Monday, December 30, 2013

I got your resolutions right here!

Like it or not, New Year's Day is upon us, and it's time to start thinking about how you can be a better person in the year to come.  Whether you make new year's resolutions or not, you have to admit that the middle of winter is a perfect time for self-reflection.  It's dark, it's cold, and there's really very little else to do.  Plus, assuming that you follow a solar calendar of some kind, there's that whole end of the year thing.

It's not easy, it may not even be fun, but this is the time: you need to become a better you.  But this year is different!  No, you're still going to break that promise to eat healthily by halftime of the Rose Bowl.  This year is different because I've done the work for you!  I've already figured out what all your resolutions need to be.  All you have to do is keep reading.  You can thank me in the comments.

Now, before we get into what we will do to become better, more enlightened, and healthier people in 2014, let's talk about what we won't resolve to do.

1. We will not resolve to exercise.

Let's be honest: you and I both know that winter is the worst possible time to start a new exercise regimen.  You can't go outside because it's too cold and wet, so the only option is the gym, and those exercise machines are boring.  You won't last a month.  Plus, I don't need all your pudgy butts clogging up my gym.  It was just fine without you the other eleven months of the year, so let's not punish January.  If you want to start working out, do it in May when you can get outside.  Riding a bike is much more interesting when the scenery changes.  As an added bonus, if you start then you can make your kids do it with you.  Trust me: nothing shuts up a hyper 13-year-old like the words, "Let's go for a run!"

2. We will not resolve to eat more healthily.

Again, could you pick a worse time for this resolution?  The only "fresh" fruits and vegetables have to be flown in from South America, your body's in fat-storing mode because of the weather, and it's playoff season.  Let's be honest with ourselves: the healthy diet can wait until soccer season, whenever that is.

3. We will not resolve to stop drinking, smoking, or cursing.  

Save it for Lent.


OK, on to the positive side of things.  Here are your resolutions for the new year.  If it helps, you can read them out loud, especially if you're sitting in a crowded room.  That makes them stick better.

1. We resolve to be civil, to try to see things from a different point of view (if only for a second), and to think before we speak, type, or text.

Look, I enjoy a smart-ass comment as much as the next guy (see the entire contents of this blog for reference), but we all could stand to take it down a notch.  There's a difference between humor and abuse, just as there is between healthy debate and mindless bashing.  In our race to be the funniest, smartest, and most correct person in the room, we've forgotten that the creature on the other side of the conversation is a human being just like us.  We also seem to have forgotten that the speck in the other guy's eye is a lot smaller than the 2x4 sticking out of our own eye, and in our haste to rush over and point out his flaws we risk injuring ourselves and everyone around us.  This year, let's take a moment to think before we speak.  Let's remember that we aren't perfect, and even if we were that would only make us more insufferable to be around.  Let's stop, take a deep breath, and think about what we would like someone to say to us, then let's try to say that to the other guy.  And if he insists on being a jerk, you know what we're going to do?  We're going to walk away, because putting him in his place, while it might feel good for a moment, just escalates the verbal arms race.  You and me, we're going to be the better men and women in the conversation for once.

2. We resolve to stop making each other crazy.

Speaking of races, we're also going to stop living life like it's a 100-meter dash, or maybe a series of them.  We're going to stop racing to be the first to arrive at work and the last to leave, as though they gave out attendance awards at the end of the year.  We're going to recognize that the work will still be there tomorrow (and the next day, and the next…), but that our spouses, our kids, our health, and our passions might not.  We're going to give ourselves and each other permission to set the work down today and pick it up tomorrow, so that we can go home and enjoy those perishable treasures of family, exercise, and non-salary-earning interests.  You know what?  We're even going to let each other go on vacation without making a single joke about how the dedicated people are staying at the office.  Then we're going to come back to work, refreshed from the break, and kick the competition's ass together.

3. We resolve to leave everything better than we found it.

This year, every day, in every situation, we are going to figure out how we can make things better because we were there.  And when we say everything, we mean everything: our work, our families, our places of worship, our social gatherings, everywhere we go.  We will not be content to just pass through.  At the end of the day, we are going to ask ourselves, "In even a small way, did I make someone's life better today?" and we're going to be disappointed in ourselves if we can't find a way to say yes.

In spiritual terms, we call this "being a blessing."  In practical terms, you can call it "not being a waste of life."  Life is a team sport, and if you aren't contributing to the team then you're headed for the bench.  This year, we will be superstars at the game of life, and we will change the world one tiny moment at a time.


There, feel better?  I'm glad that I could help you with this little chore so that you can get down to some serious celebrating.  Happy new year!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 13


Chapter 13 

"It isn’t time to bring in the bullpen already, is it?"  Jack’s voice crackled through Stephen’s headphones as he prowled around the parking lot outside CouldBU’s office.  As usual, Jack was making no attempt to hide his enjoyment of Stephen’s discomfiture.  "Kinda makes you appreciate those guys who start projects, doesn’t it?"

"I don’t know about ‘appreciate,’ but it does make me want to buy them a sympathy beer the next time I see them," said Stephen, "and maybe apologize to Miller for calling his mother a whore.  Does every project go horribly wrong at some point?"

"No, not every one," Jack said, then he thought about it for a moment.  "Actually, yes, every one.  Every project spends most of its existence teetering on the edge of oblivion, like a train riding on only one rail.  It’s your job to keep the team balanced and on the track or you’ll end up with a front-row seat to a fiery train wreck.  It’s my job to try not to cackle too much while I watch."

Stephen angrily jammed his free hand in his pocket and picked up the pace as he rounded the final row of cars and headed around the building again.  "I can’t accept that: it’s defeatist.  Aren’t I supposed to make sure that the project goes smoothly and every risk is accounted for?"

"Spare me the Project Management 101 B.S., kid.  If projects ran smoothly on their own, they wouldn’t need us!  You’re there to steer the team through around the hazards.  Now steer.”

Stephen slowed as he finished another lap of the parking lot and approached the building’s entrance again.  "I suppose you’re right," he sighed, pushing a hand through his already ruffled hair.  "It’s just that, every time I’ve gone in to clean up someone else’s mess, I swore that I would never do this myself, that I could keep a project from going off the rails.  And yet here I am, making my own fine mess."

"Never make a promise you can’t keep, kid, especially to yourself.  God has a way of making sure those come back every time.  Something about ‘opposing the proud,’ if I remember my catechism classes correctly.  Anyway, this thing’s not a complete loss and you don’t need any backup.  Just give them the time they asked for and they’ll settle down.  Meanwhile, make sure David doesn’t do anything rash.  If he hangs himself by one of those pretty scarves, then I have to learn French so that I can tell his family what a great artist he was.  Please don’t make put me through that."

"All right, all right, I’ll go take away all of his scarves and other potentially lethal accessories until I know he’s OK," Stephen chuckled.  He stopped walking.  "Hey, Jack."

"What?"

"Thanks."

"No problem, kid.  We’ll make a starter out of you yet."

***

After dawdling for several more minutes and bracing himself for what awaited him in the war room, Stephen returned to a scene of unexpected peace.  Kelvin, Mark, Frank, and Stu all sat hunched over their laptops, pecking rapidly at their keyboards and happily ignoring reality.  Kelvin and Mark were wearing headphones and listening to music to shut out the noise of the others.  Stu didn’t own headphones, but seemed to be able to achieve the same effect through sheer concentration.  Ricky sat morosely in a corner, staring off into space and muttering under his breath.  David -- ah, that was it -- David was nowhere to be found.

"Where is he?" Stephen asked the room.

Ricky snapped out of his reverie.  "Who, David?"  He looked around.  "Um… not here?"

"Yes, I assumed he wasn’t hiding under the table," Stephen snapped.  "Do you know where he is?"
Kelvin glanced up from his screen.  "Take it easy, Steffy.  Ricky’s had a hard day, too, you know."

Stephen glared at him, including the rest of the room for good measure.  "Now’s not the time, Kelly.  I’m not going to let this project go down in flames, and I don’t need an AWOL designer on top of everything else.  Now," he enunciated carefully, "has anyone seen David?"

Ricky looked under the table, just in case.  "I haven’t seen him since he went out to smoke.  He can smoke for an awfully long time, you know.  Did you check out back, where the assistants and caterers park their cars?  That’s where the smokers usually hang out."

"I was just outside walking all around the building.  He wasn’t out there."

"Well, sometimes he likes to walk while he smokes, especially when he’s upset.  One time, after a client rejected one of his designs, he walked all the way to Quincy before he calmed down.  It’s a good thing he wasn’t more upset, or he would have had to take the commuter rail back."

"So, do you think he’ll be all right?" Stephen asked.  "You’ve worked with him longer than any of us.  Are there coping mechanisms somewhere under that extravagant exterior?"

Ricky shrugged, "I suppose so.  I mean, no one likes rejection, and it’s even harder for a designer.  He puts a little bit of himself into everything he creates, so when someone says they don’t like it, it’s like they’re saying they don’t like him.  He’s a professional, though, so he’ll deal with it."  He straightened and eyed Stephen disapprovingly.  "I’m fine, too, by the way."

"I was getting to you.  I just try to take care of the people who may be a danger to themselves and others first.  So how are you?"

"Asked and answered," Frank interrupted.  "Can you two take the group therapy session outside?  The functional half of the team is trying to work here."

"Put your headphones on," Stephen rejoined irritably, but he and Ricky stepped outside nonetheless.  As they walked past Mark, Stephen heard the tinny strains of a familiar tune blasting from his headphones.  He stopped and tapped Mark on the shoulder.  "Lola?" he asked.

Mark shrugged.  "It’s one of my favorites."  He put the headphones back on, singing under his breath, "La-la-la-la-Lola, La-la-la-la-Lola..."  Stephen rolled his eyes and kept walking.  There was no accounting for tastes.

"Like I said, I’m fine," Ricky said after they had closed the door behind them.  "It’s not like we expected this presentation to go smoothly, anyway.  I didn’t think we’d get fired, though," he concluded glumly.

Stephen held up his hands.  "Hey, slow down!  No one’s fired.  We can’t build this thing without a user interface and I don’t see any other design teams lying around.  I just need to talk to Rod and Robert -- and Brad I suppose, if I have to -- and find out where we go from here.  We’ll be fine.  Just give me a day or two to sort things out."

"If you say so," Ricky sighed.  "Rod sounded pretty serious, though, especially about that ragtime stuff.  What does that mean, anyway?"

Stephen scrubbed at his scalp as he thought.  "I think it means that, as ‘Dan the Man’ would say, we’re not all singing from the same sheet of music."

"I see," Ricky stared at Stephen in bewilderment.  "And that means…"

The Man himself popped around the corner.  "It means you’re not on the same wavelength, that you guys have wandered off the written script and that we need to get you back on the reservation," he offered as he hustled over to join them.

Ricky bristled, "I’ll have you know that I am 1/32 Native American, and I find that metaphor insulting in the extreme."

Dan stopped short and backed away, hands in the air.  "Hey, sorry big guy.  I didn’t mean to insult you.  In fact, I wasn’t even talking about that reservation.  I was talking about, um, a nature preserve.  You know, reservation land?  I meant like, that you’ve wandered off the path and you need to get back on it or the ranger will come and, um… punish you…" he trailed off lamely.

"Uh-huh," Ricky glared at him.

Stephen let Dan twist in the cold wind of Ricky’s glare for a few moments before he spoke.  His feelings for Dan were moving from cordial dislike to outright loathing, but for some reason this little parasite had management’s ear.  Maybe he simply spoke their language, and his empty metaphors translated into meaningful sentences when they struck ears attuned to the incessant babble of Los Angeles.  He laid a calming hand on Ricky’s arm and was struck for the first time by just how much muscle was hiding under that soft exterior.  "Insensitivity aside, Dan may have a point.  We’re clearly not speaking the same language.  They say black and we hear white.  We came in with art and poetry, and maybe they wanted more flash and sizzle."

Dan brightened, "Exactly!  They want sizzle, and you gave them steak.  They say ying and you hear yang."  He stopped suddenly and looked at Ricky.  "Uh, you’re not Japanese too, are you?"

"Probably."  Ricky tried to glare again, but he had never been able to maintain a good glare for long.  "Don’t worry about it.  Just don’t start talking about ‘scorched earth’ campaigns or a kamikaze approach to the project.  We’re still a little sensitive about that."

"Can I use Samurai metaphors?"

"What the heck are Samurai metaphors?"

"You know, hari-kari and stuff like that," Dan mimed stabbing himself in the stomach with a sword, sticking his tongue out as he did so.  Ricky’s face twisted in disgust and Dan stepped back again.  "OK, we’ll take that one offline and circle back later.  Tell you what:  I’ll circle the wagons," Ricky gave a low growl, but Dan hurried onward, "whip up a PowerPoint with various speech modes, and you can tell me which ones you’ll have a problem with.  Think you’ll have some bandwidth around 3:00 to give it a once-over and bounce it back?"

Stephen decided to stop the madness.  "Let’s take it one conversation at a time, shall we?  Ricky, why don’t you get some lunch?  There’s not much else you can do until we get this sorted out, anyway.  Dan, walk with me.  Let’s grab some lunch offsite and see if we can figure out how to fix this."
Dan followed Stephen excitedly.  "I have some great ideas for shifting your paradigm so that you can get in phase with the key stakeholders, and maybe even leverage some of your legacy deliverables.  It’s all really out-of-the-box stuff."

Stephen sighed and tried not to roll his eyes.  "Yeah, that’d be great."  He rummaged around in the locked parts of his brain, places where he had sworn he would never go again, for some more Consultantese.  His brain rebelled, was overruled, and began throbbing vengefully as he spoke.  "And maybe you can tell me again how you, um, clarified your go-to-market proposition with Rod so that he retained your services after the regime change rather than right-sizing you out of existence."

"Oh, that’s a great story.  It reminds me of another time, when I was working in Vegas for a mob family.  Let me tell you, they had the worst incentive plan I have ever seen.  Purely disincentive-based management.  When they decided to put an issue to bed, they usually included a horse’s head with it.  These guys had serious throughput issues, and morale!  Sheesh, don’t even get me started.  I almost got involved in leading a headcount reduction action for them until I found out that they meant it literally…."  Dan continued as they wove their torturous way through the corridors toward the parking lot.

Stephen rubbed his temples as he walked.  The things I do for my projects.

***

"… so anyway, that’s how I ended up working as a showgirl for six months," Dan concluded, spraying pieces of his second sandwich on the tablecloth.  "I learned more about motivation from those girls than in all of my correspondence courses, let me tell you.  They knew how to grab an audience by the balls.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.  Well, most of the time."  He leaned across the table to nudge Stephen with his elbow, but only got as far as his water glass, which was ill prepared for a good nudging.  While they mopped the table, Dan asked, "So, what did you want to talk about?"

"The situation with Rod.  You seem to have some sort of rapport with him, or at least I assume so, since he renewed your contract.  How did you…" Stephen grappled for the right jargon, "sell him on your value-add?"

Dan waved his salad fork breezily, flipping a crouton into a neighboring diner’s coffee cup.  "Oh, it’s all about buy-in.  Once you get them signed off on your strategic paradigm and set an actionable plan, it’s just a matter of shifting their covalence before they lose sight of the continuities and get out of alignment with the larger mission statement."

Stephen stared at him for a moment before speaking.  "You have no idea what you’re saying anymore, do you?"

Dan briefly puffed up with righteous indignation, but then he deflated.  "No," he said quietly, "I don’t."
Stephen tapped his tooth with a breadstick while he considered the plan forming in his head.  Dan just slumped in his seat, pathetically playing with a couple of ice cubes that were slowly melting on the tablecloth.  The silence was rather enjoyable, so Stephen let it linger for a few more minutes after he had made his decision.  When Dan picked up a fork and spoon and challenged himself to a table hockey match with the remaining ice cube, Stephen decided that it was time to make his offer.
"Look, Dan, let’s be clear:  I don’t really like you that much and we’re not going to be buddies.  Dan, are you listening to me?"

"Slap shot in the upper corner!  Sullivan wins the game again!  Oh, sorry.  What were you saying?"

"Something about not really liking you."

"Oh, that’s OK.  No one likes me.  That’s why I dropped the motivational speaker gig and took up consulting.  In our business, unlikeability is an asset, right?  So I decided to play to my strengths."
Stephen stopped to process that comment, decided that it would only insult him if he did, and soldiered on.  "OK, good, as long as we’re clear.  Now, even though, as I said, we’re not going to be buddies -- you heard that part, right? -- I think that we can help each other.  Dan, please put the silverware down.  Thank you.  Somehow, you seem to be able to get through to Rod, Robert, and Brad.  I need you to help me corral them so that they stop screwing up my project.  You help me with them, and I’ll help you not sound like a braying jackass every time you open your mouth."

"That sounds fair," said Dan, then stopped.  "Hey, I thought you couldn’t curse!"

"How does everyone—?  Never mind."  Stephen scrubbed a hand through his hair.  He’d been doing that a lot lately, he realized.  "OK.  First, I’ve had a very hard day, so I think I deserve to say whatever I want.  Second, for the record, ‘jackass’ is not a curse word.  It’s a name for an animal that emits a sound when provoked that reminds me strongly of you when you’re trying to sound smart.  Now, do we have a deal?"

Dan thought about it briefly.  "Sure.  I suppose I could use a little mentoring, and you’re as good a player-coach as anyone else.  Steffaroo, you’ve got a deal!"  He stuck his hand across the table, narrowly missing Stephen’s recently refilled water glass.

Stephen was not ready to shake.  He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.  "One more thing:  my name is Stephen.  Not Steve-o, not Steffaroo, not Stevedore.  Stephen.  You are not even allowed to call me Steve.  You will have to earn the right to use anything other than my full name."  Now he leaned forward and placed his arms on the table, his chest inches from Dan’s still extended hand.  "I have answered to many names in my lifetime:  Stephen, Steve, Stevie -- though only my mother could ever call me that without bleeding for it -- Pal, Buddy, Chap.  On a project with a Russian development team, I even went by Stefan Mikhailovich.  Never, never, has anyone annoyed me so much simply by calling my name.  To me, you represent everything reprehensible about consultants and, frankly, a few of the more annoying traits of the human race in general.  I can’t fix all of that at once, so we’ll start here.  No.  More.  Nicknames.  Is that clear?"

Though Dan’s smile wavered, his hand never did.  "Crystal.  And thank you for being friend enough to tell me."

Now Stephen shook his hand.  "You’re welcome, but as I said, we’re not friends."

They walked slowly back to the office, taking their time in the midday heat.  Stephen’s brain knew it was November, but his body was starting to get used to the idea that summer had never ended.  He soaked in the sun and chose not to think about the fact that it was 42 degrees and raining in Boston.  "I hope that today’s blowup doesn’t get everyone down," he worried aloud.  "Unless Rod decides to send us all home today, these guys are going to be here for the next few weeks while I’m back in Boston.  I can’t afford to have them distracted, wondering if they’re working for nothing."

"I wouldn’t worry about it," said Dan cheerfully.  "Rod didn’t seem to be in a firing mood today, so I think you’ll be fine after he sorts things out.  He doesn’t really lead by facts.  He more… senses the mood in the room and sort of rides it.  Then he makes his decisions based upon a sort of psychic consensus, so everyone agrees with him."

"Psychic consensus, huh?" Stephen grunted.  "Maybe I should be talking to Connie instead of you."

"I’m not saying he’s actually psychic.  He’s just talented at sensing people’s moods and hidden agendas.  That’s what makes him such a great leader:  he takes people where they wanted to go anyway, and uses them to get there.  What amazes me is that he can do it without even being in the room.  He’s getting all of that just from voices.  No body language, nothing!"

"So what happened this morning, then?  Were everyone’s brain waves out of synch?  Should we have asked them all to hold hands and hum together before we started the presentation?"

Dan continued, unperturbed by Stephen’s cantankerousness.  "There’s no need to get pissy.  I’m just explaining my theory to you.  Take it or leave it."

Stephen was taken aback.  This was not the Dan he was used to talking -- or rather, listening -- to.  Now that he had dropped his act with Stephen, he seemed to have gained a calm that had never been there before, and now Stephen felt like the irrational one.  He didn’t like that feeling.  "Sorry," he mumbled, "it’s been a long day already."

"It’s OK.  My point was that there was no consensus, psychic or otherwise.  The group was all over the map -- and in a few cases, off the map altogether -- so Rod couldn’t get a read.  He aborted rather than make a decision that might be unpopular.  That’s why I don’t think you have to worry about it.  Rod hasn’t decided against you, he just hasn’t decided."

Stephen glanced over at Dan, surprised at his insight.  "You seem to be reading him pretty well yourself.  You got all this from a few staff meetings?"

Dan looked away sheepishly.  "Well, I… overheard some other meetings that I wasn’t invited to.  There’s a very cozy spot behind those big speakers in the large conference room that’s good for more than just napping."

And we’re back, Stephen thought.  He started going over his own recent conversations, wondering if there was anywhere in that building where someone wasn’t listening.  "That’s one way to get to know the new boss, I suppose….  Say, I wasn’t in any of those meetings, was I?"

"You mean did I eavesdrop on you?  No, I never saw a need to.  You don’t decide whether I stay or go, and you never seemed to be a threat to me.  Plus, you never had a meeting without me.  I appreciate that."

"Well… you’re welcome, I guess."

Suddenly, Dan had a new idea.  "Hey, if you’re worried about your team’s morale, I could brush off my old motivational speaker skills and try to perk them up a little.  I still remember a couple of ‘up and at ‘em, take that hill, go the extra mile’ speeches that really went over well in Bakersfield."

Stephen had a brief, enjoyable vision of Frank lifting Dan bodily, carrying him to the roof, and throwing him, still talking, onto Brad’s car four stories below.  He shook his head.  "No, that’s probably not necessary right now.  Thanks for the offer, though.  I’ll keep it in mind in case we need a pick-me-up later."

They parted ways at the entrance to CouldBU’s offices, Stephen to find Robert, and Dan to his post-lunch nap.  On a whim, Stephen paused by the gigantic front desk and called up to the receptionist.  "Hello, any messages for me?"

The secretary smiled down at him prettily.  "And your name is?"

"Rod.  Rod White."

"Oh, yes sir."  She disappeared from view amidst the sound of shuffling paper, reappearing a moment later with a handful of pink message slips.  Peering at each slowly, she read, "Mr. Obadiah called about some oil wells.  He wants to know whether they should buy some more that just became available.  Let’s see, Mrs. White wants to know when you’ll be home, and asked that you call before you arrive.  She didn’t say why, but the part about calling first seemed important.  Mr. Wellington called from Princeton, saying that they have an extra honorary doctorate for this year’s commencement and he wondered if you would like to make a donation to the -- what’s that word?"  She leaned forward to show the slip to Stephen, nearly falling out of her desk and her blouse.

"Endowment," Stephen read.

"Oh, I know what that is!" she replied brightly.  Then she read the note again and frowned.  "Or maybe I don’t.  Oh well!" she shrugged, causing her own endowment to heave invitingly.  Stephen stepped forward, just in case she overbalanced.  At least, that was what he told himself.

"Any other messages?"

"Yes, two more.  A Mr. Ling Pao in Taipei -- or was that Mr. Taipei in Ling Pao? -- returned your call.  He said that he would be in Hong Kong next week if you wanted to meet there for dinner.  And finally, Chuck Marquette called to say that he’s considering your offer along with several others and he’ll get back to you next week."

"Did he say which offer?" Stephen asked.  When the receptionist looked down at him questioningly he added, "There are so many out there, it’s hard to keep track."

She nodded knowingly.  "I think he said it was about the VP position in the New York office.  He asked me if I would come out there and work for him, too!  Can you imagine me leaving LA?" she laughed.

I can’t imagine you finding the airport, Stephen didn’t say as he laughed along with her and took Rod’s messages.  He tucked them into his pocket as he walked into Robert’s office.  Robert was gazing out his window at the traffic below, lost in what looked surprisingly like thought.

"Knock, knock," said Stephen.

"Who’s there?" Robert replied automatically.

"Rod White."

"Aaah!"  Robert jumped and spun around in his chair.  "Oh, it’s you, Steve.  You scared me silly.  Why would you do that to a man?"

"Sorry," Stephen smiled, "I didn’t mean to scare you. I did come to talk about Rod, though."
Robert sighed and leaned back in his chair, irritably twirling his car keys on his finger as though contemplating a getaway.  "Everyone wants to talk about Rod.  I hired him so that everyone would stop talking to me about their problems, and now they all come to me to talk about their problems with Rod."

"That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.  Why did you hire Rod?  I mean," Stephen hurriedly continued as Robert’s expression darkened, "clearly it made sense to hire a CEO.  You have a lot on your plate, and this company is growing by leaps and bounds.  But why Rod?"

"It was his book.  Do you have a copy yet?  I have a couple here in my desk still.  Rod shipped us several crates of signed copies right after we hired him.  Called it our hiring bonus."

Stephen raised his hands defensively.  "I have one, thanks.  So reading his book made you interested in him and you brought him in for interviews along with the other candidates?"

"Read?  Interviews?  Candidates?"  Robert snorted.  "What do you think this is:  an Ivy League school?  That’s not how we do things here, Steve.  I saw his book, but I didn’t read it.  I have people for that.  I gave it to one of my top readers and he told me that he thought it had great potential.  He gave me a brief summary.  Here."  He handed a single page to Stephen.  Looking at it, Stephen recognized the text from inside the jacket flap of Rod’s book.  At least he retyped it, he thought.

Robert continued.  "With his recommendation and this summary, which I did read, I decided that Rod was our kind of guy.  So I had my people call his people and set up a dinner.  We made the deal over sushi and that was that."

Stephen’s stomach gave a lurch that was becoming painfully familiar.  "And now he’s in charge of the company?  Did Brad or any of the others have a say in the decision?"

"Brad and I are the majority shareholders, so we make the decisions.  The other guys are smart, but they’re still just the talent.  Brad was supposed to be there, too, but he got into a fender bender with some cutie on the 405 on the way to dinner and ended up sleeping with her.  I made the call.  As for being in charge of the company, well..." Robert rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and looked back out the window, unable to meet Stephen’s gaze.  "Yeah, I guess he is.  I just wanted someone to handle all of the administrative crap for me, but he seems to be in charge now."

"And what happened today?  Do you agree with his decision to stop our work on the visual design of the site?  Are we being fired?"

Robert looked back at Stephen.  "Fired?  That’s a very harsh word.  I wouldn’t say you’re fired!  Maybe half-fired."  Stephen’s stomach, done warming up, skipped the lurches and tried for a full back flip.  "No, even that’s probably too final.  Let’s just say that the creative work is on hold for now, but the technical stuff," he waved his hands vaguely, "should keep going.  After all, we can’t fall behind schedule."

"How can we keep building if we don’t even have a user interface?  How will people use it?"

"Hey, you’re the computer guy, not me.  You figure it out.  I’m sure Rod has some kind of a plan, anyway.  That’s why we pay him the big bucks.  And believe me, they are big bucks, so I’m sure he’ll come through.  Until then, you just keep your team working and wait for Rod to tell you what he wants."

"And how long will that take?"

"Based upon my experience so far, about a week.  He deals with all of his companies round-robin, so he should get back around to us by next Tuesday or Wednesday.  He gave us some extra time this week so that he could attend your presentation."

Noting Stephen’s stormy expression, Robert suddenly leaned forward and pointed a finger at him.  "Look, I’m sorry I can’t help you more, but I’ll be frank:  you guys screwed the pooch in there!  We gave you all the creative guidance we had, and you just didn’t get it!  Not only that, you failed to sense the shift in the winds and you whiffed on your one opportunity to impress the new boss.  A good producer never does that, not if he wants to keep working.  So I’m sorry if your pitch fell flat, but that’s the way it goes.  You may get another chance, you may not.  Either way, getting pissed isn’t going to help."  Robert sat back again and lowered his voice.  "At least half of your team is still working.  If I were you, I’d be grateful for that and make sure they’re OK."

Stephen swallowed his ire and stood.  "Thanks for the advice.  By the way, the receptionist gave me these."  He pulled Rod’s messages from his pocket and tossed them on Robert’s desk.
Flipping through the pink slips, Robert paused briefly when he came to the message from Chuck Marquette.  "Oh, great," he muttered under his breath.  Then he rose and went to the liquor cabinet on the other side of his office and poured himself a Scotch, which he held up to Stephen.  "You want one?"

"No thanks.  It’s a bit early for me."  Stephen demurred.

"Not for me.  In fact, Brad’s probably five or six ahead of me by now.  I gotta learn to stay in Malibu."  Robert tossed his drink back and was already pouring another when Stephen excused himself.

After taking another walk to cool his head in the afternoon heat, Stephen returned to his team’s war room.  As he approached, he heard voices.  He stuck his head through the doorway and looked in.  Frank, Kelvin, and Ricky were hard at work, and Mark and Stu were at it again.

"What about a phonograph?" Mark asked.

Without looking up from his laptop, Stu responded, "1857, yes."

"Paperclip?"

"1901, yes."

"Microwave?"

"1946, no"

"Electric razor?"

Stu stopped typing, fingered his bushy beard, and smiled at Mark, "What do you think?"

"I know you don’t, but could you?"

Stu resumed his rapid coding, "1928, no."

Obviously, this group was resilient.  Stephen turned and left to take yet another walk and call home.



Continue to Chapter 14

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dr. Seuss Meets the School Bus

"It's time to go!" yelled the Mom up the stairs.
"Hold on," cried the daughter, "I'm doing my hair!"
The son's only answer was a noisy flush.
Then a muffled voice called, "Have you seen my brush?"

"We have to go. You'll be late for school!"
"Mom, where's my sweatshirt? Does this hat look cool?"
"I can't find my socks.  Oh, look, there's the dog!
She's so cute! I'll post a pic on my blog!"

"My socks don't match.  What'd you do with my pants?"
"Do you think if we dressed her in a tutu she'd dance?"
"Hey, there's my glove!  I thought it was lost!"
"Mom, how much does a dog tutu cost?"

The Mom called again in a voice of despair,
"You're going to be late.  Don't you two even care?"
Oh the places you'd go.  Oh the things you could see,
If you'd just leave the house.  Won't you listen to me?"

The children kept wandering, their brains all afuzz.
Because, after all, that's what a child does.
When it's time to go out, all sense leaves their noggins.
And they don't even hear the worst of tongue floggins.

The kids wandered downstairs, in the cupboards they rooted.
"Mom, what happened to the Loops that are Frooted?"
"I'm not hungry for breakfast, I'll just play with my phone.
I heard the new Doctor's on the next Game of Thrones!"

"We're late!" shrieked the Mom, "Just look at the clock!
If it weren't digital, I'd say, 'Tick tock!'
We're all out of time, school will be starting.
Enough already, we must be departing!"

She told them to move.  She said, "Find your backpacks!"
The children's ears must have been full of wax.
"Did you see that there's corn?  Right here with the limes.
We should sit down and shuck it.  I'm sure we have time."

The Mother gave up, her mind in a fog.
She sat down right there on the floor with the dog.
"These children will drive me to start drinking the hooch!
I've had it!  I'll just sit here and pet the pooch."

The Father stepped in, majestic and strong.
"I'll handle this dear.  You're doing it wrong.
Kids don't listen to yelling, you have to be quiet.
Here, just watch and learn while I try it.

"Kids, time for school.  Put your shoes on and go."
"OK, Daddy," they said, "Just as soon as we show
You how quickly we two can shuck this corn.
You say go, then a corn star will be born!"

"No time for corn, if I may be so bold.
The bell rings in five minutes, yet you're still unsoled.
Put on your shoes and get out the door."
"OK, we'll go, Dad, after just one more."

"You're not listening to me.  You have to go now.
School waits for no man, no dog, and no cow.
I'm losing my patience!  Am I making a sound?
Oh for God's sake, will you QUIT SHUCKING AROUND!"

Except he didn't say "shucking."  After that it gets blurry.
For the kids then got ready in a great shucking hurry
"There's no need to be rude!" they announced with a pout.
"We were ready to go." Then they both flounced out.

There's a moral in here, but I'm not sure what it is.
It might be that you shouldn't yell at your kids.
That's probably not it, for they're really quite troubling.
Your blood pressure and stress levels your kids will be doubling.

Maybe the moral is something quite deep,
Like "Time is irrelevant, and people are sheep.
We don't need The Man telling us when to go and to come."
On second thought: no.  That moral's just dumb.

The moral is this: be they late our quite timely
Your life is your life, your family's your family.
You find your own fun, you make your own luck.
And if you can't learn to laugh, then my friend, you're quite shucked.



Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Lessons From the Field



It happens every year: a sports team pulls together, overcomes incredible odds, and wins a national championship.  Their fans go wild, strangers hug each other, and parades are planned.  Then, without fail,  the "more important things" crowd shows up.

"Imagine," they say, "what these people could do if they got this excited about something that really mattered, like [insert cause here]."

Cue the sad trombones.

I have a fundamental problem with this statement, for several reasons.

First, if people aren't excited about your cause, then maybe there's something wrong with your delivery.  When was the last time that people cheered someone for haranguing them?

"You're a worthless pack of human beings and you're all going to hell if you don't do exactly as I say!"
"Yay…" 
"How's that hamburger tasting?  Did you know that 100,000 children starved to death in the time that it took you to swallow that mouthful of processed meat byproducts?  Can I spread some more guilt sauce on there for you?"
"You're awesome.  Thanks for coming by to brighten my day!" 
"Go ahead and keep exercising!  Some form of cancer is gonna get you in the end, no matter what you do!"
"Woo-hoo!  I feel so inspired!"
Second, behind this snotty party-pooping is a basic assumption that sports add no value to society.  Setting aside some of the obvious benefits of participation in sports -- like teamwork, patience, and a healthy interest in exercising and maintaining a healthy body --  what can we learn from a bunch of overpaid professionals who play a game for a living?  Well, let's look at this year's 2013 World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox, to see if we can find any lessons that are applicable in our everyday lives.

1. Trust Yourself, not the Critics
Here's how the Boston Globe's sports writer, Dan Shaughnessy, greeted the new world champions when they started spring training:

"It's Hard to Get Excited About These Red Sox"

When your hometown paper expects you to be "bad, and worse, boring," it's easy to give up.  In fact, why not just live down to everyone's expectations and take it easy for a year?  It's not your fault, right?  The deck's stacked against you already, and no one will blame you if you're mediocre.  Play it safe and maybe next year will be better.

That's how this team started out, but they decided to go against expectations.  In fact, they ignored them altogether and held themselves to a higher standard: their own.  They said, "We're not just going to be OK; we're going to be the best."  And they did just that: they ended the season with the best record in the American League and went on to win the world championship.  At every opportunity, they pushed themselves to do better, to work harder, and to show their critics exactly where they could stick their predictions.

How many times have you faced low expectations from friends, family, or coworkers?  How often has your competition said, "Don't worry about them, they're no threat."  How did you respond?  Did you settle in, play it safe, and coast, or did you kick that low bar across the room and set your own goals?  Here's a secret to success: the champions know that the only voice that matters is their own. 

2. Rely on Your Teammates
With their wild beards and crazy eyes, the 2013 Red Sox were a funny-looking crew. In fact, baseball hasn't seen such a scruffy bunch of players since the 2004 "idiots" who broke the Curse of the Bambino and brought a World Series championship back to Boston for the first time in 86 years.  And like the 2004 team, this year's Red Sox hid a secret under all that hair: unity.

The 2013 team bonding began in spring training, when Mike Napoli and Johnny Gomes, two new players, decided to let their beards grow.  Soon, the entire team had stopped shaving, and the American League was learning to "fear the beard."  New team traditions grew up around the beards, including a face-tugging salute in the dugout for players who did well.

To an outsider -- and, probably, to most of the players' wives -- this ritual looks ridiculous.  Who wears a beard in Boston in the summer?  The players looked scruffy and silly, a look that only intensified as the season wore on.  If you saw the starting pitching staff walking down the street, you could be excused for mistaking them for a group of particularly well-dressed homeless men.  But those silly beards did something magical: they took a group of individuals that was known for backbiting, complaining, and laziness and turned them into the hardest-working group in baseball.  Instead of turning on each other when they faced setbacks, these guys supported each other.  Instead of claiming all the glory for themselves, they went out of their way to recognize each other's contributions.  In short, they became a team.

Who can you count on to lift you up when you stumble?  Who lifts you up to make sure that everyone can see you shine?  Here's another thing that champions know: when we work together, we can lift the heaviest load.

3. Do Your Job
The Boston Red Sox are, collectively, one of the highest-paid teams in baseball.  You would expect, then, that the players would all have an accurately high sense of their own worth.  Most of these guys would be the stars on another team, so you wouldn't be surprised if a guy kept a list of the tasks that were appropriate for a player of his caliber and, more importantly, the tasks that were beneath him.  And if a player started to struggle to do his job, you might expect that he would start looking for reasons why it wasn't his fault.

Throughout the playoffs, the Red Sox were remarkable for one thing above all others: every time they needed someone to make a big play, someone stepped up and did it.  The remarkable part, though, wasn't just that someone made a play, but that it was always the least likely person who did it.  The guy who hadn't had a hit in the last three games suddenly hit a grand slam.  The last-second substitute made a game-saving play in the outfield.  The starting pitcher who, a year ago, was the poster boy for rotten attitudes was willing to risk his next start to pitch in relief.  One player's only role was to serve as a pinch runner, and he did it gladly.  In hardship and in sacrifice, these players held firm and did their jobs, playing whatever role the team needed them to play in service to the collective good.  Their perseverance paid off in critical moments, and each of them had his time to be a hero, to lead the team to victory.

When it comes down to it, how do you do your job, as an employee, as a boss, as a parent or student?  Are you willing to do the dirty work just because someone's gotta do it, or are you too good to get your hands dirty?  Are you willing to serve when the world needs a servant so that you can be ready when it needs a hero?  

4. Keep it clean
Finally, this team learned that, in order to thrive, you have to maintain a clean environment.  I'm not talking about hygiene, because, honestly, have you seen the floor of their dugout?  Disgusting.  I'm talking about getting rid of the spiritual and emotional toxins that can poison an organization.  Whether it's the a long-held grudge that remains unforgiven or a lazy tongue that blames everyone but its owner, these poisons can turn a previously healthy organization into a sloppy mess, and this is exactly what the 2012 Red Sox looked like.  Before that miserable season was even over, the team began a purge.  They brought in new leadership, cut players who had made it clear that they didn't want to be part of the team, and rebuilt around a solid core of people who were willing to live humbly and work hard.  The message was clear: if you want to be here, then you had better be ready to work together and lift each other up.  If you're not interested, then there's the door.  They created an environment that encouraged excellence and forgave mistakes, and because of that, they won.

We all tolerate some level of day-to-day toxicity in our relationships, but we need to recognize the difference between a bad mood and a bad attitude.  One is temporary and deserves forgiveness.  The other is permanent and needs to be quarantined before it spreads.  As the meme says, "Haters gonna hate."  Some people are so miserable that they can't abide happiness in another person.  They feel the need to pull others down to their level, thinking, "How can you be happy when there's so much to be miserable about?!?"  If you have a person like that in your life -- maybe even the person who encourages you to find something "worthwhile" to get excited about -- you need to seriously consider whether they should stay.  Someone who can't find joy, who never forgives a slight, who hoards misery like gold, is a weight around the neck of any group, from the workplace to the family.  They poison the atmosphere, weakening those around them to the point that any contributions they make are canceled out by the toll they take.  Sometimes, for their own good as well as the good of the group, they need to be removed before they do permanent damage.  To make the body healthy, sometimes you have to cut out the cancerous tissue.


So is it okay to be passionate about sports?  I think so.  Should it be your only passion?  Probably not, because there are all kinds of worthwhile activities and causes out there just waiting for our attention.  But can we learn from them?  Absolutely.  I learned some of my greatest lessons on a field, some of them as a player and others as a fan.  It's all about what you do with the knowledge.

So go.  Play.  Cheer.  High-five a stranger.  And when the haters come by, cheer even louder until you can't hear their complaints.  We're learnin' here!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 12


Chapter 12

Stephen awoke early the next morning with the sunlight streaming through his windows.  It was too early for breakfast, but he didn’t care.  For the first time in weeks, he felt rested and alive.  He briefly considered getting up to join Mark in his morning swim, but decided that he would rather lie in bed for a while and enjoy the fact that he didn’t need to be up yet.

Two hours later he breezed into the office, whistling an old sea shanty that his father had taught him.  He could never remember all of the words, but recalled that they had something to do with a sailor getting his oar stuck in the wrong lock.  It didn’t really matter:  the tune was cheerful, his headache was gone, and all was right with the world.  Peeking into the offices as he went by, he saw that he was the first one in.  He hadn’t really expected anyone from CouldBU to be up this early, but was a little surprised that no one else from ADD was running on Eastern time, too.

Stephen shrugged as he entered the conference room that had become their shared office.  More time to get some work done before everyone is stacked in here on top of each other, he thought.   Plus, I get to stake out the best spot in the room.  He tossed his soft-sided briefcase onto the table.  I think I’ll take the spot in the corner, so my back is to the wall….

His site survey was interrupted by a loud thump, followed quickly by loud cursing from under the table.  "What the--  Is someone here?" he called.

The cursing continued as Brad crawled out from under the table holding the back of his head, accompanied by an overwhelming cloud of cologne, alcohol, smoke, and perfume.  "Are you trying to kill me?  My heart’s been abused enough without you jumpstarting it first thing in the morning!"  He checked his wrist suddenly, then patted himself all over when he saw that he wasn’t wearing his watch.  "It is still morning, isn’t it?" he asked worriedly.  "I’m not late for the meeting, am I?"

"What meeting?" Stephen asked.

"The design presentation!  You guys are supposed to show me and Robert your designs today, right?  We’re supposed to give our approval before you can go off and build it, aren’t we?"  He glared suspiciously at Stephen through bloodshot eyes, as though expecting a trick.

"Oh, that meeting.  Yes, that’s today, but not until 10:00.  We wanted to make sure you both would be able to get here in time.  I think Robert’s coming in person for this one."

"Good, so I’m not late?"

"Nooo…" Stephen answered slowly, to make sure his answer penetrated, "…you’re early.  Two hours early, in fact."  He raised his sleeve and showed his watch to Brad, who had apparently given up on finding his.  Brad peered at it blearily, then gave a squawk of dismay.

"That says 11:12!  I knew I was late!  Why would you lie to me about this?  It’s important!  Where’s everyone else?  Did you have the meeting without me?  Does Rod know?"  He ran to the door and looked out into the hall, frantically searching for everyone else.

Stephen looked at his watch in surprise.  "Oh, sorry:  I forgot to set it to Pacific Time."  He twisted the knob a few times and showed it to Brad again.  "There, how’s that?"

Brad looked again, but was unwilling to trust Stephen a second time.  "Wait here," he ordered, and ran out of the room.  He was back in moments.  "Which clock in Thomas’ office shows our time?" he asked.

"The one that says, ‘Los Angeles.’"

"Right, I knew that.  I just wanted to make sure.”  Brad ran back out again, returning a few minutes later and sinking into a chair with a relieved sigh.  “OK, I really am early."

Stephen sat beside him.  "Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why the sudden concern with punctuality?"

"Oh!  Well… this is an important decision for the company and I wanted to make sure that we made it in a… timely manner.  We can’t keep treating this company like our own personal party boat, you know.  We need to be responsible with our investors’ funds.  It’s time to get serious and start acting like grown-ups, or at least businessmen…” he trailed off.

Stephen waited expectantly, but nothing more was forthcoming.  He hazarded a guess, "Rod called you, didn’t he?"

Brad let out an exasperated sound, half sigh, half groan.  "Yes."  He refused to meet Stephen’s eyes.

Stephen continued, "And he told you all of those things?  About being responsible and acting like grown-ups?"

"I added the bit about the party boat," muttered Brad.

"Oh, that was a nice image."

"Thanks."

They sat in silence for a few moments.  Stephen hesitated before observing, "I’m surprised that Rod would have such an effect on you.  You’re one of the company founders, after all, and you don’t strike me as someone who acknowledges authority easily…."  Now it was his turn to trail off, as Brad sat slumped in his chair, staring at the wall.  Finally, Brad spoke.

"He sounds like my dad."

"Ah," said Stephen, as though that explained everything.  And as he thought about it, he realized that it did.  He sniffed the air experimentally before deciding that was a bad idea.  "You know, I think they have a shower somewhere in the building."

Brad sat up again.  "Do you think I have time to shower before the meeting?"

"I wish you would."

Brad slapped his knees and stood up.  "Good idea.  My head will be much clearer if I get cleaned up and change my clothes."

Mine, too, Stephen thought.  "See you back here in a little while, then.  You can leave the door open when you go.  I need some fresh air."

***

Stephen was still trying to freshen the air in the conference room when the rest of his team began straggling in.

 "Why are you waving your notebook around like that?" David asked as he entered.  He sniffed and wrinkled his nose.  "Whew!  This room smells like that van you rented last time we were here!  You were not smoking -- what was it? -- pot in here, were you?"

Behind David, Ricky noted, "The pressure’s on us today, not you, so if you’re going to start relaxing before the presentation, the least you could do is share."  He tested the air.  "Smells like some expensive stuff, too.  Where did you score it?"

Stephen scowled at both of them.  "I didn’t score anything other than a contact high off of Brad.  He slept here last night to make sure he didn’t miss the design presentation.  I sent him off to shower twenty minutes ago and it still stinks in here.  I tried opening both doors, but there’s no cross breeze to move the air.  Help me wave it out, would you?  I’m getting a headache."

Shrugging, David unwound his scarf and began spinning it like a propeller, trying to push the air out of one door.  Ricky grabbed the other door by the handle and began opening and closing it quickly in an attempt to create more of a breeze.  Stephen returned to waving his notebook in wide arcs in the middle of the room.  The three of them were still at it when Frank, Stu, Mark, and Kelvin arrived.

"I knew it was only a matter of time before he started forcing us to do morning calisthenics," said Frank.  "Interesting program you have going here, Stephen.  Did you read about this in one of your project management magazines?"

"I’m a yoga man, myself," observed Stu, "but whatever it takes to get the blood moving, I suppose."  He sniffed.  "Whoa!  Did someone sacrifice a yak in here?"

Stephen glared at them.  "Just go see if you can find a fan or some air freshener or something, would you?"

The four engineers reversed direction and scattered into the hallway.  As they walked off, Stephen heard Mark explaining to Kelvin, "I’m not saying he actually had hookers in there, but the last time I smelled something like that was at the end of my uncle’s week-long bachelor party in New Orleans.  We were only supposed to go for the weekend, of course, but it took us the rest of the week to find him.  By then he was in Macon, and we still have no idea when he lost his pants or why they let him on the train without them…."  His voice faded as they rounded a corner.

Stephen glared at David and Ricky.  "Keep fanning."

Twenty minutes later, the smell had dissipated enough for everyone to sit down and work as long as both doors were kept open for ventilation.  David and Ricky were making final tweaks to their graphics on one end of the room while Kelvin and Frank argued quietly but intensely on the other.  Stu and Mark sat in the middle, their eyes riveted to their laptop screens, though it was unclear whether they were actually working or simply trying to avoid being drawn into the fray.  Returning from a preparatory meeting with Thomas and Craig, Stephen reviewed the situation and decided to step in before Frank and Kelvin came to blows.

"Setting ground rules for the bakeoff finale?" he asked, pulling up a chair next to Frank.

"It seems clear to me," replied Kelvin, "that the only way to settle this is by a jury of our peers.  In other words, the CouldBU engineers.  The business people" -- astonishing how someone so generally bereft of emotion could pour such scorn into two words -- "lack the expertise or inclination to appreciate my technical architecture, so it’s hardly fair to allow them to judge."

"Normally, I would agree with him," said Frank, taking his case directly to Stephen.  "But the whole reason that I built a prototype was because these guys are incapable of conceptualizing anything more complicated than lunch.  If we show it to the engineers they’ll just start trying to break it and then decide that Kelvin’s elegant architecture is the better way to go, regardless of whether it has the right features or not."

"That still doesn’t address -- wait, you really think it’s elegant?" Kelvin asked.

"Of course it is!  You never design anything that’s less than perfect.  Conceptually, at least."

"Well… thank you," said Kelvin, looking both pleased and surprised.

"That doesn’t mean we can build it."

Kelvin drew breath to start the argument over again, but Stephen raised a hand to cut him off.  "Let’s do this:  we’ll start with the visual designs and see how that goes, then decide whether to bring in the prototype."  Now Frank began to object, but Stephen kept going.  "I’m not saying we won’t use it, but frankly, I’m a little nervous about showing it to the execs.  They might think we’re almost done, which would make the next several months hard to explain.  If we do show it to them, we can use it to get them talking about what else the site needs to do, and then we’ll let the CouldBU engineers decide if Kelvin’s technical plans can accommodate everything.  We’ll all decide who won."

"What if we can’t?" asked Kelvin and Frank simultaneously.

"Then we’ll call it a tie and the two of you can argue forever over who the real winner was. I suspect you might be happier that way, anyway."  Stephen gave the two of them a moment to mull it over.  "Fair enough?"

"I suppose," muttered Kelvin.

"Like we have a choice," grumbled Frank.

"Great, everybody’s happy, then!"  Stephen smiled and stuck out a fist to each of them.  "Knuckles."  Sullenly, they both rapped their knuckles lightly against his and then each other’s.

With a gentle rap on the door, Timothy entered.  "Everyone’s gathering in the big conference room," he said.  He paused and sniffed.  "Oh, good, Brad’s already here.  I was afraid we’d have to hunt him down again."  He turned and walked out.

Stephen checked his watch and stood up.  "Let’s go, everyone.  It’s show time."

As they walked through the halls, Stu pulled him aside, slowing so that the others could pass.  "Stephen, are you expecting us to speak at this presentation?"

"Probably, but only to walk through the prototype you built.  Why?"

Stu cleared his throat. "Oh," he said hoarsely, "well, I’ll do my best."

"What’s the problem?  Are you feeling sick?"  Stephen drew back involuntarily.  Ever since the baby was born, Jenny had him paranoid about bringing home a virus.  “Should you go back to the hotel?”

Stu cleared his throat and gave a little cough before he spoke again.  "No, it’s not that.  I feel fine.  Well, mostly.  It’s just, well, I hate speaking in front of people, and whenever I get really nervous I lose my voice."  His voice was raspy now.  "But I’ll be fine, I’m sure.  Frank can do most of the talking."

"That’ll go well, I’m sure," Stephen muttered.  "Don’t tell Frank, but -- "

"Don’t tell Frank what?" came Frank’s voice from down the hall.

"Nothing, Frank!"  Stephen turned back to Stu.  "I was kind of hoping that you could be the voice of reason if anyone questioned the prototype.  Frank tends to take those kinds of comments personally."

"I heard that!" yelled Frank from around the corner.  "And I do not!"

"Frank, stop yelling!" Stephen yelled.  "Just keep walking!"

"We’re already here!" yelled Frank as Stu and Stephen rounded the corner and found themselves facing the closed conference room door.  Frank continued speaking at a more normal volume.  "How much further did you want to go?"

"That’s far enough," Stephen replied through gritted teeth.  He ran his hand through his hair and drew a calming breath.  "Client faces—ah, screw it."  He reached past Frank and yanked the door open, pasting a smile on his face as he entered.

Their clients had opted for formal seating today, lining one side of the huge cherry conference table and leaving the other side for the ADD team.  Robert and a freshly scrubbed Brad sat in the middle, so Stephen took the seat opposite them.  Ricky and David walked to the end of the room and began fiddling with the room’s complex theater system, while the remainder of the ADD team ranged out on either side of Stephen.

Looking across the table as he settled into his seat, Stephen thought, Why were we so worried about presenting our work to these guys?  As he watched, Brad reached into his pocket and opened a packet of Alka-Seltzer.  Looking around and not seeing any water close at hand, he shrugged, popped a tablet into his mouth, and began chewing.  Oh, that’s right:  because they’re crazy.

After a few more minutes of fiddling -- both aided and hindered by Thomas -- David and Ricky finally managed to bring the gigantic flat-panel screen to life.  Several more minutes of muttering and random button-pressing on the dinner plate-sized multi-function remote stilled the vaguely ominous hissing coming from the concert-sized speakers on either side.  There would be no sound element to this presentation:  though Ricky had wanted something from the Rocky film series, David maintained that his voice was all the music a client’s ears needed.  Ready at last, they both turned to their chattering audience and waited expectantly for the conversation to die down.  It did not.  Delicately, David cleared his throat.  The conversations continued.  He looked imploringly at Stephen.

The Prima Donna mustn’t strain her voice calling for attention, apparently, thought Stephen wryly.  Placing his hands on the table, he rose and spoke through the hubbub.  "I think we’re ready to begin, everyone.  David and Ricky will present their ideas to you first, and then we will see a prototype that Stu and Frank—" a loud squeak interrupted him as Stu tried vainly to clear his throat.  Stephen glanced over to make sure that Stu was all right before continuin, "—have put together to illustrate some of the features of the new site.  I suspect that Frank will do most of the talking for that."

Thomas looked around.  "Hey, where’s Dan?  We can’t start without him."

A loud rustling erupted from the speakers in the front of the room.  Ricky leaped back and reached for the remote, seeking an emergency kill switch.  He stopped his frantic fumbling when Dan’s head emerged from behind the left speaker.

"I’m here," called Dan’s head, but it was several more minutes before the rest of Dan followed:  he appeared to be partially mummified by cables.  When he finally emerged, Stephen noted that the hair on one side of his head was flattened and that his face on that side was creased by irregular lines.  "I was, um, checking the cables to make sure that the sound was ready for the presentation," he said, scrubbing his hands through his hair in a hurried attempt to straighten it.  "Are we ready to achieve signoff?"

"For those who haven’t met him yet, this is Dan, our motivational consultant," said Thomas.  "Dan, this is Frank, and that’s Stu.  I think you know everyone else."

Dan lunged across the table to shake Stu’s hand with both of his, then went for Frank.  "A pleasure to meet you, Stewie.  You too, Franko."

"Just Stu, please," Stu whispered, just as Frank rather forcefully replied, "Frank."

"Whoa, sorry, guys!  Didn’t mean to step on anyone’s tootsies, just trying to keep things friendly.  We all have little nicknames for each other here.  Everyone calls me Dan the Man."

"No we don’t," Craig called from the other side of the room.

Dan ignored him and continued, gesturing at Stephen "Stevie Nicks, here, and I have been working closely together to keep this train from going off the tracks.  The last thing we need at this juncture is to have to circle back, retrace our steps, and circle the wagons."  He yawned, "I just don’t have the bandwidth for it."

"That’s why we pay him the big bucks, I suppose," commented Robert.  "Now that we’re all here, though, can we get started?  Rod, are you ready?"  He waited.  "Rod?"

The speakerphone in the middle of the table popped loudly and Rod’s voice boomed out of it.  "Sorry, had you boys on mute."  He sounded like he was speaking from the inside of a wind tunnel.  "There a lot of noise on the plane here, but I think I’ll be able to make it out as long as you speak up.  Oh, thank you darling."  There was a clinking sound.  "Sorry, dinner just arrived.  Go ahead."

Kelvin looked at Stephen and mouthed, "Dinner?"  Stephen shrugged.  He looked to Robert and Thomas for permission, then spoke.  "OK, then, let’s begin.  David, take it away."

"Thank you, Stephen," David gave a little bow, tossed his scarf over his shoulder, and launched into his spiel, his French accent thickening as the passion of the moment took him.  "As you all know, we have worked with you to capture the spirit, the essence of what it means when someone says, ‘Could be you.’  We have striven to illuminate the dynamism of hope, the illusory nature of fame, the beauty of a dream.  We want your customers to take you as their partners in making their dreams come true, for a small monthly subscription.  In the pages that I will show you, we have tried to gather those dreams and make them a reality…."

David continued speaking, but Stephen was no longer listening.  He had heard the presentation many times before.  The words were different, but the essence was always the same:  as long as everyone agreed with David’s ideas, no one would get hurt.  He knew that David would continue for some time, so he took the opportunity, as he always did during meetings that weren’t his, to gauge the reactions of the other players.  Keeping an attentive expression on his face, he let his gaze slide down the table, scanning each face in turn.  Timothy had stopped drawing and was staring raptly at David, occasionally mouthing a particularly choice phrase as though trying to memorize it.  Craig and Greg both looked bored, clearly ready to get to the prototype, or possibly lunch.  Robert and Brad were listening closely, as though this were a pitch for an especially enticing summer blockbuster to which they had first rights of refusal.  Brad had flecks of foam at the corner of his mouth from the Alka-Seltzer.  Thomas divided his attention equally between David, Robert, and the speakerphone, chewing a thumbnail thoughtfully as he listened.

A couple of empty seats away from Thomas, Connie sat whispering to her assistant, supposedly telling her what notes to take.  When she saw Stephen looking at her, she winked lasciviously.  Stephen snapped his eyes back to the front of the room, while the two women laughed behind their notepads.  Frank glanced over his shoulder at them before directing a glare at Stephen.

David had reached his first visual design:  a mockup of the home page.  The wall behind him came to life as the page appeared behind him, and he turned with a flourish to gaze upon his handiwork writ large.  So large, in fact, that it took everyone in the room a few moments to take it all in.

The center of the page was text, theoretically describing the service that CouldBU provided, though David and Ricky had not bothered to write any real marketing copy.  That was for others more talented in the unique hybrid language of marketspeak, a perverse blend of English, jargon, and half-truths with which they would not sully their creative minds.  For now, they had used the designer’s shorthand:  "greeked text."  The same phrase, beginning, "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…" repeated throughout the page wherever Ricky had not felt like inserting or making up real copy, showing how and where the text would appear.  Not for the first time, Stephen was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu when he saw this pseudo-language:  he felt that he could almost extract a meaning from the nonsensical phrases, as though Hephaestus, the Greek god of technology, had encrypted a special message for any disciple tenacious enough to decode it.

The central text section was surmounted by simple block letters that formed the company name:  CouldBU!  On either side, running the full height of the page, were images of two women, a blonde and a brunette (of course).  Both were dressed somewhere in between showgirl and spokesmodel, shading toward a look that Stephen could only define as "saucy conservative," or perhaps "business come-hither."  On the left side of the screen, the blonde was leaping into the air and exhibiting the kind of unreasoning exuberance usually reserved for cheerleaders and people on television who have discovered a new hygiene product.  On the right, the brunette stood, hips cocked to the side, pointing meaningfully at the viewer with a smile on her face.  Looking at her, one could almost hear her call, "I want you to rescue me from my dull life as a model and whisk me away to an exotic location where I can finally live out my fantasy of being a French maid with a behavioral problem who needs constant discipline from her employer."  At least, that was what Stephen heard, but looking around the room he was pretty sure that everyone else heard a similar siren song.

David waited, hands clasped before him, allowing everyone to soak in his reflected glory for a few seconds before speaking.  Frankly, Stephen was surprised that he appeared to be so proud of this design.  It was far more commercial than most of the other things that David had done:  he was usually called in to design sites for museums, theatres, the odd clothing boutique, and other institutions that shared his artistic sensibilities.  The only possible explanation was that he found this whole experience deliciously ironic and had decided to abandon himself to the moment.

After several minutes of contemplative silence, Brad spoke.  "Do they, uh, move?" he asked hesitantly, looking at the speakerphone as though for permission before he did so.

"Move?"  David gazed at him narrowly.

"Yeah, you know, dance around or, um, unbutton anything?  The girls on the sites that I’ve, um, seen moved around.  Can ours do that?"

"No, they do not move," David answered, investing the final word with all the continental scorn that the French portion of his blood could muster.  Brad sat back with a disappointed sigh, still gazing at the images.

"And what’s with all the words?" asked Robert.  "What is that, French or something?"

"No, that’s greeked text," replied Ricky after a moment, while David continued to stare at Brad in disbelief.  "We just use that as a placeholder in the designs, so you can see where the text will go without being distracted by English words.  It doesn’t mean anything."

"That’s a relief!  For a second there, I thought that all the drugs had finally caught up with me!  So what’s it mean?"

"It doesn’t mean anything," Ricky repeated slowly.  "It’s gibberish."

"I thought you said it was Greek."

"Looks more like Latin to me," Greg chimed in.  "Are we expecting a big turnout from the Vatican?"

"It’s pseudo-Latin.  We use this phrase because it has roughly the same word length and occurrence of letters as in English, but it doesn’t mean anything.  That way, you can just get a feel for how the text looks.  Do you like the font?"

"These girls aren’t hot enough," interrupted Brad, still staring at the screen.  "I mean, they’re OK, but they don’t make me want to give someone my money.  We need hotter girls."

"These are just stock images—" Ricky began, but David cut him off.

"I spent some time choosing these images to present the exact right essence," he said, then reached for his satchel and pulled out a notebook.  "You told me, ‘Sexy like Cindy Crawford.’  There you are."  He gestured to the screen with his notebook, then flipped it closed with finality.

Brad scratched his chin.  "Yeah, but when I said that, I meant Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Cindy, not disturbingly hot mom Cindy."

"You also said, ‘Madonna and child peaceful,’" continued David.

"Right, and I sent you that picture from the Enquirer of her doing yoga while she breastfed her kid.  What could be hotter than that?"

Robert spoke up for the first time.  "Whoa, where’s all this mom imagery coming from?  That is not at all what we’re going for.  We want to draw people in, not creep them out."

"’Creep them out?’"  David was nearly quivering now with injured affront.  "There is nothing creepy about mothers!  They are the fount of all desire, the source of true affection!  Freud knew this!  What man does not wish to crawl back to the womb, to return to the source of his life and suckle again at the teat of motherly love?"

Brad sat back and waved his hands in front of him as though trying to swipe the imagery out of the air. "Hey!  That is definitely not what we were going for."  He turned to Robert.  "Was it?"

The speakerphone erupted as Rod roared, "Did somebody just say tit?  You can’t say that with ladies present!"

"Maybe we should move on to the next page," Stephen suggested.

"No, I want to know who’s talking about tits!" insisted Rod.  "And there had better be a cow up there on that screen, or we’re going to be having a long talk about proper etiquette.  Do you kiss your mama with that mouth, boy?"

"Ugh, can we stop talking about our mothers now, please?" said Craig.  "I get enough of this when I go home for the holidays."

"At least my mom doesn’t kiss guests on the mouth," said Greg with a shudder.

"That was Dad," corrected Craig.

"Oh, right.  When he wears the wig I have trouble keeping them straight."

"Well, he was just trying to make you feel welcome," answered Craig defensively.  "I thought it was very thoughtful of him."

"Then what were the fishnet stockings for?" asked Greg.

"Yeah, that was weird.  They didn’t even go with the mini-skirt."

"OK!  Can we go to the next page, please!" Stephen shouted.

With a glare over his shoulder at Brad, David pressed a button and advanced to the next slide.  As he slipped back into the presentation, he grew visibly calmer.  "Here we have a secondary page.  As you can see, I have carried over the green and pink color scheme to convey the sense of excitement, but I have muted the graphics.  We want people to be excited, but we want them to realize that we are serious about their career prospects.  We will use these pages for each section devoted to a specific discipline.  This one, as you can see from the background image, is for singers.  Each area will have its own color scheme and iconography.  We want people to always know where their home is."

"Question," Robert broke in.  "Can you change the mouse thingy whenever they change areas?"

"The mouse thingy?" asked David, puzzled.  "What is this… thingy?"

"You know, the arrow thing that you click on stuff with.  Can you change that?" asked Robert.

"The pointer?"  David wiggled the arrow on the screen for emphasis.  "You want us to change it?"

"Right, the pointer," Robert laughed.  "I love this technical lingo.  Can you turn the ‘pointer,’" here he made air quotes with his fingers to emphasize the new term, "into something different for every area?  You know, like a microphone for singers, a clapper for actors, maybe a little typewriter for writers.  I think the kids would love that."

"A… typewriter?  How do you point with a typewriter?" David asked.

"I don’t know!  You’re the technical guys; you figure it out!  Can you do it or not?"

David looked at the engineers for help.  Stu opened his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out, so he just shrugged.  Frank was staring at Robert in open disbelief, mercifully silent.  Kelvin considered the idea thoughtfully for several more moments than it deserved, then said, "Yes, I think we could do that.  I don’t know how we would get the new pointers onto users’ computers, but I could probably develop some sort of stealth installation tool that put them there without openly notifying the user of its actions."

"You mean, like a virus?" asked Stephen.

"No, not exactly.  More like a benign helper protocol."

"No, more like an adware virus," Frank argued.  "You can’t send another one of those into the ecosystem.  The next thing we know, hackers will be using it as a back door to get people’s medical histories!"

Kelvin turned toward Frank and answered him coolly.  "I didn’t say I would do it, just that we could.  As an academic exercise, it is an interesting problem but not one that I would implement without serious thought as to the ramifications.  Unlike some others—"

Here Stephen cut him off, sensing a techno-religious debate in the making.  "We’ll look at it and see what we can do.  Shall we continue?"

David began to speak, but was cut off when the speakerphone came to life again.

"Listen, boys, I think we’ve seen all we need to see right now," Rod said.

"Have you, um, seen anything?" Stephen asked.

"I haven’t seen the screens, but I don’t need to.  My years at the helm have given me a fine sense of team dynamics, and it’s clear to me that you boys from ADD and our team aren’t reading from the same sheet of music.  Hell, I’m not even sure if you both have the same book!  It’s like we’re asking for Beethoven and all you have is jazz or that ragtime crap.  It’s clear to me that we need to regroup and figure out what to do next, so let’s not waste our time looking at any more pictures."

Stephen was stunned.  "So, what does that mean?  Should we keep working on these designs, start all over, or what?"

"I don’t know.  I need to talk to Robbie and Brad, maybe confer with a couple of my other colleagues in the industry, and see what we should do next.  For now, you just sit tight and we’ll get back to you."

A sick feeling had begun to grow in the pit of Stephen’s stomach.  He ran his hands roughly through his hair as he asked, "Do you want to see the prototype, then?  We have some of the main features ready to demonstrate.  They’re not done, of course—"

"No, don’t bother.  I trust your technical sense more than your artistic sense.  That one with the calm voice, he sounds like he knows what he’s doing.  If he chose the features, I’m sure they’ll be fine.  You just keep working on that, and we’ll review it later.  Just don’t make any more pictures!"
Kelvin smiled slightly at that, but then frowned when he saw that Frank was smiling too.  He looked at Frank and pointed to himself, as though to say, he was talking about me.  David, on the other hand, looked as though he might burst into a steaming hissy fit at any moment.  He toyed with the end of his scarf as though unsure whether to stick it in his mouth and chew on it or throw it over his shoulder and storm gloriously out of the room.  For the moment, he chose neither.

Rod continued, "Robbie, they’re about to clear the food away here, so I’ll call you in your office in… three minutes.  That should give you just enough time to hustle down there from the conference room.  Go!"  With a loud click, the phone went dead.

Robert looked around the room sadly, opened his mouth as though to apologize for the unfortunate turn of events, shrugged instead, and hurried from the room looking at his watch.  He had two minutes and fifty seconds left.

David watched Robert go, then announced, "David must smoke," and followed him, throwing one last glare at the speakerphone as he slammed the door behind him.

Brad slumped in his chair and fished out another packet of Alka Seltzer, which he proffered to Stephen.  "Want one?"

Stephen took it, opened the packet, and popped the tablet into his mouth.  "Thanks," he fizzed.


Continue to Chapter 13

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 11

It's been a while but I'm back with another chapter.  If you want to catch up, there's a handle table of contents available to help.  On we go with the further adventures of our intrepid Bostonians in La-La Land….

Chapter 11


"Are you coming, Frank?"  Stephen looked back over his shoulder and saw Frank gazing thoughtfully into the sky.  "You’re going to fry your retinas if you keep looking at the sun like that, shades or no shades."

"Hmm?  Oh yeah, I’m coming.  I was just contemplating some upgrades."

"To what?"

"My wearable computer.  Don’t worry about it; it won’t take time away from work."

"It’s not the work time I’m worried about.  It’s the time in the hospital that always gets us."  Stephen held the door for Frank and waved him through.

Frank made a face as he went by.  "Ha, ha, and ha.  You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?"

"Nope."

The ADD team walked through the building together.  Stephen and the others who had been there the previous month wove through the maze of hallways with practiced precision, but Mark and Frank were lost within moments.  Frank, in particular began speculating on whether he should bring a piece of chalk with him the next day to mark his path, and whether he could memorize key routes before the cleaning crew wiped his marks off the walls.  Stu said nothing:  he was busy counting left and right turns.

They bypassed the main entrance and went directly to Thomas’ office, but he wasn’t there.  Connie and her assistant were, though, and looked up as they all trooped in.  Connie started to greet them, but stopped short when she saw Frank.

"Oh, you poor, poor thing!" she cried, her hair a green blur as she rushed toward him and leaped up to grab him in a fierce embrace.  "Such pain!  I’ve never seen such anguish and self-hatred in one man before!"  Frank did his best to brace himself against the onslaught, but was driven back through the doorway nonetheless, fetching up against the opposite side of the hall.  Connie had gotten a good running start and some height on her jump, so she had his head in her arms and his face in her chest before he could even speak.  As gravity regained supremacy over empathy, she returned slowly to the ground, until Frank was bent nearly double, his muffled attempts to speak emanating from the general area of Connie’s breasts.

"Hmmf me mep?"

Mark leaned in to tap Connie on the shoulder.  "I think he’s smothering."  Connie’s assistant giggled.

Connie held on still, but loosened her embrace enough that Frank could at least turn his head sideways and get some air.  His face was flushed, but whether from embarrassment or lack of air was unclear.  "Have we met?" he asked again.

"I don’t have to know your life story to read that flashing ambulance light you call an aura," Connie replied, squeezing his neck again.  "The last time I saw someone in this kind of shape, he’d been dead for three weeks."  She glanced over her shoulder at the others.  "Don’t ask."  Returning to Frank, she continued, "You’re worse.  How come you haven’t killed yourself yet?"

"Um, I don’t know, the hope that the Sox can win another Series?"  Frank slid both hands between his neck and Connie’s arms and tried to break her grip.  "You’re stronger than you look, you know that?  Would you mind if I stood back up now?"

Connie released him and stepped back, primly smoothing the meager material of her skirt.  "So are you, to bear up under that mountain of pain.  If you ever want to talk, I’m here."  Her assistant, chewing on her pen and eyeing Frank, giggled again.

"Thanks, I’ll… keep that in mind."  Frank stood, rubbing his neck and glancing sideways at the others, who were all grinning back at him. "Were we supposed to meet someone here, or what?  I’d like to get to work, if I may."  His eyes silently apologized to Stephen for every crack he had ever made about his family, his managerial skills, his intelligence, or his looks, and begged for help.  Stephen considered letting his simmer for a bit, but decided he had suffered enough.

"Agreed.  Connie, is Thomas around?"

"He should be back at any moment.  We just had our weekly all-hands meeting and he stayed behind to talk to the new guy."

"The new CEO?  What’s his name again?"

"Rod.  Rod White.  I hear he’s a decent guy, once you get to know him."

"So you haven’t gotten a read on him yet?" Stephen asked, waving his hands as though feeling the air around Connie.  "No spiritual soundings?"

"To do that, I would need to actually see someone."

"I thought you just said -- " Stephen’s question was interrupted by Thomas and Greg’s bustling arrival.  They looked distinctly unhappier than when Stephen had seen them last.

"Oh good, you’re here.  Rod was asking about you," said Thomas.  "He wanted to know whether our consultants were always late or if it was just the expensive ones.  That reminds me:  where’s Dan?  He was right behind me at the meeting."

"Right here!"  Dan poked his head into the room and grinned toothily when he saw the crowd inside.  "You guys made it!  Great!  I can’t wait to get your take on the new head honcho."  He gave Stephen what was probably meant to be a subtly meaningful look.  "Let’s synch up for a brain dump later and strategize our next steps."

Thomas and Greg’s simultaneous eye rolls would have done Busby Berkeley proud.  "Where did you disappear to?" asked Greg with unconcealed irritation.

"I wanted to type up the meeting minutes while they were fresh in my head.  Here you go."  Dan handed Greg a sheaf of paper.

"That was fast," Greg was impressed in spite of himself.  As both a coder and registered network administration guru, he was honor-bound to recognize speed on the keyboard, even in an annoying consultant drone.  Still, he handed the papers to Thomas quickly in case stupidity really was contagious.

"That’s not all just from today.  I also printed out all of the minutes and agendae from all of our meetings over the past three weeks in case Stephen wanted to catch up.  I know that we emailed them all to you already, but it never hurts to have a hard-copy backup just in case."  He gave the room a two-gun salute with both thumbs and forefingers.  "Gotta run, hombres.  We’ll catch up offline, Steve-o."  Blowing the "smoke" from both fingertips, he backed out the door and was gone.

"I hate that guy," said Frank, "and I just met him.  That’s a new record even for me."

"Don’t worry, Frank," said Kelvin.  "You won’t see much of him.  He has a crush on Stephen, and real engineers seem to scare him.  If he tries to talk to you, just look at him as though you don’t understand a word he’s saying and he’ll go away after five or ten minutes."

"Thanks for the advice," Frank said, rubbing the back of his neck absentmindedly.  "I’ll try that if I have to.  Better to just keep him away from me, though."  He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Connie.  "I’d hate to have to kill him and have one more thing weighing on my aura."

After riffling through the pages Dan had left, Thomas handed them to Stephen.  "Well, as I started to say, we should get you in to meet Rod as soon as we can.  We don’t want to keep him waiting."
"Has you hopping already, does he?" commented Stephen, setting the papers down on Connie’s desk.  Connie took one look at them before handing them to her assistant, who added them to the top of a tall stack on the corner of her desk.

Thomas puffed up his chest until it was nearly even with his stomach.  "I am not ‘hopping.’  I am trying to be respectful of a colleague’s time."  He deflated a little.  "Still, I’d rather not keep him waiting.  Can we go now?"

"Sure, just let me put my stuff down in my office.  Is it the same one as last time?"

Thomas grimaced apologetically.  "No, we put the HR department in there last week.  You guys will all need to share the small conference room.  We’re trying to negotiate for more space, but we have to wait until the computer animation company next door finishes the post-production on their film and releases all of their contractors.  They’re already two months late, so we hope they’ll be done any time."

"The good news is that we get to scavenge any computers they leave behind," added Greg.  "Plus any cute contractors."  He nudged Connie’s assistant, who giggled.

Thomas rolled his eyes again.  "Keep it up and I’ll tell Craig about the mysterious man in black you’ve been sharing cigarette breaks with.  Come on, Stephen, let’s go."

They walked back through the halls to the front entrance, waved to the receptionist in her oaken redoubt, and continued on through the double glass doors behind her.  Behind the "large" conference room, now filled with the detritus of several days’ worth of all-hands meetings, was an extra-wide hallway with three sets of double doors.  These executive suites were reserved for Robert, Brad, and storage, in that order.  Stephen had never seen the inside of them, since Robert was so rarely in the office physically and Stephen was afraid to see what Brad had done to his.  The third office, until recently, had stored excess art that Brad had purchased from attractive gallery owners, miscellaneous furniture, and Robert’s collection of memorabilia from stars he had represented in his agent days.  Some of the souvenirs -- several embroidered crew jackets, two prop flintlock rifles, and a Styrofoam head with a toupee on it -- were sitting in the hall now.  The rest, Stephen presumed, had been moved back into Robert and Brad’s offices, or else sold on eBay.

As they approached the open doorway, Stephen looked in to see a huge cherry-wood desk on the other side of a wide expanse of deep carpet.  Behind it was a tall chair, apparently empty.  He felt a brief pang of relief.  "Looks like he’s not here.  Oh well, maybe we can catch him later.  If you need me, I’ll just be resting my eyes in the conference room."  He turned to go.

"Hello?  Is someone there?" a voice called from the direction of the desk.

Oh God, no.  Stephen grabbed Thomas by the elbow and dragged him back out of the office, pulling the door shut behind them.  "He’s not a pygmy or anything, is he?"

Thomas gave him a puzzled look.  "Why, would that matter?"

"It’s just -- " Stephen paused, then finished in a rush, "Extremely short people freak me out a little bit.  It’s their hands.  They’re just so… tiny."  He shuddered.

Thomas guffawed, then silenced himself, glancing back at the closed door.  "You’re kidding, right?"

"Listen, Mr. Never Goes Anywhere Without Wearing Socks, we all have our little phobias."  Stephen smiled at Thomas’ shocked look.  "Timothy was mad at you one day at lunch," he explained.

"That passive-aggressive little weasel," Thomas muttered. "Anyway, bare feet are unsanitary.  And they look disgusting!  The toes, they’re like little stubby fingers.  It’s nauseating!"

"So you can understand my feelings about the little hands," Stephen nodded.

A muffled voice called from the office.  "I need to run in a couple of minutes, so if you two are done whispering in the hall, can we get this started?"

Stephen looked imploringly at Thomas, who smiled and whispered, "Don’t worry, he’s not a pygmy.  At least, not as far as I know."

"What does that mean?" Stephen hissed.

Thomas grinned, "You’ll see."  He strode quickly into the office, shaking his elbow free of Stephen’s attempted grab.  "Sorry about that, Rod, we just had to deal with a couple of minor issues.  We’re here now."

"Fantastic," said the voice.  "Stephen, it’s a pleasure to meet you.  How was your flight?"

"Um, fine," Stephen replied, approaching the desk slowly and trying to locate the source of the voice, "it makes for a long day, though, flying against the earth’s rotation."

"I can sympathize," Rod’s disembodied voice replied cheerfully.  He spoke with a slight twang, Stephen noticed, though in his befuddled state he could place the accent no more easily than he could the speaker himself.  "I cover so many time zones every week, I can never tell what time it is or what time it’s supposed to be.  I finally decided to just keep Mountain Standard Time all the time, no matter where I was.  It was the only way I could get a decent night’s sleep.  It’s a little hard on my Asian colleagues, but they don’t seem to mind too much.  Or maybe they’re just too polite to say anything.  Frankly, I don’t really care.  If they want to get up in the middle of the night to meet with a crazy white man, that’s their problem.  So, how is the product that will determine the success or failure of our company coming along?"

This speech was long enough for Stephen to subtly triangulate Rod’s position in the room by pacing quietly back and forth in front of the gigantic desk, ducking occasionally to gauge both height and distance.  He narrowed it down to a spot about three feet above the desk, just behind the high-backed leather chair.  Glancing quizzically at Thomas -- who was cheerfully unhelpful -- he walked slowly around the desk as he responded.

"I think we’re really starting to get some traction, sir.  We had some, er, trouble nailing down the creative vision for the site, but I’m hopeful that our latest designs will cover most of what we think Brad and Robert are looking for."  He was almost around the desk when Rod’s voice snapped out.

"Watch your step!"

Stephen yelped and jumped back with an absurd vision of his foot coming down on a tiny CEO.  Rod continued, "I don’t want you to trip on any wires.  This sound system was incredibly expensive."
Thomas laughed again and finally confessed, "I didn’t tell Stephen that you were on the phone, Rod.  He’s been trying to figure out where you were hiding."

"Haw!  That’s a good one, Tommy!" Rod guffawed.  Thomas’ lip curled at the nickname.  "Did you tell him that I was invisible or just too tiny to see?"

Now that he knew what to look for, Stephen spotted the two tiny speakers set in the wall above the chair that sent Rod’s voice into the room.  Looking around some more, he saw a microphone, which he had originally taken to be a gold pen, protruding from a stand on the desk.  Raising his voice, he spoke directly into the mike.

"Yes, you got me.  I guess when they told me that you wanted to meet me I assumed it would be in person."

"Ow!  No need to shout, boy!  I can hear you just fine.  The mics are incredibly sensitive.  I can hear a whisper anywhere in that office.  I can hear you move.  Hell, I can hear your hearts speed up when one of those pretty secretaries walks into the room."

"Well, that’s, er, comforting, sir.  I apologize for shouting, and I’ll try to keep my voice down in future teleconferences.  Out of curiosity, why don’t you use the video conference system in the main conference room for these meetings?"

"I don’t like those video things.  They’re too intrusive, too Orson Wellesian," replied Rod.  Thomas stifled a snort.  "Gesundheit.  Voice is good enough for me, thanks."

Stephen bit down hard on his tongue, then said, "I agree: video is no replacement for face-to-face.  Will you be here in the office any time this week so we can meet in person?"

"I doubt it.  You boys have things under control there, as far as I can tell, and I have some other pressing matters to attend to at my other companies.  I don’t think I’ll get there this week."

"Other companies?" Stephen queried.

"Sure!  You think this is the only fish I have to fry?"  Rod’s laugh boomed through the suite.  "Shoot, you’re barely even a mouthful right now!  I’m running at least three other companies your size, plus two more multinationals!  Don’t worry, though:  you’ll get all the strategic guidance you need from me.  I’m really a hands-on manager, in a distant sorta way."

Stephen rubbed his hands over his face, trying to scrub away the fatigue.  He couldn’t decide if this was better or worse than he’d expected.

"By the way, son, you might want to shave soon," Rod commented.  "If that scruff gets any louder, I’m going to ask you to sand my desk for me before I get in there.  Haw!  Just kidding.  I already had Tommy polish it up."

Stephen shot an incredulous look at Thomas, who shook his head fiercely and mouthed the words, "cleaning crew," but moved nothing else.  Apparently, he hadn’t known about the sensitivity of the microphones.  Stephen tried to get the conversation back on topic.  "So you’re the CEO of five companies simultaneously?"

"And on the board of directors for seven more!  Companies don’t need day-to-day management from their executives anymore.  All they need from someone like me is visionary leadership.  It’s up to you boys to take care of the details.  I’m big picture, you’re little picture, get it?  It’s all in my book.  There are some copies in the desk drawer, there.  Help yourself."

Stephen walked behind the desk and opened the top drawer.  Inside, he found several copies of a book with the title, If I Can Do it, Anyone Can.  On the front cover was a picture of a tall man with a thick head of steel-gray hair, wearing a leather bomber jacket and giving a thumbs-up gesture while standing at the top of several ladders.  Stephen opened the book and glanced at the title page.  It was signed:  To my favorite employee.  –Rod White.

"Well, at least I know what you look like now," Stephen observed.

"Oh, that’s not me," said Rod.  "That’s a model.  They tell me that he does a lot of the executive clothing catalogs."  In the distance, they heard what sounded like a horse whinnying.  "My 3:00 is here, boys, so we’ll need to wrap up.  Is there anything I can help you with right now?"

"As long as we can get approval for our designs and some confirmation that we’re on the right track, I think we’ll be in good shape.  Anything you can do to help us keep Brad and Robert focused long enough to do that would be great."

"I’ll see what I can do, boys.  In the meantime, you have my cell number if you need me.  Don’t be afraid to call anytime, day or night.  I won’t answer if it’s inconvenient, but don’t be afraid to try.  Take care."  A sudden silence filled the room as Rod disconnected.

Stephen looked at Thomas.  "Well, I think he’s going to be a great asset to the company."

***

That night, not even the prospect of watching Monday Night Football over dinner could tempt Stephen to go out.  Leaving the others in search of a sports bar, he puttered back to the hotel, levered himself out of his tiny car, and threw the keys to the waiting valet.  "Don’t let anyone park on top of it," he mumbled as he slowly dragged his carcass up the steps to the entrance.

It took three tries to unlock the door to his room because he was too tired to pull the card out of the lock and push down on the handle at the same time.  Finally, he made a desperate lunge for the handle, leaned against the door, and tumbled into the room.  Dropping his bag in the closet conveniently located just behind the door, he let his momentum carry him to the bed, where he collapsed face-first into the musty bedspread.  After a few minutes, it occurred to him that, since he hadn’t removed his shoes yet, that moldy cheese smell must be coming from the comforter.  Rolling off the bed with a groan, he yanked the bedspread off of the bed and dropped it on the floor, then resumed his prone position with his face buried in the much cleaner pillow.  Only then did he kick off his shoes and allow them to add their funk to the complex bouquet of the coverlet on the floor.  With a Herculean effort, he raised one arm, dug his cell phone out of his pocket, and propped it against one ear.

After waiting several minutes for his wife to answer his call, Stephen realized that he hadn’t dialed yet.  He waited several more minutes just to be sure before gathering the strength for a dialing attempt.

Jenny answered on the fourth ring.  "Hello?!?"  She sounded harried, and there was a sound like a siren behind her."

"Hey, Hon, I made it," Stephen said.  "How’s the baby?"

"Wonderful.  We’re all set for our audition for The Exorcist 3 tomorrow morning."

"Hmm?  Isn’t she a little young to act?"  Stephen wasn’t sure he had heard her clearly over the ringing in his ears.

"It was a joke, Stephen.  She’s been crying and projectile vomiting for the past hour."

"Oh, OK."  That made more sense.  "Wait, is that normal?"

"How should I know?  She’s never done this before.  Your mother is here, though, and she says it’s nothing to worry about," replied Jennifer, though she didn’t sound convinced.  "Not that she worries about anything," she added under her breath.

The siren sound grew louder and resolved into his daughter’s voice.  Over the crying, Stephen heard his mother shouting, "She’ll be fine, don’t worry!  Stephen did this until he was seven!  Kept his kindergarten teacher on her toes, let me tell you!  She just needs to work this gas out, and then she’ll sleep all night!  Don’t worry, Stephen, we’re doing great!"  The crying faded again as his mother took her granddaughter back out of the room and closed the door.

"So there you go:  we’re doing great," Jennifer repeated flatly.  "How are things in sunny LA?  Did you meet any bathing beauties on the way in from the airport?"

Danger!  The fight-or-flight response sent a shot of adrenalin through Stephen’s system, allowing him to sit up and think more clearly.  He laughed weakly.  "The only person in a bathing suit around here is Mark, and believe me, you don’t want to see that.  He can’t wait to swim laps tomorrow morning.  It’s part of his new weight-loss plan.  Personally, all I want to do is sleep for about twelve hours and see if I can make this headache go away."

"Sleep.  That would be nice."  Jennifer’s tone failed to convey her vicarious joy for Stephen’s plan.
Still not out of danger, Big Guy.  "Can you catch up, too?  Mom will be there tonight to help with Sarah, right?"

"She will, but unless she starts giving milk again, I’m still on call for feeding time.  Sarah’s refusing the bottle again."

"I’m sorry I can’t be there to help," Stephen said, and he meant it.  Mostly.  To assuage his guilt over that small twinge of relief, he added lamely, "You can call me tonight if you need to."

"I don’t know how that would help," snapped Jennifer, but then she relented.  "I’m sorry, Stephen.  This isn’t your fault, and I shouldn’t take it out on you.  I’m just tired, and post-partum, and there are hormones just sloshing out of me all over the place.  Wait, check that:  that’s just some baby puke that I missed.  Anyway, I’m sorry, and I’m glad that you’ll be able to sleep tonight.  One of us should be able to, at least."

"Thanks, Hon. You know I would rather be there with my girls, sleep or not, don’t you?  I hate missing a moment with either one of you."

"I know, but it doesn’t hurt for you to remind me once in a while.  Speaking of missing things, you missed your daughter’s first recital today."

"Excuse me?"  Stephen asked, baffled by the non sequitur.

"Sarah played the piano today.  This was before she started throwing up, of course.  I wouldn’t let her near it otherwise."

"She can’t even sit up.  How could she play the piano?"

"Well, I held her, of course!"  Jennifer replied, exasperated.  "She can hold her head up pretty well.  I held her in my lap, and she reached right for the keys.  She couldn’t really press them down that well, but the keys she hit were a close approximation of the second movement from Beethoven’s Ninth.  Or Mozart’s Requiem, I couldn’t be sure without hearing all of the notes.  Regardless, we clearly have a prodigy on our hands, and you missed it."  Stephen was pretty sure that he heard her stick out her tongue at him.

"I seem to miss a lot of those gifted moments when I’m on the road.  Maybe I should get a job that requires less travel.  Mom always wanted me to be an undertaker.  What do you think?"
Jennifer laughed.  "I hear it’s a steady business, and the clientele would certainly complain a lot less.  Maybe we should think about it.  I’ll ask your mother."

Stephen laughed, too, then quickly sobered.  "You know I was kidding right?  Don’t ask Mom."

"Promise to bring me a nice present."

Stephen smiled.  "I promise.  How about a new bathing suit?  I could ask Mark to help me pick it out."

"Perfect.  I prefer the big baggy trouser kind.  They hide my potbelly."

"I miss you, babe."

"I miss you, too.  Get some sleep, fella.  You have a big day tomorrow."

Stephen yawned.  "All right, I will.  You try to get some sleep too, and let Mom try the bottle.  She’s magic with that kind of thing."

"I will.  Goodnight."

"Goodnight, love."  Stephen hung up, lay back, and let the sweet darkness of sleep overwhelm him at last.




Continue to Chapter 12