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One Big Idea

by Wendy Parker

One night, when the full moon hung like a paper lantern in the cold air, Tom Bachelor sat at his kitchen window, working on a paper he would present to his superiors in the morning.

He glanced out from his cottage at the end of the road, and he noticed how the moonlight sparkled on the fresh snow. For a fanciful moment, he pictured it as a magical pathway lighting his way across the backyard, across the frozen lake, up through the dark trees to a shiny new future.

Too bad it wasn't real.

For there was, he knew, no shiny new future on his horizon. Only a pile of work to get done before the full moon set and the day began.

He gave himself a few minutes to let the sparkling snow lift his spirits, then turned back to his monitor. Dragging his thoughts away from the promise of the full moon, he gave his attention to the task at hand.

Weeks later, long after his policy paper had plopped like a squib in the Bermuda Triangle of the Executive Committee, Tom thought again of the moonlight on the snow and the promise it had whispered. Why not, he asked himself. Maybe the promise wasn't just for him, but for something bigger. Then he dismissed the idea stirring in his mind. If the Executive Committee refused to act on an issue as fundamental as starving children -- for fear that any action might step on someone's toes or strain someone's budget -- then it would hardly entertain an idea as expensive and risky as his.

It was folly to hope that this group of men, so shrivelled by years of conflict and confusion, would think any bigger than their own departments or farther ahead than their pensions.

So Tom put aside his big idea and went about his business of filling in PowerPoint templates with pre-digested proposals that were based on the untested insights of eighteenth century shopkeepers.

One day, he was asked to analyze a Big Idea being pushed by business leaders and political pundits of the day, and he was amazed to see how tiny it seemed beside his own idea. He was dismissive of it when he spoke with his boss. He called it foolish, wrong-headed, even self-serving.

"The ADM likes it," said his boss, implying that the analysis should go in a different, less rigorous direction.

"Then the ADM hasn't examined it closely enough," Tom replied.

The boss got that look on his face, as if he had sipped sour ice wine, and Tom realized he had been too blunt in his criticism. The analysis would have to be sanitized, neutralized and framed in obtuse language, so that the ADM could see it as a validation of his own position if he so chose.

"Why bother then," Tom asked. "Why bother to analyze it at all if you've already made up your mind?"

"It's big and bold and builds on NAFTA," the boss suggested of the Big Idea.

"It's petty and embarrassing," Tom said, "and NAFTA is dead. The Americans aren't interested in building on NAFTA. They're too busy shooting holes in it. And they haven't shown the slightest inclination to enter into a relationship like this."

"I need something positive for this afternoon's meeting."

"Tell them it's a positively stupid idea that will bring us nothing but grief. Say it's suicidal and positively unworthy of a strong and free people."

So the boss shook his head, collected the purple paper off Tom's desk and went next door to ask Gerry Lister to have a quick look at the file. Tom wasn't bothered by the slight. Gerry was a fast typist who could take dictation with the best of them. He had a bright future, the foresight to understand what was wanted and the ambition to execute it. He would produce the conclusion desired by the ADM, and everyone would be happy.

In the end it wouldn't matter, because nothing would be done about it. If the Executive were moved to do anything at all, they would form an inter-ministerial committee to talk about it, then the poor saps who got stuck on the committee would produce a few incoherent reports, which the Executive would argue over for so long that history would pass them by, and the Big Idea would fade into memory.

By then, the ADM would be ready for retirement. With fat pension in hand, he would go on to head the organization that was sponsoring the Big Idea, where he would be pleased to harass and hound his former government colleagues for another lucrative decade.

Tom thought of these things and snorted. Their so-called Big Idea was nothing but a feather-my-nest retirement scheme for a guy who had come late to the civil service and had never grasped the concept of public good.

Then he thought of his own idea. And the more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Intrigued now, he opened a new Excel spreadsheet on his screen and began creating a model to cost his idea. It would be expensive, he knew, but how expensive?

A week later, he had roughed out a cost-benefit analysis. Sure, the numbers at the front-end were frightening, particularly for a government that was obsessed with cutting costs and programs. Yet the sums paled when you looked at the payoff. He reviewed his list of potential benefits and added a couple more. It would certainly vault the country above the ranks of sad middle powers where it had been mired since the end of the last war. And it would produce a steady stream of revenues from countries and companies that wanted to do high-end research in a unique environment.

All in all, it looked like a winner. Stunningly impossible at first blush, perhaps, but the more you looked at it, the better it got, until it seemed, well, almost inevitable.

Over the next weeks, Tom cleaned up his calculations and polished his presentation. When he was convinced that it was the best he could make it, he handed the package to his boss.

"Take a look at this and let me know what you think," he said.

"What is it?"

"Just look at it when you get a moment. I'm interested in your thoughts."

The boss shrugged and tucked the package under his arm.

"Okay. I'll read it tonight."

Tom was reasonably certain what the reaction would be, and he wasn't betting the farm on a favourable reception for his idea. Still, he spend a nervous, wakeful night anticipating their meeting the next morning. He arrived early at his office and sat doing nothing while he waited for the boss.

It was mid-morning before the boss made an entrance. He approached with a tentative smile on his lips and placed the package gently on Tom's desk.

"Very funny," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's a joke, isn't it?"

"No, it's a serious proposal."

The boss looked down at his shoes for a moment, then he pulled up the visitor's chair and sat. Tom watched him patiently, outwardly calm, but inwardly steeling himself for the barrage of ridicule he had anticipated through his restless night. He'd played this scene a hundred times, and it had always ended badly.

"Okay," the boss said finally. "When I read this last night, my first reaction was to laugh. You probably expected that. I was going to come in here this morning and ask you if it was some kind of joke, which I just did, and then give you bloody hell for wasting my time. But that's not what I'm going to do. The truth is, Tom, this is an interesting proposal. You've given it thought. You've worked it into shape. It has a lot going for it, and it should get some serious consideration."

Tom was taken aback.

"That's very flattering," he said.

The boss shook his head.

"Don't get too far ahead of me," he said. "I wish we lived in an age where you could get out of bed in the morning and look forward to doing something important and real with your day. We don't live in that age. We live in an age where it's considered high risk to get out of bed at all without a consensus from five senior managers who are comfortable with the idea that you might rise from your mattress. And you'd better have their approval in writing."

"What are you saying exactly?"

"I'm saying I love this." The boss tapped the package. "It's outrageous, but it's borderline possible. Sure it's expensive and risky, but the payoff is huge. It would change everything in a tick. Trouble is, I can't promote it, or even take it forward, without destroying my career. People would think I was crazy."

"What should I do with it then?"

The boss threw the package on Tom's desk.

"Stick it in the drawer and forget about it."

Tom stared at it.

"I don't think I can do that," he said softly. "I'll have to take it somewhere else. Where though?"

The boss grabbed a sheet of paper from Tom's desk and scribbled on it. He pushed it across to Tom, who picked it up and looked at a phone number.

"Guy by the name of Joe Tollian," said the boss. "He rich as Croesus and he knows fifty other guys who are just as wealthy. Give him a call. Tell him I vouch for you. Let him hear your proposal."

"Think he'll be interested?"

"He might be. He was involved in that private space shot thing last year. You know, where they had a competition to see who could put a manned rocket into the stratosphere."

"He didn't win."

"No, he got beat out by those two Americans, but he may be looking for something else to do now. This could be it. So give him a call if you feel like it."

"Tollian."

"Yeah, Joe Tollian. I went to school with him. He's crazy. He thinks anything is possible."

"Okay. Thanks."

The boss nodded, then he stood up and left the office without looking back. Tom sat and stared at the paper in his hand. Tollian. Funny name, that. He'd never heard of him, but then again, why should he have heard of him? He wasn't the type of person who moved with the very rich. He didn't pay much attention to that kind of thing.

He thought a bit about his boss and how, maybe, he had misjudged him. Maybe they all had secret lives and passions, these men and women who seemed so ground down by their work in this place. Maybe they all wanted to do something more than fill in PowerPoint slides with templated thoughts. Maybe they had their own outrageous ideas, but they kept them hidden away because they seemed too jarringly colourful in this drab, flat landscape.

Then his thoughts went back to that night in his cottage, when the full moon glinted like magic off the snow and the future seemed so full of promise.

A few minutes later he was talking with Joe Tollian himself, laying out his idea in broad strokes. Tollian let him go, interjecting only the occasional grunt to show he was listening. When Tom had finished, the silence stretched out between them and Tom let it hang there while Tollian digested what he had said.

"So," Tollian said finally, "you think Canada should send a rocket to the moon and establish a permanent research base before anyone else gets the idea, is that it?"

"Yes, sir. That's about it."

"And you've got a reasonable plan for how we can accomplish that audacious thing?"

"I do."

"Okay. Well, meet me tomorrow for lunch at The Pesto and we'll talk some more about this. Bring all your notes and be prepared for some tough questions."

"You bet. Thanks."

Tom smiled to himself and set the phone in its cradle. Maybe nothing would come of it. Maybe it would be a fiasco. But for the first time in years he felt as if something interesting was happening in his life and there was work to be done that was actually worth doing.

The End
Rupert's Comments:

If you like to dream big, visit the exploration of Mars site at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab site. Are only Americans, Russians and the Chinese allowed to dream these big dreams? We think not.

2276 words

Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:19

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