Category: Short Story

Solstice in the Crystal Cities of Talon

A chance encounter, a sloshy woman at a corner bar, a recollection of an uncle who fell into a well, all the tequila poured, all the prejudices spun out, about my accent and my allegedly highborn ways, about the elections and conspiratorial meanderings, my filters built into a Great Wall against a bareknuckle dustup, bloodied noses and cops and lights, and then, as the night drew up into its cold intestines, a mention just in passing that this uncle fell in the well on the solstice morning and became some kind of sloganeer, some kind of soothsayer. But it was more, I heard her faintly say, and that the shocks of that icy water aroused some otherworldly spirit within him, around 1958 or so, and he was cast out of his church and lost his business, an upwardly-mobile fin-tailed car magnate with a country-club future. He wandered the countryside with his well-sprung tale until impoverished and abandoned by his wife and two adorable children, her cousins, one who was now dead (the boy), crushed by a front-end loader at a construction pit, and the other who was a retired school librarian down in Fayetteville. That cousin had kept all his writings, all about the physics of Tlon.

My ears perked up and I asked her again what she had uttered, about the slurred syllables that came forth from her salted and limed lips. She repeated the word again, then laughed at me, hissed “Tlon” once more and shuttled her head side-to-side. It was another world her demented uncle had bragged about, some agitated dream erupting from his freezing parts while captive in that black bore. It was a solstice night, long, with the snows of the preceding week in skirts around the trees. He had lost the tips of his fingers crawling out of that hole, but how he survived beyond that he was unable to say. He only talked about that world. He only talked about mystery people and the universe.

I begged her for a bit more and maybe some context for the daughter and she slanted her eyes suspiciously. I was informed, as she drew up and away from our conspiratorial hunches, like a raptor asserting dominance, that she wasn’t going home with me, which was a relief, and to which I readily agreed. I nevertheless passed her my cell number and insisted I wanted to know more about the uncle, that was all, and could she maybe, if not too much trouble, arrange for me to see the writings of this madman?

I had no expectations that she would remember any of the evening. She was high above the Eiffel Tower and heading for the moon as I left to return to my dreary hotel room down the road, stepping carefully to avoid the slippery tendrils of ice built from the runoff of the day. I slept fitfully with the wall-mount heater tracking a blistering seventy-eight. Had I heard her right? Was my quest beginning to reveal fruit?

I scanned the directory of the local college that morning over black coffee and found a Doug Henders, M.A. Hist., listed among the instructional faculty. Mr. Henders was the only regional history specialist, with far too many of his fellow professorial sorts focused on far-flung matters in Europe, Asia, and even one emeritus who seemed to be exclusively an historian of arctic expeditions. While intriguing, his experience could likely shed little light on the matter of the uncle.

I finally phoned Mr. Henders and, following brief introductions, including an effort to convey my scholarly credentials while not emphatically calling out this-or-that publications or little professional accolade in the broader community, he asked how he could be of assistance. I asked about the uncle, about the story of the well, about the car dealer gone righteous, about the cryptic writings and, specifically, I avoided mention of the word in question. He claimed to be unaware of these developments and began to convey little hints of irritation. I finally dropped the bombshell term, about Tlon, casually as an aside. He stopped cold, there was a hard pause on the line, the static-free encodings of digital transmissions robbing the moment of even the faintest hiss that might provoke a conclusion that the line had dropped.

He asserted quite precipitously that he had a college disciplinary meeting to attend to and could not help me further. I thanked him but, before I had even concluded my statement, an actual and exaggerated chirp of a disconnect sounded from my phone. It was curious, I realized in hindsight, that he not only had pushed me away but had responded with an odd intimation of violence, of control, of discipline, as if to threaten and steer me from my endeavors. And it had only happened with the mention of the key word, not before. But maybe I elaborate to much? Perhaps my pursuit has heightened my senses to such an extent that the background noise of even these casual social interactions pops with a radiative glow drawn from speculation? I could only pursue the southern librarian’s written records at that point, though I was at the mercy of my barfly for that.

I waited through the next two days. I considered returning to the bar and begging the woman for more information, but I had not the boldness to pursue the lead in such stark terms. And then, around 11 AM the next day, a Tuesday I believe, I received a call from an unknown party on my phone. I was in the local library at the time and the orchestration of my ringtone caused the librarian to raise his startled gaze as I peered over family records in the white, cotton gloves of an archivist. Berlioz does not appeal, I surmised.

I staggered out into the winter light flashing off the ectoplasm of cars in the snowy parking lot as I took the call, asking twice for her to please wait and not hang up. I was given the coordinates then, and told that I must arrive precisely before 10AM to get an hour-and-one-half with the records or interest. I could have no more because the lady in question had an appointment of an urgent matter with her proctologist. I agreed to all the terms readily, worrying as well for the poor woman’s health and the implications associated with such a narrow medical speciality. The documents could vanish completely, I realized, and be lost among her transitory possessions, were she to succumb to some asinine malaise.

I arrived as required at the nondescript clapboard house. There was a single string of colored Christmas lights around a black side-window. A potpourri of plant pots—crimson, fuchsia, taupe, lime, mottled turquoise—denuded in the winter freeze but for a stray twig or two, covered the small porch before the screen door. A knock, a wait. A knock again. I began to fear she had rescinded the offer, this retired librarian, and had left early to have a coffee before her dreaded appointment with the medical establishment. But then there was a shadow of motion through the small window, an eye looking up to me, shaded by the blue of the day, and the door opened.

I was admitted then, dear reader, and allowed to shed my heavy coat and stomp my shoes against the thick mat of the mudroom. Minnie Mouse stared up at me in delighted wonder as I wiped salt and ice from the edges of my shoe. It smelled of wool and cooked eggs in the living room, of natural gas and sulfur. My host was surprised at the interest in her father, gone so long and lost in so many ways.

I inquired perhaps too indelicately how he had died, but she turned from me and pointed me towards the kitchen, never answering the question or seemingly even acknowledging the significance of the query. I saw a small stack of yellow sheets of paper starkly offset by the warm red of Santa holograms cleverly embedded in the plastic tablecloth, their form shifting from sleigh to decorated tree as I shifted above the scene. I was asked to hand over my cell phone, which I did readily as I stooped towards the pencil-etched mound of calligraphy before me.

Soon, following agreements and safeguards of the namesake, the family reputation, and the probing appointment close at hand, I was deeply entranced by the inscrutable documents. And, let me assure you dear reader, that the scribbles and markings did not disappoint. We start, page one, with a description of a crystalline city supported by the mental capabilities of masters who live below and follow an exacting timeline for their rotations in their duties, lest the city shudder or, worse, fall from its tenuous perch. There are always hints of return in these documents, of recurrence, I realize. Where the masters were before they will be again. When their capacities are exhausted, they rest and come again to aid the city in its meditative hover.

But there is more, so cryptically encoded yet so tenderly elucidated, for the masters know of another world that is so very like our own. They dream of it when they are not busy in their scholarly and masterful duties. It is a subject of great discussion. How can it be that they all dream of the same seasonal change, of the same calamity of purpose, of the same ritualistic dogmas and contempts? They hold salons to try to unravel the mystery, expressed in epigrams and enigmas. They write on these matters but cannot unravel the core, perplexing mystery. This parallel universe is an exaggeration of the purposes that they know, an unraveling and corruption of the sensible progression that enervates their thinking and that of the steadfast people of the city. The dream people are locked to ancient sky beings, they are contemptuous of the world that they are immersed within, they are riddled with petty preoccupations. It is only in this realization that the right course of action can be understood.

I leaned back in my steel and plastic chair, feeling the flush of the furnace from the ceiling vent. It washed over me, drawing in the premonitions of tears that began in my conjunctiva, and then evaporated them in a blink. My kind host appeared in the doorway, silhouetted by the flash of blue television light in the living room.

I reluctantly departed after thanking her. I told her that I would like to phone her with a few more questions if I might, maybe later, perhaps in the afternoon? She agreed and closed the door. I was almost to my car when the door reopened and I stomped back to fetch my phone that she had held hostage.

Driving back the hour or so to my original perch, my mind was awash with the remarkable details and rich orchestration of what I had read. But, I realized, that the word never appeared anywhere in the documents. I had been so mesmerized by the elliptical phraseology, by the incongruent grammar, and, mostly, by the tale of woe and cataclysm, that I had not seen or noticed that signal term.

I phoned in the afternoon and thanked the librarian/cousin again. She had been very kind. I hoped her appointment had been acceptable and that her health outlook remained positive. I continued my encouraging words for a few more minutes until she indicated that she needed to see to her needlepoint activities. I fully understood, I assured her, but then asked if she knew the word Tlon from the writings.

There was a pause, deep and consuming, and I worried that I was about to receive the same angry disputation that the instructor at the college had provided me for my unexpected impudence. But no, she cleared her throat briefly, apologized, and asked me to say the word again. T-lon, I repeated, trying to de-emphasize any inadvertent alveolar flapping that arises naturally from my first-language slurring of the dialect.

There was an oooh of recognition then, and I waited breathlessly. I think you mean Talon. His name was Barry Talonik Denzigger—the middle name from the old country in Bohemia—but folks called him Talon for short. He went by that for many years after falling in the well.

I held the phone fast against my face and asked her to repeat that. He was called Talon. That was all. No surprise that I didn’t see that in the documents. They were written before he got the name. She offered to write Talon at the top of each page for future scholars who might be passing through, though I quickly asserted my professional opinion that the pages should be preserved as they are between sheets of acid-free paper, even as a crestfallen gloom began a rapid attack on my gut. As a former librarian, she understood what I meant, it seemed. I hung up and updated my notes.

Things I don’t remember writing…in 1993

Just as the World Wide Web was beginning there was active experimentation in treating computer communications as an artistic medium. The following was perhaps the last of a small group of absurdists who wrote short stories, person-by-person and paragraph-by-paragraph, built around a central theme. And, interestingly, I don’t recall this one at all:

Recollections of Lady Liberty and the Joy of being an American XVI

“Did you really love her daddy?” My daughter’s scratchy voice squiggles
its way through the telephone line and plants itself in my ear.

“It was the kind of love that wraps itself around your heart and
squeezes like a snake… I know its too much to ask your forgiveness
but I’ll tell you my side of the story if you’ll listen”

“Ok, daddy, I’ll listen”

“Well, meeting your mom was an epiphany for me. At the time, let’s
see… how old are you now?”

“Eight, Daddy!” she giggled. She knew that I knew how old she was.

“Oh yeah, well, it was nine years ago now when I first saw your mom.
It was my first trip to New York, and I’d made a promise to your
grandma to go see the Statue of Liberty. The day was gorgeous,
sparkling, bustling. I had tickets to the 2 o’clock tour, and I showed
up a little early.”

“There were hundreds of people, tourists, milling about. And in the
center of them all was a beautiful young woman dressed in one of those
horrid green park service uniforms. Can you imagine it?!”

“Yes, Daddy! Keep going!”

Now and again, when the coffee boils over and she’s not there to pass
me the squeegee, I do indeed think back to my wife, my child’s
mother…and the great green lady who brought us together.  It is
always with a certain gloomy nostalgia, a certain gnawing sensation
and not a little fear.  How could I ever tell my sweet eight-year-old
about the passion that for her and I had been the defining
characteristic of our love, an envelope and force field that we
nutured with the fluids of our animal beings?  And how could I ever
explain about the secret, that dark nodule of baroque pain which she
held apart, and the promise that she made me keep?

I look down at youth, smiles and perfect innocence, and smile.

“When I met your mother, my feet got so sweaty that they started
sliding around in my shoes and I fell down.”

“Grody, daddy”

“She came over and helped me up, abandoning her group of tourists
like a lioness abandoning a herd of swamp rhinos”

“Oh daddy, please spare me your lousy metaphors”

“Honey, when you use like its a simile not a metaphor”

I wondered briefly if I was wasting my money on private school.

“Okay, daddy. Please spare me your lousy similes.”

“Sorry, kiddo. Anyway, it was love at first sight. Your mom was very
beautiful, you know…”

“I know, daddy” my daughter squealed. “Keep going!”

“Okay. well, then she did the most amazing thing. She lifted her green
phillips-head-screwdriver-with-a-brim park ranger hat from her
gorgeous head and, wordlessly and gently, placed it on my head… and
she patted it down, just to make sure that it stayed there.”

“…and then you barfed.”

“No, no…hmmmm…the barfing came later, on the observation deck.
Vertigo, you know.”

There was a snotty little asshole of an academic (aren’t they all) I
had met at a haute couture “little get-together” on a houseboat
in Vermont a year back.  He was in black turtleneck, tweed sportcoat,
tanned cow loafers–all the desiderata of hocus-pocus Brandeis flakes
with an agenda for supplicating co-eds–cherry smoke vapor cloud,
salt-and-pepper beard.  Pedoanthroculturalist.  Author of the theory
that no child is well-adjusted.

Kid’s turned cynical, obviously needs help.  Possibly
institutional-grade help.

“You’re so cute, cuddle-ums.  The barfing came much later.”

I didn’t tell her about the sex, of course, that also came later.
Slipping and sliding along Lady Liberty’s crown, in the smoky New
York night.  A fragment of thought has slipped away perhaps it’ll
return.  In my present state it was hard to imagine having sex at all
. . .

“So there I was.  Looked like a green toadstool with that hat on.  And
your mom was grinning like the cheshire cat.”

“Then what?  Then what, daddy?”

Yes, then what.  Heroism was called for here.  The kind of
lighthearted heroics where the bad guys are pie-faced at the end.  The
good ones reunited.  The images danced like candle-cast shadows
through the recollections of that day.  They were terrorists.  They
were ideologically supple, cruel in the intelligent, ruthless way.
Looking out from under that mushroom cap of a hat brim, I thought
nothing of the yellow yacht with GeoMag stenciled on the prow or the
Ray Bans fixed on the near nothing everywhere in the crowd.

“Well, we looked into each other’s eyes, then. And you know, that’s
hard for people… that’s hard for adults to do, especially when they
first meet. But there we were, staring deeply into each other’s eyes,
and I was lost. I mean, to me we were just two specks in a very
pointedly three-dimensional space. I had no concept of time at all. I
saw only the twin supernovae of your mother’s green eyes.”

“Like I said, though, that’s pretty awkward. And your mom, well, she
had a job to do; I mean, she had to run that tour and all. But the way
she turned her eyes away to get on with her tour, that was what really
did it for me. In moments like that, when you’re looking at someone
like that and everything’s new and exciting, well, you’re very
vulnerable. And if you see in that other person’s eyes the slightest
inkling that something is wrong, the barest hint that they don’t want
to be at this place and this time looking back into your eyes, even if
they want to be and they just CAN’T for some reason, then it does
something irrevocable to the relationship. It’s like you’ve started to
build a magnificent building, and some unseen hand sweeps away a huge
chunk of scaffolding and you can never get it back. And from then on,
you have to just build a skinnier building, maybe not so magnificent
anymore. It’s sad, in a way, because it doesn’t even have to be
intentional to be permanently damaging. But your mom, when she turned
away as she knew she had to (but as I had completely forgotten she had
to), she turned away without seeming to turn away. No quickening of
the eye movement, no fidgeting. She just turned up the corners of her
mouth and held out her hand, which I took gratefully, and led me back
to the gathering throng of people. She turned away, but her eyes
stayed in right in front of me.”

“Cripes, daddy!”

“What do you mean “cripes,” kiddo?”

“Well, you’re depending too much on my suspension of disbelief! If two
people love each other, you can’t undermine that with an eye twitch!”

I wanted to tell her that that just wasn’t true. I wanted to tell her
that when her mother and I met, we fell hopelessly in love with each
other, consummated that love in the most holy of copper-clad places,
and then were fated to live and love forever together, amen. But I
couldn’t do that, could I? So bald a lie, to tell it to this child
would be blasphemous at best.

“You’re right, honey. When your mom and I met, we fell hopelessy in
love with each other, we consum…., uh, and we were, uhm…uhm.”

“Daddy,” she said. And there it was, sitting there, that lie I knew I
could never tell her. The lie betrayed by the simple fact that her mom
wasn’t there with us, and the tears in her throat telling me how deep
words can cut.

I think back to that moment when the zydeco rhythms fell out of my
daughter’s mother’s voice.  When she stopped staring in my eyes and
looked guiltily into New York Harbor.  When she told me that she was
married.

“I love him, too, believe it or not, and I can’t leave him.  This is,
has been, so wonderful, but I must go back . . . my husband is a
wonderful man and I could never betray him . . . My husband is out of
the country, but when he returns I must be there . . . I will be at
the airport to pick him up and you . . . you must nurture our
child alone, love the person we created in Love and Liberty”

Raising my daughter was a distraction that eased the pain.  In time
the despair eased into a dull ache.  But so often I look into my
daughter’s big green eyes and I see her mother there, sometimes I
can’t look into her eyes at all.

Sometimes my daughter asks about her mother as if she knows about the
lie that wriggles in my heart, caged behind my ancient promise.

“Honey, the rest you know, the spontaneous combustion, little flaming
pieces of mommy flesh drifting to the ground like so much mucky New
York snow . . . don’t make daddy talk about that, please”

A long silence.

“Ok dad”

This is the first time she has called me ‘dad’ instead of ‘daddy.’

“Well, *dad* thinks it is time for his princess to sleep.  Next week
is our annual pilgrimage to the Lady herself, you didn’t forget
didja?”

“Course not Daddy, silly.”  My daughter giggles.

“Love you, bye babe”

“Bye Dad”

I hear a click as my daughter hangs up the phone.

<sean:mark:ted>

Killing John Galt, Part V (Final)

Comedy is anguish. I fought the urge to pull out my phone while driving and jot that down. A joke or two is easy. Bleak observations of the irony of modern life are more challenging, but a sustained effort at literary comedy is anguish itself. Start with a plotline, invert the plotline, punish the good, and reward the absurd. Even the beginning is anguish, but finishing is utter terror. Galt might not literally die, I suddenly thought, but his career might before it ever begins as he ranges over the countryside in his eclectic obsession to turn the cognoscenti against the faceless bureaucracy gone awry. Could I have withstood the ranting and joined in on the strikes?  The strike itself, the shrugging, was so collectivist in character, and so secret in formulation, that there should have been, must have been, detractors along the way. The implausibility of Galt’s plot surviving requires as implausible an ideological commitment as the extremists in the political parties of today, but also requires secrecy on a massive scale. But killing them martyrs them, and so I finally saw Galt, having failed to convince anyone of his grandiose vision—having failed to achieve excellence—hanging himself with a sheet in a motel bathroom during his peripatetic lecture circuit, but failing in even that as a rigged arrangement of shower bars collapses under the weight of his massive girth brought on by overeating as the stressors of his failure weighed more and more on the man. He is diagnosed a danger to himself and never to the invidious society he rails against, and treated for free in a mental hospital, and for heart disease and diabetes. Rand visits him one August day and watches as he snacks on raw vegetables while begging her to sneak him candy bars when she next visits. Meanwhile, in the Colorado Rockies, a small town continues to raise sheep as always and the odd man the old timers recall gesticulating wildly at them never reappears.

 

I tried to organize a meeting with Winborn. I wanted him to meet Sonya. I decided she was as good as anyone could possibly be—maybe better—but needed at least a second opinion. I had no experience in team building for something like what he was imagining. Winborn was out of the country and unavailable for another week, so I continued to research the options for the new fund. Microloans had shown remarkable progress in India and Bangladesh, for instance, but only on the ground with micropreneurs. Supporting larger enterprises had promise, but required significantly more funding.  It overlapped into the realm that was more properly that of government and international NGOs. I needed to go out and talk to everyone, to travel for a year and find out what worked and didn’t work, and where there was an opening for productive help.  I needed to run that by Winborn and admit that I thought the start would be slower than he had anticipated.

 

I drove up Sand Hill Road to our appointment. Sonya would meet me there, but would be half-an-hour late due to a class. That was fine, I thought, because it would give me an opportunity to probe Winborn further on the new developments, as well as to frame the introduction of my new intern. I had decided that travel and introductions to facilitate learning were the priority and had some initial figures about the expenses involved.

The dark glass doors were propped open by a box of folders as I arrived, and I made my way past a cart loaded with books and moving boxes coming in. Winborn’s admin was not at her desk but two short men in coveralls emerged from the back carrying boxes, chatting in conspiratorial whispers as they strained to walk with loads. Southeast Asian. Vietnamese, maybe, I thought. I waited by the reception desk for a few minutes and then wandered down the hallway, calling restrained Hellos as I moved from door to door. I passed Phoebe as the men returned and slipped by me, heading for the end of the hall.

Winborn’s admin was in his office, filtering through a box of files on the desk. Other boxes and a massive looking globe of polished precious stones were piled in the center of the office. She looked up at me as I entered and muttered, “Shit, sorry, I thought I had cleared all the appointments.”

“Oh, sorry, no one was at the front desk,” I responded.

“No problem. Sorry, my fault. Winborn’s gone.”

“OK, can I reschedule?”

“No, sorry. I’m saying sorry a lot these days. Oh, shit,” she continued, “Winborn’s been arrested.”

“Arrested? Really? For what?”

“Insider trading. The investigation has been going for some time. He knew they were coming for him, but just kept plugging along. The SEC claims he’s been passing information about the tech sector to hedge funds for years. He uses his network of contacts. He says he’s innocent, but federal agents showed up yesterday.  They took him out in handcuffs. I was ordered to put everything in storage today by a limited partner. I don’t think he’s coming back, one way or another.”

That meant my project was done, I realized. It was over. Without Winborn, there was no project. A warm rush of relief washed over me. Selfish, I realized, but I had not been altogether sure that I was capable of running his new vision.  Sonya would be let down, but at least she hadn’t put any real effort in yet.

The woman motioned to the men and one picked up a box. He nodded at the giant globe with a faint laugh. The other crouched before the object and spun the sphere a little in its fittings, the jumbled syllables of his native tongue mixed with laughter as he stopped the turning globe with the palm of his hand in a gentle squeak. He strained as he began to lift from the brass hoop that surrounded and cupped the globe. With a second strain and some quick laughs from his coworker, he hefted the globe onto a shoulder, turned, and left, slipping sideways through the doorway with a careful sidle to protect the expensive sculpture.

Killing John Galt, Part IV

I interviewed my first candidate for an as yet undefined intern role two weeks later. Winborn’s admin had contacted a headhunter company they often worked with and they had posted some descriptions on job boards at Stanford and Berkeley. I got a filtered list of eight résumés after a few days and began reading through them. They were all very young and had limited experiences but, given the sources, they had already packed their lives with endearing little adventures. One had been the first in her family to go to college from a second-generation Chinese immigrant family, and could play violin, piano, speak several languages fluently, and volunteered at a homeless shelter in East Palo Alto. She had arrived at the café on a bicycle and was lovely and lithe with a hint of acquired hippiness in her dirty shoulder bag and brown hair band. Sonya was her name and I asked her why she was interested in social entrepreneurship. She seemed initially puzzled by the question, responding with “It sounds like a great opportunity,” then pausing at the realization of the impotence of her statement. I waited and she continued, “I’ve always been interested in different ways of managing and creating social change. Social entrepreneurship is more targeted in terms of the techniques that can be applied to that change.”

“Interesting,” I responded. She was clearly as intelligent as her background suggested, “But what specifically would you like to accomplish?”

There was a searching desire to please flashing in her eyes again as she paused and thought about the question, “Social change can manifest in many different ways, so I’m open to many different opportunities in that regard.”

Good, she didn’t have any information about specific projects and was willing to wait and listen to the details. I unfortunately didn’t have any myself and was hoping that surrounding myself with bright young people would provide the insights that I needed to guide the ship of change. The chart of possibilities was as vast as the enumerated ways of killing John Galt, from educational enhancements to space studies, as far as I was concerned. Winborn had not been more direct than that. I asked Sonya whether she liked helping the poor and she said, “Yes, of course, it’s great doing good in the community.”

“Do you think what you do makes a difference?”

“Yes, we feed homeless people from the area and some of them transition to shelters. They can go on to jobs and futures,” Sonya quickly responded, clearly easing into the conversation as it shifted to topics she was familiar with.

Conceptually, there was a dawning realization for me that the people Sonya and I would be serving had an enormous advantage over my potential staff and me. Down on their luck, suffering, struggling—just achieving something is a remarkable goal. I could measure that easily enough. Meanwhile, the privileged must achieve more and more just to keep from moving backward. I was not retired and would never be retired. I had just transitioned to another role and there was little possibility of experiencing actual privation and physical suffering in my future, yet the difference between sleeping under cardboard along a creek filtering into the Bay and being “transitioned” into a homeless shelter seemed both more trivial and harder at the same time.  We have to convince them that that is a laudable goal. We have to overcome the frictional forces that interfere with the outcome. We have to navigate disturbed and psychotic personalities. The effort towards social change was fraught with incremental events and efforts that had statistical influence on small populations but was unlikely to be disruptive the way technological change can bring about upheaval in work and play practices.

Winborn’s focus on evolutionary metaphors was jading me about the entire project. Founder effects, punctuated equilibriums, inflection—the fog of theoretical descriptions that we use as a road map also meant that there was a certain impossible quality to applying any effort at all. Reaching the moon was easy but conquering poverty was impossible. Watching Sonya’s perfection—animatedly hopeful—almost made me want to call Winborn and recommend that he just pay more taxes with the same money. Let the organizations and bureaucrats build institutions that can chisel away at the edifice, slowly and steadily, and look at giant statistical outcomes to guide changes in policy over time. It converted the problem from individuals into a technocratic game. I could play that game, running regression models and factor analytic comparisons to tease out what was and what was not working effectively. Social change then became policy management.

I asked Sonya, “Do you think government is an effective agent for social change?”

“Sometimes. Welfare has been shown to lead to dependency and the poverty rate has not significantly changed since the Great Society efforts.”

She sounded like Winborn without nuance.

“Why do you think smaller-scale efforts can do better?”

She seemed perplexed by the question briefly again, trying to discern if there was an agenda on my part that needed to be addressed, as if the interview was a multiple choice question test. Anticipate the teacher and get the exact right answer. This wasn’t chemistry, though, and I didn’t know what the answers were, but couldn’t decide how to communicate that to Sonya, so I just waited as she thought things through.

“We can be more efficient in the application of social capital,” she finally answered with an initial crispness that decayed almost to a questioning lilt, and I tried to imagine what exactly that meant.

“In what way?”

“We can see what the local needs are so we don’t deliver the wrong solution for the wrong problem,” she responded.

“OK, so any mass application of welfare or assistance might be inefficient because it doesn’t address local necessities. But what if we have block grants that are given to local government or county or state?”

“Hmm,” she responded and there was a panicky look in her eyes, “But we can still do good, can’t we?”

“I don’t know,” I candidly admitted, “We can certainly add to the acts of kindness, I think, but I’m not altogether certain whether what we can achieve will represent a measurable difference. Is the outcome worth the effort?”

Sonya had shifted noticeably towards panic, now, so I gave her a comforting acknowledgment that her answers had been great and that I was not altogether certain what the nature of the fund and opportunity were or would be. I thanked her and excused myself, deciding to drive a bit in the coastal hills through the flickering redwoods to refocus.

Killing John Galt, Part III

The pageantry is purely imaginary, built around shadows that are projected internally, summoned out of an implausibly brilliant kernel that, despite the quality of the output, is nonetheless inchoate in motivations and intent. I can’t summon it, in point of fact, because summoning implies some kind of active participation, some movement towards the goal, that brings into being other identities and motivates them, couples them in arabesque brocades of plots, then supports their emergence as active referents.

If it were that easy.

I can only frame the problem and watch, once removed, as if I was looking at a jerky Eidoloscope cycling with ideas that enter the frame briefly, get burned through by the matrix of my own history, and last for just long enough to take on a ghostly impermanence in the weave of the storyline.

Limns, sharp edges protruding across towards eclipsing the fair face of the disk, and yes, the more scientific association, as best that can be set in contradistinction to the merely literary form that delineates or describes, shone from a dozen facets in the middle night as I opened my eyes. Moon, Luna, Selene, sister of the daylight, her daughter sliced apart by her over Pan, limned in fractal relief off the china cabinet. Gentle white, so pure. The house was otherwise dark and silent. I tried to stop Galt’s death from intruding on the emptiness surrounding me, but there he was again, carping pretense with presumptuous certitude out to a cowling universe. Rappers holding their guns at dumb angles might shoot him as a casual afterthought, though it would require some kind of time travel to reconcile the periods. There is nothing in randomized killings except a naked reference to noir and anti-hero films from the 70s. I wanted the man dead but it needed meaning without cliché or murkiness. It is a parody, admittedly, so perhaps an invocation of humor would blot out obviousness. Drown in red ink. Drowning in bureaucracy. Drowning in self-righteousness. Stoned to death at a union rally as he shouts “every man for himself!” Fire in a crowded theater.

I have to build an empire of compassion, Galt, if I decide to accept Winborn’s offer. I have to recruit strident and capable young people who were raised to contribute to the collective good while perfecting themselves with carefully manicured life histories. They have intersected the individual and the group, the community, the nation, and the future of the world and arrived at perfect beings who would ask for help and understanding and commitment while you prattle on about selfish self-regard. They will perfect that, too. There is no mutually exclusivity.

A postmodern conceit: Rand herself, dissatisfied with Galt’s performance in bed (likely worn down by weeks of elliptical radio addresses), stabs him in the eye with a fine fountain pen, holding it fast and firm enough that he spasms a few times and stops still.  There, there, OK, she tells him, her complex Russian overtones blurring the consonants with palatalized hissing as she strokes his hair. “You ver never a real hero,” she whispers as a last spasm curls his fingers together.

The pageantry is purely imaginary.

It might scan, but introduces a new thread that forces reworking, reorganization: the presence of the author herself. Not easy, daunting even, but with nontrivial payout on both the humor front and as a symbolic full stop in the parody. The entire fabric could be restructured to lead her to him, drawn moth-fire towards his arrogant disputations of altruism, but convinced that an immanentist presence in the scaffolding of the ideology had to die at her own hands to enforce the intellectual order that only the great individuals matter and they matter like lions matter. Like a lion, the blood drizzling down from Rand’s mouth as she smears her face and tastes her quarry. What would she say to the police? “Be men, be great men, rise up against the conformity of the force and say enough, and let your conscience be your guides.” They haul her away smirking over another loony dame in a degenerate city.  She appears later on a special Firing Line that takes us inside Bayview in a lurid women’s prison segment where she stares blankly out at Hoboken and laments the existence of New Jersey. William F. Buckley asks her if it was worth it and she responds absolutely, that there is perfection and heroism in what she did. She is also getting a lot of writing done inside, when they let her have pencil and paper.

 

I have a coffee meeting with Winborn a week later following pushy rounds of meeting requests from his admin. He cycles down the hill to meet me. I comment that we could have found something closer and that he has the uphill to contend with going back. “That’s what I look forward to,” he enthusiastically responds as he orders his coffee. I take a seat and watch as he argues with the barista over some problem with the quantity of foam in his drink. The girl, not more than twenty, looks confused over his directions and he is angry, his neck pulsing and reddening as he puffs up. I feel flight or flight rising in me as other customers turn around to assess the situation. The voices are hidden behind the whir of the coffee grinder for a moment, and then Winborn sits down with me. He has his drink and is calm.

“Everything alright?” I ask.

He nods agreeably, “Yes, fine.”

I wait for a moment for him to frame the meeting.

“Are you ready to start?” he asks directly and without hesitation.

“I think so, but need a few weeks to get everything I’m currently working on complete and ordered.”

“I thought you are unoccupied? I almost said ‘retired’ but that isn’t appropriate for our age group.”

“I am. I just have one quarry in my crosshairs right now,” I responded, avoiding grinning about the literal referent lashed to what was otherwise a common abstraction in business circles. Winborn was suddenly looking out the window of the coffee shop, apparently dropping the conversational thread as he peered at something. I followed his gaze and saw a police cruiser was pulled parallel to a black SUV. Windows were open and there was an ongoing discussion between shadows in the vehicles.  A hand emerged and shook a flat palm in the air. I wondered if Winborn was concerned that his bike had been taken, but could see it leaning against the plate window of the coffee shop.

“Uhuh, right,” he distractedly responded, excused himself and headed for the bathroom. He was gone for more than ten minutes before finally returning, much calmer. I had distracted myself with The Times on my phone during the interim. Winborn had been caught off guard by gastrointestinal distress, I decided, and he seemed distant even after returning, excusing himself after a few minutes of discussion and making his way to his bike, his clip-on shoes clattering on the tile floor. He waved cursorily as he fixed his sunglasses and began pedaling away, bioluminescent logos glowing off his back.

Killing John Galt, Part II

“Thanks. I’m doing some writing,” I responded. The elongated buildings of SLAC, like a parked train, suddenly suggested a death scenario for Galt: fried by proton beams. I had no idea if one could be fried by protons, but it seemed likely if they were accelerated to high-enough energies. That would require research and I doubted I had the energy to call and bother and get interviews with the relevant parties. I could just wing it. Galt the crispy mess. He tried to directly manipulate the beam at CERN to prove he was the God particle.

“I want to get into social entrepreneurship,” Winborn continued, his eyes narrowing as a coy smile escaped the serious corners of his mouth, “and I need someone to run the effort.” He paused and waited. I gave an exaggerated and perfunctory exhalation, and then smiled.

“Oh, I see,” I responded, “that’s quite a shift for you, Sam, from what I understand.”

“Yeah, but I think it’s the right thing to do. I want to raise a fund and see what can be done based on creative solutionsmaking.”

I cringed at the slurred, ad hoc portmanteau. He was excited, which was good, but it also meant he was exploitable. I could resist and build my terms against his aspirations. Why had I been chosen for this? I could only think that he had read my vitae and latched onto my Peace Corps service some twenty years in the past. I hadn’t been driven specifically driven by a desire to serve. It was a lack of focus or direction that had been my motivator at the time, stalled between graduation and graduate school and without debt or obligations. My “burn rate” at the time (a moment of acid reflux, here, because that’s a phrase accumulated in the crucible of building businesses while keeping families in new shoes and the tenuous threat of being without health insurance) was almost nothing. I could drop by home and catch a meal here and there. I worked a bit as an intern at a consulting firm specializing in transforming databases from one matrix into another to solve this or that analytics problem. I stayed up late with my girlfriend, smoking hash in the night. The economy was stalled and defense spending was drying up. Peace Corps seemed a colorful distraction before diving back into studies. I could decompress in some village far removed from the expectations of Western society.  John Galt came to mind again, leading an exodus of engineers to strike against mediocrity, all in alignment with a storm of abstractions and ideologies. Why had they signed up? Maybe one of the striking technologists accidentally unplugs the safety system of Galt’s elevator and he gets to contemplate his fate for a brief few seconds during free fall, his briefcase and fedora rising up around him as the car plunges downward.

“OK,” I responded neutrally, “But why? What motivates you now at this point in your life?”

“Right. Well, I could tell you a simple story, here, but it is actually more complex than I might have thought a few years back. Can I bore you a little?”

This was an unusual demonstration of earnest depth for a busy person with such a unity of focus, so I nodded encouragement. I had no other appointments for the day and just planned to go for a walk along the waterfront with the dog and think more about Galt’s execution.

“As a businessman committed to the efficient application of capital through the venture system, I realized a long time ago the close relationship between evolution and what we do. Adam Smith inspired Darwin, Darwin inspired the Social Darwinists, championed by the magnates of the era—a misinterpretation that was corrected over time—but the dog-eat-dog competition idea, as a refiner and corrective for sloth and indifference, remained. But corporate behavior is group behavior and we all hold that teams are the most essential part of what we do. I sometimes feel like I’m just a talent tracker and matchmaker, building relationships between people who are complimentary. What is the moral fabric of this system? It is certainly not compassion in the religious sense. Yet we hold that there is some values system that we hardly question. If nothing else, we treat one another respectfully and the taxes we generate get applied more broadly to social goods even while we conspire and scheme to minimize our payments to The Golden State and the Feds.”

He sipped at a water bottle colored by some energy-enhancing additive and continued, “Some in our field are libertarians and think that even that application of tax dollars is misused. The arguments range from welfare creates dependencies to a broad indictment of the ability of a government to apply resources efficiently because centralization short circuits the required information flow for good decision-making. It irritates me, that. Why can a corporation do things any better? I know CEOs who can’t tell you their headcount right now. But what I never understood was the inconsistent and literal application of anti-group ideas. In the natural world competition is almost never between animals but almost always between animals and the environment. The struggle is to survive the winter, to survive disease, for your calves and foals to survive predation. What formed the backbone of the urge towards compassion is exactly what makes us work together to create new things.”

I had my coffee beneath my nose, sniffing the bitter vapors, wondering why this pitch was starting from such abstract premises. Winborn hardly seemed the part based on his manner and his background. He leaned in more closely, his water bottle dangling between his knees. I could tell from the drape and slackness of his arms that he had been on a long ride. “So social entrepreneurship is not merely compassion, but is efficient compassion?”

He waved his bottle at me in a flourish of sloshing negation, “No, no, nothing like that. It might be more efficient. A little thought on the application of charitable giving can be efficient, too. No, I just see it as copacetic with my institutional leanings. I know how to build businesses and organizations, and know people who know these things, too. So apply the same methodology. But that isn’t the motivator, really; the motivator is just the realization that we are suspended in a social gel and that any arguments from the desires of individuals are dependent on co-existence, mediation, or destruction of others.”

“A tragedy of a social commons, if you will,” I volunteered, imagining a phalanx of sheep hurtling towards Galt as he stood atop a hill with a classic ribbon microphone like a shoebox before his face. It would not do, I knew. A parody can be self-referentially transparent but there are extra points available for subtlety. Phoebe, I was in Phoebe. A large print of the moon hung on the north wall, perfectly juxtaposed against a granular image of the dark side on the south wall. Ancient Soviet achievement, I initially thought, but refocusing my eyes I realized the granularity of the image was due to a fine mesh of letters laid over the grayscale of the lunar surface. A hidden message, perhaps, encoded by the artist, but I was too far away to do more than notice it.

“I’m here both because of my own capabilities and because of the people who supported me and the institutions that I have been a part of,” he continued, “The rise of the West is a study in contrasts between the inevitability of sharing, redistribution, collectivism, and opportunities that were bound up in the environment. Railroads, mines, oil, fish, furs. When supply is eclipsed by demand, the urge towards interventionism, compassion, and control arises, but the supply will always end under unsustainable conditions and we are then left with invention. There is no inevitability to compassion oppressing creativity. They exist in an orderly balance, I think, and I want to be a part of turning creativity back into compassion.”

I was surprised and impressed, but perhaps I should have believed that there was more than herd investment strategies and due diligence behind these faux mahogany walls. My contact experiences with investors had been as limited as any entrepreneur: pitch, pitch, pitch, wait for term sheets. And they sat through the same cycle, trying to stay apprised of dozens of shifting and emerging trends in the space of their practices. I decided that Winborn knew more about me than I had suspected, and that this was part of his recruiting strategy, though it was an elaborately intelligent effort to recruit someone to a personal quest if that was the case. But maybe that was too cynical. Why wouldn’t he put forward great effort for something that was of perhaps greater importance than the mere creation of wealth for his institutional investors?

“What exactly do you want to do?” I queried, cutting into the thick abstractions with knife-like precision.

“Start it up. Run it. Same standard profile as any investment opportunity, but with a basket weight of return on investment and some kind of measure of return to human capital. The improvement in graduation rates, the rate of retention of minority students, the reduction in global HIV infections, the increased adoption of solar power. You create the metrics and we iterate and form a portfolio. We start with seeds and then move to A rounds as we attract institutional investors or, more appropriately, institutional charitable givers.”

“What kind of time commit?” I asked, wondering if the question itself could be considered in bad taste given the nature of the endeavor, but also moderately jealous of my time, including the endless considerations of Galt’s fate that were possessing me.

He nodded conciliatorily, “Oh, start it slowly. Figure out what works for you. Find some office space. You can share here or get something somewhere else. You probably should keep office costs down, you know?”

“Absolutely. I could operate out of the seating area of the Whole Foods,” I joked, watching for his response.

I was back out in the lambent sunlight in another twenty minutes with plenty to think about. The breeze had died while I was inside and there was an edge of heat beginning to rise off the dark parking lot. On the way out I had stopped by another pedestal of artistry trapped inside plastic like a frail insect in amber. It was a miniaturized mechanism, like a fine watch, with layers of papery gears that collided with one another at implausible angles, guaranteeing that the machine was incapable of any movement whatsoever.

Killing John Galt

Intro of my short story, Killing John Galt, from 2011:

How do I kill John Galt? That compact question was consuming my waking thoughts. Plots formed into charts, and charts into mental maps overlain by dramatic forms—murder most foul, suicide, death by ridicule, a drowning, evisceration on the aerial of a low-flying aircraft, a push and crash through a plate glass window, the splintering cacophony of an airborne piano—each device trying to fit the cogs of the pubescent story that was my most recent side project. I emphasize that it was a side project. I am not a writer and don’t care to be. Or, more accurately, I do actually write and earnestly wanted to kill Galt in some literarily significant way, but could only spend a few minutes each day stalking him.  I would therefore never profess to be a writer, with all the semantic baggage that surrounds and enervates the term, but, if Galt died, I would readily admit to having killed him and even that I had enjoyed it.

Then I am an assassin, I thought, as I pulled into the parking lot of the venture capitalist group off the freeway south of San Francisco. The cat-piss smell of decaying Eucalyptus drifted over the rows of luxury cars. A Mexican gardener with a facemask paused his weed eater according to protocol as I drifted between the planters looking for the lobby of the building. The buzz began again and I glanced back as the device sliced deeply into the grass and sent a vortex of clippings into the air. An accident, I thought; Galt chopped up by a robot-controlled combine on a giant industrial farm. It became picturesque: purple and black monsoonal clouds contrasted against ochroid fields; the green machine as large and menacing as a dinosaur churning Galt’s body into blood vapor.

Inside the machine’s noise collapsed as the tinted glass door closed. There was art and I took a moment to look around as a flat Asian face studied me from the reception desk. She was pretty and unadorned save dianthus lips reflecting slivers of light from a screen hidden below. Each sculpture was on a pedestal and trapped inside a cube of Plexiglas. The pedestals were veneered to resemble mahogany. The design motif continued in the reception desk and onto the walls of the space, with the coloration faintly mimicked in ruddy floors of stained and sealed concrete. I edged closer to the nearest pedestal. The face watched me but was willing to wait a few moments until I finished with my distractions. There was a mechanical device inside the transparent box. It was concentric brass rings, designed to look old, perhaps medieval, and held together with bits of slick leather. My immediate thought was astrolabe or antique measuring device, but there were tiny intaglios along the rim: cell phones, sports cars, computers, flat-screen televisions, and atomic bombs. New meets old. A clever joke like the entire oeuvre of Koons, etched small. I laughed and the receptionist looked up suddenly and asked if she could help me. I had an eleven AM meeting with Sam Winborn, I told her, and she consulted a display hidden in her desk.

“You’re in Phoebe,” she said flatly and stood. I waited, unsure what that meant, until she invited me to follow her back to a conference room. Coffee was brought and I stared out the window at the arrow of the Stanford Linear Accelerator piercing the coastal hills. Killing John Galt was just a way station in the plot convolutions that I needed to build my parody of Ayn Rand. Conceptually, the basics were already in place. Rich industrialists were consumed with their intellectual superiority, with the power of their wealth, and with the desire to manipulate the political landscape and marketplace to generate more wealth. The great unveiling arrives late in the book when one of the principal characters has an opportunity to productize a new cold-fusion energy cell but determines that it would cannibalize sales of his oil and gas products. Change is suppressed in an accountancy exercise. There is no complex bureaucracy conspiring to enforce mediocrity or willful masses interfering with excellence. The power relationships flow the other way, exploiting the weaknesses in the law and the psychology of the masses.

But it was the economy of commodities and extraction and marketing that my plot concerned. Rand was a visionary failure in that regard—hence the parody—looking backwards at the robber barons as antitrust regulations were ginned up out of the vapors of their excesses. I was in a different world now where margins were still the conceptual driver but where disruptive innovation was the counterpoint in the layered movements of the symphony of investment cycles.

Winborn arrived in t-shirt and cycling shorts. I could smell sweat tinged by body wash rising off him. He was trim and young—mid-forties—a product of excited waves of technological investments and term sheets and IPOs. He was notoriously inattentive, drifting into odd soliloquies with little notice, but then reemerging to ask pointed questions and make snap decisions. His record was good by the VC community’s standards where exits and valuations were the measures of worth.  I was not here to pitch him anything, however. I was seasoned by two exits myself, with the second one sufficient to keep me in Priuses and Bordeaux until I died. I was here at his request to talk about something different, something new. His admin had contacted me a month back and requested a meeting. Sam knew me from a friend and another friend’s colleague. The timing had been bad, then got worse, but then finally opened up, and I finally drove down. He apologized for that but then turned intense after a brief pause.

“To the point, then. Thanks for your time and I hope your retirement is sufficiently fulfilling.”