“There comes a time in your life – and if you haven’t felt it yet, trust me, you will – when you have to stop trying to be the person you were, and let yourself become the person you are.”
-me, June 30, 2004
“There comes a time in every man’s life where you have to stop trying to be Nuke and start trying to be Crash.”
-me, repeatedly, for years now
Three years ago, I was at Disneyland with friends. We had been rampaging through Disney California Adventure, a park that didn’t exist until 2001 – and which I’d never visited until 2009. It was a brand new experience, one unencumbered by any past baggage, something entirely new to explore and experience, and in three previous trips, we’d enjoyed it immensely. And after taking it in for the fourth time, there I was, with my wife, sat on a bench with the sun setting, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle over our shoulder, and the sounds of “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” drifting up from the end of Main Street USA.
It was the dream. It was everything I’d hoped my life would be back in 1989. Sure, life wasn’t perfect, but the things that weren’t were on the other side of the bubble. I had my girl. I had friends, both here and waiting back home. I even had some family again. I was good at my job, I didn’t hate it, I was a year removed from going to Europe, the Commodores were in the College World Series, all was basically right with the world. More or less.
We went back a few weeks ago. Aside from an experiment which successfully proved that we have no business on a bus, it was glorious. The parks, the food, just being able to get away from it all and have a few days together in a dream world. It was the kickoff to another emotional roller coaster brought about by sports – Stanford stood between Vanderbilt and another trip to the College World Series, and the Dores brought it off. Then beat Louisville, UC-Irvine, beat Texas (it took two tries and ten innings, but we miracled through) and then beat Virginia in three to clinch the first national championship in baseball ever…and this is a team that started playing in 1886.
Dreams do come true, as Joe Fisher said on the final strike.
What was the dream? Did I really want to be Vice-President? Did I want to be in the Senate? Did I actually want to be teaching political science in some small private liberal-arts school with a great basketball team? Those were things I thought could happen, but not things I really wanted – because I wasn’t seriously thinking that far ahead, ever. Looking back, the dream came down to three things: my girl, my crew, and adventures.
Ten years ago, to the day, I arrived here with my girl in pursuit of an adventure. Left my crew, left my job, left the East Coast, and came out here in search of a fresh start and the ever-nebulous big dream. I wanted to see if I could make it here, partly inspired by the detritus of the dot-com boom and partly because of the need to play in the big leagues. Which – along with a College World Series title – has put me back in mind of Bull Durham quotes like the one above. Or like this one:
“Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once. 21 greatest days of my life. You never handle your own luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”
I honestly thought it could be months before I found a job. I had specifically not thought about what might happen, because I didn’t want to set myself up for expectations. I just wanted to take it as it developed naturally rather than get my hopes up on unrealistic things. (The three things I wanted were a gambling stop in Reno, where I got cleaned out in about 4 minutes, a DirecTV dish, which I got, and a VW Beetle. Which I got, except it took two years and was a Rabbit by then. But I digress.)
Instead, after about three weeks, I was a contractor with a certain fruit company in Cupertino. It was chaos the first few months, and there were a couple of days when I wondered whether my badge was going to work in the morning, and then I was hired on staff. And less than a year after that, there was a sort-of promotion and a job shift. I had an actual office with an actual door, I had a short email address, I had a company AmEx and got sent on show support for ten days. For the only time in my high tech career, there was no friend-of-a-friend, there was no recommendation, there was nothing but my resume and my skills and my own dubious charm. And I made it. Dream accomplished.
Then I got sick.
I probably could have sought some accommodation for the physical infirmity. Maybe doing so would have alleviated the mental health struggles. Not doing so was the second biggest mistake of my entire life. Instead, I panicked, and I ran, because I thought the key to my future was being technical. Maybe that was true and maybe it’s not, but I wound up heading right back into what I’d done before…and have been doing ever since. And lately it’s been hard as hell to shake the thought that I may actually be doing this for years to come, that I’ve maxed out at triple-A, that my brief sojourn in the big leagues was just that.
It might not be the worst thing. As long as I can still make some money, take all the leave I’m offered (the only real perk of the current job), and make an effort to go out on vacation and travel and go down the pub and win trivia and spend time with friends and take my downtime and enjoy life away from work…that wouldn’t be the worst way to kill the next twenty years, would it? Find some way to make work into something I can live with and just enjoy the rest of my life otherwise?
It’s tough. But then, you get told unrealistic things as a kid. I’m not going to be the first man on Mars, because this country doesn’t even have the capability of putting a person in space without help from the Russians anymore. I’m not going to be President, or even Vice-President, because that’s something that only happens for two or three people per decade. Forty-three individuals have been President of the United States, ever (and one of them got counted twice, and another only stuck in the job for a month). I’m not going to cure cancer, because there’s no such thing as monolithic “cancer” and besides, I haven’t made an A in a lab science course since eighth grade. Sure, you might be in the top one-tenth-of-one-percent in the country in terms of IQ, but guess what? That means that 300,000 people are just as smart as you or smarter.
“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
I’ve learned a lot of things in ten years. But if I had to nail it down to just one thing that life in Silicon Valley has taught me, I’d say this: the world is an unpredictable place. Not everything follows the rules, no matter how much you wish they would. Randomness is real and luck is real, and sometimes the luck breaks your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Life is not predictable, fortune is not something you can teach in class and turn into a reproducible process, there is no standard rich and famous contract, and much like college football, there is no god in high tech but Loki.
Just because you give it your best effort and try your damnedest, you’re not guaranteed that everything will always work out in the end. Nothing is promised to you and the future isn’t real until you can put your hand on it. The lead isn’t going to come into the back of shop and help with the laptops, the boss isn’t actually going to set up cross-training opportunities, the Sony rep isn’t going to come through with the free K710, the second interview isn’t going to result in an offer. All you can do is try to bend the curve of probability as best you can, through effort and influence and preparation and whatever else.
And if (when) it doesn’t turn out like you expected? Puke and rally and try again tomorrow. Harold Hill doesn’t every time marry Marion the Librarian, and when the prospect you’re mentoring gets fast-tracked to the big club, you might find yourself cut from the squad. But sometimes, there’s an opening for a manager at Visalia, and you have to rethink what you’re doing and whether it’s isn’t time to take your career in a different direction.
“Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man’s here. We need a live– is it a live rooster? We need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose’s glove. And nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. Is that about right? We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”
It’s called life. Best to just get on with it.