Being a fan of my city, I always enjoy reading books that are based in Seattle. I am even more intrigued when a book makes fun of it, such as in Maria Semple’s latest novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.
She hits it with prep school culture, the rich bitches on Queen Anne Hill, and the entertaining foibles of a Microsoft husband who is so absent that he tries to institutionalize his wife, Bernadette, over some bizarre stories involving her interactions with the mothers at Galer Street School. In this absorbing comedy of errors, Maria Semple has a fearless sense of humor.
Unexpectedly, while reading this novel, I receive an offer to work as an art model at Microsoft. I decide to infiltrate and see for myself if Semple’s portrayal is accurate.
When the time comes, I have anxiety issues. I am used to art studios, and corporations with their neon lights and employee handbooks make my skin crawl. I wonder what it will be like. Will there be a bunch of awkward nerds? Will there be gamers who want to use their figure studies to turn me into a heroine in a video game? I have no idea, and prefer to be surprised upon arrival. A friend tells me that he was surprised on his campus visit, to see a bunch of muscled guys playing sports, more akin to the volleyball scene in Top Gun.
I arrive early to beat traffic, and sit in the parking lot for fifteen minutes eating a sandwich. Green Connectors of all shapes and sizes drive past: large busses, mini-busses, even taxis cart around elite looking individuals on their cell phones. A whole transportation system devoted entirely to Microsoft employees. When it isn’t a connector, it’s a luxury vehicle, such as a banana yellow BMW Z4 roadster (can you say mid-life crisis?). ‘Money,’ I think to myself. Something that I don’t have, but having grown up with it, it haunts me every now and then.
The campus spreads for miles between two towns, not including some other buildings located in downtown Bellevue. I get out of my car amidst a lush green landscape. Inside, the receptionist is talking to a guy who does appear to be more Top Gun than tech nerd. She talks to him for five minutes, going in circles over what to do about the mess left behind in the main room that the admins should have picked up. But being admins, they’ve gone home already. And according to Semple’s book, there might even be only two of them for this entire building.
When I am finally instructed to introduce myself, it turns out that this guy is the one I will be working for. The receptionist gets nervous about me going in through the thick glass doors without a hall pass. She makes a fuss over the fact that I will ride on through with my employer’s card. Then she says, “Absolutely no photography in this building. And you are not allowed on the second floor due to the nature of the work they’re doing here.”
Totally out of my element. I live my life the way I do to never be exposed to people like her or places like that.
We go in, where a few friendly guys are early. One lives in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the other lives in the neighborhood where I live now. The guy who runs the space arrives, and immediately takes out a camera to take pictures of the event. Feeling a little like the receptionist, I ask to not be included in the photos. It’s a model thing, even though corporate policy requires me to be partially clothed. As soon as I see the guys bunking the no photos rule, I decide to take some pictures too. This is my spy mission after all, and the receptionist has gone home.
About thirty people show up. The drawing time is meant to inspire creativity, leading to greater innovation. Most of them have never done figure drawing before. Art materials are in full supply, and at 6 o-clock, four different types of pizza arrive. Around the corner there are fridges stocked with free soda (though I don’t drink the stuff), and most extraordinary: a 3-D printer. The machine competes for attention throughout the evening, as interns draw designs on the computer and watch as their plastic creations are spit out.
The populace makes the space seem more like a college campus than a corporation. Only a few older people show up, and the rest are interns. Did I mention how friendly they all are? Creepily so. I imagine them going home and telling their spouses that they had to work late, when in actuality they were figure drawing and having a pizza party.
I talk to a girl who tells me she’s never met someone who lives the type of life I lead. It seems bizarre when she says to me, “It’s just so great that you’re pursuing writing.” As though I just started doing this a year ago. I feel old, just then. I’ve been tugging at my dream for fifteen years. Here this girl is just out of college, owns a house and a car, and is set up for life thanks to this giant corporate utopia.
What most pleases me, is posing for people who have never experienced figure drawing before. Their work appears to be at the grade school level, which is completely endearing given their technical genius minds. I can feel their brains straining to work in a different way. Fostering creativity to increase their output of top-secret ideas.
I suddenly don’t feel so out of my league. I wear the same sort of clothes as everyone else (before undressing). And unlike Bee (the daughter in Bernadette), my iPhone isn’t shocking. In fact, almost everyone has one. At first I feel guilty for pulling mine out, until I look around.
“Outdoorsy Dad: (Getting defensive because everyone there is lusting for an iPhone, but there’s a rumor that if Ballmer sees you with one, you’ll get shitcanned. Even though this hasn’t been proven, it hasn’t been disproven either) (Semple, 125).”
On my break, I look up at the hallowed second floor, wondering what the hell is up there. I stand there, enjoying my status as “the dangerous outsider.”
I saw Maria Semple a few months ago at Town Hall. Her infiltration of Microsoft consisted of a guided tour, and she does an excellent job at summing up the lifestyle in her book. That night, we were seated behind her daughter (who is much younger than Bee). Throughout the interview, she was more interested in turning her head to make eye contact with Poppy, than in fielding questions from Nancy Pearl. Of course, it was slightly awkward that Nancy Pearl fit Semple’s description of the typical Seattle woman to a T.
“Remember when the feds busted in on that Mormon polygamist cult in Texas a few years back? And the dozens of wives were paraded in front of the camera? And they all had this long mouse-colored hair with strands of gray, no hairstyle to speak of, no makeup, ashy skin, Frida Kahlo facial hair, and unflattering clothes? And on cue, the Oprah audience was shocked and horrified? Well, they’ve never been to Seattle (Semple, 128).”
Through writing the book, Maria (a transplant from L.A. who wrote for TV) ends up falling in love with Seattle. How can you not? It takes a while, but this place can really claim you. I tend to get stuck in my action-packed neighborhood, though the surrounding areas are extraordinary with mountains and water everywhere you look.
“The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless (Semple, 325).”
Similar to the dramas in the book, I’ve had wrestling matches with blackberry bushes that were attempting to overtake evergreen trees – resulting in bloody arms and sore muscles. It’s kind of amazing to experience nature stomping on your plans, and threatening to be in charge. I’ve become addicted to that sky that Semple raves about. She describes it perfectly. It’s never stagnant, not even in the dead of summer. There are days, walking home, where people rush down the hill just to capture the sky with their cameras. But you can never capture that wide over-reaching arc of the sky.
Where was I again? Corporate life – where nothing is exactly natural. I had a friend who worked at Amazon. He said he watched as people turned into the shapes of their chairs. Eventually they got divorced so they could marry a fellow co-worker. You can bring your dog to work, and walk around the office in your socks. It’s just like being at home, and people never want to leave.
As much as I have trouble understanding it, without all of these people creating innovation and changing the landscape of our lives, we wouldn’t have the tools to be successful as artists, writers, entrepreneurs, whatever independent pursuit it may be. Though Amazon has put hundreds of indie bookstores out of business, I wouldn’t be a published author without them. In one second I grimace at the catastrophe, in the next, I owe them one. It’s one big board game of Monopoly.