21 Dog Years, Doing Time at Amazon.com by Mike Daisey

by Valerie MacEwan

19 June 2002


Adventures in Webland

“The trouble with the profit system has always been that it was highly
—e to most people.”
— E. B. White, One Man’s Meat

“Things are entirely what they appear to be — and behind them. There is
—r>— Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea

cover art

21 Dog Years, Doing Time At Amazon.com

Mike Daisey

(Free Press)

21 Dog Years, Doing Time at Amazon.com is a convoluted dot-com generation version of A Separate Peace The classic literary themes—rebellion vs. conformity, innocence vs. age, and, conscience and guilt—woven into the coming-of-age tale of Mike Daisey, a slacker, a dilettante. But unlike the narrative of Gene Forester’s experiences, Daisey’s adventures make you laugh out loud. This book is funny as hell.

It will undoubtedly be deemed a classic for the slacker crowd, a how-to manual for the slothful and easily amused.

Like Gene Forester and his friend Phineas, Mike Daisey and his fellow Amazonians were children of “careless peace”. Only, instead of being “set apart from adults by their lack of knowledge of war and their utter abandon to their own happy worlds,” their bliss stemmed from their lack of knowledge of successful business models so apparent by the dot com grab and go frenzy of the late ‘90s.

While Forester revisits the school after 15 years and considers the way he is and the way he was, Daisey doesn’t go back. But he does evaluate how the experience changed him. In the book he compares his pre-Amazon days to his cubicle years with the company.

Daisey, a dilettante, with a very un-marketable degree in aesthetics, gets a call from a temp agency. Amazon.com is hiring and they’re looking for freaks. Daisey’s name jumped out of the database. “My first meeting with the recruiter was a revelation. She was a polite and talkative lady with thick glasses and an overbite. Her favorite maneuver was to breathe in through her mouth, flare her nostrils, and then blast the air back out her nose—a human air conditioner . Years later I found out that the staffing company had a bin for the Amazon applications separate from all other assignments. The receptionist saw that the bin was labeled F. P. and asked what it stood for. ‘Oh, that’s for Freak Parade,’ she was told. ‘You know, the Amazonians.’”

After spending a few years as a slacker in Seattle, Daisey becomes obsessed with dental hygiene and takes the job at Amazon because he must have dental insurance. This is one of those books that begs to be excerpted, quoted to truly give a taste of what’s in store for the reader. Three different people picked up the book off my coffee table and each one began reading and laughing out loud. These were people who don’t normally read anything except Linux journals or C++ training manuals. Daisey describes the informal session for prospective Amazon recruits:

And my God, those people! The four Amazonians who came to speak with us had the clearest, cleanest skin that I’d ever seen. Two men, two women—they said they worked in customer service, which they referred to as “CS.” Two of the four wore REI fleece vests and all four had some slight variation of the same khaki Dockers pants. And that hygiene. These folks must have an amazing medical plan that includes plastic surgery or genetic reprogramming, I thought. I was encouraged in my quest to prevent tooth decay.

The book reads like an evening conversation among friends. Daisey’s style is laid back and easy. He’s telling you a story. A slacker’s tale. Settling back in your chair, you relax and let him talk, not wanting to interrupt the flow. He’s not mean-spirited, many of the jokes are “on him”. He seems to genuinely admire Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos. And Daisey told me he doesn’t particularly care what Amazon thinks of his book, despite his admission that he faked reports and gave away books.

Life at Amazon.com becomes Daisey’s “Devon,” not a private boarding school but a private club of believers. And the president of the club is Jeff Bezos. Daisey describes Bezos as a “bright and studious elf—Santa’s second lieutenant.” Even after leaving Amazon, Daisey’s admiration for Bezos is unfailing. “He is gentle, a rare trait in humans, particularly CEOs. You would trust him with your children; when you got home he would have taught them how to sequence DNA and how the kitchen sink disposal really works. I have never had a kinder more human employer before or since—Jeff is amazingly dedicated to connecting with everyone in his company.” One does wonder if Daisey isn’t vying for some affection, a pat on the head, from Bezos.

While working at Amazon, Daisey writes off-the-wall emails to Bezos. The messages are sycophantic, fawning and strange. He doesn’t send them. After reading the book, I wrote off-the-wall emails to Daisey. I sent them.

To:  Mike [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Subject:  Books, Words, and Dreams

MacEwan: I’m really not meaning to intrude but I have to ask: Are you making a lot of money now that you’ve become a terrific author? Do you feel as if your aesthetic life has become concrete?

Daisey: In a word, no. I do feel like I have a stronger idea of what I’m doing here on earth, and I seem to be able to make a living writing and performing, but it isn’t a rock star lifestyle—it’s pretty moderate, and after Amazon I’ve realized that’s all I really wanted.


MacEwan: There’s nothing wrong with it, you know, this feeling of satisfaction from a job well done, the feeling you must have since your book has been so well received. You made us laugh and you made us think. Last night, my dog had a dream. He was running in place and barking with his eyes closed. I imagined he thought he was at Amazon, running through the warehouse, trying to fill all the orders. He is only seven dog years old but I know he feels the stress of being a Jack Russell terrier.

Daisey: They say dogs only have two dreams: the good dream and the bad dream. I like to believe that’s true, and I think it might also be true in our own lives—workers have either the good or bad dream, and in a lot of cases the only real difference is what perspective you have on what you’re living through.

* * * *

MacEwan: So what are you going to do with all that money? You’re a geek wanna’be and we all totally respect that. My friends are open-source advocates, can’t get enough of Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman. He is their Bezos Prime.

Daisey: Should the book really break out, or a film version starring Russell Crowe is made, I plan to take all my unbelievable amounts of money and open a small theater that is also a Macintosh repair shop, and there I will while away my hours, soldering motherboards and performing shows.

This is vanishingly unlikely.


MacEwan: Question, then: Is Torvalds the anti-thesis of Bezos?

Daisey: That’s a good one. There’s some truth in that, as Bezos would just look at him and wonder why he doesn’t get undepressed and JUST DO IT. I doubt Jeff knows the reference, though—he’s very smart, but generally linearly focused.


MacEwan: Question, another: How hard was it to get an agent and get a publishing contract for your book? Do you think the “timeliness” of the subject matter increased your chances for success? I think, well, actually, anyone who reads the book would think, that your writing style and your wit would sell the book in a nanosecond, but you got to wonder if it being about Bezo didn’t tickle their fancy.

Daisey: Definitely the topicality helped. I have been dilettanting it all over the place for years, so if the topicality and attention hadn’t focused in and made me get on the stick about landing a contract, I doubt I ever would have written my first book. I would have thought about it, fucked around and never done a damn thing. So I never dreamed of making Amazon the focus of my first writing effort, but it’s a good subject, I like the larger issues and it helped me get my foot in the door. Now they’re going to have to cut that foot off is they ever expect me to leave.


MacEwan: Question, the last one: Have you had any comments from Amazon about the book?

Daisey: Nope. They just say, “We haven’t read the book, but we hear it is very funny, and we wish Mike all the best.” No one seems to be reviewing it from Amazon, so I guess they can maintain that stance.


MacEwan: Oh, wait, one more: How nerve splitting is it to go on Letterman? [Daisey appeared on David Letterman on June 11th.]

Daisey: Pretty bad. I’m actually rather relaxed about it—I mean, I’ve seen the guy my whole life, so it is easy to imagine what it will be like. But there are media handlers and discussions and topic breakdowns . . . you feel like you are participating in a shuttle launch.


MacEwan: And, I completely understand your trip to Spain. It’s like a lump sum in a divorce settlement. Spend it and get rid of it, or it will haunt you.

Daisey: Agreed.


MacEwan: The book is awesome, I thoroughly enjoyed it, I laughed out loud, I’ve been on the crap-end of the dot.com stock “promise of wealth” and I am so glad you wrote this book.

Daisey: Thank you so much . . . I hope others find it both funny and releasing, like a very humorous enema, or a comedy diuretic of some kind.


And now for something completely different, PopMatters reviewer John Biggs comments on 21 Dog Days:


Just finished reading your book 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com and have to admit I’m a little bit angry. You entered the world of business like a British colonial. You didn’t understand the native language of the Choctaw and the Iroquois or whoever, but they had maize, you had none, so you made do. You wandered the halls of Amazon looking for things to write back to Mother England about, your every move bent on gaining fodder for your harsh little look at the dark continent that was the dot-com boom.

Ok, so I enjoyed your little emails to Jeff Bezos. You sounded like a novice praying to be a bride of Christ. If old Jeff had only laid one hand the deformed hump of a liberal arts education you still carry with you like a goiter, you would have been saved. But I got to tell you, Mike. It wouldn’t have helped.

See, Mike, I worked at a computer company as well. The company I worked for wasn’t nearly as sexy as Amazon.com, but I assure you the heirarchy of the business were the same: programmers high on the hill, management trying its damnedest to stay above water, and the peons like you (and me) caught at the bottom of the pyramid with the fattest cheerleader on our backs.

But it was guys like you, Mike, who made that damn cheerleader even heavier. You should have stuck to acting (and it’s good to see that you’ve returned to it in your eponymous off-Broadway Spaulding-Grey-A-Thon) and loafing around. At least you wouldn’t have sucked so hard on Amazon’s teat and made guys like me and the rest of your co-workers pick up the slack. And you actually progressed, Mike. You got pretty far in up the ladder, all the way to BizDev.

But you were kind of sly about it. The difference was I knew what I was doing. I went to school for IT, and came out as fresh-faced as you. But I had a skill-set. All you could do was bullshit.

Perhaps Amazon shouldn’t have hired you? Who knows? Who cares?

Now you pulled a lot of stunts over at Amazon. You faked a report that got you promoted. You gamed the system to get better response times and you worked around problems like a pro by hemming, hawing, and muttering something about “P2P commerce for pets.” But you made a mistake: you said that your experience was definitively Amazonian, the epitome of what was wrong with the dot-com world. It wasn’t. Any busboy worth his salt knows how to get more tips through wheedling and cajoling. College kids, and even some professors, around the world know all about faking data to get a desired result. Your book wasn’t a dot-com book, it was a slacker book.

Listen, Mike, you could have written a great book about the dot-com bust if you had actually paid attention. You were on the inside. You could have built a nice tome of reportage instead of a sophomoric romp through Seattle and then Spain, where you discovered that drinking was a panacea that drew you away from the Dark Side of BizDev onto the Shining Path of aesthetics, drama, and coffeehouses. I know I’m mixing metaphors, but I’m fuming. You said Amazon drained you and made you a Republican. That’s cause you wanted the mad money the MBAs were getting. Case closed.

Anyway, dude, keep at it. I can tell you this much: I’ll tell my slacker friends about your book because its clear they’ll identify with you. But this boom, the boom you rode so hard on, has left a lot of people unhappy. You have a job, Mike, telling your shaggy dog story to the world. What about the gurus up on the hill who are rewording their resumes so they don’t sound so qualified for entry-level tech positions? What about your over-worked colleagues who, because of gun-shy management, are doing the Customer Service of twelve stout men? You got out before the pop, Mike, and you cashed in your options on a story. But stay out of the next tech boom. Stick with being a liberal arts dilettante and not a techie dilettante. I’ll be watching you.

Your Humble Admirer,
John Biggs

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