2016 began with excitement and a looming sense of adventure. A friend convinced my husband to come with him to Colombia and I was along for the ride. I had never managed to convince my husband to go to South America and with a few late-night impulse decisions, we had tickets.
Colombia was beautiful. It was melt-your-skin hot, and the entire city of Cartagena breathed Marquez and mágico realismo and flowers grew on massive doorways with large, brass knockers shaped to look like lions.
At the same time, a friend became, suddenly, a much better friend when she ended a relationship and came to Colombia on her own last-minute, late-night decision-making. We drank too much wine and played games on our apartment floor and ignored the things making us unhappy for a bit in a different country where I could only half-communicate.
During this time, I wrote some code.
Once back home an enormous storm hit the east coast to remind us rather aggressively that east coast likes its winters. We got trapped in our apartment over night. We had a roof over our heads and were warm, and then next day we walked five miles in very heavy snow to deliver people home.
One friend’s no longer a friend, but one friend’s now a best friend. Such is life. Sometimes, things fall apart, and this is not a bad thing. It lets other things come together.
In Colombia I had decided to be more concientous about how I ate, and in March decided to begin reading on the subject. I began with Kingsolver (a local!) and then Pollan, which is to be expected. I began buying Kerrygold butter and shopping at the butcher’s and learned that better ingredients really do make better food. I ate and fed friends while listening to music and dancing on my carpeted apartment floor. People would often stay until they were falling asleep, nodding off on the couch.
A friend asked me to help with a conference she was creating, and her conference was a roaring success. I visited Japan for the first time for it, and met a lot of wonderful people. I ate okonomiyaki and ramen and had my first whisky highball and it was really rather something. I learned how to ask politely, “May you help me?” and “thank you very much” and “good day” in Japanese.
I designed during this time, of course. I also wrote some code.
Spring is remembered most memorably by meal. For Easter only one friend (who had gone home for Easter earlier for the Greek Orthodox date) was able to join us, and we ate a ludicrously large bo saaum among the three of us. I had been inspired to make it again having eaten it for the first time with some coworkers, and the whole thing was very fun.
May meant friends’ birthdays, and then my birthday, and then Brian’s birthday. I made a number of cakes and made a lot of mixed drinks that were drunk by pool sides.
Friends graduated, and I attended. My husband completed a lot more school than anyone else, and I was very, very glad it was over. I went with friends to a bar at 7am in the morning which is a UVa tradition; it was quite fun, but also only necessary to do once.
I scrolled through Twitter too much, and worried a great deal about my follower count.
June involved a move, and going to London with my mother and my husband. We made for an odd trio, but there was something lovely seeing my mother invite herself to any and all trips because she wanted to travel and my father wouldn't take her places, so she’d go on her own thank-you-very-much. She took us both to a Chinese version of English high tea to celebrate belated birthdays and I bought too many books at Hatchard’s as my grandmother would have wished. We visited some friends and drank wine on a rooftop patio and ate really good food while trying not to accidentally doze off after long flights across the pond. I felt like I could explode with the immense pressure of how lucky I was to have friends all over the world who I really and truly liked.
During this time, my work email began to fill with people on the internet who did not like some of the code and designs I had done.
Work began to seep into the hours I wasn’t working. I spoke with anger at the way people online were acting to anyone who would listen, and with some fear to my husband. I empathized very strongly with the Instagram designers, who, around the same time, had rolled out a new brand. I cried in a museum public bathroom, in a hotel conference bathroom, not-in-front-of-your-coworkers-Helen, and at night after everyone else had gone to sleep. I learned that sometimes you can do your best with what you’ve got and people won't think about you as a human named Helen who lives with her husband and dog and who worries a lot about everyone around her having a good time. I thought about all my coworkers who told me I needed a thicker skin, and thought about the professors who told the class we couldn't be a print designers because we weren't good enough and that tore my work apart after sleepless nights and who told us that if we applied to design studios they’d rip us apart and who told me not to use my picture of myself on my website because then employers would know I was a woman and then they might not hire me. I thought about all the time I’d spent trying to ignore fear and doubt in myself and my abilities to bolster the love I had for art and design.
My husband got incredibly sick, and in a panic, I took him to a hospital in a foreign country. He ended up being okay. It was terrifying. I was drained. He was fine. I socialized with some people from Facebook at a restaurant and some guy talked about how Elm was so much better than Redux to the guy who made Redux’s face. My husband was fine. I went to some meetings and brought him food and water when I had time to spring back to him. My husband was fine. I picked him up and had to carry him to an elevator and took 200 pounds out of an ATM in a panic to get him to a hospital in a foreign country. He was fine. We went to the ending party. I was fine.
I flew home Saturday, and worked Monday. I wrote some code during this time.
The summer was mostly making room in our house and visiting friends. We visited one friend for Fourth of July, and another the weekend after at her parents’ house. She and her family took us all over town. The whole thing made us feel rather loved.
We made room in the house by getting rid of things. We moved in, and felt desperation and panic as we surveyed the piles of things. Our own, but mostly theirs. We used up all of our county special trash pickups. We painted a room that was a very ugly salmon color white. My father screamed at me for throwing away a protein powder container while my mother helped me sweep and bring things to the curb. I told myself all bark, no bite, and then I had my own little office and a bedroom that weren't in the same room, which was quite new.
I designed some during this time. I found I only coded in my free time now, but I didn't enjoy it as I once did. I hadn't coded much at all, actually. I guess I hadn't been as good at it as I thought I had been.
I went to Chicago, and Brazil, and New York City, and Berlin in rapid succession, giving talks and doing research and learning a great many new things. I had someone insult my talk immediately after I’d given it as the next presenter. I saw Djokovic play a Grand Slam. I talked with my best friend about how neither of us coded at our jobs anymore. I ate Momofuku for the second time, but it wasn't quite the same as it was the first. I had the one developer I had working on something important get ripped away from me at work. I tried to tap into my narcissism. I need it. Maybe I can’t code.
I began throwing big parties. I had a house now. I got all of my friends drunk on cheap liquor in a house I didn't give a shit about.
During this time, I stopped doing any real designing and I stopped doing any real coding. I only wrote in Google Docs and sat in meetings.
I started getting really angry, and I'd talk to anyone who’d fucking listen to me. I asked my manager to switch to a different team at work. He said, “If I moved you off your team, I’d get shot,” so I never bothered asking again. I sat in a meeting where a contributor attached softcore porn to a bug and nobody did anything about it. I took two days of PTO to explore Berlin with my best friend and my boss invited himself and took us to the office. I sat in a meeting where a London harasser got called a good contributor because he wrote a lot of code by the head engineering manager. My boss told me to work less. The bug where everyone hated some color changes and thought I should know how terrible and unusable I’d made their software continued to live until someone commented on it saying, “After some time, I actually like the changes, but the points in the thread are valid. Can you fix them?” All the other women on my team quit. A developer got called an underperformer but was excused as being "young” despite being two years older than me, with no effort to solve the problem. I wrote in some Google Docs. I looked at some job listings and figured that all other jobs were probably just like this one. Why bother. Everywhere is like here.
I asked my mother how she had handled paternalism in her career. She told me she drank.
I went to the Open Hardware Summit for the second year in a row. I built hardware and a Swift app for it. I talked with some girls at the conference about our Halloween costumes and we all shared what we were building with Arduinos.
I threw a party where my husband tried to buzz cut his own hair in the shower and everyone ended up vomiting. I didn't really have as much fun as I was hoping I’d have.
I ended up driving two and a half hours on Election Day because of last-minute bureaucratic bullshit. Trump got elected. I went to sleep. I talked with my husband about what we'd do if his mother got deported. I went to work that day. My boss’ boss told everyone that, despite the circumstances, we should try not to be so glum. My mother came over and told us that if his family members got deported under the new policies, we’d figure it out. My husband began visiting USCIS weekly to deal with the citizenship process that had been delayed by two years from government fuckups.
During this time, people tweeted a lot, and I read what they tweeted. A false, insipid Helen, pretending to me, and pretending to be happy, caked like a mask on to my face. It was a hardened piece of papier maîché that sometimes fell off, even though it had once been a truth about me. I was like a snake shedding a skin. My innards were sad and ugly.
On a Friday, Brian and I got into a fight about dinner and cried for the entire weekend. I got stuck in Atlanta and I designed and coded. I got to Hawaii, and I quit my job. I got home on Sunday. I worked on Monday.
I've re-written the ending to this more times than I can count. With some distance, I've realized this is a story about depression and the toll that the last few years had taken on me—deaths. Moving into a hoarder's house. Clearing it out. Feeling isolated in the suburbs. Not having consistent access to a car. Feeling lonely. Feeling attacked. In the midst of those circumstances everything that happened at work was yet worse—the interactions and pecularities and difficulties of working with a distributed team across the world on maintaining an old piece of internet legacy were amplified by my own sadness. My own fears. Work was something I could change, and I fell back on tapping into anger to propel myself to move on. Now that the anger is gone I am left with the weary refrain, "It wasn't a good fit." I make a good product designer, but it requires really believing in the products' place in the world, and I couldn't do that for Firefox. This coupled with (what I suspect to be the culprit) youth's inability to separate life's work from clocking in, clocking out, meant that of course I was going to be unhappy. I'd like to say I haven't already made the exact same mistake, but this time I self-corrected much, much faster. And I'm sure it will happen again, and again, along with a multitude of other mistakes that seem to be the painful bulwarks one must bash through in order to "grow up". Lots of subpar things happened at work in my time at Firefox that made moving on worth doing—I don't wish to absolve them of what were some fairly egregious systematic issues in who were put into positions of power, how we handled and managed open source systems on the internet, how we hired, how we prioritized work—but it has helped me understand why I felt so raw when friends would say, "Wow, seems like that place really left a lasting impression on you."
I will leave with this story, which helped me a great deal as I left what was on paper a pretty great gig:
I’ve been to more Christmas dinners then I’ve had jobs, obviously. One year considering leaving a job I was talking to my aunt about the job and why it was becoming painful. She left me with this:
“I’ve learned something small at every job I’ve ever worked, even if I hated it. I had a job once where I learned nothing at the job other than that I hated taking the bus to work. That was it. I hate taking buses to work. So I made sure for my next job and every job afterward, I didn’t need to take a bus.”
I'll also end with that I'm a good designer, and a good front end developer. And more than anything, I'm the decision-maker when it comes to what happens next.