Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.9

My first day at work in Palo Alto was mostly meeting a lot of people and signing a lot of papers. I’d already met my new boss, Phil Straw, when I was interviewed. He was a quiet, thoughtful, outspoken force of nature.

“Here’s a Phil story, for example,” Doug said, on the way into work that first day. “We’re at dinner, he gets a phone call. After listening for a moment, Phil asks for and gets a few numbers from the person on the other end. Then he pulls out a laptop, reads a few numbers from a spreadsheet, then says, ‘Good luck,’ and hangs up, puts the laptop away. I ask him, ‘What was that all about?’ And he says, ‘Oh, just a mate of mine on a boat. Came up too fast from a dive and felt the nitrogen bubbling up out of his skin. Asked me how far he had to go back down, for how long, to decompress.’ Phil and his friends are serious divers, but you should know he’s the kind of guy who gets phone calls like that.”

And no surprise, Phil now runs a company that makes custom dive computers that manage exactly that kind of thing, diving down to crazy depths and using delicate mixes of different gasses in order to let you stay deeper longer. It also has to let you know how, and how quickly or slowly, to come back up, or else you’ll die.

I’d be making it up if I said I remembered much of what happened that day, but certain moments stayed with me.

I remember being lightly briefed on recommended security protocol, and being relieved that in my general paranoia I was already meeting or exceeding most of their recommendations. But one other person was being on-boarded the same day that I was, a guy with the same initials as me. We signed our paperwork at the same time and, to our mutual horror, discovered that our signatures were identical: DP-identical-sqiggle. As in, we couldn’t tell them apart ourselves. We actually took a step back away from each other, I could feel my eyes growing as wide as I saw his opening up. The next day, we both confessed to each other that we’d spent part of the previous evening practicing new signatures.

Then there was the man I met on the street. Doug and I were on our way to dinner, after my first day at work in Silicon Valley.

“Hey, is that a game store?” I asked. It was the first game store I’d seen since driving up from Austin the day before, though I was sure the San Francisco area had no shortage of them.

“We can head on back after we eat,” Doug offered.

The following block had a “Dianetics and Scientology” sign along half its length. On the corner stood a wild-looking old guy, long white hair whipped to the side by the passing traffic. He bore a sign which read, “Scientologists have space cooties! www.xenu.net.”

“I think that’s Keith,” Doug said with mild surprise. “Well, we can go back and see Keith, too.”

We ate. Then the game store, and Keith.

Doug called out to him as we approached. Keith looked a little leery of us at first, and a little crazy, too. Then he recognized Doug and both the leeryness and his insanity fell away. The two of them did some catching up, I was introduced, and then Keith’s background was made clearer. He’d spent no small amount of time working on Xanadu, a legendary hyper-text project in progress since the ’60s that had finally shipped that week. In 1980, he was made a founder of the L-5 Society, an organization promoting space colonization. In his spare time, he had several large axes he enjoyed grinding.

“What does that mean?” I asked, pointing at one of his other placards. It said, “You mock up your reactive mind.”

“That’s what they tell you after you’ve given them $160,000, that you’ve been in control of yourself all along: you ‘mock up’, or you define for yourself, your ‘reactive mind’, how you interact with the world — see?”

Keith has been increasingly villified by the Scientologists thanks to a long pattern of mutual lawsuits. By the Scientologists’ estimate they’d expended over $350,000 on fighting him in the courts. By his, they’d spent about $2 million.

“Wow,” I said. “Even by their count, that’s two reactive minds worth of cash.”

From around the corner walked a beautiful blonde woman, properly business-suited if not business-minded.

“This is Robin,” Keith said as way of introduction as she passed. “She’s a Scientologist. Robin, these are two of my friends.”

“Hello, Robin,” I said, but she didn’t seem interested in further conversation. She smiled dismissively and pushed the crosswalk button. Her smile faltered only slightly when she realized she’d have to stand there with us for a full traffic-light cycle.

“Robin can’t say ‘Xenu,'” Keith grinned. That got her.

“I think that’s just silly,” she snapped.

“Of course. Xenu is silly.”

“I know,” she sighed with the slowness of someone repeating a mantra designed to sooth anger, “that nothing I could say will make you think any different about Scientology.”

“Oh yes you could!” Keith gushed. “You could make me think it was far worse!” This quickly became one of the most entertaining exchanges I’d personally witnessed in my entire life. Keith turned to the offensive.

“What do you think about [forgotten Scientologist term]? Where they keep you in a chair and put boogers in your mouth?”

“That’s . . . ah, I’ve never heard of that.”

“Oh really? Well you should ask someone about it. If you can get to the Internet, search for it. People who used to be higher-ups in Scientology talk about it a lot.” Robin glanced nervously between him and the other side of the street. The light hadn’t changed yet. She visibly restrained the urge to punch the crosswalk button a few more times. That’s Scientology training for you.

“There’s a professor,” she said in defense, “an Oxford professor emeritus named Brian Wilson.”

“Brian Wilson?” Doug asked. “Of the Beach Boys?”

“OF OX– . . . of Oxford. A professor. He’s done research into apostates, going back to the 13th century, and he found they’re notoriously unreliable sources.”

“One, sure,” Keith gave her. “Two even. But when so many people recount the same story — with minor variations in the details, which accounts for different places doing things differently — then you just can’t discount it.”

The light changed. “Excuse me,” she said over her shoulder while charging across the street. Keith waved one of his picket signs at her.

“Bye,” he called. I’m sure he’ll see her again.

“Bye, Robin,” I said. Then, when she walked out of earshot, “What’s Xenu? Or should I just check out the web site?”

“Oh, you should check out the site. But in brief, L. Ron Hubbard had to stretch for a background for his new religion, and coming from science-fiction as he was . . . . Xenu is the cosmic entity who kidnapped trillions of aliens from the seventy-six inhabited planets closest to us. He trapped them in volcanoes on Earth about eighty-five million years ago — volcanoes that couldn’t’ve existed at the time — and when they were blown up, the alien souls were trapped here forever.

“That’s what they teach you when you get way high up in the organization: you’re filled up inside with alien cooties, and the only way to get rid of them is to, well, give Scientology more money.”

As far as Keith goes, within two years, about three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he would be hunted down in Canada as a terrorist. He joked on an Internet forum that a Scientology office should be hit by a “Tom Cruise missile,” and a group of Scientologists apparently convinced a judge that this was a genuine terrorist threat. Keith fled the charges, and Scientologists tracked him to Canada where they reported him to the authorities as a dangerous man, wanted in the U.S. as a terrorist. Things went really poorly after that. I’ll let a Toronto journalist tell the rest of the story.

And that was probably the most important thing I learned in the depths of my first day in Silicon Valley — also, that I did not have a number for anyone I could call for help in decompressing. I knew I had to be careful; I had no idea what would bubble up, out of my skin.

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