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The Spy

Protecting myself, and others, from my own geek nature.

Like a spy, I live a secret life, and keep secrets to protect my friends and family. What I protect them from is myself. Because what I do to make a living, developing web sites, is to most people so stunningly, awe-inspiringly boring, that I shield them from my days.

I've tried to bring others into my world. And they have tried in turn to show interest. They nod, and blink. They smile encouragingly. But their eyes shift to the picture on the wall, or down to the floor, and their legs begin to twitch. They pick invisible lint from their clothes. They are happy for me, and respect my obsessions, but they would be happier if I shut up. So I do. I move the topic away from text editors and XML, and on to movies or politics. Everyone is happier.

I learned to keep my passions secret years ago, when they first emerged. Receiving a computer at age 12, I fell in love. But it was a love that dare not speak its name. I hid manuals inside of magazines and denied my relationship with technology. The signs were there: pasty skin, fast touch-typing, weight gain and uncombed hair, but I kept the truth closeted. Only my family knew.

So it has gone for 17 years. But from time to time I meet another secret-keeper, a Java programmer, a specialist in algorithms. We may not fully understand each other's specialties, but we revel in conversations leavened with acronyms, describing how we did this or that, the processors we chose and the quirks of operating systems we remember from our youths, the software that meant so much to us. We talk about other things as well, movies and politics, but technophilia is the firmament of our friendships.

When we talk in restaurants, or at the gym, I worry about the judgment of eavesdroppers. In the gym it is particularly acute, for I am a poor physical specimen and my words will only reinforce the stereotype. The gymgoer one exercise machine over might hear me describe my experiences as a systems administrator. They'll know that my friend installed Linux on his iPod, a risky and dangerous move that took him days of suffering. But let them judge me, because after all the time spent covering up my secret work life, dismissing its joys in the interest of conversation, it's an almost physical relief to speak of frame buffers and command lines, of compile times and virtual machines, free and uncensored.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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