The Story So Far, Part I

It's time to come out from the woodwork, but where do I start? How about I go back to the middle.

10 February 2018 | 5 Minutes

It’s time to come out of the woodwork. But first, let me update you on the story so far.

Almost ten years ago I created an ecard site called Wrongcards. In those days I was living in a small town in Massachusetts called Belmont, and commuting each day to Harvard, where I was working as a biological software engineer.

When I founded Wrongcards, I had just spent six months reading textbooks about biology and statistics. Interesting subjects, but to me back then they were like two anchors dragging me down into hell.

You see, I didn’t want to be a biological software engineer — I wanted to write books. Funny, magical stories, brimming with life and humour and whimsy.

I definitely enjoyed coding, but the science stuff felt like a bridge too far. I was going in the wrong direction, I could feel it in my bones. So to make it all bearable I created Wrongcards. It gave me a creative outlet while I was working a career that didn’t feel right. Wrongcards, when it boils down to it, is little more than one man procrastinating wildly.

Back then — from 2005 until roughly 2013 — I was working seven days a week and living very frugally. It was a very austere life; apart from work, I didn’t go out all that much, except to walk my dog Chloé. I knew that if I could buy a house, I could afford to take risks, like, quit my job and write books. It took a long time, though, because I was starting from scratch. It took seven years of working in Boston, practically seven days a week, until I was finally able to manage the deposit for a tiny house, just down the street from MIT.

It was a fantastic day in my life. I’ll never forget walking into my home for the first time, using my key to open my door. And the smell … the air practically shimmered with the stench of cat urine. You couldn’t breathe. All the windows had to be open at all times. You almost couldn’t think with that odor. It was intrusive! And it wasn’t the only problem.

The bathroom door was a flimsy piece of folding plastic. There was another smell, a sort of mustiness in the kitchen that could not be killed with bleach (a small animal had died in there — possibly of despair). The central heating was non-functional. The stairs were precarious though undoubtedly good for the soul; nobody could ascend them without wondering whether there was life after death.

The floor tilted strangely in the kitchen. The electrical stuff seemed to have been wired by an enthusiastic amateur with a philosophical attitude towards unexpected fires. And I think that, if I was a professional extreme sports athlete with a cavalier attitude to mortality, I could have lived harmoniously in my house for a number of happy months before it killed me, or until I was devoured by the four or five hundred rats living in the basement.

I was fighting a guerrilla war against them and losing, day by day. I was not losing valiantly, either, but with a cowering feeling of futility. By the way, there is nothing more chilling than realizing that the rats you are trying to kill every day aren’t even scared of you anymore.

So there was that, and the sheepishness I’d feel every time I received a sternly worded letter from the council about the matter.

I have written of these rats before, by the way, because they were not the ’live and let live’ variety of rodent but that aggravating, trouble-making sort who like to roam the streets, attacking people and cars.

As far as I was concerned, the rats were not just a problem, they were a line in the sand. And I was getting tired of saying things to my neighbors like, “I’m sorry - I truly am working on the problem - but for now, just keep your pets indoors, and if you should start growing buboes in your armpits, I goddamn warned you to move away, didn’t I?”

It occurred to me that the sensible move might be to burn the whole place down to the ground and start again. A huge part of me wanted to rebuild from scratch; maybe I’d build it as a sort of fort. I could salvage things from the rubble and steal bricks from nearby construction sites. I could create a kind of mini-castle right there in the middle of East Cambridge, with an Australian flag waving high above a Jolly-Roger. My neighbor, who is a lawyer, unfortunately, kept bleating about property values and legal battles, so I let that option slide.

The kitchen had a dystopian feel. The bathroom had pink tiles. The basement wall was leaning at about 80 degrees. Down in the basement, one of the rats was teaching the others ninjitsu. And I was now close to penniless. What was I going to do?

Quit Harvard and start my writing career, of course. I owned real estate. I was landed gentry, I told myself. It was fine. I’d had enough. I had earned the right to retire into a corner of my house and write books.

Then one day I received a text message informing me that I was going to be a father.

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