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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Monday, November 12, 2001

Shang High Life, #9

Shang Hai Life, #9
November 12, 2001

Message Undeliverable

Every time I spew one of these out, I get a few cryptic text-bots spit back at me, mechanical rejections spurted by computers unable to do the job they’ve been told to. “Message undeliverable. Recipient not found.” The failure to connect is conveyed with an absence of warmth.

The messages tell of people lost to me, not how or why. They can mean anything. Suzanne is on maternity leave. Doug changed jobs, again. Luan got married and has a new name.

Whatever the explanation, the fix is clerical. I can bring back the lost with a few keystrokes. I update an e-mail address and the person who ceased to exist is snatched back into existence. I am omnipotent.

I want that to be true, today, like it always is. Each of half a dozen automated replies reminds me of something I already know: the baby, the new job, the wedding. I am grateful to the computer for the reminder to do something about them. I know what to do. I know how to stay in touch. I know how to bring these lost connections back. Except one.

Cdavreux@julian.uwo.ca. “Message undeliverable. Account inactive.” Intended recipient is dead.

So dead the Canadian ground is already frozen around him. It’s been weeks. That my e-mail doesn’t find him isn’t a shock to me. The surprise is how frozen I am by the cool mechanized message: He’s not here. You won’t find him. He’s not anywhere.

I am not grateful for the reminder. I have been failing, for weeks, to find a way to eulogize him. Everything is inadequate.

I can tell you about Chris, but I cannot tell you who he was to me. All the labels fall short. I can tell you that we were so close, for so long, that we often defined ourselves in terms of the other. I can tell you that each of us spent years wishing to be more like the other. We became such different men, but each of us saw in the other our own path not taken.

Chris was handsome and smart and kind. He was father of three boys. He was a brilliant surgeon. He was humble and loving.

Chris was my oldest friend, my closest friend for years, my only friend in darkest adolescence. He made me his Best Man. He named one of his sons after me. He killed himself.

His wife, Fiona, died suddenly a few days before September 11. Her death rocked us. I almost went to Toronto for her funeral, for Chris. But I didn’t. Now, I pace every measure of every clichéd version of “What if. . .?” Two weeks later, Chris was dead.

Hanging over him was the accusation that he murdered Fiona. The story is all bad. An autopsy showed she died from an insulin overdose. She wasn’t diabetic. She either committed suicide or she was murdered. The police went after Chris.

Chris got away. From them. From me. Whether he walked away from his life, from his children, from who he was, out of grief or out of guilt, no one knows.

I have been over and over this. I build story after story. I can start from any set of assumptions and string plausibly to any conclusion based on what little I know. I loathe myself every time I start with any assumption other than “Chris did not kill Fiona.”

The anguish I feel because he’s gone is almost equaled by the pain of this realization: that what I *know* to be true, wasn’t. I *know* Chris would never, under any circumstance, consider suicide. I *know* Chris would never leave his children without a parent.

I hate what my logical fucking brain does, now, when I say, “I *know* Chris could not possibly have killed Fiona.” In the end, I know what I believe. But my heart is broken by having to doubt it even a little.

Every hypothesis that says he did it battles an equally plausible hypothesis that says he didn’t. By killing himself, he did the one thing that makes it impossible for me ever to know, for sure. It is, coincidentally, the one thing that could make me doubt twenty-five years of knowledge of Chris. So, I’m left with the pathetic question of how much of him I didn’t know.

I *can* imagine him, in his grief over her death, losing all reason---even losing sight of his children. After the birth of the twins, five years ago, Fiona nearly died. For a couple of days right after the birth, she was on the wrong side of the odds in intensive care. He lost it, then, thinking of her dying. I had known Chris 20 years, and had never seen him lose it, but he lost it, then, in the ICU, his home turf.

I can *not* imagine him taking her life. I watched and listened to Chris counsel others with his warmth and acceptance. I knew him through injustice and trauma and setbacks, all of which he countenanced with humility. I saw him awed by what he had found with Fiona, and I watched, envying his commitment, as he wrapped his life around his love for her.

As I said, I know what I believe. There is, however, a battle raging over what others believe. Chris’s mother has asked me to come to Toronto and join it. It is a fight to clear Chris’s name.

The idea of fighting for him vibrates in me like a bell struck hard. When we were boys, he stood firm with me when I was getting beaten up. The fight was never his. He wore the names “fag” and “sissy”---whatever they meant to acerebral sixth grade bullies---because he didn’t abandon me.

This fight should be my chance to stand for him. I should wear the names of someone who defends the dishonoured.

But I’m not going. I will choose my battles as Chris chose his. It had nothing to do with his chances of winning. It was all about whether the fight would make some kind of difference. The fight for Chris’s name won’t make a damn bit of difference. Chris is dead. His cleared name won’t make him any less gone.

The police can say he did it, he didn’t do it, or they can’t be certain. There is sure to be doubt. Fight or no fight, those of us who loved him will be left to make up our minds about what we believe happened. Or, we will come to some kind of uneasy peace with not knowing.

The police and the media reports have done their damage. The story is as cold as Chris is. But what have they damaged? His loving mother, his knowing friends: we have our beliefs about Chris, about what must have happened. I don’t need more certainty than I have. The police, the media have no power over us. I see no use battling impotent enemies.

Only his boys give me pause to doubt whether I’m making the right call. I want them to know he didn’t kill their mother. I want them, someday, to be proud of him, to see him as a man whose only weakness was to give in to grief and give up on life, unforgivably leaving them behind.

I wonder whether the police report will have an impact on that. Truthfully, I can’t say it won’t. I just don’t think it will be the thing that turns the boys toward or away from their father. Those three boys will believe what their aunts and uncles and grandparents tell them about Chris and Fiona. The police report be damned. If the families think the police got it wrong, so will Michael and Robert and Ian. If the families suspect, so will the boys. I just hope like hell both families believe in Chris and Fiona.

The fact is, the families, like the rest of us, will never know for sure. That is what makes what they believe so powerful. The only fight that matters is the fight for the faith in their hearts. And that’s a fight in which I’m impotent.

I can’t imagine it going smoothly. How could you be sanguine in the face of your child abandoning his or her children? Regardless of what you believe happened, a large shipment of blame is going to be apportioned. It’s only a matter of whether it’s done lop-sidedly or evenly. At stake are the boys’ memories of their parents.

I won’t enter that struggle. It’s not my place. More to the point, the blame means fuck-all to me. The police, the press mean even less. Chris is gone.

Someday, perhaps, I will sit with those boys, perhaps when they are about the age Chris and I were when we had no one but each other. I will give them all I have of him: every memory, every bit of love that two men can stretch over twenty-five years. I will tell them stories about one of the best men I have ever known. They will draw their own conclusions.

That Chris is lost to me, forever, is only slowly finding its place in my consciousness. I go through all the stages of grief every day. The one I hate most is denial. Coming out of it is so painful. Being jerked back, being forced to see the Chris-shaped empty hole in my life, makes me angry.

I am especially angered by today’s cold reminder in my e-mail box.

“Message undeliverable. Account inactive.”

(I know, I know. I know he’s gone. I know I can’t fix it.)

Address book. Davreux. Delete.

Alt. File. Exit.

Sunday, November 11, 2001

Shang High Life, #8

Shang Hai Life, #8
November 11, 2001

Of Dot-bombs and Telecoms

Except for cursory references, I haven’t mentioned squat about what I’m doing for a living, here in Shanghai. Forgive me. These missives must read like I’m just enjoying an adventure in a strange and far-away place. Of course, I am and it is.

Perhaps no-one gives a shit what I do for a living. I present two-fold evidence for this hypothesis: (1) zilch requests for enlightenment on the topic, and (2) the intrinsic lack of sexiness in telecommunications gear other than Nokia mobile phones. On reflection, these are insufficient grounds for silence. The former has a history of failing to stop me, and the latter is a global misapprehension, much like commonly mis-quoted film noir dialogue.

Alcatel sells really expensive high-tech stuff to phone companies. If you can name your phone company, they have some of our stuff: everything from satellites and undersea cables to the big switches that determine whether you get connected to Schenectady or Sierra Leone. We also make more pedestrian stuff, like routers and mobile phones, which, admittedly, are closer to most people’s hearts….or, at least, closer to being understandable.

I joined Alcatel in June, at precisely the moment the telecommunications industry crashed. Those among you with a taste for others’ comeuppance may note that I have a good trend going. I joined internet healthcare about a pico-second before pundits pronounced it pulse-less---part of the broader cratering of internet businesses, in general. Businesses that had, I might add, fueled an almighty boom in telecommunications.

It took about a year for the dot-bomb to fall through the economic atmosphere and hit the telecoms industry. It made a direct hit just about the time I landed in Shanghai to work for one of the world’s largest telecoms equipment businesses. So, clearly, I can pick ‘em.

When I arrived, in late June, Alcatel had just thrown in the towel on its bid to buy Lucent. The deal-that-almost-happened was good for us. A lot of average folks had heard of Lucent, but few knew Alcatel. Now, people have heard of us. “Aren’t you the guys that almost took out Lucent?” That’s our cocktail-party résumé. You have to believe that just about any kind of notoriety is good in order to like having a reputation for failed acquisitions. Compared to what was happening to our industry brethren (and sistren), however, dropping the Lucent deal wasn’t so bad.

The whole industry was doing a good impersonation of a drunk falling down a flight of stairs. One of our biggest competitors wrote off 20 billion dollars. That’s with a “b”. (Apparently, they put the “ill” in billion.) I was telling this to a non-businessy friend, who asked, “Is that, like, real money, or is it imaginary money?” I suggested she ask the people who had their retirement nest-eggs invested in the stock.

Not that we were unscathed. We just weren’t getting killed quite as thoroughly as the rest. During the boom, we had been criticized for a strategy observers had thought muddle-headed. Other companies made squillions specializing in some chosen area of the industry. Nokia chose mobile handsets, for instance. Cisco focused on routers.

We did exactly the opposite. We committed to making everything, every damn thing required for a phone to complete a call or for a computer to hot-foot it down the info highway. The weenies call it an end-to-end product portfolio strategy. And, frankly, it didn’t look very smart. As Cisco made a killing doing nothing but routers, etc, and every other telecoms gear maker likewise chose a product niche, we grew modestly by trying to be good at everything.

The whole industry, including Alcatel, grew like buggery. We just didn’t prosper as much as the rest. Everyone who claimed to be a telecoms expert said that, since we had no specialty, we couldn’t compete with the specialists. Those niche players would always have newer, slicker technology. As a result, our stock price, while it zoomed through the roof during the boom, didn’t reach the vertigo-inducing heights of the Ciscos and others.

When the crash came, however, we had less far to fall. What had been assailed as our vices, now were lionized as virtues. As the mobile handset market tumbled, the mobile handset specialists got creamed. We weren’t as exposed in handsets, so we only got pureed. As dot-coms stopped buying routers---or anything at all, really---the router makers got thoroughly routed. We merely took a detour. But that’s nothing compared to the guys that specialized in big, bad optical networks. Think fiber optics. Those systems can cost billions. And those billions started revisiting the optics boys in the nastiest possible ways.

It turns out that we had something the niche players didn’t: a lot of customers with a whole lot of our gear. It was a blessing, a combination of long-standing customer relationships and a huge installed base (weenie-speak, again). Even though they stopped spending as much as we hoped, they continued spending with us. It saved our geeky asses.

Well. Not all our geeky asses. You may have read that a number of Alcatel asses have been laid off. Another ten thousand have just been “workforce adjusted” in Europe. These days, it’s cause for celebration that we don’t have to kill off as much of our workforce as the other guys. And we’re nearly dancing in the hallways about our financial performance: sales might be the same as last year and we might lose only a couple hundred million bucks. In current circumstances, that makes us hot. We are not doing well; we just suck less than the other guys.

It is serendipity alone that has landed my own very lucky ass in the one robust part of Alcatel’s business. The Asia Pacific will be Alcatel’s only major operation to grow this year. So, just like last year, when concerned friends called asking if I needed to be rescued from a failing dot-com, and I reassured them that mine was fine, I am now fending off rumours of my imminent professional death. The problems we have in the Asia Pacific are those of growth, not of earthward plummet.

I shall remain vigilant, nevertheless. History suggests that telecoms is a fickle business. My own experience confirms it. The first time I worked in the industry was unfortunately brief. On the other hand, it did leave a lasting mark, however faint, on a large number of lives.

Alas, it was a long, long time ago, and it wasn’t for Alcatel. My employer was Northern Telecom, they who more recently changed their name and lost 20 billion. It was a pleasant stint, however short. And there were no hard feelings at the end. I just got a handshake and a cheque. It may, nevertheless, have been the most lasting work I’ve ever done. For there are still places in the world---Nebraska? Nepal?---where, with the cosmic conspiracy of a misplaced digit, you may still hear me, in a baritone enunciation of your fate, proclaiming, “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service….”

And, after all, Isn’t that what “professional communicator” means?

* * *

If you’ve got a net connection, a little time, and a desire to see pictures of scant relevance to anything, feel free to try:


Among other things, you’ll see lots of people in a pub in Sydney, Alcatel’s Shanghai offices, my betrothed in a bathing suit, and China’s version of Elvis, Mao Tse Tung. Provided as a vain and mis-guided public service. Enjoy.