Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 3

New here?  Try starting at the beginning.

Chapter 3

The next morning was no quieter in the Connelly house, though the noise came from a different source. Sarah startled herself and everyone else awake at 4:55 AM with a wailing that pierced Stephen’s skull like an auger. Jennifer’s mother, Janice, zoomed into the room seconds later, so quickly that she couldn’t possibly have come all the way down the hall from the guest room. Stephen, his head throbbing with lack of sleep, blearily wondered when she had arrived.

"Oh listen, she’s getting her full voice!" Janice exclaimed, "The little dear is going to be a singer like her grandma, I can tell!" She rushed back out again with the baby, moving so swiftly that Stephen was sure he heard a Doppler effect on Sarah’s fading cries.

"Is she coming back?" he asked his wife dubiously.

Jennifer yawned mightily, "I assume she’s going to change her and bring her back to feed, but if Mom’s managed to start lactating I wouldn’t mind the extra rest. Should I go into the baby’s room so you can get some more sleep?"

He glanced at the clock. "No, don’t bother. It’ll just be more painful to wake up again in an hour or so. I’ll go ahead and get in the shower."

Sarah’s muffled cries had faded, and Stephen could faintly hear his mother-in-law singing nursery rhymes from the baby’s room. It’s good to have some help, he thought, though it will be good to be alone for a while, too.

He showered quickly and spent a few minutes watching his daughter eat before feeding himself and running out the door to catch an early train. He was in the city by 7:15, feeling strangely awake. His body seemed to be adjusting to the lack of sleep, rebalancing its resources to stay functional, albeit at reduced capacity. He was alert, but his reflexes seemed to be slower than normal, his responses not quite as sharp. It was as though he had traded 20 IQ points and a second or two of reaction time for the missing hours of sleep. He hoped that the transaction wasn’t irreversible.

It was warm this morning, almost balmy. Welcome to fall in New England, he thought, looking up at the cloudless blue sky and shucking his coat. It’ll probably snow tomorrow. He took the outdoor route to the office this time, savoring the sunlight while he had it. As he walked, he heard a strange chiming behind him, like a child’s bike bell. It grew louder and more insistent, until he finally turned around to find its source. Correction: an adult’s bike bell.

Stu was riding down the street toward him on a low-slung contraption that looked like the bastard spawn of a lawn chair, a rocket, and a touring bicycle. It was painted red and white, with a large wheel in the back and a smaller one in front. A plastic fairing covered the top of the rear wheel and was covered in turn by two large saddlebags, and an orange flag on a long stick flapped gaily from the back. Stu sat in a reclining position in the black webbed seat, his feet sticking straight out in front of him and pedaling furiously. Stephen couldn’t see how he steered, but assumed that the two levers that he was gripping down by the sides of his seat had something to do with it. The chiming sound came from somewhere else on the machine, though he couldn’t immediately see its source either.

"Good morning, Stephen!" Stu called as he approached. He signaled carefully with his left hand, then his right for good measure, before pulling alongside, unclipping one shoe from the pedals, and creaking to a halt. Stephen could only stare.

"Interesting… um, bike?" Stephen guessed, unwilling to offend Stu but unable to definitively classify the apparition before him.

"Thank you. I gather you’ve never seen a recumbent bicycle before. There are a lot of us around, but I have to admit that my bike is a little more unique than many you’ll see," Stu spoke with pride. "I built it myself."

"I can’t see any other way that it could have come into existence. Is this better than a normal bike in some way, or is building interesting bikes a hobby of yours?"

The light of the true believer sparked in Stu’s eyes. "Oh, ‘bents are so much better than normal bikes. The riding position is much healthier for your back, the aerodynamics are vastly improved, and you wouldn’t believe the handling. I can take a corner twice as fast as a wedgie. That’s what we call the upright bike riders because their seats feel like -- well, never mind why. Do you ride?"

"I own a mountain bike, but I’m more of a runner. The gear travels better."

"I hadn’t thought of that," Stu said, suddenly concerned. "Say, do you think that will be an issue if I have to travel for this project? This is my primary means of transportation. I don’t even have a driver’s license, so I couldn’t rent a car if I had to."

Stephen thought about it. "I’m sure we can work around it if we need to. You can always take a cab or carpool with one of us when we’re all out there. I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re not the first engineer I’ve worked with who didn’t have a license." Though you may be the oldest, he didn’t add.

"All right," Stu replied, "I don’t want to be a burden on the team, but it sounds like we’ll work it out. I’ll see you inside. I need to park my bike and shower."

Sipping his coffee pensively, Stephen watched Stu until he disappeared around the corner before he continued walking. I get all the weird ones, he thought. At least they’ve been harmless so far.


As soon as he got to his desk, Stephen began making travel arrangements. He, David, Ricky, and Kelvin would make the first trip, while Frank and Mark stayed in Boston to wrap up the final documentation from the DoD project. While Stu had no project work to speak of yet, they had decided that he would do better to stay behind and complete his training on the ADD product suite rather than traveling to LA. Stephen had just started to enter a travel request with the company’s agency when Frank walked up.

"Hey, have you seen Kelvin? I have a new joke for him." Frank had made it his personal mission to be the one to make Kelvin laugh, though after several months he was clearly becoming desperate. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and showed it to Stephen, "See? It's in Mandarin. I've decided that Kelvin's humor deficiency is due to a fundamental neural blockage. His brain is hardwired to the tones of his native language, so English doesn't sound funny to him. I found a language tutorial online and learned enough Mandarin to tell the joke. This time I have him for sure!"

Stephen shook his head. "Kelvin's parents are third-generation Chinese-American, and he grew up in Cambridge. I know from personal experience that he doesn't even speak enough Chinese to order dim sum. Chicken foot soup tastes just like it sounds, by the way. You'd have a better chance if you told him a joke in Gaelic."

Frank was undeterred. "It doesn't matter. The genetic memory is what I'm trying to reach. Never underestimate the power of the genome." He glanced at Stephen's monitor and began hopping from one foot to the other. "Hey, wait! Let me do it for you."

Stephen looked up curiously. "Do what, submit the booking request? It’s almost done." He turned back to his computer to complete the transaction, but Frank grabbed his hands.

"I know, but I can do it faster. Watch this." Frank reached into his pocket, pulled out a device that looked like a cross between a Bluetooth headset and a miniature welder’s mask, and slid it over his head. He lowered the shortened mask over his eyes and adjusted the stubby microphone so that it was close to his jaw. For the first time, Stephen noticed that, instead of his usual jeans and cowboy boots, Frank was wearing a baggy pair of khaki pants covered with pockets of various sizes, with shiny black material running down the inside of each leg. Frank reached into one of the rear pockets and pulled out a small receiver that appeared to be wired directly into the pants. He switched it on, waited for a small green LED on the top to light, and placed it back in the pants pocket.

"Still working on the pants computer, huh?" asked Stephen. "I thought you were having trouble with the power source."

"It runs on kinetic energy now," Frank replied, indicating the material on the legs, "All I have to do is walk around to power it. I tried putting a battery in the front pocket, but I forgot how hot those things get. I nearly burned off my -- " he shuddered, "let’s just say it didn’t work." He flipped his belt buckle over and folded it out to reveal a small keyboard that looked like it had been cannibalized from a Blackberry. That explains why he never replied to my texts last month, thought Stephen.

"And it works now?" Stephen was always entertained by Frank’s ongoing obsession with gadgetry, especially the homemade kind. The pants computer was actually a step up from his last attempt at wearable computing, a wrap-around heads-up display that had made it impossible to see anything else. It had worked fine while he was seated at his desk, but had caused several major pile-ups in the halls when he tried to take it to meetings.

"There are still a few bugs to work out, of course," Frank replied, jumping up and down and rubbing his legs together like a deranged cricket. "For example, it doesn’t hold a charge for more than a few seconds. I have to keep moving in order to keep it powered. On the bright side, though, I’ve already lost three pounds since I started using it."

"At last, some commercial application for one of your inventions," Stephen commented dryly. "Hook it up to an Xbox and sell it to fat kids’ parents."

"Don’t think I haven’t considered that," Frank panted. Despite his weight loss claim, the pants had clearly not improved his stamina. "I’d need to improve the display resolution significantly first. The wireless connectivity is strong, though. There’s an antenna running up my back that increases the range to several hundred yards. I can walk around the mall while I check my email using the Starbucks hot spot."

"And who wouldn’t want to do that?"

"Mock if you will, but wearable computing is -- "

"I know, I know, ‘the wave of the future.’” Stephen fluttered his hands dramatically. “Have you submitted the travel request yet?"

"Just about. What days did you want to fly?" Frank had stopped jumping and was resorting to dancing in place, like a young child who needed to use the bathroom.

Stephen knew from experience that there was no point trying to get Frank to stop. He would keep trying until he had either completed the task or his thighs were too chafed to keep moving. "Fly out early Monday and back on Friday. We want to get in one or two conceptual design sessions while we’re out there."

"OK," Frank gasped. "Wait… oops! I almost requested Louisiana instead of Los Angeles. I’ll tell you what: I’ll go for a walk and copy you on the request when I’m done." Without waiting for a reply, Frank spun around and walked off through the desks, muttering to himself and making little dancing hops when he needed more power. Stephen watched him go, making a mental note to follow up with the travel agency in half an hour. Otherwise, we could end up in New Orleans wondering where our connection went. Wouldn’t that be a great way to start this project?

He sighed, longingly considering jazz along the Mississippi versus hours spent listening to Brad waxing his stunted version of eloquent, and decided not to double-check the reservation. On second thought, I’ll take my chances.

Continue to Chapter 4

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 2

I had so much fun with this last night that I decided to post another chapter tonight.  Wondering what's going on?  Start at the beginning.

Chapter 2

As everyone stood for the obligatory handshake ritual, Stephen took the opportunity to size up his new clients.

The younger of the two men introduced himself to each person as "Brad Richards, Chief Visionary Officer of," relishing the sound of his title more each time he said it. He appeared to be in his late 30s and was of medium height and build, with sun-bleached brown hair and the kind of sculpted muscles that came from hours spent in a gym developing each one for its maximum cosmetic impact. He wore a light-colored linen suit over a lime-green silk shirt, his sockless feet tucked into boat shoes that implied that he had just stepped off of his yacht to attend the meeting. Stephen looked at his bloodshot eyes and recognized from painful familiarity the after-effects of a late night of drinking.

Robert Miller, the other man, simply shook hands and sat back down, muttering, "I didn’t know there would be technical people here." He was an older, shinier version of Brad, the glow from his rings, watch, necklace, and balding head creating a halo effect in the morning sunlight that streamed through the conference room windows. The lack of hair on top of his head was balanced by an impressive fringe around the sides, pulled back in a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. His taste in clothing was somewhat more muted than Brad’s, with a deep red shirt and dark trousers covering his ample frame. Noting his apparent technophobia, Stephen swiftly redirected Frank and Mark to the other side of the table, replacing them with David and Ricky in the hopes that the artistic vibrations from David would prove more soothing to Robert’s jangled senses.

After everyone was settled, James stood and opened the meeting with the usual pleasantries and introductions, concluding by turning to Robert and saying, "You and I have already talked at length, but the rest of the team doesn’t know why you chose us. Would you mind explaining your selection process to them? I think that it would be," and here he shot a sidelong glance at Stephen, "helpful for them to hear how you decided to work with ADD."

Robert leaned forward and pressed his hands flat on the table as though about to stand, but changed his mind at the last moment and merely sat there, his palms pressed into the table and his elbows in the air as he leaned toward his listeners. "In my business, there’s a big difference between the A-list and the B-list. I’m getting too old to screw around with the B-list, so when Brad and I decided to do this, we agreed that we wanted the best. My assistant saw you," he waved a meaty hand at James, "and your partner on the cover of Wired magazine and I knew the minute that she showed it to me that you were my guys. Anyone who’s willing to put on a toga to promote his company is the kind of man I want on my team, because a great vision requires great visionaries. And when I skimmed the article and saw that you were involved with this Internet thing, that sealed it! I had Joyce set up a call right away. The rest, as my people say, is Kismet." He leaned back, basking in his own brilliance, and grinned around the room until he came to Frank, who was still baring his teeth in his customer-eating smile. Robert’s grin faltered and there was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence before James stood again.

"Well, we’re thrilled that you found us, Robert, and we look forward to fulfilling your vision. I’ll leave you now in the able hands of my team to talk about the details of the project." James sketched a quick bow, locked eyes with Jack for a moment, and glided out of the room. This sale was complete, but others beckoned.

While Stephen had heard of stranger selection processes, he was still mildly surprised to hear that ADD had taken a job like this. He looked over at Jack, who had clearly heard the tale already. Either I’m missing part of the story, or there’s a lot of money behind this, he thought. Bemused, he listened as Robert and Brad began to present their vision.

"CouldBU is my baby," Brad began. "I even came up with the name. C-O-U-L-D," he paused to emphasize the last two letters, "B-U. Dot com. Catchy, huh? The idea came to me one night while I was watching some reality show rerun on cable with my girlfriend. We were playing a game, where every time someone did something stupid we'd do a shot of Stoli. It occurred to me after about the seventh shot: people are hungry for stardom. They’ll do anything to be famous, including humiliating themselves in front of millions of strangers! This reality television craze shows that, right? These guys are making all kinds of money feeding people’s addiction to celebrity. They make new stars out of these normal people, and other normal people watch it religiously." He paused for a moment, frowning with a tremendous effort at thought. "I still don’t get all of it, because some of those singers really sucked." He shrugged. "But people watch anyway.

"Here’s the thing, though: there’s all these reality shows out there, but no one’s ever done it online. So I thought: what if we did a celebrity project on the Web? We could let people put up pictures and video of themselves singing and let other people vote on them, maybe get some former celebrities to judge them. We could even make fun of the ugly ones like that British guy does and vote people off the site.

"But then I had an even better idea: why stop at singers? I mean, there are plenty of other ways that people try to be famous. Hell, I’ve tried most of them myself: acting, writing, directing, modeling. Not everyone has my money -- or my looks -- so I realized that I could help them out by allowing them to try it all without moving to LA. Which is just as well, because we have all the waiters we need already!" He laughed heartily at his own joke, giving Robert the opportunity to jump in.

"Brad’s father and I go way back," he said, darting a look sideways at Kelvin as though afraid he would interrupt. Kelvin, who had barely moved for the past ten minutes, merely blinked slowly at him. "So Brad came to me with this idea looking for funding. I spent 30 years in the biz, and I know a golden opportunity when I see one. This one had gold mine written all over it, once we worked out how to get people to pay for it. I mean, this is perfect! In all my years as an agent, I always wondered if there was some way that we could make money off of these people before they were famous, because, let’s face it, there are a lot more unfamous people in the world than there are famous people, right? And then Genius-Boy over here just comes up with it, out of the blue! It’s brilliant!"

"So, how do you expect to make money?" Frank asked. He looked as though he would say more until he caught the look Jack shot across the table.

Robert, clearly nonplussed at being addressed directly by an engineer, paused to consider whether he had been insulted before answering, and Brad cut in, "Well, entry fees of course! That’s for the contestants. We’ll charge subscription fees for people who want to vote, too, so that we get the money coming in on both sides."

"So you expect that this site will fill the gaping hole left in normal people’s lives by the absence of another reality television program?" Frank asked.

"Exactly!" said Brad. "Only it’s better, because it’s online! It’s…" he paused dramatically, "interactive!"

Stephen cut in quickly before Frank offered a list of things with which Brad could interact. "Hey, I promised Keith that I wouldn’t keep you all in here too long, since I know you have important technical work on your other project to wrap up. If you need to get going, we’ll understand."

Frank, however, was enjoying himself. "No, it can wait. It’s much more important that we hear directly from our new clients, so that we can better realize their vision." He smiled disingenuously at Stephen, stopping just short of innocently batting his eyelids.

"Don’t some of the reality shows have web sites, too?" asked Mark, "For voting and learning about the contestants?"

"Yes, but then you have to watch TV and use your computer at the same time," Brad snorted. "That’s twice the work. Who wants to do that?"

"I do," said Mark.

"Me, too," said Kelvin.

"I do it all the time," said Ricky.

"I don’t own a TV," said Frank. "I think it rots your mind."

"See, you’re our target audience!" exclaimed Brad. "With a couple of million guys just like you, we’ll be rich!"

"Will you have model competitions, too?" asked Frank, "Because women are about the only thing I look at online."

"I hadn’t thought of that," Brad said slowly, "but you know what? It’s brilliant! Models, definitely!"

"All right," said Frank, mollified, "maybe this idea isn’t completely hamster-brained, after all." He turned and smiled at Stephen as though to say, See? I can be nice to the clients when I want to! Stephen rolled his eyes.

"Well, um, thank you," Brad replied. "I’m glad you like it."

Robert, finally recovered from his interaction with Frank, rejoined the conversation. "You should know, too, that we have the verbal support of several major record labels and studios. They’re all silent partners at this point, of course, because they don’t want to get burned again. I’ll tell you the same thing that I told them, though: this may sound like one of those crazy dot-com stories from the turn of the century, but this is different." He slapped a bejeweled hand on the conference table. "We’re not selling dog food by mail here. We’re selling dreams, and there are no shipping and handling charges on those! Hey, Brad, write that down. We need to use that in our next investor presentation."

The meeting continued for some time as they discussed the details of the project: schedule, travel requirements, and lodging arrangements. Brad would be their primary creative contact, with Robert checking in occasionally from his house in Malibu to ensure the purity of the vision. To Stephen’s relief, they agreed that the entire ADD project team did not need to stay in LA for the duration of the project. "But," added Brad, "I'm sure that you'll want to start talking to our boys as soon as possible. They'll need you to tell them what you want them to do, since they've never done anything like this before."

"I'm sorry," said Stephen, "your boys? I thought that we were building this for you."

"Oh, you are! We just want you to let our team tag along and help out so they can learn how your product works and take over after you're gone." Brad beamed as though this, too, had been his brilliant idea. "That way, you can finish faster!"

Stephen glanced toward Jack, who was suddenly engrossed in following the flight path of an invisible fly on the other side of the room. "Are you saying that, on top of managing my own team, I'll also be responsible for a group of people on the other side of the country who have no accountability to me, no experience with our software, and have never built something like this before? And you expect that this will make things easier?"


As Jack nervously fingered his ear, Stephen wondered if he could get across the table in one leap. Turning back to Brad and Robert, he bared his teeth in a grimace that would have done Frank proud and said in a choked voice, "What a great idea."


As he boarded the train to ride home that night, Stephen considered pinning a note to his jacket that said, "Wake me when we get to Natick," just to be safe. Thinking about this new project and how he was going to tell Jenny about it kept him wide awake, though. He had sworn to cut down on the travel now that they had Sarah, and he wasn’t sure how excited she would be about a project on the opposite side of the country, full-time or otherwise.

He needn’t have worried. In fact, when he arrived home he wasn’t even sure that he would have been missed if he had left that day. He opened the door to a clanging symphony of pots and pans, evidence that his mother was busy making dinner. Slipping past the kitchen, he went directly into the living room where he found Jenny feeding Sarah. He leaned down to kiss her on the head. "Evening, beautiful."

Jennifer lifted her head and offered him a tired smile. "That’s nice of you to say, considering I’m as big as a barn and smell like a dairy."

Nine months had taught Stephen not to rise to the bait, and three weeks of living in tight quarters had finally shown him the best escape: misdirection. "Mmm. How’s Sarah?"

Jennifer looked down at their feasting daughter and her eyes lost focus. "Perfect, of course. Who’d have thought that something so small could have taken up so much space?"

Again, Stephen refused to fall into the trap. Pregnancy had taken its toll on both of them, and he had learned through painful experience that there were simply no right responses to these comments. Jennifer had been a dancer when they met at Boston College ten years ago, and while even then she had known that her future lay behind the stage rather than on it, she had taken great pride in her dancer’s figure. And while she longed for children, she was horrified by what carrying one did to her once-lithe form. The swelling, the puffiness, the sudden disappearance of her ankles, all had felt like a betrayal by her body, a point she had made quite clear for the past eight months.

Stephen knew now that all she really wanted was silent commiseration. Key word: silent. He winced inwardly as he catalogued his early mistakes and her reactions:

"It’s OK, honey, you’ll get your figure back." One day of crying, followed by two days of silence.

"I don’t think you look fat." Accusations of being a liar, followed by speculation over what else he might be lying about, followed by crying.

"I think pregnant women are beautiful." Open scoffing, followed by a thoughtful silence, followed in turn by the suggestion that he had impregnated other women and was hiding families all over the country, and what was he really doing on all those "business trips?" Then more crying and a long phone call to her mother.

"I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the dishwasher." This had seemed like the perfect evasion, based upon the theory that she wouldn’t repeat the entire diatribe again, but had proved to be another near-fatal miscalculation. Not only did she loudly repeat everything verbatim, she followed it with a suggestion that someone who really loved her would be a better listener. Then she cried.

Eventually, he had settled on a strategy of nodding sympathetically, giving a little sigh of shared pain, and offering to rub her feet. This usually worked, except on the days when she didn’t want him to touch her, explained by a muttered comment about "look where it got us the last time." At these times he pretended to hear his cell phone vibrating and fled the room.

Now, though, the pain seemed to have been worth the reward for Jennifer. She exuded contentment and joy, and even her complaints about the stretch marks that only she could see seemed to come more from habit than anything else. Motherhood suited her.

Another eruption of racket from the kitchen startled the baby, who jumped and flung out her tiny hands. She let out a tiny whimper before settling down to business again. "Can you please ask your mother to keep the noise down?" Jennifer hissed. "I’m trying to get Sarah to sleep."

"I’ll see what I can do," Stephen replied, shedding his coat and bag on a nearby chair as he retreated to the kitchen. Already, bedtime was taking on a sacred aura, the entrance to that magical time when baby slept and parents could be grownups again. It was not to be threatened.

In the kitchen, Stephen's mother Margaret was happily humming to herself as she made enough steak, sausage, potatoes, and peas for ten people. He snaked out an arm and gave her a quick hug and a peck on the cheek as he passed on the way to the refrigerator for a glass of milk.

"Hi, Mom. Any chance you could keep dinner somewhere below 100 decibels? Jenny’s trying to get the baby to sleep."

Margaret’s accent, a blend of Irish brogue and Boston drawl, was indescribable to those who hadn’t heard it and indecipherable to those who hadn’t grown up with it. "A happy house is a noisy house, son. Little Sarah is going to have to get used to it sooner or later."

"Fine, Mom, but can we give her a week or two longer before we start the training?" Stephen pleaded.

"I’m doing my best, but it’s hard. How am I supposed to cook a proper meal without knocking around a bit? And I can’t keep using the same skillet over and over again." She began to heap food onto his plate, and Stephen was surprised to discover how hungry he was.

"You could bring some of the rest of the pots back down from the attic," he suggested as he snatched a piece of meat from the plate. "I think we have some time before Sarah can injure herself with them."

Margaret had arrived a day before Jennifer and Sarah came home from the hospital to "baby-proof the house." As far as Stephen could tell, this consisted primarily of taking everything that he used on a daily basis, placing it in a Ziploc bag, and hiding it on a high shelf. It took him three days to find his razor, which, since it had been in the medicine cabinet before Margaret arrived, posed little threat to a newborn in Stephen’s mind.

"You can never be too safe where babies are concerned. Did I ever tell you about my friend Donna’s baby? Took a plastic fork and stuck it right through her ear, the poor dear. They had to put four earrings in there to cover up the holes."

Stephen paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. "Wait. Wasn’t she thirteen when she did that, and wasn’t it at camp? And I’m pretty sure that her girlfriend did it with a sewing needle."

"Which just goes to show that you can never stop watching over your babies." As usual, Margaret’s point was untarnished by the facts of the matter. "Now, is there anything else I can do before I leave today? Do you have enough to eat?"

"We have enough food now to last for the next couple of weeks, thanks to you. Give us a chance to eat through that before you make any more, and maybe by then we’ll be ready for some more noise."

"You’re a good husband, Stephen, and you’ll be a good father. The Lord knows your father, the Heaven-condemned spawn of a she-dog," -- Margaret had found her own way to deal with the language moratorium -- "was never around to help with you boys, but I managed." The strain of not adding more color to that statement showed in her eyes.

"Thank you for holding back, Mom, I know it’s difficult."

"I’d do anything for Jenny, Stephen, but you and I both know that this wasn’t her idea. It was hers." Stephen had never understood why his mother refused to refer to his mother-in-law by name, though he suspected it had to do with the old country tradition of not naming the devil, lest he appear.

"It’s OK, Mom, she’s coming tomorrow anyway. You can say her name."

"I’d rather not, dear. Sit down and eat. You’re too skinny."

Later that evening, after Stephen’s mother had returned to her house in South Boston, he and Jennifer sat in the living room and talked. She was feeding Sarah again, and while she made the appropriate noises at the right intervals, he got the feeling she wasn’t really listening to him as he told her about the new project, how Jack had promised only one week of travel per month, and his own thoughts on how it would play out. Finally, he broke the news that he would need to fly to LA the next week for the kickoff meeting.

"That’s fine, honey," she said dreamily when he finally ran out of words, "Mom can stay with us for another week and help out. Sarah and I will be fine. By the way, do you think that three weeks old is too early to start talking? I’m sure that she tried to say ‘Mommy’ today while she was nursing.

Continue to Chapter 3

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 1

A few years ago, I wrote this thing that we used to call a "book."  Nowadays I think that the kids call them "long-form e-zines" or something.  I went through the normal avenues, submitting it to agents and trying to find a publisher, but at a certain point I ran out of energy and set it aside.  The characters and the story have stayed in my mind, however, and now I've decided to share it, in the hopes that others will enjoy it and I will find the inspiration to revisit the story.

So here you go, friends: the first chapter of Hollywood.bomb.  Enjoy, and feel free to offer constructive comments.  I'll post at least a chapter a week.

Chapter 1

The sharp jab in his arm came again, insistently prodding Stephen out of a deep sleep.

"Huh? Honey, can't you get her this time?" he mumbled groggily, trying in vain to open his crusty eyes before settling into a slightly more comfortable position.

"Time to go to work, sleepyhead," a voice near his ear said. Not the voice of his wife, he noted. Not, in fact, the voice of anyone’s wife, unless she had serious hormone problems. This voice was definitely male. Time to try that eye-opening thing again.

This time he succeeded, though the view didn’t exactly improve. The soothing darkness behind his eyelids -- which he already missed desperately -- was replaced by a close-up view of a grimy window, cracked upholstery, and a rolled-up copy of yesterday’s Boston Herald, which he surmised to be the source of the jabbing. He followed it blearily with his eyes as it drew back and stopped next to a grizzled face under a black peaked cap: the source of the voice.

"Unless you’re planning to go back to Worcester with us, Rip van Winkle, you need to get off. We’re leaving in five minutes."

Stephen sat up, wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, and grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, thanks. I didn’t sleep much last night. Or the night before that. Or, come to think of it, the week before that. We have a new baby. It's our first."

"I don’t really care; just get off of my train." The conductor's smile took the sting from his words as he added, "Congratulations." He touched the Herald to the brim of his hat and wandered down the aisle, whacking the seat backs with the paper as he walked.

See, this is why I don’t like talking to people, Stephen thought as he hurriedly exited the train, one of us always sounds like an idiot. This new parent thing would take some getting used to, and not just because of the lack of sleep. He climbed slowly up to street level for the short walk to his office, stopping as usual for a large coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts in the station. Coffee had never tasted so good, nor been so necessary.

There were benefits to working in the Hub, he reasoned as he took his first sip, one of them being that he could sleep through his commute without dying in a fiery car crash. Of course, the train schedule was a two-edged sword: he had lost count of the number of times he had sprinted from the office only to watch in frustration as the dirty purple butt-end of the commuter train pulled away from him. At least his company paid for the cab rides home on the nights he really worked late, though he doubted he’d be doing quite as much of that now if he wanted to have a home to return to.

Maybe that was why the coffee tasted so good today: because it was seasoned with freedom. He loved his wife, and he dearly loved the little bundle of limbs and hair that she had birthed, but after three weeks of paternity leave, going back to work seemed like the real vacation.

A month ago, he and his coworkers had joked about the "sabbatical" he would take when his baby was born. In the software world, no one ever missed more than a week of work unless they had just undergone a life-changing event -- getting married, having a baby, having their stock options vest -- and even then they were usually back before two weeks had passed. In his colleagues’ eyes, Stephen’s decision to take full advantage of his company’s paternity leave policy was simultaneously revolutionary and old-fashioned, and it had people wondering if he was going to come back at all.

It was bitterly cold this morning, the Boston wind cutting through his thin jacket as he exited the station. After a moment's thought, he decided to walk along the street rather than cutting through Copley Place, hoping that the cold would clear his head. Stephen had never been out of the loop for this long, and he suspected that the re-entry into office life would be quick and painful. The development project he had been running -- a public relations portal for the Department of Defense -- was nearly complete and safe in the hands of another project manager, but another project was already waiting for him. The email from his boss, Jack, had said little, but Jack seemed to be excited about this one, which was both unusual and unnerving. Stephen was intrigued.

Maybe, for once, I’ll get a project before it turns into a cluster--.

Stephen stumbled and nearly spilled his precious coffee, catching himself before he could even think the curse. Jenny’s voice came back to him, full of righteous, pregnant indignation. "No more bad language. Do you want your child born thinking that her Daddy is a drunken sailor on leave?" Even in utero, she claimed -- citing several reliable sources available on in both hardcover and paperback -- the baby could hear him and was beginning to make emotional associations based upon what it heard. The time to start setting a good example was now.

The fact that his father had, in fact, been a drunken sailor on leave made this task much more difficult for Stephen. Creative cursing had always been a family trademark, whether in times of stress or celebration. The family still spoke of his uncle's five-minute, profanity-laced tirade after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. Just thinking about it brought a proud tear to Stephen's eye. He could see his wife's point, but there was something deeply satisfying about letting it rip with an ear-blistering expletive. Trying not to curse at all was like giving up English in favor of speaking French with a Chinese accent: it felt both foreign and wrong. Exhaustion only made it more likely for the words to slip out, so now he was trying to head them off at the pass by not even thinking them.

As he turned the corner toward the gleaming new building that housed his office, Stephen idly wondered if it counted as cursing if you spelled the word differently. He tried it out silently: clusterphuck. That was easier, but somehow he didn’t think Jenny would appreciate the subtlety. Oh well, he thought with a quiet sigh, I’ll get used to it.

Not that I really have a choice.

Stephen’s pocket buzzed. It took him a moment to realize that it was his cell phone. He had set it to vibrate mode immediately after the first time it rang and woke the baby, in a preemptive move designed to keep his wife from smashing the thing underfoot. He supposed that he would have to get used to that joy-buzzer feeling in his pocket now, since the next several years seemed destined to revolve around his daughter’s sleep patterns. He pulled out the phone and read:

Whre RU? Git yur as in here. -J.

"Oh good, Jack's discovered texting," Stephen muttered, shifting his coffee to the other hand so that he could type with his right thumb, the fast one. He thought for a moment and then sent:

Fatherhood’s nice. Think I’ll stay home for another week.

"That ought to throw him off the trail for a few minutes." Slurping the last of his coffee gratefully and tossing the cup into a nearby garbage can, he pushed through the doors to his building and pressed button for the elevator. While he tried to take the stairs as frequently as he could -- a poor excuse for the long runs that he had been used to before pregnancy, but better than nothing -- the prospect of a 12-floor climb was singularly unappetizing this morning. Maybe at lunch, he thought, if I haven’t decided to book a room for a nap instead.

The elevator doors were nearly closed when Stephen heard feet running at top speed and a voice calling for him to hold the elevator. He stuck out a hand and stopped the doors, watching in amusement as Anthony Compton, CTO of Accelerated Dynamic Development, Inc., hurtled to a sliding stop just inches short of the back wall. As usual, Anthony looked like a graduate student who had woken up late to realize that he was missing his dissertation defense. He carried an overstuffed messenger bag over his shoulder and was dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt, and a sweater, the tails of the shirt already beginning to peek out after his sprint for the elevator. Within twenty minutes, the shirt would be completely untucked, though Anthony wouldn’t notice it unless he tried to tidy up for a client. Despite the frigid weather, he wore no coat.

Unable to stand still as the elevator slowly climbed to their floor, Anthony paced back and forth, checking the floor number on each turn. Stephen stepped back to give him room, grateful that they were the only ones in the elevator. Anthony was clearly having an "up" day, and Stephen knew from experience that nothing short of pinning him in the corner would stop him. Better to be still and hope that he forgets I’m here, Stephen thought.

During his second year of working on dual masters degrees in Computer Science and Business at MIT, Anthony had realized that he had a distinctly different work style than his classmates. Other students signed up for four or five classes every term, took their finals, and moved on to the next courses. Anthony, on the other hand, took a double load every fall term, finished all of the coursework early, and then pestered his professors for extra work to tide him over until finals. By January, though, he could barely find the energy to register for the spring term, much less attend the classes. He disappeared from every class after the first week or two and lay on his bed in the dark to wait for spring. Since he was an engineer, most of the other students just assumed that he switched to a nocturnal schedule in the winter to honor the solstice. His professors appreciated the break too much to investigate its cause.

That spring, it occurred to Anthony that this might not be normal. However, as he was too busy just then to do anything about it, he decided not to think about it until summer. Halfway through the summer, as he sat up for the fourth night in a row rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and cross-referencing it against Stephen Hawking’s Theory of Everything, the idea struck him again. Since Sagan’s simplistic approach was beginning to bore him anyway, he entered his symptoms into an online database and discovered that he was bipolar; more precisely, a bipolar savant, if Wikipedia could be believed.

Drugs and psychotherapy could have smoothed the waves of his mood cycles, but Anthony enjoyed the productivity too much to let it go. Besides, he decided, he was at least as smart as that John Nash fellow down at Princeton, so he would find a way to make his condition work for him, too. He finished graduate school in one more year by doubling his workload again in the fall and spring and taking extra night classes when they were offered. He also bought a more comfortable bed for the winter months.

As he grew older, Anthony’s moods stabilized to a cycle of approximately six weeks up and four weeks down. Over time, his friends and coworkers learned to pinpoint the next cycle to within a week, which significantly impacted vacation requests at ADD.

Around the seventh floor, Anthony realized that someone else was in the elevator with him. He abruptly stopped pacing directly in front of Stephen, leaned in, and peered owlishly up at him through his glasses. "Oh, hullo Stephen. Just back from DC again? How’s that Department of Defense project going?"

As he often did when talking to Anthony, Stephen had to fight the urge to lean back. "Actually, I wrapped up my part of that project last month. Keith’s closing it. This is my first day back from paternity leave."

Anthony blinked, redirecting another two percent of his brain capacity away from whatever ideas were swirling around in there and toward this conversation. "Oh, right, right. You'll be going on that new project. Should be… interesting." The elevator lurched to a halt on their floor and he spun around to lean against the door, tapping it impatiently as he waited for it to open. "I'm sure we'll talk later. Say hello to Joanne for me."

"Jennifer. I will. Watch out for the plant," Stephen called. Anthony dodged, barely missing a miniature palm tree that had been in the exact same place for the past three years, and half ran, half walked toward his office.

Stephen turned the opposite direction, heading toward the bullpen. The room was already half-full, the dimly heard rhythms of indie rock from multiple headphones merging with the quiet clicking of keys to create a pulsating hum of technological hyper-achievement. ADD's open seating plan encouraged collaboration, but at this time of the morning everyone was still waking up and checking their email. The volume level would gradually rise over the course of the day, making noise-reducing headphones standard equipment for all employees. Stephen paused by his desk for a moment to savor the quiet energy of the place. It was good to be back.

"Connelly!" Jack’s voice cracked across the room, causing several recent hires to cringe and slouch down in their seats, trying to look inconspicuous. "Where the hell have you been? I texted you at least five minutes ago!"

Stephen sighed. That was nice while it lasted. "Morning, Jack."

"I’m glad to see that your wife let you come back to work." Jack thought he had a way with words; his three ex-wives tended to disagree. "Come on, everyone's waiting." He grabbed Stephen's arm and steered him back toward the lobby.

"Can it wait a little while? I haven’t even checked my email yet. I probably have a couple thousand messages," Stephen asked, testing Jack's grip on his arm. He was held fast.

"Don’t give me that crap, Steve." Jack angrily jabbed the elevator button as though it had offended him. "You’ve been checking it every day, haven’t you?"

Stephen gave a last longing glance at the unattainable sanctuary of his chair and sighed, "Not every day. Jen made me promise to really take some time off this time, which I interpreted to mean that I couldn’t check email while she was awake. Fortunately, I took the midnight feedings, and Sarah won’t tell on me yet. Where are we going?"

Jack pointed at the glowing elevator button. "Down."

"So helpful. Down where?" Sudden hope gleamed in Stephen's eyes. "You're not taking me out for coffee, are you?"

"Not that far down."

"But what else…." A horrible thought occurred to Stephen. "We're not going to the client area, are we?" He tried tugging his arm free again, but Jack, anticipating the move, had already tightened his grip.

"They've been here since 8:30 and they're very eager to meet you. We told them that you're the only one who can do the job for them."

Stephen stopped struggling, for the moment. He glared at Jack. "This is to get even with me for taking the whole three weeks, isn't it?"

Jack shrugged. "I didn't even know we had a leave policy. Did you know that I could have taken bereavement leave after my last divorce? We really have great benefits." The elevator door slid open and he pulled Stephen into the elevator before pushing the button for the eleventh floor. "But no, it's not payback. I genuinely think that you're the only one who can do it." He turned and smiled, showing gleaming white teeth.

It was the smile that took all of the fight out of Stephen. Like a ticking sound from inside a package, Jack's smile was never a good sign for the recipient. As far as anyone knew, the only thing that made Jack truly happy anymore was conflict, so if he was grinning already, it was going to be one hell -- heck -- of an assignment. Jack saw Stephen's capitulation and released his vice-like grip on Stephen's upper arm.

As they stepped out of the elevator together, another worrying thought occurred to Stephen. "Hey, are you going in there too?"

Jack grunted. "Yeah, it's that big. I have to meet with the clients."

Despite being ADD's head of professional services, Jack rarely spoke to clients in person anymore. No one could say exactly what had happened the last time that Jack led a project himself, but one of the most popular rumors was that after the client changed the entire scope of the project for the seventh time just two days before the product launch, Jack attacked him. Halfway through the list of new features, the stories said, Jack gave a roar of rage, jumped out of his chair, and launched himself six feet across the conference table. It took the entire project team to drag him off the client and pin him to the ground, but not before he had bitten off a chunk of the man’s ear. They said that Jack kept it in a jar on his mantle at home, to show to annoying dinner guests. After that incident, in honor of his service to the company and his still-formidable problem-solving skills, he was promoted to vice president and told not to meet with clients anymore.

There were other stories, of course, each gorier than the last, none of which Jack would either confirm or deny. Nor would any of his old teammates tell what they knew. If asked, they simply shook their heads sadly and walked away. Regardless, Jack was never allowed to be alone with a client. He always had to be accompanied by at least one strong coworker, two if they were small.

In his current weakened state, Stephen wasn't sure if he could handle Jack himself if push came to shove (or bite). Jack noted his hesitation and said, "Don't worry; you'll have help if you need it. Not that you will: they're your clients, after all." He grinned again, sending a little shiver down Stephen's spine. "If anything, I'll be pulling you off of them."

They reached the edge of the client area, a chrome-and-glass wonderland intended to inspire confidence and awe in prospective customers. Stephen had never determined exactly how shiny surfaces translated to quality software -- he was always afraid to touch anything here for fear of leaving smudges -- but apparently it worked. Across the spacious lobby, a group of people waited outside of a richly appointed conference room, and Jack led the way toward them. "You have most of your team from the DoD project back, though I had to replace Rollin. He’s in Tibet. No one knows why, but we suspect he took a sabbatical and forgot to tell us again. The new guy's name is Stuart Troyer. Seems solid, but if he doesn't work out then I'll give you first pick of the playground for a replacement. We don't want to lose this one."

Stephen stopped again, halfway across the lobby. "Jack, you keep saying things like that. When are you going to tell me what this project is? You don't expect me to walk in there blind, do you?"

Jack thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. "I don't want to prejudice you. Don't worry; no one's expecting you to say anything. Just go in and listen." He took Stephen's elbow again and led him toward the door. "Oh, and try to keep an open mind."

"Don't worry, and keep an open mind. Gee, Jack, you make it sound so fun, you should be in sales."

"I was," Jack grunted. He gave Stephen a sideways grin. "It didn't go well."

Stephen returned the grin. "I can only imagine." Squaring his shoulders and resigning himself to his fate, he approached the group waiting with various levels of nervousness and annoyance outside the executive conference room. They turned as one to greet him, offering murmured congratulations and well-wishes that seemed genuine despite being an obvious ploy to delay the inevitable entry into the meeting.

James Chavez, ADD's CEO, stuck his head out of the door and interrupted the reunion. "Are you guys coming in or what? I've got them all warmed up for you."

Stephen exchanged looks with Jack. "Give us one or two minutes to prepare, OK?"

James nodded and gave Stephen a dazzling smile. "Takes a while to get your feet back under you, doesn't it? I feel the same way whenever I get back from the Caribbean. I'll let them talk to Jack for a couple of minutes while you and the team make yourselves presentable. Oh, and welcome back." He jerked his head and Jack and pulled back inside, leaving the door ajar behind him. Jack, with a semi-apologetic grin, slipped in behind him and eased the door shut.

James and Anthony had met ten years ago through a business incubator in Cambridge that specialized in pairing the brilliance of MIT with the hardheaded practicality of Harvard Business School. James had just received his MBA from Harvard, half a year ahead of schedule. This greatly surprised his advisor, who had assumed that James would follow other famous Harvard dropouts by going directly to his first million dollars without detouring for the degree. James’ thesis project was a feasibility study of the economics of an ice franchise in northern Alaska. The results of the paper were inconclusive, but he sold the idea to a venture capital firm for $950,000, thus proving his actual thesis, that there was a buyer for everything. He left Harvard planning to test the limits of that theory.

James was the perfect foil for Anthony's relentless, nerdy energy: suave, smooth, and unruffled, unwilling to let something as simple as emotion get in the way of a sale. Actual understanding of the product was superfluous: for him, the only necessary knowledge was "the hook," that thing that made the product irresistible to a buyer. Once he identified that, he grew bored with the other details. This suited Anthony fine, since there was nothing he hated more than explaining himself more than once. They had quickly worked out a partnership, harnessing Anthony’s energy during his up periods to create new product lines, new services, even new companies as quickly as they could. When Anthony slumped, James used the time to test the ideas in the market. Those that stuck were divided into two groups: the interesting ideas were passed off to competent managers within ADD to maintain and grow, while those with less revenue potential were sold to venture capitalists or competitors. The rest of Anthony’s plans, which were usually years ahead of their time, they patented and hoarded until the time was right.

James made it a point to meet with every prospective client at least once, even if only for a few minutes. It gave him the opportunity to size them up, weighing them on the scale of potential profitability. The fact that his charismatic air accelerated the sale was not lost on him, either. Since this client had already signed a contract, though, his presence added another element of mystery: few clients were unique enough to hold his interest past the close.

As he shook hands and accepted pats on the back, Stephen conducted a mental roll call. His core team was here, plus one: his three programmers, Frank, Mark, and Kelvin; his designers, David and Ricky; and a sturdy-looking bearded fellow whom Stephen had never seen before. He had the faintly bemused expression common to sleepwalkers, folk musicians, and new hires, so Stephen assumed that he was Rollin's replacement.

Frank Lasher and Mark Moore -- or the Brothers Grim, as they were known around the office -- were related neither by blood nor by disposition, but they were a perfect team nonetheless. Frank, tall and rawboned, his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail, was a smoldering volcano, his volatility matched only by the speed with which he could generate software code. Mark, on the other hand, had a physical presence could best be described as "soft, and a bit blurry around the edges." He was on the short and portly side, with a bushy beard that matched the pelt covering the rest of his body. He was the goat to Frank's racehorse: a calming presence that brought greater performance. For everyone's benefit, the two were rarely separated.

Where Frank was fire, Kelvin Tsong was ice. His imperturbability was unbroken by either laughter or anger, leading more than one project teammate to openly speculate that his ancestry tended more to Vulcan than Chinese. After working with Kelvin for the past six months, Stephen knew him to be both intelligent and helpful, with a dry wit that appeared at the strangest moments. He rarely smiled, though, and had never, as far as anyone knew, laughed at a joke. It was as though he understood humor but just didn’t see the point of it. At the moment, he was bestowing a rare smile on Stephen as he congratulated him on the birth of his daughter.

The scent of clove cigarettes drew Stephen's attention to David Chretienne and Ricky Nilsson-Martinez, Stephen's designers. David -- pronounced "Dahveed," thank you very much -- was one of the best visual designers at ADD, and therefore extremely and self-consciously unique. Born of Quebecois immigrant parents, he pined, sometimes visibly, for a return to the mother country, France. His French accent, usually faint, grew strong when he was agitated, though even in a true rage he more resembled Pepe Le Pew than Cardinal Richelieu. Besides being a wizard with PhotoShop and other graphics programs, David was a fabulous tailor and made all of his own clothing. His skill with needle and thread were surpassed only by his imagination, and he was constantly in pursuit of the perfect look to suit his moods. A fellow designer had once remarked that the real reason David had never quite attained the perfect look was due to the inferiority of Earthling materials, but Stephen suspected she was just being snarky. Today, David’s slight frame was covered head to toe in black, save for a short cape that sported a deep purple lining. He removed his beret and offered Stephen a short bow before nearly being bowled over by the much larger Ricky, who leaned over him to give Stephen a meaty pat on the shoulder.

What Ricky lacked in astuteness, looks, or fashion sense he made up for in genetic variety. In fact, if his genealogical claims could be believed, Ricky met all of the diversity requirements for an entire university all by himself. While he had grown up in New York, his family hailed from a small group of islands in the Caribbean that had apparently been the crossroads of all nautical traffic for the past several centuries. Through trade, intermarriage, slavery, and frequent pillaging, the natives of these islands carried the blood of the world in their veins, and Ricky was determined to identify and catalogue every drop. The fact that every new bit of heritage he discovered came with its own set of holidays was, he claimed, merely a happy coincidence. Today, Ricky wore what looked like the traditional garb of some African nation. Apparently we've discovered a new great-great-grandparent, Stephen thought with an inward sigh. I wonder how many days he'll need off this time.

After everyone had finished offering their congratulations, asking after the health of both baby and mother, and making half-hearted excuses for not having sent a baby gift, an uncomfortable silence fell.

"Well, should we go in?" Mark asked uncertainly.

Stephen leaned around the door and peeked through the window. James and Jack were engaged in small talk with two other men seated on the opposite side of the large oaken conference table. Jack, a constipated smile pasted on his face, caught Stephen's eye and jerked a thumb in a clear get-in-here-now gesture. Stephen replied with a little wave. "I think we have another minute or two. Have you introduced yourselves to the new guy?"

Frank glanced over his shoulder. "Him? You mean he's one of us? I thought we decided that we were just going to wait until Rollin came back from sabbatical rather than replacing him."

"Where did he go this time?" Ricky asked.

"Tibet, I think," Mark answered.

Ricky brightened. "Really? I have family there."

"What a surprise."

"Sure! Apparently, a group of very lost Tibetan monks sailed to our island in about 600 AD, looking for Shambhala. Their leader had decided that the ancient descriptions of mountains actually referred to ocean waves, so…"

"Why don't we save that for later?" Stephen interrupted. As much as he wanted to stall, this story was likely to take more time than they had to spare. He turned to the newcomer. "I'm Stephen, the project manager, and I assume that you're Stuart Troyer."

"Stu, please. I just started today." The older man stuck out a hand. He was short and wiry, with wire-rimmed glasses and a full beard that was starting to go gray. His grip was surprisingly strong, yet Stephen had the unmistakable impression that Stu was holding back so as not to hurt him. As he stood there, feet spread wide, he reminded Stephen of an old apple tree: strong, gnarled, with roots deeply planted in the ground. The kind of solid presence we could use on this team, Stephen thought.

Stu turned to shake hands with the others, spending an extra moment with Frank as the younger man tried to engage him in a hand-squeezing contest and quickly lost. Surreptitiously rubbing his hand, Frank asked testily, "Tell me again why we all have to be here? We’ve never had to attend the client kickoff before. They don’t like engineers to have too much contact with the clients, especially during the contract's escape period."

Stephen shrugged. "Don't ask me; I just got here, remember? Maybe it's part of your anger management therapy." Frank grimaced. That had been several hundred dollars of company money wasted, though he had received a free stress toy at the end and had filched two of the foam bats for personal use. Stephen continued, "I promise that if it gets unbearable I’ll make up a technical emergency and the developers can leave."

"Us, too?" asked Ricky hopefully.

"No, you’re stuck for the duration. Unless you know how they think, you’ll never be able to create a design that they like," Stephen said. Ricky sighed and rolled his eyes.

Stephen put his hand to the door. "OK, team, client faces!" He looked around. David and Ricky were smiling, though David’s fingers kept fidgeting as though they needed a cigarette between them. Mark was probably smiling, though it was hard to tell through the beard. His eyes looked happy, anyway. Frank was baring his teeth and looked as likely to go for someone’s throat as shake their hand. Stephen turned back and moved him to the back of the group. Kelvin was impassive, but in a friendly way. Stu, after looking around at the others confusedly for a moment, smiled tentatively.

Satisfied, Stephen put on his own smile and reached for the door. "Let’s go meet our new friends, shall we?" he suggested through gritted teeth. Truth be told, he wasn't especially looking forward to this either. Nonetheless, he girded his proverbial loins and stepped into the lion's den.

Continue to Chapter 2

Thursday, October 20, 2011

That's "Exorcise," with an "O"

September 11, 2011 was a bad day for me.  We were living in Boston at the time, and I was working at a startup near MIT and Kendall Square.  The planes that crashed into the Twin Towers flew right over our heads just hours before they exploded in a fiery mess over lower Manhattan.  My colleagues and I lost friends, acquaintances, and classmates in a moment.  On top of that, we lived in the city that the terrorists chose as their launching pad, and that was something that every Bostonian took as a personal affront.  What was it about our city that made it so friendly to psychotic maniacs?  The only fanatacism we were willing to encourage had to do with a certain cursed baseball team.

Like everyone who was old enough to understand what was going on, I remember that day with painful clarity.  I remember where I was when I first heard about what was happening and I remember standing and watching the towers fall on television.  I remember the baffled amazement, the thought, "Why would anyone do this to anyone?  What makes this OK?"  I remember wanting to cry, to scream, to find some way to deal with this hurt and anger, some way to make it all right again.  I remember weeping before the TV news weeks later, hurting for those who lost family and friends in a moment of terror.

A few weeks after the attacks, a picture started circulating around the Internet, showing a cloud of smoke escaping from one of the towers that looked like a horned devil.  Some people took this as a supernatural sign that the Devil was there, laughing at us as he took a few thousand American lives.  I doubt that a photographer captured a supernatural manifestation -- I think the Devil's usually more subtle than that -- but I have no doubt about one thing: the demons won that day, and they've continued to press their victories for the decade since.

America has never really put that day behind us.  Even this past month, ten years later, we showed how those wounds are as raw as they were ten days after the event.  In many ways, our country has been shaped by that day for the last decade: we have entered into an endless war against the perpetrators and anyone we perceive to be their supporters, we regularly debate which freedoms are best to give up in the name of safety, and we have moved into a fear-based economy, where the best decision is the one that leads me away from danger rather than toward opportunity.

We all have demons, those things that we hate and fear, the moments in our lives that lurk forever in our memories, waiting to pounce on us in an unprotected moment.  Whether they're big, global demons, like the specter of another terrorist attack, or personal ones, like the fear that people really don't care for me and they're just waiting for me to fail, these demons sink their claws into our psyche and drive our behavior at a level that we can't even recognize, much less understand.  When they rear their heads, they either send us scurrying for the nearest shelter or launch us at other people in an unreasoning attack that is completely out of proportion to the situation at hand.  When we are grappling with our demons, we immediately cede all of the territory gained in 10,000 years of civilization and become little more than animals.

Some people realize this, of course, and cynically trigger the fears they see in others to get the reactions they want.  Rather than working to exorcise others' demons, they exercise them, parading them around before a cowering throng.  The tag line "do that and the terrorists win" was a perfect post-9/11 example of this behavior.  The fact that it worked to give George W. Bush a second term only exacerbated the problem.  Now, media players like Fox News have honed this exercise to a sinister art, spinning a narrative of fear, insecurity, and hate that was previously reserved for isolationists and armed cults. 

Let's be fair, of course: all of the news stations do it, as does any industry that makes money off of gaining attention: politicians, drug companies, health food stores, religions.  If they can use fear to get your money, then the temptation is powerful, precisely because it's so easy.  Fear may not be our smartest motivator, but it is clearly our strongest.  And while everyone doesn't stoop to fear-mongering and demon-marching, the ones who do get all the attention.

The problem with all this exercise, of course, is that it does what exercise does: it makes the demons stronger.  The more we focus on what we fear and hate, the more it dominates our thinking to the point that nothing else really exists.  It's basic brain design.  If I'm afraid of terrorists, then every face that's different from mine starts to hide evil thoughts.  If I'm afraid that my boss doesn't like me, then every conversation becomes laden with veiled threats and opportunities for offense.  I can't help myself.

Nor can I drive the demons out with anger, posturing, or blustering threats.  They feed off of that energy, growing bigger and stronger even as I seek to drive them out.  Are we safer, more secure, and happier since we started two wars and locked down our methods of mass transportation?  Did hiding or locking all of the garbage cans in public places make us statistically less likely to be attacked, or did it just provide a constant reminder of everything that we're afraid of?

I have a counter-proposal: let's try to love our demons to death.  Rather than attacking the things we fear, what if we poured that energy into action in the exact opposite direction?  I think that we can exorcise them for real simply by canceling them out.

I actually know that this works, because I've done it.  Here's an example: years ago, I worked with someone who actively sought to undermine me at every step.  If I said go right, she demurely nodded, then immediately told everyone that left was really the better option as soon as I left the room.  If I asked her about it, she insisted that it was someone else's idea, but that he'd made some very cogent points as to why left might be the better option in this case.  If I called her on this behavior, she cried, which as all big men know is the ultimate weapon because it immediately turns us into bullies and mysogynists, even in our own minds.  She became my personal Al-Qaeda, striking from the shadows but melting away whenever I turned to face her.

Being the direct person that I am, my first instinct was to confront this behavior head-on with a logical argument, which only escalated the problem.  Now I was wrong and mean.  I was losing my team and starting to wonder if it wouldn't be easier just to find another job.  So one night, while driving home, I decided to try a different approach.  Rather than resisting this person, I decided that I would help her.  This wasn't altruism, it was desperation.  Since nothing else had worked, why not make it Opposite Day and see what happened?

In brief, it worked.  This person, who had seen me as a threat to her job and acted to defend her territory, saw that I was only trying to make things better and started to help me.  When I realized that we needed to completely change our approach and try something that the organization had never done before, she became my staunchest ally, whipping her own team into line before I could even get to them.  We became friends, and when I moved on, she was first in line to wish me well.  This time, if there were tears in her eyes it was because she was going to miss me.

My own demons drove me in this situation.  I wasn't sure that anyone trusted me to do my job, and I acted aggressively when someone questioned me.  I still struggle with that.  But when I turned around and counter-balanced those fears with a sort of trusting benevolence, they lost all their strength.  Soon, they were gone.

As a country, we've been lashing out at everything that frightens us for a decade now.  It's time to try something new.  Let's start by recognizing that, while these demons are real, the only power they have is that which we give them.  Then, let's start pushing in the opposite direction.

Back to 9/11 for a moment, but this time in 2011.  The ten-year anniversary hit me hard.  I avoided all of the media retrospectives, but I couldn't avoid the moment in church when they played a brief memorial video.  I wept when I saw the towers fall all over again, and I felt the same ache in my gut that I felt ten years ago, as if no time had passed.  But when I left the church I decided to do something to fill that darkness with light.  I went to IHOP and I bought breakfast for about 100 strangers, then I left and went to Starbucks and bought coffee for another 50 or so.  Those 150 people, those 50 or so families, didn't know who bought their meal, but they did know that something special happened on September 11.  Hopefully, they went out and did something themselves to spread a little more light on a dark day.

As for me, well....  September 11, 2001, will always be a dark day for me, a day when the darkness blotted out the light in the skies over lower Manhattan.  But September 11, 2011, is now a day when the light started to spread again, when I started doing what I could to exorcise my country's demons.  I hope that other people will join me.