Growing Light
"Memo time," George Ashby thought with satisfaction, and tapped on his computer keyboard. Outside his door the building was silent, his staff having long since departed for the night. George stretched while the computer screen flashed a variety of colors and finally cleared to a pale amber, with a deep green cursor pulsing in a corner. He had chosen the color scheme himself and was so pleased that he insisted everyone in the company use it. It had to be good for them, after all - soothing amber, on which words appeared in the deep green color of life.

"Let's see, Carein first tonight," he thought. Thursday nights were always reserved for memos to the staff and updates in personnel files, and were perhaps his favorite time of the week.

"Good progress with self-actualization, but watch need to over-compensate for lack of nurturant outlets," he typed. "And tell Max to get to work on time, he's obstructing the process."

He read this over and, satisfied, called up another file. He always printed out the memos before he left on Thursday night, so that each employee would find them on the message wall on Friday mornings. TGIF indeed, George thought. Work is life.

"Mike - forget it. Insisting this way is non-accomplishing and obstructive. Shut up."

George saved this one too, and typed a brief note to Jimi in engineering; a line to Cynthia reminding her to re-order replacements for the aura sensors; a demand that Brian in marketing order new copies of the Installation Manual. This wasn't really Brian's responsibility and the note would make him furious, but he just had to learn, George thought, that in this company, George was the boss.

He cleared his screen, thought a moment, then turned away from the computer to grab pen and paper. 

"My precious Audrey," he wrote, grinning. "It's over, I think you have learned enough now to go on to greater self-esteem and potentiation by yourself. Sunday night at my place, we'll go out and celebrate your graduation into the real world." He paused for a moment, then added, "Bring your diaphragm."

He scrawled his initials, then sealed the paper into an envelope. Of course, all the memos were properly sealed before they went up on the memo wall. Privacy, as he told his staff over and over again, was a thin line away from self-centered negativeness, although it did involve issues of respect and esteem that could not be overlooked. A difficult position to take, he knew, but he had never been one to shy away from difficult positions.

Like the Audrey thing, for example. It was definitely time to end it. The girl was sweet and certainly compliant, but it was time for George to move on. Still, he might be able to get some last good out of the arrangement. Grinning even more broadly, he turned back to the computer and started another memo.

"Max! Come pick up extra system, my house, Sunday 8 p.m. No excuses!"

He looked at that, then underlined and bolded the word "excuses". Finally, satisfied, George Ashby sent the whole batch to the printer. Mike would be in bright and early the next morning, and would find and seal the memos for him. He stretched his arms up and rocked his head between them, working out the kinks. Mike had left a clipping for him on the message wall this morning, about how the recession would be over soon and computer software would really take off.

“What recession?” George thought. Sure, jobs were hard to come by, but it only meant that his staff had to display the loyalty and trust that made for true inner growth. The upcoming 1990's, George knew, were going to be a great, great decade.

Pleased with himself, George Ashby turned off his system, clicked off the lights, and bicycled home. 

Anne Munro stood in the cluttered reception room, clutching her packet of writing samples and resisting the urge to smooth back her hair. Confidence, she told herself. You're the best they've ever seen. Oh dear and merciful powers that be, please let me get this job. 

A partition divided the reception room front to back. From its other side, she heard a young woman giggling into the phone. Anne tried not to eavesdrop, but the young woman’s voice was so loud that ignoring her was impossible.

"I mean, he's all, it's a semi-formal affair and I'm all, you mean he's gotta wear a tie or something and he's all, yes, we expect that since Mr. Ashby is accepting this award that - oh, yeah, it's like in his desk or something."

Anne shook her head and slid one finger along the bottom of the samples packet, assuring herself that it was all in one piece. A few farm trucks rumbled along the road outside, and she thought about the gas station in Melville, a couple of miles back. With luck, she'd have enough gas left to reach it, once this interview was over. And with more luck, the two dollars in her purse would buy enough fuel to get her home. She sent up another brief but forceful prayer as a plump, blond man in blue jeans stuck his head into the reception room.

"Ms. Munro?" He thrust his hand at her. "Mike Thompson, vice-president. George Ashby will see you now." He eyed Anne's business suit with disapproval.

"Fine," Anne said, shaking the proffered hand. The suit, she thought firmly, did not have spots. 

Mike Thompson led the way from the cluttered room down a narrow and equally cluttered hallway. 

"You're here for the technical editing job," he said over his shoulder, side-stepping a pile of brown boxes.

Anne nodded, then said, "Yes, I am."

Thompson didn't respond. Anne followed him along another corridor whose walls seemed to double as a message board. Bright red tape divided the walls into squares, each square bearing a name and hung with colored self-stick notes. As they passed one square, Thompson's hand arched along the wall, collecting his own messages. 

He pulled open a door and stood aside. "Here we are. Mr. Ashby, here's Anne Munro. She came."

"Huh? Oh, great, come on in," said a muffled voice. "I'll be right with you."

Anne took a breath, put on a smile, stepped inside, and stopped.

The room was empty. Not of boxes, books, and teetering stacks of paper, piled atop surfaces and in corners, but certainly empty of George Ashby. A computer screen glowed from a stand behind the desk, pulsing with a moving array of color which reminded Anne of the lava lamps so popular during her college years. A mural of forest glades and star fields competed with more self-stick notes, a yellowed software flow chart, and a bookshelf heaped with magazines and computer manuals. A partially open door in the far wall exuded steam, the smell of soap, and a voice which said, "Have a seat."

"There's a chair over by the desk," Thompson said, wedging himself into the room. Anne followed a narrow aisle between boxes and paper piles. At the end she found the promised chair and sat in it. Thompson stepped over another series of piles and, pushing a mass of papers aside, perched on the edge of the desk and stared at Anne's suit again. She held the writing samples against her jacket.

"Is something wrong?" she said.

"We at Growing Light aren't into formality," Thompson said. "We believe that starched clothes lead to starched thoughts. Mr. Ashby said that."

"I see," Anne said. 

"We believe," Thompson said, still inspecting her suit, "in the free and unstructured flow of ideas."

"We certainly do," a voice behind Anne announced. She rose as a man whipped into the room, hand outstretched. "George Ashby," he said, pumping her hand. "Glad you made it." Still in possession of her hand, he moved around the desk and held onto her a moment longer, staring into her face, before releasing her fingers and sitting. His dark, greying hair, knotted at his nape, framed a generous bald spot, but moustache and goatee were both coal black. His eyes were a pale blue, and stuck out.

"Your résumé - Mike, where's her résumé?"

Thompson shrugged. "I gave them all to you."

Ashby glanced at the clutter on his desk top, then planted both elbows in the heaped papers and leaned forward.

"Well, it was interesting, very interesting. What can you tell us about yourself?"

Anne blinked. "Well, I have a degree from San Francisco - "

"In what?" Ashby said.

"History. But I've had quite a bit of experience as an editor. I think most of it is in the résumé."

"I find," Ashby said, "that resumes don't cover what we really need to know, Ms. Munro. We have a very unusual business here. Do you know about us?"

"I'm afraid I don't know much - "

"Don't be afraid," Ashby said. His smile revealed very white, very even teeth. "But go on."

"It's simply a figure of speech," Anne replied. "You produce a software package, but that's all I - "

"Growing Light is much, much more than that," Ashby declared, finally breaking eye contact. "Growing Light is an integrated hardware and software package, of course, but we also believe that Growing Light is a way of treating people, a way of working that is very different from the - " his hands chopped an imaginary staircase from the air, "from the structured, hierarchical modes you find elsewhere. We're a team here, Ms. Munro, a very special team." The imaginary staircase, erased with a flick of the fingers, was replaced by an imaginary balloon. "In many ways, we're trying to re-define what 'working' means." George Ashby sat back, staring at her again.

"That's very interesting," she said after a moment. "I understand you're looking for a technical editor?"

"And, Ms. Munro," he stuck a forefinger in the air, "a member of our team." The forefinger carved a circle. He paused expectantly. 

"I see," Anne said.

"We have written material," Thompson said. Anne glanced at him, but he was staring at Ashby. "Manuals, guides, brochures, very interconnected and integral to - "

"But I don't believe in job descriptions," Ashby said, interrupting him. Thompson pressed his lips together. "I think," Ashby continued, "that people work best when they find the things that expand their consciousness, that let them ... " his arms opened to the universe, " ... grow. Intention is all, Ms. Munro. Without it, nothing else matters."

He leaned back. "Mr. Thompson was hired as a site technician, but he wanted to do management work, and now he's the vice-president in charge of our daily operations. And he does an excellent job."

"Mr. Ashby gave me a chance to believe in myself," Thompson said solemnly, "and I ran with it. I would never have come so far, if he hadn't made space for me."

"Mike, that is, Mr. Thompson has been doing all our technical writing," Ashby said. "But of course, his talents take him in more useful directions. Don't they, Mike?"

Thompson shrugged. "We are growing very quickly," he told Anne. "We need someone with the desire to keep up with us."

"I see," Anne said. "I'm sure you noticed, from my résumé, that I haven't held a paid position as a tech editor. But I've done quite a bit of volunteer and free-lance editing work. I have samples, if you'd like to see them."

"Excellent," Ashby said. Anne lifted the writing samples across to him. He took the package and dropped it on the desk, causing another paper quake. Thompson went around the desk to look over his shoulder.

"Excellent, excellent," Ashby muttered, flipping quickly through the pages.

"Mr. Ashby is a speed reader," Thompson said without looking at her. Anne smiled. 

"Very impressive," Ashby said. "Mike?" He offered the binder. Thompson took it and returned to the edge of the desk, where he held the binder in his lap and resumed staring at Anne's suit. She quelled the urge to stare back at his paunch.

"You mentioned manuals and brochures," she said.

Ashby smiled. "Everything," he said. "We produce hardware and software manuals, user documentation, installation guides, in-house manuals, a newsletter, update reports ... " His hands carved a turret of papers in the air. "It's team work, you understand, but we need someone to mentor the process, to shape a cohesive sound, a special feel that says immediately, 'This is Growing Light.'"

"I understand," Anne said. "Many companies have style formats - "

"No, not a format," Ashby said. "I don't believe in rigidity, Ms. Munro." More chopped stairs, which fattened into circles as his hands invoked ideas. "I want this to flow from who we are, an organic, natural process that's part of - part of our own definition of ourselves. Yes. I want a feel, a touch, a sense of who we are and what we mean." The hands, momentarily still, bracketed a triumphant smile. Thompson scowled.

"And," Ashby continued, "I want that sense to be part of everything we produce here, from the manuals all the way to team memos. I need a team worker who can develop that. Can you do that, Ms. Munro?"

"I believe that I - "

"But the important question, Ms. Munro." Ashby leaned so far forward that he almost rested atop his desk. "The most important question is, Ms. Munro, do you really need this job?" 

Anne leaned away from him and stared back, wondering if George Ashby had heard a single word she'd said. But despite economic recovery elsewhere, California was still mired in recession and Anne had to juggle mortgage payments, Danny's school clothes and child care costs, the grocery bills, the ancient pump in the well house, the drip in the kitchen roof, insurance bills, taxes .... She took a deep breath and nodded.

"Yes, Mr. Ashby. I really need a job."

Thompson snorted. "What are your salary requirements?" he asked.

Anne looked at him. "Well, in San Francisco a technical editor makes a fair amount. Of course, I know that salaries are lower here. But I am experienced and," she said with manufactured confidence, "I am very good at what I do. Certainly it would depend on benefits."

"Flex time," Thompson recited. "Profit sharing. Medical and dental benefits. A week of paid vacation to start."

"And you set your own schedule," Ashby said. "We don't believe in rigid timetables, as long as you put in forty hours a week. People with children appreciate that."

"I can see why," Anne said. "I do have a young son."

"Our benefit package includes child care," Thompson said. "People seem to like that."

"Good. Is that full medical and dental coverage?"

"Absolutely," Ashby said. "We pay your premiums, and you can use the benefit plan to cover your dependents."

"That sounds fine," Anne said. "In that case, I think about thirty thousand a year would be adequate."

Ashby and Thompson looked at each other: Thompson triumphant, Ashby satisfied, Thompson surprised, Ashby smug, then Thompson's face went blank. Ashby rose.

"Well, good talking to you. We'll discuss you with our Personnel Committee. Mr. Thompson, find someone to give Ms. Munro a tour, would you? Ms. Munro, thank you very much. We'll get back to you."

Anne shook his hand, trying to ignore the cold lump in her stomach. She followed Mike Thompson into the corridor.

"He's in a hurry," Thompson said. "He's going to accept a major award." This time his stare was very serious, and directed at her face. "The world is beginning to acknowledge his vision."

Before Anne could reply, Thompson had stuck his head into the next room.

"Ms. Baker! Do you have a minute?"

"No," an irascible voice replied, followed by an irascible face. "What now?" Ms. Baker wore leather pants, a sweatshirt with Albert Einstein's face across its front, and a number of improbable colors in her hair.

"This is Anne Munro. Show her around." Without waiting for a reply, Thompson went back into George Ashby's office and shut the door. The door re-opened immediately.

"And make sure she gets to run Growing Light," he said.

"Yeah, sure, okay," Ms. Baker said to the closing door. She turned to survey Anne, hands on hips. "You been hired?"

"No," Anne said. "I just interviewed."

Ms. Baker laughed. "Quite an experience, isn't it? I'm Cynthia Baker."

"Anne Munro," Anne said, shaking her hand. "Are you management too?"

"We're all management here," Cynthia said. "I'm the senior site technician. You know, when the customers can't figure it out, I do it for them. Come on, we'll start at the back and work our way to the front. And when that's done, I'll sit you down with Growing Light." 

The tour took less than fifteen minutes. The company occupied two huge spaces, divided into a maze of hallways and cubicles by seven-foot high movable partitions. The only separate rooms seemed to be along the northern wall, where Ashby and Thompson had their offices.

One cubicle, larger than the others, functioned as a computer hardware laboratory; "Research and Development", Cynthia called it. A very tall man hunched over an exposed circuit board while a younger man with a blond braid and nervous eyes poked at a computer keyboard. Another space, divided by file cabinets, contained what Cynthia described as " marketing and site technicians, that's me." The shipping clerk had a commodious room to himself. And, everywhere, computer screens glowed, either pulsing with lava-lamp colors or jumping with brightly colored icons. 

The tour ended in the staff lunch room, where Cynthia offered a cup of coffee.

"Or tea - are you the herbal tea type?"

"Coffee would be great," Anne said. Here, finally, a large window looked out over the rolling Northern California countryside. Anne cradled the coffee cup between her palms and stared, appreciating, as always, the sweep of green hills dotted with rounded native oaks, the shapes of cows in a distant pasture, the higher hills to the east that walled away the rest of the state.

She and her husband had moved north almost three years earlier, after Jeff's Aunt Caroline died and left them her home in tiny Lake Harris County, north of Marin and south of San Antonio Creek. They drove up for the funeral and fell in love with the quiet farmlands and rolling hills of the county; Santa Bolsas, the major city and county seat, numbered less than twelve thousand citizens and farm tractors still, by county law, held right of way over other vehicles. Even Highway 101, the North Coast's main arterial, skirted the county by a good two miles, and the citizens were known for sneaking out to the highway periodically and ripping down any signs that even hinted at the county's presence. But modems, fax machines, and overnight delivery kept Jeff in touch with his clients, and San Francisco was barely two hours way. For fifteen months it seemed like paradise, until the auto accident on the Cotati grade that left her a widow alone with a small son, a mortgage, and no income. Life without Jeff had been difficult, but over the months she had learned to make it by herself, to create a home and a life for herself and Danny. Throughout it all, the countryside infused her with a sense of peace and permanence and strength, and she leaned, briefly, on some of that strength now before turning her back to the window and smiling at Cynthia Baker.

"Everyone seems very busy," she said. "I hope the tour didn't interfere."

"No way," Cynthia replied. "Everyone who even drives down the road gets a tour. We're used to it. What job are you applying for?"

"Technical editor," Anne said.

"Jeez, no wonder Thompson looked like he ate a lemon," Cynthia said. "Well, God knows we need an editor - everyone knows it, except Mike. They hire you?"

"I don't know," Anne said. "Mr. Ashby said he'd take it to the Personnel Committee."

Cynthia made a face. "That's George and Mike. Talk about a fifty-fifty split." She smiled, a wide, friendly grin. "Well hell, that's one thing about working here. You never get bored. What's your background?"

Anne started to explain when a telephone on the long table squawked.

"Ms. Baker? Are you in there?"

"Yeah," Cynthia shouted at the machine.

"There's a call from Boz Wilson, he's all, 'I still can't get behind the rain sensor hookups.' Could you talk to him? He's really, like, off the wall or something, and I just can't, you know, communicate with him."

Cynthia rolled her eyes. "Jeez, Audrey, all right. Put him through to my desk, okay?"

A brief pause ensued. "You're supposed to call me Ms. Lincoln, remember?" the telephone said reproachfully. "Mr. Ashby said that we have to share our self-esteem and use last names so everyone will feel respected and ... "

"Crap," Cynthia Baker said. "Listen, buzz Karen and ask her to come show Ms. Munro the software, will you?" The phone didn't reply. "Ms. Lincoln," Cynthia added.

"Of course," the phone said. 

"And put Wilson through to my desk. Please. Ms. Lincoln."

"I'd be happy to," the phone said, and clicked off.

Cynthia rolled her eyes. Sunlight painted green and purple highlights in her hair.

"Last names?" Anne said.

"Crap," Cynthia said again, and stalked out of the room.

Anne took another sip of her coffee. The wall clock, decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars, read three-fifteen: she still had plenty of time before she had to pick up Danny at daycare. A mural of redwood trees and ferns, decked with a few tattered self-stick notes, flowed around the clock. In the quiet Anne heard a soft murmuring which sounded very much like surf. She shook her head: Growing Light's office was at least ten miles from the Pacific. After a moment she realized the sound came from yet another computer, on a desk in a corner. She rounded the desk and found the ever popular lava lamp display but no prompt or message or other indication of what to do about it.

"Ms. Mallow?" 

"Munro," Anne said, looking toward the door. The woman had greying hair in a knot, soft and flowing clothes, laugh lines around the eyes. Framing each cheek was a cluster of antique sterling buttons, suspended on individual sterling chains and refitted as earrings.

"Oh! Sorry, that's what I heard. I'm Karen Forest. That's spelled C A R E I N, get it, care in? I'm supposed to show you the system, are you thinking of buying it?"

"No," Anne said. "I'm here for a job interview."

"Oh." Carein stopped. "Whose job are you taking?"

"I beg your pardon?" Anne said. "I'm a technical editor, I thought you didn't have one..."

"Well, that's all right then," Carein said, and smiled. "That's something Mike, uh, Mr. Thompson did, I guess he could use a little help. Here, sit down and let me share Growing Light with you."

The next half hour went by in a blur of amazement. The lava lamp, it turned out, was a stand-by screen, used whenever the program was either inactive or processing behind the scene. Clicking the computer's mouse brought up Growing Light's main menu.

"It's really simple to use," Carein said enthusiastically. "See, what it does is help you run your plantation - I mean, a farm or a garden, just about anything that you want to grow, really. It ties the software in with all these neat sensors, you can see the wires heading right out the window, right there. See? The sensors measure temperature and humidity and rainfall and hours of sunshine, and you can have lots of them, like say if you have a place where you get ten hours of sunlight one place and only about two somewhere else, it can keep all of that straight for you. So you set up the computer and the sensors, and then you do the Set-Up Menu, here, see?"

The user interface had been written by an icon-iphiliac. The Set-Up menu stepped through factors from latitude (a circle with horizontal lines) and longitude (another circle with vertical lines), through altitude (an arrow rising from the ocean), distance from large bodies of water (an arrow pointing away from a wave), the last ten years' weather patterns...

"We can provide a database tailored to your particular area," Carein assured her. "It only costs a little extra. And once you've got all the stuff about the land in, then you tell the system all about yourself." She moved the mouse cursor to a happy face, and clicked on the grin. "Here, when's your birthday?"

"Early May," Anne said.

"Great, you're a Taurus. So, you just float the mouse over here..." Carein paused. "Some people talk about dragging the mouse, but we just don't like the feeling of that, too, you know, well..." She shook her head sadly, as though the proper disapproving word simply wouldn't come.

"Negative?" Anne suggested.

"Hey, that's pretty good." Carein glanced at her with admiration. "I'm not really great with words and all that, I mean, not like writing and stuff. Well, it goes like this - " The mouse cursor slid around astrological symbols and clicked on a bull. The screen lava-lamped into a new set of icons. "What's your rising sign?" Carein said.

It took Anne a second to realize what she wanted, and another second to realize that she had no idea.
"I don't really have a lot of time," Anne said.

"No problem," Carein assured her, floating the mouse out of the set-up screens. "But we also have a module where you just enter your birthdate and time, and it'll pull in all your astrological data for you. Isn't that neat?" She floated the mouse toward an icon of a seed.

Anne watched as Carein pattered and floated her way through vegetable or flower options. Growing Light provided a compatibility list keyed to the area, weather patterns, sunlight and temperature range, and Anne's astrological sign, with suggestions for planting times and a series of icon-decked boxes to fill in as she completed the planting. Carein announced that if the program knew Anne's rising sign, it would suggest not only types of vegetables, but specific hybrids.

"It even tells you when to water, and how much," Carein assured her. "And right now George, I mean, Mr. Ashby is working on this wonderful module to share your biorhythms with the system, so that you and your garden are perfectly attuned all the time. We're already tuned in with the phases of the moon, of course. And," she added breathlessly, "we're working with a guy in Berkeley to add a module tying in all your past lives, too. Won't that be great!"

"Amazing," Anne said. "Uh, do you sell a lot of these?"

"Thousands," Carein said. "Mr. Stein, our marketing person? He's even talking about an east coast office. I just think it's so great that this sort of system, and consciousness, you know, is finally really getting shared all over the country. I've known George, I mean Mr. Ashby, for, oh, since the sixties, you know, and I always had faith in him, I just knew he'd change the world. And he is! Or, at least, the way people grow stuff. And that's really the key to everything!" She looked at the doorway and glowed. "It's just so great, Mr. Thompson, isn't it?"

"It's revolutionary," Thompson agreed, as George Ashby pushed him aside. He had added a hand-painted tie to his sports shirt and tan work pants, and carried her writing samples under his arm.

"Ms. Munro, I think we're all agreed," he said, offering his hand. "Can you start on Monday?"

"Monday?" Anne repeated. "Start work?"

"Sure, we think you'd fit right in with our team. I've got to run, Mike will fill you in on things. Oh, here." He dumped the writing samples on the table. "See you Monday," he said, and rushed out the door.

"Welcome to Growing Light," Mike Thompson said, shaking her hand and staring at her jacket.

"Thanks," Anne said. "Uh, the salary -"

"It's all been worked out. Just show up on Monday and we'll find you a desk. Eight o'clock, Ms. Munro?"

"Eight o'clock," she echoed, as visions of poverty receded. "Thank you, Mr. Thompson. Thank you very much."

"Ohhh!" Carein said. The cascades of her sterling button earrings twinkled as she bobbed her head. "You're going to be so happy here, I can just tell!"