Seven Days in the Life of Young Microsoft. Maybe the search for the next
great compelling application is really the search for human identity.
By Douglas Coupland
This morning, just after 11:00, Michael locked himself in his office and he won't come out.
Bill (Bill!) sent Michael this totally wicked flame-mail from hell on the e-mail system - and he just wailed on a chunk of code Michael had written. Using the Bloom County-cartoons-taped-on-the-door index, Michael is certainly the most sensitive coder in Building Seven - not the type to take criticism easily. Exactly why Bill would choose Michael of all people to wail on is confusing. We figured it must have been a random quality check to keep the troops in line. Bill's so smart.
Bill is wise. Bill is kind. Bill is benevolent. Bill, Be My Friend...Please!
Actually, nobody on our floor has ever been flamed by Bill personally. The episode was tinged with glamour and we were somewhat jealous. I tried to tell Michael this, but he was crushed.
Shortly before lunch he stood like a lump outside my office. His skin was pale like rising bread dough, and his Toppy's cut was dripping sweat, leaving little damp marks on the oyster-gray-with-plum highlights of the Microsoft carpeting. He handed me a printout of Bill's memo and then gallumphed into his office, where he's been burrowed ever since.
He won't answer his phone, respond to e-mail, or open his door. On his doorknob he placed a "Do Not Disturb" thingy stolen from the Boston Radisson during last year's Macworld Expo. Todd and I walked out onto the side lawn to try to peek in his window, but his Venetian blinds were closed and a gardener with a leaf blower chased us away with a spray of grass clippings.
They mow the lawn every ten minutes at Microsoft. It looks like green Lego pads.
Finally, at about 2:30 a.m., Todd and I got concerned about Michael's not eating, so we drove to the 24-hour Safeway in Bellevue. We went shopping for "flat" foods to slip underneath Michael's door.
The Safeway was completely empty save for us and a few other Microsoft people just like us - hair-trigger geeks in pursuit of just the right snack. Because of all the rich nerds living around here, Redmond and Bellevue are very "on-demand" neighborhoods. Nerds get what they want when they want it, and they go psycho if it's not immediately available. Nerds over-focus. I guess that's the problem. But it's precisely this ability to narrow-focus that makes them so good at code writing: one line at a time, one line in a strand of millions.
When we returned to Building Seven at 3:00 a.m., there were still a few people grinding away. Our group is scheduled to ship product in just eleven days (Top Secret: We'll never make it).
Michael's office lights were on, but once again, when we knocked, he wouldn't answer his door. We heard his keyboard chatter, so we figured he was still alive. The situation really begged a discussion of Turing logic - could we have discerned that the entity behind the door was indeed even human? We slid Kraft singles, Premium Plus crackers, Pop-Tarts, grape leather, and Freezie-Pops in to him.
Todd asked me, "Do you think any of this violates geek dietary laws?"
Just then, Karla in the office across the hall screamed and then glared out at us from her doorway. Her eyes were all red and sore behind her round glasses. She said, "You guys are only encouraging him," like we were feeding a raccoon or something. I don't think Karla ever sleeps.
She harrumphed and slammed her door closed. Doors sure are important to nerds.
Anyway, by this point Todd and I were both really tired. We drove back to the house to crash, each in our separate cars, through the Campus grounds - 22 buildings worth of nerd-cosseting fun - cloistered by 100-foot-tall second growth timber, its streets quiet as the womb: the foundry of our culture's deepest dreams.
There was mist floating on the ground above the soccer fields outside the central buildings. I thought about the e-mail and Bill and all of that, and I had this weird feeling - of how the presence of Bill floats about the Campus, semi-visible, at all times, kind of like the dead grandfather in the Family Circus cartoons. Bill is a moral force, a spectral force, a force that shapes, a force that molds. A force with thick, thick glasses.
I am firstname.lastname@example.org. If my life was a game of Jeopardy! my seven dream categories would be:
I am a tester - a bug checker in Building Seven. I worked my way up the ladder from Product Support Services (PSS) where I spent six months in phone purgatory in 1991 helping little old ladies format their Christmas mailing lists on Microsoft Works.
Like most Microsoft employees, I consider myself too well adjusted to be working here, even though I am 26 and my universe consists of home, Microsoft, and Costco.
I am originally from Bellingham, up just near the border, but my parents live in Palo Alto now. I live in a group house with five other Microsoft employees: Todd, Susan, Bug Barbecue, Michael, and Abe. We call ourselves "the Channel Three News Team."
I am single. I think partly this is because Microsoft is not conducive to relationships. Last year down at the Apple Worldwide Development Conference in San Jose, I met a girl who works not too far away, at Hewlett-Packard on Interstate 90, but it never went anywhere. Sometimes I'll sort of get something going, but then work takes over my life and I bail out of all my commitments and things fizzle.
Lately I've been unable to sleep. That's why I've begun writing this journal late at night, to try to see the patterns in my life. From this I hope to establish what my problem is - and then, hopefully, solve it. I'm trying to feel more well adjusted than I really am which is, I guess, the human condition. My life is lived day to day, one line of bug-free code at a time.
Growing up, I used to build split-level ranch-type homes out of Legos. This is pretty much the house I live in now, but its ambiance is anything but sterilized Lego-clean. It was built about twenty years ago, maybe before Microsoft was even in the dream stage, and this part of Redmond had a lost, alpine, ski-cabin feel.
Instead of a green plastic pad with little plastic nubblies, our house sits on a thickly treed lot beside a park on a cul-de-sac at the top of a steep hill. It's only a seven-minute drive from Campus. There are two other Microsoft group houses just down the hill. Karla, actually, lives in the house three down from us across the street.
People end up living in group houses either by e-mail or by word of mouth. Living in a group house is a little bit like admitting you're deficient in the having-a-life department, but at work you spend your entire life crunching code and testing for bugs, and what else are you supposed to do? Work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep. I know a few Microsoft employees who try to fake having a life - many a Redmond garage contains a never-used kayak collecting dust. You ask these people what they do in their spare time and they say, "Uh - kayaking. That's right. I kayak in my spare time." You can tell they're faking it.
I don't even do many sports anymore and my relationship with my body has gone all weird. I used to play soccer three times a week and now I feel like a boss in charge of an underachiever. I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around, like a suburban mother taking the kids to hockey practice.
The house is covered with dark cedar paneling. Out front there's a tiny patch of lawn covered in miniature yellow crop circles thanks to the dietary excesses of our neighbor's German shepherd, Mishka. Bug Barbecue keeps his weather experiments - funnels and litmus strips and so forth - nailed to the wall beside the front door. A flat of purple petunias long-expired from neglect - Susan's one attempt at prettification - depresses us every time we leave for work in the morning, resting as it does in the thin strip of soil between the driveway and Mishka's crop circles.
Abe, our in-house multimillionaire, used to have tinfoil all over his bedroom windows to keep out what few rays of sun penetrated the trees until we ragged on him so hard that he went out and bought a sheaf of black construction paper at the Pay n' Save and taped it up instead. It looked like a drifter lived here. Todd's only contribution to the house's outer appearance is a collection of car-washing toys sometimes visible beside the garage door. The only evidence of my being in the house is my 1977 AMC Hornet Sportabout hatchback parked out front when I'm home. It's bright orange, it's rusty, and dammit, it's ugly.
Shipping hell continued again today. Grind, grind, grind. We'll never make it. Have I said that already? Why do we always underestimate our shipping schedules? I just don't understand. In at 9:30 a.m; out at 11:30 p.m. Domino's for dinner. And three Diet Cokes.
I got bored a few times today and checked the WinQuote on my screen - that's the extension that gives continuous updates on Microsoft's NASDAQ price. It was Saturday, and there was never any change, but I kept forgetting. Habit. Maybe the Tokyo or Hong Kong exchanges might cause a fluctuation?
Most staffers peek at WinQuote a few times a day. I mean, if you have 10,000 shares (and tons of staff members have way more) and the stock goes up a buck, you've just made ten grand! But then, if it goes down two dollars, you've just lost twenty grand. It's a real psychic yo-yo. Last April Fool's Day, someone fluctuated the price up and down by fifty dollars and half the staff had coronaries.
Because I started out low on the food chain and worked my way up, I didn't get much stock offered to me the way that programmers and systems designers get stock firehosed onto them when they start. What stock I do own won't fully vest for another 2.5 years (stock takes 4.5 years to fully vest).
Susan's stock vests later this week, and she's going to have a vesting party. And then she's going to quit. Larger social forces are at work, threatening to dissolve our group house.
The stock closed up $1.75 on Friday. Bill has 78,000,000 shares, so that means he's now $136.5 million richer. I have almost no stock, and this means I am a loser.
News update: Michael is now out of his office. It's as if he never had his geek episode. He slept there throughout the whole day (not unusual at Microsoft), using his Jurassic Park inflatable T-Rex toy as a pillow. When he woke up in the early evening, he thanked me for bringing him the Kraft products, and now he says he won't eat anything that's not entirely two-dimensional. "Ich bin ein Flatlander," he piped, as he cheerfully sifted through hardcopy of the bug-checked code he'd been chugging out. Karla made disgusted clicking noises with her tongue from her office. I think maybe she's in love with Michael.
More details about our group house - Our House of Wayward Mobility.
Because the house receives almost no sun, moss and algae tend to colonize what surfaces they can. There is a cherry tree crippled by a fungus. The rear veranda, built of untreated 2-x-4s, has quietly rotted away, and the sliding door in the kitchen has been braced shut with a hockey stick to prevent the unwary from straying into the suburban abyss.
The driveway contains six cars: Todd's cherry red Supra (his life, what little there is of it), my pumpkin Hornet, and four personality-free gray Microsoftmobiles - a Lexus, an Acura Legend, and two Tauri (nerd plural for Taurus). I bet if Bill drove a Shriner's go-cart to work, everybody else would, too.
Inside, each of us has a bedroom. Because of the MacDonald's-like turnover in the house, the public rooms - the living room, kitchen, dining room, and basement - are bleak, to say the least. The dormlike atmosphere precludes heavy-duty interior design ideas. In the living room are two velveteen sofas that were too big and too ugly for some long-gone tenants to take with them. Littered about the Tiki green shag carpet are:
The kitchen is stocked with ramshackle 1970s avocado green appliances. You can almost hear the ghost of Emily Hartley yelling "Hi Bob!" every time you open the fridge door (a sea of magnets and 4-x-6-inch photos of last year's house parties).
Our mail is in little piles by the front door: bills, Star Trek junk mail, and the heap-o-catalogues next to the phone.
I think we'd order our lives via 1-800 numbers if we could.
Mom phoned from Palo Alto. This is the time of year she calls a lot. She calls because she wants to speak about Jed, but none of us in the family are able. We kind of erased him.
I used to have a younger brother named Jed. He drowned in a boating accident in the Strait of Juan de Fuca when I was 14 and he was 12. A Labor Day statistic.
To this day, anything Labor Day-ish creeps me out: the smell of barbecuing salmon, life preservers, Interstate traffic reports from the local radio Traffic Copter, Monday holidays. But here's a secret: My e-mail password is hellojed. So I think about him every day. He was way better with computers than I was. He was way nerdier than me.
As it turned out, Mom had good news today. Dad has a big meeting Monday with his company. Mom and Dad figure it's a promotion because Dad's IBM division has been doing so well (by IBM standards - it's not hemorrhaging money). She says she'll keep me posted.
Susan taped laser-printed notes on all of our bedroom doors reminding us about the vesting party this Thursday ("Vest Fest '93") which was a subliminal hint to us to clean up the place. Most of us work in Building Seven; shipping hell has brought a severe breakdown in cleanup codes.
Susan is 26 and works in Mac Applications. If Susan were a Jeopardy! contestant, her dream board would be:
Susan's an IBM brat and hates that company with a passion. She credits it with ruining her youth by transferring her family eight times before she graduated from high school - and the punch line is that the company gave her father the boot last year during a wave of restructuring. So nothing too evil can happen to IBM in her eyes. Her graphic designer friend made up T-shirts saying "IBM: Weak as a Kitten, Dumb as a Sack of Hammers." We all wear them. I gave one to Dad last Christmas but his reaction didn't score too high on the chuckle-o-meter. (I am not an IBM brat - Dad was teaching at the University of Western Washington until the siren of industry lured him to Palo Alto in 1985. It was very '80s.)
Susan's a real coding machine. But her abilities are totally wasted reworking old code for something like the Norwegian Macintosh version of Word 5.8. Susan's work ethic best sums up the ethic of most of the people I've met who work at Microsoft. If I recall her philosophy from the conversation she had with her younger sister two weekends ago, it goes something like this:
"It's never been, 'We're doing this for the good of society.' It's always been us taking an intellectual pride in putting out a good product - and making money. If putting a computer on every desktop and in every home didn't make money, we wouldn't do it."
That sums up most of the Microsoft people I know.
Microsoft, like any office, is a status theme park. Here's a quick rundown:
More roommate profiles:
First, Abe. If Abe were a Jeopardy! contestant, his seven dream categories would be:
Abe is sort of like the household Monopoly-game banker. He collects our monthly checks for the landlord, $235.00 apiece. The man has millions and he rents! He's been at the group house since 1984, when he was hired fresh out of MIT. (The rest of us have been here, on average, about eight months apiece.) After ten years of writing code, Abe so far shows no signs of getting a life. He seems happy to be reaching the age of 30 in just four months with nothing to his name but a variety of neat-o consumer electronics and boxes of Costco products purchased in rash moments of Costco-scale madness ("Ten thousand straws! Just think of it - only $10.00 and I'll never need to buy straws ever again!") These products line the walls of his room, giving it the feel of an air-raid shelter.
Bonus detail: There are dried out patches of sneeze spray all over Abe's monitors. You'd think he could afford 24 bottles of Windex.
Next, Todd. Todd's seven Jeopardy! categories would be:
Todd works as a tester with me. He's really young - 22 - the way Microsoft employees all used to be. His interest is entirely in girls, bug testing, his Supra, and his body, which he buffs religiously at the Pro Club gym and feeds with peanut butter quesadillas, bananas, and protein drinks.
Todd is historically empty. He neither knows nor cares about the past. He reads Car and Driver and fields three phone calls a week from his parents who believe that computers are "the Devil's voice box," and who try to persuade him to return home to Port Angeles and speak with the youth pastor.
Todd's the most fun of all the house members because he is all impulse and no consideration. He's also the only roomie to have clean laundry consistently. In a crunch you can always borrow an unsoiled shirt from Todd.
Bug Barbecue's seven Jeopardy! categories would be:
Bug Barbecue is the World's Most Bitter Man. He is (as his name implies) a tester with me at Building Seven. His have-a-life factor is pretty near zero. He has the smallest, darkest room in the house, in which he maintains two small shrines: one to his Sinclair ZX-81, his first computer, and the other to supermodel Elle MacPherson. Man, she'd freak if she saw the hundreds of little photos - the coins, the candles, the little notes.
Bug is 31, and he lets everyone know it. If we ever ask him so much as "Hey Bug - have you seen volume 7 of my Inside Mac?" he gives a sneer and replies, "You're obviously of the generation that never built their own motherboard or had to invent their own language."
Hey, Bug - we love you, too.
Bug never gets offered stock by the company. When payday comes and the little white stock option envelopes with red printing reading "Personal and Confidential" end up in all of our pigeonholes, Bug's is always, alas, empty. Maybe they're trying to get rid of him, but it's almost impossible to fire someone at Microsoft. It must drive the administration nuts. They hired 3,100 people in 1992 alone, and you know not all of them were gems.
Oddly, Bug is fanatical in his devotion to Microsoft. It's as if the more they ignore him, the more rabidly he defends their honor. And if you cherish your own personal time, you will not get into a discussion with him over the famous Look-&-Feel lawsuit or any of the FTC or Department of Justice actions:
"These litigious pricks piss me off. I wish they'd compete in the marketplace where it really counts instead of being little wusses and whining for government assistance to compete...."
You've been warned.
Finally, Michael. Michael's seven Jeopardy! categories would be:
Michael is probably the closest I'll ever come to knowing someone who lives in a mystical state. He lives to assemble elegant streams of code instructions. He's like Mozart to everyone else's Salieri - he enters peoples' offices where lines of code are written on the dry-erase whiteboards, and quietly optimizes the code as he speaks to them, as though someone had written wrong instructions on how to get to the beach and he was merely setting them right so they wouldn't get lost.
He often uses low-tech solutions to high-tech problems: Popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and little strips of paper that turn on a bent coat hanger frame help him solve complex matrix problems. When he moved offices into his new window office (good coder, good office), he had to put Post-it notes reading "Not Art" on his devices so that the movers didn't stick them under the glass display cases out in the central atrium area.
This morning before heading to the office I read an in-depth story about Burt and Loni's divorce in People magazine. Thus, 1,474,819 brain cells that could have been used toward a formula for world peace were obliterated. Are computer memory and human memory analogous? Michael would know.
Mid-morning, I mountain-biked over to Nintendo headquarters, across Interstate 405 from Microsoft.
Now, I've never been to the South African plant of, say, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, but I bet it looks a lot like Nintendo headquarters - two-story industrial plex buildings sheathed with Deathstar black windows and landscape trees around the parking lot seemingly clicked into place with a mouse. It's nearly identical to Microsoft except Microsoft uses sea-foam green glass on its windows, and has big soccer fields should it ever really need to expand.
I hackey-sacked for a while with my friend, Marty, and some of his tester friends during their break. Sunday is a big day for the kids who man the PSS phone lines there because all of young America is out of school and using the product. It's really young at Nintendo. It's like the year 1311, where everyone over 35 is dead or maimed and out of sight and mind.
All of us got into this big discussion about what sort of software dogs would design if they could. Marty suggested territory-marking programs with piss simulators and lick interfaces. Antonella thought of BoneFinder. Harold thought of a doghouse remodeling CAD system. All very cartographic/high sensory: lots of visuals.
Then, of course, the subject of catware came up. Antonella suggested a personal secretary program that tells the world, "No, I do not wish to be petted. Oh, and hold all my calls." My suggestion was for a program that sleeps all the time.
Anyway, it's a good thing we're human. We design business spreadsheets, paint programs, and word processing equipment. So that tells you where we're at as a species. What is the search for the next great compelling application but a search for the human identity?
It was nice being at Nintendo where everybody's just a little bit younger and hipper than at Microsoft and actually takes part in the Seattle scene. Everyone at Microsoft seems, well, literally 31.2 years old, and it kind of shows.
There's this eerie, science-fiction lack of anyone who doesn't look exactly 31.2 on the Campus. It's oppressive. It seems like only last week the entire Campus went through Gap ribbed-T mania together - and now they're all shopping for the same 3bdr/2bth dove-gray condo in Kirkland.
Microserfs are locked by nature into doing 31.2-ish things: the first house, the first marriage, the "where-am-I-going" crisis, the out-goes-the-Miata/in-comes-the-minivan thing, and, of course, major death denial. A Microsoft VP died of cancer a few months ago, and it was like, you weren't allowed to mention it. Period. The three things you're not allowed to discuss at work: death, salaries, and your stock options.
I'm 26 and I'm just not ready to turn 31.2 yet.
Actually, I've been thinking about this death denial business quite a bit lately. September always makes me think of Jed. It's as if there's this virtual Jed who might have been. Sometimes I see him when I'm driving by water; I see him standing on a log boom smiling and waving; I see him buckarooing a killer whale in the harbor off downtown while I'm stuck in traffic on the Alaskan Way viaduct. Or I see him walking just ahead of me around the Space Needle restaurant, always just around the curve.
I'd like to hope Jed is happy in the afterworld, but because I was raised without any beliefs, I have no pictures of an afterworld for myself. In the past I have tried to convince myself that there is no life after death, but I have found myself unable to do this, so I guess intuitively I feel there is something. But I just don't know how to begin figuring out what these pictures are.
Over the last few weeks I've been oh-so-casually asking the people I know about their own pictures of the afterworld. I can't simply come right out and ask directly because, as I say, you just don't discuss death at Microsoft.
The results were pretty dismal. Ten people asked, and not one single image. Not one single angel or one bright light or even one single, miserable barbecue briquette. Zero.
Todd was more concerned about who would show up at his funeral.
Bug Barbecue told me all this depressing stuff, of how the constituent elements of his personality weren't around before he was born, so why should he worry about what happens to them afterward?
Susan changed the topic entirely. ("Hey, isn't Louis Gerstner hopeless?")
Sometimes, in the employee kitchen, when I'm surrounded by the dairy cases full of Bill-supplied free beverages, I have to wonder if maybe Microsoft's corporate zest for recycling aluminum, plastic, and paper is perhaps a sublimation of the staff's hidden desire for immortality. Or maybe this whole Bill thing is actually the subconscious manufacture of God.
After Nintendo I mountain-biked around the Campus, delaying my venture into shipping hell. I saw a cluster of Deadheads looking for magic mushrooms out on the west lawn beside the second-growth forest. Fall is just around the corner.
The trees around Campus are dropping their leaves. It's been strange weather this spring and summer. The newspaper says the trees are confused and they're shedding early this year.
Todd was out on the main lawn training with the Microsoft intramural Frisbee team. I said hello. Everyone looked so young and healthy. I realized that Todd and his early-20s cohorts are the first Microsoft generation - the first group of people who have never known a world without an MS-DOS environment. Time ticks on.
They're also the first generation of Microsoft employees faced with reduced stock options and, for that matter, plateauing stock prices. I guess that makes them mere employees, just like at any other company. Bug Barbecue and I were wondering last week what's going to happen when this new crop of workers reaches its inevitable Seven Year Programmer's Burnout. At the end of it they won't have two million dollars to move to Hilo and start up a bait shop with, the way the Microsoft old-timers did. Not everyone can move into management.
Face it: You're always just a breath away from a job in telemarketing. Everybody I know at the company has an estimated time of departure and they're all within five years. It must have been so weird - living the way my Dad did - thinking your company was going to care for you forever.
A few minutes later I bumped into Karla walking across the west lawn. She walks really quickly and she's so small, like a little kid.
It was so odd for both of us, seeing each other outside the oyster walls and plum carpeting of the office. We stopped and sat on the lawn and talked for a while. We shared a feeling of conspiracy by not being inside helping with the shipping deadline.
I asked her if she was looking for 'shrooms with the Deadheads, but she said she was going nuts in her office, and she just had to be in the wild for a few minutes in the forest beside the Campus. I thought this was such an unusual aspect of her personality, I mean, because she's so mousy and indoorsy looking. It was good to see her and for once to not have her yelling at me to stop being a nuisance. We've worked maybe ten offices apart for half a year, and we've never once really talked to each other.
I showed Karla some birch bark I'd peeled off a tree outside Building Nine and she showed me some scarlet sumac leaves she had found in the forest. I told her about the discussion Marty, Antonella, Harold, and I had been having about dogs and cats over at Nintendo's staff picnic tables. She lay down on the ground and thought about this, so I lay down, too. The sun was hot and good. I could only see the sky and hear her words. She surprised me.
She said that we, as humans, bear the burden of having to be every animal in the world rolled into one.
She said that we really have no identity of our own.
She said, "What is human behavior, except trying to prove that we're not animals?"
She said, "I think we have strayed so far away from our animal origins that we are bent on creating a new, supra-animal identity."
She said, "What are computers but the EveryAnimalMachine?"
I couldn't believe she was talking like this. She was like an episode of Star Trek made flesh. It was as if I was falling into a deep, deep hole as I heard her voice speak to me. But then a bumblebee bumbled above us and it stole our attention the way flying things can.
She said, "Imagine being a bee and living in a great big hive. You would have no idea that tomorrow was going to be any different than today. You could return to that same hive a thousand years later and there would be just the same perception of tomorrow as never being any different. Humans are completely different. We assume tomorrow is another world."
I asked her what she meant, and she said, "I mean that the animals live in another sense of time. They can never have a sense of history because they can never see the difference between today and tomorrow."
I juggled some small rocks I found beside me. She said she didn't know I could juggle and I told her it was something I learned by osmosis in my last product group.
We got up and walked together back to Building Seven. I pushed my bike. We walked over the winding white cement path speckled with crow shit, past the fountains, and through the hemlocks and firs.
Things seem different between us now, as if we've somehow agreed to agree. And God, she's skinny! I think I'm going to bring her snacks to eat tomorrow while she works.
I hope this isn't like feeding a raccoon.
Worked until just past midnight and came back home. Had a shower. Three bowls of Corn Flakes and ESPN. My weekends are no different than my weekdays. One of these days I'm going to vanish up to someplace beautiful like Whidbey Island and just veg for two solid days.
Dad got fired! Didn't we see that one coming a mile away. This whole restructuring business.
Mom phoned around 11:00 a.m. and she spent only ten minutes giving me the news. She had to get back to Dad, who was out on the back patio, in shock, looking out over Silicon Valley. She said we'll have to talk longer tomorrow. I got off the phone and my head was buzzing.
The results came in from the overnight stress tests - the tests we run to try to locate bugs in the code - and there were five breaks. Five! So I had my work cut out for me today. Nine days until shipping.
I telephoned Susan over in Mac Applications. The news about Dad was too important for e-mail, and we had lunch together in the big cafeteria in Building Sixteen that resembles the Food Fair at any half-way decent mall. Today was Mongolian sticky rice day.
Susan was hardly surprised about IBM dumping Dad. She told me that when she was briefly on the OS/2 version 1.0 team, they sent her to the IBM branch in Boca Raton for two weeks. Apparently IBM was asking people from the data entry department whether they wanted to train to be programmers.
"If they hadn't been doing boneheaded shit like that, your dad would still have a job."
I've been thinking: I get way too many pieces of e-mail, about 60 a day. This is a typical number at Microsoft. E-mail is like highways - if you have them, traffic follows.
I'm an e-mail addict. Everybody at Microsoft is an addict. The future of e-mail usage is being pioneered right here. The cool thing with e-mail is that when you send it, there's no possibility of connecting with the person on the other end. It's better than phone answering machines, because with them, the person on the other line might actually pick up the phone and you might have to talk.
Typically, everybody has about a 40 percent immediate cull rate - those pieces of mail you can delete immediately because of a frivolous tag line. What you read of the remaining 60 percent depends on how much of a life you have. The less of a life, the more mail you read.
Abe has developed a "rules-based" software program that anticipates his e-mail preferences and sifts and culls accordingly. I guess that's sort of like Antonella's personal secretary program for cats.
After lunch, I drove down 156th Street to the Uwajima-Ya Japanese supermarket and bought Karla some seaweed and cucumber rolls. They also sell origami paper by the sheet there, so I threw in some cool colored papers as an extra bonus.
When I got back to the office, I knocked on Karla's door and gave her the rolls and the paper. She seemed glad enough to see me (she didn't scowl) and genuinely surprised that I had brought her something.
She asked me to sit in her office. She has a big poster of a MIPS chip blueprint on her wall and some purple and pink flowers in a bud vase, just like Mary Tyler Moore. She said that it was kind of me to bring her a Japanese seaweed roll and everything, but at the moment she was in the middle of a pack of Skittles. Would I like some?
And so we sat and ate Skittles. I told her about my Dad and she just listened. And then she told me that her own father operates a small fruit cannery in Oregon. She said that she learned about coding from canning lines - or rather, she developed a fascination for linear logic processes there - and she actually has a degree in manufacturing processes, not computer programming. And she folded one of those origami birds for me. Her IQ must be about 800.
IQs are one of the weird things about Microsoft - you only find the right-hand side of the bell curve on-Campus. There's nobody who's two-digit. Just one more reason it's such a sci-fi place to work.
Anyway, we started talking more about all of the fiftysomethings being dumped out of the economy by downsizing. No one knows what to do with these people, and it's so sad, because being 50 nowadays isn't like being 50 a hundred years ago when you'd probably be dead.
I told Karla about Bug Barbecue's philosophy: If you can't make yourself worthwhile to society, then that's your problem, not society's. Bug says people are personally responsible for keeping themselves relevant. Somehow, this doesn't seem quite right to me.
Karla speaks with such precision. It's so cool. She said that everyone's worrying about rioting senior citizens is probably premature. She said that it's a characteristic of where we are right now on computer technology's ease-of-use curve that fiftysomethings are a bit slow at accepting technology.
"Our generation has all of the characteristics needed to be in the early-adopter group - time for school and no pesky unlearning to be done. But the barriers for user acceptance should be vanishing soon enough for fiftysomethings."
This made me feel better for Dad.
Michael came by just then to ask about a subroutine and I realized it was time for me to leave. Karla thanked me again for the food, and I was glad I had brought it along.
Caroline from the Word offices in Building Sixteen sent e-mail regarding the word "nerd." She says the word only came into vogue around the late '70s when Happy Days was big on TV - eerily the same time that the PC was being popularized. She said prior to that, there was no everyday application for the word, "and now nerds run the world!"
Abe said something interesting. He said that because everyone's so poor these days, the '90s will be a decade with no architectural legacy or style - everyone's too poor to put up new buildings. He said that code is the architecture of the '90s.
I walked by Michael's office around sundown, just before I left for home for a shower and a snack before coming back to stomp the bugs. He was playing a game on his monitor screen I'd never seen before. I asked him what it was and he told me it was something he had designed himself. It was a game about a beautiful kingdom on the edge of the world that saw time coming to an end.
However, the kingdom had found a way to trick God. It did this by converting its world into code - into bits of light and electricity that would keep pace with time as it raced away from them. And thus the kingdom would live forever, after time had come to an end.
Michael said the citizens of the kingdom were allowed to do this because they had made it to the end of history without ever having had the blood of war spill on their soil. He said it would have been an affront to all good souls who had worked for a better world over the millennia not to engineer a system for preserving finer thoughts after the millennium arrived and all ideologies died and people became animals once more.
"Well," I said after he finished, "how about those Mariners!"
Oh - Abe bought a trampoline. He went to Costco to stock up on Jif, and he ended up buying a trampoline - 14-x-14-foot, 196 square feet of bouncy aerobic fun. Since when do grocery stores sell trampolines? What a screwy decade. I guess that's what it's like to be a millionaire.
The delivery guys dropped it off and around midnight we set it up in the front yard, over the crop circles, chaining one of the legs to the front railing. Bug Barbecue is already printing up a release he's going to make Abe have all the neighbors with kids sign, absolving Abe of any blame in the event of an accident.
Woke up super early today, after only four hours' sleep, to a watery light outside. High overcast clouds. Through my window I saw a plane fly over the house, headed into SeaTac, and it made me remember when 747s first came out. Boeing had a PR photo of a kid building a house of cards in the lounge up in the bubble. God, I wanted to be that kid. Then I got to wondering, Why am I bothering to get up? What is the essential idea that gets me out of bed and through the day? What is it that gets anybody out of bed? I figure I still want to be that kid building a house of cards in a 747.
I sandpapered the roof of my mouth with three bowls of Cap'n Crunch - had raw gobbets of mouth-beef dangling onto my tongue all day. It hurt like crazy, and it made me talk with a Cindy Brady lisp until late afternoon.
Spent two hours in the morning trapped in a room with the Pol Pots from Marketing. God, they never stop - like we don't have anything better to do eight days before shipping. Even the bug testers. Like, we're supposed to see a box of free Dove bars and say, "Oh - it's okay then - please, please waste my time."
I think everyone hates and dreads Marketing's meetings because of how these meetings alter your personality. At meetings you have to explain what you've accomplished, so naturally you fluff up your work a bit, like pillows on a couch. You end up becoming this perky, gung-ho version of yourself that you know is just revolting. I have noticed that everybody looks down upon the gung-ho type people at Microsoft, but nobody considers themselves gung-ho. They should just see themselves at these meetings, all frat-boy and chipper. Fortunately, gung-ho-ishness seems confined exclusively to marketing meetings. Otherwise I think the Campus is utterly casual.
Oh, and sometimes you get flame meetings. They're fun, too - when everyone flames everyone else.
Today's meeting was about niggly little shipping details and was numbingly dull. And then, near the end, a Motorola pager owned by Kent, one of the Marketing guys, went off on top of the table. It buzzed like a hornet and shimmied and twitched across the table in a dance of death. It was mesmerizing, like watching a tarantula scamper across the table. It killed all conversation dead. Killed it right on the spot.
My smiling-muscles hurt as a result of the meeting. On top of my Cap'n Crunch mouth. A bad mouth day.
I called Mom right after the meeting and Dad answered the phone. I heard Oprah on in the background, and I didn't think that was a good omen. He sounded upbeat, but isn't that a part of the process? Denial? I asked him if he was watching Oprah and he said he had only come into the house for a snack.
Mom came on the phone on the extension, and once Dad was off the line, she confided that he barely slept the night before, and when he did, he made haunted moaning noises. And then this morning he dressed as though headed to the office, and sat watching TV, being eerily chipper, refusing to talk about what his plans were. Then he went out into the garage to work on his model train world.
I learned a new word today: trephination - drilling a hole in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain.
Karla came into my office this morning - a first - just as I was logging onto my e-mail for the morning. She was holding a big cardboard box full of acrylic Windows coffee mugs from the company store in Building Seventeen. "Guess what everyone in the Karla universe is getting for Christmas this year?" she asked cheerfully. "They're on sale." There was a pause. "You want one, Dan?"
I said that I drink too much coffee and colas, and that I'm a colon cancer statistic just waiting to happen. I said I'd love one. She handed it to me and there was a pause as she looked around my office: an NEC MultiSync monitor; a Compaq workhorse monitor; a framed Jazz poster; a "Mac Hugger" bumper sticker on my ceiling and my black-and-white photo shrine to Microsoft VP Steve Ballmer. "The shrine started as a joke," I said, "but it's sort of taking on a life of its own now. It's getting scary. Shall we worship?"
It was then that she asked me, in a lowered tone, "Who's Jed?"
She had seen me keyboard in my password - like HAL from 2001.
And so I closed the door and told her about Jed, and you know, I was glad I was able to tell someone at last.
Mid-afternoon, Bug, Todd, Michael, and I grabbed some road-Snapples in the kitchen and headed over to pick up some manuals at the library, out behind the Administration building. It was more of a fresh-air jaunt than anything else.
It was raining quite heavily, but Bug pulled his usual stunt. He made us all walk through the Campus's forest undergrowth instead of simply taking the pleasant winding path that meanders through the Campus trees - the Microsoft path that speaks of Wookies and Smurfs amid the sal-al, ornamental plums, rhododendrons, Japanese maple, arbutus, huckleberry, hemlock, cedars, and firs.
Bug believes that Bill sits at his window in the Admin Building and watches how staffers walk across the Campus. Bug believes that Bill keeps note of who avoids the paths and uses the fastest routes to get from A to B, and that Bill rewards these devil-may-care trailblazers with promotions and stock, in the belief that their code will be just as innovative and dashing.
We all ended up soaking wet, with Oregon Grape stains on our Dockers by the time we got to the library, and on the way back we read the Riot Act and said that Bug had to stop geeking out and learn to enculturate, and that for his own good he should take the path - and he agreed. But we could see that it was killing Bug - literally killing him - to have to walk along the path past where Bill's office is supposed to be.
Todd toyed with Bug and got him going on the subject of Xerox PARC, thus getting Bug all bitter and foaming. Bug is still in a sort of perpetual grief that Xerox PARC dropped the football on so many projects.
And then Michael, who had been silent up to now, said "Hey - if you cut over this berm, it's a little faster," and he cut off the path, and Bug's eyes just about popped out of his head, and Michael found a not bad shortcut. Right outside the Admin Building.
I realize I haven't seen a movie in six months. I think the last one was Curly Sue on the flight to Macworld Expo, and that hardly counted. I really need a life, bad.
It turns out Abe has entrepreneurial aspirations. We had dinner in the downstairs cafeteria together (Indonesian Bamay with frozen yogurt and double espresso). He's thinking of quitting and becoming a pixilation broker - going around to museums and buying the right to digitize their paintings. It's a very "Rich Microsoft" thing to do. Microsoft's millionaires are the first generation of North American nerd wealth.
Once Microsofters' ships come in, they travel all over: Scotland and Patagonia and Thailand...Conde Nast Traveler-ish places. They buy Shaker furniture, Saabs, koi, Pilchuk glass, native art, and 401Ks to the max. The ultrarichies build fantasy homes on the Samamish Plateau loaded with electronic toys.
It's all low-key spending, mostly, and fresh and fun. Nobody's buying crypts, I notice - though when the time comes that they do, said crypts will no doubt be emerald and purple colored, and lined with Velcro and Gore-Tex.
Abe, like most people here, is a fiscal Republican, but otherwise, pretty empty-file in the ideology department. Vesting turns most people into fiscal Republicans, I've noticed.
The day went quickly. The rain is back again, which is nice. The summer was too hot and too dry for a Washington boy like me.
I am going to bring in some Japanese UFO-brand yaki soba tomorrow and see if Karla is into lunch. She needs carbs. Skittles and aspartame is no diet for a coder.
Well, actually, it is.
A thought: Sometimes the clouds and sunlight will form in a way you've never seen them do before, and your city will feel as if it's another city altogether. On the Campus today at sunset, people were stopping on the grass watching the sun turn stove-filament orange through the rain clouds.
It's just something I noticed. It made me realize that the sun is really built of fire. It made me feel like an animal, not a human.
Worked until 1:30 a.m. When I got in, Abe was down in his microbrewery in the garage, puttering amid the stacks of furniture handed down by parents - stuff too ugly to meet even the minimal taste standards of the upstairs rooms, the piles of golf clubs, the mountain bikes, and a line of suitcases, perched like greyhounds awaiting the word GO!
Bug was locked behind his door, but by the smell I could tell he was eating a microwaved Dinty Moore product.
Susan was in the living room asleep in front of a taped Seinfeld episode.
Todd was obsessively folding his shirts in his room.
Michael was rereading The Chronicles of Narnia for the 87th time.
A nice average night.
I went into my room, which, like all six of the bedrooms here, is filled up almost completely with a bed, with walls lined with IKEA "Billy" bookshelves and stereo equipment, jazz posters and Sierra Club calendars. On my desk sits a Sudafed box and a pile of stones from a beach in Oregon. My PC is hooked up by modem to the Campus.
Had a Tab (a Bill favorite) and some microwave popcorn and did some unfinished work.
Well, it would seem that Bug Barbecue's theory might be correct after all. Michael got invited to lunch today with (oh God, I can barely input the letters...) B-B-B-B-B-I-L-L!
The news traveled around Building Seven like lightning just around 11:30. Needless to say, we tumbled into Bug's office like puppies within seconds of getting word, tripping over his piles of soldering guns, wires, R-Kive boxes, and empty CD jewel boxes. Of course, he went mad with grief. We totally needled him:
"You know, Bug, the deciding factor must have been Michael's walking over that berm and making that incredible short cut. I tell you, Bill saw Michael make that call of genius and now I bet he's going to give Michael his own product group. You shouldn't have listened to us, man. We're losers. We're going nowhere. Now, Michael - he's a winner."
Actually, the invitation probably had more to do with the code Michael wrote during the bunkering last Friday, but we didn't tell Bug this.
During the two hours Michael was away, time ticked by slowly. The curiosity was unbearable and we were all giddy and restless. We emerged from our offices into corridors of caged whimsy, amid our Far Side cartoons taped to windows, Pepsi-can sculptures taped to the walls, and inflatable sharks hanging from the ceiling, all lit by full-spectrum, complexion-flattering lighting.
We lapsed into one of our weekly-ish communal stress-relieving frenzies - we swiped sheets of bubble-pak from the supply rooms and rolled over them with our office chairs, popping hundreds of plastic zits at a go. We punished plastic troll dolls with 5-irons, blasting them down the hallway, putting yet more divots in the particle board walls and the ceiling panels. We drank Tabs and idly slagged interactive CD technology (Todd: "I used the Philips CDI system - it's like trying to read a coffee table book with all of the pages glued together.")
Finally Michael came back and walked past everybody, oblivious to the sensation of his presence, and entered his office. I walked over to his door.
"Hi Michael." Pause. "Soooooo...?"
"Hello, Daniel. I have to fly to Cupertino tonight. Some kind of Macintosh assignment they're putting me on."
"What was, well - he - like?"
"Oh, you know...efficient. People forget that he is medically, biologically, a genius. Not one um or ah from his mouth all lunch; no wasted brain energy. Truly an inspiration for us all. I told him about my Flatlander flat-foods-only concept, and we then got into a discussion of beverages, which, as you know, tend to be consumed with straw in a linear, one-dimensional (and hence not two-dimensional) mode. Beverages are a real problem to my new Flatlander dining lifestyle, Daniel, let me tell you.
"But then Bill. . ." (first name basis!) ". . .pointed out that one-dimensionality is perfectly allowable within a two-dimensional universe. So obvious, yet I hadn't seen it! Good thing he's in charge. Oh - Daniel, can I borrow your suitcase? Mine has all my old Habitrail gerbil mazes in it, and I don't want to take them out and then have to repack them all when I return."
"Thanks." He booted up his computer. "I guess I'd better prepare for the trip. Where did I store that file - you'd think Lucy Ricardo handled my information for me. Well, Daniel - we'll talk later on?" He looked for something underneath a cardboard box containing a '60s Milton Bradley game of Memory.
He then looked up at me, gave me an I want to return to the controllable and nonthreatening world inside my computer stare. You have to respect this, so the rest of the crew and I left him inside his office, clicking away on his board, knowing that Michael, like a young beauty swept out of a small Nebraska town by some Hollywood Daddy-O, was soon to leave our midst for headier airs, never to return.
Mom called. Dad stuff - after not sleeping all night again, he dressed for work and then went into the garage once more to work on his model trains. When she tries to talk about the firing, he gets all jolly and brushes it away, saying the future's just going to be fine. But he has no details. No pictures of what comes next.
Dad called. From his den. He wanted to know what the employment situation was like at Microsoft for someone like him. I couldn't believe it. So now I'm worried about him. He should know better. I guess it's shock.
I told him to relax, to not even try to think about doing anything for at least a few more days until the shock wears off. He acted all hurt, as if I was trying to get rid of him. He wasn't himself. I tried to tell him what Karla had told me, about fiftysomethings now just entering the ease-of-use curve with new technologies, but he wouldn't listen. It ended on a bad note, and this bugged me, but I didn't know one other practical thing I could say.
I went to Uwajima-Ya and bought some UFO yaki soba noodles, the ones that steep in hot water in their own little plastic bowl. Amid all the lunch-with-Bill foofarah, Karla and me managed to eat together. I asked her what her seven Jeopardy! dream categories would be - I told her about everyone else's, and she considered these as she twisted the yaki soba noodles in the little plastic dish, and then she said "they would have to be:"
She then said to me, "Dan, I have a question about identity for you. Here it is: What is the one thing more than any other thing that makes one person different from any other person?"
I got all ready to blurt out an answer but then nothing came out of my mouth.
The question seemed so obvious to start with, but when I thought about it, I realized how difficult it is - and sort of depressing, because there's really not very much that distinguishes anyone from anyone else. I mean, what makes one mallard duck different from any other mallard duck? What makes one grizzly bear different from any other grizzly bear? Identity is so tenuous - based on so little, when you really consider it.
"Their personality?" I lamely replied. "Their, uh, soul?"
"Maybe. I think I'm beginning to believe the soul theory, myself. Last June I went to my ten-year high school reunion. Everyone's body had certainly aged over the decade, but everyone's essence was essentially the same as it had been when we were all in kindergarten. Their spirits were the same, I guess. Dana McCulley was still a phony; Norman Tillich was still a jock; Eileen Kelso was still shockingly naive. Their bodies may have looked different, but they were absolutely the same person underneath. I decided that night that people really do have spirits. It's a silly thing to believe. I mean, silly for a logical person like me."
As reality returned in mid-afternoon, my "boss," Shaw, came in for a hand-holding session. Shaw is a set-for-lifer. If you had to kill off all of the program directors, one by one, he would be the last to go - he has fourteen direct reports (serfs) underneath him.
Shaw really wanted me to have a juicy problem so he could help me deal with it, but the only problem I could think of was how we're never going to make our shipping deadline in seven days, and with Michael gone, that's just more work for all of us. But this problem wasn't juicy enough for him, so he went off in search of a more exotically troubled worker.
Shaw is fortysomething, one of maybe twelve fortysomethings on the Campus. One grudgingly has to respect someone who's fortysomething and still in computers - there's a core techiness there that must be respected. Shaw still remembers the Flintstones era of computers, with punch cards and little birds inside the machines that squawked, "It's a living."
My only problem with Shaw is that he became a manager and stopped coding. Being a manager is all hand-holding and paperwork - not creative at all. Respect is based on how much of a techie you are and how much coding you do. Managers either code or don't code, and it seems there are a lot more noncoding managers these days. Shades of IBM.
Shaw actually gave me an okay review in the semiannual performance review last month, so I have no personal beef against him. And to be honest, this is still not a hierarchical office: The person with the most information pertinent to any decision is the one who makes that decision. But I'm still cannon fodder when the crunch comes.
Shaw is also a Baby Boomer, and he and his ilk are responsible for (let me rant a second) this thing called "The Unitape" - an endless loop of elevator jazz Microsoft plays at absolutely every company function. It's so irritating and it screams a certain, "We're not like our parents, we're flouting convention" blandness. One of these days it's going to turn the entire under-30 component of the company into a mob of deranged postal workers who rampage through the Administration Building with scissors and Bic lighters.
Checked the WinQuote: The stock was down 85 cents over the day. That means Bill lost $70 million today, whereas I only lost fuck all. But guess who'll sleep better?
We slaved until 1:00 a.m. and I gave Karla and Todd rides home, first making a quick run to Safeway for treats. At the cash register, while paying for our Sour Strings and nectarines, we got into the usual nerd discussion over the future of computing.
Karla said, "You can not de-invent the wheel, or radios or, for that matter, computers. Long after we're dead, computers will continue to be developed and sooner or later - it is not a matter of if, but when - an 'Entity' is going to be created that has its own intelligence. Will this occur ten years from now? A thousand years from now? Whenever. The Entity cannot be stopped. It will happen. It cannot be de-invented.
"The critical question is, Will this entity be something other than human? The artificial intelligence community admits it has failed to produce intelligence by trying to duplicate human logic processes. AIers are hoping to create life-mimicking programs that breed with each other, simulating millions of years of evolution by cross-breeding these programs together, ultimately creating intelligence - an Entity. But probably not a human entity modeled on human intelligence."
I said, "Well, Karla, we're only human - we can only know our own minds - how can we possibly know any other type of mind? What else could the Entity be? It will have sprung from our own brains - the initial algorithms, at least. There's nothing else we could be duplicating except the human mind."
Todd said that the Entity is what freaks out his ultrareligious parents. He said they're most frightened of the day when people allow machines to have initiative - the day we allow machines to set their own agendas.
"Oh God, I'm trapped in a 1940s B-movie," said Karla.
Afterward, once I was back in my room by myself, I got to mulling over our discussion. Perhaps the Entity is what people without any visions of an afterworld secretly yearn to build - an intelligence that will supply them with specific details - supply pictures.
Maybe we like to believe that Bill knows what the Entity will be. It makes us feel as though there's a moral force holding the reins of technological progress. Maybe he does know. But then maybe Bill simply provides a focus for the company when no other focus can be found. I mean, if it weren't for the cult of Bill, this place would be deadsville - like a great big office supply company. Which is sort of what it is. I mean, if you really think about it.
Woke up at 8:30 and had breakfast in the cafeteria - no crunchy cereals for the next week, thank you.
Over oatmeal, Bug and me were looking at some of the foreign employees - from France, or something - who were smoking outside in the cold and rain. Only the foreign employees smoke here - and always in sad little groups. Smoking's not allowed inside anywhere. You'd think they'd get the message.
We decided that the French could never write user-friendly software because they're so rude - they'd invent a little icon for a headwaiter that once clicked, made you wait 45 minutes for your file. It's no surprise that user-friendliness is a concept developed on the West Coast. The guy who invented the Smiley face is running for mayor of Seattle - for real. It was in the news.
Mom phoned the minute I entered my office. She visited the garage this morning - a hot, dry Palo Alto morning, with white sunlight screaming in through the cracks around the garage door - and there was Dad again in his blue IBM business suit and tie, standing in the center of his U-shaped, waist-high trainscape with just one dim light shining from the ceiling above, pushing his buttons and making the trains shunt and run and speed through mountains and over bridges.
Mom decided that enough was enough, that Dad really needed somebody to talk with - someone to listen to him. She pulled up one of the old Suzy Wong bamboo cocktail barstools left over from the basement renovation, put aside her usual lack of enthusiasm for his model trains, and talked to Dad about them, like it was show-and-tell time.
"The model train set-up has expanded since you were here last, Danny," she told me. "There's a complete small town now, and the mountains are steeper and he's put more of those little green foam trees on them. It's like Perfectville, the town where everybody's supposed to grow up. There's a church now - and a supermarket and boxcars - he even has little drifters living inside the boxcars. And there's - "
There was a pause.
"And what, Mom?"
Still more silence.
"And - oh, Danny - " This was not easy for her to say.
I said, "And what, Mom?"
"Danny, there is a small white house on the top of the hill overlooking the town - apart from the rest of the landscape. So amid my other questions I asked him, 'Oh, and what's that house there?' and he said to me, without breaking his pace, 'That's where Jed lives.'"
We were both quiet. Mom sighed.
"How about I come down to Palo Alto tomorrow?" I said. "There's nothing pressing here. Lord knows I have enough time owing to me."
More silence. "Could you, honey?"
I said "Yes."
"I think that would be good."
I could hear their fridge humming down in California.
"There's so many consultants on the market right now," Mom said. "People always say that if you get downsized you can become a consultant, but your father is 53, Dan. He's not young and he's never been competitive by nature. I mean, he was at IBM. We really just don't know what is going to happen."
I called a travel agent in Bellevue and VISA'd a ticket to San Jose. I skipped e-mail and tried to focus on the overnight stress tests, but my mind was blanking. Two code breaks overnight - so close to shipping and we're still getting breaks!
I tried roaming the corridors for diversion, but somehow the world was different. Michael was in Cupertino (with my luggage); Abe wasn't in his office - he'd bailed out for the day and gone sailing in Puget Sound with some Richie Rich friends; Bug had gone into a crazy mood since breakfast and had a "Get Lost" Post-it note on his door, and Susan was at home for the day preparing for the Vest Fest. And the one other person I wanted to see, Karla, wasn't in her office.
I was leaning over the rails of the central atrium, looking at the art displays in the cases and the spent nerds flopped out on the couches below, when Shaw walked by. I had to be all hearty and rah-rah and perky about the shipping deadline.
Shaw said that Karla was away with Kent doing a marketing something-or-other, and the thought flashed through my head that I wanted to kill Kent, which was irrational and not like me.
The day then degenerated into a "Thousand Dollar Day." That's what I call the kind of day where, even if you tell all the people you know, "I'll give you a crisp, new thousand-dollar bill if you just give me a phone call and put me out of my misery," even still, nobody phones.
I only received eighteen pieces of e-mail, and most of them were bulk. And the WinQuote only went up and down by pennies. Nobody got rich; nobody got poor.
The rain broke around 3:00 and I walked around the Campus feeling miserable.
I looked at all the cars parked in the lot and got exhausted just thinking about all the energy that must have gone into these people choosing just the right car. And I also noticed something Twilight-Zoney about all the cars on Campus: None of them have bumper stickers, as though everyone is censoring themselves. I guess this indicates a fear of something.
All these little fears: fear of not producing enough; fear of not finding a little white-with-red-printing stock option envelope in the pigeonhole; fear of losing the sensation of actually making something any more; fear about the slow erosion of perks within the company; fear that the growth years will never return again; fear that the bottom line is the only thing that really drives the process; fear of disposability... God, listen to me. What a downer. But sometimes I think it would be so much easier to be jerking espressos in Lynwood, leaving the Tupperware-sealed, Biosphere 2-like atmosphere of Microsoft behind me.
And this got me thinking: I looked around and noticed that if you took all of the living things on the Microsoft Campus, separated them into piles and analyzed the biomass, it would come out to:
Went home early at 5:30 and nobody was there. Susan had two card tables unfolded in the otherwise empty dining room area, awaiting their snacks. Abe had loaned Susan his sacred Dolby THX sound system for the party plus his two Adirondack chairs made from old skis. The place still looked a bit bare.
It was like The Day Without People.
Around dark, things started hopping. Abe returned from sailing and cranked up old Human League tunes, to which he sang along from the shower. Susan returned with bags of food from the caterers that I helped her carry in and set up: pasta puttanesca, Thai noodles, calzones, Chee-Tos, and gherkins. Bug and some of his bitter, nutcase friends arrived with a wide selection of beer, and they were in good moods, sitting around playing peanut gallery to Hard Copy and A Current Affair, being amusing and eating half of Susan's party food while she was dressing.
By 8:00, other guests began arriving, bringing bottles of wine, and by 9:00, the house, which not two hours previously had been a pit of gloom, was brimming with good cheer and U2.
Around 9:30, Susan was talking with her friends, telling them that she'd vested just in the nick of time - "I've been switching from a right-lobe person to a left-lobe person over the past 18 months, and I couldn't have gone on coding much longer. Anyway, I think the era of vesting is coming to a close." The phone in my room rang just then. (We have nine lines into our house. Pacific Bell either loves us or hates us.) I excused myself to answer it.
It was Mom.
Apparently Dad had just flown up to Seattle from Palo Alto on impulse. She'd just gotten in from her library job and had found the note on the door. I asked what time his flight landed and she told me he was arriving at the airport as we spoke.
So I went and sat on the curb outside the house. It was a bit chilly and I was wearing my old basketball varsity coat. Karla walked up the hill from her place, said hello, and sat down beside me, carrying a twelve-pack of beer that seemed enormously large for her small arms. From my body language she knew that everything wasn't okay, and she didn't ask me anything. I simply said, "My Dad's just flown up here - he's come unglued. I think he'll be arriving shortly." We sat and looked at the treetops and heard the wind rustle.
"I heard you were in a marketing discussion all day with Kent," I said to her.
"Yeah. It was unproductive. Pretty numbing. He's a creep."
"You know, I've been going through the whole day wanting to bludgeon him."
"Really?" She said. She looked at me sideways.
"Well now, that's not too logical, is it?"
She then held my hand, and we sat there, together. We drank some of the beer she had brought and we said hello to Mishka the Dog, who cruised by to visit then went for a nap under the trampoline. And we watched the cars that pulled up to the house, one by one, waiting for the one car that would contain my father.
He arrived not too long afterward, in a rental car, piss drunk (not sure how he swung that) looking tired and scared, with big bags under his eyes, and a bit deranged.
He parked with a lurch right across the street from us. We sat and watched as he sucked in a breath and leaned back on the seat, his head slumped forward. He then turned his head toward us and through the open window said, a bit bashfully, "Hi."
He looked back down at his lap.
"Dad, this is Karla," I said, still seated.
He looked at us again. "Hello Karla."
We sat on our opposite sides of the road. Behind us, the house had become a thumping shadowbox of festivity.
Dad didn't look up from his lap, so Karla and I stood up and walked over to him, and as we did, we saw that Dad was clutching something tight in his lap, and as we approached, he clutched it tighter. It seemed as though he was afraid we might take away whatever it was, and as we neared, I realized he was holding Jed's old football helmet, a little boy's helmet, in gold and green, the old school colors.
"Danny," he said to me, not to my face, but into the helmet which he polished with his old man's hands, "I still miss Jeddie. I can't get him out of my mind."
"I miss Jed too, Daddy," I said. "I think about him every day."
He held the helmet tighter to his chest.
"Come on, Daddy - let's get out of the car. Come on into the house. We can talk in there."
"I can't pretend I don't think about him any more. I think it's killing me."
"I feel the same way, too, Daddy. You know what? I feel as if he's alive still, and that he's always walking three steps ahead of me, just like a king."
I opened the door and Karla and I both supported Dad on either side as he clutched the helmet to his chest, and we walked into the house, his appearance generating little interest in the overall crowd. We went into Michael's room, where we placed him on the bed.
He was ranting a bit: "Funny how all those things you thought would never end turned out to be the first to vanish - IBM, the Reagans, Eastern bloc communism. As you get older, the bottom line becomes to survive as best you can."
"We don't know about that yet, Daddy."
I pulled off his shoes, and for some time Karla and I sat beside him on two office chairs. Michael's machines hummed around us and our only light source was a small bedside lamp. We sat and watched Dad filter in and out of consciousness.
He said to me, "You are my treasure, son. You are my first born. When the doctors removed their hands from your mother and lifted you up to the sky, it was as though they removed a trove of pearls and diamonds and rubies all covered in sticky blood."
I said, "Daddy, don't talk like that. Get some rest. You'll find a job. I'll always support you. Don't feel bad. There'll be lots of stuff available. You'll see."
"It's your world now," he said, his breathing deepening, as he turned to stare at the wall that thumped with music and shrieks of party-goers. "It's yours."
And shortly after that, he fell asleep on the bed - on Michael's bed in Michael's room.
And before we left the room, we turned out the light and we took one last
look at the warm black form of my father lying on the bed, lit only by the
constellation of red, yellow, and green LEDs from Michael's sleeping,
* * *Douglas Coupland is the author of Shampoo Planet and Generation X. His book, Life After God, will be published in February by Pocket Books.