April 1st, 2006

New Look

When I had the fire

Nearly a quarter-century ago, in another time, one hot summer night, I touched the fire.

We had just gotten the first "home computer" in the house and I had just turned a dozen years old, touching the Apple II that my Dad had just dropped $2400 on. It was fascinating, it was enigmatic. It was like touching a whole world that wasn't my own, like David Bowman reaching into the monolith to find other worlds before being utterly transformed beyond his understanding. It was f'ing magic.

Sure, I'd played with mainframes before on thermal-burning portable teletypes and tube terminals hooked to mainframes ever since I was in kindergarten, but all you could do on those was play the ASCII Star Trek, Adventure, or Hobbit games.
Here, you could suddenly play "Little Brick Out" and marvel at the amazing things like Maxwell, Wumpus, and even Oregon Trail. Suddenly you weren't on a teletype any more on a machine far, far away, but talking to the soul of a machine right in front of you. It was magic, and I had the fire.

I would read manuals under the covers with a flashlight, because it was past my beditme and the parents had already turned the lights out. I would read them in 7th grade English class, much to the rage of my Engish teacher, and I would memorize every last detail of every PEEK, POKE and CALL as it was chapter and verse in the Bible. This probably made me the worst sort of geek, but I didn't care. It was all about the fire, and the chances to occasionally touch and understand the machine like Adam reaching up to God in Da Vinci's painting. I was hungry, and I would run off with my Dad's manuals at night and read them voraciously, even though I could only understand some of it. He guarded his books preciously, so I would have to read them overnight and put them back before he would notice. I wrote entire notebooks of notes of wisdom that I could only childfully grasp, but I had the fire.

I called BBS's in 1983, and that only stoked the fire even more. Suddenly a gateway was opened to a world that was nothing short of breathtaking, of ideas and messages that slowly scrolled across at 30 characters per second via my Dad's acoustic modem. He didn't want me using his Zenith Z19 Terminal, since he used it for work, so I would wait until the wee hours of the night, and stealtily sneak in and hand-dial BBS's at 2 AM so I could touch the face of the online world, carefuly turning off the keyboard click so he wouldn't hear. To a 13-year old touching the face of the forbidden online world, it was nothing short of magic.

Later on in life, I graduated high school, and still had the fire. I had set up my own BBS, learned how to program it, and revese-engineered a machine-language modem driver so I could make it work with these new-fangeld 1200 baud modems.

I ran off to Kansas, and still had the fire, even surviving a sucky way-too-theoretical Computer Science program where the professors were more interested in graph theory and mental masturbation than actually touching the soul of a computer. Then I suddenly graduated in 1991, and started working for The Man, and it all went downhill.

What can I say about what happened next... sucky job, even worse job, then network tech driving all around Kansas City fixing networks. I had the fire back for a brief moment when it became my purpose in life to get the certification that meant everything back then-- the Certified Netware Engineer certification, back when that was hot. Once again I stayed up reading manuals until I passed out, and I stayed at work so insanely late working and learning new things that it was easier to pass out under the desk than it was to go home and come back the next day. For various reasons (including being able to buy a house so I could get my dogs) I wanted it bad, and I was then 25 years old, and nothing could stop me. After a few glitches, I smoked the Novell Exams and got my CNE in 1995.

What happened since then has been shameful, and I wish it had happened to someone else. I left the job where I had gotten my CNE, and then had to leave a job at my Alma Mater, then returned to California, a year and a half after the boom started.

I took a job at Network General, wanting desparately to believe, and did great until the acquisition by the evil McAfee Corporation, which destroyed everything I knew and loved about my newfound home. I had a front-row seat to the destruction and mayhem that ensued, and lived through four layoffs, turmoil, and attrition. I had firmly believed until then that the best technology won the day, and suddenly I was confronted with the fact that those in the pinstriped suits and the horn-rimmed glasses would destroy your entire world just to make the numbers look good for a quarter or two. McAfee (then NetAss) self-destructed and cratered, and I could see the writing on the wall. It was like being on a plane going down in flames. Meanwhile, the boom was raging elsewhere in the Valley, and I pretty much missed out on it.

I bailed again, trying to find another company that would take me, and finally found what I thought was safety in the arms of a cool company that did Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software in 1999. It was cool for awhile, but then they got bought and utterly destroyed by the evil Nortel Networks, which, as it turns out, lied to everyone and created the biggest corporate loss in North American (not just America, but Canada and Mexico too) history. I watched my stock options turn from being worth $400k to zero. That was just special.

What have I done since then? Startup, that went to hell in a bucket, after a pay cut. Another startup, another pay cut, that also went to hell in another bucket. Another startup, which I don't know how it's going to go.

My dear God, I'm so burned out that I'm crispy now. I once had the fire, but it's been pretty much extinguished by evil business forces and blown out by the winds of time. I used to hunger for manuals so bad that I would try to read the whole damn thing in the bookstore, and could only afford a few. Now I'm awash in boxes and bookcases of manuals and am too tired to read past Chapter 1. I used to program and learn OS'es for fun until I passed out, now all I want is dinner and a beer before I pass out. I have computers and servers now that I could have never dreamed about or struggled to even understand when I was young, and now they sit, unplugged on the floor because I don't have the time or energy to deal with them.

I may be tired, and old now, but a part of me cries out even then for the energy and possibilities that might have been. I've seen terrible things, and tried to persevere, and gotten crushed, broken, and outright fucked (and not in the fun way either). I'm a shell of the person I used to be. After all the illnesses of 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 I've had to back off on just about everything. The years have not been kind.

I've spent many a Friday night at Fry's, crusing for women and trying to find the fire again. Trying to find that magic spark that makes me excited about technology, makes me pursue it with the hunger that I had 20+ years ago. And I go home (without a date, or even dinner) with a bag of Fry's-upgrade-special crap, passing out on the couch and leaving it in the bag in the living room for the whole weekend because I'm too tired to deal with it. My 12-year old self would have made terrible fun of me now. My 20-year old self would have had all that stutf out of the bag and running an hour after I came home. What happened to the fire I had, and why the hell did I let it get taken away from me? I'm so jaded, so burnt out that all I want to do any more is curl up in my spandex nest and get some respite from the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. I guess it's true, when you get old you become a mockery of what you used to be.

Those of you that know me locally may think I have a lot, but I don't really have a lot of things. I don't have a house, I don't have a love, and I don't have my dogs any more, either. I may not have any of things, but I want the fire back. I want it bad. At the pushing-forty body that I currently inhabit, I may not be even fit to receive it, but dear Gods, I want it back, even if it I can't handle it any more. I want to really learn an OS and a programming language inside out, and while I might never love again, I want to touch the face of the machine again to feel it light up my entire being, like it did when I was young. Can an old and grizzled, burned-out prodigal son have that back? I don't know. But I know it's finally time to try to reach for it again.

Ever since The Great Crash of the 21st Century and all the terrible things that have happened since then, I have run off in trivial pursuits, doing silly things and trying to distract myself from the troubling fact that I lost the fire. I ran around and did tons of racous barbeques, fursuit gigs, cons, road trips, faires, you name it, but in the inside i cuold feel the dying embers of the flame that I desparately wanted to stoke. It is time again. I don't know if this will make me happy, or even that it will get what I am trying to achieve, but I must follow it, and I know now that if I let it completely die out, I can never have it back again.

I'm just so tired. I wish that I could still know then what I know now, but have the energy that I did back in the day. Ten years in Silicon Valley, and all I have to show for it is a pile of accumulated worthless crap and a pile of debt. Where did I go wrong?

Either way, it's time to right it, even though I have pretty much struck out. Wish me luck, everyone.