Sunday, November 04, 2012

Holiday Lights

Starbucks has broken out the red coffee cups, so we're officially in the holiday season.  Don't like it? Feel free to stay in your house with the heat turned up, playing your "summer jams" playlist for a few more weeks.  But let's face it: the nights are getting longer, the days are getting colder, and we're entering that special season of the year once again.

No matter how you celebrate them, the holidays are different from the rest of the year.  People are more open, more willing to see the good in others, more receptive to the idea that miracles can happen.  Now, as we approach the darkest months of the year, we look for light.  Of course, for this very reason, the holidays are anything but "the most wonderful time of the year" for some, especially those who have lost loved ones or who find themselves in dire straits.  For the widower going through the first (or tenth) Christmas without his beloved wife, for the single mom who can't afford presents for her kids, this season brings desperate meaning to the phrase "Blue Christmas."

Happy or sad, in celebration or depression, this is the time when people wear their hearts on their sleeves, so this is the time to reach out to them.

This year, I want to challenge you, my friends and readers, to join me in making this season even more special for the people around us.  Let's make this a year that sticks out in people's minds as the year when their faith in humanity was restored.  Let's scrub the residue of an election season that seems to have lasted forever out of our minds and hearts and look at each other with fresh eyes: as people, not talking points.

What if this year, we all tried a little harder to make someone else's season bright?  What if, instead of buying a toy and dropping it in the Toys for Tots barrel or giving to a charity before the year-end tax deadline, we did a small kindness for a neighbor?  What if we went even further and did something extravagant for a stranger?  How can we make holiday memories that have the power to change lives?

In our house, we make a big deal about the holidays.  With our combination of Jewish and Christian traditions, my kids hit the holiday jackpot every December, getting 8 nights of Hanukkah as the lead-in to Christmas morning.  We love to celebrate our combined heritage, and we have always made it a point to share our joy with others through parties and gift-giving.  We've also made it a family tradition to reach out to our community, buying gifts for families who couldn't otherwise afford them.  We have more fun as a family going Christmas shopping for our "adopted families" than we do shopping for ourselves, and we look forward to it every year.  In recent years, though, we've started to ramp it up, looking for extravagant ways to bless other people during the holidays.

It started about 8 years ago with a DVD player.  We had adopted a family through the Salvation Army's Christmas gift drive, so we went shopping for two adults and two kids.  Their "gift" list was depressingly basic: soap, shampoo, toothbrushes for the kids.  Each kid asked for one gift, and the parents just wanted some clothes.  But someone, probably the worker who received the list from them, had added to the bottom of the list, "And they would love a DVD player if someone can get it for them."  When we went shopping, we started with all of the basics, but then we got to the bottom of the list.  DVD players weren't exactly cheap then, and this wasn't even something we would necessarily buy for ourselves.  But it felt right.  We wanted this family to open their presents on Christmas morning and say, "Wow!  Someone cares for us!"  We wanted to recapture some of the magic of the season for people who were probably used to lowering their expectations, for parents who were probably saying, "Honey, I'm not sure if Santa will make it to our house this year."  We wanted to give someone a moment of joy.  So we found a DVD player, wrapped it, and dropped it off with the rest of their presents.  And it felt good.

Since then, blessing strangers extravagantly has become an important part of our holiday traditions.  We watch for the "giving trees" and the toy drives and we look for the biggest requests, the little paper ornaments that are still hanging on the tree after all the dollies and remote control cars have gone.  My wife is particularly good at this, being a gift giver extraordinaire, and she has a knack for finding the gifts that leave the organizers shaking their heads and saying, "Boy, I never thought they'd get that, but I can tell you they need it."  Over the years, we've purchased bikes, tricycles, and microwaves, and last year my amazing spouse topped it all off by arranging the surprise delivery of a couch to a family in our area.

So why do we do this?  Are we rich?  Not really, but we've made this kind of giving part of our family budget.  We call it "the blessing fund," and we set aside a portion of our income every month to be used to brighten the lives of others.  We have a "use it or lose it" policy, and whatever we don't spend each year goes to charities that we choose together.  Do we do it because it makes us feel good or to assuage our guilt for being better off than others?  While it's true that it feels good to give, this goes beyond that.  This is an intentional effort to let people know that they are loved, even if it's by a stranger.  We do it because we believe that God loves us and has blessed us with enough money to provide for our own needs with some left over to help others, and we spend that money in ways that maximize its positive effect.

Why don't we just give that money to charities?  While charities provide many vital services and they deserve our support, I think that sending your money to someone else to do good work is nowhere near as tangible as helping someone directly.  And despite some suggestions from well-meaning magazines, I don't agree with the idea of spending your kids' gift money on charities as a way of teaching them about selflessness.  No child is going to be excited to hear, "Your present this year is that we gave a goat to a family in Africa!" unless you follow that sentence with, "And we're going to visit it!"  But let them choose a gift that they'd like to receive and wrap it up for a kid in their city, maybe even in their school, and they start to understand the joy of giving.

So here's my thought: what if we each took some portion of our holiday budget, whether it was intended for ourselves or for charities, and spent it on the people around us?  What if, on top of the small gifts for the toy drives, we also chose one family and gave them that one big gift that they never actually thought someone would give them?  What if we opened our eyes to the greatest needs around us and chose to meet them?  What  kind of difference could we make in our communities?  Whatever you think the answer is, let me tell you: it's bigger.

Here's the thing about extravagant giving: it touches people's hearts and it changes their lives.  Small gifts are nice, but they aren't that unexpected.  We all try to give a little extra around the holidays.  But give someone a couch and you'll get their attention.  It shakes them up, makes them question their assumptions, because someone went out of their way to do something nice for them, something they couldn't or wouldn't do for themselves.  And here's the other thing: it also might just be the one thing that they were praying for.  That extravagant gift, that moment of undiluted joy and surprise, might be the difference between giving up and going on, between a slow slide into despair and a new lease on life.  This is the season of miracles, after all, but the people who need them most have the hardest time believing that they still happen.  Surprise them with that answer to prayer and they may think that you're an angel in disguise.

Now, you don't have to buy furniture to change someone's life.  Even a small unexpected blessing can turn someone's day around.  Here are my suggestions for making someone's season bright:

  • Start small.  If you haven't done this before, ease your way into it.  Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line, or buy the groceries of that little old lady who's trying to pay in change.  Half of the fun lies in the surprise.  If you're shy like me, you don't even have to let them know who did it.  Just buy a gift card and ask the cashier to use it to pay for people until it runs out.
  • Be creative.  Look for something out of the ordinary that will be just what someone needs, and listen to your heart.  If you see someone sitting alone at a restaurant and it feels like they could use a boost, then buy their meal on your way out.  If you know someone at work who's going through a tough time, then get them tickets to a show or a concert that you know they'd like.  Find ways to acknowledge the person behind the present, to meet their need in that moment.
  • Be open and look for the unmet needs.  At this time of year we tend to focus on the kids, as we should, but there are many other people who are looking for some magic in the cold winter months.  Look for the people who everyone else forgot -- the parents, the senior citizens, the college kids who can't go home -- and let them know that they still matter, that they are seen.  Talk to the people who know them and ask what they need, then find a way to give it to them.  Watch for the people who cross your path every day and ask yourself, "What can I do to surprise them with joy?"  You won't be able to do it all, but if you keep your eyes open you'll your personal assignments.
  • Finally, work together.  Being extravagant isn't easy, and it takes both time and money, as I learned with "Take Back the Movies."  But "many hands make light work," as the old Englishman said, so find some friends to join you in this task.  Pool your resources and adopt a family for Christmas, or throw a party at the retirement home, or buy that student some plane tickets so he can go home for the holidays.  You'll all enjoy the challenge, and you'll grow closer to each other even as you reach out to others.
To quote Charlie Brown, "I almost wish there weren't a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"  Let's find the Charlie Browns of the world and let them know that they are loved, that they matter.  Let's make this season a real Festival of Lights.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Act

On Friday, I talked about the power of choice.  You can choose the light or the dark, and you change the world with each choice you make.  I said that, in a world where one person can traumatize an entire region with his actions, it's up to the rest of us to choose the light.

Of course, choice is meaningless if it isn't accompanied by action.  You can choose to believe all kinds of things, crazy or sane, positive or destructive, but they have no weight until you act on them.  I, and others like me, need to respond to this horrible event, not just feel bad about it. We need to spread a little light, a little joy, and drown out the darkness that one man brought into all of our lives.

So, after much thought and bouncing my ideas off of some trusted friends, here's my idea: I want to give people a night at the movies. Not just a few people, but whole theaters full of people. I want to go to theaters in the Denver area (and especially the area around Aurora) and say to everyone who walks in the doors, "Tonight, the movie's on us. Go, enjoy. This isn't a fundraiser, it's not a memorial service. Some douchebag tried to steal a night of fun from all of us. Tonight, we're giving it back."

This may seem trivial in the face of the tragedy that we experienced, and I know that going to the movies can't bring people back from the dead. But where one man tries to sow hate and destruction, I believe that it's up to the rest of us to respond with love and life, to seek out joy rather than embracing that darkness. If we just sit around and feel bad, then the douchebag wins.

To me, this isn't about politics or policies.  It isn't about gun control or the price of freedom.  It's about people.  People who are hurt and afraid, who have had something special stolen from them.  People who think about going out to the movies and now think, "Maybe it's safer to just stay home."  This is about a region that has been traumatized once again by stupid, selfish, mindless violence.  I can't turn back time and make this go away, but maybe I can heal a little bit of the memory by giving people a joyful moment at the movie theater.

I've found a few other people and companies to join me in this crazy idea, and we welcome more people to join us.  We're taking Denver to the movies on Saturday, August 11, and I want to treat as many people as possible.  If you'd like to join us, go here for more details.

Let's spread a little light together.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Choose

In the aftermath of last night's mass shooting at the midnight showing of Batman here in Colorado, everyone is already trying to understand what happened and, more importantly, whom to blame.  Did the movie make him do it?  Is it Hollywood's fault for constructing bullet-ridden fantasies and foisting them on the public every summer?  Is it the NRA's fault for making sure he had access to the weapons he used?  Is it the government's fault for not enforcing gun control policies or not banning the sale of assault weapons?  Is it the media's fault for covering these sorts of terrible events 24/7 and drawing crazies to the spotlight like moths to a flame? 

Let's be very clear here.  One person is at fault: the shooter. 

No one made him do this, he wasn't tricked into committing a heinous outrage against humanity.  He chose to attack a group of strangers, he methodically planned that attack, and he carried it out.  At any point, he could have turned back and not done this, and no one would have known, but he made the choice.  That's it.  No mitigating circumstances, no political arguments, no media spotlight.  He chose, he acted, he killed.

Free will's a bitch, ain't it?

We are all independent beings, each created with a free mind and a free will.  We have complete freedom to act, and both we and the world bear the consequences of those actions, good or bad.  The same mind that can create a symphony of aching beauty can craft a message of enduring hate.  The will that can choose to lift up starving children from poverty can instead choose to massacre innocents.  That's the power of choice, and it comes with the birth certificate.

We all want to know why this happened, what drove a man to murder his fellow human beings.  We want to find some extenuating circumstances, some childhood trauma or chemical imbalance that made him incapable of knowing right from wrong.  More than anything, we want to know that this potential for unreasoning violence is limited to him (or people like him), that we could never do anything so awful.  We want to lie to ourselves.

Because in the end, the why doesn't matter.  The reasons that we hear, or the ones we make up, won't change the fact that every one of us has the same power of creation and destruction in our hands every moment of every day.  With every choice we make, large or small, we make the world more beautiful or more ugly, full of love or full of hate.  And the consequences of these actions ripple around us constantly.  Some actions, like last night's, make a big splash that quickly reaches around the world.  Others may only touch a few people, but those ripples keep going, as action inspires action inspires reaction, until the waves carry over the horizon.  You will never know how many lives you will change simply by being on this planet.  Your power is greater than you can possibly fathom, and you don't even have to get on TV to use it.

So what will we do with this power?  That's the question we must answer every day.  Will we choose to work for our own benefit, to take what we can and let everyone else fend for themselves?  Will we reply to evil with evil, hating those who we think have done us wrong?  Will we abdicate our power to others, letting them make the decisions and simply choosing to follow along?  Or will we revel in our world-changing capabilities and make our own waves? 

More importantly, how do we respond to the evil, destructive choices of others?  I, for one, believe that good can overwhelm evil, that "perfect love casts out fear."  When one person chooses great evil, then many people must rise up and choose to go out of their way to do good, in large ways and small.  We can choose to sit around and be fascinated by one person's horribly wrong choices, or we can choose to go out and make more beauty, more love, more joy, and drown that darkness in light.

That's what I choose to do. How about you?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Heil Valley Ranch Kicked My Butt, Repeatedly

Here are my first impressions of mountain biking at Heil Valley Ranch, after three years of saying, "I should really give that a try."

I need a better suspension.

Heil Valley Ranch should be renamed, "The Boulder Rock Garden," because that's the only thing you'll find on the trails.  Big rocks, small rocks, loose rocks, pointy rocks.  You know the terrain is bad when you choose to ride in the deep sand because it offers a more pleasant experience.  After the first 45 minutes on this trail that would make Sisyphus weep, I longed to see a tree root, tree trunk, snake, charging bull elk, anything soft to run into.

Riding a hardtail bike on these trails is the physical equivalent of hiring an army of gnomes to kick you in the urethra at the rate of one kick per second for an hour.  And that's on the way up.  On the way down, the gnome army marches across your taint double-time.  I have decided that the "Wapiti Trail,"despite its quaint Native American sound, is actually named after the repetitive sound your saddle makes against your butt as you ride.  I met an experienced rider on my way up the trail who looked like she wanted to weep after simply trying to descend this petrous perdition.  She had already crashed once on the shifting shale and wanted nothing more to do with it.  At that point, I could hardly blame her.

Anyone who enjoys riding Heil Valley Ranch is a masochist.  Anyone who recommends it to a friend is a sadist and should not even be allowed to decide on dessert.  They'd probably choose flan.  If your friend invites you to ride Heil Valley Ranch, ride as fast as you can in the other direction.  It's more likely that he wants to kill you and leave your body in the canyon.

Under a big pile of rocks.

Go if: you like spankings
Don't go if: you have any feeling left in your butt, feet, or hands, and want to keep it that way.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

20 Years, Really? Really, 20 Years

The final graduation ceremony, whether from high school, college, or graduate school, is an inflection point in each of our lives.  With it, we cross the frontier from the sheltered world of parents and professors into the great unknown of career, family, and complete responsibility for ourselves.


That inflection point came for me 20 years -- half a lifetime -- ago when I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.  Now, as my classmates gather in Philadelphia for our 20th reunion and I lie on my back suffering from a stomach virus, it seems like a good time to reflect.

20 years?  Has it really been that long?  It feels like only a moment.  No, wait, it feels like an eternity.  I guess it depends upon how closely you look.  I don't feel twice as old as I was when I graduated college.  Maybe a few years older, definitely a few years wiser, but 20?  Come on, it can't be….

1992: Graduation.  Before I even graduate, I'm working at the one job in the world that lies at the intersection of my Wharton marketing degree and my Theatre Arts minor: Marketing Director for Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays.  Living on Sansom Street with Rafe and Trent while we all try to figure out what comes next is like calling a temporary timeout on life, somewhere between moving back home with Mom and Dad and going to graduate school.  As it turns out, "nonprofit marketing" is an oxymoron, so by the end of the year I make my first cross-country move, to Tacoma, WA.

1993: The first half of the year is spent finding a place to live (a truly shabby studio apartment, complete with occasional cockroach infestations) and convincing my girlfriend to come and try out Northwest living.  The second half is spent driving back and forth between Tacoma and Seattle after she moves out.

1994: Engagement: the next big step in adult living.  Everyone's doing it.  We're engaged on April 1 (I have the good sense not so shout, "April Fools!" after proposing) and set the wedding date for next April. My parents are thrilled.  Hers need some convincing.  After all, this boy stole their daughter away to the other side of the country, and he's not even working for Microsoft.

1995: Marriage. Who knew that so many people could do the Electric Slide on such a small dance floor? I'm thrilled to learn that people give you money when you get married.  With my rented tuxedo's pockets bulging with little envelopes, I wonder how long we have to wait before we can renew our vows.  Disneyworld for the honeymoon, where we meet a minivan full of Japanese tourists the hard way: by rear-ending them.  My new bride and I continue to feed our theatre bug by performing with the Tacoma Little Theatre. She's a sexy nurse, I wear tights, and everything is "normal." We bring the Penn tradition of the cast party parody to Tacoma's community theatre scene.  Some of my best writing, if I do say so myself: those scripts still make me laugh.

1996: Married bliss in "the Little House" in Tacoma.  More theatre, more odd friends, more parodies.  My first one-act play is performed on stage, and I get to direct a staged reading for the professional theatre company downtown. The East Coast is calling, though, and our feet start to wander.  Cross-country move #2 brings us to Boston in the middle of December, where I learn that my Seattle winter clothes won't fend off pneumonia.  Welcome to New England!

1997-1998: "Boston, you're my home!"  Life in software development leaves no time for performing on stage, so it's goodbye to the theatre, hello to the World Wide Web.  Did you know that there's a fine line between "high-energy genius" and "manic depressive?"  I learn this the hard way, along with a lot of other truths about working with software engineers. I also get my first taste of the startup life, which leaves me hungry for more even when we're taking turns getting paid each week.

Home ownership. Now we're really adults, with our own personal debt load.  What's next?

Fatherhood: another milestone achieved.  Our baby girl brings joy, tears, and sleepless nights.  I say goodbye to 20-30 IQ points, hoping they'll return when I finally get to sleep again. 

1999-2003: You know how they say you shouldn't pile one major life change on top of another?  I never really listened to that advice.  Two months after I become a father, I have a new job with another software company, just before their IPO.  ATG is everything that a person could want in a workplace, with people who are both smart and nice.  Like a golfer who finally has that one sweet swing, I'll spend the next 10 years trying to get that feeling back.  IPO, dot-com boom, trips to LA, going global, partying in New Orleans, dot-com bust, "bring in the adults to run things," layoffs, layoffs, layoffs.

Fatherhood, take two.  With two kids only 16 months apart, sleep is something we hallucinate about in the dark hours of the night.  I never know what I'll come home to in the evenings, whether it's naked mattress surfing, Kiki and her cat, or the entire cast of Cats dancing under a paper jellicle moon.  Life is an adventure.

2003-2008: When I can't lay another person off, I find myself reuniting with friends from the past.  Ascend Consulting sends me into the depths of corporate America, where every day I find myself working for a startup while working at a multinational financial services company.  Our clients are big, rich, and riddled with process, and I learn that working at startup speed makes you no friends.  As my first client manager puts it, "You're wearing us out!  You need to slow down and let things happen at their own pace."  I slow down and learn how to push hard enough to get things done, but not hard enough to hurt any feelings.  With all the leftover creative energy, I decide to start writing.  This blog is born, along with the unpublished masterpiece, Hollywood.bomb.  I rediscover biking and join the Patriot Pedalers to take the Best Buddies challenge.  Writing follows riding, and I make riding a century sound epic and idiotic, often at the same time.

The family grows older, the children start school, and my wife and I start worrying about things like test scores and graduation rates.  My wife returns to making music, creating three amazing CDs that touch thousands of lives.  I get to do "additional percussion" on one of them, adding my hand claps to the background of a song while the producer accuses me of "flamming." The Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino and New Englanders are winners again. Boston matures us, shapes us as a family, but it can't hold us.  When my wife's parents retire to the West Coast, leaving us as the last family members in the East, it's time to look westward again.

2009: Cross-country move #3.  we leave twelve years's worth of memories and friendships behind as we pile into the car and drive west.  This time we don't make it all the way to the other coast, but settle down in Boulder.  Mountains replace the coastline as my primary navigation reference, and we learn that skiing is a lot more fun when you do it on real snow.  Biking at high altitude takes some getting used to, but when everyone else is doing it, it's hard to stay home.  The kids love their schools and we love our new home.  I find a new job (or it finds me) while we're driving across the country, and the "Iowa phone interview with the lightning strike exclamation point" sets the stage for the adventure to come.

2010-2012: Boulder is for startups.  Louisville is for families.  Weekends are for recovery.  The job makes me crazy and proud by turns as we accomplish things no one thought we could. So this is what it's like to own a product.  My wife and the kids follow their passions, she into caring for others and they into sports like horseback riding and baseball.  When no one's looking, I sneak out for rides on trails that leave me breathless with their beauty.  Colorado is the place for us.


Huh.  I guess it has been 20 years.  We certainly didn't waste any of it, did we?  Every one of these years was full of blessings and adventures, lots of laughter, a few tears, and a whole lot of learning.  As I look at them now, I feel the life of them, but not the weight.  Inside, I'm still that 21-year-old kid, looking out over the next year with impatience and excitement, wondering what will come next.  Based on what has come before, I can't wait.

Happy 20th reunion, everyone!  I can hardly wait for the 40th!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 9

Trying to get back to that mythical "one chapter a week" average that I promised at the beginning.  Speaking of beginnings, if you want to start reading there, use this page to get there.


Chapter 9
"I’ll email my code to you this weekend," Frank said to Stu as they both prepared to leave for the day.  "You can look it over and integrate it with your pieces before Monday.  Once my part’s done, yours shouldn’t take long at all."

As a rule, ADD strictly forbade weekend and evening work, except in case of project emergencies.  Their motto was, "Anthony works enough extra hours for all of us."  For the sake of everyone’s sanity, however, every project team was given the leeway to determine what constituted an emergency.  After two days, Frank and Stu had made some good progress on the prototype and would clearly be done in time to meet the requirements of the bakeoff.  Frank knew that he wouldn’t be able to relax until it was completely done, though, so he had decided, as usual, to invoke the emergency provision.  No one ever challenged him when he did this, because they figured that if keeping Frank happy didn’t qualify as an emergency, nothing did.

 "OK, I’ll come into the office tomorrow morning."  Stu thought through his schedule.  "I can finish my errands after that, I suppose, if I bring the trailer."

Frank frowned.  "It’s not worth coming all the way in here.  It should only take you half an hour to do.  Just pick it up at home and send it back to me when you’re done."

"Can’t.  I can’t get email at home.  I’ll come in, it’s no big deal."  Stu began gathering his things and loading them into the pannier bags for the ride home.

Frank refused to let it go.  "What, are you finally making the switch to cable?  Cancel your DSL account before the phone guy actually showed up?  That’s a loser move every time, right, Moore?"  He tossed a wad of paper at Mark, who was packing his own bag so that he could walk out with them.

Mark batted the paper away and grinned sheepishly, "Yeah, I had to go for a week with no connectivity.  They never make it to the first appointment."

"No, that’s not it," Stu got up to leave and Frank and Mark followed him.

"What, then?"  Frank asked, "Did your cable modem die?  Network card problems?  Wireless router on the fritz?"

Stu sighed as he pushed the button for the elevator, then leaned against the wall as though bracing himself as he said, "I don’t have Internet access at home.  Or a computer, for that matter."

Frank laughed.  "That’s funny, an engineer without a computer.  No, seriously, what’s the problem?  Is your home machine just too slow to do hard-core development on?  Are you ashamed of it?  It’s OK; we all fall behind Moore’s Law at some point.  I’m sure you’ll be able to upgrade now that you’re working here."

Stu let out a second, longer sigh.  "I’m serious.  There are no computers in my house."

Frank froze half in and half out of the elevator, then leaped in to keep the doors from closing on his backpack.  "What?!?  What are you, some kind of Luddite?"

Stu cleared his throat.  "Neo-Luddite, actually.  At home, I don’t use any technology invented after 1920."

Frank snorted, "And I’m a neo-vegetarian.  I won’t eat any steak that hasn’t been aged at least 3 weeks."

Stu smiled quietly and said, "That’s a new one.  I’ll have to remember that," but he clearly wasn’t joking.

Frank rolled his eyes, but Mark was fascinated.  "So, you don’t have a TV, either, I guess.  What about a stereo?"

"I don’t have a big stereo, but I do own a radio," replied Stu.  "I only listen to NPR, though."

"Why, was NPR invented before 1920?" Mark asked.

"No, I just like the jazz."

They arrived at the garage, and there was silence for a few moments as they exited the elevator and walked toward the bike racks.  While Stu began the complicated process of unwrapping several fathoms of cable from his recumbent bike, Frank began muttering to himself with increasing volume.  Finally, he kicked the bike rack, winced, and carefully set his foot back down, heel first.  "How can you live like that?" he snarled over the pain.  "I mean, come on, you’re an engineer!  We live for gadgets!  What do you do with your free time, knit?"

Stu thought about it for a moment as he coiled the cable and attached it, along with his bags, to the back of his bike.  "I guess I’m just happier leaving it at the office.  I think technology has made life complicated enough without inviting it into every aspect of my day.  I still have plenty to keep me busy:  reading, working on my bike, gardening, not to mention my other projects.  I don’t need to stare at a flickering screen for another couple of hours every night after doing it all day."

"Why did you become a software engineer, then, if this is how you feel about modern technology?" Mark asked.  "You couldn’t be more dependent upon high tech here without implanting it in your body."

Here he gestured meaningfully at Frank, who bristled defensively.  "Hey, I’m still working on the power supply, OK?  I won’t try that again until I can eliminate the external battery pack!"  He paused.  "Good point, though.  Why not work on a commune or something?"

Stu shrugged as he put on his helmet, "It’s what I was good at in college.  Go figure."  He settled into the seat of his bike, pushed off, and gave a little wave and a goodbye ching-ching from his bell as he rode off into the evening gloom.

***

"You should have seen Frank.  I swear that the top of his head was about to just flip open, like the lid on one of those fancy trash cans, and spray agitated brains all over the place!  He just couldn’t grasp the idea that anyone would want to live without a computer in their house.  I was ready to catch him, just in case he shorted out completely and collapsed on the way to the T.  He just kept talking to himself, saying, ‘Not even one?  Not even an iPod?  How does he keep track of phone numbers?  How does he know where he’s supposed to be?’  Man, he was shaken."  Mark accentuated his point with a shake of his empty soda can, rattling the pull tab that he had dropped into it when he finished the drink.

"Mm-hmm," Kelvin replied, glancing up briefly from the complicated sketch of a multi-geographic N-tier hardware architecture that he had been working on for the past twenty minutes while Mark talked.  "I don’t suppose he was so rattled that he wasn’t able to work, was he?"

The none-too-subtle hint was, nevertheless, too subtle for Mark.  "Oh, I doubt it.  Just the opposite, more likely.  He probably went home and drowned his sorrows in code.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he had rewritten the entire prototype, reconfigured his network, and rewired his pants by now."

"Just as well.  I want to prove I’m right, but not by default."  Kelvin paused as footsteps approached the open door of their workroom.  "Shh, he’s coming."

Mark cocked his head to the side as he listened.  "No, it’s not him."  At Kelvin’s questioning look, he elaborated, "Those kinetic fibers in his pants make a particular ‘swip-swip’ sound when he walks.  Sit next to it for a year or two and you come to recognize it."  Just then, Stephen came around the corner.

"Steffy," Kelvin nodded solemnly.

"Kelly," Stephen nodded back.  "Hey, is something going on with Frank?  I just saw him, and…  Hey, you shaved your beard!  I’ve never seen your chin before!"

Kelvin looked at Mark with surprise.  "Hey, you did!  I hadn’t noticed.  What’s wrong, did you get a lice infestation or something?"

Mark fingered his newly denuded chin, clearly uncomfortable with the scrutiny.  "Yeah, I figured it was time for a change."

"A change?" asked Stephen.  "You’ve had that beard as long as I’ve known you!  It’s like a member of the family.  What kind of change could this be?"

"Well, I was doing some research on Google about this whole ‘sacred feminine’ thing, and I stumbled across an article about men hiding their true selves behind facial hair.  Something about trying to get back to our Neanderthal roots and subjugate women with our beards because they can’t grow them."

"Most women, anyway."  Kelvin shuddered.  "Remember Sandy?"

 "Sandy was a woman?" asked Stephen.

Mark cut them off.  "Anyway, it seemed pretty silly to me when I read it, but I kept thinking about it.  Finally, I decided that, gender issues aside, it was time for me to expose myself to the world."  He thought about that statement for a moment, while Stephen and Kelvin retained admirably straight faces.  "Wait, that didn’t come out quite right.  I decided to stop hiding behind my beard, and let the world see the real me, all of me.  Yeah, that’s better."

"Congratulations on your new face.  It’s a pleasant change," said Stephen, and meant it.  Behind the facial shrubbery, Mark had fine features, if a bit plump, and he had removed ten years of apparent age along with his beard.

"Thank you.  Now, what about Frank?  Is he OK?"

"I haven’t spoken to him yet, but I saw him enter the building ahead of me earlier, and he was limping.  You don’t think he tried another self-directed implantation again, do you?"

Alarmed, Mark stood up. "I hope he didn’t go that far.  I’ll go check." he excused himself, leaving Kelvin to explain Stu’s revelation and Frank’s reaction to Stephen, who could only shake his head.

"That’s a new one to me, though it’s a logical extension, really.  You have no idea how many time I have considered ‘losing’ this beast down the toilet," he said, waving his smartphone.  "Just because we can be accessible 24 hours a day doesn’t mean we should.  Speaking of which," he added as it began to vibrate in his hand, "it looks like our West Coast friends have gotten hold of my cell number.  Great, now I have to remember to turn this off when I go home at night.  This is Stephen," he answered as he left the workroom, leaving Kelvin to his diagram.

***

"I said, ‘We have a new boss!’" Thomas’ voice came faintly over the telephone.

"Are you calling me from inside a tunnel or something?  I can barely hear you," yelled Stephen.  After several fruitless minutes of trying to hear Thomas over the general hubbub of the office, he had finally ducked into an empty conference room and closed the door.  Even with his phone’s volume turned up to the maximum, Stephen could barely understand anything that Thomas said.  "Maybe I should call you back from a land line!"

"No need to shout.  There, is that better?"  Now his voice was louder, but it sounded muffled and scratchy, as though he were holding a paper napkin over the phone.

"Not really.  I can still barely understand you.  What were you saying?"

"This damned thing.  Here, oh screw it.  I’ll just put you on speaker phone."  Suddenly, Thomas’ voice boomed in Stephen’s ear, so loudly that Stephen almost threw the phone across the room in his haste to pull it away from his head and lower the volume.  "How’s this?"

"Better."  Stephen rubbed his ear.  "What was the problem?"

"Oh, it’s this new headset I got.  It’s the same model as Robert’s, but there seems to be something wrong with mine.  No one can ever seem to hear me."

"I think the round end’s supposed to go in your ear and the pointy part is supposed to point toward your mouth.  Now, what were you saying before?  Something about a new boss or new bras, I couldn’t tell which.  I’m sincerely hoping it’s the former."

"It was ‘boss.’  Trust me when I say that we wouldn’t rely on your fashion sense for the other issue. Now that we’ve started adding staff, Robert and Brad decided that they needed to focus on the creative side of the business, not to mention their other side ventures, so they hired a new CEO.  Didn’t even consider looking internally, I suppose."  Thomas sounded hurt.

"Well, I guess that makes sense.  How many people have you added since we were there last?"

"About 50, mostly administrative and financial.  Everyone has assistants now, even Connie.  It’s getting a little crowded in here."

"Your assistant has an assistant?  What does she do?"

"I don’t know; she’s Connie’s responsibility."  Now that Thomas was on the speaker phone, Stephen could hear two women talking in the background, though their voices were too low for him to understand.  "Filing, I suppose, or making coffee.  Or maybe just chatting!"  His voice rose significantly on the last sentence, and the women’s voices were cut off by the sound of a door slamming.  "It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, we have another chef in the kitchen, so you’ll need to make sure he likes what you’re cooking."

Stephen stifled a sigh.  "I’m not even sure whether we’re all using the same recipe at this point.  Can we try to keep him out of the kitchen altogether?  We don’t have time to keep another executive happy right now."

"Can I tell him you said that?"

Stephen surprised himself by actually considering the question.  "No, probably not, though I may have to tell him myself before this project is over.  Just let him know that we’re already on a tight schedule, so changes at this point would be… difficult."

"Tell him yourself.  He starts next week and you’re scheduled to meet him Monday morning.  He’ll want a status update, I’m sure."

This time, Stephen did not stifle the sigh.  "I don’t suppose any of you plan to talk to him first?"

Thomas laughed, not entirely nicely.  "No, we wouldn’t want to steal your thunder."

"Is this to get me back for calling you at 8:00 in the morning the other day?"

"You mean 5:00 in the morning?  Maybe.  And you’re a bad actor, by the way.  ‘Oh, is it too early to call?  I forgot about the time difference.’  Right.  I got the point, though, and I have solved the problem of the time zones now."

Stephen chuckled quietly.  Whatever it takes, buddy.  "Really?  How did you do it?"

"I got another clock.  Now I have two hanging on the wall, one labeled ‘Los Angeles,’ and the other ‘Boston.’  It’s kind of cool, like a newsroom, and now I can just look up and see what time it is there whenever I need to reach you."

"That should do it.  Anything else I should know about before we come out?"

"Nothing more for now.  Just be ready.  This new guy has run about 20 other companies, so he knows what he likes.  I just hope that one of those other companies made software too, or we’re all going to have to start wearing overalls to work."  After some fumbling noises, Thomas found the speakerphone button and hung up.  Stephen sighed again as he put his phone back in his pocket.  He wasn’t sure what that last bit about the overalls meant, but it didn’t sound good.

***

Later, Stephen decided to check on Frank and make sure that he was all right.  Mark hadn’t come back to find him, so he assumed that no lasting damage had been done, but it never hurt to be sure.  When Frank got upset, he could be, frankly, stupid.  As he walked around to where the Brothers and Stu sat, he saw that Frank wasn’t there.  Mark and Stu were at their desks, though, and seemed to be involved in a running conversation as they worked.

Mark called to Stu, "OK, what about electric lights?  Can you use them?"

"Electric lights were invented in the mid-1800s, and I’m not fond of working by candlelight," Stu replied.  "Too hard on the eyes."

"Hmm, OK.  What about buttons?"

Stu looked up at him.  "I’m not Amish, Mark."

Mark blushed, "All right, just checking."  He paused to think.  "What about a telegraph?  Could you use one of those?"

"Why would I want to use a telegraph?"

"I don’t know, maybe you had a friend who was trying to learn Morse code so that he could join the Coast Guard."

"In that case, then yes, I could use a telegraph.  But I would have to place it in a shed outside my house."

Mark stopped typing and stared hard at Stu, "You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?"

"What do you think?"

 Stephen decided this was a good time to interrupt.  "Have you two seen Frank?  Is he OK?"

Stu beat Mark to the punch.  "Define ‘OK’ in Frank terms."

Mark elaborated after shooting Stu a dirty look.  "He’s fine, but he’s in a Mood.  He didn’t try any new experiments on himself, if that’s what you’re wondering, but he also didn’t finish the prototype.  He seems to have been distracted by something else all weekend."

"What about the limp?"

"Oh, that came from the bike racks in the garage.  He, er, stubbed his toe rather forcefully when we walked out with Stu on Friday."

Stu was concerned for the first time.  "He didn’t break his toe, did he?  If I’d known he’d react like this, I would have tried to find a better way to tell him.  Not that it really should affect him, of course, but I don’t want his toes on my conscience."

"Don’t worry about Frank," Mark reassured him, "he’ll calm down.  He always does, eventually."

Just then, Frank stalked around the corner.  Seeing all of them there, he hesitated before continuing over to stand in front of Stu’s desk.  His approach was heralded by the rustling of noise-reducing headphones being lifted from desks and firmly settled on heads, followed by the dim cacophony of twenty different rock songs playing at argument-drowning volumes.  Mark’s conversation had been entertaining, but Frank’s tended to be long and bloody.  "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."

Frank was puzzled, "What does that mean?"

"It means that we believe that you can set your own limits and still be within the principles of Luddism.  There are Orthodox Luddites, who cling to a very strict interpretation of the traditions.  Ironically, they seem to be the ones who get the most press.  I assume they all have webmaster friends.  I find Orthodoxy too self-limiting, as some advances in technology can actually be more freeing than encroaching.  Plus, if I worked on a farm I fear that the conversation wouldn’t be nearly as stimulating as it is here."

Shockingly, Frank had no ready reply.  He had been ready to catch a fake and had discovered a nuance.  Frank and "nuance" rarely shared a room, so the effect left him imbalanced momentarily.

Smiling behind his beard, Stu returned to his work.  "I’m thrilled that you’re interested in Luddism, though, Frank.  You’d be a great addition to the fold.  In fact, you’re only one or two radical doctrines away from becoming a Cyborg Luddite yourself."

Now Frank cycled through several reactions -- appeased, insulted, incredulous, and several others -- before settling on grumpily curious.  He looked to the others for support before asking, "What’s a Cyborg Luddite: half man, half horse cart?"

Stu chuckled, but kept typing.  "Not quite.  Cyborg Luddites believe that technology’s incursion into our lives can only be limited by using technology to protect our privacy.  Much like the members of the English Church who rewrote popular drinking songs into hymns, they think that the Devil’s tools are best suited to stopping him.  Think of it as the backfire approach to technology:  burn the field before the wildfire can do it for you, absorb the technology before it can control you.  You’re just as likely to hasten the end as delay it, but maybe a mind more brilliant than mine can find a way to make it work."

This, Frank decided, was definitely a compliment, as well as a challenge.  "Well, maybe I just will."

Stu didn’t look up as Frank stomped off, followed closely by both Stephen and Mark, who were already trying to get him to promise not to attempt self-surgery.  "Let me know how it turns out."


Continue to Chapter 10

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 10

Chapter 10

It was a surly bunch that gathered at Logan International Airport at 5:00 Monday morning, and Stephen was far from the happiest of the lot. As he shuffled through the sliding glass doors into the terminal, he saw Mark waving cheerfully to him from across the terminal, with David and Stu beside him. Stephen wavered for a moment’s muddled deliberation. Choices: Mark (far too happy for the hour); Dunkin’ Donuts (chocolate donut or glazed stick. I wish they hadn’t done away with the crullers); Starbucks (coffee with a kick like a donkey, scone).

Deciding he needed the jolt more than a donut or company at that moment, he waved back at Mark to show that he had seen him before turning away to join the line of coffee junkies jonesing for their morning fix. Looking ahead in the line, he saw Kelvin and Frank, deep in animated debate, or at least what passed for animated at this time of the morning. Frank was gesticulating halfheartedly and trying to work up a good head of steam while Kelvin just stared listlessly forward and listened. When his turn came to speak, Kelvin leaned toward Frank and squinted at him blearily, as though to make sure that he was arguing with the right person.

Probably trying to decide who won the bakeoff, thought Stephen with a momentary glimmer of pleasure. No matter what else you might say about him, he knew how to motivate engineers: you either told them it couldn’t be done or that someone else was going to do it first. Stephen didn’t know what had honed this fierce competitive instinct in the mind of the engineer, but he suspected it was a redirection of instincts that might otherwise have been exercised in athletic endeavors. Lacking a physical outlet, the engineer poured his evolutionary need to prove himself into intellectual achievement. Whatever the reason, I’m glad the buttons are there to push.

At the front of the line, Stephen could see Ricky, explaining his multi-part coffee order for the second time and making the barista repeat it back to make sure he had all of the variables exactly right. Satisfied at last, Ricky moved to his left to let the woman behind him rattle off her well-rehearsed code sequence, which, when translated into a series of scribbles on the side of a coffee cup, resulted in a hot and flavorful beverage through a kind of alchemy that still baffled Stephen. Shuffling another step forward, he rehearsed his own order, lest he embarrass Ricky again. As he did so, he massaged his temples against the throbbing pain that threatened to beat the caffeine to his brain.

Large -- no, wait: venti -- dark roast. Do I want milk today? Then I’ll need to ask for "room," so I don’t have to pour any coffee out into the garbage. That’s the equivalent of walking around with your fly open here. Yeah, some milk would help. OK: Venti bold with room. Venti bold with room. Got it.

Another step forward. The next several customers just wanted coffee, fast. Probably commuters heading down to New York on the shuttle. Even if they had tickets on a later flight, they always tried to get onto the earlier one if they could, creating a sort of constant panicky rush hour around those gates until around 9:00 every morning. Glad I’m not doing that anymore. We may have to get up early, but it’s only once a month, and we don’t have to rush. Frank and Kelvin were next, calling a brief truce to place their orders: straight black coffee for Frank and a surprisingly frothy-sounding combination for Kelvin. Ricky must be rubbing off on him.

Then Stephen was only three people away and he began to panic. Wait, what’s my order? Americano? I can’t ask for light or they give me that wimpy blend. OK, calm down.... Large -- damn! Sorry, honey: darn! -- venti bold. With room! Almost forgot the room. I wish Ricky would stop looking at me like that. Venti bold with room. Venti bold with room.

This had happened before, and in his panic Stephen had blindly repeated the order of the person in front of him. He had not at all enjoyed his grande chai soy latte with extra foam, and he did not want a repeat of that debacle. Venti bold with room.

He made it to the counter and quickly fired his order at the young girl behind the counter. She gave him a sympathetic look and relayed the request on the next girl, who repeated it back as she worked on another order. Cocky from his success, Stephen improvised on a scone, ordering the flavor of the month, pumpkin cheesecake. Then he took his coffee, paid, and went over for milk and cream before joining Ricky in suspiciously eyeing the barista.

"I’m pretty sure this guy hasn’t completed his training yet," Ricky said by way of greeting. "They always put the new guys on these early shifts. You need seniority to sleep in. Ugh, did you see that? He completely flattened the foam! I specifically asked for extra-airy foam!" He sighed with exasperation. "Oh well, I’m sure it will be OK with a little bit of extra nutmeg."

Stephen eyed Ricky over the rim of his coffee cup. "Ricky, do you even know what regular coffee tastes like?"

Ricky shook his head sadly as he surveyed the aesthetic ruin of his drink. "I tried it once. I didn’t really like it."

The coffee run complete, the group rendezvoused in the center of the terminal with Mark, David, and Stu. Stephen surveyed his motley crew as they gathered their carry-on bags, assaying their chances for a free pass through airport security. Frank’s long hair was more unkempt than usual, as though he had refused to brush it in silent protest at having to be up so early. He looked sullen, but not dangerous. Fortunately, the security personnel didn’t work with him. Ricky would be fine: he was dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt today, no new ethnicities to speak of. Kelvin looked like a student flying home for a break, as usual. He was unfailingly polite to officials anyway, so he never had trouble in any airports except New York and Philadelphia, where such politeness invariably aroused suspicions. David was dressed to the nines today, perhaps even the nine-and-a-halves. He would skate insouciantly through security as usual, unless one of the TSA inspectors took a liking to him and went for a patdown.

Stephen looked over to Mark and decided that it was just as well that he had shaved his beard. He was letting his hair grow longer, which meant that it was sticking out in all directions at the moment. With beard intact, Mark’s look might not have screamed "terrorist," but it certainly would have muttered, "willing recruit." Stu, on the other hand, had an imperturbable calm about him that was almost spooky. Watching him as they walked, though, Stephen decided it was a good calm, a comfortable-with-one’s-place-in-the-world calm, not a ready-to-come-face-to-face-with-God-at-any-moment calm. He hoped that the officials of the Port of Boston agreed.

As they waited in line, Mark continued the conversation with Stu that had been interrupted by everyone else’s arrival.

"OK, what about this: your only sister is trapped under a large tree, and the only way that you can save her is with a chainsaw. Do you compromise your beliefs and use the chainsaw to save her, or refuse to use the chain saw and let her die?"

"I have two sisters. What happened to the other one?"

"Killed in a freak blender accident while visiting a chocolate factory."

"That’s a shame," said Stu pensively. "She loved chocolate."

"So what do you do?"

"How did I get the chainsaw in the first place?"

"It was left behind by the loggers who felled the tree. They panicked and ran off when they saw what happened," said Mark impatiently. "Now tell me, do you save your sister or not?"

"Is it my older sister or my younger one?"

"Why? Do you like one more?"

"No, it’s just that my younger sister is a fairly extreme Buddhist, so she probably wouldn’t mind being crushed by a tree," Stu mused. "She would probably find some poetry in it, and expect to be reincarnated as a song bird."

"It’s your older sister, then," replied Mark. "She’s not a radical eco-terrorist or anything is she?"

"No, she’s very normal. In fact, I can’t figure out how she got into the woods with me in the first place. She hates being outdoors."

"Well, now we know why: it’s a dangerous place. So do you use the chainsaw or not?"

They were nearly to the metal detectors now. Stu pulled a pocket watch and a handful of change from his pockets and set them in a small plastic bowl. "You know, Mark, it’s not like I think I’ll go to Hell if I pick up a power tool. This is a lifestyle choice, not a religion." He eyed the X-ray machine suspiciously. "I never trust these machines. How do we know what really goes on inside that thing? For all we know, there’s a guy in there replacing all of the watches with fakes and selling the real ones. Or worse, it could be scanning all of the data on our hard drives and uploading it to a massive government database."

"Why Stu, you almost sound like a genuine conspiracy theorist," Frank commented from behind him as he pulled his laptop out of his bag and prepared to feed it into the machine. He paused for a moment, then shrugged and put it on the conveyor belt. "They probably already have a file on me anyway," he muttered.

"If by ‘conspiracy theorist,’ you mean a shut-in who believes that the moon landing was faked and JFK is living in sin with Elvis on a secret CIA compound in Cuba, then no, I’m not," replied Stu. "If you mean someone who questions the little intrusions into our everyday life in the name of protecting us from unspecified evil," he gestured meaningfully with his shoes before he fed them to the X-ray machine, "then guilty as charged." Seeing the raised eyebrows on the large security official standing on the other side of the metal detector, he added hurriedly, "Not literally."

"You still haven’t answered the question, Stu," challenged Mark from the next machine. He was busy pulling an astonishing array of metal objects from various pockets in his pants, shirt, and vest, generating a mixture of amusement and annoyance from the people in line behind him.

Stu sighed. "I save her of course. And then I go home and give myself twenty lashes with a knotted rope as penance."

Mark stopped short just before walking through the metal detector, causing the man behind him to bump into his back. "Really?"

"No."

"Oh. I knew that."

"I’m sure you did." Stu inspected the plastic bowl as it slid out of the X-ray machine, then turned to question the bored baggage inspector. "Hey, didn’t I have 68 cents before? I only see 66 here."

***

Once on the plane, Stephen settled back in his seat and yawned through another safety presentation. You would think that they'd change the order of these things once in a while, or maybe throw in some new information just to see if we’re listening. Like "your seat cushion can also be used as a self-defense tool in the event that we crash on a mountaintop and have to decide whom to eat first to survive." That would get my attention.

Even with the Venti bold with room zipping through his body, his head still throbbed. Coffee was no substitute for sleep, Juan Valdez be darned. He closed his eyes and prepared for a nap. He was too tired to even look at the Globe that he had grabbed from the front step as he left. A whole week of uninterrupted sleep ahead. There are some benefits to traveling for work. He nodded off then, and slept right through the in-flight meal, the movie, and both snacks. He didn’t mind: the menu hadn’t changed.

***

There was something inhumane about sending someone back three time zones and expecting him to work, Stephen decided as he stuffed himself behind the wheel of his rental car. He wanted nothing more than to go to the hotel and have the beer that his body was telling him it was time for, and which he so richly deserved, followed by half an hour of Monday Night Football before he fell asleep. Instead, he had to go to the CouldBU office to meet their new CEO, who would probably want to talk for hours about his vision, his credentials, his plan for "motivating the troops," and who knew what other kinds of crap -- sorry, Jenny: "garbage" -- before he would let anyone leave.

Stephen briefly considered bringing the whole team to the meeting rather than leaving them to settle into their new offices, but decided against it. Much as he and his misery might like company, no one else had done anything worthy of such punishment, yet. The day, sadly, is young, though, and Frank could still decide to mess with me between now and then. He smiled grimly at the thought of Frank and a professional chief executive in the same room together. Oh, the fun we could have! Maybe I will bring Frank along. No, better to save him for when the CEO needs disciplining. In Stephen’s experience, the higher an executive climbed in the food chain, the more uncomfortable he was around engineers. They were just too likely to tell you what they really thought, a shocking concept in the rarefied air of the boardroom.

Squirming uncomfortably, Stephen tried to find a way that he could sit so that his knees weren’t pressing against the car’s steering column. He had a car to himself this time, such as it was. The rental company had lost his reservation and there were barely enough cars to go around; the vacant-eyed girl behind the counter had mumbled something about a convention around a mouthful of pigtail. Since he would be leaving at the end of the week while the others stayed behind, Stephen had pulled the black spot in the rental car lottery. He was stuck with the hybrid.

"Besides," Kelvin had added, eyeing Stephen’s vehicle before sauntering off to climb into his air-conditioned tank, "I couldn’t get my suitcase in there. Since you only had to pack for a week, you’re the only one of us with a bag small enough to fit in that trunk. That is a real trunk, isn’t it? It’s not like one of those fake drawers in front of the sink?"

What exactly is this a hybrid of, anyway, a skateboard and a driving lawnmower? As Stephen tried to get out and adjust the seat, he realized that he had no idea how he had gotten his legs in the car in the first place, and he now had no hope of maneuvering them back out. If only I’d paid more attention in that Mommy Yoga class we went to, he thought wryly. Putting two hands on the oil-stained asphalt of the parking lot, he pulled himself back out of the car headfirst -- Look: Standing Dog! I guess I do remember something. Or was this Weeping Camel? -- then squeezed his head and shoulders back inside to look for the release that would allow him to slide the seat back as far as it could go.

"Whoever drove this last must have been a midget," he grumbled as he reached under the seat. "Eww, make that a gum-chewing midget." The pounding headache was back. He started to massage his temples, but caught himself just in time and sniffed his sticky fingers. "Mmm, grape." He reached across and wiped his hand on the carpet on the passenger side. It was not a long stretch. Sighing, he reversed direction and carefully folded himself back into the seat. Reaching around a knee, he placed the key in the ignition and turned. The car puttered to life with a sound like a racing lawnmower. Salsa music blared from the speakers, the whole car jumping with each thump of the drums.

Sighing again, Stephen backed out of the parking slot and drove to the entrance, where the others were waiting in their much larger vehicles. He felt like the clown car at the back of the circus parade, right behind the elephants. Better behind them than in front of them, I suppose, Stephen thought, I doubt this cracker tin could sustain a direct hit from a pedestrian, much less an SUV.

While he waited for the others to check out and exit the lot, Stephen fiddled with the car radio’s presets. For a terrifying moment, he thought the radio was stuck on AM, but after a bout of "percussive maintenance" -- basically beating on it with the palm of his hand and, eventually, his shoe -- it switched to FM. He set the stations that he had carefully memorized on his last trip, excluding the "all divas" station that David had found, and settled on jazz for the drive to the office. He drew as deep a breath as he could in his current position, let it out, and drew another, willing himself to calm. At least the air conditioning worked, even if the vents blew the cold, dank air directly up his nose. It really wasn’t so bad as long as he didn’t try to move both of his legs at the same time.

When Stephen arrived at CouldBU’s office park an hour and fifteen minutes later, moving both legs was really no longer an option. He had become trapped in the middle of a phalanx of SUVs on the 405 and missed his exit, ending up in Brentwood Heights before he was able to wedge his car into a crease between the shiny black behemoths. Judging from the looks on the suntanned faces above him, this was a rather shocking move for a car of his stature. Hybrids were supposed to be seen and not heard, he gathered: a necessary balancing of petroleum karma, perhaps, but like recycled toilet paper, better left to the more fanatical edge-dwellers of polite society. He had given them a merry wave through the sunroof -- with all five fingers, he was proud to note -- and shrugged off their concern. After years of driving in Boston, squeezing into a space that was more or less the same size as his vehicle while traveling at upwards of 70 miles per hour was as natural as cheering for the Red Sox. In fact, his only real disappointment in the move was that the car he cut off didn’t have New York plates.

By the time he finally backtracked to the correct exit -- he wasn’t comfortable trying to find his way on surface streets yet, though he sensed that it might have been faster -- both legs were developing serious cramps where they pressed against the steering column, and he felt the beginnings of a groin pull coming on. If he was going to survive this trip, he would have to either catch a ride in one of the other cars for the rest of the week or embark on a serious stretching regimen.

On the bright side, he was able to park right next to the building, in one of the five "compact" spots that were normally only used by the night cleaning crew. He pushed the door open with his knee, then grabbed said knee with both hands to pull it out of the car. Several minutes later, he was free and hobbling bowlegged to join his team.

"Howdy pardner," Frank drawled. "Had some trouble bustin’ that little dogie, did ya?"

Stephen was too tired to muster even a fake laugh. "Want to trade? There’s just enough room in the back for your wit."



Continue to Chapter 11

Sunday, February 19, 2012

“Just as the Founders Intended”


There’s a lot of talk on the news these days about “returning America to its roots as a Christian country, just as the founding fathers intended.” There’s even a whole “historical reclamation” movement that has set out to prove that the framers of the Constitution fully intended for the government of the United States to be ruled by not only Christian values, but Christian morals and practices as well.  This is a fundamentally flawed argument from both a practical and historical viewpoint, as anyone who looks at the whole story can see.  That would be fine if this were an academic argument, since a plenitude of hot air can be wasted in the halls of academia before anyone else even knows what they’re talking about in many cases.  Unfortunately, these ideas and beliefs are at the heart of this year’s Presidential election, so we not only won’t be able to escape them for the next 9 months, but they may fundamentally affect our lives for the next four years.

As a Christian and an intellectual, I believe in seeking after the truth, wherever it may take us, because I believe that we, and God, have nothing to fear from the truth.  If my beliefs are based on universal truths, then I don’t need to protect them from intellectual inquiry.  If they aren’t, then I’d rather know now than find out when it’s too late. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is all to rare in my co-religionists, so I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of challenging authority.  Good thing I have so much practice.  

Let’s dig into a few of these claims and see where they take us.

The Founding Fathers Wanted the United States to be a Theocracy


The Claim:
This is the unspoken -- but often broadly hinted -- belief of members of the Religious Right and their adherents, and it creeps into political rhetoric whenever we touch on areas of Christian morals, especially when they seem to conflict with social justice or issues of equality.  The thought here is that the Founding Fathers, being religious men themselves, naturally assumed that a republic would be guided by the same ethics and practices that they held dear.  When they asked for God to guide and protect the young United States, they naturally expected that a country guided by Christian religion was the equal response to His protection.  They accepted the fact that membership in the Christian church was a requirement for membership in society, and even though they tolerated other religions and didn’t want to restrict them, they really knew which one was right.

The Whole Story:
The founders of the United States knew what a theocracy looked like and the horrors it could produce.  In fact, the very Puritans who are always raised up as the icons of American Christianity came to the New World because they didn’t fit in with the “total Christian Society” of Europe.  They knew that religious dogma coupled with the power of government inevitably led to vicious wars, and that religion could dress up any ruler’s agenda and give it the scent of divine blessing.  They fled Europe to get away from the excommunications, the banishments, and the infighting that perpetually plagued the region.  While some of them may have thought that they could succeed where others had failed in creating a religious utopia, the more clear-thinking among them saw that a national government must be guided by God and his priests -- among others -- but never ruled by them.

The Founding Fathers at Least Expected Christianity to be the State Religion of the United States

The Claim: 
OK, maybe the founding fathers didn’t really want the US to be a theocracy, but they at least assumed that Christianity would be the official state religion and receive preferred status over other religions.  They were all Christians, right?  Wouldn’t they assume that Christians should lead?

The Whole Story: 
Generally speaking, this is just a watered-down version of the first argument, and all of the same responses apply.  State religions have a long and sordid history in Western civilization, dating back at least to Roman times, and they inevitably follow one of two paths: they either twist a society into their own image in an attempt to steal power from secular authorities or they become tools of those same authorities.  The pure ideals of faith are poorly suited to the harsh realities of power.  The Founding Fathers knew this, too, and carefully separated Church and State in the Constitution.  The First Amendment’s text, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” is clearly two-edged: Congress shall not establish a religion, nor shall it prohibit religious practices.  This statement clearly protects both Church and State from the abuses of the other.

Christianity is the Great Driving Power Behind the United States’ Success

The Claim:
Christianity made America great, and the only way we can keep America great is to make sure that everyone becomes a Christian, or at least to make sure that non-Christians don’t warp our society into something that God will be forced to destroy.  Some people (Pat Robertson, for example), have been tactless enough to say this out loud.  Others are smart enough to use the code words that mean the same thing.  The underlying assumption is that only Christianity has the tools to create an ethical, moral, and prosperous society.

Paired with this idea is the notion that America is blessed because we are the “city on the hill,” a light to the rest of the world that shows that God blesses the people who believe in him the best.  We are prosperous because making us prosperous makes other countries want to be Christians, too.

The flip side of this, of course, is that God will punish us with natural disasters, economic crises, and bad teeth if we don’t do what he wants us to do.

The Whole Story:
I’m going to set aside the image of God that leads someone to think that He would capriciously slaughter millions of people because of some piece of legislation (for more on my thoughts on what God is really like, see The Lion and the Bull).  Instead, let’s focus on Christianity’s sole claim in America’s greatness.  A large part of this claim rests on the “Puritan work ethic” that is a critical part of our society’s makeup.  This work ethic, so the thinking goes, came from the idea of predestination and the resulting “salvation panic” that drove early settlers to work hard and gain wealth as a sign that they were among God’s elect.  This work ethic, handed down from generation to generation, drove Americans to work harder than anyone else, to seek innovation, and the raised America up to become the most important economy in the world.

While there is some merit to this idea, it once again focuses on one piece of the story at the expense of the whole.  Certainly, the Puritan work ethic and the associated emphasis on a stable, orderly society created a beneficial environment for industry and commerce, but many other factors were at work, not the least of which being the fact that America had a plethora of natural resources and gained its independence at a time when technology was finally making it possible to maximize the benefit of those resources.  And, as Paul Johnson points out in his stellar book, A History of Christianity, businessmen have always preferred a religion that promotes stability and fairness in business dealings, regardless of the particulars of its religious practices.

The other glaring omission from the “Christianity made America great” argument is the unique contribution from so many other religious and ethnic groups that simply couldn’t have occurred anywhere else.  For one huge example, America and its odd notion of a heterogeneous religious society created the first environment since ancient times where Jews could make their best contributions without fear of having their work or their wealth stolen from them by the government (see Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews).  Jewish Americans responded with amazing contributions in nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives and livelihoods, creating the innovative spark that still drives America’s economy today.  In this case, one religion didn’t make America great, but America made it possible for all religions to contribute to its greatness.

The Rest of the Story
What about this idea of the “city on the hill?”  Is it possible that God really did raise America up to be an inspiration to the rest of the world?  In this case, I actually agree with these folks on the television: I think that God and Christianity have played a pivotal role in the history of the United States, and forgetting that is foolish.  I think that God did raise America up at a critical time and with a sovereign purpose.  When the rest of the known world was mired in religious wars and men were killing their brothers over fine points of dogma, America provided an escape for people who wanted to live in peace.  When evil threatened to overwhelm the world and wipe God’s chosen people from the face of the Earth, America threw its weight on the side of good and stopped evil’s march.  For better or worse, since its inception the United States of America has shaped the history of the world, and will continue to do so.  I think that God raised us up, not just to inspire the world, but to guide it; not just to talk about God, but to do his healing works in the world.

We are the city on the hill, and the world, as usual, is watching us.  Will we waste our time in trying to be right (whatever that means), or will we focusing on doing what’s right?  Will we waste our energy fighting over who God loves most (and who we think he hates) or will we show the world how much God loves them? How will we use this gift that we have been given?

I guess only time will tell.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hollywood.Bomb, Chapter 8

It's been a while since I posted the last chapter, but here it is.  Enjoy.  As always, you can go here for the full chapter list.


Chapter 8
Stephen returned home in the small hours to find his mother-in-law in the kitchen warming milk in a saucepan.  Without a pause in her stirring, she greeted him with a cheerful kiss on the cheek.  Stephen checked his watch to be sure that he had reset it to Eastern Standard Time before asking her why she was up.

"The baby’s hungry, dear," she whispered, "so Jenny is upstairs feeding her now."

"How much is she eating?" Stephen asked in alarm, looking at the saucepan.  Knowing that the help would be leaving soon, he envisioned himself warming milk by the gallon in the dead of night, while upstairs a monstrous child roared for its midnight snack.

"About as much as Jenny can produce, I suppose.  They’re very much in synch."  She saw Stephen eyeing the hot milk and added, "Oh, this isn’t for Sarah.  It’s for you.  I knew you’d be jet-lagged and would want to get right to sleep, so I’m making you some caffeine- and sugar-free hot chocolate."

"Well, thank you," Stephen began, when a thought occurred to him.  "Wait, doesn’t chocolate naturally contain caffeine?  How can you have caffeine-free hot chocolate?"

"Oh, there’s no chocolate in this.  It’s an all-natural blend of carob, spices, and sleep-inducing herbs that one of my vegan friends told me about.  She drinks it with soy milk, of course, but I thought that you’d prefer the real thing.  I suppose that, technically, you would call it sugar-free hot carob milk, but that hardly sounds as good as hot chocolate, does it?"

A few minutes later Stephen entered the bedroom with his luggage in one hand and a mug of hot carob milk in the other.  He gently set the bags by the door, eased out of his shoes, and tiptoed over to the bed.  "Right where I left you," he said, seeing that Jenny was awake.  He reached down to brush Sarah’s head as she nursed, marveling anew at the incredible softness of her silky dark hair.

"We didn’t spend the whole week here, you know," Jennifer whispered reproachfully.  "We have been very busy.  I’ll tell you about it in the morning, though.  I’m sure you want to get to sleep."

"No, go ahead, as long as you don’t mind talking," Stephen said.  He lifted his mug aloft.  "I have a whole mug of sugar-free hot carob milk to drink before I can go to bed, anyway."  He took a sip and grimaced, "And this may take a while."

Jennifer brightened.  "Oh, good!  Well --  oops, hang on.  Come over to the other side, will you?"  She detached the baby, which set off a sort of snuffling, whining sound from the vicinity of her chest, and rolled over.  Once she was settled on her other side, she readjusted so that Sarah could continue eating.  The snuffling and whining were replaced by contented sucking noises as the meal recommenced.  Stephen, looking on, could only think, Lucky kid.  It had been a long week.

"So anyway, we had a great time while you were gone.  Not that it wouldn’t have been better with you around, of course, but still.  Sarah has to be the most gifted child that was ever born.  Did my mother tell you how sensitive her hearing is?"

"She mentioned something about it, yes.  I was afraid to call after that."

"Well, I think she’s exaggerating a little.  Sarah didn’t even move when you came in, so she can’t be that sensitive.  Not to mention, if her hearing were really that sensitive she would have been deaf after a week of having your mother here.  What’s really amazing is how quickly she learns new things!  Just today, I taught her how to hold a ball."

"How’s her slider?" Stephen joked, but then saw that this was one of those Things About Which We Do Not Joke.  "Hmm, a ball, really?  Does she… do anything with it?"

"Drools on it, mostly.  But that’s not important.  What’s important is that she’s doing it three or four months early!  I checked a couple of my childhood development books, and this is fifth or sixth month territory.  She’s off the charts!"

"And you expect this to continue, this... ball-holding and other advanced behavior?"

"Absolutely.  It’s not the only thing she did, either.  I mean, it’s not like I spent a week just trying to make her hold a ball."

"Of course not, that was just play time.  What other important skills have you been developing?  Are we getting close to potty training, I hope?"

"Ha, funny man you are.  No, we haven’t begun potty training, a fact which I will give you ample opportunity to experience for yourself this weekend.  It’s about time you changed some diapers."

"Lovely."  Forgetting himself, Stephen took another sip and made a face.  "This had better put me to sleep, or else the aftertaste will keep me up all night.  What is carob, anyway, potting soil?"

"I never touch the stuff.  When Mother offered it to me I just told her that the pregnancy books said to avoid herbal supplements while nursing.  So I’m safe for at least the next ten months."

"Lucky you.  Is lactating the only way out?  Guess I’ll have to just learn to take my medicine like a man."  He tossed the rest of the drink off in one large swig and began undressing.  "Should I sleep in here or go down to the couch?"

"I think we’re done here," Jennifer said, pulling back from a sleeping baby and pulling up the flaps on her nursing gown.  "Move her to the cradle, would you?  And be careful of her head, please.  She’s not a football."

"I know, I know," grumbled Stephen.  "A football bounces better.  Ouch!  Don’t hit me when I’m holding our child."

"It’s good to have you home," Jennifer said, settling back under the covers.

Stephen looked down at the little girl in his arms, and then at the big girl in his bed.  "It’s good to be home."

***

By the time Monday morning rolled around, Stephen could feel the IQ points slipping away faster than his giant cup of Dunkin’ Donuts’ hot java could catch them.  Stifling yet another yawn, he went to find the Brothers Grim.  They shared a desk pod, and Stu had been placed nearby so that they could help him get acclimated.  Stephen shambled over and wearily pulled up a beanbag.

"So, what have you boys been doing to keep yourselves busy while I was gone?"

Frank made a face.  "Documentation."

Stephen nodded sympathetically.  "Necessary evil.  At least it’s nearly done."

Frank rolled his eyes.  "Right, and Sysiphus was just looking for a light workout.  Have you seen the Department of Defense’s documentation requirements manual?  It’s twice as thick as the documentation we wanted to deliver.  We delivered ten copies of the first draft on Friday, and now Keith is trying to get them to stop comparing the copies to each other looking for discrepancies."

Mark agreed, "These guys are far worse than that bank in New York.  At least they trusted us to know how to run a copier."  He thought for a moment, “Of course, the DoD only ruins the economies in other countries, so maybe it’s a wash.”

"Well, I’m sure it will get better now. The only people at the new client who will understand the docs are engineers too, so as long as they still like you they shouldn’t ask for more than basic descriptions and breakdowns of each component.  Just try to stay on their good sides."  This was directed to Frank, as usual, who acknowledged the warning with a nod that didn’t necessarily indicate assent.  Stephen took what he could get and turned to Stu.  "How about you?  Are you ready to start building on our tool set?"

Stu wheeled over on his chair to join the conversation.  "I think so.  I installed the environment and built my first Hello World, with a little help from these two."  He thanked the Brothers with a nod.  "I’m sure I’ll still have to learn as I go, but I won’t slow you down too much."

A Hello World application was an engineer’s way of testing whether he could use a new technology.  The most basic of programs, it essentially demonstrated that the engineer had installed his software correctly on his computer and was able to access the functionality he needed.  The name came from early programming languages, where the basic test of a functioning application was to make the words "Hello, World" appear on the computer screen.

Frank leaned forward.  "So how did it go out there?  Are they starting to make any sense yet?"

Stephen chose his words carefully, not wanting to alarm anyone.  "They’re not the worst clients I’ve ever worked with, and it’s definitely a nice change from the glacial pace of the DoD.  Kelvin already has a basic architecture roughed out, so you’ll have something to work on in the meantime…."  He trailed off as he saw the looks on their faces.  "You’ve already talked to Kelvin, haven’t you?"

Frank smirked.  "We sure have... Steffy."  Mark guffawed, and even Stu smiled quietly.

"OK, look:  first of all, Dan never actually called me that, and secondly, it wasn’t as bad as Kelvin made it sound.  It’s not like they’re all certifiable.  Just, well…" he paused to review the prior week, "OK, maybe they are all certifiable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t control them.  We just have to find a way to make their craziness work for us.  What?!?"

All three men stared at him, aghast.  Frank said, "Kelvin only told us about your new nickname.  He said that you could fill us in on the project itself.  How crazy are we talking about here?"

Stephen slumped and laid his head back on the beanbag.  He was tired.  He never would have slipped up like this three months ago.  Engineers were, by nature, a pessimistic lot, and it took little for them to see a tidal wave of disaster looming just over their shoulders, waiting to inundate them.  It was the project manager’s job not only to make sure that the tidal wave never came, but that his team never saw one on the horizon.  Fear was a costly distraction that led to over-engineering, hyperventilation, excessive blogging, and other evils of the technical world.  It was time for damage control.

"Look, I’m just tired.  This is nothing more than a mildly extreme case of client brain, and that’s what they pay me to handle.  You guys don’t have to worry about it, since you don’t have to go to the design meetings unless I feel like punishing you.  David and Ricky and I will get you a nice clean design, and Kelvin already has your architecture.  We’re still in charge of the technical side of this project, so it’s not like you have to deal directly with the creative types at CouldBU, and the engineers are just like you guys, more or less.  Plus, you get to spend part of the winter in California.  How bad can that be?"  Through the fatigued haze in his mind, he realized he was perilously close to babbling, so he stopped to judge their reactions as best he could.  Frank looked unconvinced but not panicked, which was more or less normal.  Mark, after checking Frank’s reaction, decided that he, too was willing to let it slide for now.  Stu was inscrutable behind his beard, which Stephen was coming to recognize as his default state.  Disaster averted, for now.  He’d have to slow down his speech a bit from now on, though, to allow his fogged brain time to catch up with his mouth.  Time for a change of subject, and some penance.

"So, Kelvin told you about Dan, huh?  He’s a piece of work, but at least we finally found out what makes Kelvin laugh.  Who knew that it would turn out to be picturing me as a woman?"  The others relaxed and enjoyed a laugh at Stephen’s expense, and he knew that they would be fine.  Now he just needed to find a way to keep his promise.

***

"Hi, it’s Thomas again.  Can you give me a call back today?  I had some questions about the designs you sent over, and we were also hoping Kelvin could help us with a couple of sticky spots in our… prototype.  It’s Tuesday at about 5:15, and I’ll be here for another hour or so.  Thanks."

Stephen yawned hugely as he punched the key to delete the voicemail, the third one that CouldBU’s Technical Director had left since he went home the previous evening.  Even after a couple of weeks of conference calls, Thomas seemed to be having trouble with the concept of time zones and Stephen wasn’t quite up to trying to explain it to him for the second time that week.  Stephen checked his watch:  8:30 AM.  Although it might drive the point home if I call him on his cell phone now.  No, I’ll save that trick in case he still doesn’t get it after I explain it to him next time.

Hanging up, he rose from his desk and headed to the Caf for some coffee.  He was halfway there before he realized that he still hadn’t finished his coffee from the train station and was, in fact, still carrying it.  He stared at the large white Styrofoam cup for a moment, thinking, Is it me, or is this stuff getting weaker?  Shrugging, he tipped the rest of the cup’s contents down his throat and kept walking.  Since he was up, he might as well make the rounds.  He’d only get drowsy if he sat back down now, anyway.  Management by Walking Around is one thing, but Management by Staying Awake?  MBSA… maybe I can start a hot new management trend.  Then again, I don’t know if it’s that different from the technique of most executives I’ve seen at our clients:  Management by Sticking Around.  A smile quirked at the corner of his mouth.  Same acronym, even.  Darn, they beat me to it.  Oh well, back to making my millions the old-fashioned way: through stock options.

His train of thought pulled into the station at David’s desk.  Or perhaps "pulled into port" would be more appropriate, as David was sporting a decidedly nautical theme this morning, from his feathered tri-cornered hat down to his shiny buckled shoes.  In between, he wore a flowing white long-sleeved shirt underneath a carefully tattered vest, accompanied by black fingerless gloves and knee-length breeches over shiny stockings.

Stephen saluted.  "Permission to come aboard, Cap’n?"  At David’s grave nod, he perched on the corner of his desk.  "Feeling feisty today, are we?"

"I am prepared to storm the mizzen-tops of our deadlines, if that is what you mean, yes," replied David.  "As though my works of clothing art need any explanation at this point.  However, I will condescend to inform you that I am also celebrating with Ricky, as he has found a new ancestor."

"One of his ancestors was a gay pirate?" Stephen asked with mock incredulity.  "I have some questions about that, both conceptually and logistically."

The power of David’s withering stare was greatly reduced by the happy bobbing of the feathers in his hat.  "You are very funny, Stephen, at least compared to the average tree.  No, his forebuccaneer was none other than William Teach.  This is my ironic homage to that rascal of the Spanish Main."

"Blackbeard?"

"Or one of his crew," amended Ricky, garbed in his own puffy shirt, with a red bandanna holding back his shoulder-length black hair.  "We don’t know for sure, since they never came back after the one pillaging.  They were blown off course on the way to intercept an armada of gold ships coming from Mexico, and they stopped off at our island just long enough to raid for supplies and relieve some, er, pent-up pressure on the women before they were on their way.  Several babies came from that visit."

"Being blown off course seems to be a theme in your homeland," observed Stephen, "as does raping the women, unfortunately."

Ricky shrugged.  "When superior forces arrive on your shore, you give them what they want and hope they’ll go away.  Fortunately, most of them did.  Go away, that is."

"I don’t suppose there are any pirate holidays I need to be aware of?"

Ricky looked disappointed.  "No, just Boxing Day."

Stephen started to ask, but thought better of it.  "OK, so back to the mizzen-tops of our deadlines.  How are you two coming on the new designs?  I’d like to have at least one more call to review this before we go back out there again.  Brad and Robert seem much more agreeable at a distance, so I’d rather have this all nailed before we have another meeting in person." 

David leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment, idly twirling a tassel on his vest as he added up the work yet to be done.  "We should be ready for you to review everything by the end of the week, so you could schedule another design meeting with the scurvy clients for the beginning of next week."  Stephen stared at him in silent expectation until he added, "Arr."

Stephen turned to Ricky, who confirmed, "I’ll be ready by then, too.  Um, avast ye?"

Slapping his legs, Stephen stood.  "That be good.  Back to work, ye swabs, and let me know if ye hit rough waters."  He stumped off to check on the left-brained side of the team.  Not that the conversation is likely to be any less strange.

 He found them in a workroom, Frank and Mark splayed out on beanbags and Stu seated on a couch while Kelvin filled the whiteboards on three side of the room with diagrams.  Stephen watched through the window for a few moments before entering at what looked like a reasonable stopping point.

"Steffy," Kelvin greeted him.  As humorous milestones went, this was still apparently the high point for Kelvin.

"Kelly."  Two could play at that game, Stephen had decided.  "How’s it going?" he scanned Kelvin’s work.  It looked like they were working through something with the data model.

"We’ll be fine, as soon as Frank agrees that I know what I’m talking about," replied Kelvin, with a sidelong glare at Frank.

Frank slouched down further in the beanbag so that his long frame covered half of the floor.  "Listen, Mr. Abstraction-for-Abstraction’s-Sake, I’m just saying that there’s a time for third normal form and there’s a time to just build the damn thing.  In most cases, the time for third normal is in a classroom, when you want to prove that you’re smarter than the professor.  The rest of the time, you build what you need now and change it later if you have to.  Why do we need to create a generic object for everything when all we’re dealing with is people and their stuff?  Are we going to have different kinds of people?  Are they each going to have n number of different things associated with them, each with their own set of relationships?  I seriously doubt it."  He ticked the items off on his fingers.  "People, media, personal data.  That’s it."

"That’s how you’d do it, maybe," retorted Kelvin.  "And then if it didn’t work you’d just rebuild it in a weekend, right?"

Frank shrugged.  "Probably."

"Well, some of us prefer to build things right the first time, so we don’t have to work every weekend.  I’m not saying we’re going to need all of this structure, but we just might, and I’d rather have it than not.  Right now, we’re just guessing."  Kelvin rounded on Stephen.  "Which makes your timing perfect.  How’s it going with you?  Do you have any functional requirements yet?  What’s this thing supposed to do besides look flashy?"

Stephen was used to refereeing arguments like these, but he usually didn’t get sucked into them himself.  This time, though, all he could do was smile lamely and say, "I’m working on it.  We know that don’t like red or green, though."

Kelvin threw up his hands.  "So we’re still making a best guess based upon our own ideas of what a talent search site should do.  And since the closest any of us has come to a talent search is an online dating site," here Mark blushed, "we’re in danger of building a beautiful monument to technology that doesn’t do anything useful."

"All the more reason to take my approach!" stated Frank from the floor.  "We’ll build a lightweight prototype first, let them see what it could do, and then make any necessary changes after they see it and hate it.  It’s a balsa-wood Trojan Horse:  expend the minimum energy to get past their defenses, then wage the campaign from there."

Kelvin stared down at Frank for a moment.  "The Greeks wouldn’t have had to build their hobbyhorse if they had been prepared for any eventuality before they left home.  We need a firm foundation to build on, one that allows us to adjust on the fly without having to tear the whole thing down first.  The wise man built his house upon a rock, after all, not on a foundation of shifting sand."

Stu spoke for the first time.  "Grecian battle tactics and Biblical allusions aside, can we find a compromise here?  Stephen obviously needs some help getting the requirements, and from what I’ve heard it’s pretty clear that no one at CouldBU is able to conceptualize, well, anything without some visual aids.  What if we build a small throwaway prototype of some of our best ideas to get them started?" Frank smiled smugly and crossed his arms behind his head.  "Meanwhile, Kelvin can work on a more robust data model that covers what we know today as well as a reasonable extrapolation of other things they might ask for."  Here Stu looked at Kelvin, who thought for a moment and nodded acquiescence.  "We can jump-start development if we guess right, and at worst we find out what they don’t want it to do."

Frank pulled his legs in like a spider and bounced up from his spot on the floor.  "Sounds like a bakeoff to me.  I’m in, and may the best developer win!  What are the rules and stakes?"

Stephen thought for a moment before speaking, unsure if this was the best course.  If he let Frank run with this, he knew that he wouldn’t rest -- or let anyone else rest -- until he was forced to stop.  Nothing fired Frank up more than a challenge, and no challenge was greater than a head-to-head competition with another developer.  But Stu was right:  this would give them a great head start, if they guessed correctly at what Brad and Robert wanted.  Big if.

He looked at Kelvin.  "You game?"  Kelvin nodded slowly.  Stephen clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly, thinking as he spoke.  "OK, here are the teams.  Mark, you’re with Kelvin on this one.  Stu, you’re with Frank."  Both men began to object, but Stephen cut them off.  "No, I know what I’m doing.  Mark, it will do you good to see something other than sawing the branch while you sit on it, and Stu will benefit from some rapid development on our toolset.  And to be honest, Frank, I think Stu can take you if you push him too hard."  Frank opened his mouth to object again, but looked at Stu and shut it with a snap. 

Bingo, thought Stephen, and continued, "Ground rules.  It’s Wednesday now.  You have until the end of next week to complete the prototype.  We’ll show it to them when we all go out there the week after that.  I can’t stop some of you from working weekends," here he fixed a gimlet eye on Frank, "but I can keep you from forcing anyone else to work them with you.  No forced marches.  This is just the beginning and I’d rather save it for when we need it.  Got it?"

Noises of assent (grudging ones from Frank), followed by, "Terms of victory and spoils?"

 "We will pick a winner based upon feedback from the client, which I will gather.  I doubt you could bully these guys anyway, but I’d prefer to keep the meeting as friendly as possible.  If they like the prototype so much that they just tell us to finish it, then Frank’s team wins.  If they hate it, or if they have so many changes that we have to start completely from scratch, then Kelvin wins.  Assuming, of course, that his architecture is flexible enough to accommodate the changes."

"Obviously," replied Kelvin gravely.

Frank was nearly hopping with eagerness to begin, or perhaps he was merely charging his pants computer in an attempt to get a jump on the competition.  "And the stakes?"

Stephen paused, both for dramatic effect and because he was curious to see if Frank would actually combust right there.  He thought carefully.  "This is our first bakeoff in a while, so I think the prize should be worthy of the event.  How about a case of their favorite micro-brew to the winners?"

"Can it be a mixed box?" asked Stu, "I doubt anyone else likes Smutty Nose."

"How about we just make it two cases, one for each person?"  suggested Frank, grimacing at the thought of his beer touching anyone else’s.

"Sounds fair to me," agreed Kelvin, and Mark nodded.

"Done!"  Stephen confirmed.  "Shake on it and get baking."  Kelvin and Frank shook hands, as did Mark and Stu, and then Frank and Stu left to begin their planning.  Stephen caught them at the door.  "Hey, do you guys want to get lunch out today?  I was thinking about Bukowski’s.  Non-work talk only."

"I don’t think we’ll have time…" Frank began.

"I’ll treat," added Stephen.

"We’re there."

"See you at 12:30, then."

***

"So I’ve been reading this Da Vinci book," said Mark, wiping the peanut butter from his burger out of his whiskers.  "Did you know that he was part of a secret society?"

"Congratulations, Mark," offered Frank, "for once again being the last person in the world to jump on a fad.  Everyone else read that book a decade ago, and some of us read the book it’s based on about ten years before that.  The guy’s a hack!  All of his alleged ‘secrets’ and ‘revelations’ have been kicking around since the second or third century, and no one except a bunch of crackpots believed them then.  Not only that, he basically plagiarized most of that stuff from -- "

"That case was dismissed!" Mark shouted, bringing his hand down on the table with a meaty smack.  "The burden of evidence was on the plaintiff, and they failed to prove their case to the court’s satisfaction!  What you’re saying is libel!"  Heads turned in their direction.  While shouting matches were far from uncommon in Bukowski’s Tavern, they generally centered on music, politics, or choice of sports tattoos.  This was the first time that the word "libel" had ever been shouted in this venerable establishment.

Frank held up his hands.  "Whoa, easy there, big fella.  No one’s libeling anyone.  I’m just saying that the ideas aren’t exactly groundbreaking.  Take it easy, will you?  Jeez…" he crammed a mouthful of fries into his mouth while still somehow managing to look offended.

Mark slumped back into his seat, glancing around with some embarrassment.  "I just thought it was really interesting, whether it’s true or not.  I mean, if they can keep JFK’s real assassins a secret, why shouldn’t the Catholic Church be able to sweep a couple of kids under the carpet?  Besides," he hurried on, "the whole ‘sacred feminine’ idea really spoke to me.  I never really knew my mom, so I feel like maybe I need to examine the feminine side of my life."

 "I’m not sure I even want to know what that means," mumbled Frank around his fries.

"Frank, be nice," chided Stu.  "If Mark feels something is missing in his life, then by all means he should pursue it."  Mark smiled his thanks, but the smile faded as Stu continued, "Not that I buy into any of that Merovingian dynasty stuff, by the way.  It sounds too much like an attempt to return to divine right of rule to me."  He shrugged.  "It doesn’t really matter, though.  Like Frank, I question the scholarship more than the ideas presented.  He casts a pretty wide net, and catches only a few ‘facts’ in the process.  The rest is conjecture and fancy, meant to amaze the ignorant."  He looked at the others, who were staring at him.  "What?  I can’t read a few book reviews too?"

"All right, so maybe it’s not a life-changing work of art.  At least it made me think," grumbled Mark.  "Forget it."

"I agree with Stuart," said Kelvin.  "Explore the ideas and see where they take you.  It never hurts to be inquisitive."  He winced and rubbed at a bare patch in his left eyebrow.  "Unless you’re playing in your mother’s lab, that is.  I learned that lesson the hard way."


Continue to Chapter 9