Silicon Follies

Chapter 32: Kiki's story -- Barry and the big red bong

By Thomas Scoville
July 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Kiki's voice drifted over the partition separating the narrow, Japanese-style bathing stalls. "All she knows is that TeraMemory took her father away. Now she doesn't trust computers, and she doesn't trust money. She prefers to live on her own."

The two women languished in stone cisterns of hot water, their baths smelling vaguely of sulfur. Liz contemplated the whispering stream outside as it shouldered its moonlit way against the mossy cliff. She felt a thousand miles from civilization, dissolving by candlelight in the volcanic spring of a Buddhist monastery on the edge of the world. She idly sponged her back, rolled over and reflected on the chain of events that had brought about this unlikely detour.

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Kiki had followed the sound of breaking glass to find Liz staring at Barry's picture, hand clasped over mouth. Liz had tried to be sly about it, feigning mortification at her own clumsiness. Perhaps it was better, she thought, to be discreet, to make no mention of her connection to Barry. But Kiki's perception was far too acute; there was something about Liz's disquiet that was distinctly familiar.

"I think I know ..." She had pointed to the picture.

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"My husband?" Kiki completed with surprise.

"I think I used to work for him."

The rest had come out in a rush: TeraMemory, the job, the unfortunate e-mail, Barry, his unprofessional advances and the derailing of a career Liz wasn't sure she ever wanted in the first place.

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Kiki listened carefully, the soul of empathy. She rested her hand on Liz's arm and said, "Honey, if he treated you a tenth as badly as he treated me, you need a vacation."

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As it turned out, Kiki had intended an invitation, not just an observation. Two days later she collected Liz at Chateau des Araignies and drove her the 150 miles to Tassajara Hot Springs. It was the very least she could do, Kiki had said, and besides, now they really had something in common.

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They drove south to the Zen retreat in Kiki's hulking sport-ute, the kind Liz had always despised on grounds of sheer size and waste. The congestion of 101 gave way to the more placid Highway 1, which dissolved into rustic G14, which all but vanished into dirt and wilderness. The last 20 miles of the journey had changed Liz's mind about Kiki's vehicle; ruts, rocks and steep, gravelly grades induced a reconsidered appreciation of four-wheel drive.

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"So how," Liz queried, floating, "did you meet? Was he always such a ..."

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"I think the word you're looking for is bully. Though I'll accept jerk." Kiki released a sigh. "And no, he wasn't. He wasn't even Barry."

"What do you mean?"

"We were reinventing everything else in those days, why not ourselves? We all took new names. Barry's was particularly silly, even for the '60s."

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"Barry had a hippie name?" Liz asked incredulously. "What was it?"

Kiki hesitated. "It's hard for me to say it, even now. It's still precious to me, in a way. It's like his true name," she explained, her voice trailing off a little mournfully. Then she perked up. "Let's just say that it fit him to a T; he was always the first one up in the morning. The seed of his mighty corporate success, no doubt."

Liz steered the conversation toward firmer ground. "Well, he certainly is a hard-driving achiever, that's for sure."

"He wasn't always like that. Somewhere under all that armor and ambition is a tender little hippie who slept in a treehouse, strummed a guitar, played with his baby daughter." Kiki laughed a little nervously, and added, "And sometimes he smoked pot out of a big red bong."

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Liz could not begin to imagine what Barry must have been like stoned, but she didn't ask. She wanted to go straight to the bottom of the saga. "So what happened?"

"Oh, we were living in a commune in Malibu. One day Barry fell in with the wrong crowd."

"What, like he started hanging around with accountants?" Liz quipped, wryly.

"Darned near. Aerospace guys from up the road. Hughes Aircraft. There were lots of pockets of techies in Southern California in those days. After a while it started to take him over. One day it was Dylan, Mao and patchouli oil, and the next it was transistors and circuit boards. He started a little company.

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"At first he thought it wouldn't change him -- or us. We talked all about staying grounded, about raising our daughter with the right values, about sharing our good fortune with the 'community.' But the more successful he got, the further we drifted from our agreement."

Liz listened as Kiki's tale unfolded: the rise of TeraMemory, the withering of the marriage and the gradual alienation of their daughter, Gretchen. She had run away at 17.

"When the machine asserts itself into your life, it displaces everything else. Marry that with drive and ambition, and it's a pretty bad combination. It'll blind you to anything that might save you: friends, family ..." Her voice trailed off against the tiles. "At least it was that way with Gretchen. She was Tera's forgotten stepsister.

"Computer people love control and efficiency. But those values don't translate well to relationships. Love -- life -- is messy. Lots of wasted effort. Drives nerds mad with frustration. They'd rather not deal with the ambiguity."

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Liz watched the moon disappear behind the cliff, softening the melancholy.

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After a perfect vegetarian dinner they spent the night in tiny, paper-walled tatami cabins. No electricity, only hurricane lamps hanging along the path outside. Liz lay for some time on the edge of sleep, listening to crickets and an owl. Sometime around 10, she heard a sandal-footed monk blow her lamp dark.


Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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