April 07, 2003

Love Story

Warning: This is an extremely long post with a book excerpt, but it isn't political. I know long posts like this make it hard to find the comments link, but you can always click on the menu of old entries to the left if you like. I got a lot of neat comments over the weekend, for which I am thankful. This will be my only post today, just because it is so long. I may start throttling back to one per day sometimes, just to prolong the time before the inevitable blog burnout.

As I've done before, every once in a while I want to use this forum to mention books and authors I like. One of my all-time favorites is "MicroSerfs" by Douglas Coupland. It's a first-person fictional narrative of a guy who works for MicroSoft (if I remember right) and decides to branch out to try to form his own company. It's Neal-Stephenson-Cryptonomicon-style clever and funny, and a quick read.

There are lots of good plot threads in it, but my favorite is a very brief one about an on-line relationship. This thread is spread out over about 100 pages while other things are going on, but I have excerpted it here below (hence the warning, it's a good 5-10 minute read). It makes me smile still every time I read it.

I'm sure this is some kind of severe copyright violation. Sorry about that. Someone go follow the link and buy the book, and I'm sure all will be forgiven. I won't blockquote it just because it is so long.

Begin quote:

[For reference, the scene opens with a conversation between Daniel, the owner of the company, and one of his nerdy programmers, Michael.]

We arrived and were sitting in the Swift Water Cafe, and Michael ordered a decidedly non-two-dimensional piece of apple pie, flaunting in my face his betrayal of his Flatlander eating code. He seems to be abandoning it of late. It's like an alcoholic going off the wagon. He's changing.

And then, from nowhere, he asked, me, "Daniel, do I seem alive?" I was so taken aback. I think this is the oddest question anybody's ever asked me.

I said, "What a silly question. I mean -- of course you do -- a bit machine-like at times, but..."

He said, "I *am* alive, you know. I may not have a life, but at least I'm alive. I used to wonder, do machines ever feel lonely? You and I talked about machines once, and I never really said everything I had to say. I remember I used to get to *mad* when I read about car factories in Japan where they turned out the lights to allow the robots to work in darkness." He ate his apple pie, asked the waitress for a single-malt scotch, and said, "But I think, yes, I *do* feel lonely. So alone. Yes. Alone."

I said nothing.

"Or I *did*."

Did... "*DID*? Until when?" I asked.

"I'm -- "


"I'm in *love*, Daniel." Oh man, talk about a gossip bomb.

"But that's great, Michael. Congratulations. With who?"

"I don't know."

"What do you *mean* you don't know who."

"Well, I do and I don't. I'm in love with an entity called 'BarCode'. And I don't know who he-slash-she is, how old or anything. But I'm in love with ... *it*. The BarCode entity lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. I *think* it's a student. That's all I know."

"So let me be sure I understand this. You've fallen in love with a person, but you have no idea who the person is."

"Correct. Last night you were all talking about getting bar code tattoos, and you kept saying the word 'bar code' over and over, and I thought I was going to go berserk with love. It was all I could do to contain myself. And then Bug was so open and honest I thought I would die, and I realized things can't go on as they have been going."

Michael's scotch arrived. He rolled the ice around and gulped -- he's shifted from Robitussin into the hard stuff.

"BarCode eats flat food, too. And she-slash-he's written a program with immense game potential. BarCode is my soulmate. There is only one person for me out there, and I have found it. BarCode's my ally in this world *and* ... "

He paused and looked across the restaurant.

"Sometimes when I'm loneliest, life looks the most dreadful and I don't want to be here. On earth, I mean. I want to be ... out there." He pointed to the sun coming in a window, a beam coming down, and the sky over the Bay. "The thought of BarCode is the only thing that keeps me tethered to earth."

"So what are you going to *do* about it, Michael?"

He sighed and looked at the other businessmen in the restaurant.

"But what are you going to *do* about it?" I asked again. He looked up at me. "Is *that* why I'm here, Michael? Am I getting involved in this?"

"Can you do me a favor, Daniel?"

I knew it. "What."

"Look at me."

"I'm looking."

"No, *look*."

Michael put himself under the microscope lens: pudgy; eyeglassed;
ill-clad; short-sleeve shirt the color of yellow invoice paper; pale complexion; Weedwacker hairdo--the nerd stereotype that almost doesn't even really exist anymore--a Lockheed junior draftsman circa the McCarthy era. But for his almost Cerenkovian glow of intelligence, he might be mistaken for a halfwit or, as Ethan would say, a fuck-wit. I said, "Is there something I should be seeing?"

"*Look* at me, Daniel -- how could anyone be in love with *me*?"

"That's ridiculous, Michael. Love has almost nothing to do with looks. It's about two people's insides mixing together."

"Nothing to do with looks? That's easy for all of you to say. *I* have to work everyday inside our body-freak world of an Aaron Spelling production. You think I don't notice?"

"Point *being* ... ? From what I can see, if one person is feeling something, there's usually a pretty good chance the other is feeling the same thing, too. So looks are moot."

"But then they see me -- my *body* -- and it's over."

In a way I was losing my patience, but then who am I to be an expert in love? "I think you're perfectly lovable. Our office is a freak show and no indication of the world at large."

"You say that like a father whose son just got braces and headgear."

"What do you want me to *do*, Michael."

He paused and looked both ways and then to me: "I want you to visit Waterloo for me. Meet BarCode. Offer ... it ... a job. BarCode's the smartest programmer I've ever conversed with."

"Why don't *you* go, Michael?"

He looked down at himself and clamped his arms around his chest and said, "I can't. I'll be ... rejected."

Well, if there's one thing I know, it's Michael and his unbudgeability. "Michael, if I were to do this, under no circumstances would I be willing to pretend, even for one MICROsecond, that I were you."

"No! You wouldn't have to! Just say that I couldn't make it and you came in my stead."

"What if BarCode turns out to be a 48-year-old man wearing a diaper -- a diaper with spaghetti straps?"

"Such is love -- though I *hope* that wouldn't be the case."

"How long have you and BarCode been emailing each other?"

"Almost a year."

"Does BarCode know who you are? *What* you are?"

"No. You know the joke: On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog."

"Oh *God*."

"You'll do it!"

"BarCode could be *anybody*, Michael."

"I love their insides already, Daniel. We've already blended. I'll take what fate throws me."

"But tell me one thing -- how can you talk to somebody for over a year and not even know their age or sex?"

"Oh, Daniel -- that's part of the *thrill*."


Back at the office I went on a walk with Karla and told her about it right away and she said it was the most romantic thing she's ever heard of and she smooched me right there in the middle of a downtown street. "Michael is so brave to love so blindly."


After flying to Waterloo, Michael arranged for me to meet BarCode at a student union pub.

BarCode, given the possibility of making a flesh-to-flesh connection, admitted on-line that ... *it* was, as Michael guessed, a student -- so at least the 48-year-old-man-in-spaghetti-strap-diapers scenario was averted.

"Don't be so sure, Daniel," said Michael on the phone from California with a touch of worry in his voice. "Mature students, you know. Well -- we can only hope not..."

Waterloo's student pub is better than others I've seen. "The Bomb Shelter," with an all-black inside, a large bomb painted on the wall, big screen TV, video games, pool and air hockey.

The outdoor temperature was about minus 272 degrees and the students wore thick, gender-disguising outfits to ward off the gales of liquid helium sweeping down from Hudson's Bay. I thought of how in-character it was of Michael to fall for someone's insides and not even know their outsides. I sat there in a seat next to the wall, drinking a few beers, wondering if whoever came by could be ... *it*.

I was getting all mushy and lonely and missing Karla when suddenly a hand grabbed my throat from behind and yanked me toward the wall, like an Alien from "Aliens". Fuck! Talk about terror. It was a small hand, but God, it was like steel, and a voice whispered to me, a girl's voice: "Talk to me, baby. I know who you *aren't*. So speak -- gimme a sign, send me a code -- let me know that you're *you*."

Oh man, I was meeting Catwoman .. with an Official Chyx Wristband!

My head blanked. Only one word came into my head, Michael's code word for our meeting: "Cheese slices," I squeaked out from my snared vocal cords.

The hand loosened. I saw a bare arm. I saw a bar code tattoo below the vaccination bump. And then I saw BarCode, revealed at last, as she let go of her grip and climbed down off the railing and into my view: smaller than Karla, more muscular than Dusty, and dressed so tough that Susan looked like a southern belle in comparison: filthy down vest on top of an oily halter top; hot pants; gas station attendant's boots; haircut with a blunt Swiss Army Knife; both eyes dripping with smudged mascara and melting snow ... all underneath an ancient hand-knitted Canadian-type jacket with trout knitted into the front and back. She was small and tight and the natural embodiment that everything Karla, Dusty and Susan self-consciously were trying to turn themselves into. She was the most aggressive female I've ever seen and so young -- and man, she was so IN CHARGE.

She looked both ways. She looked me in the eyes. She said, "You're Kraft singles's friend?" She narrowed her gaze. "*You're* here to interview me? Why didn't Kraft come himself/herself?"

"It's uh ... himself ... and I'll be honest with you right now -- I'm here because he didn't think you'd like him if you saw *him*.

She smashed a bottle on the ground and scared the wits out of me. "Man, what sort of pussy does he think I am? ... that I give a shit whatthefuck he looks like?" But then her demeanor changed. She got sweet for a second: "He's a *he*? He cares what I think about him?"

"'Kraft singles,' as you call him, is stubborn. You should know *that*."

She relaxed a bit. "You're telling *me*. Kraft is one stubborn motherfucking entity."

She giggled. "She." Pause. "*He*..."

"You mean," suddenly I was beginning to understand, "you didn't know who he was .. what he was? I mean, sorry for being blunt, but *you* didn't know either?"

"Don't make me feel like a wuss." She picked up an empty 7-Up can, crushed it flat on her knee and then got sweet again. "Is Kraft, ummm ... like ... *married* or anything?"


I could tell she was relieved and it was beginning to dawn on me that Michael wasn't the only one who had fallen for an entity.

"Do you want to see a picture, BarCode ... do you have another name?"


"Do you want to see a picture of Michael, Amy?"

Quietly: "You have one?"


"His name is Michael?"


"What's your name?"


"Can I see a picture, Dan?"

"Here." She greedily snatched the group picture taken at a barbecue at Mom and Dad's earlier on in the year. Nine of us were in the photo, but she spotted Michael right away. I think I had just transacted the most bizarre matchmaking transaction in the history of love.

"That's *him* ... *there*."


"Dan, you're gonna think I'm an asshole, but I had a dream, and I knew that's what he looked like. I put a diskette under my pillow for weeks waiting for a sign, and it came to me, and here he is. I'm taking the photo."

"It's yours."

She looked at Michael's image. She was tentative and girly. "How *old* is he?" Her voice up-inflected at the end.

I was slightly drunk, and I laughed and I said, "He's in love with you, if that's what you want to know."

She got all cocky again.

She grabbed my right hand and shouted, "Arm wrestle!" and after a
two-minute tussle (thank heavens for the gym), broken up only because a group of drunk engineers lollygagged up to our table and one of them barfed one table over, cutting the moment short, did we speak again. "It's a draw," she told me, "but remember, I'm younger than you and I'm only getting stronger. So tell me about ... *Michael*." She paused to think this over -- the *name*. "Yes. Tell me about *Michael*."

The waiter brought us both beers. She clinked mine so hard I thought it would shatter and she said, "Tell me again, what does Michael feel? You know -- about ... *me*?"

"He's in love."

"Say it *again*."

"He's in love. Love. L-O-V-E. Love, he loves *you*. He's going to go insane if he doesn't meet you."

She was as happy as I've ever seen another human being. It made me feel good to be able to say this with a clear heart.

"Go on," she said.

"He doesn't care who you are. He only knew your insides. He's smart. He's kind and he's always been a good friend to me. There is nobody like him on earth, and he says that you're the only reason he stays tethered here to the planet." And then I told her the diaper-and-spaghetti-straps scenario.

She leaped backward into her seat.

"I'm gonna fuckin' explode! Dan! I'm gonna tell you, I'm in love, and I'm in love like an atomic bomb detonating over industrialized Ontario, so watch out *world*!"

I realized that Michael was BarCode's first love, and I realized that I was seeing something special here, as if all of the flowers in the world had agreed to bloom just for me, and just for once, and I said, "Well, I think it's mutual. Now could you relax just a bit more, Amy, because you're frankly scaring the daylights out of me, and I don't think my right arm can deal with another wrestle."

She gushed a bit, flush with happiness. She sat and smiled at the undergrads who, it seems, regarded her with no small tinge of fear. She surely must be some sort of campus legend.

"You're the bearer of hot news, and I'll always remember you for that, Dan," and she kissed me on the cheek, and I thought of Karla, and my heart felt so happy yet far away from her.

"Man, I'm so happy I could crap," she said. "Hey -- over there -- that table of engineers -- let's go trash 'em!"


Michael and BarCode -- excuse me -- *Amy* -- are now engaged. Amy and Michael have been having a John-and-Yoko lovefest at the Residence Inn Suites down in Mountain View. Karla and I went to visit them, and their suite was all a-rummage with pizza boxes, diet Coke cans, dirty laundry, unread newspapers and gum wrappers. Michael had transformed from a lonely machine into a *love* machine.


Amy, 20, is going to finish her degree in computer engineering, and is going to come to work for us starting in May. We're all in love and awe and terror of her. She and Michael together are like the next inevitable progression of humanity. And the two of them are so happy together -- seeing them together is like seeing the *future*.

Oh, here's something I forgot to write about earlier. At the bar, I asked Amy what it was -- or rather, *how* it was that two people could not *know* each other and fall in love and all of that. She told me that all her life people had only ever treated her like a body or a girl -- or both. And interfacing with Michael over the Net was the only way she could ever really know that he was talking to *her*, not with his concept of her. "Reveal your gender on the Net, and you're toast." She considered her situation: "It's an update of the rich man who poses as a pauper and finds the princess. But fuck that princess shit -- we're both *kings*."

We both got drunker and she said to me, "This is it, Dan. This is the way I always wanted to feel. This is *it*."


"Love. Heaven is being in love, and the love never stops. And the feeling of intimacy never stops. Heaven means feeling intimate forever."

And I can't really say I disagree.

End of quote.

My wonderful wife has definitely shown me the truth of Amy's concept of love. I'll be forever thankful for that.

Posted by Observer at April 7, 2003 06:59 AM

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