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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Don't Poke the Bear

An experienced outdoorsman invites his friend to join him for a hike.  The friend has done very little hiking, so he's nervous about the experience.  As they start up the trail, he turns to his experienced friend and asks, "What do we do if we see a bear?"


His friend shrugs.  "If we see a bear?  We leave him alone.  He probably won't bother us if we don't get too close."

"But what if he comes after us?"

Another shrug.  "If he comes after us, we'll back away slowly."

The greenhorn still isn't satisfied.  He stops walking and asks, "But what if he charges?"

The hiker sighs.  "If he charges, we run."

"We run?  That's it?  That's your big plan: we run?  Why aren't you more worried about this?  Don't tell me you think you're faster than a bear."

The hiker smiles and starts walking up the trail again.  "I'm not worried because I don't have to be faster than a bear.  I just have to be faster than you."

***

We have a saying in our office: "Don't poke the bear."  It means that once you finally put a contentious decision to rest, there's no point in bringing it up again.  It only brings pain.  But some people just can't let the bear sleep.  They have to poke it, to bring up old problems that were solved years ago, to worry about new problems that haven't arrived yet.  But they could.  They could.  These people believe that their value to the team comes from their ability to see risks clearly, to pay attention to the unpleasantness that no one else wants to see.  In some ways, they see themselves as heroes, bravely dealing with the messy problems that everyone else is afraid of.  They're gonna march right into that cranky old bear's den, doggone it, and they are going to poke it.  Because if they don't, who will? 

There's another saying: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

Sometimes, it's OK to just let the bear sleep.  Some problems aren't meant to be solved, and some solutions, even if they aren't perfect, are good enough.  Perfection is hard, and it costs a lot.  Good enough, on the other hand, is usually quite achievable.  And interestingly, those fringe scenarios that we worry about, those 1-in-a-100 events with catastrophic consequences that might happen someday, very rarely come to pass.  It turns out that good enough is, in fact, good enough.  And if the terrible 1% problem does arrive at your door, you improvise.  You don't have to be faster than the bear.

I work in software, so we spend a lot of time waving our arms in the air, drawing boxes and lines on whiteboards, and talking about things you can't see.  For all the left-brained tendencies of my teams, our work is actually very abstract and creative. We take ideas and we turn them into products by typing words that kind look like English onto a screen, then telling a computer to compile it.  There's nothing to touch in that whole process -- unless you want fingerprints on your monitor -- so ideas and communication become very important. The more complicated the idea, the clearer the communication needs to be and the greater the likelihood that we'll have differing opinions on the solution.

Most days, I seem to find myself refereeing between two groups: those who want "good enough" and those who worry that good enough isn't enough.  I find myself asking the same questions over and over:
  1. What are we trying to achieve?  What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. What's the best and most reasonable solution that we can accomplish now?
  3. What are the risks?
  4. Are those risks real or hypothetical?  What's the likelihood that they'll occur?
  5. If something does go wrong, what's the impact and how could we mitigate it?
  6. Given all this, what's the reasonable solution?  Where does the work stop adding value and just start protecting against 1% problems?
Somewhere in the midst of this process, reasonable people will start to find the balance between effort and risk.  We learn that "good enough" can be even better with a little bit more work, and we agree that we're just going to have to live with some risks if we ever want to get anything done.  It takes a while, but even the bravest bear-poker eventually finds that there's a difference between high standards and perfectionism.  High standards set a goal that can be achieved with hard work.  Perfectionism guarantees failure, and not just in software development.

Someone once told me, "I know that worrying works, because nothing I've worried about ever happened!"  I hope they were kidding, but I'm not sure.  As for me, if I have to choose between "good enough" and "never finished," I'll take good enough every time.  The purpose of the hike, after all, is to enjoy the walk and savor the view, not to worry about bears.  If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone.  And if they charge, just make sure you brought a slow friend along.