Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Not engine oil solidifying cold

It’s getting cold here, which is not cold in the sense of North Dakota cold where if you don’t plug in your car, the engine oil will turn solid until April, or New York cold where the wind whips through every seam and zipper of your clothes and freezes every hair in your nose on that short sprint to the subway station that seems to take forever. Here, a winter cold means the low 50 or maybe the high 40s, but when your entire wardrobe is summer clothes and your apartment doesn’t have a huge winter furnace designed to run like a kiln in December, this seems colder than freezing.

It means winter coat season, the time when I finally get out my time machine of a leather jacket and teleport back to 1993 when I got my first “real” leather jacket at the Wilson’s Leather in the Bloomington Mall. I know I write about this every year, but every fall when the time comes to slip on that heavy biker jacket and zip up its thick zipper and smell the smell of leather and feel the almost bulletproof heft, it always makes me feel good. Does it outweigh the feeling of a cold house, especially now that I have to pay for my own heat during the work day? Well, at least I feel good that I won’t be stuck in a broken building whose HVAC system insists on running the air conditioner full blast in December, or even worse, that superheats the offices to a hundred degrees and no humidity during the cold and flu season.  And I don’t spend two hours a day in a tiny coffin of a car with a heater that only works at full blast or off, requiring me to constantly jockey the little knobs between the various settings to approximate the control of a climate.

Oh, here’s a weird journey back: yesterday, Attachmate bought Novell.  First, Attachmate.  I used to work for a company in Seattle called WRQ, and Attachmate was their biggest rival.  I remember Attachmate most not because of the Pepsi versus Coke culture between the two (like various vague “beat Attachmate” propaganda at product kickoff meetings) but because they had this huge Star Wars-looking building on the horizon of Factoria. When I worked for Spry, I had this view of a blighty little strip-mall suburb, a Safeway and a QFC and a Keg restaurant and an Allstate agent and a muffler shop with a too-big sign, but it was all contrasted by a giant office building hanging off the top of this hill that looked like the background scenery in a Quake game.

About five years ago, a VC firm (or group, I don’t know the details) bought both Attachmate and WRQ and fused them into one company with a stupid joint name that was eventually just changed to Attachmate.  It’s the perfect example of how things in my past change and make it impossible to go back, like imploding the Kingdome, or replacing the coolest videogame arcade of my college years with an Urban Outfitters.  Many of my memories from 1996 to 1999 involve my time at WRQ, from the times I’d stay late and work on AITPL’s first issues, to when I’d come in blindingly early after a night of insomnia, so I could leave early on a Friday.  I’d mope through Seattle’s winters and hide in my office, when the sun would be down when I left in the morning and down when I drove home, and the entire day would be the 50 degree, dark grey, misting cold rain weather that made you want to hang yourself.  I spent the bulk of my time in an office that overlooked Dexter Ave, in this huge terraced building sitting in the hill that wrapped around the west bank of Lake Union.  I’d walk to Dexter Deli almost every day and get a BLT, then go back to my desk, put on a CD, close the door, and hack away at this very journal.  This was long before the days of the iPod, and I used to drag in this rectangular nylon case that held a dozen CDs in their jewel cases.  Later, I’d graduate to the MiniDisc player, and haul a much smaller case that held 20% more music, but still required me to spend twenty minutes a morning pondering what I wanted to listen to that day.

I remember my job there, but the job had so little to do with any of it.  I mean, I worked on Java stuff, and we were in the middle of this giant war where Microsoft wanted the world to keep on plunking away at Win32 apps, while a smaller group wanted everything to be delivered on the web through applets.  Our company had a lot of Windows-centric people, those that believed the shrink-wrapped, channel-sold application with a high profit margin reigned supreme, and that any CPU cycle wasted on a VM or a windowing system was pure bunk.  These were the people who worked on writing terminal emulation software for DOS boxes, so they could talk across twisted-pair networks to big iron mainframes.  Things like DLL loading conflicts and command-line switches made their blood pump.  The terms “master” and “slave” applied themselves in many forms to their control flow paradigms.  They all carried leatherman multi-tools just in case they were out on the town and there was an emergency that required the stripping of insulation from some wires.  To them, online help was for pussies, and real products shipped with a thousand page printed manual.  I worked on online help for a Java product and used a Mac, so there were three strikes against me.

But I spent those years trying to define myself as a writer, trying to write these two books that hung around my neck like albatrosses.  I hacked at short stories and tried to run the zine and tried to find other writers to talk to.  I spent every penny I made on used books or CDs that I would play obsessively in my little studio apartment while I wrote.  I took High Fidelity too seriously and assumed I could define myself by owning every Miles Davis album Columbia ever released.  Thinking about the late 90s always brings back all of this, but it also brings back practically living in that weird office in the side of a hill on Dexter Avenue.  And Attachmate is still there, and there’s still a part of me that wonders what it would be like to go there and walk through the giant lobby and up to the 10th floor and see if it still felt like 1997 to me.

And they bought Novell, which is another throwback, to those days of Bloomington when networking was taking over the campus, and the dummy islands of uncommunicative PCs were all wired together with coax cable and things started talking to each other.  I did not fully understand Netware, and I still don’t; but I remember the hardcore DOS gearheads talking about it all the time, discussions of TSRs and NETBEUI and mapping X drives to shares.  I was more of a Mac person, and preferred to just telnet in to some unix machine and have everything located there.  But there definitely was this subculture that was all high on Novell stuff back then, especially with the hardcore business users who religiously used WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 for everything.  Later, Novell bought WordPerfect from Borland, probably right around the time I was using the Mac version of WordPerfect for everything.  Then, I switched to using Word and a PC, and I think Windows NT made all of the Netware stuff obsolete, and Novell just became an annoying little company that insisted that everyone spell unix in all caps.

So you’ve got the leather jacket and the old WordPerfect pulling me back to Bloomington.  And you’ve got the struggles as a writer and the current San Francisco weather (53, raining, dark) pulling me back to Seattle.  And I’ve been hacking at a short story that takes place in Florida in 2001, so there’s a lot going on right now.