Wednesday, 24 June 2009

BINARY CODE- Chapter 11- UBIquity

Faced with the twin shocks of loss and pain, the human heart builds a protective shell around itself like a kernel of seed corn, which lies wizened and hard in a granary until the combination of sun, warmth, and moisture recalls some deeply buried code to begin the cycle of life once more. In the few weeks after the accident, that is how my heart felt, like a little kernel of deadened grain in a breast emptied of feeling. Spring was a long way off, however. The autumn had given way to a hard winter of discontent. A chill had descended on my life which mirrored the change in seasons. After Thanksgiving I met Stokely and Tess in Richmond. I had learned to adapt quickly to having a cast and crutches. I sat at the front of the plane. I got to ride the little golf cart around the airport which beeped warnings to those in front. I got lots of sympathy from everyone, kindly flight attendants and helpful fellow travellers. Stokely and Tess were waiting for my plane and immediately the three of us headed towards Valhalla. It had been three years since I had last been there. Physically the place echoed the conflicts within the family that Tess had told me about. The Aunts were no longer there to oversee Mr. Gosnell or Jake, to point out minor flaws which needed attention. Their intimidating presence was gone, and with it the unspoken but everpresent influence on the care of the place. The paint was peeling on the boathouse, and for the first time in as long as I could remember there were no new planks of wood on the dock, replacing the ones which rotted away quickly under the constant buffeting of salt and wind. Though Stokely had called ahead to have Mr. Gosnell get the Whaler out of the barn, he had not done it. His wife said he was ill, but I suspected slackness. It was somehow more appropriate that we did it ourselves anyway. We were there for a solemn purpose. I was carrying Lydia's ashes. I had imagined that they would be in an urn or a grecian amphora. As it was, they were in a plastic bag in a box, neatly labelled with her name: Lydia Pickering. The bag had a plastic ziplock, much the same as one would get at the supermarket. We did not plan on staying the night, as the Winter House was not ready for receiving visitors. We arrived at midday. The sun was shining, but the sky had the telltale cirrus clouds which augured a change. We worked quickly getting the Whaler into the water and the outboard in working order. Aside from the box, all we carried was a Bible which belonged to the Aunts. I planned only on reading a single passage--Lydia's favourite from Corinthians about the sounding brass or the tinkling cymbal. Stokely and Tess were quiet. Stokely's mood had changed greatly from his visit in the hospital. He went about his tasks in a workmanlike way, determined that everything should be done correctly. He said very little, but what might have seemed a lack of emotion was actually respect. As he started to ease the Whaler out of the boathouse, I noticed tears well up in his eyes. I had few tears left to cry. I tried to lighten the situation by telling them the story that Lydia's old black nanny had told her, the same story she had relayed to me the night in the car when she had asked me to put her ashes in the Mobjack. Her nanny Mabel had been with her family for forty years following them around the world, and was born on a plantation in lowland South Carolina belonging to the Williams family. Mabel's uncle was charged with throwing the ashes of the matriarch into the river when she died, and just before he scattered them off the bridge, he said: "Mizz Wilyums, you is going to get wet now!" They both laughed when I told them this, but we all knew that this was laughter masking pain. What we did when we got out by the hawk's nests is a blur. I remember reading the passage, and then opening the plastic bag to trickle the remains of my wife over the stern to her final resting place in the waters of the bay. Then we sang Amazing Grace, and shivers ran up my spine, bringing back the time Lydia and I had gone to the Edinburgh Tattoo in Scotland and had heard it played by the massed bands of Scottish bagpipers, a thousand strong. The three of us sang as loud as we could, the only way we knew how to keep our voices from cracking from the emotion of the moment. The sounds echoed off the pines on an empty shore. Then we sat three abreast in the stern of the boat, our arms around each other in silence. Finally, Stokely started the engine. "God bless you, Lydia," he said. I closed my eyes and whispered goodbye. When I looked up I saw Tess with her eyes also closed, mouthing her own private words. We then headed in, put the boat away, and without stopping at the Bungalow, they took me to Richmond and put me on a plane north to my home. My home. It used to be our home, and though she is no longer there it will always be our home. It was the American dream, an old clapboard house in the Connecticut woods with a rock chimney, four acres of woods, and a tennis court. We had done so much work on it together. Our joint projects now screamed her name at me--the brick patio with the dutch bond pattern, the barn converted into a workshop for my carpentry and her weaving machine, the field we had cleared of rocks and turned into a lawn level enough for croquet games. The trees, stripped of their leaves in the late autumn, stood sentinel to the emptiness of the place. The first night back I sat alone in the den, an addition we had made to the house. It had wood floors, bookshelves built around a standup piano, and french doors leading to the garden. The walls were lined with pictures of our life together and on every surface was some small momento of her sure handed touch around the house. I poured two glasses of wine out of habit. I caught myself halfway through the second glass, but then I figured what the hell. I sat quietly--zombie-like--in the spot we referred to as our decompression chamber. This was around the oak table in an alcove where we would sip our wine in the evening, rising slowly back up to the surface from the murky depths of the workday. I had no appetite, and I sat there at the table for hours, rising only to go to the bathroom and to bring back another bottle of wine. I let the memories wash over me, getting the bad ones out of the way first: the tempestuous first year of marriage when she was a resident in the city hospital, the long siege which dragged on for years between her and my mother which ended with an unspoken armistice when my father died. There was also the miscarriage and the horrible day when we found out we could have no children. The disappointment of dashed hopes on that day paled into insignificance aside the feelings I now felt. The good memories far outweighed the bad though. The mind plays funny tricks on you. Certain experiences and characteristics are so vivid that you think you are actually there when you think them. Her laugh, for instance. I remembered the time the two of us went to the bank to ask for a mortgage. We knew we would get it, as we both had healthy and stable incomes and cash to invest. We weren't nervous or anything. It was just that something struck us as funny about the self-important lending officer sitting across from us. It could have been the toupee, the pencil thin Don Ameche moustache, or his brown suit. Somehow we got the giggles like altar boys in church and we could do nothing against the cascades of suppressed laughter, the aching sides, and the tears which no clenched jaw or averted glance could stop. We eventually had to excuse ourselves, and ended up going to another bank. The memory of that moment was so clear it was as though we had just walked out of the room. There were many more like it. That first night home was the toughest. I did not want to go to bed alone and stayed up until about three in the morning, when I stumbled up the stairs awkwardly trying to offset the wine-induced lack of balance with the crutches. The next morning I awoke late, and decided that come the next week I would make the effort to return to a normal life. I had promised my partner Sam I would come to work on Monday. I now held my work up as a beacon to guide me back to the land of the living, and for the first time since I started out as an ambitious youngster fresh out of business school, I threw myself fully into it. Unlike Lydia, who had followed a narrow and true path throughout her career, I had fallen into finance, so to speak. The financial world was at the same time both suited to and contradictory to my nature. It fit my competitive streak, but I think fundamentally I was indifferent to the spoils of winning in modern America, where the person with the most toys is the victor. I remember reading in a magazine on a plane about something a Japanese woman said. She said that life was not about addition, but about multiplication, and if you multiplied the hundred expensive things you owned times the zero inside you, you still ended up with zero. This struck a chord in me at the time. I now worked in a consulting firm specializing in corporate finance. I had followed a well trodden path early in my career through business school and various investment banks. I was swept along by the wave of mergers and acquisitions which crested during the eighties, and though I had spent a long apprenticeship crunching numbers and working out strategies, I learned a lot more about human nature. My skills lay in relations with the customers, in analyzing the human element in conjunction with the hard-nosed business side of dollars and cents. Sam was my mentor, and when he hit forty five I was ten years younger and had had just about enough of the commuting, long hours and the cutthroat competition. He suggested we set up our own firm to exploit our contacts and expertise. At our previous firm together we had come up with a strategy of defending a takeover which became known as the Russian Doll strategy in the press. It consisted of altering the corporate bylaws to split the company up into pieces within pieces in the event that levels of hostile ownership reached certain trigger points. The idea was that whoever bought the company would then find himself constantly opening smaller pieces which followed no logical pattern and were costly and troublesome to unpackage. The hunter would think he had bought a nice doll, but as he delved deeper, like the Russian dolls, he would find progressively smaller parts which had frowns painted on them. We had used this defense successfully several times, and when we left Wall Street we had enjoyed a modicum of success with our small boutique. So now I was a consultant. A friend of mine once defined a consultant as someone who knew a thousand ways to make love but unfortunately did not know any women. When Sam and I had worked together in the large bank, we shared this view, but like anything else, views mellow with age. Our company concentrated on providing advice to smaller companies who wanted Wall Street advice at Main Street prices. It was a profitable niche, not one which would buy yachts or islands in the Caribbean, but one which had allowed us a very comfortable life. Sam was a solid citizen. He was now fifty, and was no stranger to the slings and arrows of fortune. His wife had died of cancer, and he now spent time on his hobbies, on younger women, and on work. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of energy, a slow burn which showed no signs of stopping. In the next few months I leaned heavily on him for advice and support. As my cast came off he and I would occasionally take the afternoon off and go to the gym, where under his tutelage I would exercise the knee, gingerly working through the pain and gradually building up the atrophied muscles. Strangely I found the pain beneficial. It cleared my mind and gave me a point to concentrate on, something I could try to obliterate slowly. The dull pain of loss was impossible to obliterate. It had no focal point and would make sporadic appearances at odd moments that were completely unpredictable, touched off by things which would suddenly recall something Lydia and I had liked or done or eaten. Then the dull ache would return, reminding me again that I was alone. The months went by and the days marched in lockstep indistinguishable one from the next. Luckily we had a large deal to work on which took up a lot of time. We were called to help value the assets of a medium sized company who had been approached by a hostile suitor. Capitalism is a strange business. It is based on the ephemeral concept of value. The basic rule is that something is worth whatever someone else is willing to pay for it. It is as simple and as complicated as that. Entire industries have been spawned--armies of accountants, lawyers, investment bankers, academics, consultants--all of whom advance their particular arguments about what things are worth and why. In the strange world of the stock market where collective mania coexists with cold-blooded logic, situations routinely arise where the whole is worth less than the sum of its parts or where relatively pedestrian enterprises become ridiculously overvalued. We were one firm of many who spent our working lives trying to find an elusive true value. Our business was to balance value against independence and control. One day in April, six months after the accident, Sam called me into his office and told me he had received a call from a friend of his who had recently been named Chief Financial Officer of UBI. I had read of his appointment in the press. It was unusual in that he had not come from within the ranks of the company. UBI was a company in turmoil. Ten years earlier, it had been impregnable, the biggest computer company in the States and the world. It had been the model for excellence, envied and detested by its rivals and the standard by which all companies were measured. It was like the Roman legions when they were crushing everything in sight. It had its own ethos. Stokely once told me about going to an interview at Duke for UBI and being asked why he had worn a blue shirt. Not about his accomplishments or his plans or his philosophy of life. About the colour of his shirt. At UBI the uniform was white button down. That is what the business world wore, and that is what UBI gave them. UBI was ubiquitous. That was their unstated motto. People were comfortable buying their products. The standard line was that no purchasing manager had ever been fired for choosing UBI products. It was the safe choice. This was their strength and their greatest weakness. Goliaths have always been vulnerable from time immemorial. In the eighties the computer industry was turned on its head. Small became beautiful, and as power and speed shrank the size of the machines, so did it shrink the market share, profits, and stock price of UBI. The share price plummeted by two thirds, and suddenly the unthinkable became possible. UBI became vulnerable to a takeover. These were well-known facts. That they would be seeking to talk to investment bankers was not surprising. What was surprising was that they would want to talk to us, a firm with only 16 employees. Sam wasn't surprised. Their new CFO was a friend of his, and though something might eventually come of it, he was treating this initial visit as a brainstorming session with no obligation on either side. "Stranger things have happened," said Sam. "After all, all you have to do is add a few zeroes to what we've done for other people. The principle is still the same." I nodded, not completely convinced. Sam had set up a meeting for the following week. Part of me was intimidated by the sheer magnitude of the company, part was excited by the opportunity, and somewhere deep inside, a part of me laughed at the irony of giving advice to the company that Stokely's great grandfather had helped start.

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