Blue Skies / 3
November 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
But Deep Blue defeated Kasparov in chess with only well crafted algorithms and sheer computational force.
And another computer-guided air war cleansed Yugoslavia of ethnic malice.
And Y2K proved not to be the end of the world but just another reason to upgrade our software and equipment, giving the industry yet another push.
And the Internet grew beyond all expectation, taking the stock market with it. Our doubts had been washed away; what held before no longer seemed to apply. We were entering another shift.
We measured information, its mass and movement, and talked in terms of networking and being connected, even those of who were not. Pervasive was the word we used to describe computing, which we thought synonymous with the future and saw spreading to fill it. All hardware would be hooked together, everyone to the hardware, and with hyperlinks on the Web, anything to everything. With the spreading we believed our lives transformed in ways that were palpable but had not yet been defined. Or perhaps had moved beyond going from one thing to another and touched the substance of transformation itself.
It was left to us to write the software that would bridge the gaps. The industry called us, really screamed, and we poured in. More than ever the Valley was astir with the buzz of coding, which had taken another step towards transcendence, HTML, XML, Java, and Perl, the languages of the Web, platform independent. We coded not just pages for the dotcoms that came and went, but also helped change the structure of computing, making local networks global. And we wrote the programs that allowed sites to probe and query, and store and retrieve what they got and act on that, and once more updated systems to accommodate the advance in processors and transmission hardware, the cabling and cards and routers, to manage the greater traffic and larger files, the huge databases and files of sounds and of graphics still and moving, of the messages now crossing everyone’s path.
Almost as much and overwhelming as all that we were doing, what we had passed through quickly and left behind, languages scarcely born now dead, solutions and technologies that, with the changes and advances, were now beside the point—so much code, so many ideas, all the words to explain them to ourselves and others in our documentation and books and manuals that had not just become out of date and useless, but might soon be unintelligible.
Yet we had accomplished so much and moved so far so fast. The challenges that once taxed us now seemed pat, and it didn’t seem that anything could slow us down. We were on a curve to diminish complexity and size and distance to next to nothing. While we didn’t know what the future would bring, we knew it would bring something and that whatever this was would surpass even what we had before us now. Not only were certain we would be able to engineer what it required, but also, with all the money that had gone from Wall Street to Sand Hill, that our efforts would get funded. The wonder we now felt was that nothing could move us to wonder.
And we had whole bookstores now, devoted entirely to programming and IT. And computer superstores that sold all makes of computer parts and systems and peripherals and software, and deodorant and junk food at the checkout so we didn’t have to lose time making other stops.
And community colleges now offered night courses on how to manage stock options and program in C++ and Java.
And we now kept our eye on the Nasdaq instead of the Dow Jones.
And everyone seemed to have a plan for something, even those of us who weren’t in the trade, and throughout the Valley there was a lightness in the air—an uplifting, a looking up—that didn’t come entirely from the hope for cash.
As for me, I saw the collapse of Summit and loss of employment not as a failure but just another step, the destruction that precedes creation, part of the process. But I was ready for some rest. I was tired but not worn down, just in need of recharging. Also it was time catch up with the family. So I stayed home, and to stay sharp went back to writing games and utilities and odds and ends, but now for web sites, contract work for which the owners were paying big bucks. Better work would be waiting for me when I was ready to jump back in, and, because of my experience with Summix, I had the self-assurance I could do it.
And we were getting connected, more and more of us, consumers to small retailers as well as to the chains; patients to dentists and chiropractors, the HMOs; readers to library catalogs, the Library of Congress; kids and parents to teachers, PTAs, and state boards K-12; uninformed voters to newspapers and political campaigns and government agencies, local, state, and national; the unemployed to work throughout the US, and beyond.
And it no longer mattered who we were or where we were, independent parties or less known authors or independent presses or grass root movements or self-help gurus or consumer advocates or priests and pastors and rabbis, because there wasn’t anywhere anyone couldn’t find space on a server or where whoever followed them could not be reached.
And we extended the links further out, coordinating our mailing lists and research and inventories and suppliers overseas to match supply to demand, to target buyers and undecideds and unbelievers so we could better persuade them to accept our products and promises and views, or just tell them what they needed to buy or believe or know, or could adjust ourselves and tailor what we offered to better fit their needs, or simply give them what they wanted, and do all this in time that was almost real.
And meshed them further in so we could quickly spread the word to get all of us in the office or church or party on the same page, or pass it down from the top to keep us all in line. Or we could form our own groups within the group and bypass the chain of command and those around us.
Or we could cut loose from the group entirely and form our own companies, parties, and sects, and host them on the Web.
And there were sites to link sites across, with search engines that scoured the Web to feed them, that gave access to the sites that had what we needed to buy and believe and know. And sites to link them up and down, that gave market quotes and analysis and the home pages of investment houses and of the firms whose stocks we bought and sold, or that checked prices against all sellers of a book, or that gave reality checks to campaign speeches and consolidated research on global warming and offered us different slants on events with articles from papers in Albuquerque, New York, London, and Beijing.
And if we weren’t satisfied with what we found in those we could still break free and start our own sites, and build them across or up and down, or slice them anyway we wanted—
But now our pitcher, the coach’s son, raises both hands, glove and ball, to his chest. Runners scratch leads, the batter digs in and coils, our fielders, on their toes, do the stutter dance, that fine, back-and-forth movement—all tuning themselves to probabilities and means and meanings, to the odds of where the ball will go, and to their ability, what they can do with it from there, and to what they are supposed to do according to techniques and the definitions of their positions and set plays, to these and to ways they might break free of them in improvisation with sudden charges or dashes back or dives left or right or upward thrusts, the field a lattice charged with plays, tense with possibilities not yet discharged, conclusions not yet concluded, playing themselves out and back into themselves and out with trajectories and connections and flying leaps, now.
And now he takes his arm straight back, exactly the simplistic way they are taught in Little League handbooks, but the way he does it strikes an Attic pose. I doubt he is even thinking about the score.
Or this may be all there is, or all that matters, just to reach this level, this tone of alertness and control, and try to maintain it. Results, either way, are side issues.
Now he pushes off the mound and lets go.
Now the ball comes to the plate, sinking below the batter’s knees.
Now the batter swings and tops it—another grounder to short, who scoops it cleanly and trots across second for the final out.
Now, once again, the mound and field are clear.
Bottom of the fifth coming up, and Allen will appear at the plate.
I have no idea where faith comes from or on what it should be based.
I also can’t figure out what Allen has gotten from me.
What I most can’t decide is if Allen has a problem, and if he does, what it is.
He’s a sweet kid, much more considerate than I ever was, though I fear that much of his kindness comes from timidity and dependence. While he can make my heart stop when he jumps from curbs on his skateboard and his bike, he often seems at a loss, waiting for a word from me, though seldom takes it. He has shown flashes of talent, with his head and with his arms and legs, but they disperse before they turn into anything. And he seems more anxious, yet isn’t fazed by the things that once haunted me, late at night. I don’t even know if he is happier than I was, or less.
Baseball was his idea. I’m not sure where he got it.
His teachers praise him for his spirit, but then say he’s easily distracted. One referred us to the school psychologist, who dropped the hint of ADHD, raising the specter of Ritalin. There have also been chest complaints, nagging though not serious, but that his pediatrician says may be pre-asthmatic and may or may not go away. He prescribed Abuterol nonetheless, still sitting on the shelf. I think he was just covering his bases, like that teacher and the shrink. Lots of kids wheeze and fidget, and while there is a lot of stuff floating around—pollen, exhaust, other junk, and a host of mental irritants—there is also the desire to pin down precise conditions, the need to make specific, powerful, and expensive drugs to treat them. Marilyn and I have done our best to avoid the hard names and strong cures because we know with them come side effects and stigmas. He seems healthy enough to us, and his agitation may just be energy waiting to land.
Because Marilyn and I are not self-absorbed or just as bad self-sacrificing, or even worse trendy. We do what makes sense to us, and when we aren’t sure, try to have the sense to hold off. We neither spoil nor deprive. We don’t do everything for him, nor throw him in the water and tell him to swim. We show, we urge, we nudge, but let him take over from there. We know it is his life he has before him, not ours, and don’t want him to look down from an aerie of ego or view it from beneath a pit of guilt, much less only skim it off the top.
And it isn’t that we haven’t found the time. When he was born Marilyn insisted on taking extended leave, then let her job with Montevista go and gave Allen full time. First things first, she said. If she couldn’t set her priorities at home, how could she set them for a town? Montevista could wait. His first years, flex time at Summit gave me late mornings and I was home for nights. Nor did I shrug the changing, the feeding, the waking up in the middle of the night, the things our fathers thought beneath them—a mistake, because doing these remind you what a kid is and as well as what you’ve put behind, the other side of reason, and help you appreciate the years that follow. Work had taught me that sleep could be condensed and moved around.
My years at Summix were a strain, but I found some slots and Marilyn filled in without complaint. When Summit bottomed up and I took work at home, I could arrange my schedule around him, a better time for me now that he was talking and moving around and I could find things to do we both understood. By then Marilyn was ready to return to the world and was welcomed back at Montevista part-time, later full, so we took shifts so one of us was always with him. And all along we had the devices to stay connected, a monitor in the crib, emails back and forth from work, and cell phones we took everywhere, but we didn’t bypass our presence with him, our touch. All told he got as much attention as I did, maybe more. Now I wonder if he got too much.
Still, there were gaps, and sometimes when I look at him, I wonder who he is.
Then there is the problem of the only child. We were putting off the second until our careers solidified and we felt settled, or this is what we told ourselves, but maybe one was what we really wanted. And at first, there were no kids at the townhouse complex where we lived, then a place where singles, couples started out. We went to daycare as a last resort just to find some other kids, but he took to it immediately and it became a second home. When real estate went berserk, other families settled for townhouses and kids roamed our narrow streets. When we divorced, I moved into a rental at another complex, almost identical, so both homes would look familiar. Allen has made friends at both, though, like their parents, they come and go. But he has always been able to pick up where he leaves off with an adroitness that should serve him well later on.
He runs with the pack and fits in, though with what I’m not sure. I’ve started watching the older kids to get a sense of what he’s approaching now, although it’s hard to get a fix on kids whose response to difficulty is “whatever” and sole way of describing desirable behavior is “normal”—something I usually am not. The little things that once made all the difference to us don’t seem to matter any more. As for the larger, with the ethnic mix at school and the neighborhoods, acceptance is not an ideal but a given. I’m not clear what distinctions they do make, even for the better. At least as to status, who’s on top, they seem to be indifferent, and while they haven’t learned that whatever puts one there may be suspect, perhaps they have been up and down with us enough to realize position is provisional. This is sane.
Like us they dress down, the kids even further, for the same reason, I suppose, a rejection of convention in favor of comfort, though we don’t have that much custom now. Or maybe they see the pretense in our look, as we aren’t always at ease, and our stabs at comfort may be what they reject. They flaunt what they flout with oversize sweatshirts whose sleeves cover hands, and baggy pants that slip at their hips, show undershorts, and trail the ground, dressed in which they walk in a flopping display of loose encumbrance. Also hip-hop, or its latest mutation, whatever style has filtered its way up from rap and inner cities and can be grasped by suburban mood. I hear its thumping bass from Allen’s room, on our placid streets. I don’t know what our kids are reacting against, though, and am not sure they do either, which may be the reason their rebellion, if it is one, lacks passion. Nor are they that relaxed themselves. At any rate, all I see for certain in Allen is the flop and his shorts.
Not against school, which they take seriously, or at least do not question, which has taken on an urgency, beyond assault. Yet in spite of all the money here, state budget woes keep it on the edge. His has ongoing campaigns for music, sports, and art; his teachers ask we donate supplies. The campus itself looks third world, with its crowded classrooms, the stark temporary buildings that hold them and have been around long enough to show decline. Still, as ever, school smells of institution, yet unlike mine is charged with purpose. Education has taken on meanings with capital letters, and he has to compete with the offspring of industry brains here and from around the world, with the sons and daughters of Asia, for many of whom education is the primary track for making it, or for others just a means of survival, or for a few a way into Stanford, their single source of salvation—before all of whom our work ethic pales.
He’s well ahead of where I was in math at his age, to which neither of us see the point. Homework in his other studies is piled on. While his teachers promote hands-on, it’s hard to see the subject past all the procedures he has to follow or divine the sense of the systems that lie behind them. I get headaches trying to sort out all he has to do, all the forms he has to fill out, where he has to keep them or when he has to turn them in. Handouts are scattered everywhere at both his homes. Education meeting the demands of our advanced society, the industry of our Valley, I suppose, or maybe his teachers are just trying to justify all the attention they have received and maybe have gone off course, maybe could use some pills themselves. Yet they are laid-back and committed, and encourage the kids to find themselves, think for themselves, and question what they see. He’s learning now all the things my school prettied up or ignored. And he should develop discipline and mental toughness, as well as have something worth thinking about later on. In spite of the load and the concerns about his attention, Allen fends for himself well enough and should be ready if anything takes hold.
He shows no interest in following in my footsteps, in fact hasn’t given any thought to what he wants to be when he grows up, which doesn’t bother me at all. It is too soon. He has enough before him now, just being a kid, and whatever he does later should come from what he discovers there. Our technology itself means little to him beyond what it does, but he has little skill and no patience with it, aside from the tube and his PS2. His computer is a perpetual mess from all the Web throws at kids—games, chat rooms with other kids from all over, pictures of anything he might desire, the miracles of free offers, big prizes, contact with the stars—and what these hide—freaks, scams, hardcore porn, adware, spyware, incompatibilities, and viruses. His email address belongs to the world and he’s given up trying to read all that it returns. He has several pages of passwords, to what he has no idea because he doesn’t keep track. When he logs on, he just creates another password and new identity, then adds these to the list.
That he might have some control over his machine and the world hasn’t sunk in, no matter how many times I purge and reinstall his system and try to teach him how to protect it and himself. I suppose it’s still too early, but many of his friends have already learned the knack. To him, what he does is what he does; what happens just the way things work, part of some natural chain of things, not to be doubted. His innocence is refreshing, though also a little scary. I’ve since come to wonder, however, if the path of least resistance may not be the best course. At least it leaves rooms for hope.
Besides, technology isn’t everything, it is nothing but a means, and other means exist. But if there is anything out there that he wants to grasp, caress, wield, or stack, or take apart and try to put back together and call his own, I haven’t seen it.
Perhaps what has worked for me won’t work for him because his world is different and will require a different tact. And much changed, I think, those years I was secluded at Summit. Then again, you don’t fully see the world until you look at it through the eyes of a kid, and when I started doing so I wasn’t sure what kind of world it was.
It is frightening all that technology lets in, all that he has seen that we were sheltered from or simply didn’t know about because even our parents we were not told. My concern is not that he can’t distinguish between virtual and real when he stares at the screen—news glitter, flashes of war and disasters, and the glitzy monsters he blithely destroys in his video games, it’s getting harder for all of us to tell the difference—but that he takes both for granted and is not especially wowed by either. Yet he hasn’t lost sight of what is wrong or mean or gross, of how real people—parents, other kids—should be treated. He’s a decent kid. Still I worry about the effects from all this exposure, where the habit of inuring might leave him later.
What I regret more, however, is that we have no place to turn him loose. There are parks and our neighborhoods are safe, but in them kids do not play unless we arrange it. The world outside the complex is unknown to him, and in many ways to us.
His lungs, his spirit—Allen is not alone. He tells me a lot of kids may or may not have similar problems of mind and body that we never knew or even heard of, problems much worse. Other parents talk about them as well, but only to the extent they can be fixed, not what they might represent. It’s hard not to believe that the problems, if they are problems, are ones we have created ourselves by trying so hard to find and fix them. Or maybe the world has changed and the problems are real. Or maybe we weren’t that OK as kids. Maybe we just covered problems up back then and suffered without knowing it, and now have simply taken off the lid.
I like to think that I am calm and reasonably well adjusted, but what I most do is worry. I worry that I haven’t done all that I need to do, I worry that I have done too much. Most, I worry because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I am part of the problem, because I worry too much when everything is fine, the way it is supposed to be, or at least is as well as it’s ever been.
But all told, we have adapted, and Allen has more in place than I ever had. Maybe our only shortcoming is that we haven’t given him enough to react against or been the kind of parents he could hate, at least provisionally, so he can find himself. Yet we have offered him what most counts, the freedom to be whatever, whoever he wants to be, and provided the tools to achieve this. Yet I as stare at him in the dugout, at his face, full like his mother’s, an open, soft circle that approaches serenity but also deflects and hides and could just as easily be a rounding out of fear, I doubt he is thinking about his appearance at the plate, much less anything that might happen after.
He has my heart, all of it, but I feel from here on out I will only be watching him from the sidelines. I don’t know what to expect from a ten-year old, if anything is to be expected. I realize don’t know much about Allen. I don’t know much about kids at all. I do know, however, what will happen if nothing takes, that he will be a lamb for slaughter.
The catcher’s mitt has been smacking loud and hard during warm-up, a slow, deliberate pounding, like a howitzer sending shells into the night.
It is what Allen will have to face.
New pitcher for the Dodgers, who seems to have taken inspiration from Shiva’s performance as well, but translated his mystery into unequivocal power, ominous and final. He’s a heavy kid, but whose fat covers strength and he puts his weight behind the ball. Yet he has a friendly, open face that only says all he’s doing is giving it all he’s got, and he does so without malice or preconception. His face, along with the bowl of sandy hair on top, makes me want to think he might be a descendent of farmers in Iowa or, more likely, the Sacramento Valley, though I don’t know anything about those parts nor am sure what remains to be known. Still, there is something decidedly all-American about him, forceful but unassuming, which reassures in one way but disturbs in another.
Now he is done, and now he waits. He slugs his glove and blows a puff that shakes the loose flesh of his body.
Our first batter leaves the dugout and walks to the plate blinking, as if he’s been out of the light for some time. We cheer him on, but only as polite parents who curb their expectation. It’s late in the game, we’re down in the order, and it’s time for the subs to hit.
He’s a tall, gangly kid who makes you want to say lank. His face shows defiance but lacks conviction, and his practice swings have the action of some spindly machine from the past. There is something decidedly all-American in him as well, as he shows traits that plant him somewhere between our shores and, before that, to something indeterminately Irish and/or Scotch and/or northern European. Instead of being unassuming, however, he is merely awkward.
It isn’t the kind of thing we think about much, being American, not because of the adjustments we’ve made to accommodate all the recent immigrants with whom we work and live, but because of what those of us who grew up here left behind ourselves, what we have before us now. Yet the scene—a baseball field cleared in our midst, kids and parents gathered in common diversion, the atypical prototypes, Bear and Stretch squaring off—is inescapably American, whatever that is. It almost suggests a Norman Rockwell illustration, one that pushes no large meanings and says all it has to say with graceless charm, except that these kids are dead serious and show real nerves, and such sentiment, no matter how many concessions we make for our kids, is not one we can allow for them, or ourselves, as I’m sure we couldn’t back Rockwell’s time, either.
“Heave it, Harry!” A poet in the Dodger stands.
And he does, and it’s a hard pitch down the middle, one that you can hear.
But Stretch uncoils with a surprisingly fluid swing, extends his arms, and follows all the way through, sending the ball over the center field fence with just a quick crack.
Loud cheers from our stands, openhearted and unqualified, which continue while Stretch circles the bases, biting down a grin, and they don’t stop after he disappears into the dugout. 4-2, but it’s not just that the odds have changed and the game might be in reach, that he may have gotten something started. A spell has been broken elsewhere, possibilities have been freed, the unexpected become seemingly natural, all because of a bit of luck and a principle of simple mechanics.
But we subdue ourselves for the next sub and modulate our shouts into gentleness to encourage him, a small kid, smaller and younger than Allen, who looks like he is thinking backward as he moves forward to the plate. His uniform doesn’t fit, the batting helmet wobbles on his head, and his arms are too short and thin to work any leverage. His matchup with this pitcher even biblically seems too uneven. The field, the game itself look much too big for him, and the way he props the bat on his shoulder and meekly peers towards the mound suggests he isn’t going to swing.
And he doesn’t at the first pitch, still hard and fast, but a little high.
“Good eye! Good eye!”
Which, I’ve heard, is bad advice for kids in Little League who need to get the bat off their shoulder.
The next pitch comes to the same spot and again he just watches.
To the third, higher, he does give a feeble swing, but bat down and nowhere near the ball.
The fourth bounces in the dirt.
The pitcher steps off the rubber, and huffs and shakes, his face a mass of bulky consternation. Maybe he has given some thought to easing up on the kid but is struggling because hard and fast is all he knows, though I doubt it. The homerun has rattled him and he can’t find the kid’s narrow zone.
The third-base coach signals to the batter.
The pitcher slugs his glove again and sets.
The kid backs further off the plate.
“You can do it!”
Norman Vincent appears once more, but what the dad probably wants the kid to do is take and get a walk, which has to be the meaning of the sign from the third-base coach. And he does take, standing straight up with bat limp as the ball races at the level of his eyes. Then he tosses his bat and scoots to first.
Mixed, complex cheers of compromise, because we have praised a kid for doing nothing and are torn in three directions, what we want for our kids, for the team, and for ourselves, here, now, elsewhere, later, noise that does not resolve itself though tones back down to politeness when Allen emerges from the dugout—our last sub.
He walks to the plate slowly, but without hesitation, his face as ever quietly inscrutable, or impossibly withdrawn. Outside the box he takes a few slow, uneven cuts, but they are the swings of loosening up, not what he intends to use when he steps in. I do wonder why he’s batting after the other kid, but I trust the coach’s judgment and can’t decide myself if I wouldn’t prefer to put him back to ease the pressure. Still, batting last is batting last.
The pitcher takes a moment to reload his composure, then slugs his glove three times, breaths deep, and draws inside himself for all he’s got. If he was going easy before, he won’t now.
Allen digs in just off the plate, on his toes, leaning forward, unafraid, not nervous, focused and attuned, all there—yet somehow not. Or maybe he is so full of nerves and fear that they can’t get out but push against his deceptive smooth.
I try myself to search for something within that I might send him through the air to help. I doubt, however, anything can break the circle that contains him. And all I find inside myself is the welter where desire runs into love, where everything is selfish but it is impossible to be selfless, where nothing—pushing, pulling, backing off, or wanting, not wanting, or caring, not caring—can be tempered or put together and any word is the wrong one. Still I have to do something.
“You can do it!” I shout.
The pitcher lets go what he’s got, his hardest pitch yet, high, marginally hittable—
And Allen swings—
A beautiful swing—
His swing has always looked good, but never like this and I don’t know where he got it, a stroke that is lightning fast yet isn’t rushed, where everything is used and nothing is wasted or odd or off, and his head is down, still and silent, above a flexing coordination of hands and arms and body and legs and feet powering into full extension and a complete release that traces an even, sweeping curve that lingers after he follows through and catches his balance at the top—
But he swings several inches below the ball.
Ah-h-hs from parents, genuinely impressed, but also a few sighs. Also some groans from the kids in the dugout. What’s a kid his size doing, swinging for the fence when he should only try to make contact, or, since the pitcher’s struggling, just work the count?
The next pitch is just as hard but higher, and the beauty to his swing here is how perfectly it matches the first, but again has the same result.
Oh-h-hs from the parents, disappointment that inadvertently escapes. Louder groans from the dugout, intended, which the head coach stares down. Allen, however, doesn’t seem to notice.
There is nothing hidden about the sign from the third-base coach. He repeatedly shows Allen short swings and Allen nods, but his blank look suggests the message isn’t getting through. Sternness yields to exasperation as the coach keeps repeating the swing, more to force his point than to make it clear. But then the head coach steps out of the opening to the dugout, calls time, and beckons Allen to come over.
He kneels so he can look Allen eye to eye and puts a hand on his shoulder. He’s probably giving Allen the same message, but does so calmly, with an earnest look that has a kind smile behind it, and I want to believe that while he’s telling Allen to protect, he’s trying to protect Allen at the same time.
Because we have someone who we can trust.
I don’t think Allen heard a word. He does, however, seem to be cycling something as he returns to the plate.
The third pitch, ever hard, but still higher, gets the same swing, exactly like the first and second, but the third repetition turns beauty into ugliness.
Polite parent cheers again, but this time mixed in other ways. Allen doesn’t show anything as he returns to the dugout, where he sits by himself because the other kids have cleared a space.
Now a chorus of cheers, voices of one mind, welcoming the regulars, as top of the order, the third-base coach’s son comes out, who is stopped and has a long talk with his father. Only one out, not much lost, and everything to hope for. I can only think about getting this one over, however, and what I will say to him tonight.
But the pitcher finds the plate and top of the order pops up after five pitches, and what I sense happening but can’t quite see but have seen too often becomes clearer when the next batter works the count but hits a feeble grounder, easily thrown to first, and Allen gets stares from the other kids, which he ignores, or silently endures.
That the little kid just stood there is beside the point. That the last two batters didn’t do anything is beside the point as well. That Allen might be responsible for getting the pitcher on track is relevant but still beside the point. Allen will get blamed no matter what because he was first, because he is unknown, because he called attention to himself. It will take him a long time to work this one off, if he can. Even his coaches, adults who can take the long view, will eventually have to concede what happened here will keep happening, let Allen go, and move on.
As for myself, that he won’t have a chance to redeem himself today doesn’t matter so much, or even that getting a hit the next game will be harder, as what comes later. But still not that, but what I think he’s doing, and it isn’t that he tried to miss the ball but that hitting it was not in his plan. Whether it happens consciously or unconsciously is a moot point. Not that he is embracing failure, but because of what he is creating and giving a gorgeous sheen, a wholeness, roundly complete, from which there may be no escape.
Parents stand and applaud nonetheless, mustering hope for the last inning.
My heart is in my stomach.
Of course there was the divorce.
It was Marilyn who, winter some three years ago, without warning, urged we see a counselor, at the time to save the marriage. What needed saving, I asked. We had survived perhaps the hardest years and, I thought, were closer for the effort. She didn’t disagree. When I asked her what was wrong, she said there wasn’t anything wrong, it was what we had become. When I asked her what we had become, she said that was why we needed to see a counselor.
I balked at first. Though therapy is now part of our routine, I had never gone before not because I was afraid of what might be raised from the depths or that I thought I was beyond improvement, but because I doubted a therapist had kept up with what we barely kept up with ourselves—our work, our lives, their pace, how one played off the other. He would only stir up what I thought I had managed as well as it could have been managed and raise the obvious problems, what lay outside me and was beyond my control but which I felt I kept at bay. Or maybe I was afraid of what was down there in the bowels of my mind, but I couldn’t believe he would know any more about what all the brilliant, tortured minds in the history of our culture had yet been able to figure out. I was content in my ignorance that I was satisfied with my life.
As for the marriage, we had made compromises, but only those that couldn’t be avoided. The sessions would just replace one set for another and in the process open wounds. But I trusted Marilyn, more centered, more sure of herself, and respected her sense, her sensitivity, her ability to articulate the less obvious. Even when she made mistakes she could unearth insights. And if nothing else, it was one of those times where I had to show my trust in her and go along.
My apprehensions lifted, however, when I found that our counselor, a woman, not tortured but genial, didn’t make us dredge up faults and couch them in odd, nasty terms, but simply encouraged us to talk. Therapy had changed with the times. The air had cleared, our cultural plumbing been flushed out; centuries of demons, formless and distinct, vanished. We were given a clean, unthreatening slate to start afresh wherever we had to start.
Also a process to guide where we went from there. While I thought we were good at this, talking, the sessions provided procedures and a formal setting. She put two mats on the floor for each of us, one from which we were to speak, the other, to listen. On the speaking mat, a circle marked off in separate sections to stand and express our thoughts, our feelings, our wants and needs, others to review the evidence of our behavior, past and present, and actions we projected. At the heart of the circle, the issue to address, which the counselor left for us to decide. On the listening mat, areas to ask questions and repeat and acknowledge what the other said. On both mats, a space to review the process itself and see if we were following it, another to take time out.
When we got on mats, Marilyn started screaming.
Not injury, but some emotion that had its pain.
Not injury, but not guilt, because there was no self-reproach.
Not guilt, but not rage but some other kind of passion that had its violence.
Not guilt, not rage, because it didn’t seem to come from anything inside her or was directed anywhere out, but rather was something that filtered through and she gave voice. While I never was the object, at first I withered before its heat. I had never seen her this moved, or heard her so loud. Everything came at once—home, Allen, us, her work. I doubt she planned to say all she said, but once out it kept on coming, maybe catching her by surprise as much as me. I could only stand on the listening mat, but not to listen but try to keep up while our counselor scribbled notes.
Yet it wasn’t as if she had lost control because she moved deftly, in a kind of dance from spot to spot on her mat, stating her thoughts with a conviction that matched the volume of her cries, her feelings with precision and strident delicacy. She was just as definite about what was not wrong, her denials so emphatic that they cut like accusations.
Not me, I wasn’t insensitive, I hadn’t neglected her.
Not my work, not my absorption by the hours, because I wouldn’t be who I was without it, she said, and she was proud of what I had accomplished and was ready to stand behind me, whatever I did next.
Not the ups and downs, not the uncertainty of the industry, not the collapse of Summit, not the transience of the contract work after, because she always wanted to be there for me, hard times as much as soft.
Not money, which anyway then was good enough. Her salary plus the odd work I picked up, which paid very well, keep us in the black. She had enough, she had plenty, she had too much. She didn’t have to drive around town in a Boxster like the others.
Nor had I held her back in her own work with City Planning, in anything, because she knew I was behind her as well. Just as important, I also gave her outs.
Not over Allen, no division about what we wanted or how to raise him. Against my doubts, she showed a faith in him that brought me to tears.
And not cheating, which she mentioned for the counselor’s benefit, not mine. She never questioned me, I never gave her cause to ask. As for her, scarcely the thought, and besides, she added with a firmness that stilled the air, she wasn’t into shell games.
She was so incisive about what the problem was not that I didn’t know what else to conclude other than that the standard issues weren’t relevant in our case, maybe didn’t apply anymore. The closer we tried to move her to what the problem might be, however, the counselor with prompts, I with questions, the further away she went.
A townhouse that wasn’t a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t a neighborhood in a town that wasn’t a town.
A security gate for the townhouse complex that didn’t keep anything out, but through which nothing passed.
A social life that was full and empty.
She couldn’t decide if there were too many people in her life or not enough.
A job in which she was only spinning her wheels.
A valley that was going everywhere and nowhere.
Everything, she said, was full and empty.
And it isn’t that what she said lacked substance, because though the sessions went on for months, she didn’t waste a minute, not even for time-outs to compose herself and regroup. Her denials weren’t left unsupported—what I had done, had done for her, what we had done together—were given long review that would have heartened me if they weren’t so much beside the point. Nor were her assertions left hanging but surrounded by evidence—my friends, our friends, her circle of friends and their endless lunches, what everyone said, how they kept saying the same things, what was left unsaid, what no one seemed to know how to say. How everyone was too busy, how nothing was getting done.
An association for our complex that could only agree on restrictions and bland color schemes for the townhouses and couldn’t look more than a few years ahead to build stronger retaining walls against the hills. How good our schools were, but problems they had I didn’t know, yet how bad they were elsewhere, another reason everyone wanted to live here and our houses cost so much and classes were so crowded and schools had trouble getting teachers and staff because they couldn’t afford the houses. The bonds they had to keep floating to keep the schools going which residents might stop voting for if the economy turned or when their kids grew up—still more off course, yet the more off she went, the more her cries modulated into a purposeful, even burn.
A city that had simply happened, whose open space had been eaten up by housing, whose downtown core was congested by day yet dead at night, its widened boulevards cutting into frontage and only generating more traffic, cars knotting up by all the lights they had to add for cross streets, the corporate high-rises and the clusters of R&D boxes they sprouted bringing ever more traffic as well as pushing rents and forcing out small stores, specialty stores, books and clothes and stationery and music, and cafes and bars and restaurants, and letting the superstores in, not leaving much place to walk and little else to do, buildings whose sterile, reductive architecture, eager to pare down and push ahead had no sense of what it was replacing though there wasn’t that much to replace since paring down and trying to look ahead were what they’d been doing for some time, that only replaced logos with other logos, blank walls with larger blank walls.
There are other cycles we have not tamed, she said.
Substance and also form, or what felt like form, the structures of the ideas she touched, primary uses, secondary uses, mixed uses, and density and diversity and visual order, how these should determine the layout of streets and buildings—she was a disciple of Jane Jacobs, subscribing to a system that housed some ideal yet that was practical and was not fixed or pushed from above but was flexible and came from within, from whatever made people people and where their desires might take them, given the means, the chance, a little vision—these ideas and what their structures contained, or rather what they did not contain since she could only talk about them to the extent that the city fell short of understanding and filling them.
If we can’t get the little things right, she asked, what hope do we have for the large?
Yet since raised, the structures were still structures, containers uncontaining yet which still might hold something worthwhile, because even though she kept going further off I more appreciated who she was, what she knew, was moved by all the things that moved her. In the sessions I could sense another city rising, not of buildings but of spirit, a place where our conflict might be discovered and resolved, where we at least might find ourselves and from there move on.
Ideas, structures—and conditions, states of what fell outside of the ideas but still had to be measured and controlled, conditions and their risks, acceptable and unacceptable, and our tolerances of them, how much they could be pushed. Grungy streets, streets torn up by the cable companies for their cables; smog, noise levels from traffic, sound walls that just bounced the noise around; the two hundred and fifty tons of particulate emissions from the quarries in the hills, the diesel fumes, the noise of trucks that served the quarries, the eyesore of the liquor store where the trucks stopped; the proliferation of wireless service facilities, their obtrusive towers, the increased radio frequency radiation; the difficulty in disposing of old monitors and computers, all the toxic substances that went into their making, where they leaked, in the air, in the ground, in the water, which were left in the Superfund site, acres of land that lay fallow near the city’s center, which had gone to factories outsourced overseas, what they could do to the nervous and reproductive systems, chlorofluorocarbons and glycol ethers and arsine and TCE and TCA.
Everything is connected, she said, but hard to separate and track down.
The taxing of the water supply and power grid; runoff problems from all the development, the chances of mudslides in the hills from winter rain, of an Oakland-sized fire in summer when the hills were dry; the building near, on fault lines, what would happen when the San Andreas slipped again. She tried to discuss trade-offs, health and environmental impact and the cost of maintenance deferred against the need for growth, but stalled—so much that was perhaps marginal, maybe negligible, so much that was not, so much that was uncertain or just not known, no way to calculate the odds or know how together it might all add up or be weighed against what we produced and what it was worth and what we earned, no settled frame of reference.
No time-outs, but also no process checks. If there was a process to what she was doing, I don’t know what it was unless it was exactly the way she did what she did, whatever it was that she was doing. I wondered if her time off from work, while with Allen, might have slowed her down and left her unprepared. Then again it might have given her fresh perspective. And maybe the world had changed that much, that fast.
And maybe process was what Marilyn was trying to escape, because with the ideas and structures and against the conditions, the power and abilities we had to realize, to deal with them, or didn’t, had to be factored in. The city’s general plan was simplistic and naive, its implementation nothing but concessions to development. The people she worked with couldn’t see past procedure. Then again, with the continuing fallout from Prop 13 and the scramble for revenues, concessions and procedure were what kept them going and there wasn’t much time or energy or money left for anything else. Against the plan, the push from the industry to get what it wanted, which it usually did. Not that she was opposed to the industry, which after all defined us and had potential, she just didn’t think we knew what we were doing or even what we wanted. After what I had seen at Summit, I couldn’t disagree. And if she had trouble locating herself and settling on a course, her work hadn’t given her much practice. Still, she hadn’t learned what I had, how bracket problems and build from certainty, which may have been the problem.
I did get impatient, yet I found myself shifting with her—so much she identified that I was unaware of or dimly knew or knew and didn’t think about, so much that I didn’t understand, didn’t know how to understand yet still was there—because my worries over Allen were given specific fears. And she got me looking, inside and out, and left me wondering what else I hadn’t noticed, had taken for granted or simply gotten used to and didn’t question.
Houses divided into apartments for all those pouring in to make a strike; apartment complexes crowded with immigrants, whole families in one and two bedroom apartments, how their rents shot up; the lack of low and middle income housing; the hundred or so homeless who slept under freeway bridges or in the hills or in their cars or who moved from church to church staying in their rotating shelters. The salaries of CEOs, the parties at Larry Ellison’s; the Latinos who gathered early mornings in the parking lot of Home Depot looking for day work, their legality, debates over the legality of their being there, the look on their faces, menacing and expectant.
Because there were larger purposes, which maybe we confused with progress, along with social structures and a simple matter of fairness, which we had left behind. I began to wonder what we had become myself and didn’t have any answers.
But there are several orders of poverty, she said, and she was just as amazed how much those of us who had the money still deprived and abused ourselves.
Workaholics and alcoholics, drug habits I didn’t know about with drugs I thought we had grown out of or new ones whose names I hadn’t heard before. I knew we worked hard, but I thought we had healthy habits. The effects of second, third marriages on kids. Domestic violence in Asian homes, tensions East versus West not exactly ethnic but migrating in that direction. Kids showing signs of stress in the schools and turning up in college with ulcers and depression, an increase is scoliosis. Groups of kids not quite gangs but moving that way as well, some ethnic, some not, a rash of burglaries by one of them in a ranch house spread, the chase of a car thief that ended in his death.
Not urban blight, not suburban sprawl, she said, but some other kind of malaise. Because after all Silicon Valley wasn’t Orange County or South Central, either. She wasn’t sure what it was.
And the more I looked and thought, the more I became disturbed. What I first feared a therapist might stir up instead came from her, questions about what was out there, and what we all might hold inside. No demons appeared, however, rather a widening blur. Yet little of what she said applied to our family. We didn’t have the reactions or show the symptoms others had. Most of what she raised only touched us indirectly, if at all, unless there was something else in the shadows she was struggling to bring out.
Our counselor, however, remained calm start to finish, showing only sympathy and a caring face, sometimes even adding to what Marilyn said. Not that she was passive, because she continued to try to get us back on course, talking about marriage and what made it work, though didn’t say anything we didn’t know or hadn’t tried.
Nor was Marilyn covering up a blind spot or deflecting out from some obsession, any more than she was trying to reduce the world to some narrow conception of herself. I can’t recall her ever standing on the spot on the mat where she was supposed to state her wants and needs. What she was trying to do was see. Because at some point, or maybe all the way through, she did talk about herself, and her self-questioning was intense. But nothing she said amounted to much and still wasn’t relevant. She couldn’t convince us of her faults—or herself—so returned to the matters that pressed.
For the most part, our counselor just let her go. This must be an important part of therapy, just saying things, if for no other reason than to relieve their pressure and get them out of the way—except that it didn’t seem the Marilyn would ever stop.
I can’t decide if Marilyn felt supported in her digression or instead reacted against the therapist’s calm, trying to get her to reflect the gravity of what only she seemed to feel. Only now do I realize that she had nowhere else, least of all work, and not even me, to say all the things that concerned her, that the mats finally gave her a platform and an audience, someone who by training and inclination might understand. I liked our counselor and felt she took an interest, and while I know she had to be clinically distant—not just for us but also for herself, because from all Marilyn said there must have been many others with problems much worse, so she had to do the best she could with the time she had, make the best of what she got and cut her losses, as well as protect herself—it also occurs to me now there’s a chance that there wasn’t much behind her gentle smiles, that she wasn’t that much there for us at all, that we were simply being processed, and this might have been what set Marilyn off.
But what stays with me most from the sessions and redeems all the time spent, and what sets Marilyn apart from all of us, is that I saw she had a kind of vision. Because beyond theories and conditions she added individual perceptions of mood and style that didn’t fit into ideas and couldn’t be measured yet had a place and a design, or could and should have, and beyond perceptions, other bits of pieces of something that should have fit somewhere into some part of the structure she was trying to raise and set against the structure we had where there was so much that didn’t fit.
Monster homes that covered entire lots, privacy complaints from their lowly neighbors; the neighborhood of Eichlers, modern glass houses, the stones thrown by Eichler owners to preserve their Eichler neighborhood; the new housing development that edged a cemetery, the skirmishes over matters of life and death that went back and forth between the two; problems the town had in finding names for parks and public buildings, battles when a name was picked; the demolition of the old train depot, the last landmark of any age; the age of oak trees cut down, the disease that was killing cherry trees; the overpopulation of ducks at Civic Center Park, abandoned cats in our complex; the heavy smell that blew in from Gilroy when garlic was in season, springtime depression, her sense of a spirit of weariness and concession, not seasonal, unspecified; the euphoric fits of the kid next door, the fifty pipe bombs another kid had made to blow up a high school; flight patterns overhead, the ozone layer, space debris, a prehistoric jawbone, Native American, that someone dug up in her back yard, what should be done with it, the chance more bones lay below; the trials of St. Joseph of Cupertino, Joseph the dolt, Joseph the gaper, St. Joseph the flying saint, the patron saint of passengers and pilots, who could be sent into a trance at the sound of a church bell and couldn’t be brought out of it by yelling, beating, or burning by his fellow friars but who rose and floated in the air in ecstasy, faith in whom was brought to us by Spanish explorers on their way to the Port of San Francisco and after whom a creek was named as well as our neighbor, Cupertino, home of Apple, Compaq, Portal, and HP, tales of the exploits of their explorers, of the flights of their saints—
She said more, much more, but it’s impossible to remember everything because I never grasped the structure of what she said. I couldn’t tell what went with what, and any order that I give it now is not the order in which it came. She may simply have gotten lost in all she felt needed to be said, but it’s possible that I was the one who couldn’t trace the thread. It’s also possible there was not a thread to trace. But it is too easy and simply wrong to say that she became uncontained herself, because what remained intact throughout, amid the scatter, was the coherence of her heart. I want to believe, I do believe that there is more to understand about her, because what I saw in her I haven’t seen in anyone else. What this is, however, I’ll never know. It is something else I will have to put aside.
But while we have to respect the things we do not understand, at some point we have make a choice, even if we’re not sure what we are doing. Then and there some decision had to be made. While nothing she said amounted to anything serious, I realized there wasn’t as much going for the town as I had thought. There had to be better places to raise Allen, and whatever was disturbing Marilyn might materialize and get worse if we stayed. I proposed that we move. I could find something else to do.
How? she shouted.
The change would be too hard on me, and on Allen.
Is anything that better, that different anywhere else?
We have all we need here, the resources, the best minds in the world.
As for herself, she had more in her life than she ever thought she’d have.
As for Montevista, she called it home.
What was not brought up in the sessions was passion itself, but here we had a silent understanding. We didn’t need to talk about what can’t be talked about anyway, what gets diminished when you try to look at and explain it, and lost when comparisons are made. I only know we had it, that when we put it aside it came back when we were ready. There was, however, the passion of the sessions, like the other, an abandon, a selfless, senseless fracturing that might have made us whole, the passion of the fervent talk, intense in its indirection, a gorgeous flame that burned for months, bright, clarifying, and pure. I hoped that something would come just from it, this passion, that it would scorch through nonsense and take us past words into light. Because I was moved by this passion, and my love for her grew ever stronger, and had taken turns I wanted to explore. But what braced me wracked her, what it built up in me in her got destroyed. And it was a passion that only existed in the counselor’s office, on the mats, that had seemingly created itself from itself by itself, which had its own momentum and ran its own course—and consumed itself in the process. Though we had no reason to end our marriage, after three months there was nothing left to sustain it. Our love was gone and the only option that made sense was divorce.
Our counselor pulled out a fresh pad, and we stepped our way quickly through the details. We did try separation, but nothing changed and we decided we should get it over as soon as we could before Allen got older and further on in school. The only time lost was the year spent convincing our lawyers to do what we wanted.
I insisted she keep the house, of course, for all the standard reasons. But I also wanted her to be there for the first blooming of the wisteria she planted when we moved in, which she had trained to cover the entire back wall.
We discussed at length how to break the news to Allen. We knew he wouldn’t understand, and he still must hold questions inside he doesn’t know how to ask. Yet he has taken the divorce in stride, as he has everything else, part of the course of things, the way they work. I know I couldn’t have handled it as well. At least he is not alone. Half the parents of his friends are divorced as well.
Really, though, in many ways our lives are not that different. We still work together as smoothly as before. And we talk all the time, though only about Allen.
I have no idea how she is.
I have many times since tried to look at myself and consider what there is about me that might have been a problem but which she would not say. Everything comes to mind, and nothing. In love it is impossible to know what matters, or what side of the ledger to put it on, or how to reach the bottom line. But I had to make a decision and only had one choice, to make the cut and move on. I went through that blackout everyone has, but now feel I am coming out of it and can see possibilities emerging, can think of starting over, am starting to imagine who might take her place—
Winters, the wisteria was a vast mesh of dead vines, but in spring would burst madly into leaves, its vines spreading further, clinging, lacing, reaching. I wondered if its name was related to insanity, but found this was not the case. Still, the word sticks with me and sets a tone, a new term that defines something I am trying to grasp, one formed by a combination of wistfulness and hysteria.
I have nights when I lie not awake but am not dreaming but am conscious without being conscious of anything other than something processing itself endlessly without processing itself into anything, or anything yet, whole and perfect in what it doesn’t process itself into, yet, but I don’t dream but lie charged by how much isn’t there, yet, so much that towers out of sleep and soars into the night and through and past it and am terrified or exhilarated or both or neither—
Our coach’s son is in trouble.
He gave up a bloop hit to the first batter, but struck the second out. Yet the third batter hit a line drive to right center that put men on the corners, then the next worked the count and, after fouling off several pitches, connected hard and drove in a run. One out, men again on first and third, down 5-2, the heart of the Dodger order coming up. What our homerun last inning put within reach last inning has taken another step away and looks to flee.
At least Allen still hasn’t seen anything out in left, a blessing against the odds, given all the right-handers strong enough to pull the ball. He still seems alert, watching, moving with the play, and has remembered to cover third, though done so timidly. The odds, however, are set to break, and here, in this context, and after his strikeout last inning and its reception, a botched chance would only put another latch on the prison of childhood.
But all our attention is on the pitcher, yet as we focus on him we are silent and withdraw, as our encouragement would be out of place. Even his father clamps down on a lip and shows a crack in his reserve, an anxious twist.
It isn’t that he’s lost his stuff, but that it just isn’t working now. Nor has he lost his courage, or his determination, or maybe his incipient faith, but his confidence he brackets and holds in suspension. Because there is nothing to ground it in when his only task now in life is to hold on, and maybe keep the faith, if he has it.