Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Sacred Outcome

It's the end of the year, which means that, at work, we've already spent the last month or two talking about what we want to do next year.  We have big plans: bringing on a batch of jumbo clients, moving into a new building, advancing our products, and making our organization faster and more nimble than it's ever been (we're going to have to, if we want to bring on all those clients).  As we've talked about all of these big ideas, we've also talked about what might keep us from achieving those goals.  Over and over, we come to the same conclusion: we can't keep doing what we've done before, or we won't make it.  My company's been in business for over 25 years, and our software division has been around for 6 years.  In technology time, that's like 30 years when you look at how much has changed, and how some decisions we made 5 years ago look like the crazed ramblings of a drunken lunatic when we look at them now.  More than once, I've heard one of my engineers say, "What idiot wrote this feature? Oh, wait, that was me."

Change is continuous in our business, but this year the need is greater than usual.  We need to get serious about this if we're going to succeed.  So we came up with a phrase to guide us:

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.

If we're going to change, really change, the way we do business, we have to let go of everything that got us here.  We can't hold onto that great idea that solved a big problem last summer, nor the "best practices" that took years to develop, nor even the new process that we finally finished polishing last month.  If any of these things stand in the way of our goals, they have to go.  If they still make sense in the new world, then they can stay.  If they have no bearing on the new solution but still have value of their own, then they don't need to be touched; we have bigger fish to fry.  But if these things become and obstacle, then they'll be demolished.  Even the best idea grows old and tired over time.

This is a hard concept to embrace.  We talk about building a culture of continuous improvement, and we even practice it in small ways, but we still become attached to our ideas, our way of doing things, over time.  I'm fine with tweaking your development process every few weeks, but keep your hands off of my code branching strategy!  Do you know how many whiteboards I had to fill before everyone agreed to that?  And what about your support ticket management?  Maybe we should look at that before we get all handsy with another person's source code archive.

Too often, I've had conversations like this:

Me: So why do we do it that way?

Engineer: Well, three years ago, there was this problem, and after we worked really hard we came up with this solution.  We've been doing it that way ever since.

Me: Has anything changed since then?

Engineer: As far as I know, we're all still living in a uni-directional time flow, so yes, some things have changed.

Me: Then why are you thinking like it's still three years ago?

A lot of my engineers are smart-asses.  But they're smart smart-asses, which is why I like them.

When I solve a problem, I want it to stay solved.  That's why I put so much energy into coming up with the best answer in the first place.  That tendency to push beyond an answer to the best answer has annoyed a lot of people in my life, from my parents and teachers on to my colleagues and bosses, but it's also gotten me to where I am.  I don't settle for kicking the problem down the road.  I want that problem dead.  I want its family dead, I want its house burned to the ground, I never want to hear about it or its little problematic friends again.  That takes a lot of work.  This is great when I first come up with a solution, but what about when circumstances change?  When the context of the problem no longer applies, what then?  That solution took a lot of work, but now it no longer fits.  What was a great answer to a problem is now nothing more than baggage.  As difficult as it is, I have to let it go.  We have to let it go.  We have to leave the past effort behind, grateful for the value it provided, but not clinging to it past its useful life.

We all have sacred things in our lives, whether at work or otherwise, that were purchased at a great price, whether measured in dollars or hours.  These things might have brought us great success in the past, or they might have just been so difficult to attain that we can't imagine letting them go now.  But too often, the sacred object becomes the one thing that holds us back from success, from moving on to the next goal.  When we say, "I'll change anything except for that," we wall off entire areas of our lives, forcing us to take lengthy detours to achieve our goals, if in fact we can attain them at all.  The great prize becomes a weight around our neck, dragging us down even as we seek to climb higher.

What do you want to achieve in your life?  What "sacred things" are keeping you from doing it?  Maybe it's time to shift the focus from what has come before to what is yet to come.  Let's leave behind those entangling threads, recognizing that last year's efforts are sunk cost, not to be counted in our future plans, and let's reach for new things.  Let's feel free to change, to strike out anew, and to achieve that sacred goal.

Nothing is sacred except the outcome.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ahead of My Time

I was just going for the joke.

In Hollywood.bomb (now available on Amazon), I have a character named Stu.  He's the new guy: a little odd, but who isn't in the software world?  He rides a recumbent bike to work, doesn't own a cell phone, and grows most of his own food.  It isn't until the guys get to know him better that they learn that there's a purpose behind these choices.  He's a Neo-Luddite, someone who resists the steady advance of technology.  In his case, he's chosen to only use technologies invented before 1920 as a way to simplify his life.  The fact that he makes his living as a computer programmer is only one of the many complexities hiding under the quiet surface of Stu.  The fact that it provides many opportunities for entertaining dialogue as his colleagues quiz him on which technologies he will and won't use is why I love this little character quirk.

The joke?  Be patient, little ones, we're getting to it.

In Chapter 9, Stu is confronted about his self-proclaimed beliefs by Frank, the resident curmudgeon, who's been doing a little research:

"OK, Mr. Techno-Ambivalence.  I researched this Luddite thing on the web, and there are no rules that say you can use some technology and not others.  It’s butter churns and wooden pegs or nothing.  So what’s the real story?"
Stu looked up at him calmly.  "I’m Reform."

"We're Reform."  The punch line of countless jokes told by my Jewish friends and in-laws, the explanation for decades of bizarre and unorthodox behavior.

"But Bubbe,  I don't understand, why did you wrap the baby in bacon?"

"Don't worry, dear, we're Reform."

Trust me, that joke killed at my son's Bar Mitzvah.

So, while exploring what it would be like to live as a technological holdout in a high-tech company, I thought I'd throw in a little in-joke for my friends and family, and they enjoyed it.  Imagine my surprise today when one of my readers emailed me to let me know that she was Googling "Reform Luddism" after reading that chapter in my book.  My response was, "That's a thing?  I thought I made it up!"

So, yeah, it's a thing.  Who knew?

Not only that, but if you read the description of Reform Luddism in this Huffington Post article, you'll find that it pretty much describes our friend Stu to a T.  So not only did I make this thing up, apparently I guessed pretty accurately how a person who decided to become a Reform Luddite would live.  Minus the 1920 cutoff, of course: that's my conceit, though there's nothing to say that a Reform Luddite couldn't decide that 1920 marked the demarcation between helpful and intrusive technology, so I guess that Stu still fits the mold.

It's fun to see how the same idea can evolve in two completely different places, even for very different reasons.  I wanted a laugh, they want a more genuine lifestyle.  But as columnist Blake Snow says in the article:
"They still appreciate the conveniences of the information age. But they favor analog, offline experiences more. They distinguish simulated from authentic life, and recognize the importance of both, while striving for the latter."
 So as long as we can agree that not all technology is bad, then I think we'll all get along.  I, for one, am extremely grateful for new publishing technologies like blogs and the Amazon Kindle, so that I can share these ideas with you (and hopefully provide some entertainment in the process).

And those rumors of violence in the recent history of the Neo-Luddite movement, do those affect Stu?  Well, you'll just have to read the book to find out.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The end of an odyssey (and the start of a new adventure)

For the past 10 years, I've been working on a little side project that has come to be known in our house as "The Book."  I've committed regular "writing nights" (Tuesdays, if you're curious) to it to force myself to complete chapters even when I wasn't feeling particularly creative or funny.  I've washed dishes until my hands cracked to give me something to do while my mind wandered and tried to find its way around obstacles in the story.  Then, after several years of nights and weekends, breaks and restarts, I finished the last chapter, only to realize that now I had to go back and edit it.  I printed out a copy and put it away, because I couldn't bear to look at it anymore.

Then, after taking a year or so to work up the courage to dive back in, I started the editing process.  That, too, took a couple of years, as my children grew up and my job became more demanding.  I had to update the technology references.  I looked for places where the main character "flipped his phone open" and made sure he was swiping instead of pushing buttons.  I agonized over particularly funny sequences that slowed the story down and I groaned over particularly unfunny sequences that seemed like a good idea at the time.  As I worked, I found typos made by tired fingers, misnamed characters caused by toddler interruptions, and plot points that needed tightening.  I also found a bunch of scenes that still made me laugh, as well as sequences that had become so embedded in my brain that I had started to think that they were real memories until I saw them on the laptop screen again.  I enjoyed visiting my characters again and helping them tell an even better story.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I also did what every writer is supposed to do: I tried to find a publisher.  I wrote and rewrote my query letter and sent it to friends asking, "Would you buy this book?"  Or course, they're my friends, so most of them said, "Yes!"  Unfortunately, the publishers and book agents weren't so friendly.  I received polite form letters in some cases, echoing silence in most. The book industry wasn't ready for my masterpiece.  Just for fun, I reached out to a friend in the film industry who had connections with a studio or two.  He submitted my manuscript for consideration to be turned into a movie, mainly as a way for me to get some semi-professional feedback.  I was unsurprised when the studio passed on the opportunity to adapt it for film, and I chose not to be offended that the studio's reader put the word "humor" in quotes in his evaluation.

Somewhere along the way, Amazon offered an alternative for aspiring authors, and I chose to take it. Kindle Direct Publishing gave me the chance to put my book in readers' hands without the need for a publisher, so I decided to take it.  I know that there's some stigma associated with self-published books, and I've read enough of them to know why.  I don't know whether my book is good enough to rise above the noise, and in some ways I don't care.  All I want is for people to read it, to share in a story that has kept me and my close friends and family entertained for years, but with the added benefit of being able to read the whole thing at once rather than chapter by chapter.  I want to share it, with the hope that it will entertain, that readers will laugh a little, chuckle a few times, and maybe even guffaw once or twice when a phrase take a surprise swipe at their funny bone.

I also want to share this crazy world that I've inhabited for the last 15 years or so, full of intelligent, quirky, and painfully honest people who are more interested in solving problems than making anyone feel good about them.  Software development is a world where nudists can work the night shift, where cursing someone out in Russian is just the prelude to a stirring debate on application design, and where it doesn't matter how you look or how you sound, as long as you can build cool stuff.  I love this industry, and I expect I'll spend the rest of my career here, solving incredibly complex problems with a group of hyper-logical oddballs who challenge me every day to deal with the fact that I'm not the smartest guy in the room (although I'll still force them to prove it).  I can't bring everyone into the office, but I want to give them a glimpse -- albeit a satirical, exaggerated one -- into this amazing industry that I call home.

Here's my book.  I hope you enjoy it.

Hollywood.bomb, the novel, now available on Amazon.com


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"A Passionate Drama for the Ages"

Passion: it's a good thing.  I, for example, am passionate about caring for my family, about living out my faith, and about building great software products (that last one's even on my resume, so it has to be true).  I also really enjoy biking, hiking, writing, reading, and, sometimes, just sitting in the dark by myself, but I wouldn't say that I'm passionate about those things.

Passion is food and light, fuel and fire.  It sustains us, it drives us, it consumes us.  It's the difference between "YEAH!" and "meh...."  If you're passionate enough about something, we're told, then you can do anything, be anything, achieve anything.  It's like a one-way ticket to the stars, with an unlimited supply of rocket fuel.

In my years (OK, decades) working with startups, I've heard the same phrase in almost every company pitch: "We're passionate about waste management/online book sales/mobile crowdsourced snipe hunting, so there's no way we can fail!"  In the early years, I thought, "Exactly!  That's what it takes to make this sort of dream a reality!"  Now, I think, "Well, maybe.  What else have you got?"

What I've learned over the years is that passion by itself isn't enough.  You also need focus, you need skills, and you need help.  I can jump up and down all day, shouting, "I'm passionate about restoring classic Maseratis!!!" but that's not going to rebuild an Italian carburetor.  Nor does my passion guarantee my success if I actually open the hood and start poking around.  If I don't know what I'm doing, then blindly following my passion is more likely to get me hurt than to help me accomplish anything useful.  If I can focus that energy over time, though, then I can probably gain the skills and the help I need. Focused passion becomes vision, and vision inspires others to make your passion their own.

Passion is like a fire hose: if you focus it and direct it toward a goal, then you can do a lot of good.  If you just let go of it and let it spray all over the place, then you'll make a mess and probably hurt someone in the process.

So, passion plus focus equals success.  What does passion without focus lead to?

Drama.

Drama is the dark side of the passion coin.  It's what you get when you let your passion run unchecked, when you make the feeling more important than the outcome.  It's the mess you make when you measure people based on their "commitment" instead of their output.  It's why so many personal and business relationships don't just fall apart, they explode in a conflagration of misery, lawsuits, and recriminations.  Passion was why I joined several startups.  Drama was why I left.

Every teenager knows this, because they have all kinds of passion and nowhere to put it.  What are your teenage years other than a chance to "find yourself," to take all those things (and people) that you're interested in and decide whether or not you want to spend your life pursuing them?  What is a first date other than an experiment in focused passion, and what is a first fight if not the logical dramatic conclusion of that experiment?  For teens, life is hyperbolic.  Everything is "the best thing in the world" or "the worst thing ever," sometimes in the same day.  That song you couldn't stop playing yesterday is so overplayed today, and the person you were planning to spend eternity with last week is a stuck-up jerk this week.  Teens are full of passion and bursting with drama, usually more than one house can contain.

This is a natural part of growing up, but the problem is that some people never leave those teenage tendencies behind.  Instead of finding a balance between passion and drama, they let go of the firehose and look for ways to turn up the water.  "More passion!" they cry, but more drama results.  Instead of pointing them toward a solution, their passion creates more problems, to which they respond with more passionate demonstrations, which lead to more drama.  Eventually, unfocused passion always turns inward, and instead of inspiring others to join you, it isolates and alienates.

I once worked for someone I'll call "Jack," who had more energy than any three other people combined.  He was brilliant, insightful, and he rarely slept more than a few hours a night.  The rest of us were convinced that he was also clinically insane.  But boy, was he passionate.  He could see what was coming in software over the next few years and he knew what products people would want.  He just couldn't build them, because when it came time to do the necessary work he got bored and moved on.  He left a trail of half-built and broken product behind him, each of which would make someone else rich in a few years.

Or as one of his long-time colleagues put it, "Jack's successfully predicted every technology trend for the last ten years, and has f***ed up every one."

Jack had passion, but he lacked focus.  He had energy to spare, but he wasted most if it jumping from place to place, idea to idea, team to team.  He drew people in with his energy, then he drove them away with his drama.  When projects failed, he told us we "lacked commitment" because we slept more than 3 hours a night.  When people questioned his ideas, he yelled.  When no one else was around, he called them at home to tell them that they were the reason that the company was struggling.  Needless to say, we had a lot of turnover at our little company.  Drama comes with a high recruiting budget.

I worked for another company who said, "We want to do one thing and do it better than anyone else." One of the founders of that company owns half an island now, and he's pursuing other passions.  They had focus.

So what's ruling your life: passion or drama?  Are you focused on the goal or worrying about the obstacles?  Are you drawing people into your vision or telling them that they couldn't possibly understand it?  Do you spend your days drawing new and better ideas out of the people around you or telling them why yours is the only one that will work?

Passion finds the positive.  Drama obsesses about the negative.
Passion includes.  Drama alienates.
Passion inspires.  Drama tires.
Focused passion created the automobile, the electric light, and the computer.  Drama created the anti-anxiety pharmaceutical industry.

I'll take focused passion any day.  You can keep your drama.





Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 25


Chapter 25

"I still can’t believe that worked!" Jack roared, startling a couple of MIT students a few tables away.  They glared at him, but he showed his teeth and they quickly returned to their discussion of the relative impacts of Archimedes, Shakespeare, and Sergey Brin on Western civilization.  "When I saw you run into that building, I was sure I was going to have to find another favorite project manager."  He took another long pull of his coffee-colored stout ale.  "In case you were wondering, I would have chosen Miller."

"Thanks, Jack.  It’s good to know I would have been missed," Stephen replied sardonically.  He sipped gently at his own beer, an amber with just a hint of blackberry.  He hadn’t been drinking much lately, since it got in the way of his training.  In the two months since “The Waxed Cheese Event,” as they had taken to calling it, he had started running seriously again.  He knew he’d be watching the Boston Marathon on television this year, but he hoped to be ready for New York in the fall.  He had little hope of actually qualifying for Boston as a competitive runner, but stranger things had happened.  In fact, if he managed it, that would be the least strange thing that had happened this year.

Stephen looked around.  This had to be the smallest project wrap party ever:  just him and Jack.  There would probably be another gathering when everyone got back to town, but Jack hadn’t been willing to wait.  "A project like this deserves at least a couple of beers to celebrate its passing," he had growled, grabbing Stephen at 3:00 in the afternoon and dragging him out of the office.  Now, as they sat at the bar at the Cambridge Brewing Company, Stephen had to agree.  Though the project had actually driven him away from drink, thinking about it certainly made him glad to have a cold beer close at hand.

"I wanted to thank you, by the way, for sticking around in LA until everything wrapped up," Jack said, punctuating his gratitude with a relaxed belch.  "I know that it must have been difficult for Jenny and the baby."

"Oh, no, they had a great time out there," Stephen demurred.  "I mean, how many feet of snow did you get in those two blizzards?"

"Three-and-a-half," Jack grunted sourly, "and my snow blower broke after the first one.  I had to pay a kid twenty bucks to dig out my driveway.  Can you believe that?  It’s extortion, taking advantage of people with weak backs."

"Or large stomachs," Stephen grinned as Jack scowled at him.  "The snow had all melted by the time we got home, though I hear that my neighbor ‘borrowed’ a backhoe from his company after the second blizzard and dug us all out, anyway."

"Right, so as I was saying:  thanks for getting a tan on company time.  We appreciate it."

"Don’t worry, I worked my butt off, but at least the baby got to see sand for the first time while I was doing it.  I had to stay for a couple of weeks anyway.  Until the investigation was complete, the police politely asked us not to leave town."

"’Politely?’"

"Well, once they stopped shouting and threatening to shoot everyone in sight, yes, they were quite polite to everyone except Richard.  Though I can’t blame them for being a little upset, especially when they found out that they’d called out half of the LAPD over a couple of blocks of cheese."

"So how much time did he spend in jail?"

"Just a week.  Rod let him cool his heels there for a day or two before Miriam convinced him to set his pack of lawyers on the case.  Turns out that it’s a federal crime now to call in a bomb hoax.  Dan visited Richard several times in jail, and now I hear that they’ve cooked up a whole new career for old Sgt. Dick.  Dan’s booking him on the inspirational speaker circuit, telling his tale of how his time in the military left him paranoid and delusional.  I hear he’s a big hit at peace rallies and West Coast high schools.  There’s a rumor that he might even swing through New England during the next election year."

"All that trauma from two years of ROTC?"

"I assume he shapes the facts to fit the narrative.  People hear what they want to hear, Jack."  Stephen took another sip of his beer.  It tasted better than he remembered.

"At least Stu managed to avoid joining him in prison.  I’d hate to see those two as a double bill."

Stephen nodded.  “He was so embarrassed by all of the attention that he just wanted to get out of there after the police released him.  He harvested his garden, loaded up his bike, and took off.  Last I heard from him, he was somewhere in Louisiana.  He says thank you, by the way, for letting him know that he’s welcome at ADD if he ever wants to return, but I don’t know if we’ll see him again.  For now, it’s just him, the road, and his funny little bike."

"He’s a little crazy, but he’s a good engineer."  Jack sighed.  "Funny how often I say that, but it’s true:  as long as they deliver the code, I don’t care if their hobbies include sword collecting, medieval re-enactments, or naked line dancing.  If we only hired normal people, we’d have the dumbest engineers on the planet.  Which reminds me:  when are our other strange birds flying home to roost?"

"Well, Ricky’s back already -- "

"Right, with orders to avoid all airports for the next six months if he wants to keep his job,” Jack interjected.  “That guy’s a PR nightmare!"

"Did he really try to get himself deported?" Stephen asked.

Jack chuckled.  "Yeah.  Strangest case our lawyers have ever had to handle, with a client fighting for deportation.  The LAPD gets one or two crazies at every major incident, so they assumed that Ricky had just come to preach.  He could have walked away if he hadn’t insisted that, as a member of multiple oppressed minorities, his civil rights had been violated.  He even called the ACLU!  We finally got him to calm down and come home by offering to make Multi-Ethnic Day a new company holiday."

"When’s that?"

"Ricky chose the end of March.  There’s a dry period there in between President’s Day and Memorial Day."

"I look forward to celebrating it.  Maybe I’ll track down my ancestors, too, and find out how many different counties in Ireland we cover."  Stephen took another swig of beer in tribute to his forefathers.  "Anyway, everyone else who’s coming back will start trickling in within a couple of weeks.  They all needed some time off after we wrapped the project, so I told everyone to take a couple of weeks’ vacation, on the company.  Hope you don’t mind."  Stephen sipped his beer innocently, knowing that, at least for a week or two, he could do no wrong.

Jack made a half-hearted effort to look annoyed, but he was too pleased to pull it off.  "Fine, take advantage of me while I’m in a good mood, since we both know it won’t last.  You did good work, though, kid.  Not only did you keep everyone alive, but you even delivered the application on time.”

"Nothing like a life-threatening crisis to focus the mind, I guess.  Even without Stu, we were able to bring the product live two days before the deadline.”  Stephen waggled his fingers in the air.  "The magic of software development:  it all comes together when it has to."

Jack took the last swig of his porter and, noting that Stephen’s glass was empty, too, signaled the bartender for two more.  "Impressive.  Too bad it never saw the light of day."

"Not true, oh cantankerous one," Stephen replied, feeling a warm glow in his stomach where the beer sat.  "Our site was live for a whole week before they ran out of money.  It was a heck of a launch party, too:  simulcast video from both the New York and LA offices with a cash bar, live bands, and dancing all night long.  I’m pretty sure that I even saw some of the Oscar losers drowning their sorrows with Robert and Brad at the oxygen bar in LA.  At least, I assume that was oxygen coming through the respirator masks.  I didn’t try it myself."

"But they never got any customers, right?"

"Well, no.  They used Gotterdammerung to produce the commercial, so it was this strange mix of web memes, World War II file footage, and women in body paint singing opera.  They got a ton of traffic the first couple of nights, but judging from the emails most people thought they were hitting some kind of fetish site.  They were extremely disappointed, to say the least, and not inclined to provide their credit card numbers.  CouldBU spent the last of their cash on the commercial and the launch parties, so now they have until the end of month to liquidate the office furniture and clear out their offices."

"Brutal," Jack murmured wiping a brown foam mustache from his upper lip.  "Extraordinarily dumb, but brutal."

"Rod came out unscathed, of course.  He made Chuck Marquette the new company president one week before the product launch, and I assume one day after seeing the current state of the finances.  He’s already moved on to his next company, some Australian sport fishing company that’s trying to open up new markets in Alaska and Greenland."

"And Brad and Robert, the self-appointed brain trust of CouldBU?"

"After the fight with the mime, Brad’s parents cut him off.  He had a choice of coming home and working in the family business or striking out on his own.  Last I heard, they had him working an oilfield east of Austin.  Robert’s salvaging what he can from the wreckage, once again with Dan’s help.  The brilliant little worm bought all of the surveillance tape from CouldBU, which included all of our video conferences and conference calls.  He and Robert edited it together into a pilot for an Internet-broadcast pseudo-reality show that they’re tentatively calling Programmer’s Paradise.  They already have the first season sold, though I’m not sure what they plan to do for a second season.  They offered us scale for our parts in the show, as long as we agree to film some pick-up scenes and record any additional dialogue that they write to flesh out the plot."  Stephen shrugged.  "It could be enough to pay for Sarah’s piano lessons in a few years."

Jack grunted, "I expect a thank-you in your Emmy acceptance speech."

"I’ll try to remember," Stephen grinned and took another swig of ale.  "The Fab Four did a little trash-picking, too.  They bought all of CouldBU’s intellectual property for around $10,000, so now they own all the source code and ideas for the product and infrastructure."

"Why would they want that?" asked Jack.  "They barely worked on it."

"Exactly," said Stephen.  "They own the rights to whatever they worked on while employed by CouldBU, which was primarily their casting company and production studio portal.  They’re litigation-proof."

"Not bad," said Jack, impressed.  "I’d ask them to come work for us if this weren’t further proof that they’d make lousy employees."

"It’s a good thing that they figured this out," observed Stephen, "since they already have over a million dollars in revenue.  They’re planning to launch it in a couple of months, after the dust has settled, and are already thinking IPO in a year or so."

"Which also explains Mark’s -- sorry, Mary’s -- decision to join them, I suppose," Jack said glumly.

"That, and their benefits," Stephen agreed.  "All of the rest of her treatment and operations are covered under their medical plan.  They’re very open-minded about that kind of thing, as you might imagine."  Stephen took another sip, while Jack nodded his agreement.  "It’s more than that, though.  She wants to start a new life, and doesn’t want to spend the rest of it listening to people like you and me calling her ‘Mar-- Mary.’  Plus, I just think that she likes California.  The climate agrees with her."  Stephen was very proud of himself for getting through the entire statement without tripping over his pronouns even once.  It seemed that he was adjusting to his friend’s new status more quickly than he’d hoped.

"Whatever."  Jack dismissed Mary’s new life with a disgruntled wave of his hand.  "I just want to know who’s going to keep Frank in line now that Mark’s gone."

"I’m pretty sure Connie will take care of that," Stephen said with a grin.  "She’s already had a remarkable mellowing effect on him.  You’ll barely recognize him when you see him.  He smiles."

"Ugh," Jack recoiled in mock horror, "I don’t know if I’m ready for that."

"Neither was he, but spending a day at death’s proverbial door seems to have clarified his thinking, too.  He’s planning to bring Connie back to meet his parents when he comes back to Boston."

"Great," muttered Jack.  "Everyone gets a happy ending, but no one comes back to work."

"They’ll be back, don’t worry.  Where else could we have this kind of fun?"

"Nowhere outside of a mental asylum, as far as I know."

Stephen smiled and turned back to his beer, and both men sat staring contemplatively at the TV above the bar for a few minutes.  The Red Sox were in spring training and it looked like they were going to have a good team this year.  The pitching was suspect, as usual, but he hoped that they’d purchased enough sluggers in the offseason to make up for it.  What they really needed was a good closer.

"Hey Jack?"

"Yeah, kid?"

"What was it about that last project that finally pushed you over the edge?"

Jack gave Stephen a sidelong smirk.  "Worried that you’re getting close?"

"More like worried that I might already be gone.  They say that the craziest guys don’t even know that they’re crazy."

Jack turned to face Stephen, a serious look on his face.  "Take comfort in the fact that you’re still asking the question.  When you decide you’re the only sane person left in the building and the rest of us need some forceful correction, then I’ll start worrying about you.”

"Is that how you felt, just before you jumped that customer in the conference room?"

Jack rubbed the back of his neck ruefully.  "You want to know the truth?"

"Well, that’s kind of why I’m asking.  Look, if you’re not comfortable talking about this, just tell me.  I don’t want to send you back into another year or two of therapy."

Jack laughed.  "No worries there.” He looked around the bar before he continued.  “Don’t tell anyone, but the whole ear-biting thing never happened.  I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore:  all of the customers wanting everything right now, changing their minds at the last minute, never understanding that they were undoing months of work in the process.  I was afraid that I might snap, so I walked into James’s office and told him that I quit.  He talked me out of it, said that we’d find a role that took me off of the front lines.  We made up the story to explain the change so I wouldn’t lose the developers’ respect."

Stephen gave Jack a strange look.  "Does it bother you that biting off a man’s ear seemed to be a better explanation than simple client fatigue?"

Jack shrugged unrepentantly.  "I have to manage over fifty engineers.  Can you think of an explanation that would have made that easier?"

"You have a point," Stephen conceded.

"Keep this to yourself," Jack warned.  "I have an image to maintain."

"My lips are sealed."  Stephen downed the last of his beer and stood, pulling on his jacket.  "Thanks for the beers, Jack, and for your support.  I don’t think I would have made it through this without you and your Polish grandmother’s stories."

Jack stood, too, though he didn’t finish his beer.  He showed no signs of leaving yet.  "Yeah, about that…"

Stephen raised a hand to forestall another confession.  "Stop!  Let me believe, Jack.  She helped me through a tough time, so I choose to believe in the power of your Polish grandmother."

Jack chuckled.  "Glad she could help.  When will we see you again?"

"In a week or so.  I want to reacquaint myself with my family and see all of the amazing things that my daughter can do.  Jenny tells me that Sarah’s singing opera now."

Jack raised an eyebrow.  "Really?"

"Yep.  Just yesterday, she swears that Sarah sang three or four measures from Bolero right after I left for work."

"That must be something to hear."

"I plan to find out."  With a wave, Stephen put on his jacket and left the bar.

It was time to go home.




THE END