In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.
In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)
Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.
The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.
I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.
“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”
My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.
Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.
If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.