S. W. Brackett works during the days in the intersection of numbers, science, law and policy. They have lived up and down the east coast and currently reside in Florida. S. W.'s favorite authors are Willa Cather and Virgina Lee Burton.
They say that 52 percent of Americans believe in fate. I suppose it’s easy to latch onto the notion that your life is predetermined or that you have a destiny, but I choose to work hard instead. I’ve never managed to find the easy path to anything, but that’s alright. I believe you have to earn success and purpose. I’m just not sure that I know how to do it.
I started building my model in my third year of grad school at Duke. My original plan was to work on climate modeling, but I attended five climate change conferences my first two years and realized that that field was fully saturated. I knew it was ridiculous to compete with hundreds of climatologists from around the world. It took me four more months to settle on soil devastation as my focus. I looked at soil conservation strategies, but pretty soon it was clear to me that conserving soil was a lost cause. Between soil loss, erosion, and pollution, there is just too much wrong for us to overcome the devastation. We’ll never do it. Pretty soon, we’ll face mass starvation because of a lack of arable land. We’ll also see flooding reminiscent of the Biblical story. All of that was clear to me after about a month of reading the literature, but what I did not know was how to translate what I could see so clearly into a dissertation.
I went to my advisor— a young academic named Byron Renday with a thick central Canadian accent and the wildest red hair you’ll ever see—with an idea of writing about the threats of soil devastation in the Yucatan. At the time, I was Byron’s only advisee. No one else wanted to work with him, because he had been #MeToo’d several years before. That was even before it was called #MeToo. I heard rumors that he had impregnated an undergraduate, a senior from Atlanta, I think. I don’t believe the rumors, though, because Byron had a picture of his smiling wife on his desk. In any case, I asked him to be my advisor because he seemed to have the time to give me special attention, and during my first semester he told me his doubts about the Origin of Species. I liked that. I mean, Darwin was smart, but he left a lot of holes.
Originally, I wanted to research soil devastation on the Yucatan, because I could use my Spanish and because I had read in a magazine article that some farmers in that part of Mexico are still using millennia-old techniques. But my plan did not satisfy Byron. He said I needed to think bigger.
I responded to him, “I thought the trick was to specialize. All of my classmates chose to study regions. Hortense is writing her dissertation about the environmental impact on salamanders from a single factory near the Mississippi.”
Byron, in that fashion that is peculiar to him, rubbed both hands violently through his hair. I learned quickly in grad school that he did this whenever he was thinking about what to say. I was convinced—I’m still convinced—that Byron is one of the most brilliant men I have known, but he is inarticulate. To his credit, he knows this, and he tries to compensate. I assume that he messes with his own hair as a means to pause himself before responding so that he can think of the right words. As I said, it’s peculiar to him, but many colleagues have picked up techniques over the years to help them behave in-line with societal norms. Byron’s particular tic stood out because his hair was naturally unruly and such bright red. If he cut it shorter, no one would notice when he did this.
Once he had sufficiently mussed his hair and pondered his words, Byron responded to me, “that’s Hortense. You’re going to do something bigger, and I’ll help you. You have something here, Kenny, and it can be bigger than you’re thinking. It could be more than a dissertation. Based on your initial assessment of the existing literature, when would you estimate this terminal date might be? When do you think we might see the point of no return for arable land?”
“Terminal date?” At that point, I had not yet thought of it in such fatalistic terms. I had only thought about the devastation of soil suitable for farming. “This is just an estimate off of the top of my head,” I told him. “But we might see the start of the downfall between 70 and 250 years from now.”
Byron tussled his hair again, but this time he moved his hands more softly, indicating that he had less to consider. He also made an anguished look on his face, like he was trying to convince himself of something that maybe he knew was wrong. After a moment he said to me, “the final number will have to be lower than the range you gave me, but I’m sure we can figure it out. The real number won’t come for several years. Listen, Kenny, email me some of the research that informed your thoughts on this idea and then come by my office again next Tuesday and we’ll start planning this. I’m tentatively excited. Maybe we have something here.”
I returned to Byron’s office on Tuesday as he told me to. Usually, he made me stand while we met, even if it was for an hour, but this time he offered me a seat. He began speaking immediately without pausing to consider his words as he usually did, and he did not bother moving his hands through his fiery hair. I thought at the time that he seemed enthusiastic, even compared to his usual excited state. While he was speaking, I distinctly considered that he had previously rehearsed the speech.
For almost 20 minutes, Byron went over his thoughts based on the research I had provided him and further research he did over the weekend. He had become convinced that soil devastation, “must be,” the focus of my research, and he decided that he would be involved in my work from the start. “This will be big, Kenny. Are you prepared? I know how this works. Do what I say, and we’ll make this into something great.”
That was four and a half years ago. Since then, I have built five successively more complicated and more detailed models of soil devastation. As I continued tinkering, each model led to a more devastating forecast than the version before it. I received my Ph.D. based on the project, though Byron made sure I did not have to write a full and proper dissertation. I wrote an article that I submitted to the magazine Natural Planet, and that was the basis for almost the entire dissertation. Byron and one masters student were co-authors. Before I even completed the Ph.D., I received tenure-track job offers from the environmental policy programs at two respectable research universities. My fellow grad students were undisguisably jealous, because I had done the near-impossible. It was almost unheard of to land a tenure-track job without a few years of tedious post-doc and fellowship positions. Everyone in my program stopped speaking to me, except for Aron. He told me our classmates could not understand why only I had good job offers. However, most of them have called me or emailed in the years that followed. They generally want to see if I can help their careers.
To everyone’s surprise, including my own at the time, I left academia and took a position at a fairly new think tank called Future World Initiative in Chevy Chase, just outside of the capital. There were four reasons for this decision, and I won’t tell anyone which reason was most important. One reason was that FWI offered me resources I could never get as an assistant professor at a university. Almost from the start, FWI assigned to me two full-time assistants, one with an archival research background and one with an education in data science. FWI also promised to purchase or lease all of the computing power I would need to run my model, and they committed to paying for consultants to assist with programming, if necessary. Another reason I went to FWI was the money: twice as much in salary as either school offered, plus benefits and a generous stipend for conference travel. A third reason I went to FWI is that Byron said it was a better spot to complete and publicize my research. Byron was impressed with FWI’s publicity and development staff, but I must admit that at the time that I was choosing a job I could not comprehend why a scientist would need publicity. I took his word for it, and now I’m starting to understand. The fourth reason I chose FWI was Jason, my partner. He had a job offer at a hospital in York, PA, and we figured we could live half-way between the two. We wanted to get married, so the FWI job just made sense. Jason is an orthopedist.
That’s how I came to work at FWI for the last two and a half years. Jason and I did get married, and we have a well-maintained and comfortable three-bedroom colonial in the middle of a quiet one-way street in a little town. Barney is our mut. He’s a schnauzer-poodle mix, and he barely knows us. Other than a late-night walk, we only spend time with him on the weekends. We pay a funny looking guy with six piercings on his face to walk the dog in the morning and during the day. Jason is talking about children, but I’m not ready.
At the office, I spend most of my time in a converted conference room where Nicki (we call her “Research Girl 1”), Jeannine (“Research Girl 2”), Derek (“Numbers Guy”), and Patrice (“Team Mommy”) do what I tell them. I know the nicknames might be considered offensive, but we spend a lot of time together, and they just formed naturally. As the head of the team, they just call me Kenny. At least, I don’t think they have a nickname for me. We have files, papers, and a few handy books spread across the conference table in an organized mess. A white board covers much of the east wall of the room, and a computer in the middle of the conference table connects to two 60-inch monitors mounted on the south wall. This computer is the system from which we run my model. This system, alone, runs on a secure, designated connection to the IT department, and it is protected by a physical padlock, a traditional passcode, and a biometric test. Only I can access my model on my own. Any combination of two of Research Girl 1, Research Girl 2, Numbers Guy, and Team Mommy can gain access together.
FWI has grown since I arrived. It now employs somewhere between 40 and 50 people, I think. They spoke about the growth plans at the staff meeting last month, but my mind was focused that morning on a small glitch Numbers Guy had just found with Model v5.2. Technically, my title is Senior Scholar, but I have a lot of autonomy. I’d like to think I’m as important as the Fellows and Senior Fellows. Of course, I know I fall below the Executive Director, Christine Shaldor, on the prestige scale, but my work is pretty important for the think tank. Every few months, they put me on a video conference or take me to a meeting with a wealthy donor to talk about my model. I review the work I’ve done so far, the work we are doing, and the implications of it all. I follow a script that is quite clear and that has been refined by the publicity and development staff at FWI over my time here. (See, I mentioned that I am starting to understand why a scientist would need publicity. It’s about the money).
Besides those meetings with donors, FWI keeps most of my work under wraps. They know I published that article in Natural Planet, but they insisted I embargo my dissertation so no one can look it up. They say they want to roll out my model at the appropriate time, but I’m not sure about the paranoia. That early work I did in grad school was Fred Flintstone’s brontosaurus compared to my current Ferrari of a model. However, because of their anxieties, all of my model work must be done in the designated conference room. Although, I do have my own office with a desk, phone, bookshelves, and all of that. On one bookcase in my office, I keep a picture of Jason with Barney and a small library of books on soil—soil formation, soil erosion, and soil loss. On another bookcase I keep a photo of a beach we went to in Delaware last year, a Baltimore Orioles hat, and a dozen books written by FWI colleagues which they gave me for free. I don’t like baseball, but the publicity and development staff want me to make the office look personal in case they ever bring a donor by. Those same women told me to keep a suit and tie in the office in case I ever needed them, so I have clothes hanging in a suit bag on the hook on my office door, and I keep a pair of loafers under my desk. I have not yet worn them, and sometimes I wonder if the suit pants still fit me since I’ve gained a few pounds with all of the takeout lunches and dinners I eat in the office.
Last night I fixed the inputs for CL166 and AR65, and now I have 37.977835 or a timeline of “less than 38 years” until the terminal date. I have a meeting this morning with Mrs. Shaldor to tell her about the latest development. There will be others from FWI there, probably some Fellows and Senior Fellows. These people spend their days writing books and opinion pieces in newspapers. They also give speeches, appear on unimportant panels, provide interviews to the press to describe the actions of other people, and just hobnob with government bureaucrats and other think tankers in DC. Few of these Fellows or Senior Fellows are real scientists. Most of them are former government “hacks.” Some were journalists. One owned a paint-your-own pottery shop in suburbia before she signed a book deal to write about artisans in northwest India, and now she’s a Senior Fellow and an “expert” on “Global Workers Rights.” These are the types of people who will be asking me questions about my model and prodding my work. They don’t really know anything about it, and they wouldn’t understand it no matter how long I tried explaining it to them. Mrs. Shaldor is no scientist herself. She majored in French at Wellesley almost half a century ago, and she doesn’t even have a master’s degree. However, her husband was an eight-term congressman and an Assistant Secretary of State. I think she knows everyone at every club in DC—and I don’t mean the Dupont Circle-type of clubs that Jason tried to drag me to on Friday nights when we first moved to the area. Mrs. Shaldor’s talents are not in the sciences.
So, here I am now, waiting in the sitting room outside of Mrs. Shaldor’s office. The blue plush rug is quite comfortable on my feet. It is so forgiving that I feel like my Adidas are resting on a pillow. Her assistant, Daniel, tells me to wait, and I get the feeling I may be here a while. Daniel doesn’t seem to mind, though. He’s older, maybe 45 or 50, but he always tries to flirt with me. It’s kind of pathetic, since I’m not yet 30 and much more attractive than him, but I try to play along to be nice. In a way, Daniel’s banter helps pass the time as I’m waiting.
Daniel gets a phone call while he’s in the middle of telling me about a trip he took to St. Lucia. Something about the way he tells the story and describes himself snorkeling makes me think that the trip happened a couple of decades earlier, and I find that really sad. Did he not have a more recent story to impress me? I don’t listen to him talk on the phone, because I think nosiness is the epitome of evil. When he hangs up, though, I look at him, and he is already motioning me to follow him into Mrs. Shaldor’s office to wait for her some more. There, he sits me in a stiff and creaky wooden chair across from her desk. The office has the same blue plush rug, though. I really like it.
One thing that always gets me when I visit Mrs. Shaldor’s office or the offices of Senior Fellows is how nice they are compared to mine. She has built-in bookshelves and a wide, wooden desk. I don’t know what type of wood; I never remember what different trees look like once they’re harvested and milled. It is all much nicer than my furniture, though, which is particle board with a veneer, essentially one step up from Ikea. Also, Mrs. Shaldor’s window looks out over the garden and a pond with a fountain. My office looks out over an alley and a brick wall 15 feet away. Yet, I can’t complain too much, because the conference room we work in also has a view of the lawn, but it’s only a partial view of the lawn. Mostly, we have a view of the road.
I don’t know how long I am waiting for her, because I forgot to check my watch when I came in. Daniel actually said something funny as he motioned for me to sit in the uncomfortable chair—he made fun of a receptionist’s messy lipstick application—and I was too distracted to see what time it was. Usually, I like to check the time whenever I go somewhere, change positions or move around a little. It helps me know how long I’ve been in one spot. It’s good to keep track of that data, but I’m not crazy about it. I don’t record it or anything.
Mrs. Shaldor walks in while I’m thinking about the weed killers used to maintain the pristine lawn outside of her window. She’s overly friendly as always. I must give her credit for being a perfect hostess, and she always knows what to say and how to make each person feel special. I rise to shake her hand, which she takes, but she quickly suggests I sit again. She even offers me a drink—"Coffee, water, orange juice, a coke?”—but I tell her Daniel already offered, and I’m not thirsty. Finally, she sits behind her desk and looks at me with a kindly smile. That’s when I realize we are alone. I was sure she would have invited at least a few Fellows and Senior Fellows to hear about my work, but instead it’s just us.
That’s why I ask her, “Is anyone else coming? I brought printouts to pass around.” It took me many months, but I came to realize that I should never attend a meeting at FWI without a PowerPoint or handouts. PowerPoints are necessary for a conference room or the auditorium; handouts are for meetings in personal offices.
“No, Kenny, we’ll save that for another time,” she says, so pleasantly and with such a kind smile that I’m not disappointed I printed the handouts for no reason. “I have a little surprise for you, actually, and it’s excellent timing now that you think you have finished this draft of the model—"
“My model is done.” I feel wrong as soon as I interrupt, but she has to know that the model is complete. Only new data can change the outcome, but my model itself is fully constructed.
“Okay, great.” That smile, her clear annunciation, and her calm demeanor are perfect. “Aren’t you interested in the surprise?”
I just nod. Sure, I’m interested, but I have never really liked surprises. I always found my birthday presents in advance so that I could feign the appropriate emotions when my parents handed them to me after cake. It was not hard, since my mother hid them in the same basement closet every year.
“Oh, look here,” Mrs. Shaldor says, so I look to her. However, she is not looking at me. She is looking beyond me, above me.
I turn around to see what she is looking at, and there stands Byron Renday, my advisor. His hair is cut much shorter than I have ever seen it before. Also, he is wearing a sportscoat and a tie, which I rarely saw him do during my grad school years. In his hand is a leather briefcase instead of the raggedy dark green computer bag he used to throw over his shoulder. He looks different, but it is Byron, always a welcome face. He taught me everything I know. Isn’t that what they say? It’s not entirely true in our case, but it sounds nice. It’s the kind of thing I could imagine saying at his retirement party or funeral someday.
Mrs. Shaldor is right, though. This is excellent timing for Byron to visit, because I’ll be able to show him the finished model. He stopped into the FWI office once soon after I started here, but now I have a staff of four and my own workspace. He’ll be impressed, and then I’ll tell him I owe it all to him. That is not entirely true, either, but Jason keeps saying I need to make people feel appreciated. I rise to shake Byron’s hand, and he sits down before me in the seat to my right. I notice that he does not wait for Mrs. Shaldor or me to tell him to sit down, even though he is the visitor. I look to Mrs. Shaldor to start talking, since she is the hostess of this meeting, but Byron starts instead.
“It’s nice to see you, Kenny,” he says, facing me. “Are you surprised to see me?”
“Actually, I am, but, as Mrs. Shaldor just said, you are visiting at a great time. I just finished my model last night, and I’d love to show it to you. Can you stay for an hour or two?”
Byron and Mrs. Shaldor both laugh, and I become uneasy. I don’t believe they’re laughing at me, because they’re both too old for such cruelty, and Mrs. Shaldor is too proper. There must be a joke I don’t understand. Still, it irks me that they seem amused about something I said or did.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Byron opens his mouth to say something, but Mrs. Shaldor cuts him off. I never saw her interrupt or preempt anyone before. “Dr. Renday is here to stay,” she says. “He is joining our team at FWI permanently. I thought you should be the first to know, Kenny, because you always speak so highly of him. I was hoping you two could reignite some of that magic you had at the university.”
It’s true. I have always spoken highly of Byron. I believe loyalty is important. However, I don’t understand what he’s going to do at FWI. Until I came along, his research was focused on the historical and prospective deforestation of the southeastern portion of North America, but that is not an in-demand topic these days. He co-authored that one Natural Planet article with me on soil devastation, and I know he has spoken about soil devastation at a few conferences, because I helped him with his notes for those. However, he has no particular expertise that a “forward-thinking think tank” like FWI would value. (“Forward-thinking think tank” is used all the time by everyone at the Future World Initiative, and the publicity and development staff have carefully inserted it into my lexicon).
“Welcome, Byron,” I say. It is all I can think to say.
“Thanks, Kenny. I can’t wait to learn more about your progress. I heard you and the others have been working hard on this project. It will be great to get in there and roll up my sleeves.”
What does he mean? I’m confused, and apparently Mrs. Shaldor sees that, because she steps in. “Let’s clarify some things here, because I think there may be some confusion.” Mrs. Shaldor stands up from her desk chair and walks toward her office door. “Dr. Renday is going to be our new James and Clarissa Burke Senior Fellow for Soil Management and the Future of Agriculture. I want him to guide the completion of the model and the rollout of the model into the public sphere. I know you two will work well together since you worked so well together before.”
Before I can grasp what this means, Mrs. Shaldor is signaling for me to leave the office. As Daniel leads me through the sitting area, Byron says, “Christine, when will we return from lunch this afternoon? I’d like to let Kenny know when to expect me.”
“We should be back by 2:30,” she tells him.
Byron calls out to me, “Kenny, come by my office at 2:45, will you? It’s two doors down from here. The nameplate’s already up. We can discuss the progress on the model then.”
I nod my head but don’t say anything before I leave. I notice that he called her Christine. I’m not so sure he should be so informal with her. Also, I wonder why they hired him. What’s he going to do here? I can’t imagine it will be too long before Mrs. Shaldor and the board realize that Byron has little to offer them. Meanwhile, maybe he’ll be able to help me a little with a final review of my model. This afternoon I’ll show him my work, and he’ll understand how much I’ve already accomplished on my own with only the help of my team. But what really puzzles me is: why does he have an endowed Senior Fellow position?
I go to Byron’s office precisely at 2:45. The door is locked, and a receptionist comes by to see if she can help me. I’ve never seen her before, and she obviously does not know who I am. She looks me over, not hiding her disapproval of my jeans, sweater, and sneakers, and she offers me a seat in the main waiting area by the front desk. I laugh and return to the conference room where Research Girl 1, Research Girl 2, Numbers Guy, and Team Mommy are playing on their phones and computers. They don’t have anything to do now that my model is complete. Now we’re just waiting for FWI leadership to tell me what to do with it.
At 4:00, I return to Byron’s office. I thought about returning at 3:00, and at 3:15, and at 3:30, and at 3:45, but I realized that he could find me if he wanted. When I get there at 4:00 precisely, the door is open, and he seems to be rearranging the furniture. He sees me and starts talking immediately without mentioning anything about his absence at 2:45. Byron fails to offer me a seat, just like in grad school. Instead, I stand in the doorway while he continues tinkering with the office furniture. First, he asks about Jason—they met once or twice—and tells me that he and his wife are subletting a two-bedroom apartment in Cleveland Park while they look for a house in the area. I’ve never met Byron’s wife. Why not? Eventually, I just tune Byron out as he talks about the real estate agent that “Christine” sent to his wife and about how generous FWI has been in covering added relocation costs. Instead of listening to him, I notice that his furniture is authentic wood as well, and his view is better than mine from the conference room. He also has a minifridge in his office and an attached bathroom which is apparently private. I don’t have any of that.
Finally, Byron is ready to talk about work. Still, he does not offer me a seat. I think of sitting down without an invitation, because I am now just as credentialed as he, but I choose to stand instead. “Let’s look at what you’ve got so far with the model—tomorrow morning,” he says, apparently forgetting that I was going to show him my model this afternoon. “I’ve got meetings and phone calls until 11:00, but I’ve already blocked off 11:00 to 11:30 for you and your coworkers to show me what you’ve been doing since you last updated me.”
“Byron, I was trying to tell you before. I finished my model. The final output is 37.977835 years, or 37 years and 356.9 days. And I’d appreciate if you don’t call the members of my team my coworkers. They work under me. I’m their boss.”
When he hears my reply, he sits in his desk chair. I suppose my tone may sound harsh, but I want to be clear and adamant. Byron looks at me without speaking and slowly rubs his left hand—just his left hand—through his now short red hair. I would not say it is closely cropped, but it is short enough that it has lost its wild nature. “I understand, Kenny. I did not mean to offend you. Let’s start going over things tomorrow at 11:00.” Byron stops talking for a second, but I know he has more to say, because he is still rubbing that hand through his hair. He starts again. “You know, if you want, we could meet earlier.”
“Earlier?” I ask. I generally arrive at 8:00, but there are usually only a couple of other people at the office that early. The only person I ever speak to at that hour is Aleksander, the morning janitor who is an immigrant—I think from Russia, but I wouldn’t want to presume. Aleksander likes to practice speaking English with me.
“Yes, do you think you could be here at 6:30? Then I could give you my full attention before my breakfast meeting,” Byron says.
I confirm 6:30 is what he said, because I don’t want to be stood up again like I was earlier this afternoon. I tell him I will see him then. In the end, I knew he would have the time to spend with my model and me. And he does. He is making the time, even waking early on his second day on the job to learn about my work.
I think I’m going to tell the team to go home early today as soon as we finish the afternoon backup. We’ve been working a lot of late nights—well, more me than them, but they’ve been working hard too. Besides, we can’t do anything until FWI leadership tells me what to do with my model now that it’s complete.
Getting home early for the first time in months is nice. Barney meets me at the door, but I think he’s confused. He probably thinks I’m the dog walker or something. Poor dogs. There is so much they don’t understand, and we never really know what they’re thinking.
I check Jason’s schedule and see that he’s supposed to be done at work at 6:00. I expect him home before 7:00. Maybe I’ll read a book for a little while and then make dinner for him. I’ll have it waiting for him when he gets home. He complains often that I work too much and don’t do enough spontaneous things for him. That’s why I will make dinner tonight.
Dinner is exceptional, if I may say so myself. I made roasted chicken and I serve it with a Vietnamese scallion sauce that I once saw on a PBS cooking show. On the side, I serve lightly steamed broccoli the way Jason likes it and roasted red potatoes sliced in half with a healthy serving of paprika on the open faces. In both of our glasses, I pour craft beer that Jason bought last weekend at a farmer’s market while I was in the office. While we eat, I tell Jason about my day, because he often tells me I need to share more about my life outside of home. I tell him about the meeting in Mrs. Shaldor’s office, Byron’s surprise appearance, and why I let the team go home early. I try to relay the conversations word for word and share each detail, even that Byron stood me up at 2:45, which is a little embarrassing.
When I finish, Jason puts his hand on mine. That’s something he only does when he’s trying to explain something serious or something that maybe I should have understood on my own. “Ken,” he says in that gentle tone he uses when he’s trying to spare my feelings. “Please be careful. I know you like these people. I see that, but they may not have your best interests at heart. You have spent almost five years of your life building this model, and it seems to me they may be trying to take credit for it. I know, I know, he’s your mentor, and Mrs. Shaldor’s been good to you, but this doesn’t seem right.”
I tell Jason I need him to elucidate, because I’m not positive about what he’s trying to say.
“Why is Byron here?” Jason asks. “Why did they hire Byron just as you finish the model? And, as you say, what use do they have for Byron? You’re the scientist who built the model. And why does he get an endowed Senior Fellow title while your title is just Senior Scholar? How much money and recognition did they have to offer Byron to get him to leave the cushy tenured professor job right at the prime of his career? And Mrs. Shaldor—I know you like her, but her interest is FWI. That’s her priority. Please don’t take this the wrong way, Ken, but you know that you are not the best at presentations and conversations, even after all of those sessions with the publicity team--"
“The publicity and development staff,” I interrupt.
“Yes, even after the hours and hours you have spent with them, what if—and don’t take this personally—FWI decided you are not the right face for rolling out your model? I know you can do it, and I have faith in you, but they don’t know you like I do. Maybe—and I pray I’m wrong—they plan to use Byron as the face of your work.”
Jason’s words have only elucidated a suspicion that was already growing in the back of my mind, but it’s not a thought I want to have. I have to acknowledge that Jason’s hypothesis would explain all the actions and statements that confused me during the day. Still, I hope he’s wrong. If he’s right—no, I can’t even think of what that would mean if he is right.
In the morning, I arrive at the office at 6:15 so I can straighten up the loose papers on the conference table. At 6:28 I go to my office, sit behind my desk and try to look busy, because maybe Byron will come to find me. He does not come, though. At 6:35, I check the conference room. He’s not there. I check the front door in case he doesn’t have a fob yet, but he’s not there either. I walk by his office, and he’s sitting at his desk writing on his laptop. He does not even look up at me until I speak, and he’s not ready to come into the conference room. I have to wait three and a half minutes for him to finally follow me. I don’t think Jason is right, but maybe he’s not entirely wrong.
The first thing I do is show Byron the complicated identification system one must go through to access the computer system. Byron cannot see the code when I type it in, but he is impressed. I can tell. I pull up my model on the two sixty-inch monitors and take him through the work. I start with Region 00001 and cover the variables, assumptions, and algorithms. I show him the Assumptions Sources Sheet which has reached 1,653 lines long. When I finished grad school, the Assumptions Sources Sheet was only 786 lines long. I show him the Conclusions Sheet, with the 37.977835 in bold, 18-point font at the top. The whole time I’m speaking, he takes notes in a brown leather notebook.
He doesn’t ask any questions until I finish talking, and then he says, “Look at that. It’s almost 7:15. I have to meet Christine in a few minutes, but I have a couple of questions, Kenny.”
“Sure.” I expected questions. In fact, I hope he will ask several so I can show off more of my work. I had no idea he needed to go at 7:15. I thought he would stay at least until 9:00 when the team usually arrives.
“Kenny, are you constantly updating your data as new information comes in from scientists in the field? And, if so, how?”
“Of course, Byron. Remember, that was one of the issues I faced in grad school. With the resources here, we are much more advanced, and we’re always improving. We handle it three different ways. First, we have a growing number of farmers, field scientists, and amateurs globally who report back to us directly with soil data on a bi-monthly basis. That data is inputted directly to a spreadsheet which we download and then share with my model. If we can’t do that in a given spot, we keep in contact with scientists in particular locations who are willing to share data with us when available. For the spots where even that is unavailable, we keep a comprehensive listing of sources to check regularly for updated data. That’s handled by Research Girls 1 and 2, and Numbers Guy makes sure it is all converted into data we can use.”
“Who?” he asks while finishing his notes.
“Sorry,” I apologize, ashamed for using insider nicknames in front of an outsider. “That’s Nicki, Jeannine, and Derek. I was using their nicknames. Sorry.”
“Okay, Kenny, how many regions do you cover in your model? And will the number of distinct regions change?”
“We broke the planet into 4,965 regions. Of course, the regions could change, and we could be more specific by shrinking the size of regions, but we’re proud of what we have. We don’t measure soil in Antarctica for obvious reasons, so right now the average region is about the size of Massachusetts.”
“Massachusetts, you say? How big is that?” He’s staring at his notebook, not looking at me.
“Massachusetts is about 10,500 square miles, give or take a few.”
“Thanks,” he says as he stops writing and puts the notebook down on the table.
“And that 37.978 number? How much wiggle room do we have with that if we change some variables?” At this point, Byron has both hands moving rapidly and recklessly through his hair. “I mean, if we have reason to show that the date is further out or maybe even nearer, are there some assumptions that maybe could be altered? I don’t mean we’d fudge the data but maybe are there some assumptions that maybe we might decide should be different in consultation with knowledgeable parties?”
“Sure,” I say, but I don’t know why I agree. And that’s the end of our meeting.
Byron doesn’t come around for the rest of the day, and I barely see him for another week and a half. I don’t know what my team is supposed to be doing, because Mrs. Shaldor has not actually given me instructions for what to do next with my model. To keep everyone busy, I suggest we all work on updating data from observers in as many regions as possible, then we check over my model again and again. Team Mommy cleans the conference room so many times that we don’t know where to find any of our papers. Eventually, I stop by Mrs. Shaldor’s office after lunch to talk to Daniel about her plans for my model. I correctly assume she will not be there, because she always has important lunch meetings. Daniel promises he’ll talk to her about it, so I return to the conference room.
Two weeks after Byron arrived at FWI, at 7:48 in the evening, I get an email from Tanya, who is part of the publicity and development staff. She works with Bridget mostly. Tanya’s email invites me to an interview with the Wall Street Journal the next afternoon at 1:30 in the office library. The email says Mrs. Shaldor and Byron will be there, as will Tanya herself. Of course, I’ll be there. Finally, I can talk to the outside world about my work. I’ve been waiting for this. I didn’t know they booked an interview with the Wall Street Journal, but I suppose these things are scheduled at the last minute, because in the movies reporters are always saying they’re, “on a deadline.”
A funny thing about Tanya is that she’s actually related to Jason. Over the last two and half years, I have spent hours training with Tanya and Bridget, learning how to present to potential donors, answer media questions, sit straight and look into someone’s eyes or into the camera. In short, I have learned how to present myself according to the FWI standard. During this time, we naturally got to talking, and I learned that Tanya is from Bangor, Maine. Immediately when I arrived home that night after I learned this, I told Jason that I work with a young woman from Bangor and he must know her. He laughed and told me that Bangor has more than 30,000 residents, as if that’s a lot. I responded that I was sure he knew her. That’s when he rolled his eyes and asked, “is this woman Black? You know, not all Black people know each other, even in Bangor.” But it turned out they do know each other. They kind of grew up together, although Tanya is younger. Jason’s mother and Tanya’s mother are first cousins.
So, when I tell Jason that Tanya just emailed about an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he says, “that’s nice.” About an hour later, he walks into the bedroom where I’m reading. He’s carrying a worried expression. I ask him what’s wrong. He sits down and once again does that thing where he holds my hand.
“I just got off the phone with Tanya,” he says, clearly cautious about something. “Don’t get mad, but I asked about the Journal interview tomorrow. She says it’s not for you. It’s for Byron, and Mrs. Shaldor will also be interviewed.”
“That’s odd that they would invite me then. I wonder what the interview is about. Maybe they just want me to see how a press interview goes since I’m sure I’ll be having some once we roll out my model.”
“No,” Jason says, and he squeezes my hand tighter. “They are talking about your model tomorrow at this interview. This is the start of the rollout. Did they not tell you about this?”
I’m stunned, but, really, I should not be. Jason warned me. I should have listened to him, because he does care only about my best interest. I know that.
I’m not sure of my feelings right now with regard to Byron and Mrs. Shaldor. I’m not sure what I’ll do. All night I toss and turn. Usually, I sleep straight through the night until my alarm wakes me, but tonight I just can’t keep my eyes shut without horrible thoughts racing through my head.
By 7:31 in the morning, I’m in the conference room. I had an idea while getting dressed. I call Ben, the IT guy, on his cell phone and catch him while he’s eating his breakfast. I think he’s slurping cereal, which sounds kind of disgusting over the phone. Ben doesn’t try to hide how annoyed he is that I am bothering him at home so early, but I need his help. I make him promise to come to the conference room as soon as he arrives.
Meanwhile, I have nothing to do but twiddle my thumbs until Ben finally arrives at 8:56. As soon as he walks into the room, I tell him that I am concerned about security, and I need to ensure no individual can access my model except for me.
“You’re secure,” he says. “You have the designated connection to the cloud. And locally you have a three-pronged security system. First, you have the physical padlock on the door to the local servers. Then you have the biometrics. Then there’s the passcode. Only your biometrics allow for you to use the passcode. Other than that, only your assistants can do it, but they need two of them. And I can’t change this system. Only one person can have unilateral access to the system, and that’s you. Don’t worry.”
“So, no one else can access my model? Is that what you’re saying?” I’m still concerned.
“Not exactly,” Ben tells me. “The model is also on your backup, right?”
“Of course, that’s what a backup is.”
“The backup is done through a cable to a designated hard drive in the IT office,” he explains, but I already know all of this. “I reconnect the hard drive to your system every morning and disconnect it every afternoon. In the evening, I leave it in the safe in the IT office. That’s why I tell you to backup only between 9:30 and 4:30 every day. But it also means I have access to the hard drive backup. I can access it if I want to, but I don’t honestly understand what you’ve been doing back here. And I don’t care. I wouldn’t steal your backups.”
“So, you haven’t accessed that backup, have you?” I ask.
“Well, actually, I thought it was ok. Maybe it wasn’t—”
“Just tell me.” I’m an instant away from losing my temper. I need to know what happened.
“Do you know that new Fellow, Dr. Renday?” Ben asks.
I nod and motion with my hand for Ben to get on with his story.
Ben follows my prompt and tells me what happened. “A day after he started here, Dr. Renday came in and asked for me to make a copy of the backup for him. He said it was important to store it in multiple spots, and since Christine herself introduced him to me the day before I just figured he had the authority.”
“You’re saying he has a copy of the backup?” I am irate. “That is not good. That was not supposed to happen, and it is a major breach of security.”
Ben must be able to tell how angry I am, because he sounds miserable as he tells me the rest. “That was the first copy I gave him. He’s asked for copies two more times since then. He said something about securing changes you have made. Look, Kenny, if I was wrong to share with him, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Tell me what I can do to help fix this.”
I am fuming, not at Ben but at Byron. Yet, I do not have time to be angry. I have to act. It feels like a movie, and I always knew I was meant for moments like this. As I have always said, “Byron is one of the most brilliant men I have known,” but I do believe I can outwit him. I pace back and forth across the length of the conference room while Ben waits patiently. I assume he feels guilty and doesn’t want to interrupt me while I am pondering the problem.
Then I find it, that eureka moment. I ask Ben, “how does the backup work? Do you send Dr. Renday the file?”
“No,” Ben giggles for a second. “The files are much too large for that. I gave him an extra hard drive. When he wanted a copy of the backup, he’d bring that hard drive to me, and I’d put a copy on the hard drive. Then I’d return it to him.”
“Good,” I say. This will work. “Ben, can you do me a favor the next time he brings you that hard drive?”
“Sure, Kenny, I feel terrible about what happened. I’ll do anything I can to fix it.” I believe him.
“Give me half an hour, Ben, and I’ll backup a decoy file. You just make sure it goes to a blank hard drive instead of the real backup location. The next time Dr. Renday asks you to give him a copy of my model, you will copy the decoy file onto his hard drive instead. At the same time, you will erase all of the old copies of my model from his hard drive. Is that clear?”
“Sure, I can do that, Kenny. But please don’t tell Christine.” Ben is shaking at this point. I don’t want him to feel so guilty, but I know his guilt will help me get what I need. I reassure him I won’t tell anyone as long as we, together, solve the problem. Then I shuffle him off while I fabricate a decoy file. My team begins arriving for the day, but I ignore them. They know better than to bother me while I’m working.
At first, I consider sharing an old model as the decoy file, but even that is too advanced and useful for me to give to Byron. Then I get a better idea. I make a duplicate of the actual model file, which, even with my fast computer takes several minutes. With this new duplicate file, I begin deleting sheets outright. I alter figures and equations, and I erase large sections of the Assumptions Sources Sheet. I spend 17 minutes making my model unusable. It’s humbling when we remember that building something is so difficult while destroying the same thing is so easy. Before I press save on this decoy file, I check the Conclusions Sheet. The new terminal date is set for 1,006,228.455037 years. That will mess with Byron.
After I hand over the decoy file—cooly renamed Soil Model v5.z—I finally relax. I am excited to tell Jason. He won’t believe I did this. I think he’ll be just as impressed with me as I am. From my office, with the door shut, I call him. Luckily, I catch him between patients, and I’m right. He is extremely proud of me. When doubts begin to catch up with me, he reminds me to have faith in my own decisions. Jason tells me what I already know: that it is my model. I am only protecting my hard work.
Most of the remainder of the morning is boring, but at 11:48, Byron storms into the conference room. Well, that’s what Research Girl 2 tells me. Team Mommy and I are actually out getting sandwiches for the team, because we are so bored. Research Girl 2 calls on my cell phone to tell me that Byron—“Dr. Renday,” she says—has come to the conference room, and he is frantic. She says that Numbers Guy and Research Girl 1 are trying to calm him down. I tell Research Girl 2 to put the speaker phone on, and I hear Byron demand to see me. When they tell him that I’m out and they’re not sure when I’ll be back (they’re lying), Byron demands that they open my model for him. They refuse that as well, and they tell him they need to wait for me before sharing it with anyone. He tries to assert his position as a Senior Fellow, but they do not budge. I love my team. They are quite loyal.
An email arrives a few minutes later from Daniel telling me there will be an urgent meeting in Mrs. Shaldor’s office at 12:30 and that I am expected to attend. This makes me nervous, quite nervous. Confrontation has always terrified me. While I know that my scheme with the decoy backup was necessary to preserve my work, I can’t stop imagining what will happen in Mrs. Shaldor’s office. I envision being fired. That would be embarrassing, but Jason makes enough money. If I do get fired, though, I would still need to make sure no one uses my model. This makes me think about my contract. What does my contract say about my model? Is it my property or does it belong to FWI? However, I realize I am being foolish, because they can’t use my model without me. It is far too complicated for even Byron to master, even if my team were to defect and help him.
When I arrive at Daniel’s desk promptly at 12:30, he whispers to me, “what happened?” I don’t want to explain, so I just shrug, and he goes on, “she skipped her lunch meeting today for this. Dr. Renday is seething and panic-stricken, but don’t you worry. She doesn’t seem nearly as upset as he is.”
Daniel knocks on Mrs. Shaldor’s door and opens it before anyone answers. Mrs. Shaldor is seated calmly in her desk chair, but Byron is standing with his arms crossed and leaning forward over one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs. “Take a seat,” says Mrs. Shaldor, and I do as she says in the other wooden chair. When she sees that Byron intends to continue standing, Mrs. Shaldor says to him, “Byron, it’s best if you sit too.”
With both of us sitting, she begins, “Kenny, Byron is upset about the level of cooperation and collaboration in the office here. As you know, at FWI we pride ourselves on working well together. That said, you and your team have enjoyed an enormous amount of autonomy since you arrived. That is a testament to how much we value your work, but as we approach the rollout, it seems that increased cooperation is vital. Don’t you agree?”
“Sure,” I reply. That is the truth. I have no problem with cooperation.
Mrs. Shaldor smiles. “I’m glad we’re on the same page, Kenny. So, I believe now the next thing to do is to find a way for Byron to have greater access to—no, hold on, access is not the word I’m looking for. If we can find a way for Byron to be able to work with the model—and with you—to address more wide scope issues that can be handled only with the expertise you have brought us. So, I want to find a way to incorporate Byron into the Soil Model Project, but to work with you on a more universal scale, because only you can handle the details.”
I know she is speaking nonsense, and this realization makes me more confident. She needs me, she knows she needs me, and I know she knows she needs me. That means I have more power than I thought. Having just convinced myself of this, I turn to Byron and, with a smile, ask, “is something wrong, Byron?” I can’t believe I am so bold.
“You know exactly what’s wrong, Kenny!” Byron is furious, and it is not a good look for him. Between his red hair and his now red face, he looks like a tomato or maybe a carrot. He looks like produce.
Mrs. Shaldor does not like confrontation either, I gather, because she interrupts before the situation can degenerate further. “Kenny, let’s not pretend ignorance. Everyone here knows what happened. Byron has been accessing your backups to familiarize himself with your most updated model. Now, he should have done so with your permission, but that is as much my fault as his. I am afraid I may have left the impression that Ben in IT could grant him access and that it was unnecessary to speak with you first. If I did give him that impression, I apologize to both of you. Now, we also all know that this morning you switched the latest backup with a fake. I understand why you did that, but that could have caused terrible embarrassment to your colleague and to FWI. This type of behavior cannot happen again. All three of us made mistakes, but we have to cooperate with each other. Is that understood?”
Both Byron and I assent, and the meeting ends. I do not understand how Byron and I are going to work together, let alone be friends, ever again. Perhaps we were never friends. He was my mentor, and maybe mentors are accustomed to stealing from their proteges. I don’t know.
A few minutes after the meeting, while I’m finally eating my sandwich in the conference room, I receive an email from Tanya that the Wall Street Journal interview has been canceled. That makes me proud. The whole fiasco today has exhausted me, and I’m actually looking forward to discussing it with Jason so he can give me advice. When we finally sit down to dinner that night—not until 8:16, because Barney is sick—I tell Jason about everything that happened after I called him from the office. He tells me that I am right, and he reminds me to stand firm. This makes me feel better. I just have to remember that I am a bright person, and this is my work I am protecting. No one else has a right to claim my work.
Over the following two weeks I learn how to deal with Byron. He comes to the conference room every morning from 10:30 to 11:30, and we go through my model together. We spend about 45 or 50 minutes just reviewing my model for errors, and we have agreed—with Mrs. Shaldor’s mediation—that he cannot take notes during this period. For the last 10 or 15 minutes, Byron asks questions about my model to better familiarize himself. He is permitted to take notes on this part. My team sits quietly at the conference table during the Q&A, and they only answer his questions if I tell them to. Otherwise, they let me speak. When they do participate, my team knows not to share too much.
I’m pleasantly surprised late on a Monday afternoon—3:51, to be precise—when Mrs. Shaldor comes to visit me in the conference room. My entire team goes quiet when we notice her in the doorway. It’s obvious that Research Girl 1, Research Girl 2, and Team Mommy feel slightly self-conscious around Mrs. Shaldor, because they sit timidly and look down instead of meeting her eyes. Mrs. Shaldor has that effect on people. She’s not young at all, but she has so much class and poise that even at her age she could be described as striking. In any case, she has not come to see my team. She has come to see me. She tells me that she has quite exciting news, and she wants to share it personally. We have an appointment at the White House in one week. We are going to present my model to a Deputy National Security Advisor, the Science Advisor, and at least one representative from the Department of Agriculture. Mrs. Shaldor says it will require planning and preparation. We will meet in my conference room at 4:00 pm each day for the rest of the week to formulate and practice our presentation.
I thank Mrs. Shaldor calmly, but inside I’m dancing with joy. Though I fully expect her to leave after this announcement, she walks right into the room and takes a seat at the table. Seeing my confusion—Mrs. Shaldor always knows when I don’t understand—she says, “Kenny, we’re starting today. Ibrahim from government relations will be coming to help us today. Also, Byron will be here.”
“Are they coming to the White House with us?” I ask.
“Byron is coming with us. I’m not sure yet who else will come, but we’ll figure it out. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can bring the whole team.” Mrs. Shaldor turns to each member of my team, making them feel as if she is focusing on them individually, and she adds, “I know how much you have all done on this project and how much you continue to do. You should know how much we appreciate you at FWI. I’m sorry I don’t get to see you as often as I should.” Then Mrs. Shaldor smiles at me, and I know that we have made her proud.
The daily preparations are boring, although I think everyone is excited that we’ll be going to the White House. I assume Mrs. Shaldor has been there several times before, but, even if she has, this must be exciting for her too. Nevertheless, she spends much of the meeting each day typing on her telephone. After the first meeting, we decide to bring Tanya and Bridget in to hear our ideas for the presentation and to give us tips. Ibrahim comes each day too, because he is friendly with the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and so the decision is made that he will join us at the White House. However, I doubt he understands what we are talking about, and he brings his laptop to do other work from my conference room each day. Everyone agrees that Byron should lead the bulk of the presentation, and I do not mind. After all, even Jason admits that I am not good at presentations. Plus, Mrs. Shaldor is planning introductions for the meeting, and she says she will introduce me as the “innovator and expert behind the FWI Soil Model.” I am told that my job is to provide a face to my model and also to answer any difficult questions. They instruct me to answer as briefly as possible, because, apparently, I have a tendency to ramble. My guess is they will need me to answer quite a few questions, because Byron, Mrs. Shaldor, and Ibrahim simply are not capable.
The night before the meeting, I have trouble falling asleep. Jason tries to give me a sleeping pill at midnight, but I don’t trust those. Instead, he just tells me not to worry and rolls over so he can go back to sleep. I go to FWI the next morning wearing a dark gray suit and a cobalt tie, because I am too worried that the suit that has hung on my office door for so long no longer fits me. Nerves bother me all day at the office. At one point, at 11:26, I find myself shaking uncontrollably as if I just emerged from a cold lake. Also, I become testy with my team so that they basically stop talking by noon.
At 1:11, Daniel calls the conference room and tells me to meet Mrs. Shaldor by the front reception in five minutes. I assume Daniel really means four minutes, and I get there even before that. It can be strange going to such an important meeting, like a cloudy dream. We get into Mrs. Shaldor’s Audi, all four of us, and then I don’t remember anything until we’re seated in a small conference room. The four of us from FWI are on one side of the table, and a half dozen men and women are on the other side. Yet, I cannot remember meeting them or shaking their hands. I assume I did, but I don’t even remember walking into the building. I decide that when I am invariably asked to answer questions about my model, I will speak to the oldest looking people in the room. The young people who are my age and younger must be the aides, I assume.
Mrs. Shaldor starts with an introduction of our model, and she does point to me and say, “Kenny is the innovator and expert behind the FWI Soil Model.” The people on the other side of the table all look at me impressed for just a moment. Byron begins once Mrs. Shaldor completes her introduction. He stands, which strikes me as unnecessary, because the conference room is so small. Byron goes through PowerPoint slides that we put together over the last week based off of my model and my data. To be honest, he does a nice job. The audience is intrigued and terrified when he reaches the conclusion, and they see the “less than 38 years” on the screen, but Byron says, “this is a tentative number, but it gives you a good idea. Remember, the data changes.” I don’t know why he says that. Of course, the data changes, but the number is not “tentative” given the current data.
Byron answers the first question just fine on his own. He answers the second as well. The third question is about FWI in general, and Ibrahim answers that. The fourth question is actually just an inquiry about how Mrs. Shaldor’s husband is doing since his bypass surgery six months ago. The fifth question is also handled by Byron. I am starting to wonder if I will ever be needed at this meeting, when the sixth question comes in from a young man sitting behind the others. I assume he is an aide. He asks, “How do you model this globally? Do you average soil data across the globe?”
At this, I snicker, and Mrs. Shaldor shoots me a look that is all the admonishment I need. Byron begins to answer, “No, we measure soil in different regions. We break the world up into regions and model each region.”
This leads to more questions from the young man. “Do you mean like continents? How many regions?”
I think this is getting a bit technical. I should probably help, but before I can say anything, Byron speaks. He answers, “yes, like continents. You know, we have a few regions here and there. More than continents, but, um…”
I don’t understand what’s wrong with Byron. I gave him this data the day after he arrived at FWI. I told him about the regions. I told him. How did he forget?
“Doesn’t that seem a little imprecise if you break it down into continents and so on?” the young man asks, unimpressed by Byron’s answer. “I was born outside of Miami, I grew up in Minnesota, and I went to college in Virginia. The soil is very different in all of those places.”
Byron is so flustered he looks to Mrs. Shaldor for help, and she has that expression of complete disappointment, like Byron and I both wasted her time and money. Byron runs his hands through his hair maniacally and only says, “no, the regions are smaller than continents.”
At this point, Mrs. Shaldor turns to me, and asks, almost pleadingly, “Kenny, anything to add?”
“Sure, I’d be happy to clarify,” I say. I’ll admit, it makes me proud to speak as the person of authority at a White House meeting. “We broke the planet into 4,965 regions. We don’t measure soil in Antarctica, for obvious reasons, so that leaves about 52 million square miles of earth. Some is rock, but we count everything. The average region is about the size of Massachusetts, which is approximately 10,500 square miles, give or take a few. And to receive data from each region, we follow a three-part process. First, we have a growing number of farmers, field scientists, and amateurs globally who report back to us directly with soil data on a bi-monthly basis. Where we do not have direct access to our own testers, we keep in contact with scientists in particular locations who are willing to share data with us when available. For the spots where even that is unavailable, we keep a comprehensive listing of sources to check regularly for updated data. It’s complicated, that’s why only FWI can do it.” Then I stop. I don’t say anything else, but I look at Mrs. Shaldor who is smiling back at me. I know I did it.
The meeting ends shortly after that, and Byron and I are quiet on the car ride back. Mrs. Shaldor and Ibrahim talk about his newborn daughter and other things that don’t interest me. As we enter the FWI office, Mrs. Shaldor pulls me aside and asks me to wait at work until she comes to see me. She wants to speak with me after hours.
At 6:39, Mrs. Shaldor walks into the conference room where I am browsing my Facebook account. I wish I am doing something more responsible when she comes in, but I am not. For a moment, I think of apologizing, because I feel as if she has caught me naked, but she starts speaking before I can say anything. “Kenny, you did a great job there today.” I can tell she means it. “I just got off the phone with the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, and they and the NSC are very concerned about what we’ve found. I believe this will lead to a big grant and quite a bit of publicity over the next year. Are you ready? This will mean a much bigger staff the Soil Model, more computing power, and maybe even a separate office location so you can spread out more.”
“That sounds great.” I’m not positive that I fully grasp what she’s trying to say, but it does sound exciting.
“And I wanted to tell you first that Dr. Renday has agreed to part ways with FWI. It is a mutual decision. Tomorrow morning I’ll send an email to the rest of the staff, but I wanted to tell you first because of your long history together.”
Mrs. Shaldor waits, as if she is expecting me to speak, but I have nothing to say, so she shrugs her right shoulder slightly and continues, “we’ll bring in some help for you, Kenny, but assuming we achieve the grants and donations that I’m expecting to get, this is going to be a major responsibility and a career boost for you. You’ll have a director to handle your program directly and we’ll get you someone to handle communications, but I have confidence in you.”
I smile, not sure if she wants something else from me. It’s exciting, and I’m ready, but I don’t have anything specific to say, so, again, she speaks. “There is one thing we need to discuss about the model, though. I got a call from Francis.” That is the name of the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture who Ibrahim knows. I remember that from the meeting even though I blanked out during the greetings. Mrs. Shaldor continues when she sees that I recognize the name. “Francis and the rest of them are very impressed with the model, and obviously, from what I have already told you, they want to see more of what we can produce. However, they are concerned about this ‘terminal date’ as you call it. First, the name will have to change. Immediately, the thought is ‘response date,’ but we have time to work on that, and we’ll get the right people on it. The second concern is whether 38 years is a concrete number. They want to know if there is any wiggle room. I know I originally thought 38 years would get their attention—and it did—but they’re thinking if we can push out that date a little more it will help them accomplish more policy goals. Do you understand, Kenny? Does that make sense? Is it possible?”
My first thought is to respond in a way that will make me proud when I tell Jason about this tonight. The worst thing one can do in situations like this is go home with regret. I know from experience. I have to go for what I want, just as Jason always tells me. “Can I have a promotion too?” I ask.
“Sure, Kenny, that makes sense. We’ll make you a Fellow.”
“Thank you, and if the grant comes through and we expand as you plan, it would make sense for me to become a Senior Fellow, don’t you think?”
“Sure, Kenny. We can do that, but can we also find some flexibility on the response date? Maybe there are some data or variables that can be revisited.”
“Mrs. Shaldor, the data come in from the field. I can’t change those. But I have 1,653 lines on the Assumptions Sources Sheet, so there’s plenty we can revisit. Just let me know what they’re looking for.”