On the afternoon of Friday, August 30, 1996, I was sitting outside the Sunnyvale CalTrain station and thinking about calm. I was, I realized, staying calm. I hadn't really thought about it at first, but now it was becoming clear.
When I'd arrived at the train station, I'd called up Piaw to let him know that he should come on over and give me a ride over to his office. Piaw hadn't answered the phone--I'd left a message on his voice mail. I rarely check my voicemail. I don't know how often Piaw does. I could have been in for a long wait. But I was calm. I knew I was calm because I was watching another waiter, and she was not calm at all. She walked around the station building. She walked around the parking lot. She walked into the station building and back out. She walked out to a bus stop and back. Eventually her ride showed up and she was gone.
I was thinking about calm and lack thereof because I was once again going sailing. I was going to spend three days on a boat with seven other people. I figured that if any of those seven people were as twitchy as the person who'd just been taken away, that twitchiness would spread to everyone on the boat, and we would be doomed. If you need to blow off steam on a boat, there's no parking lot to walk around. There's just this boat.
Mind you, I'm not sure if I was really calm or just exhausted. I was lugging my bright orange suitcase. I'd lugged it a mile to work. I'd lugged it onto BART for the ride to SF. I'd lugged it the mile from the BART station to the SF CalTrain station. It was too full, too heavy to carry as a suitcase--I'd worn it as a backpack, as I'd done in Japan. I'd forgotten about how its straps had rubbed my shoulders raw on the Japan trip, but I would be reminded in the shower that night. It was a hot day. Honestly, I don't know if I could have managed to pace back and forth if my temperament had demanded it
I wasn't even on the boat yet, but I'd already learned things from this trip. This was my first time on CalTrain, and it had taken me through places in San Francisco that I'd never seen before. Places with dirt on the ground. A huge lot with lots of old fire trucks in it. A big scrap metal yard, complete with a rusty claw crane mysteriously moving pieces of metal from pile to pile. Further South, I'd seen the cars of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus train--parked in a trainyard within sight of the Cow Palace, no doubt where they were performing. People moved among the cars of the circus train, intent on tasks which I could not fathom. The cars of the train had ID numbers: RBBX 4...., where each "." was a digit. I spent the duration this train ride looking out the window at the communities of the San Francisco peninsula, marvelling at their desolation, subconsciously looking for tumbleweed.
Sunnyvale, judging from its train station, fit right in. I could see wide streets, single-floor homes, a squat mini-mall, dusty trees, cars baking in the sunlight. I got tired of looking at Sunnyvale, and read for a while in American Dreams, a compilation of oral histories on the subject of the American Dream, said interviews conducted by Studs Terkel. Sitting in this desolate spot where so many small companies had risen to fortune, reading the accounts of CEOs justifying their rise to power, I thought I was on the brink of understanding something, but nothing came of it.
Piaw drove up, I stowed my suitcase, and we were soon driving back to Mpath Interactive, Piaw's place of employment. Mpath is the company behind Mplayer, an online service where computer-game players can meet and participate in multi-player games. Piaw was working hard on getting Quake, a popular shoot-em-up, working with the service, and was ready for a vacation. Piaw was going to be skippering the boat. This would be a lot of work and responsibility. For me, skippering a boat would not be a vacation, but I'd long since figured out that Piaw was not wired in the same way I was.
As we entered Cupertino, Piaw pointed out the sites of Apple, JavaSoft, and other companies I'd heard about. Apple's was a glorious edifice, rising from a parking lot, baking in the sun. I thought about the Great Pyramids. I thought about tombs. I thought about some of the troubles Apple had been going through. "Those people should be glad they got laid off," I thought, "Often the slaves were buried in the tomb after the death of Pharaoh." Piaw drove us through a sort of business park area, full of cheap single-floor office buildings. We pulled into a parking lot behind one of those buildings. We had arrived at Mpath.
Inside, Mpath was, surprise surprise, a maze of cubicles with various cool toys scattered about. (Did I mention that it was a little start-up? Well, it was.) The first thing that struck me was that the ceiling was very high--I was used to offices with acoustic tile between me and the real ceiling. Here there was no acoustic tile, and you could see all the way up. Piaw showed me around.
I met Samsyn, who I'd previously only known online. Samsyn's a mighty fine storyteller, and I'd enjoyed his stories of growing up in Oregon--around Corvallis before Corvallis got famous as an HP town. In person, our conversation stumbled. I was tired, I think he was, too. Reasonable for a Friday afternoon.
I saw Danielle Berry wandering around. I thought that I should have come up with a speech, or something clever to say. I knew that Piaw wanted me to show the Junta boardgame to Danielle--perhaps with thoughts of doing something like that on Mplayer? I'd brought Junta. But I hadn't brought anything to say. What do you say to someone who wrote M.U.L.E., one of the coolest games to come down the pike?
You say Hi, awkwardly, and are relieved when Piaw launches into a description of Junta. Piaw suggested that I leave my copy of Junta with Danielle so that she could study it. She asked to see the credits. She was looking for people she knew who could get her a copy, and perhaps some explanations. That's how I learned that Greg Costikyan's name is procounced "Coe-sticky-ann", not "Coast-ick-yan," as I'd been doing all those years. Danielle eventually wandered off. Some fans get tongue-tied in the presence of rock stars; for me it's game designers. Maybe I'm awkward around rock stars, too--I haven't really had a chance to find out yet.
Jessica ambled past. I grinned. Jessica had been on my previous sailing trip. She would be on this one.
Piaw walked me over to meet the Legendary Mike Wolf who would be sailing with us, and is, I hear, a really good Command & Conquer player. He's also a programmer. For all I know, he was in charge of getting C&C working on Mplayer. I was somewhat amused to watch Mike's eyes creeping longingly back to his monitor as Piaw talked to him about something. I recognized a twin soul. I wondered if I should wander off, and try to draw Piaw away with me. I reflected that this was probably either the exact right or exact wrong thing to do. I smiled and nodded as Mike made a few oblique references to the things he needed to get done that evening. Piaw and I eventually wandered off.
Someone walked up and asked about power strips. Someone else, who I would later learn was named Max, chatted for a bit.
Piaw introduced me to a co-op named Carolynne, one of UCB's finest, no doubt hired up while Geoworks was still trying to get its recruiting act together that semester. (I work at/for Geoworks.) Piaw jokingly said that I'd better not try to hire her away from him. "Would I do that?" Or he'd break my kneecaps. "Since you put it that way, I guess I wouldn't do that." I wondered if joking about headhunting was some Silicon Valley thing. Piaw continued to say that I mustn't try to get her home phone number. I wondered if there was more going on here than I realized. I looked at Piaw funny. Carolynne looked at Piaw funny. I decided Piaw must be punchy.
Have I conveyed to you a confusing mass of new faces? And the idea that I was trying to figure out which of these people would be on the boat? A sense of disorientation? Okay. Then you may understand my relief when we entered the game room where QA people were setting up to do some testing on Quake, that popular shoot-em-up that Piaw was working on. I like Quake. I like to play Quake. I like to play multi-player Quake. In Quake, you don't really have to put names to faces. You don't have to be especially glib. You just have to play Quake. And that's exactly what I did for the next few whiles. I played Quake over a 28.8 line, hooked up to some server via a TCP connection. The connection was chunky at times, and the game's response time suffered. Yet, I was told that this was really good for internet Quake. Hmm. I wondered if these people really knew what they were talking about. A lot of them were controlling their game movements via the keyboard instead of the mouse--a common newbie mistake. Or perhaps this was wise. The feedback it takes to control movement via the mouse wasn't always supported by the slowness of the game... but I'm not writing about Quake. It was at this time that I first met Hilary, Jessica's sister, who would be sailing with us. Hil's holding down two jobs right now. She's doing some statistical programming I don't understand for some psychologists out East; she's doing QA testing at Mpath. She'd just moved out to California a couple of weeks before, and this was something to do until she got on her feet. But that was real life. Quake continued to consume my attention.
My fingers were starting to cramp up from too much Quake using an unfamiliar control set-up. I was ready for a break. Piaw, back in the room, said something behind me. Christina was with him. Christina and I have a lot of friends in common, but don't really know one another. I'm told she was in Cal-Animage (a UCB Japanese Animation club), but I rarely saw her there.
That wasn't the only way I knew Christina--not by a long shot. Howie, who I knew from the dorms, had fallen in love with Christina, though she had not (as far as I know) fallen in love with him. Piaw seemed to get along with her pretty well. I never know what to say to Christina. I wasn't sure how I felt about being on a boat with her. Whenever I'm alone with Christina, conversation stumbles. It's like our interests are skew lines in close proximity. They get close, but never touch. I worried about the thought of ending up in some part of a boat with her with nothing to talk about. Then I reconsidered--there would be eight people on a little boat. I doubted that there would be too many times when one would have to worry about there not being enough people around. I'd certainly never end up alone with her on deck at 2am, cut off from the outside world by night and fog.
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