Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Standing in the Window

Somebody on the net recently asked me what my days are like. The popular image, I’m sure, is of a bustling Winnebiko lab with scurrying white-coated technicians fitting glittering surface-mount subassemblies onto a frame of high-tech composites and tightly laced bundles of optical fiber and coax. Surrounded by Sun workstations, I coordinate the efforts of teams worldwide, each pouring thousands of man-hours into modules of plug-compatible perfection while a software team readies the mega-code that will make it all work. The rollout date is circled on the calendar and we’re all feverish, for the eyes of the world are upon us……

Heh. I languish amid the clutter of a household, my back sore from schlepping, my gut swollen from gluttony, my butt blazing red from the Basking Raw-buns syndrome after a day visiting a nudist resort. I whimper, taking in the enormity of the tasks ahead. The Winnebiko II is a showpiece hauled to speaking gigs; the Winnebiko III is a gleam in my tired eye, an abstract vision. Sponsors ship unspeakably beautiful components, and they collect on particle-board shelves and makeshift tables in my lab… each a reminder of a trick unturned, a bit of magic undone. The TO-DO-DO document, 13 pages and swelling, mocks me: I browse it, looking for a clearly defined task. I seldom find one.

Morning, sunny, a perfect riding day in California. I stare out the window and sigh, for the road torments me like a curtainless houseful of playful young women next door to a lonely old man. They breeze about in bits of silk, model new bikinis for each other, oil perfect flesh in noonday sun, wake tousled and touch themselves, linger in the perfumed bath, fiercely love their men with cries soft and kisses wet… while he watches, dying inside, desperate moans catching in his throat, the ache as strong as ever but now an agony of frustration. He’s obsessed; he can’t turn away from the window; frozen dinners burn and telephone solicitors go unanswered when Beauty is afoot. He’s in love, in lust, in pain. He knows they’re killing him with every reminder of the perfection he touched so long ago, but he can’t pull the curtain and hide: the brain is hardwired for sex, by God, and his eyes are wide and staring.

The road is like that, damn her. For six years I have loved her, riding on wave after wave of passion, every turn the kiss of a new friend, every town a seduction, every campsite a tryst, every downhill an orgasm. The cassettes I carried all have the flavor of “our song”—I even stop what I’m doing when I hear the old road music and gaze misty-eyed into the past, my memory an overlay of a dozen scenes linked forever by one musical moment. And the things! Packs, tools, spare parts, toys, even that goddamn shampoo bottle from the Austin hotel… all carry a patina of heart-wrenching memory like the detritus of a deeply-missed marriage.

So with all this clutter in my head, I surround myself with everything I fled so long ago—house, furniture, all the complex baggage of a life fraught with too many projects and dreams. I stand in the window and watch the road wind sensuously up the mountain, loving other wheels, going on just fine without me, and I’m suddenly that lonely old man, condemned to a life of heartache.

!!NO!! I recoil, turning enraged from the window. No, no. Not yet, not yet, you bitch, there’s still some life in these old wheels. Desperate, I grab the phone and call a potential sponsor, leap onto OrCAD and draw a schematic, wipe clean a section of bench and shove a few parts together. But the energy begins to fade… the project is too big. The monitor array can’t be finished because the I/O structure is not defined; that can’t be done until the 68000 is running; that won’t happen until I build the simulator; that won’t work without the monitor array. Aggghhh, hell with it. Another circular problem. Grumbling, I fire up AutoCAD and stare at it, but can’t nail down the console layout until I’m sure to have a CMOS VGA LCD driver that can live on the bus and I’m still early in the CAD learning curve anyway… oh, to hell with that too. I furtively play a game of computer solitaire, feebly scan the TO-DO-DO list, then wander the house, avoiding the window, plopping at last on the bed to stare at the ceiling and hope the phone will ring to jar me from ennui. (The old man tried to get it up and failed; he now stares numbly at the TV with one eye alert to those damn, damn windows next door.)

Maggie wanders in, checks the mirror, then joins me, eyes full of concern. “Having a bad day, dear?” I try to explain that I am, as Dave Wright pointed out, staggered by my own imagination. But I avoid the central issue and concentrate on the critical-path problems, usually coming around to the fundamental truth that I’ve bitten off too many projects for one under-motivated tired guy with a bad back. Working on any one of them by definition means I’m ignoring the others, so I do none of them, seeking instead the quick fix, the easy lay, the Clearly Defined Task. She shakes her head, for this is an old story. She snuggles atop me, long fragrant hair flowing into all my senses, the softness a drug, the love a tonic. Time goes away; I murmur sweetness and doze, problems forgotten until later, always later… but then the house fills with housemates and it’s dinner, talk, distraction, and a few more stabs at the lab before the evening’s drinks fuzz the brain and I give up on one more day.

And as the weeks pass, I watch the calendar, moans catching in my throat. The atlas is a photograph album from an idealized past; I cling to it foolishly and feel a bit embarrassed when Maggie catches me taking it into the bathroom. “Trip planning,” I mumble, but we both know the truth: I’m just standing in the window with a sore heart, watching the road go on without me.