Leyla looked over her shoulder tossing her dark black hair out of the way as she backed down the driveway, smiling at her kids and looking out for the dog. She was a little late, Aban needed help finding his phone, again, and it was too much torture to let him keep orbiting around the same place looking for it so she stepped in even though it was time to go. The kids would be late, and so would she. Lucky for him he was quite handsome and sweet and bold. She smiled again.
She felt calm this morning, especially after the past two weeks which had been increasingly exhausting and confusing and vaguely sickening, hours and hours at work with her head spinning and distracted and a pit in her stomach that just kept getting deeper no matter what she did. Aban even went to work without his phone one day and she didn’t even notice until she asked him at dinner why he didn’t return her text about Saturday.
Leyla waited at the cross walk and smiled at the crossing guard helping the middle-school kids on their way to school. She was such a nice old lady, she was there every day in her yellow-green vest keeping the kids and the cars moving past each other safely. Even though Leyla had never talked to her and probably wouldn’t recognize her in a crowd it still felt like she knew her. She couldn’t possibly be a volunteer, not every day, it must be some sort of job that she did for a little spending money or to put food on the table. Maybe she was a teacher. Having her there was so much nicer than the policeman who used to show up every once in a while and pop out from around the corner to ticket everybody. The policeman probably hated that, too. Leyla hoped so.
- – - – -
The Coldplay concert came at just the right time.
She felt especially anxious that day, the concert was just one more thing to do, and her head and gut were so twisted on the drive south on Saturday afternoon that she started to talk to Aban about quitting and going back to being a mom full-time, or at least working part-time. But just beginning the conversation made her even more confused. He was shocked by her thoughts even though in part it was what he wanted.
“What are you talking about, we already decided this. You’re trying to figure out too many things at once. Just talk to Daniella and Eigenberg about it, ask them to fund the project. They’ll fund it, and you’ll stop spinning.”
- – - – -
At work, her twenty-percent project had become more of a fifty-percent project, her data was all wrong, and no matter how many times she ran the numbers or tweaked the model she couldn’t make sense of the results. She was so frustrated that she’d taken Friday off and headed to a Designing Big Data seminar at Stanford jointly hosted by the computer science and design schools. Of course it was at “the D School,” which was fine with her because it was such a cool place, but she also found it vaguely ironic given the highly analytical topic. It was like attending a symposium about happiness in an old Army warehouse in San Francisco of all places, something she once did. No one seemed to notice the irony then, either. There was too much to talk about, too much to learn.
The presentations were great even though it was mostly all stuff she had heard before, but it was also depressing because if all these creative methods were so easy to do and worked every time and everyone was nodding and so forth then why were all these people in the room and not out doing it? Why were the people on stage not designing the most amazing things? Maybe they were more creative than the average person. They certainly looked and talked like it. But they were not _that_ creative, at least not in the sense of being amazingly better at getting miraculously useful stuff into the hands of lots of other people just because they could explain how it should be done.
Someone even asked the question, what does it mean now that Steve Jobs is dead?
- – - – -
As Leyla drove down the hill towards the school with the kids chattering in the back seat, she looked out across the bay at the San Francisco skyline. A miles long tongue of Pacific fog lapped the lower parts of the city and hid Alcatraz from view, but she could see the new PlsLike.Me headquarters rising up behind the skyline, it was going to be the tallest building in the city which is why she could see it even though it was being built on the flat landfill on the other side of the city’s famous hills. Her boss Kaleb had promised her an office on the north side high enough that she could see home. He had even mentioned it in front of Daniella so it seemed like he might actually do it, but of course that space was going to be in high demand and all the sales and marketing people who were never there anyway were still going to want those windows. Kaleb would not want to piss them off. Her best work-buddy O’Rourke assured her that Kaleb would end up putting her in the basement and apologize and explain it was just temporary every few months for the next few years.
“You should go in to Eigenberg and tell him you are leaving to do Wahanegi as a start-up unless he gives you fifty-million of post-IPO funding and an office right next to his. He’ll do it, and then you can quit and point out your former office to the venture capitalists who take the ferry over to meet you at Sam’s.”
He paused as if contemplating an office two thousand feet in the air, “A former office up there will be worth at least a twenty percent bump in valuation, maybe more, especially after they contemplate your former office during their ferry ride back to the city.”
Leyla knew he was right, but she also knew that Kaleb was under a lot of pressure, and Daniella and Eigenberg had more important things to do, especially with the IPO coming…she was going to be worth millions herself if it went well, her life would be so different, but what if it didn’t go well and she ended up in the basement with five years wasted and facing the same huge mortgage and a lifetime of work to dig themselves out of it…no use thinking about that. No matter what happened it was going to be so much better taking the ferry to San Francisco every day instead of driving down to Menlo Park.
- – - – -
The world-famous creativity expert stood up at the front of the room at the end of the day with a beautiful blue sky outside and gave almost exactly the same talk that she’d seen the night before when she watched him on TED, only twice as long. He talked about how again and again throughout his life’s work he had found examples of designs where the most important source of insight came from what the data didn’t say.
Leyla had literally all the information in the world at her fingertips, at least all the data about human relationships and what people feel and do all day, and this guy was telling her to look at the data she didn’t have. That was the most frustrating part. He was the most famous person at the seminar, and she had already decided his ideas were the only ideas, of all the ideas, that didn’t apply to her problem. Yet there he was saying the same things as he had in the video, only more slowly since the TED talk was ten years ago and now he was nearly eighty.
The host of the day, the head of the D School, sat down on stage next to the expert. He looked like a surfer, like he still surfed. He asked the expert some questions. The last question he asked was, “Considering everything you have learned in a long and productive life, what advice would you give about great design?”
And the expert said, “First think of a great problem, then think deeply about everything you don’t know about it, and weasle out of thinking about everything you do know.”
It struck Leyla that his statement was worth the whole day, and that he was both exactly right and exactly wrong at the same time. Unfortunately she had no idea why she felt that way, and she just didn’t want to think about it any more.
She was sitting in the front of the room because she had come to like it. She did it at first because she had to sit there because she was often late to such things after bringing the kids to school, but now she did it every time because she knew it was much better to sit in the front. It still surprised her that the front seats were always empty unless there were reserved seats for VIPs, and even then they were often empty. Some of those VIPs were sitting next to her, a wealthy benefactor of the design school and the dean of the computer science department. Leyla was pretty and a woman and friendly so they looked at her when she stood up and she smiled. She wanted to thank them since she had enjoyed the day even though it was frustrating, and they had told her earlier how hard it had been to get the expert to come up to San Francisco from his small college retreat outside LA.
She said, “That last question was worth the whole day. He is exactly right.” And she smiled and that made them happy which made her a little bit happy, but inside she was even more confused and the pit in her stomach was even deeper.
- – - – -
The Coldplay concert was incredible.
Maybe it was the beer, or the tequila shots, or her friends, or the lights, or the four months she’d spent listening to the albums over and over again like she used to listen to the Police and U2 on her beat up Walkman over and over again while hiding in the basement of their house in Baghdad with her five sisters, partly to drown out the bombings and partly because the music just took her away and made so much more sense than the sounds outside.
At first the American bombs were terrifying, especially the first one, the horrifying thump of it and the cloud of debris rising up from the base in the desert nearby. Years ago their mother had insisted they live near the base in case the Iranians ever came for them, thinking it would be safer there, and their father just rolled his eyes and did it because what did it matter. They would come or not and probably not because they were just as lazy and incompetent as everyone else. If they did come they would not come to the base, they would probably go away from the base, at least that was true, she was right about the Iranians. But it was not true for the Americans, that is where they came, and where they sent their bombs. Right to the base.
After the first thump the bombs were less terrifying and even more terrible. The boys would actually sit on the roofs and watch at night as the racing fireflies of green and pink and yellow and blue tracer bullets flew up to miss the invisible planes that dropped their invisible bombs, and the huge concrete bunkers far across the desert were hit, one after another after another, ‘dead center’ they would say in English, and sometimes a heavy warm blade of dull iron would whiz to the ground from miles away and bounce and break someone’s leg. The mothers would cry and the fathers would stare and in the morning it was like God took his finger and punched holes in each one, like a kid punching holes in styrofoam cups made of fifteen feet of hardened concrete and steel. But the worst were the little ones, the little bombs, that only came once…so she listened to the music.
- – - – -
She dropped the kids off, first Scarlett, then Walter, with their firm American names written in Sharpie on their backpacks and for Walter on some of his clothes. She headed back out to the Redwood Highway, up above Sausalito and across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin to San Francisco with the rush of the Pacific tide fighting with the melting snow of half the Sierra right beneath her. Then she drove sinuously along the San Andreas fault down the 280, the most beautiful highway in the world, to the current headquarters of PlsLike.Me in Menlo Park.
She arrived at the campus and made her way to an office that was hers because she was a bigwig in a small way that was worth life-changing millions if everything worked out. She stopped to talk with her work-buddy O’Rourke about the concert and her frustration with her project and how she finally felt at peace with it.
He said, “What is it called again?”
She said “Wahanegi, remember, want, have, need, give.”
He said “And what is it again?”
She said “I don’t know, it is something that makes you happier. A mobile app.”
So he said, “The value proposition is awesome but the name sucks, that is your problem right there. Oh, and you also never tell anyone but me and Aban about it and we don’t have any power and we’re not that smart. That is also your problem. And you don’t even know what it is. Big problem. No wonder you are frustrated. You have a lot of problems. What is your plan?”
She looked up at the ceiling and rushed off to be late for her next meeting where she wondered how it was that she had first met O’Rourke, such a smart and funny guy with such a great family, in a hotel elevator at a company launch party in New York with a beautiful woman on his arm, a woman who was not Leyla and also not his wife.
- – - – -
It was probably the light show.
Everyone got cute woven strap wristbands when they came in. At first she thought they were just for proof of admission but then she noticed the little battery pack and thought maybe they would be interactive somehow. She was right. The music started, it was the first concert she had seen since the Sting concert fifteen years ago. She waited for the awesome feeling when the entire sound system was suddenly turned on and the loudness of the warm up bands was completely eclipsed by the woven wall of sound filling the stadium. Even though she knew it was coming it still took her breath away. Then the drums thumped and Chris Martin started to sing with his weak and honest and exuberant voice and the wristbands all lit up at once. Eighteen thousand people spontaneously lifted their arms as one to thrill in the spectacle of a quarter million pink and yellow and green and blue LEDs pulsing and twinkling and shimmering with the music, eighteen thousand people all feeling the same thing at the same time.
Just before the encore the usher standing next to them holding the caution tape said he’d never seen anything like it in ten years of working concerts. All Leyla could think was how cool it felt to be there, and then she started to think how sad it was that it’s never as good as the first time, and then the usher winked at her and the lights came on shining right behind them and there he was, Chris Martin, sweaty and bathed in light just ten rows above and behind their mezzanine seats. Suddenly they were in the front row in the back of the stadium. He apologized for the sweat and started to sing “Us Against the World” and she was sure he meant all of us. When he ran past them down the stairs with the band to the stage to sing one last song Leyla felt a drop of his sweat hit her elbow. She thought ick and smiled and rubbed it on her jeans.
The morning after the concert they woke up in Jonathan and Peg’s house in the hills in Los Gatos and had bacon and eggs and coffee. Leyla talked with Jonathan about games while the kids played in the back yard. He was a real bigwig at Abinga, the game company behind Consigliere and Agritopia and many other similar games that Leyla knew almost nothing about except that they showed up in the data she was looking at. They talked about happiness and Wahanegi which was what Leyla usually wanted to talk about. Jonathan did too, so it was alright, but this time even though the conversation was good the main thing she noticed was that somehow she was less interested that she should be, like it bored her. Suddenly she was afraid that maybe she was bored with Wahanegi before she even figured out what it was supposed to be.
- – - – -
That night she ate dinner with her kids and they played the game that her father had taught her when they came to America. Walter asked “What would you give to a polar bear when the last ice-cube melts?” and Scarlett just laughed and said “Iceberg!” and Walter said “Great idea!” and Leyla laughed and they all laughed, but Walter mostly laughed to join in until Scarlett told him that she meant that he should have said “iceberg” not “ice cube.” Then he mostly snuggled deeper into Leyla’s lap, a little bit embarrassed.
When Aban came home late from work, Leyla and the kids were sleeping all piled together in the same bed. He woke her up and they walked out to the front deck and snuggled up on the new couch with an old blanket to watch the sunlight fade away and the stars come out.
She was dreaming when Aban woke her. She was dreaming about her college-buddy Wiley. She was back in college in Cambridge, the Cambridge by the river that flowed beneath many bridges and emptied into the Atlantic through the Port of Boston, although in January in the dead of winter it was impossible to see that it flowed at all beneath the snow and brown ice. In the dream he was sitting behind her in an elective class about artificial intelligence. She was sitting in the class to bridge the gap between her first semester and her second. It was just like when they first met in real life, only in the dream Aban was there, too, which was not like when they first met. The professor was talking only to her, with direct eye contact, so she couldn’t turn away to see what Wiley or Aban were doing, it would be too rude, but she could tell they were both doing something. Wiley was much louder about it, which was not really like him since he was always quiet in a very forceful way, while Aban was always very loud in a very forceful way. Her father was in the dream, too.
Somehow as she woke up at Aban’s touch it finally made sense to her that Wiley went to work at the CIA after they graduated from MIT, maybe because in her dream her father said Wiley was the best kind of man and that is what is needed for the worst kind of job. Plus Wiley loved his job. She felt thankful for that because she knew Wiley sometimes still felt sad.
She and Aban named all the stars they knew, then they searched for constellations, and talked, and then the words trailed away. She was looking out over the headlands where a blanket of fog was spilling in from the Pacific. She wondered if she climbed to the top of Mount Tam if she would see the Farallon Islands still poking up into the last blink of sun from far out to sea. She wondered what time it was in Hawaii and she thought of all the people who would soon be sitting on the beaches there watching the stars arrive very soon.
And then it hit her. Her first insight of four insights, four eurekas, though at the time it was the only one she knew. She knew what Wahanegi was. It was a game. Of all the things for it to be, it had to be a game. She was amazed by it, she could see it entirely, and she tried to tell Aban about it but he was tired from his day. He said go ahead and she went to the office in the bedroom down below and wrote and wrote for hours until the design of the entire game was done. She read it over and her heart raced like when Walter was born and he seemed to come all at once and despite the rush he was still completely perfect.
- – - – -
Leyla’s insight precipitated much of what came next, many of the terrible things and all of the very, very, very good things. Like all of the most important insights, it was a surprise. Nonetheless as soon as it happened she was already telling the story of how it came to be and getting it wrong and making it seem like an obvious outcome just like everyone else did with just about everything else. Despite all the terrible things that came, the good things were what mattered, for the good things that happened were what was needed to fulfill the gift her father sought when he brought her and her four sisters to America.