Tidal Software / Great Distances

I worked for a little over a year at Tidal Software back when I was still living in the Bay Area. These days I live in a motel room in Salinas and clean the other rooms to pay my way with the owner of the place. I write when I can, though I'm starting to think that life is much easier when you don't think about writing so much. I wish I was closer to the coast, but you can't have everything you want in life.

Anyway, when I think back to my time at Tidal I remember a meeting I had with Fischer, who was my manager for a little while before he moved to Seattle to join some start-up. Apparently a friend of his up there got some seed money and invited him to come on board. There were people here that were furious that he left on such short notice. What I mean is that he didn't even give the amount of notice required, and there were rumours that the company was going to file suit with him. I don't think that ever happened, though.

That's not important, though. What I'm trying to tell you is that Fischer called me into his office one morning and when I got there he had the Mercury News spread out over his desk. He motioned for me to come in when he saw me in the doorway.

"There was a shooting in San Jose last night, " he said.

"I think it was the night before, " I told him.

Fischer ran a finger over the article that described the incident. "Right, right, " he said. "It was yesterday morning."

"If you're thinking of it from the perspective of a couple of day ago, it would have been during the night, " I said. "You would have put on the news or gone online and heard that there was a shooting. You wouldn't have thought about whether it was before or after midnight, and whether that meant it was one day or the other."

"That's the problem with using the newspaper, " Fischer said. "I get this every day at my door for free. Isn't that strange? It's been going on for over a month now."

"I've heard that happens sometimes, " I said.

"Should I phone them up and say something?" Fischer asked. "Are they going to charge me after the fact? I should have thought of that when this first started."

"It's not your fault that you're getting it, " I told him. "They wouldn't charge you."

"But think about this, " Fischer said. "There a bank robbery and you happen to be walking by. And the crooks are running out the back door of the building and they accidentally drop a big bag of money in front of you. Do you get to keep it? Of course you don't."

"I don't think that these are comparable situations, " I said.

"But there's a fine line here, isn't there?" Fischer said. "Or maybe there isn't. For some reason one thing is okay, the other isn't. There's nothing you can pin down that tells you why that is."

"They make tens of thousands of papers everyday, " I said. "They're not going to miss one."

"But on that same note, the bank also has plenty of money, " Fischer said. "And it has federal insurance on its deposits. So they don't lose a single cent. This is actually the worse crime from a financial perspective."

"The taxpayer has to compensate the bank, " I said.

"You divide what's in a bag of money up a hundred million ways, nobody's going to notice, " Fischer said.

"Is this what you called me in for?" I said.

"Of course not, " Fischer said. He folded the paper up and put it aside. He then folded his hands on his desk. First he folds the paper, then his hands. "How old do you think I am?" he asked me.

"Not much older than me, " I said. "Or maybe even the same age."

"We're not the same age, " Fischer said. "I looked it up in your personnel file. I hope you don't mind."

"I wish I knew where you were going with this, " I said.

"I'm eight years older than you, " Fischer said. "But I can see that there's an even greater distance between us in terms of our outlooks on life."

"Why would you say that?" I asked him.

"I know death is coming soon, and you don't, " Fischer said.

"We're all going to die, but not for a while, " I said.

Fischer smiled. "That's the difference right there, " he said. "I know that the day is coming soon. It'll be here before you know it. I think about these things, you know."

"Maybe you shouldn't, " I said.

"I'm going to send you to a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska with some people from the sales team, " Fischer said. "Are you all right with that?"

"Why am I going?" I said.

"We like to give all of our employees a chance to see our software working in the field, " he said. "You get to see how customers use it. You can learn quite a bit, you know. It's an interesting experience."

"I suppose I understand that, " I said.

"The thing is that I don't care if you learn anything, " he told me. "What I want you to do when you're out there is to get away from everyone for a day. Tell them that you're sick or something like that. And then I want you to rent a car and get out of town. Will you do that?"

"I don't think I'd be able to pull it off, " I told him. "I can't fake being sick. I wouldn't be believable."

"You don't have to fake sick, " Fischer said. "I can call you and pretend that there's an emergency back here than you need to deal with. I'll set the whole thing up. You can tell them that you have to work remotely from the hotel room. They won't want you around, anyway, I'm sure. The sales people don't like having people like us around."

"You haven't told me what the point of this exercise is, " I said.

Fischer raised a finger in the air. "I was getting to that, " he said. "You know, the Great Plains are a marvel. Have you ever been out that way?"

"I grew up around here, " I told him. "I've been to the east a few times, but that's it."

"So that's what I want you to make this trip, " he said. "Did you know that Nebraska was largely untouched by Americans until the Gold Rush? You still had all the Native tribes out there. And then they gave all the land away."

"They did that everywhere, " I said.

"It's a terrible thing, " Fischer said. "But the thing is that I want you to go out there and get away from the city. I want you to see the Plains any try to imagine what it was like before we started stomping around in them. You can do that, you know. I've been out there. You can get a taste of what it was like if you use your imagination. The great distances. Can you imagine that? Nothing around you in any direction but grasslands with the wind rushing by. You have to find a spot away from everything. This is what I did. It was a few years ago. You see, I've been thinking about this death thing for a while. That's why I know you'll also start thinking about it soon. So the thing is that I'm out there and I find a spot where there are few traces of modernity. Of course it wasn't perfect. You're not going to get away from the modern world entirely. You can't do that anymore. But you can find a spot where it's easy to block it out."

"I'm not sure if I want to do this, " I told him.

"You have to let me finish here, " he said. "So I got out there and looked around at the vast open spaces all around me, and it was then that I realized that it made no difference what happened to me. You see, I had this conception of death as this terrible thing that was creeping up on me, and then in a flash it hit me that I was looking at everything the wrong way. What happened to me was of no consequence. The problem is that it's hard to recapture that feeling. I sit here now and I try to imagine how I felt then and it is difficult. So the issue of death has become a problem for me again."

I thought about everything Fischer had told me for a moment. "I still don't get it, " I then said.

"I know how I sound, " Fischer said. "The thing is that the work we do around here is important. It might not seem like it is. I know what it's like. But I understand now that it's important to contribute. We do our little bit here. The company plays its little role in the larger world. But you have to be part of that world. That's what I want you to realize. I know what it's like at your age. This is a job to you. You come in and do your thing and then you go home and forget about it. But I want to give you some perspective. I want you to realize that what you do here is part of something greater."

"I think I know what you're talking about, " I said.

"You don't, " Fischer said. "Go on the trip and you'll understand."

So the thing is that I did go to Lincoln with the sales team, and I did pretend to have a work-related emergency to attend to one day. I rented a car and did everything that Fischer told me to do.

Except the thing is that soon after I got back I resigned. Fischer was partly right. I did manage to gain some perspective on life by getting away from my usual routine. But this wasn't because of any nonsense about the Great Plains and great distances. It was simply the act of being alone with my thoughts that made me realize that I was sick and tired of working for Tidal. I hated the place, along with all the other places I'd worked at.

So I left town and moved to Salinas and imagined I'd follow in the footsteps of Steinbeck. But as I said, I don't write much anymore. I don't contribute much of anything. But I'm fine with that, I think. I don't need to be part of something greater.

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