2. Sonic Stress
by Urno Barthel
It was Tuesday, my second day at the job. I had escaped the laser dungeon by a whisker, and now that I confronted my home department, I had an even bigger test to undergo. One which would permanently blight my work life, unless I committed mayhem to escape it.
The parking lot at Halsted Aeronautic Laboratory was sparse at 8 in the morning. I was glad to see my colleagues were exercising their right to flexible hours. I flashed my badge at Maria in the lobby and headed for Computer Science, ready to check in. Holly Morris, the sunny assistant, was booting her computer. “Hi, Evan, Ashley says come on in.”
Dr. Ashley Tanaka, the department manager, appeared to be composing a document, papers spread out next to the monitor. I didn’t know when she had started work, but there was an almost-empty coffee cup on the desk.
“Evan Olsson,” she said, “welcome to HAL.”
“Er, Ashley,” I said, not yet used to the first-name stuff, “I see you’re in the middle of something.”
“No matter. I’d rather talk with you than write a report. Management is the price to pay, people are the reward.” She had an open oval face, an even-tempered voice.
I settled into the guest chair, noticing an old-looking woodblock print framed on one wall. “You have the ocean, right here in your office,” I commented.
She beamed, short hair glossy under the lights. “The first time I took my husband to Japan, he fell in love with ukiyo-e. He gave me that as a present. It was beautifully wrapped, I think he took lessons.”
“Your view is impressive,” I said, not knowing what to say.
“You’ll have the same view,” she said, “We have a nice office for you, almost over the front entrance.” She glanced at my case. “Looks like you brought a laptop. That will tempt you to take your work home. Of course, the office has a desktop, tied with the network. Whatever horsepower you need.”
“Macs are OK?” I asked.
“Dual standard here. Some folks would kill me if I took their Mac away, and the Finance people would torch the building if we took their PCs. So we support everything.”
“Um, I’ve been working on distributed software agents.”
“Yes, I remember from our interview. We have a similar project, the woman on it is looking for a change. I think you’ll find it interesting, or if you have other ideas, we could modify the work statement.”
We talked technology for a bit and she mentioned similar research she had done at MIT.
I opened my eyes a bit. “Another refugee from academia?”
Ashley smiled. “Not a refugee. Just following the Grand Plan.”
I gave a questioning look and she continued. “My husband and I taught at MIT. Flexible schedules, so we had time to raise kids. When the girls got older, things opened up, so I got to take a full-time job, working here. Harry teaches at UCLA – he loves to wipe the noses of those restless undergraduates – and he picks up our girls after school.” A brief pause. “Do you have children?”
“I was married in grad school, we were too busy for kids. And once I graduated, my wife took off for Charleston. Being a marine biologist is lots more interesting than being married to me.”
Ashey lowered her eyes for a moment, then said, “Well, I’m sure you’ll be interesting to the right person.”
“We’ll see, now I’m back in my old stomping ground. The scene of my misbegotten teens.”
“Holly mentioned that you grew up here, you know the area.”
“Yes,” I said, “and there’s a condo down payment burning through my pocket. Holly was trying to interest me in looking up the coast.”
“I live in Brentwood. Perfect balance between HAL and UCLA. You might find more social life if you were close in.”
“Well, I love my dirt bike, and I don’t think you have good trails in such a civilized area.”
I could imagine she was thinking, well, you make your choice, you lie in it. What she said was, “I had a thought. Why don’t you prepare a talk for our staff, explaining your Caltech research? Introduce you to the department.”
“Sure,” I said. “Great idea. Might as well start with what I understand before I get lost in what I don’t.”
Ashley smiled and placed her hands together. “Holly will show you your office and tell you how to access the server.”
I gathered that the meeting was over and got up. As I started to the door, Ashley added, seemingly as an afterthought, “I should mention that the office is empty because not everyone likes the location.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Well, it may be just fine for you. Give it a try.”
A foreboding statement. Later, I wondered whether Ashley’s calm façade cracked a grin once I got out of sight.
It was good to have a concrete assignment to introduce me to the staff. Part of my reason for being at HAL was the chance to collaborate and stop being a lonely researcher. Now I could package my recent work and use it as an entry ticket with my colleagues.
The office was quite narrow, perhaps nine feet, but I could tolerate it with that wonderful view. Shelves to pollute with my stuff. Drawers, ditto. Plenty of desk, abundant light.
So I dug right in, and of course I found the assignment might not be that simple. My talk had to be intelligible to folks with different specialties, yet deep enough to reveal the scientific point of the work, the new stuff. All of it in the context of work going on at Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Stanford. So I needed to concentrate, give it my best aim.
I settled in and pulled up some reports to read. I was on about page three when I heard someone speaking in my ear. “Ginny! Come on in!”
I hadn’t heard anyone enter, so naturally I spun my head around. No, the speaker was not at my ear, although he might just as well have been. His was a baritone, deep and resonant, a voice that would carry across Grand Central Station at commuter hour. Stentorian, you might say, though you would be accused of under-representing it.
I could barely hear a female response, “Hi Bob, got some results to show you.”
Again the booming megaphone. “Great, roll them out here!” Rubbery squeak of desk chair skidding across the floor.
The wall was seemingly a thin partition, no insulation, I could not avoid hearing my neighbors. Thus I learned that Ginny and Bob were collaborating on a neural network approach to software management.
I would have preferred them to be working on, say, malaria vaccine, or microwave circuits. Unfortunately, the topic was interesting enough to me that I couldn’t ignore it. I could only put it aside while I read a few sentences, then Bob would come booming through again and I was yanked right out of what I was doing.
I could see why this prime office was abandoned, begging for an occupant. No doubt some sensitive soul before me had committed ritual suicide after one too many performances by his neighbors.
The high-dynamics opera continued for 20 minutes, then they both high-tailed it to Ginny’s office, far down the hall. I had blessed peace again. I was able to settle into my reading for a good half hour, making notes of points to study further, when, so help me, I heard that immense voice.
“Here, Ginny, let me show you an article I found on this stuff. You’ll like this, I think. OK. Oops. Try again. There it is. OK, now bigger. Here, take a look.”
A murmured response.
“Yes, they’ve got the weight factors built right into the rules. And those are subsumed as higher level routines. Here’s what I think…”
The voice continued, interrupted by pauses, presumably times when Ginny was replying, if not actually writhing on the floor holding her ears.
There must be an office on the other side of this zoo. I wondered how its occupant could possibly survive. Perhaps he was deaf. Had he become deaf? Maybe he had purposely deafened himself? Or was he swathed in a cocoon of sound-absorbing material, quivering with sonic stress?
I had to check the situation. I ever-so-casually strolled past the loud neighbor, noticing R Callum on the tag by the door. Past that office was another, without identification. I investigated and found that the nameless office had no desk, no resident. It had been converted into a small service center with copy machine, fax, shredder, printer, office supplies. So HAL had solved the problem – sort of – at least, on that side.
Noon was approaching. I escaped to the third floor dining center and searched the cafeteria offerings for Nepenthe, the magic elixir that would banish my sorrows. Not finding it, I settled for beef stew, a roll and iced tea.
Holly was next to me in the line, all smiles, which cheered me considerably. I wished I were not a new employee, that I knew her better, so I could gently raise the question of Bob. But neither of those things were true, so I made small talk instead.
I intended the chat to steer Holly to a table where I could get better acquainted, but before I got to that point she spotted waving hands and said apologetically, “Evan, I’ve gotta chat with those ladies. Haven’t caught up with them for a while.” She motioned to a four-top with a single occupied seat. “But there’s one of our department folks, I’m sure he’d like to get acquainted.”
I was disappointed, but I walked to the table and settled my tray. The fellow across welcomed me with a smile. “Hi, you must be Evan. New guy from Caltech. Have a seat, feed your inner man.”
He seemed familiar somehow. “Yes, and you’re …?”
“Bob, Bob Callum. Trojan thru and thru. Just five years out of school myself.”
OMG I thought. This is the guy who’s been making my day miserable. But he’s not shouting. What’s going on? I chatted with Bob for a bit and grudgingly decided that he was actually not a bad sort. At 30, he was a coupla years older than me, single, living on Ocean Ave in Santa Monica.
Here I was, my second day on the job. Am I going to make a permanent enemy and be a shit about something this guy can’t help, maybe isn’t even aware of? Anyway, it’s not my style to confront people, why do you think I’m a scientist rather than, say, a cop or soldier or shop foreman or …
So I wimped out, and Bob and I had a perfectly pleasant visit. He was delighted to tell me about his project. And Bob’s project was technically interesting, which created an even bigger problem for me.
Thus arrived my new dilemma. Back in the office that afternoon, I tried to concentrate and wouldn’t you know it, that booming voice rattled the windows again. Now that I knew something about his project, I couldn’t help paying attention to what Bob said. However, it was like hearing one side of a phone conversation, Ginny’s voice so soft that I missed half of everything that went on.
So I was worse off than ever. I almost wanted to ask Ginny to start shouting too, so at least I wouldn’t miss the point of what they were saying. But then there would be no hope at all of putting together my talk. I was trapped between a desire to know more, and a desire to find a Samurai sword and hack this Bob guy to pieces on the spot.
In desperation, I came up with a workaround.
I grabbed the laptop and went a-travelin’. 24 ounce coffee, parked myself in a corner of the dining center. It was quiet, the large space almost my very own.
It was idyllic at first. Then I became aware that the ocean spread across every window added up to a pretty big glare. After an hour of squint time it was beginning to get to me. And it was not a permanent solution anyway. It might work to prep this talk where I had everything in my MacAir, but for regular work I needed the office computer and its wideband access.
I was regretting this entire phase of my life when I got a boost by seeing Holly emerging from the cashier with a coffee. I waved her the flag of distress and she stopped by.
“Hi Evan, you seem to be settled in here.”
“Welcome to my giant office, Holly.” I spread my arms in a welcoming proprietary gesture. “Um … I hate to say it, but it’s difficult to work in my real office.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Funny, that’s what Oscar said before he hung himself.” She saw my look of alarm and giggled. “Sorry, I shouldn’t say things like that. But he was a pretty sensitive guy, bailed out and found a different office. Maybe you’re in the same league.”
“Holly, I try to be mild and courteous with ladies. And where guys are concerned, no one has ever accused me of having a hair trigger. But Bob’s thundering will turn me into a homicidal maniac.”
“Evan, it’s just when he’s with Ginny. You know how some people talk in a normal voice, then they pick up a cell phone and shout as if they didn’t even need a tower? Ginny seems to be Bob’s cell phone. She must get him all excited, he doesn’t realize what he’s doing.”
I managed a wan smile. “Well, I’m going to bring in my noise cancellation headset tomorrow and see what I can do.”
“Good idea,” she said, “bring me the report!”
Thus braced, I endured the afternoon and left right at 5. I intended to read some technical material at home on my laptop, but the day left me so exhausted that the best I could manage was to lie down on the sofa, sipping an ale and feeling sorry for myself.
On Wednesday, I was ready with my high-tech solution. The headphones are supposed to pick up surrounding sounds, then feed you the opposite sound, so it all adds up to nothing. I found that they aren’t perfect, all they did was to reduce Bob from stone-deafening to grossly annoying.
However: I could improve matters by adding sound to override the remaining resonance of Bob’s voice. I picked some energetic music, techno-pop seemed to work, and cranked up the volume. Then Bob’s periodic announcements simply blended in with the bass and the general cacophony. But now I found my foot tapping and my arms twitching as I read, and somehow the music unhinged my thinker from my vision. I was running at about 10% capacity.
I was in extremis, I had to wrestle the issue directly. So when lunchtime came, I went straight to Bob’s table. He was happy to see me, wide-eyed innocent that he was, unaware that I wanted to leap across the table and wring his neck.
His warmth caught me off balance. “Evan, how are you settling in? After your purgatory in Pasadena?”
Damn. He was such a decent and friendly guy, here away from the echo box of his office. So in spite of myself, I kept my manners. “Well, I spotted a condo I might be able to afford. Up the hill from Getty Villa. I went to PaliHi so I have friends here. Some of the women have divorced, and they may be prospective dates.”
Bob looked sad. “Evan, you’re lucky to have options. Unfortunately, there’s only one woman for me, and I’m not having a lot of luck.”
I was startled to hear this personal revelation, but hey, I thought, maybe friendships move faster in industry than in sleepy academia.
“Who’s the lucky lady?” I asked.
Bob nodded slightly at a table where four women were chatting up a storm. “The one with the short hair.”
I saw a thirtyish woman in a crisp business outfit. Pleasant enough to look at, but I personally favored the party-going type. “I suppose you’ve talked to her,” I said.
“Oh, I see her all the time,” said Bob. “Ginny and I are partners on this neural network project. We work very well together. But she’s not sending me any ‘available’ signals. She’s super-businesslike. And when she’s not working, she’s catching up with those women, whatever it is they talk about.”
I was amazed. So this was the mysterious quiet-voiced woman.
But Bob was still talking. “I hope to interest her in sailing. Something I know how to do, something that’s not work, work, work. But I gotta find the right time.”
I made a sympathetic sound, but didn’t voice my thoughts. For I was skeptical that anyone as shy as this guy was ever going to find the right time. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help wishing that Bob would get on his boat and get lost at sea. I had still not solved my own problem.
But so help me, Bob’s dilemma nagged me all afternoon. I spent part of the time huddled in the dining center, escaping the voices, and part in my office, bouncing with dance rhythm.
Midafternoon I left my desk, picked up a latte at the dining center, and strolled onto the patio. I was in luck: among the employees taking a break, Holly was just leaving with her coffee.
I persuaded her off to the side and confided, “Holly, help! I’ve got an insoluble problem.” She blinked, and I continued, “Bob is driving me nuts. And Bob has his own troubles. Ginny seems to have a chain around his heart. What am I gonna do?”
Holly paused a moment, thinking. Then she pursed her lips and said, very quietly, “Evan…”
I leaned toward her. “Yes?”
She continued more softly, barely above a whisper. “This … might … work …”
I leaned even closer, raptly awaiting the deep secret, and then I got it. I lifted her hand, looked into her eyes, and gave her knuckles a respectful kiss. “Holly, you’re brilliant!” I murmured. I moved away, continuing, “I’m on the case!”
I strolled off humming to myself. I think it was “I get by with a little help from my friends”.
Thus it was that there on the patio, suspended between sky and beach, an angel delivered the Ultimate Revelation from on high, with cherubs wielding trumpets. I moved briskly down the hallway, resolved to act this very day.
I watched for the moment. A bit after 5, Ginny wrapped up her business with Bob for the day and walked briskly away. I showed my face at his door, surprising him. “Hey Bob, can I come in?”
“Can I pull the door shut?”
He gave me a questioning look but nodded yes. It was then that I revealed to him the Secret that had come to me. Yes, that’s interesting, he said, I think I could do that.
I would have liked to see more determination from him, but hey, give me a glass of port in a storm or whatever those sailors say.
On Thursday my workspace was gloriously quiet. Like the tomb. Friday, another blessing. I was able to dig briskly into my work, and I felt redeemed. I wondered how things were going, but I didn’t dare break the spell by peering around the corner.
On Friday about four, Bob’s face was framed by my doorway. He was bedecked with smiles like a garden fairy. “Evan, I am indebted to you, I am your servant forever!”
“Bob, did it work?” I said. But I knew that it had.
“Yes, beautifully.” He was speaking just above a whisper, his new-found skill. “I lowered my voice, and that made Ginny sit closer to hear me. I lowered it still more and she pulled her chair around next to mine. I got down to a whisper and we were shoulder to shoulder, her hair wisping against my face. And somehow, I just asked her to go sailing and she gave me a big smile and kissed my cheek. So we’re going out on the water tomorrow morning!”
I scrabbled my mental cobwebs, searching something worthy to say. “Bob,” I said, “you have quaffed the Draught of Silence and received a great blessing. Congratulations, have a wonderful time!”
– o –