Geekfest in a Cleanroom — my evening with Douglas Coupland

attended: June 21, 1995

I am standing outside the Tech Museum in downtown San Jose, which smells worse than I remember from my not-so-long-ago SJSU days. There are about 15 of us milling around, including my buddy Jim, who proposed we check out this event of nerddom at its finest.

The doors will open at 6:00 and we will be ushered in to the main room of the museum to wait for Douglas Coupland, author of _Generation X_ and the new _Microserfs_.

Now, I tried to read _Gen X_ last year at the suggestion of a buddy I worked with at Adobe Systems. “Lynn, you’ll love it!” he insisted.

I got to page 56. It was too true to life and it was just too painful. The part that really got me was when gray-fabric-covered cubicles were described as “veal-fattening pens.” Ouch.

So, anyway, about 10 minutes before 6:00, a museum official comes outside and hands everybody a clean-room bunny suit, which we (like sheep) proceed to slip into. Within minutes we resembled a Michelin Man reunion.

This would definitely _not_ be a normal evening.

Once we got inside (after paying our $6 admission fee), we were handed moist towelettes emblazoned with “microserfs”. The towelettes proclaimed that they were ideal for removing nasal encrustations from computer monitors. This being allergy season, I appreciated the gift.

We were also offered latex gloves. I put mine on with a “snap” and turned to Jim.

“Heheheh, Mike and I are going to have some fun tonight!”

Jim sympathized with my absent boyfriend.

We got some wine from the open bar and snagged seats in the second row. A TV screen blared images of commercials I remembered from when I was 4 years old.

Two guys were already there, sitting in the middle of the row. They hijacked my (well, Jim’s, actually) notebook and proceeded to describe the scene, inferring that I was on my fifth glass of blush wine. Like I would really ever stoop to drink *blush* wine.

One of them (an Apple employee) described the Devo image currently playing, which involved Tokyo City 1988 and cross-eyed Asian women.

Jim and I wandered a bit more, until we found ourselves face-to-face with the Doug-man himself. A reporter to his left looked annoyed when one of the “party guests” starts discussing the merits of older Lego sets with Douglas. Jim piped up that things just weren’t the same after Lego came out with the people with painted faces. Doug concurred. I told him about my feelings about veal-fattening pens. He seemed pleased.

Douglas Coupland is *very* mild-mannered, to the point of almost being creepy. He stood out against the sea of white (remember, we were all in clean suits — some guy even brought his own!) in a staid grey suit which buttoned to his chest.

His talk began at 7:20, and he read three “ultra-shorts” to us. The first one was called “The Whole World and One Entire Life Inside of One Day,” and it blew my mind. He wrote it in the Bahamas, and the premise revolved around how he would be judged if his entire life were judged by this one day he’d spent there. He described his encounters with an ocean “charged with angelfish,” and with a woman who looked at the stars every night because her son was in America at college and “the only common ground they had was the sky.” The best part of the story, though, was when he started addressing a lover as “you,” because “we all have a ‘you’ in our life.”

The ultra-short resolved with his decision that “the sun will not be judged for falling, as I will judge myself,” and just for a moment I wished that I could climb inside his head and share his thought process.

The second ultra-short, “Power Failure,” dealt with “pre-television notions of ‘identity’.” The third was in the genre of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, which led into his movie (the reason we were all gathered together in clean suits).

The 25 minute film, The Last Laugh, was “the result of lots of ideas and not very much money.” Broken up into three parts, the first was Part One: Mind. After asking us to please spread the rumor that in Pulp Fiction, Glenn Close played The Gimp, the film began.

Part One: Mind dealt with the identity/life crisis brought upon us by Television (it seems appropriate to capitalize that). “Not having a life is so common, it’s become the norm.” Television is “information crack,” which gets us hooked and makes us crave even more of it. Doug believes that the dominant activities 20 years from now will be “going shopping and going to jail.” He’s a bit pessimistic, perhaps…

Part Two: Body discussed the mind/body relationship: People have become their own focus group (Jim nudged me at that. “Write that one down”). Douglas had his body composition measured a while ago and the caliper-bearer looked at him in horror. “You’re a thin fat person!”

“I’m skinny, and what I have isn’t even meat,” he complained.

The cannibals in the room left in disgust.

Part K (sound it out): Soul got even more philosophical. Bulk memory has erased history as bulk shopping has erased regular shopping. The future lies on the other side of that cartoon hole in the ground. Because of technology, we’re no longer condemned to repeat a cycle of mistakes.

“It takes a lot of work to be an individual.”

After the film, Jim and I joined the line to get autographs. He’d brought three copies of _microserfs_ for Douglas to sign. I prepared a clean steno sheet and the folded clean suit I snagged from a box at the entrance. While waiting, three nerds behind us discussed the realtive goodness of Great America. They concurred that Days of Thunder sucks. Don’t waste your time. They also bemoaned the fact that the Whizzer is gone (“just because some people died on it…”) and has been reassembled in Japan.

After half an hour, Jim reached His Couplandness and got his three copies signed. Someone cut in front of me to say goodbye to Douglas, which I allowed (must have been the wine…).

When I finally reached him, I handed him my steno pad with the clean sheet of paper. He withdrew a rubber stamp with red ink, and stamped:

To my close personal friend:



…then filled in the blanks and scrawled a big “Doug” below. After that was done, I withdrew the folded clean suit and asked him to sign it to “You, because I was really moved by that line in your first ultra-short, about how everybody has a ‘you’ in their life.”

He signed as I was speaking, but when I finished my sentence he paused for a moment, as though surprised that I (or anyone) had derived meaning from that statement. As I turned to leave, I heard him whisper, “Wow.”

He’d signed it to “You!”

As I left, my allergies started up again. I grabbed some emergency towelettes and left the building.