The first few days of any significant overseas trip, I’m a jerk. It’s not just the jetlag that’s poisoning my attitude; it’s the lack of context. I get twitchy when I don’t know where my stuff is. Combine that with the fact that no one is speaking English, there are two toilets in the bathroom, and I have no idea what time it is and you can begin to understand why I’m in such a foul mood.
Three days in, I’m sleeping, I know it’s called a bidet, and I’m working hard on my Italian R and U sounds. I’m having fun, but I’m still thinking about my lack of context. I’m thinking about the familiar place I’ve built so that I can work.
The picture on the About page is my Cave. It came as part of the new house. I didn’t paint the walls blood red, they came that way. Most folks who get the tour walk into The Cave and gasp at the walls. “They’re so dark how can think surrounded by this ominous redness?” I nod and grin slightly and shuffle them off to the next room. See, I love my Cave. The thick blood red walls wrap me in comfort and that is what a Cave does.
My Cave is my intellectual home. My kitchen is where I eat, my bed is where I sleep, and my Cave is where I think. Everyone has some sort of Cave; just follow them around their house. It might be a garage full of tools or a kitchen full of cookware, but there is a Cave stashed somewhere in the house.
The nerd Cave has some specific traits:
- A computer on a desk with ready access to the Internet. The fact that a computer without an Internet connection is essentially a very expensive DVD player is a recent development, but the fact is, when I sit down at my MacBook and there is no wireless I think, “Well, I could play Bejeweled, right?” In The Cave, the Internet is the life blood. It connects this dark place with the rest of the world.
- World-canceling features such as a door or noise-reducing headphones. These features are a nuisance to significant others interested in communication, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
- A random collection of comforting nerd knick knacks. This varies wildly from nerd to nerd, but there is always at least one object or talisman of nerd-dom sitting in the Cave. I have this white carved stone polar bear staring at me right now. I think I got it for Christmas. It’s been staring at me for ten years now and each time I sit down in the Cave, I worry that if the polar bear wasn’t there… I wouldn’t be able to write.
- Something to drink. This may be my thing, but I can’t really settle into The Cave without something liquid. Right now, it’s a cup of homebrew by Peet’s. In the afternoon, it’s a glass of water. In the evening, it might be wine or a beer. For me, the drink is a mental pause where I intensely scrutinize the last 30 seconds. What did I just write? What am I trying to say? [sip] Ok, back to work.
- A well-defined layout. This ties into my NADD, but I have deep knowledge of the layout of my Cave. Each month, the housecleaners come for a tidying of the house and each month I walk into my office when they are done and spend 30 minutes adjusting my monitors, relocating my pens, and re-piling my papers. I think it’s great that someone is coming to clean the house, but I wish they’d STOP TOUCHING MY STUFF.
- A view. Like the drink, the view is a mental break, an escape to somewhere else that provides a brief alteration to perspective. This is why everyone in the office wants a window. It’s not a status symbol, it’s an escape. I’ve seen nerds without a view go to great lengths to create one. My manager at UCSC built a working window frame in his subterranean office and put posters from around the world behind it. When I left UCSC, he had a poster of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It’s an ominous name: Cave. It alludes to a dark, damp place where you are likely to be eaten by a grue. The irony is that the purpose of a Cave is not to insulate, its purpose is to germinate. I’ll explain.
Each weekend morning, my process is this: I wake up, walk up stairs, sit down at the computer, and figure out what is happening on the planet. Once I’m comfortable the sky is not falling, I walk to the kitchen, grind my coffee beans, and begin to boil water. While the water is heating up, I return to my computer and follow up on whatever tidbits tickled my fancy from my first pass. This morning, it was some World Cup research followed by looking into options around wireless headphones. Turns out, Sony sucks. Go figure. Water’s boiling! Back to the kitchen, where I pour hot water into my French press and dig up my favorite ceramic cup. The coffee needs to sit for three minutes, which means back to the computer! Ok, so why do Sony headphones suck? Poor sound quality? Bad design? Bit of both, really. Coffee’s ready, so one more trip to the kitchen where I pour the steaming brew into my favorite cup and travel, once more, to my Cave.
It looks like a lot of work, but I do it instinctively . It’s a routine designed to do one thing — get me into The Zone. Much has been written elsewhere about the mental state that is The Zone, but I will say this: it is a deeply creative space where inspiration is built. Anything which you perceive as beautiful, useful, or fun comes from someone stumbling through The Zone.
Once I’ve successfully traversed my morning routine and have entered The Zone, I am OFF LIMITS. I mean it. Intruding into The Cave and disrupting The Zone is no different than standing up in the middle of the first ever showing of The Empire Strikes Back, jumping up and down, and yelling, “DARTH VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER! DARTH VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER!” Not only are you ruining the mood, you’re killing a major creative work. Think about that the next time you enter The Cave with a useless question about what shoes you should wear.
No, I’m not going to answer the phone. In fact, it’s a sure sign of compromised Cave design if I can even hear the phone ring. And no, I don’t hear you when you walk in and ask if we should go to the park tomorrow. I don’t hear you the second time, either. I don’t mean I’m ignoring you because that’d involve using precious brain cycles I need for The Zone… I really CAN’T hear you. That’s how deep I am in The Zone.
No , I have no idea that it’s been four hours since I closed the door and began furiously typing. Really, the only things I know are: a) when my coffee cup is empty, and b) when I need to head to the bathroom.
Yes. When you successfully penetrate The Zone, there is a chance I’ll be an asshole. In fact, I might snap.
This is where I apologize.
No one deserves to be on the receiving end of The Snap. All you were really doing was coming in to see when I was done because we agreed we’d go surfing this afternoon. Still, I got in The Zone and I’m writing this wicked article and WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU WANT? The Snap is a glare, a raised voice… something designed to indicate you are PISSING ME OFF with your presence.
It’s not fair, I realize that, but think of it like this. If you walk up to me and slap me across the face, I’m not going to think, “Why’d you do that?” I’m not going to take the time to dissect the situation. My instinct is going to be pure, primal, and immediate. I’m going to slap you back.
The reason for this irrational reaction is antiquated brain wiring. Four million years ago it was to my evolutionary advantage to respond to slaps as quickly as possible because they were often precursors to being eaten. Rather than piping my slap response through the “What is a Reasonable Response?” portion of my brain, it’s wired straight into my “React Immediately or Else” area. Somehow, The Snap response has the same wiring. Invasion of The Zone is akin to some primal activity that required the brain to wire itself for immediate, irrational response.
It’s not right, it’s not socially acceptable, and I regret my actions 30 seconds later, but in 20 years of nerdery, the quest hasn’t been to kill The Snap, but figure out how to manage it.
Try as I might, I don’t always make it to The Zone. I’ll go through all my odd little pre-Zone activities of drink and music selection. I’ll slightly adjust the five essential objects on my desk and I’ll begin… playing World of Warcraft.
This is not The Zone… this is The Place. It is very similar to The Zone in appearance, but, mentally, it’s a different muscle that I’m exercising. If The Zone is akin to playing power forward in a championship hockey game, The Place is the six hours spent in the weight room the day before. Yes, I’m using my mental muscles, but I’m not really building anything.
The rule is this: your significant other can interrupt The Place with impunity. That’s the rule. I might Snap, but if you let me linger in The Place like you should let me work in The Zone, you’ll never see me. If you walk into my office to ask me something and see a half-naked night elf dancing on my screen, you are hereby authorized to invade. Mistakes will happen and you’ll invade The Zone thinking it’s The Place, but after I’ve cooled down, it’s my responsibility to explain why what looks like The Place is actually The Zone.
Nerds are rewarded for structure. We get big bucks for reliably generating useful technology that works. Sure, we’re artists, but it’s an art of patterns, repetition, structure, and efficiency (I swear, it’s sexy). This makes it not surprising that the places we create in our homes and in our minds are designed in the same fashion.
The risk with these places is the same risk with all comfortable places. In the comfort, we forget that some of the most interesting stuff happens elsewhere.