There are various legends about drinking with the Immortals. They typically involve a wanderer lost in the wilderness who is offered shelter by strange people. He is brought close to the fire and given beer, or wine, or mead, depending on the provenance of the folktale. As his clothes dry out, he is regaled by tales of ancient times and slowly comes to realize that his companions are not typical folk, but rather denizens from behind the veil. He has fallen, through no merit of his own, into the midst of an enchanted world, and his deepest fear is not of the danger that is all around him, but rather that once the enchantment is disspelled, he will never be able to recover it again.
It occurred to me recently that I had such an experience about a year ago. I was sent by my company to the Microsoft campus in Redmond to spend several days with the ASP.NET Team and other luminaries of the .NET world.
The names will mean nothing to most readers, but I had the opportunity to meet Bertrand LeRoy, Scott Guthrie, Eilon Lipton, and others to discuss the (then new) ASP.NET Ajax. I had been painfully working through the technology for several months, and so found myself able to almost hold a conversation with these designers and developers.
On the final night of the event all the seminar attendees were taken to a local wine bar and had dinner. As is my wont, I drank as much free wine as was poured into my glass, and began spinning computer yarns that became more and more disassociated from reality as the night wore on. I’m sure I became rather boorish at some point, but the Microsoft developers listened politely, and in my own mind, of course, I was making brilliant conversation.
Even to those who know something of the people I was talking to, this might seem like no big deal. I went drinking with colleagues in the same industry I am in — so what. But for me, it was as if I were suddenly introduced to the people who make the rain that nourishes my fields and the sunlight that warms my days. Microsoft software simply appears as if by magic out of Redmond, and like millions of others, day in and day out, I dutifully learn and use the new technologies that come out of the software giant. To find out that there are actually people who design the various tools I use, and build them, and debug them — this is a bit difficult to conceive.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reflects on Charles Lamb’s encounter with a dog-eared manuscript of one of Milton’s poems, filled with lines scratched out and re-written, words selected and words discarded:
“Lamb then came to Oxbridge perhaps a hundred years ago. Certainly he wrote an essay-the name escapes me-about the manuscript of one of Milton’s poems which he saw here. It was LYCIDAS perhaps, and Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in LYCIDAS could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege.”
My own discovery that the things of this world which I consider most solid and most real — because they are so essential to my daily life — could have been otherwise than they are, was a similar moment of shock, tinged with fear.
In a moment of anxiety during this sweet symposium, I leaned over to the person immediately to my right and confided in him my strange reflections. He laughed gently, and dismissed my drunken observations about the contingent nature of reality. I later found out he was the twenty-three year old developer of the ASP.NET login control, used daily in web applications around the world, when he inquired of me whether I had ever used his control, and what I thought of it.