July 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
Bottom of the third, the home team, our team, the Giants, down 4–1 to the Dodgers, for whom we all bear vestiges of symbolic hatred and dread. Our pitcher looked strong in the first; theirs threw hard yet wild, and a walk and wild pitch capped off by a single gave us the first run of the game. In the second they managed to put together a string of weak hits to tie the score, while we reached their pitcher with a screaming double and a fly ball caught against the fence, driving him back to wildness, another wild pitch and walk that put runners on the corners, the Dodgers only getting out of the inning unscathed with a sharply turned double play. But the top of the third, two outs and bases empty, brought a rent in the fabric of baseball, a run against the odds—a checked-swing dribbler that stayed fair down the line, followed by a bad hop on an infield hit and a bad call on a full count—leaving the bases loaded. Our pitcher, rattled, walked the next batter for one run, then gave up a frank line drive that put two more on the board.
So now we’re up to the plate, and what has to be resolved is whether we can strike their pitcher for serious runs then ours settle down and put the small chaos of the second behind him before the game is out of reach. And it’s early in the season, the first meeting between the two, both teams contenders last year, so what is established today may have consequences later as to who comes out on top.
And more, not just this game, but any game, what the game itself might represent, if baseball represents anything, what it means to the players, how it affects their lives on the field and off, where it leaves them later.
And not just them but those of us watching, how it affects us, what it might mean, this game, the next games, any game, the game itself, what it might establish for us here, now, elsewhere, later, what it says about skill and strength and determination and luck, about coming out on top or losing, about strikes and hits and errors and probabilities and long odds and sure things and misses and near misses and close calls and bad calls and bad breaks and bum deals and screaming blows, about how these might be managed or endured.
And still more, not just these but what lies behind and moves them, what that might mean for those of us who watch or play, if it means anything and anything lies behind them.
There is something about sitting in the stands at a baseball game by oneself, late afternoon on a Monday, that moves one to commentary.
The batter, our leadoff man, turns before entering the box to the third-base coach, a dry, solemn man with a long nose on a long face. The coach goes through the signs, touching in order distinct spots on his head and body with that gesturing that is at once priest- and Three Stooge-like. This is the only place I know where both impressions can be correct and such behavior does not draw attention. The batter nods with adult knowing then steps into the box, sets himself, and raises his bat. Then he steps back out and, slump shouldered, stares in childish confusion at the man twice his size who, from the batter’s small but similar nose and the look between them that exceeds the complexities of player coach relations, I suspect is his father. The coach goes through the signs again.
That this is Little League and it’s our kids out there tempers commentary and refracts it a few more different ways.
Allen, my son, however, ten and on this side of a growth spurt, sits in the dugout, so I have to put those thoughts on hold. I can only see the number on his back. No telling what figure is on his face. Little League rules say he gets to play three of the six innings, so he won’t take the field until the fourth, or bat until they work down to the bottom of the order.
The pitcher winds and delivers. The kid shows bunt, which doesn’t take anyone by surprise—they bunt all the time—as the first and third basemen move in with the pitch. But the kid pulls back immediately, probably in a protective reflex, because the ball soars hard over his, the catcher’s and umpire’s heads and piles into the backstop fence. The coach’s plan, I suppose, was to scratch out a hit and get the leadoff on, or maybe spook the pitcher, though it doesn’t look like he needs any help.
The batter steps out, shaken, looking for a sign.
The pitcher, ball in hand in glove, stands with his back foot on the rubber and waits without expression.
Other fathers are arriving now, gathering behind the stands separately and quietly, making the transition from work to their jobs as managers of their sons, going from one kind of reserve into another. I’ve been around long enough to make good guesses about who they are, guys in the middle of the big outfits or higher up in the smaller—this is Montevista, not Woodside, the home of high-tech moguls and football stars—movers but not shakers, like me processors of some sort, engineers of the hard or soft, or promoters or sellers or ministers who thread the mazes of shifting partitions in glass buildings with names that sound technical and dynamic without touching on anything concrete. Two still wear their ID badges, one of them Apple’s, its bearer as friendly and unassuming as the Mac smiling face. Maybe a consultant, who might even have some work, along with those who ply the trades that sustain us. We leave the office only when we can. I still haven’t decided, however, how I fit with them, inside or out.
Today, work was not a problem, so I have been in the stands with the mothers who are vocal and together, nine-to-fivers holding ancillary positions in the industry or fulfilling the complementary tasks in our schools and clinics. Maybe an accountant, maybe a realtor, possibly an actual housewife. It is possible, too, that they may be joined later by an executive of some stripe. But I sit apart on the last row, between both. This is our first year in the majors so I don’t know anyone’s name and can’t yet pair mothers and fathers or put kids with their parents. Even though I have lived in the area twelve years, I seldom see a neighbor at the park or anyone from the years spent in T-ball and the minors. We come from all over, and still move around once here. Probable divorce—we lead the state—makes assembling families harder. As mine must for them, because Marilyn was here last week and neither of us have stayed long for practice.
I do not feel alone, however, because I know there will be some kind of bonding, a belonging stirred by common interest, as the season develops. Besides, this is California, where we’re all supposed to get along, and often do. But really, I don’t sense that anyone knows anyone else that well.
Some concern about Allen. It’s a big jump to the majors and he doesn’t know the other kids either. Nor will he feel accepted until he proves himself. He’s a sweet boy, though sensitive, who can shut down when things don’t fall fast enough into place. Yet he’s brave and eager at the plate, where he takes a full, convincing cut. In the minors he showed a knack for making contact I never had. But he hasn’t batted well at all in practice and so far in five games has only managed a pair of vicious foul tips. Each strikeout, I fear, ratchets his doubts further into the despair he’ll never get a hit.
There are other concerns as well.
The next pitch races well inside, still wild and harder; the kid jumps back. The pitcher takes a moment to reflect while the catcher tracks down the ball. He’s a dark, handsome Indian kid, the pitcher, older, with a slight but compact build, who shows a classic stance on the mound. And he has a classic delivery as well, simple, easy, slow, and strong, that belies his wildness. I can’t tell what he’s doing wrong.
After a measured breath, he sets himself and throws. The ball slams into the boards at the bottom of the backstop with a loud retort that shakes us all. A smile flashes on his face—an unconscious flare of nerves, I’m sure—but the show of teeth casts fear as to what his next pitch will do. Yet the next pitch goes straight down the middle and the batter only stares. And the next follows it, on course, and the kid swings well late. The next is easily too high, but the kid swings anyway, even later, at its ghost.
Scattered cheers from the Dodger parents and coaches, condolence from our mothers. No reaction from the pitcher, who stands impassively as ever on the mound and waits. But there is some kind of delay, as the next batter has not yet come out. In the dugout, the sound of bats being shuffled, along with whimpering protest.
Outfielders stare off or at their feet . . . .
Parents talk about something else . . . .
The pitcher struggles with his stance . . . .
The sense of purpose and momentum escaping . . . .
Coaches on both sides sharply clap their hands in encouragement, maybe, more to keep the game moving. You have the feeling that if they didn’t the game would wind down to a stall.
It doesn’t feel like the real thing, the game our kids play, not because it has been cut down for them, not because of their skill, but because they seem to be removed from what they’re doing, only going through the motions of sequences whose context has been lost, a California suburban substitution. Our teams have trouble getting enough kids to make a full squad. It doesn’t even feel like the game I played in a city park back East, itself a substitution for what was once played in open fields, vacant lots, and urban streets. Still, we’re at the majors now, ten to twelve year-olds, and the older kids have some size and strength, as well as several seasons under the belt. And every now and then what you see here—the double play the Dodgers executed last inning, the third baseman sucking the ball off the bounce into his scooped body and uncoiling with a shot to second, the second baseman taking the ball out the instant it hit his glove and in unbroken motion turning, with a cross-body sling throwing on a line to first where the ball, the play, the inning came to a halt with a final smack, heart stopping and exhilarating, in the first baseman’s outstretched glove—is close enough to the real thing that context may not matter.
Also some of the infielders can work the look as they stand bent around the diamond, the baseball look, the flat look of focused boredom.
Past the fielders, past the fence, our neighborhoods, our expensive, unexceptional homes. Above us, a transparent blue sky that seems to open up into endless possibilities or dissolve endlessly into itself, into nothing. It’s what we’ll see the next six months, except for the days of smog.
The next batter finally makes it to the plate. The cheers come louder, though perhaps with too much method, most from the mothers. This is different from my days, too, that the mothers know the game and it is largely they who do the shouting as well as keep score, debate strategy, question calls, and push the coaches, while the fathers keep their emotions with their counsel. Much, of course, has changed since I played. But I understand this reversal of roles. It’s what we want and probably what our fathers wanted back then, to have someone else take the burden of forcing advice and reassurance to counter our doubts and disappointment. The mothers let us relax and keep our options open.
Besides, we’re not jerks. We have seen enough rabid Little League parents to know better than to ride our kids to inflate our egos. When we come to ballpark the spirit of positive coaching prevails. Our job is not to tear down but build them up. When this is not possible we should keep quiet. And we know there is the larger perspective, that what our sons learn here they will carry into their lives. They need to practice teamwork and learn how to follow procedures so they can work within the structures that contribute to the greater good and maintain the comity that keeps our world intact.
Not that we are saps, either, not that we accept everything our cheerleaders tell us, any more than we really bought the hype that our gizmos would change the world. Processors must focus on the process of processing; we have the logic of our process to guide and stay us. And we full well know the need for provisional loyalty, are masters of the art of shifting allegiance. We know when we look forward we must cover our rears, that there are times it is best not to look. When to give the look of utter confidence when there is nothing behind the mask, or before it. I don’t think we believe anything. There are some pluses here.
Not, however, that we don’t take the game seriously, theirs or ours. And as for our kids, as for ourselves. We have to find reasons to move ourselves, and look forward and see the big picture, process something that might contain our hopes and let them thrive, or at least give them a shot. After all, we have seen things we never expected to see. No telling what lies ahead.
We of course have taken hits and seen how deep layoffs can go. That we’ve made it this far gives us some assurance that the odds are on our side. Even if they’re not, we still keep cool and look forward, leaving our options open. Or know, at any rate, this is the face we should show our sons. And our head coach is a disciplined yet generous man, who spirits genuine respect, our trust—our silence.
But maybe what has most changed is that we have finally learned to cut our kids some slack. They are delicate in ways we have forgotten and can no longer understand. We have to make room for their feelings, even give them a moment to cry on the field. It might be the last chance they get.
The batter goes down on four pitches.
We shuffle a bit in our reserve, mulling over what two strikeouts in a row may or may not mean, while third in the order comes out promptly, walks with ambition and some style, takes stage outside the box, and shows us several impressive homerun swings. Then he steps in and quickly racks up two strikes.
Now the mothers pick it up.
“Hit it with your nose!”
The idea here, I think, is to encourage him to keep his head down and his eyes on the ball. It may just be, however, one of those things parents tell kids that makes no sense to anyone else but still means something to them.
“Trust your hands!”
Actually, I heard this is what T-Long’s mother told him, Terrence Long of the Oakland A’s.
“Have fun out there!”
This is a leftover from T-ball. It sounds like it’s-just-a-game pabulum, but a mother last year explained that it was advice offered to parents in a coaching clinic. There’s psychology behind the words: the thought of fun relieves tension. I doubt it plays well now.
“You can do it!”
The ghost of Norman Vincent Peale, speaking through a hopeful, helpless dad.
Parents, I realize, like our self-help gurus, are idiots. Then again, there isn’t anything you can tell kids creeping up on puberty who don’t know what lies past it. Still, we have to try.
“Spank it bad, Bob!”
A poet in the stands.
It’s unlikely the batter even hears them, however, because he’s wholly absorbed in fighting off pitches left and right. The one he times correctly results in a weak popup the shortstop gently gloves.
The batter throws his bat in disgust. We all look aside. The pitcher walks off the mound not fast, not slow, ever without expression. This kid’s as cool in success as he is in disaster.
His performance draws the admiration of a real thing from two fathers behind me, their talk unqualified by doubts of what it might mean for our team, and they move from the Dodger pitcher to a comparison of Ron Guidry and Sandy Koufax, based on memories of what was once seen on the tube, live or taped. Others have been moved, and there is a stirring among us, an engagement in this game, any game, the game itself, in wins, in losses, in meanings.
But now another of baseball’s perpetual rehearsals as our team takes the field and the pitcher warms up, infielders practice grounders, outfielders toss flies to each other—Allen circling under one, hands raised, with a look I cannot read. Our attention drifts back to the routine of our lives disrupted by this game, which, after all, is just a game, to late suppers and rushed homework and bedtimes missed, to next days that may not start off well. But for the time being we have to stay put and shore ourselves against the chance that this game might run long. Coats go on when we realize the cool coastal air has pushed in and chased the sense of spring. We return to each other, or to ourselves, our lives, our random thoughts . . . .
Driving Allen to school this morning, I heard on the radio that a pregnant mother in Chicago was shot eight times, the fetus grazed twice. She was, the newscaster told us, just standing on the street. Yet somehow she and the baby, delivered, survived. One of those personal interest stories that invites us to see ourselves in the frame of world events, setting the human scale, maybe. More likely one that was so phenomenal that the station had to find it a spot. We hear these, we put them somewhere for retrieval—and soon forget them.
But the story has stayed with me all day for reasons I am unsure of. I can’t by any measure see myself in it, nor think of anything I might take from it. Perhaps it has stuck because I can’t weigh the horror of the event against the grace—or fluke—of incredible odds beaten. One does not cancel out the other; they both exist together in delicate and terrible suspension. There is, however, something darkly exhilarating here: it shows how much we can take.
A drive-by shooting, probably, because the story has roots that are not hard to imagine. Poverty, drugs, crime; inner city rage and desperation—so much that has become a part of the world that we have grown used to. Or we have adopted the violence and projected it on the screen of our own lives, texturing our flat routines with risk, a sense of danger. The newscaster, however, I assume to avoid typecasting, did not mention race, and I didn’t know the location. The shooting could have occurred outside the inner city and in our midst. If so, there are other roots to consider.
I wanted to find the whole story, but when I got home and checked the news services on the Web, the headline was not there. Either the event was not considered significant enough or it had been covered by fresh news. This is the price we pay for the window our technology has opened on the world, that choices have to be made.
The fresh and/or significant news:
In the world, mostly terror. Israel pulls out of two West Bank towns, but only because the cleanup work there is done. A few pictures of what is left. Bush demands total withdrawal; Sharon vows to fight on. Meanwhile Powell, en route to Jerusalem, stops in Morocco to seek Arab help with our terrorist cleanup; G.I.’s are on their way to Yemen and the Philippines to give military advice.
Elsewhere Saddam Hussein, protesting the Israeli action, shuts Iraq’s oil tap off and asks others to join him. Unlikely that they will, but oil prices still spike.
On the home front, mostly business. The accountant who destroyed records pleads guilty, agrees to testify in the federal investigation of the Enron mess. Meanwhile Enron drops 7,000 from its ranks. Layoffs, too, at Levi Strauss. HP to go to trial over irregularities in its takeover bid of Compaq. Reports of another pending merger, or two.
Also court ordered documents reveal that the Boston Archdiocese over a thirty year stretch, stood by one of their priests, a defender of pedophilia and suspect of sexual abuse; the Cleveland Archdiocese drops nine from its ranks for same.
Not much local news, other than talk of another budget deficit in Sacramento—the state didn’t cash in on the splurge and is stuck with a hefty bill to boot after its abortive stab at deregulating electric power.
On the business front, business. Optimists lead the skeptics as to prospects of general recovery. Concerns about high tech, however, after a profit warning from IBM. The Dow still hovers above 10k; the Nasdaq still waffles below two thousand.
Not much news in science. One researcher has found one substance that may stave off cancer, another something else that may cause it. I’ve forgotten what substances and which cancers.
There is more that escapes me now.
What can we conclude about ourselves in the frame of world events?
Enron and its whiz kids, the church and its priests—we put on the face of shock, though if we do, we just weren’t looking, blinded by the ride we’ve taken ourselves the last few years. But we have invested too much in our faith in business and in the business of our faith to give up either now. It is possible, even, that the drive that leads to abuse is the same as that which fuels growth and maybe even faith, but just got out of hand. We can’t shut down completely. So we cut our losses, sever the bad parts, trim our expectations, and keep going. And prepare for more revelations—these can’t be isolated cases.
Terror in the Middle East, elsewhere, everywhere. No surprises here, either, but our shock last September was real because we really weren’t looking. Like drive-by shootings at home and what’s behind them, so much had been put aside—our ignorance of Arabs, our ignoring them, our not knowing what they had fueled among themselves—that had to erupt sooner or later. Now the smell of another war, the rush to defend our ideals, takes sides, and commit ourselves to action—or fight to avoid what will probably be another mess. I don’t know, though, that Bush can be faulted for putting on two faces. As with drugs, as with oil, as with violence here and there, whatever our values or their lack, if we are honest about our abilities we may have to concede that there is only so much we have the power to do, so much beyond our control, so much out of control, that it doesn’t matter where we stand or what we think. Also, if we look closely and still are honest, we may not find it easy to settle on a set of values. What comes from the chemistry of our desires and ideals may do more harm than good.
Yet something has to be done, and the cost of inaction may be greater than that for a false step, so again we assert ourselves, conceding war or even embracing it, acting this time not to isolate parts but to try to contain the whole, the violence of terror, itself the excess, hoping we don’t overreach, that we will know when to stop, and again keep going.
Not much help from the news, whose only motive seems to skim the surface and provide us with an unending stream of fresher news to keep our interests piqued. What’s fresh today will be stale tonight, and staler tomorrow. Then again, it’s possible that the media faithfully represents the world as it is, nothing but change and surface, a rush of random events and disconnected violence. If so, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, other than find a way to keep from being buried under the onslaught of fresh news.
Something else has stayed with me all day, another picture on the Web of the site of the World Trade Center, nearly cleared. As with the mother and baby being shot, another balance that won’t discharge itself—what was once there against what happened and what was left. But like the shooting I don’t know what to make of it nor can see anything past it. I think I just didn’t believe all those tons of debris, all that bent steel and shattered glass and broken concrete and what they covered could ever be removed. Yet the picture has taken me somewhere close to awe by what isn’t there, so much that isn’t there, a hundred twin-towered stories of it, whole and inviolate in not being there, as amazing in itself as any thought of what else might go back up.
“Heads up you guys!”
But the world scales down to a field whose horizon is a 200 foot fence, which seems impossibly distant as Allen stands in left field, waiting, glove and hand on knees. The inning has started and the mothers return to their calculated enthusiasm.
“Throw two more like that!”
Our pitcher looks to have recovered from the last inning, throwing hard and well enough. I can’t decide, though, whether or not I want anything to go Allen’s way. His fielding is shaky and a dropped fly would probably ruin his confidence at the plate.
We all, however, have to start somewhere.
I didn’t know what I could do or even what to think, back in college, the early ’80s. My professors, trying to get with it, seemed to be going the other direction. Outside, Reagan and his ilk, also trying to get with it, had set us back to square one, while politics on the other side were worn and fractured, off the mark, even beside the point. Nothing looked good, or what we were told was good was made worse by jingles and blindness, an overarching belief in our devices. A sign of the times: my school let us take computer science to fulfill the language requirement. But I didn’t see the point in a foreign language. Whatever I needed to work out could be worked out here. Besides, the world spoke English anyway, or at least the English that found its way into programs. And programming might open up possibilities I didn’t see in the other fields. So I studied Pascal in CS 101, the programming language designed to teach programming language, named after that philosopher who believed in the engine of reason and even invented one, a calculating machine, but who stared at our vast, empty space with silent fright.
Learning Pascal was like starting life over from scratch. The machine, I discovered, was an utter fool, numbingly literal, that had to be told what was what, where to put it, and what to do with it, guided step by step with instructions that broke everything down to the smallest part.
To which the machine was utterly indifferent.
Not, of course, that programming was in any larger sense a language. There was no correspondence between the words you punched in and anything in the world outside the program, no touch to the heart, no stir of memories, not even a flash of panic. The only values Pascal recognized were those of numbers; the only truth that of math or Boolean yes/no logic but not any truth beyond them. And while the laws governing the language’s rigid syntax were absolute, the single moral imperative was to write code that was structured, didn’t hog memory, or run slow. Against its narrow strictures, however, demands that grew more intricate and more abstruse as I learned how to lay the forks of decisions, nest conditions inside conditions, make loops to repeat instructions and then put loops within the loops, divide a program into subprograms and invoke them and have them run back into themselves and out. With structure and complexity came the means to shape and manage size, to calculate numbers unimaginably huge or small and build containers that could hold, sort, and retrieve them, but not the power to inform size with meaning or anything that mattered.
Not, again of course, that I expected to find these, some code behind the code or answers to the big questions. A machine is just a machine, and programming just a translation of what we tell it to do. We all knew that, or were supposed to. I didn’t expect to find anything. What I didn’t realize was how much was involved in not anything, how hard it was in just getting the thing to listen. Hours spent late at night in the computer lab working myself into a fitful trance as I wrote useless programs to calculate growth rates of asexual populations with Fibonacci numbers or manage inventories for Universal Widgets, then compiling them into code the machine understood, the ur-language of zeros and ones, and running them only to have errors returned, then rewriting and running them again and still getting errors and then debugging once more, tracing the flow of reason through the branching veins of code and getting lost and more disturbed, feeling as if I were forcing on the world an order, arbitrary and useless, that had nothing to do with the order of the world, as if by trying to impose order I was destroying it—only to wake up the next morning with a clear mind to a transparent day, problems solved, code stretching out before me like lines in a perspective drawing, feeling that I had moved the world—and hadn’t done anything at all.
Days when my head would be astir with the buzz of code, swarming with solutions, but not the problems . . . .
There had to be some virtue in the discipline programming imposed, something worthwhile in its ability to handle size. In its abstractions, a framework; in its detachment, a stance perhaps to see the world afresh. But I don’t know why I stuck with it. Power, maybe, control of what went through all the logic gates, mastery over options, and distance from indecision. A program can not only select the best of bad choices, but also, when there are no good choices, make one randomly without the pain of second thoughts. And the feel of programming is at once visceral and seraphic, touching the machine’s guts and having signs appear on the screen, as if in a vision. And perhaps creation, the making of artifices luminous with self-reference and self reflection.
Or maybe it was just coherence, the ability to make something do what it was supposed to do, and with all the debugging, the chance to make it do it right. With the chance to do something right, the possibility of making something worth passing on.
Or maybe it was only another form of desire. Once I got started, I found it hard to stop.
On to C, a language more flexible and condensed, that spoke more closely to the machine. Also some assembly, the language that spoke even closer and made it run faster, nearly unintelligible to anyone else. Data types and structures, the construction of warehouses of information. Algorithm theory, how to figure out how to figure out a problem and make function march to logic. To the architecture of the machine itself—the clock that set the beat that moved the bits, the processor and buses and drives and RAM, its heart and vessels and memory. To operating systems that controlled the parts and let applications run on top, helping data come in from the keyboard and go out to a monitor, run from fingers to its mouth. A look at applications, how to make them work with a system, how to mask their workings from users so they can do their work.
Praise from my profs for cutting to the chase, their encouragement to go on. From myself still curiosity about what could be done with any of this, the need to pull down an income. So out of theory and into practice, out of college and into a world that, it was claimed, was practical and real.
The real world, I discovered, was a world that had lifted itself into another kind of light, dizzying and bright, even attractive in its own way. We were told that greed was good and big money was being made seemingly out of nothing. The real world was also what I saw where I started out, Detroit, once the heart of our heart, whose downtown had flatlined, where cars and vacant buildings burned and grass grew in the streets. But Marilyn, then the future wife, wanted to stay close to home, and it was there she landed a position with city planning, which at the time seemed like a coup. She majored in urban studies in college, where I met her. Her passion, like mine, unformed yet strong, was whatever moved large numbers of people and kept them together. Detroit gave her the numbers; there had to be something she could do. She read up on the city and thought she was prepared.
I don’t understand the attachment to places. Besides, one place was starting to look like any other. And while nothing held me East and what I wanted was happening West, I followed my heart, then with her. Perhaps I could do something in Detroit as well. The only job I could find, however, was on the outskirts, in the DP shop of a middling insurance company whose suburban office, in its bare walls, faded past color, and suspended ceilings of grayed acoustic tiles, its glass room holding its dated mainframe, made a blank statement of itself, of aging modern times. There I did yeoman labor for yeoman pay and status, largely maintenance on a system that held lives scattered throughout the Rustbelt and settled their misfortunes in precise, mean calculations of dollars and cents. Their system itself read like a chronicle of our recent past, what had happened, what we had done and where it left us, in a tangle made by concessions, compromises, and bad habits.
Written in lumbering COBOL, a language simple but wordy and inflexible, then and for a long time since the mainstay of business systems, it was a package they installed in the 60s that had since turned into a crazy quilt of modifications, patches, and quick fixes made over the last twenty years—spaghetti code. Its reason had been lost in all the changes, and it was impossible to tell what a slight revision in one place might do somewhere else. It was difficult to know even what I was looking at, as the comments in the code that were supposed to explain what it was doing were as hard to decipher as the code itself, both reflecting changing standards and the varying skills and motivation of the programmers who preceded me. The company hadn’t replaced it, nor had plans to do so, because they couldn’t justify the trouble and the cost. My only directive was to keep the system going and not screw up, as a small error could crash whole sections of code and leave departments sitting on their hands.
When the market plummeted that October, the massive dumping sped by routines in trading programs for institutional investors, programs that were supposed to be safeguards and might have made sense on a smaller scale but didn’t when turned loose on the large, it looked as if what we had been waiting for had finally happened, that the rest of the country had finally caught up with Detroit, one real world with the other. It was hard not to believe that the market was only one symptom of something else that couldn’t last long either.
In a time of diminished expectations, the best thing to do is keep your head to the ground, make your best effort, and plow forward. When what you’re doing doesn’t make sense and won’t get you anywhere, still keep your head down, but cut your losses and move on. I didn’t screw up, but I could have stayed there forever and not gone much further or learned anything that might be useful outside the insurance company’s glass box and tangled code. So I found another job with a large law firm that was doing well by riding the wave of bankruptcies and restructuring that swept the land.
Housed in an expensive, stylish office, it was run by aggressive, stylish partners who wanted to be on the cutting edge of anything that cut. Computers in my case, they hired me to get their office up to date and connected, front and back. They provided the bucks; I found the vendors and ordered and installed the parts, putting new PCs on every desk, the latest from Big Blue, loading them with the latest office apps from Redmond, and setting up a network to join them to each other, to a new server running the latest version of Netware, which held their work, their notes and briefs and bills and letters, and passed it around or sent it to the laser printers that gave their product a better face. Data from their old system had to be converted and put into the new, a scanner hooked up to turn printed text—correspondence, court reports, other documents—into files that could be stored, or take pictures of what couldn’t be read by OCR. Backup strategies had to be devised to protect their in and output. I configured security, deciding who got to see what and what they could do with it, to protect them from themselves, which I layered to reflect the structure of the firm, its shifting politics, the battles that kept the junior partners sharp or blunted those on their way out. And I upgraded the databases and the research packages, as well as added specialized programs that calculated taxes and insolvency, managed docket and billing, generated forms and automated filling them out, and even estimated the potential dollar value of a case—banks of contacts and legal info that extended their reach in the world of big money, ready at the go; programs that helped them hit the ground running, and running at high speed.
They treated me like a genius and a pet. Really, it was only tech support, but I put up with the job and their condescension because I got a chance to look at what was then state of the art and learn about networking and PCs, just taking off. With this knowledge, the desire to do something myself that cut. So I’d stay up late at night, logging online to download code and put a finger on the hacker pulse, or poring through manuals and thick books on the languages now filling bookstore shelves. I learned C++, the mutation of C, the language of killer apps, the supposed silver bullet to cure all software woes, whose ruling design was to make software objects, abstract machines self-enclosed, self-contained, and incorruptible, that could be put together with other objects to make a program, monads for a software universe. And I practiced code myself to keep sharp, writing games and utilities and odds and ends for DOS, ever wondering what might be done with all this, what might happen if computers were put in more and better hands.
When the stock market righted itself and took off once again, it did so against all expectation. While the causes were suspect and it didn’t seem that anything had changed other than our ability to process faster what we had been doing all along, still there was a lift, and with the lift came the hope we might find something that would sustain our spirit, or if we didn’t, the possibility we could invent it. Because if expectations can’t be gauged, lift your head, take off, and take a shot. Nor was it hard to talk Marilyn into a change. The only word she got from above was downsize. It was left to her to work the details out. What finally got to her wasn’t the violence in Detroit, though, but the vacuum it rushed to fill. So a year after we got married, we moved to California, the land of startups and starting over.
He stands on the mound, the Dodger pitcher, the Indian kid, warmed and ready, motionless yet poised. No sign on his face of carrying anything from the previous innings, his wildness or the strikes, or of what he has brought to this one. His white stare against his dark look, austere but not self-denying—I don’t know what kind of countenance this is. The temptation is to appeal to genes or culture, but I can’t believe it is something he was born with, yet neither that it is anything that can be learned.
A routine scoreless inning, the top of the fourth, following a course set by one of the laws of baseball, natural and orderly, of balls thrown, balls hit, balls fielded, and three of four runners put out. Nothing went to Allen, so he is back on the bench with his self-esteem, I hope, intact.
Now the pitcher stares down the chute and studies the catcher’s hidden sign.
I don’t think they really need them, signs. The kids don’t have that much control or that many pitches. Getting it near the plate with some force is as much as they can manage, and a curve ball would wreck their tender arms. Practice, I suppose, for later, when signs might make sense.
Now the umpire, a tall man with middle age girth and joints, makes the slow descent to his position, resting one hand on the catcher.
Now our hitter—cleanup, who drove our only run in the first, our head coach’s son, I’m guessing, as he does not look like someone who can easily be rattled or taken in—raises his bat, which shakes high and tight with expectant pulse.
Now the pitcher slowly winds and releases a ball that crosses the center of the plate with unhurried heat.
The batter stares at the spot where the ball passed, as if it has not yet been thrown.
The next pitch follows the other, belt-high again, and gets the same reaction.
The third, well low, hits the edge of the plate and shoots straight up. The trio at the plate, batter-catcher-umpire, crook their necks and watch it rise, then watch it fall.
The fourth pitch races for the batter’s chin who can only jump back.
I don’t think he is trying to psych the batter, or even that he is making adjustments. What it looks like he is doing with the ball is, as they say, just throwing it. The fifth, at any rate, is back on track, and while the batter has to protect he still stares and stands there, not believing.
Silence from both sides of the stands, as if they are not certain what has just happened has, in fact, just happened. The umpire himself takes a moment to signal out. As for the pitcher, he waits for his catcher to return the ball, without the look of belief or disbelief, as if he is beyond them both.
Our next hitter, a hefty kid, approaches the plate with his head down, eyes fixed to the ground, as if shutting out what he has just seen so he can focus on his at bat. When the first pitch comes, still down the middle, no faster, no slower, or higher or lower, he takes the short, compact swing of sluggers that by all rights should have connected and driven the ball hard somewhere, because he looks to have timed the pitch and swung at the right spot. Instead the ball sails by his bat untouched. He digs deep into the box for the next, his face a monument of determination, and swings for all he’s worth at the same spot at the same pitch and for all he’s worth misses.
I don’t know what makes this pitch difficult. It looks like the kind of pitch these kids see all the time and can hit. If anything is odd about its velocity it is that the ball doesn’t come faster than it seems it should. If it has any special movement, this motion is so slight that it is imperceptible. The only thing strange about the location is that it is precisely where any hitter would want it. I don’t even know how to describe this pitch as anything other than what it is, and maybe because it is too much what it is that it catches our hitters off guard. But if this pitch is part of the pitcher’s strategy, he doesn’t show it. Yet if it isn’t, he doesn’t show that either. I doubt, however, he’s thinking about speed or location at all. I can’t think of any way to account for it except that his wildness of the past innings has been contained and channeled into making it exactly what it is, a fastball down the pipe, as if he has found a rational shortcut to vent a mad urge. Or maybe it’s the other way around, that it’s the urge that has reason. Either way, this must be what makes his pitch hard to hit, what’s behind it and not what it is. Yet in spite of the urge, if he has it, or maybe because of it, he stands at the center of what he unleashes, moving with a forceful, graceful rhythm as he sets, kicks, winds, and throws, looking possessed without being possessed by anything and wholly unconsumed by what he’s doing.
The batter shortens his swing almost to a bunt for the third pitch, and just touches the ball without changing its trajectory. It slaps into the catcher’s glove for the second out.
Our third batter, who has seen what happened to the other two, flails desperately at three more pitches, ever still the same, striking out in desperate short order.
I scan the Dodger stands, looking for his father to see his reaction at what his son has done, and find two Indians, neither very similar in build or features. Both crack engineers I would bet, the fruit of Nehru’s efforts to bring technology to India, though most of the talent has come here instead. Or maybe they’re just OK programmers, willing to work for less. In either case, on both the same worn, stolid expression, neither showing closeness to a son, neither looking like he could be easily moved by anything now, perhaps because of what he has seen before, here, or back home. As for the rest of us, there is silence and uneasiness, as if we’ve seen something we weren’t supposed to see, at least not at this level, perhaps at any other, and aren’t sure where it has taken us.
What we have seen is this kid strike out the side with eleven pitches, nine of them straight down the middle, making no more noise than the faintest of clicks. Where we’re left is with an inning and a half to go, still down four to one.
Now he walks off with the rest of his team.
Now, for a moment, the mound and field are clear.