Deimos in Tahoe

Sacrificing everything for my dog

How I became a programmer.

Nobody will bat an eye if you’re making big sacrifices to give your children a better life. This sacrificial behavior is hard wired into our DNA and it’s expected of every parent. In fact, evolution depends on this behavior.

However, if you tell somebody you’re restructuring your life to make your dog happy, there’s a good chance they will laugh and think your future involves a strait-jacket and a big nurse by the name of Ratched.

Until now I never told anybody about my reasons for my big life changes and I feel quite embarrassed as I’m typing this. The truth is, if I didn’t love my dog so much, my life would be radically different and I’m sure I would be miserable.

I don’t believe in God but I do believe in karma. Maybe karma is similar to luck, as in “the harder I work, the luckier I get” type of thing. Being good to someone or something seems to create a bunch of collateral happiness.

Here is my story.

It was 2008 and I was headed in a very respectable direction, currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program for chemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I worked incredibly hard to get to this point and had earned myself a number of gold stars along the way, all of which looked really good on paper. For example, I spent some time after my undergraduate studies working on the NASA Genesis mission at the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory.

I liked my advisor in Boulder and my situation was ideal. My advisor gave me a two-month paid trip to Prague the summer before graduate school. This trip was arranged so I could do theoretical chemistry work for the Czech Academy of Sciences, but I also used it as an opportunity to drink a lot of good Czech beer.

On the surface I had a great life, but deep down something about my situation was wrong. I was tired of chemistry yet I didn’t want to admit this to myself. It’s easy to delude yourself when you’ve invested so heavily into something. After all, everything I had done in the past 10 years was dedicated to this career path.

Enter Deimos, my Golden Retriever/Shar Pei hybrid. A master of Tug o’ War and decimator of sticks, Deimos also has the ability to lay on a massive guilt trip whenever I leave him. He puts his head down in that pleading fashion and gives me those eyes that seem to say, “Please dad, take me with you. I just want to spend time with you.” Every time I left for graduate school duties I had to suffer through this departure. I died a little on the inside each time.

It’s unfair to a dog to make them wait 8 hours each day while we are at work. Dogs only have about a decade of time on this Earth. In dog years, this amounts to waiting 56 hours for us while we are off working every day. That is a waste of a very short, bright life. If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know just how intelligent they actually are (especially larger breeds). Such an intelligence deserves great experiences and grand adventure.

So, while I was unable to admit to myself that I was headed down the wrong career path, I was able to recognize my intense desire to give Deimos a situation where I could spend more time with him. This invisible guiding paw would press on me daily.

Enter Typhoid. Yes, Typhoid. As in the main way your character died when playing The Oregon Trail computer game in the 5th grade. Around month four of graduate school I started getting really high fevers on a regular basis and pain in my lower abdomen. I didn’t know what was going on and the doctors didn’t either. A couple of doctors tried to tell me I had Crohn’s disease. I didn’t believe this diagnosis, though.

After an abscess and a lot more pain, I mentioned to my doctor that this could be related to a case of Typhoid I contracted while mountaineering down in Bolivia. I had all sorts of stomach problems after that trip and I theorized that the Typhoid could have caused some scarring in my intestines, which was then acting as nucleation points for infection (maybe also helped along by extreme stress).

The doctor said it was worth a shot to try a prolonged course of strong antibiotics to see if this theory was correct. So I went home for Christmas break with a truckload of drugs. The guiding paw of Deimos would make it so I would never go back.

The antibiotic treatment worked and it wasn’t too long before I was completely healthy again. Yet, seeing how happy Deimos was in Tahoe made me think deeply about different career paths which would allow me to work from home so I could spend more time with him.

Enter programming. I decided I wasn’t going back to graduate school. I would disappoint a lot of people who had invested in me (especially my advisor), but that bad feeling is so small in comparison to living the wrong life. Some people stay on the wrong path their entire lives just to avoid this disappointment and or out of a sense of obligation. I didn’t want this to be me. Fuck obligation.

I had a plan. I was going to teach myself programming and change my life. I had a very superficial introduction to Fortran in the past with computational chemistry, but that was the extent of my programming knowledge. So I decided I would need to hunker down for many months and learn how to make a living with code.

Fortunately I have amazing parents and they let me live in their house in Tahoe (they retired and moved away to Navarro, near Mendocino). As for my other living expenses, I still had the remainder of my student loan and I decided I was going to gamble and put the rest of my life on a credit card while I went through this self-taught re-education.

Many people believe that credit cards and debt are pure evil and stupid. I see credit cards as being the saving grace which prevented another great depression during the recent economic collapse. Having access to rainy day / investment money is the single greatest invention of our economic system.

As long as you use the money properly, and investing in yourself is the best possible way to use money, credit cards can give you a new life. While I was living on the card I didn’t spend my time playing World of Warcraft or watching TV. I made sure I dedicated 8-10 hours a day to learning the wonderful craft of programming.

A little while later I started earning money with my first business, Tallac Interactive. This was just a front-end local web design business and I didn’t spend much time interacting with server side languages, other than the occasional dive into the Wordpress back-end. But it was enough to get noticed by the CEO and President of Fretlight Guitar, which led to my first high-paying job as a programmer.

Fast forward to now and I’ve founded Mycelial, Briarpatch, and AppRaptor. I’ve taught myself PHP, MySQL, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, Javascript and many more amazing languages and technologies. I can’t get enough of programming. I am paid well to do it from home and I even spend all of my free time on programming side projects. Building stuff with code is the most satisfying thing in the world for me.

And yet, I wouldn’t be a programmer today if it weren’t for my intense desire to find a lifestyle which would make Deimos happy. In other words, I wouldn’t be happy today if I didn’t sacrifice my previous life for my dog. I’m sure I would still be in graduate school, poor and miserable and covered in organic toxins from the lab.

I’m not trying to knock chemistry. I have tremendous respect for anyone who dedicates their life to chemistry. Chemists make our lives better and often shorten their own in the process. It’s a harsh bargain and an extremely noble one. I still have a massive scar from a Nitric acid spill on my wrist which reminds me every day of the sacrifices chemists make for the rest of us.

The guiding paw of Deimos also had another great effect on my life. As a result of not going back to graduate school and staying in Tahoe, I reconnected with Lisa, who is absolutely amazing, and we were together for five years.

I don’t think the Karma of this situation is mystical or spiritual or anything of that nature. Providing my furry little dependent with a life of pure happiness and grand adventure merely showed me the way to a lifestyle with the perfect balance of nature and intellectual stimulation, and I encourage others to find a similar balance.

There are probably a lot of people out there who balk at the idea of personal sacrifice for a dog. It’s easy to spot these people, however. They are cat people.

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