Monday, November 24, 2014

What's your secret (password)?

by Joan

Several years ago New York Times reporter Ian Urbina became interested in the personalized codes we refer to as passwords. He began collecting anecdotes from friends and strangers, proving his theory that passwords are more than just annoying codes we are forced to maintain. This spurred his recent fascinating New York Times article, “The Secret Life of Passwords.”

“In our authorship of them, in the fact that we construct them so that we (and only we) will remember them, they take on secret lives. Many of our passwords are suffused with pathos, mischief, sometimes even poetry. Often they have rich back stories. A motivational mantra, a swipe at the boss, a hidden shrine to a lost love, an inside joke with ourselves, a defining emotional scar — these keepsake passwords, as I came to call them, are like tchotchkes of our inner lives.”

In the article Urbina shares unique stories from his interviews, from Howard Lutnick, chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald who was tasked with cracking the passwords for those who died on 9/11, to a woman whose password reminds her of the father she had struggled to know, to a man who used his low SAT score as a reminder of how far he’d come.

Urbina writes, “Some keepsakes were striking for their ingenuity. Like spring-loaded contraptions, they folded big thoughts down into tidy little ciphers.”

For years my password was some form or extension of a 4-digit code that we’ve used in our family. When security breaches hit Apple, Target and others, I changed it to something more personal. Now it's a phrase that represents the key to my ultimate aspiration. Sometimes my pessimistic side takes over and I twist it into the roadblock between me and my goal. Unlike many of the people Urbina interviewed who were more than forthcoming with their passwords, I’m not ready to share mine just yet.

Urbina writes, “Many of these passwords seem to be quiet celebrations of things we hold dear.” I love this idea so much, I thought I'd steal it for character development. Along with understanding motivation, desires or Achilles heals, to know my character’s password is to know his innermost secret. Even though my next novel is set during the Depression, long before computers, I'm looking forward to devising passwords for Greer and Mort.

For grins, we came up with secret passwords for a few well-known characters:

From Pamela:

A grownup Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird: MyP@LB00

Denny from The Art of Racing in the Rain: LetEnzoDriv3

Cheryl Strayed in WILD: The Mon$ter

Alice in Still Alice: WhoAmI?

From Elizabeth:

Emma's father: niceboiledegg

Mr. Rochester: 1intheattic

Alice in What Alice Forgot: sultanaplus2

Hermione Granger in Harry Potter: awitch&2dentists

From me:

Amy Dunne (from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl): OhNoU$dont

Bernadette Fox (from Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette): swat#gnats%

From Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Alma Whitaker: !Bndgcloset!

What's your character's secret password?

Follow up here. If you're interested in being part of Ian Urbina's follow up piece for The New York Times Magazine, email your keepsake password story to

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