DMV, here I come!
Since I'm obviously going to need to drive to live in Mountain View, it's time to quit procrastinating and get my drivers' license already. Geeze! I'm 28 this month! How did I go so long without learning to drive? I guess we can blame it on a decade of living in areas with good mass transit and easy bicycle access.
When I was in Connecticut for the New Year, I got a couple of driving lessons from my aunt (Thanks Robin!) in exchange for some website-building lessons I gave her. (The value of website-building lessons from me can be judged by the quality of the site you're looking at now: hacky CSS, vertical wall of text, ugly cartoon Orobourus... what can I say, I'm a programmer, not a web designer.) Anyway, the backwoods roads of southeastern Connecticut were a pretty good place for some driving lessons: very little traffic, low speed limits, lots of gentle curves, few intersections. I did a bunch of parking practice in the empty lot behind the local high school.
Navigating traffic feels familiar already, as I've been riding my bike in city street traffic for the past two years. I just have to get used to the fact that I have a big metal box around me. My aunt noticed that I spent way too much attention to cars behind me. I think this was an instinct from biking in traffic, where the car coming up behind me in my lane is the single greatest threat to my life. In a car I guess the car behind me is not so much my problem. It's more like I'm his problem.
Parking/unparking and highway driving will be the two skills that are genuinely unfamiliar. They'll take some practice.
Tomorrow morning I'm heading to the DMV, along with every form of paper and photo identification known to man, to take the written and vision tests to get my official learner's permit. Once I've got that, Mom has offered to give me some driving lessons out in the suburbs.
I'm aiming to take the test and get my license before the end of February. Then I'll be able to take another trip out to Silicon Valley, rent a car there, and drive myself around to look at apartments (and more importantly: Aikido dojos) in the area so I can find a place to live before it's time to move out there permanently in March.
Silicon Valley Blues
So how bout this Silicon Valley place, eh?
On the one hand, Silicon Valley is a land of legends. Just saying "Silicon Valley" still gives me a bit of a thrill. The last time I visited here, in
November, I gave a talk to the Bay Area CHI (computer-human-interaction group) at the Palo Alto Research Center, formerly Xerox PARC. Xerox PARC, dude. That's where the GUI was invented, and the mouse, and the laser printer, and object-oriented programming. Dude. I was there giving a talk. Goosebumps. Over there is Cupertino and Apple headquarters. A short trip away is Mountain View, home of Google (and Mozilla). I imagine this what it feels like to travel around the ancient and storied lands of the Middle East: "That's where Gilgamesh slew Tiamat... that's where Moses parted the Red Sea..." except that around here you'd point out birthplaces of programming languages, the homes of 30-year-old billionaires, and the gravestones of dead dot-coms.
On the other hand, Silicon Valley is just another suburban wasteland: congested highways, strip malls, and the exact same mega-chain stores you'd see anywhere else in the country. The famous corporate headquarters are just generic office-park buildings, and Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, and so on might as well be any random suburbs of New York or Chicago, except that the rent is higher and there are some palm trees.
I would just file this under "amusing geographical paradoxes", except that I'm going to be living here. I have to find an apartment now, so suddenly the character of the local towns is a matter of vital personal interest.
Until quite recently, I mistook the Bay Area for San Francisco. Like most people who have never been to this area, I mentally lumped it all together. But in four or five trips to the Bay Area, only in the last two days have I seen San Francisco proper. It's an hour's drive away from South Bay/Silicon Valley, and that's on a good traffic day.
I'm a big fan of living close to work. Life is too short to spend multiple hours a day commuting. My life in Chicago improved greatly once I moved to the North Side, within half-an-hour bike ride of the place where I worked. My current apartment is also within easy biking distance of Trader Joe's, a sketchy Asian grocery store, an Aikido dojo, a bank, and a post office. Those are pretty much the only places I need to go to on a daily basis. I live close to the train so I can easily use that to visit people who live farther away. Having all of this stuff in one place means I've been able to live fine without a car for the past several years. That means saving money and never having to worry about parking, gas, insurance, oil changes, etc. etc.
Life has been pretty good. It would be nice to hang on to my car-free, urban, close-to-work, train-and-bicycle-centric lifestyle. But I don't think I can. Mozilla is located in Mountain View, not in the city. Therefore I can either live close to work or I can live in the city, but not both. This is my dilemma.
Mountain View is one of those car-centric suburban sprawls I mentioned. It's got all the history and charm of Christmas lights on a plastic palm tree.
(It took me a while to find the "mountain view" that the town was named for. Said view is easily blocked by any one-story building.)
I took mass transportation from San Francisco back to Mountainview once. It took two train rides followed by two bus rides, for a total of two and a half hours. This is because the Bay Area is served by a confusing mash-up of seven or eight incompatible mass transit systems which overlap with each other in awkward ways, and the towns of the South Bay are not served well by any of them.
I spent way too much time waiting around in the rain on this trip, because I didn't have a car, so I was dependent on getting rides from Aza or on mass transit. Both were impractical and frustrating. I really should have planned my transportation better before coming.
Alright, so living here without a car is not an option. Fine. But even with a car, there are the infamous traffic jams on highway 101 to contend with. I've heard horror stories. Spending half an hour in a car to go a few miles is not my idea of a good time.
Finally, the way Mozilla staffers describe Mountain View is as "boring", "no nightlife", "nothing around here", "nothing to do". "Sure you'd be close to work, but what will you do on the weekends?" was a common reaction to people when I asked about living in Mountain View.
The neighboring suburbs are, as far as I can tell, pretty much identical.
So, let's consider the urban alternative: San Francisco.
Up until two days ago, this was the sum total of my knowledge about San Francisco:
- The Frank Zappa song that goes "Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street / gooo tooo saaan fra-an-cis-co-oo-woh"
- There was a homeless guy there back in the 1800s who proclaimed himself Emporer Norton I of the United States of America; he became a local legend and inspired a memorable Sandman episode as well as the name of Isaac's band.
- They have like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and stuff. And their streets are really steep.
Now that I've been there, I can add the following facts:
- The streets are really, really steep. In most other places a 40-degree incline would be considered too steep to bother developing, but in SF it's prime real-estate. SF is a tiny surrounded by water on three sides, and lots of people want to live there, so it has nowhere else to go but up the side of the mountains. Walking on these streets is like climbing a mountain; driving on them is a bit like a roller-coaster. It's exciting! And the view from the top is pretty nice.
- It's crowded. As I said, it's a tiny area and lots of people want to live there.
- It's crowded with homeless people and weirdos. In the span of thirty minutes walking around in the South-of-Market neighborhood, I saw about four dozen homeless people sleeping in corners or pushing shopping carts, one guy with a pink beard wearing a dress, another guy with a staff and wizard robes, and more piercings than I care to think about.
- Everyone around here calls it "The City". As if the Bay Area was the only area in the world; as if SF was the only city in the Bay Area. (It's not even the biggest. San Jose is more populous and closer to Silicon Valley, it's just not as dense and not as famous.) I am getting the impression that SF has rather an inflated sense of its own importance.
- SF has a pretty cool Chinatown, as well as major enclaves of every other Asian nationality you care to name.
- The monthly rent of an apartment in SF costs more than the average Chinese family earns in three years. (Whereas the rent I pay in Chicago would take the Chinese family a mere six months.)
Aza and Atul are living in San Francisco for sure. Aza grew up near there and thinks it's the greatest city ever; he never seriously considered living anyplace else. He's sharing an apartment with Atul. Not me, though. I don't really want to live with them and they don't really want to live with me. I'm going to be seeing plenty of them at work. And besides, we have different lifestyle expectations. As they put it: "Jono, we want to have real furniture, not beanbags and milk crates.". (Bah humbug! Beanbags and milk crates forever!)
In favor of SF, there is apparently a commuter bus that goes from SF straight to Mountainview. It takes about an hour, on a good traffic day, but it's rumored to have free wi-fi aboard, so people can get their e-mailing out of the way and then focus on work once they get to work. The single fact of this bus's existence changes living in SF from a practical impossibility to a reasonable choice, which a lot of Mozilla employees take.
And SF apparently has "culture" and "nightlife" and "lots to do" and all the other stuff that the South Bay lacks. But the thing is, I'm not sure I'd use any of that if I had it. How long have I been in Chicago, and how often have I done any of the "cultural" stuff that Chicago has to offer? Not very much. Mostly I just go to work and come home, or I go to somebody's house for gaming.
So I don't think that I'd be so much happier living in SF that it would be worth an extra ten hours of time per week spent in a bus.
Get Me Outta Here!
I've decided to go with living in the South Bay, in or very close to Mountain View. I'll accept that I'll just have to have a car, but I'll try to be close enough to work that I don't have to use the car every day. When there's something I want to do in SF, I'll take the train up there.
This seems like the least of several evils, but I wasn't happy about it. The idea of living in the Bay Area was making me more and more depressed. People talk up the Bay Area but it seems like living here is the price that I'll have to pay in order to have this job. The job is going to be so awesome that I have no second thoughts about accepting the price, but still I was dreading the move.
I admit it, I'm a skeptic and a curmudgeon. Things that strike me as phony or snobby make me bristle like a porcupine. The conspicuous consumption, new-agey affectations, and pseudo-Asian trendiness of the Bay Area are all setting off my alarms pretty fiercely. People there are so spoiled that a light rain and a slightly chilly breeze set off complaints about the horrible weather. And the next time I hear someone hyping another Web 2.0 social-networking startup named with a random misspelled word, I'm gonna throw up.
Basically what I'm saying is, if I ever turn into one of the guys in this New York Times article, please shoot me.
But after being depressed for a while, I took another look at the map and had a good long think and realized I was forgetting something important.
Not only will I be closer to nature here than I was in Chicago, but it's more interesting nature. An hour's drive out of Chicago and you're still in the suburbs; but an hour's drive from Mountainview and I'll be in the mountains or on the seashore. Both are thickly dotted with state and national parks. There's opportunities for hiking, camping, mountain climbing, swimming, surfing, and sailing. And if I just accept the fact that I'm going to have to own a car, I'll be able to go do that stuff anytime I want.
Hmmm, that's not so bad after all.
It doesn't matter how rich and shallow Silicon Valley is if I can just leave it any time for some outdoor adventures, by myself or with a couple of friends. That's what I'll do! Forget San Francisco, forget Silicon Valley, forget nightlife and culture and money; I'm going to head for the hills every weekend. Time to be a country mouse again. I'll have an apartment in Mountain View near work for sleeping and keeping my stuff, but my home will be the mountains and the mighty Pacific.
Now I can be excited about the move.