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William Baeck: Writing & Photography

from A Year of Our Own...


A Middle Beginning

Every story begins in the middle, except Genesis I suppose. This is my middle beginning…

In 1999 I was about to turn 40. In what is likely a statistical average for men, I had been married for 15 years and was just now taking the first brief look in the rearview mirror of my life. Behind me was the straight road that had led me here. No detours, just my wife’s and my parallel tracks leading directly from grade school, to high school, to college, to temporary jobs while we looked for real jobs, to eventual real jobs in high tech.

The name of the first computer company I worked for back then is unimportant, because by the 1980’s all technology companies in Silicon Valley were pretty much interchangeable, just like the products they made and the workforce they employed. Corporations operated more or less like the Play-Doh Fun Factory I’d had as a kid. You filled one end of a big colorful building with doughy piles of programmers, and management pressed down until computer code extruded out the other end in any shape you wanted. If you ran low on programmers, you just added pizza and stock options until the building was full again.

There wasn’t much else to do, so for 15 years we labored our way up one company after another in the valley.

By our late 30’s my wife and I found ourselves perched on the dull front edge of middle age. The millennium was coming to an end, and so was our enthusiasm. We were well-paid, well-behaved, passive-aggressive, mid-level employees saying “yes” and counting grudges. No one had reason to complain about our work and few people outside of our department had reason to know our name. We were as productive as we were impactless.

Our careers were unimpressive and had peaked. I would never rise above my current position writing books at Adobe that explained how everyone could make better pictures using our products. My wife Aline was at Intuit designing how bookkeeping software should look and feel, suspecting that deep down she really didn’t care whether she made bookkeepers happy.

Nights meanwhile were spent watching television, a machine that moved knowledge through me subtractively. The seductive illusion was that as I lay in bed hoping that the hot new information I had just invited to enter my brain through the front door was going to stay awhile, what I didn’t notice was last night’s knowledge grabbing its pants and shoes and slipping quietly out the back door. As I rummaged around my mind, I realized with a pang that the history of the Spartan army had been driven off the field by a series of car commercials and Webster’s definition of atonal music had been dumped in favor of a rerun of Cops. The natural conclusion was that if there was a physical first law of television it was equivalent to the first law of thermodynamics, that I could not gain more knowledge from watching TV than I lost. Yes, there were pockets of information — PBS Nova specials burning brightly for a while like, well, novas. But in the aggregate, television mirrored the rest of the universe in that it consisted of an occasional bright light floating in a vacuum.

And so, thinking back at my life, at 40, I began to reflect, and even more fortunately, so did Aline.

At some point—it was probably a Thursday, since Thursday is the most uneventful workday, the hallway you move through on your way to the end of the work week, and so it’s Thursdays that provide the free time to make the really needful decisions about one’s life—we both suddenly and at the same time realized this was IT. Our lives had developed a certain trajectory. No, I take that back, “trajectory” is too vital a word. It implies we had decisively launched ourselves at the world, at life, like David swinging strong for that big forehead in front of him. But this wasn’t true in our case. We had simply rolled down the easy incline and after a time had come to rest at the precipice of 40.

It was time for the change that would eventually lead us to London.

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