myself years ago in Honolulu, and the gender tinnitus continued to ring only faintly inside my brain. This crisis was about what I wanted to do, and I thought I found some clarity that afternoon.
In the past year I’d been trying to scratch the itch my job didn’t reach. I’d been helping my monthly neighborhood paper with its copy editing and proofreading, and I had written, produced, and performed two puppet shows (the second one paid and professional) at the Center for Puppetry Arts. These avocations were really satisfying, and they well received by publishers and patrons, respectively. So when the beverage company that sells products all over the world and has the most recognizable corporate logo in history, which I won’t name, cut me loose, it didn’t seem unlikely that I could turn these into a paying occupation. I resolved never again to work in computer support. My next job would use my real talents: writing and editing. I would do what made me happy.
Easier said than done. I thought my writing talent and my background in IT would make me a shoo-in for a technical writing job. Nope. Technical writers are the canaries in the coal mine of IT. When the job market spoils, they’re the first milk to curdle. A company with three programmers and two technical writers lays off both technical writers and one of the programmers, counting on the remaining programmers to write their own documentation.
That’s what I faced in my job search. Tech writing wasn’t the only work in the field I tried to find. Nobody was hiring copy editors and my published writing wasn’t the sort anyone would pay me to do. Moreover, it was hard to be creative while burdened by my fears for the future. I submitted an idea for another puppet show during this time, but it was rejected. It wasn’t very good.
By early spring I was getting desperate. My unemployment ran out, and it hadn’t covered my bills anyway. I was draining my savings and running up my plastic. So when my friend, Bean, who built decks for a living, invited me to help him out, I took him up on it. I knew it would be temporary, and the money wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. And I’d always had a hobbyist-level interest in woodworking and other construction projects. I’d designed and made furniture, refinished walls, put a floor in my attic, and tiled surfaces. I knew how to do this. I figured it would be fun.
It was fun! At first I was just an extra pair of hands, holding up the other ends of boards so Bean didn’t have to reenact vaudeville sight gags to get them from his truck to the jobsite. But I soon learned what I was doing, and within days I was measuring, cutting, leveling, bolting, and wielding a nail gun with alacrity. I was able to work unsupervised at most tasks that didn’t require both of us.
It was exhilarating. I created new locations where before there had been void. Bear with me here; this will seem like a bit of a stretch, and maybe it is, but it was real enough for me: building decks made me feel like an astronaut colonizing space.
We added on to the back walls of houses, often working dozens of feet up from the ground. Once the ledger board had been anchored to the structure and the joists and band were in place, it was easy to forget the ground was below. Then I’d perch carefully on a joist while I nailed on the floorboards, as if assembling a space station module on an EVA from a spacecraft. I was no longer on the surface of the Earth. I was defying gravity; creating a new world. Houston, we have a platform! For a lifelong nerd like me, it was living a childhood daydream.
I did this work for most of the summer, and had a great time. My financial situation improved slightly. I lost weight. I got as much of a tan as my pasty Caucasian-ness would allow (mostly I freckled). My muscles toned up, and they even began to show a little definition.
You might think this last effect would have cranked the volume of my gender tinnitus to panic levels. Surprisingly, it had an opposite effect. Slinging 2 x 8s and 4 x 4s around every day pumped my pecs as never before. My usual work outfit was a tank top with denim overalls; when I flexed just right, I could see cleavage. My pubescent daydream joined my childhood daydream: I could imagine I had breasts. In one of the most male-gendered professions, I found a way to experience my femaleness.
I was impressed by the sheer variety of shapes and configurations possible with decks, balconies, and other backyard features. We built a multilevel porch that flowed down a hilly Atlanta backyard to the creek at the property line. We extended an existing deck, lacing new floorboards in with old to preserve necessary strength. We wrapped a new deck around the rim of a woman’s existing swimming pool and koi pond, matching their curves in a sleek, sinuous way I’d never imagined you could do with wooden planks. And the techniques of the trade were fascinating. The way wood and nails come together to make a walkable surface isn’t always intuitive, but it always works. High school algebra and geometry in action. I learned more on that job than during entire terms during college.
I had an unexpectedly sad moment one day. A customer decided she wanted more shade over her deck, so Bean and I came out to add a partial roof to it. We found a wasp nest attached to one of the posts, and obviously we didn’t want to get stung. So we destroyed it; we sprayed it with bug killer, then knocked it off the post into a bucket filled with water. Once it was gone, we started work.
Hours later, a wasp flew into the yard. It had apparently been foraging; it carried some small green berry in its mouthparts. It went right for that post, then flew around the yard—searching? grieving?—when it couldn’t find its home. I know it was just an insect, but it still broke my heart. It was a fellow astronaut, hanging in the abyss, and its spacecraft had been destroyed.
I knew I would eventually have to return to Earth myself. I hadn’t stopped looking for more fitting employment. I sent out resumes, trawled monster.com, joined professional organizations, and attended networking events. No one was hiring entry-level technical writers.
At a party in August 2003, I bumped into my friend Bob. I hadn’t seen him in a while. When I told him I was looking for work, he said there was an opening at his company. I expressed interest, and he told me where to apply.
I got the job; it was at a large medical technology and software company. I was a software and hardware technician, helping employees solve problems with their computers; I talked them through error messages, got their files to print, showed them how to recover unsaved documents (or held their hands if the documents were gone forever), reconnected them to the network, and fixed broken parts (most often cracked laptop displays; medical technology and software salespeople have tempers).
I should have kept looking.
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