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Chapter 01

As I write it this novel I am also testing the parameters of the “Long Tail” by marketing it here. Here’s the deal:

  1. You can order a paper copy of thisiting by going to Bookmooch and sending me a credit.  Don’t have a Bookmooch account?  Get one here.  Maybe I’ll order one of your books.  By the way, I chose Bookmooch instead of paperbackswap for this only because I have a large number of paperbackswap credits and very few Bookmooch ones right now. 
  2. When the novel is done (some time before December 1), I will bind it as a paperback book (using the method described at Achieve It), with a cover and everything, and ship it to you (I pay the postage) some time before the new year (hopefully in time for Christmas).  This offer is open to the first ten people to send me a Bookmooch credit (and any others who happen to send credits that day).

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up an account at Bookmooch, which is a really cool way to get stuff to read without having to pay so much for it, you can read this here, following through the chapters until your eyes burn and your screensaver comes on.  Your choice.

Chapter I

I was late for the strategic planning retreat, my first day on a new job.How does that old saying go, that he’d be late to his own funeral? But in my case this is so unfair. One of the reasons Massachusetts drives me crazy is that I am hardly ever late. I hate being late. I have been known to get to a place as much as an hour early and hang around, on the other side of the block, or a nearby coffee shop, just to appear right on time or a minute or two early.

Massachusetts will frustrate these efforts time and again for me.

When I flew out from the west to hunt for an apartment I found the local housing market superheated. Vacancy rates at one-half a percent. I find myself with no job and no prospects trying to find something cheap enough to afford on my wife’s salary alone at some dingy place near the railroad tracks where this guy says he has a place for me for (just) $600 per month. My two mortgages in Idaho totaled less than that. But he says he doesn’t have time to show it to me. It’s easy to find, though. Just like this stupid hotel where the staff retreat is the first day of my new friggin’ job.

It’s easy to find, but this property manager doesn’t give me many street names, because, you know, there aren’t all that many signs, especially on the main roads, some of which change names ever few hundred yards anyway. What’s the point? If you don’t know the way, street names are no help. But this guy, who talks like this friend of the family who I had always thought had a speech impediment (turns out that it is the local accent), sometimes finds apartments for out-of-towners and so he thinks he’s good at giving directions. He explains the lefts, the rights, the bridges, all this stuff, some of it in terms of landmarks like “Dunk’s.” And he says I can’t miss the left turn, which is actually a straight line, only the highway veers right at that point so it seems like a left turn. He says I can’t miss it because there’s a blinking yellow caution light at it. But when I get there that light’s out. Only he doesn’t know that, wouldn’t notice it if he saw it, because in his mind, and the minds of his forefathers, it eternally blinks.

It was probably a town celebration when that yellow light was put in. They gathered for miles to see the miraculous blinking light. Savvy New Englanders, they didn’t ask themselves how the light blinked, although there might have been some disagreement about the best way to do it. Questions were more along the lines of “why does this town need a blinking light?” Anyone who doesn’t know how to be careful turning left at an un-signaled intersection should die a fiery death. Somebody might ask “but what about the other guy, the one he runs into?” They would have shaken their heads and wandered off.

So that weekend, when I only had 72 hours to find an apartment before my flight back to Idaho, I spent at least six of those hours trying to figure out where I was.

But that was months ago, and I’m over that. But although it’s the age of the internet, I’m late for my first day of work. The internet wasn’t built to cope with things like Massachusetts roads. It won’t be able to handle Massachusetts roads for decades yet, if it ever does. Somebody needs to invent a whole new database vocabulary to cope with roads that are called two different things, depending on whether you are on the North or South side of them, roads that change names depending on which direction you are traveling and where. It will need ways of coping with names like First Street Boulevard (some programs will assume this is a street, which is, but one on the other side of town.) So this mapping site puts the hotel on the wrong side of the highway, and I’m driving around a bunch of farms. When I finally get frustrated enough to pull into a service station and ask directions the kids there tell me that it’s on the other side of the highway and I find it pretty difficult to believe. When I show them the map they stick to their story, and they look at me like I’m some kind of idiot, or just a foreigner.

I walk in and everybody is dressed casually and sitting around a bunch of tables circled like wagons in what appears to be an immense dance hall. All the tables have tablecloths made out of some lavender synthetic material that matches the napkins, you know, the kind where if you wipe your face it would just smear whatever you’re trying to wipe off. The chairs are on the outside of the wagon train, though, where they can be riddled easily with arrows. All these fundraising professionals are far enough apart that they practically have to shout at one another. That doesn’t appear to be a problem for this group. Mostly extroverts, optimists, they don’t seem to mind enunciating and speaking slowly.

Except for the big boss.

He never raises his voice. He seems to be able to make his displeasure, his bitterness and inflexibility, known to all of us without the same sort of tools that everyone else would use. If they had any displeasure, or bitterness. The big boss has plenty to go around, and he glares at me as I try to find my seat. Helpfully, oppressively, there are placards telling everyone where to sit.

I have been placed between the two weird lobes of the fundraising brain. On one side of the room, looking alert and dapper, with a forced cheerfulness, are the “gift officers,” the people who meet with university alumni, who call them on the phone and set up parties and events for them in hopes that it will all lead to gifts, or at least that they’ll be able to rack up a bunch of frequent-flyer miles before their eighteen months are up and it’s time to look for another position at some other New England College. There are enough private colleges, universities and prep schools in the area that many of them skip every 18 months with never a thought that their reputations will catch up with them.

On the other side are the “support staff.” They look a lot more relaxed. Not so relaxed that they aren’t trying to hide their boredom, though. Generally this group processes the financial transactions, perform various types of research into donor behavior, keep track of alumni, or keep the machines running and the files straight. As a grant writer, the Associate Director of Foundation Relations, I am neither fish nor foul. I talk mainly with faculty, not alumni (this school doesn’t seem to have any alumni on the boards of foundations, most don’t) and I write (which is something nobody else seems to want to do either.) I am that strange barrier dividing the two halves of the brain, the one that they sometimes sever surgically if epilepsy is severe enough.

As I come in late the Executive Director, who I already loathe, is finishing his opening statements, mostly about how the day’s events will unfold. In a microcosm this little oration represents how most of the day will unfold. There is much talking, unattended by listeners, about what will be said and what has just been said. For someone as disconnected as myself, a grant writer in a room full of people mostly unconnected to what I do, and new on the staff as well, there is a lot of time to think and act like I’m listening.

Far too much time to think. I’m telling myself that every day I can hang on to this job will be another 200 bucks or so that I wouldn’t have been able to put towards the mountain of debt we assumed over the last two years with the (complicated) birth of our son and the move. I can do this. At least I’m not over with the left-brainers. . .

Paul, the Executive Director, drones on for another fifteen seconds that seem like five minutes and I see that he’s dressed casually as well, although it doesn’t make him look any more relaxed. I came in at some point before my actual start date and asked him what sorts of things people wear, thinking that it was an appropriate question. I was to mainly be writing things and talking to faculty and I didn’t think that a suit would be appropriate, I thought that dressing up too much would put them off. He stared me down and said “we wear suits here,” and that was that. Something inside of me snapped and I realized instantly that I’d never be able to ask him another honest question. All further communications would be of the type where I would be posing. They wouldn’t be questions that I’d actually want to hear an answer. All would be form. They wouldn’t be transactional in nature, unless you include the kind of transaction where one person is acting subordinate to another so that that person can act superior. Suddenly his speech is over and he concludes by saying that the Chancellor himself will be coming by to make a special announcement at the conclusion of the first afternoon workshop session.

Well, there’s something to look forward to, I tell myself. Not only more than one workshop session in the afternoon, we also get a speech by a bureaucrat. Paul, the exec., then urges us all to get some coffee and snacks and charge ourselves up for the morning “discussion.”

I go to the table and start loading up on sugary snacks and coffee. I find myself wishing that I had brought a bigger mug for coffee, since the little china cups provided by the hotel are mostly small enough to down while you are there at the urn. The coffee’s bad, of course. Coming from a university where our vendor was Starbucks has made me a little picky. I’m desperately trying to smile as I take all this in. They’ve got Danishes, I say to myself. And that seems to do the trick. The only thing that beats those is strudel.

“Hey,” this voice behind me says in a genuinely friendly tone. It is the Director of Advancement Services, Sid, who I must have met briefly during the interview. I don’t remember most of their names yet because there were fifteen people in that interview room asking questions of me. I would have remembered if he had said anything mean, though.

“Oh, hey. How are you?”

“Good. Nice day, huh? I wish I was out in the sun. Tony and I are going to throw a football around during the break. You wanna join us?”

“Um, I’m not really dressed for it,” I say, but really I’m not sure I would want to anyway. Football was never really my sport. But I smile in a mostly genuine way for being included.

“You know,” he says, “it isn’t mostly like this. This droning on and on stuff. Mostly we all do our jobs and there aren’t too many meetings.”

“Maybe they’d be better if you practiced more,” I say to him with a half-smile.

“Yeah, but that can’t be worth it,” he agrees, and we are joined by a couple of others who break right in with small talk, chit chat. So I smile at them, can’t remember their names, obviously, and nod my head a lot and load up on processed sugar until the break is over.

I know the break is over because suddenly there is this palpable discomfort in the air. Like all of the animals suddenly smell a tiger and are wondering how they can maneuver so that some other part of their herd gets taken first.

Back at the table I am riding a sugar and caffeine high and also feeling good about having found at least one person I can talk to. I’m listening to one of the “Gift Officers” droning about his plans for the coming fiscal year. Couched in strategic plannese it seems to add up to the following: I will do pretty much what I did last year. But it is laced with talk of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, emerging markets, value nets, the three “C”s, growth share, 7-S and other analytical frameworks that simply don’t apply. And even the parts of his plan that do make sense have a miniscule effect on how anyone else will do their jobs. It is impossible to listen to the whole thing.

Through this guy’s extensive mind-frappe, his rapid-fire, staccato witstrafe, I’m looking around the table and trying to figure out why there aren’t even any raised eyebrows or covert smiles.

Some people, particularly on the rah-rah lobe of the table, are nodding, perhaps a little too rhythmically, to everything he says. Some people appear to be taking notes. Suddenly I fear that I’ll begin to giggle and I quickly uncap my pen and start doodling. So that’s what they are all doing.

Part of the reason I’m more than a little bored and unfocused is that I’ve heard all of this before from other fundraisers at conferences and my two other grant writing gigs. And I know that despite all of the day’s strategery they will end up with last-year’s ad hoc reality: talk to the people in the science, business, and engineering departments and see what deals they are making with industry and find ways to count some of it as gifts, hope like crazy that some big gifts fly over the transom so that our office can claim credit for them.

Suddenly, during this monologue, it becomes clear to me that I’m headed for a serious sugar crash in about twenty minutes. I’m thinking that it may just be best to go with it, to abandon the thought that some protein might save me. Trying to avert it would be like those pilots in the Great War, realizing that they were in too steep a dive and that to pull up on the stick would simply tear the wings to shreds. Can I bail out? What color is my parachute? Do I have one?

There is a question and answer session following this stuff and Sid’s hand pops up. He asks how he can help with pulling down data for one of the six new goals that this guy outlined.

Unbelievable. The guy must have the best-developed sense of irony I have ever seen, or some keen interest in playing the whole thing straight for some other unfathomable reason. Job security? I dunno.

But it hits me as I look around the table again. They are all visibly thankful that somebody was paying enough attention to ask a question that makes sense to this guy, to show that he was listening. And he keeps it up for a follow-up question.

Weirder still, others find a way to keep the ball in the air until suddenly his time is up, as Paul notes by clearing his throat and looking at the clock.

This goes on two more times before lunch. There are some variations, of course. One of the rah-rahs is simply too perky not to engage with. She looks at everyone at the table while she patiently reads from her strategic plan and if you catch her eye she turns her smile into a beaming question, something like “come on, won’t you join us all in the spirit of collegial professionality?” and it is just too sincere and cheerful to resist.

I go into lunch a little disgusted. I’m recovering a little from the sugar crash, and things are definitely looking up. This is a bunch of loonies, to be sure. Few of them seem dangerous. And they seem to be able to work together. They seem to have found a way to manage even in the face of this psychotic, rat-faced cross between a mobster and a clown (not the good kind but the Stephen King—Poltergeist kind). It’s not going to be as bad as I thought at the beginning of the day.

Lunch is a huge panoply of hearty fare. There are at least five meat entrees to choose from. The Exec does not, apparently, feel the need to choose at all. And he stands at the table for far longer than anyone else to wait for compliments on how much money he has spent on this thing and how great everything tastes. He receives these with body language that says he appreciates the compliments, but he never once cracks a smile. I think that if someone did a painful pratfall he might chuckle. Maybe I will to spice things up this afternoon. Give the boss what he wants.

At least the lunch offers an opportunity to talk to Sid a little more an get a sense for the dynamic of the place. He is just as earnest with me as he was with the others when work issues come up, but we manage to keep the conversation mostly away from that. So I’m able to talk to a real human being for a while. We talk about bands, movies, funny websites and a range of other topics. Like most of the people I’ve met here he has lived in Massachusetts his whole life, and his family goes way back. Though he has relatives spread over the small state they can still see each other every major holiday. And with families this is a mixed blessing.

Then he brings up the owls.

“So, you know how it is dark still in the mornings,” he says. It was before daylight savings time, or after, or whatever before you get the extra hour of sleep on that blissful Sunday in the fall.

“I’m coming in on the 167 and I look up into the trees and I see all these eyes.”

“Eyes.”

“Yeah, in the lights coming from the cars behind me, like when you take a picture of your dog. And so I stopped on the side of the road to check it out.”

“They’re nocturnal, right, so that’s not that odd that they’d still be out. That’s when they hunt.

“No, it’s not that they were out, it’s what they were doing.”

“Which was . . . “

“Watching me. There had to be about thirty of them, and they were watching me. But they stopped for a second whenever a car came down the road. And then when it came closer they went back to watching me.”

“Kinda odd. You’re not jerking my chain here?”

“No, man. That’s the same thing they said when I called the Biology Department. Talked to their only zoologist, Scott somebody. Oh, he wants you to give him a call. Seems like he’s a nice guy, but he said ‘Owls don’t do that.’”

“Does seem kinda strange. Did you get a picture?”

“Gonna bring the camera tomorrow, ‘cause it’s just too cool not to get one.”

“I hear you can photoshop the ‘red-eye’ out pretty easily.”

“The red-eye would make the picture much more cool, though, ‘cause you’d know they were looking at the camera.”

I was thinking about how in Whitley Strieber’s book, Communion, owls are some sort of symbol that you have been or will be visited by aliens. I was so hoping that this guy wasn’t one of those kooks who believed in that stuff, because I desperately needed some sort of anchor in the office, somebody I could talk to without fear that they would turn out to be a looney. Later I asked some probing questions, though, and it turned out that he had never heard of that stuff.

We both went back to chewing at that point and I listened in, briefly to some of the conversations around the table. It was some of the same stuff you’d hear whenever you get a bunch of fundraisers together, which was talk about friends who had briefly worked with them, what they were up to now, that sort of thing. So easy to tune out. I don’t know any of the names, of course.

I look over at the Exec, and he’s as relaxed as I’ve seen him all day—not very, when the Chancellor steps in. It’s the first time I’ve seen him and he looks uncomfortable here, off campus, yet he seems to be straining not to show it. He smiles when he sees one of the secretaries (who prefer to be called Office Assistants) and strides over to take her hand and ask about her children. Then the Gift Officers line up politely to attempt to joke with him and tell him how good it is to see him. I know I should do the same, but I’m nervous and don’t know what to say. So I mill about and look like I’m letting others go first.

I look over at the Exec and can see the indecision on his face. Clearly he knows that he should make introductions and allow this guy to make his announcement so that he can go. But he also seems to feel that to do so would mean losing face. He finally decides that getting him out of the room as soon as possible is the least threatening scenario for him, will dilute his status the most. So he hops over (a surprisingly light-footed gait for such a heavy man) and ingratiates himself.

“I’m sure everyone here is waiting for your announcement,” he says.

“Oh, yes,” says the Chancellor, “by all means then,” and he strides to the podium set up on one end of the ring of tables.

“For some time, as you all know, we have been carefully following our five-year strategic bolster/back/bankroll plan for the Page One Budget.” He is smiling and clasping his hands together, looking at all of us in turn, confident that we are all waiting on every word, which is true in a sense, I suppose.

“Two years ago, using mostly federal funding and State matching funds, we were able to begin the project that will put this University on the map internationally for the study of mesons, those sub-atomic particles of medium weight. I refer, of course, to the ohkler-heber medium particle accelerator.

“Construction of the accelerator has proceeded according to our most optimistic projections and we were in a position last year to begin the modifications of our power plant to run the thing ourselves separately from the grid.

“Last year I entered into discussions with the engineering firm in charge of the project and they convinced me that the most economical and environmentally friendly way to run the necessary conduits would be to tunnel directly under Macatonicak Hill and run the conduit through there. We were encouraged in this work by the Federal Government, which thought this a particularly good idea for our campus in light of Homeland Security concerns. So they increased their support of the project accordingly.

“Unfortunately, we have run into some safety and security concerns that have made the project a little more expensive.

“You have all heard about the death of Matt Tomlinson—a very capable engineer, and a good friend of mine–while working on the elevator dig portion of the project. And two others have been hospitalized in this very complicated project for what appears to be stress. Sabotage of two of the cranes and drills has also increased costs.

“Accordingly, I would like the Development Office to focus its efforts this year upon finding donors for this worthy project. During the last two years you have focused upon helping the engineers and scientists attract funding from industry and your good work has not gone unnoticed. And you have captured, through your consistent effort, some very large gifts to add to the University’s endowment. I ask that you apply the same diligence and skill to the tunnel project.

“Thank you, and enjoy the dessert.”

Take me to Chapter II

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Comments»

1. Nannette in Fantasticland - November 8, 2006

Great use of metaphor! And I love the first-person voice. Really sounds like a person.

great!


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