93. Sylvester Florian, Master Carver

A Lamb Led To Slaughter

Sylvester is not much for conversation. Not the talking kind of conversation anyway. People who know him understand he talks better with his hands than with his mouth. It started when he was very young. He didn’t say anything until he was almost two. There was a lot of anxiety about his lack of language. His parents were teachers and they had some very specific expectations. When Syl didn’t even babble, they were very worried. They brought in child psychiatrists and speech therapists. These “experts” were also perplexed. Syl seemed alert. He didn’t seem to have a hearing problem. He followed direction and seemed to understand words. He just didn’t talk. There were dire warnings. This could be some kind of mental deficiency. Back then there was no such thing as autism or attention disorder diagnoses. His parents began thinking about special schools or even institutionalization. Syl just kept doing his thing. He smiled now and again. Enjoyed his food. Waved his arms a lot. And really got going when he played with blocks or crayons. He stacked the blocks in ever higher and in more curious arrangements. He drew lines with his crayons. From about nine months on, he began drawing straight lines. At first, they were wiggly. But by the time he was a year-and-a-half, they were straight. He drew them parallel to one another with varying space between them. He made designs with his lines. But no talking. Until one day, he did. Whole sentences. No baby talk. He never said much. But what he did say was clear and to the point. Mostly questions he needed answers to. It was as if he was very busy and didn’t have time for small talk. He began to read in pre-school. Syl was an only child and his parents thought that he would talk more if he were with other kids. From about three-and-a-half on, he was always in some kind of class. Teachers would almost always describe Syl as “bright but appears to have difficulty with social interactions.” He was an early reader. He was a good speller, good at math. Just not good at “verbal skills.” He usually sat by himself during recess and did not like sports. He did not have any friends and after a try or two, his parents stopped arranging play-dates.

Sylvester was still a loner in junior high. He wasn’t interested in social events and rarely, if ever, talked to a girl. His guidance counselor, thinking that maybe Sylvester was gay asked him about it. Nope, Syl wasn’t gay. Syl said, “If I had anything to say to a girl, I’d say something. But I don’t. Not now. And anyway, most girls think my drawings are weird. They don’t think I’m normal.” But the gay thing kept coming up, especially since he found his first real friend, a kid named John Hegler. Like Syl, John was a loner and liked to draw. They met in seventh grade, sitting next to one another in science class. On the first day of school that year, while waiting for the class to start, John saw Syl drawing on a sheet of writing paper. There were some interesting shapes, mostly in three-point perspective. So, John opened one of his own note books and showed Syl pages with margins filled with drawings of elegant, fanciful lettering and drawings of people in different poses. So, instead of paying attention to the science teacher when class started, the two of them were showing one another’s drawings and began whispering and giggling. The science teacher was less than pleased, told them to be quiet, and to see him after class. He told them that they would no longer sit together in class and, if they didn’t behave, he’d boot them out of his class. Over the next few weeks, the friendship blossomed and turned into a competition. The two boys would go home after school and do a drawing to show one another the next morning. Pretty soon, they were doing more drawing than homework and teachers sent notes home for both boys. When John’s father saw what was going on, he was furious. He taught biochemistry at a local college so this behavior was a professional affront to him. He told John he was not to spend time with Syl and to focus on his studies. But, later, when he saw the quality of work the two boys were turning out, he had to admit, something special was going on and relented. He met with Syl’s parents and told them that the drawing competition was alright with him so long as the kids did their homework and got good grades. Syl and John thought this arrangement was great and hung out together, just about to the exclusion of everyone else. Which is how the “gay thing” came up again. There were a lot of comments, some teasing, and, finally, a bit of bullying. But it all ended when John’s family moved away. John’s father got a full-professorship at a major university over a thousand miles away. And the boys lost track of one another.

The first time Sheila saw Sylvester, she was bowled over. “He was gorgeous. Big and strong and suntanned. And so quiet and polite.” After high school Syl did not know what to do with himself. He was not interested in college, not then anyway. He had no idea he could earn a living with his drawing. So, he took a job in a lumber yard. He was already a big kid but he got even bigger and much stronger handling lumber and cement bags. He liked the work. No need for a lot of talk. No pressure. And he had access to scrap wood, all he wanted. He was eighteen when he graduated and going on twenty-three when Sheila met him. She was picking up supplies for the contractor who was redoing her kitchen. She was twenty-five at the time, “very hot” according to her associates, outgoing and adventurous, a free-lance video game creator and self-promoter with a thriving business. She recalls Syl being not just very good-looking but “interesting.” She figured a guy “shlepping stuff in a lumber yard” must be some sort of jerk. But for some reason, she saw someone who was distinctly not a jerk although definitely socially inept. And since all he could do was blush and mumble when she said “Hello,” Sheila wasted no time. “What’s your name?” His name seemed familiar. She’d seen it before. She couldn’t place where. She got his phone number. Her excuse was “In case I need help in the garden or something.” And that was that. Three days later, she recalled where she’d seen his name. There was an article in the local news about an art gallery show featuring some very odd-looking painted wood sculptures. They were made from scrap lumber by some guy working at a lumber yard and taking night courses. Sheila was thinking about maybe using similar shapes in a game she was developing. They would be large, could move at high speed, change shape, and spew something bad. “Oh, my God. That’s him!” This was around ten o’clock at night. She called him. No answer. Next morning, she called again. Still no answer. So, since she had a new list of stuff to get for her kitchen, she headed back to the lumber yard and asked for Syl. She had to wait before he appeared. He was covered with a fine gray powder. He’d been helping unload cement bags from a box car. He gave a funny sort of half grin and tried to wipe the dust from his face by way of apologizing for his appearance. And with considerable effort, he managed to say, “Hi.” Sheila said she tried to call him. He said he turns his phone off at night. He checked and gave another funny grin. “Still off. Forgot.” Sheila said, “That’s OK. Can we go for a drink tonight?” Syl explained that he had class. Sheila was not going to take “no” for an answer. “So, when does your class end?” Syl told her. “Where exactly is it?” Syl told her that too. “OK, I’ll be there. We can have a drink and I’ll drive you home.” Syl said, “OK.” He helped bring the stuff she bought to her car and waved goodbye as she left. He stood there in the lumber yard parking lot trying to figure out what the hell had just gone on. This beautiful woman had come in to pick up some trim and paint, asked for him, invited him out for drinks, and he had no idea who or what she was. Just recently, he said with a grin, “What choice did I have? It’s been that way all the years we were together.” Sheila was waiting for Syl as the class ended. As Syl came out into the hallway where Sheila was waiting, she grabbed his hand and said, “Let’s go.” She was not going to let this character get away.

Fifty years later, in London, Syl sat down next to an older fellow, sitting by himself on a park bench, and said, “Remember me. I’m Syl.” It was John Hegler, Syl’s first real boyhood friend. John took a look as if he were peering through time, gave a yelp, and said, “My God, it is you. Where have you been? What have you been doing? My God! It has been a long time. Do you still draw and stuff?” Syl said, “Yes, I still draw and stuff but I’ve been reading about you in the papers, Making plaques and memorial statuary for churches and universities. You invented a new typeface? That’s amazing. Just like back in school.” John said he had been very lucky. “I sort of fell into it in a way. You remember we moved out west. My father wanted me to go into the sciences like him. I majored in biochemistry in college. Even took a master’s degree. But I really wasn’t good at it. And I was doing typeface and other drawings the whole time. Anyway, I was dating a girl whose father owned a precision metalworking company, very high-end stuff and he offered me a job. I loved it. The girl dumped me but I kept the job. And they taught me everything I needed to know about crafting metal. Later on, I got a job in a shop making memorial plaques and grave markers. One thing led to another. I’m here in London to finish up a commission I started ten years ago. And what about you?” Syl explained he was a sculptor, mostly in wood, and was in London for a gallery opening of his stuff. And he told his whole story, about how he met Sheila, how she turned his life around, gave him three wonderful children, helped to make him successful and happy beyond his wildest hopes, and managed his career as a sought-after sculptor. “She died three years ago. I miss her terribly. But when she knew she had terminal cancer, she never stopped working, arranged things so I could go on. She even ordered me to find a new wife. I’ve been trying.” Syl was crying. “God, it is good to see you, John. Come to the gallery so I can show you my stuff.”

As Syl tells it when describing how he and Sheila got together, “I suppose I was like a lamb being led to slaughter. There was no saying ‘no’ to Sheila. Not then, not ever. The night Sheila met him after class, they found a bar just off campus and had a drink. Sheila asked a million questions, but made him feel comfortable, even relaxed which was a big deal for Syl back then. She said she would drive him home. And she did. But it wasn’t his home. It was hers. Later that week, Syl went back to his small apartment and collected his stuff.

Sheila’s videogame consulting business of was beyond anything Syl could imagine. And she had this large barn of a place. Syl had been using his parent’s basement as a studio. Sheila suggested he move everything into her place. He was intrigued and terrified, even mystified, by her. She was in so many ways his opposite. But somehow, they both knew that this was for keeps. Sheila said she should meet his parents. His mother had strong doubts. “Who is she and what does she want with my child?” But Sheila won over Syl’s father as soon as they met. He liked her hustle and brains. And he knew she was going to be the best thing that ever happened to his son. And, incidentally, he wanted his basement back. He was due for retirement and wanted the space as a place for a consulting business.

Once they had a chance to spend time with her, Sheila was a hit with Syl’s parents. She knew what she was doing when it came to winning people over. And she was an expert with parents. After all, hers had taught her well, if not intentionally. Her own father was a brilliant but cold and distant engineer who spent months away from home on projects in other countries. When he was home, he tried making up for lost time by plying Sheila with gifts and money. By the time she was ten, Sheila had figured him out: none of the love and affection that she wanted, but more than enough toys and stuff. Concluding that she should take what she could get, Sheila milked him for all he was worth. Her mother was a dangerous alcoholic who regularly crashed family cars and twice set the house on fire. The net result: Sheila knew how to judge others, survive, fit in, and thrive. Then, there was her own, “Pre-Syl” history. Growing up, she had many friends but none close. She graduated high school at fifteen and was on track to finish college in three years when she abruptly quit in the middle of her second year to do video games full-time. She was barely eighteen when she got married for the first time. The marriage fell apart in six months. “Seemed like a good idea at the time but I was a jerk. And so was he,” she said when telling Syl and his parents about her life. She went on, “Because of all that, I knew in an instant Syl is a wonderful person. The talent is a bonus.” Syl’s father was surprised when Sheila mentioned Syl’s sculptures. He assumed it was a passing phase, not to be taken too seriously. Without hesitation, Sheila said, “Your son is very talented and I am going to make him famous.”

Sheila more than kept her word on that point. She and Syl had been married about a year and their first child was on the way when Sheila arranged a studio visit by a major gallery. The first show was a year later and sold out before the opening. And Syl finally gave up his lumberyard job. He had kept it because he had friends there and he liked the work. But most of all, he felt he had to bring in money. He finally was forced to give it up when a load of lumber fell off a six-wheeler not been tied down properly. He was in the hospital for three days. At which point, Sheila put her foot down, worked out a deal so he could spend part of his time drawing storyboards for her and earning his way, and the rest of his time doing his own work. The deal served them well for the rest of their lives together. In the process, Sheila made a fortune on a game Syl helped to create and she was a source of ideas for some of his most iconic artwork. There was the “Mosaic” series of wall sculptures. It cemented his reputation. And the “Nightstone” series. It put him in several museums. And the “Fireball” series. It provoked a small riot.

Things are quieter now for Syl. The kids are grown. One is a teacher, married with two kids. The others were either in grad school or starting careers. Sheila and Syl’s parents are gone. Before she died, Sheila got Syl into carving old cedar tree trunks and limbs. He likes cedar’s grain and colors. And its smell fills his studio. So, in a way, she’s still working with him. And, as he told his boyhood friend, John, she ordered him to marry again. That hasn’t happened yet but he knows he better do what he is told. “I’m still the lamb being led to slaughter.”

86. Meera Rossiter, EVP

“Tough.”

Meera was the third child of immigrants from the New Delhi area. Her parents had come separately as college students to the American Midwest, met at a campus social event, became friends, drifted apart, but three years later met again, this time at a graduate school symposium for foreign students. A year and a half later, they got married and graduated, both ceremonies on the same day, he in computer science, she in medicine. Meera was their third and last child, all daughters. She was never like her sisters. Or anyone else in her family. Her two sisters were obedient, respectful, traditionally feminine, quiet, studious, and disinterested in sports. Not Meera. She was always noisy and rambunctious. In high school, she stood out as a gifted lacrosse player, captain of her team. Unlike her sisters, Meera was casual about her studies, always leaving things to the last minute, getting good grades but only with the least amount of effort necessary. And her behavior drove her parents nuts. While her sisters were always “proper,” Meera snuck out on dates; tried cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana; and listened to music her parents considered tasteless and probably immoral. When they let her (or when she snuck out), she wore clothes that appalled everyone in her family. Definitely a handful. But she also knew how to get her way, partly because she was all things her father had yearned to be as a boy. He had always been an obedient son. But also, because Meera had a thing for technology. It started when she got her hands on her first computer game. She wasn’t supposed to have it. She pirated it and played it when she was supposed to be studying. It took her two tries to beat the game consistently. Then, bored with playing it, she took its programming apart, figured out what made it tick, and, in the process, taught herself to be a game developer. It just came to her. Her father couldn’t believe it. “This is not supposed to happen. It took me years to be a programmer.” Her mother was convinced that this was the beginning of the end for Meera. “What man would marry such as her?” But of course, it was anything but the end. Meera began picking up freelance jobs on the internet. Who knew she was a fourteen-year-old brat without any formal training? Then, she got a full-time job with a game development boutique, that is, until they figured out that she was too young to work without parental permission. But by then, she had applied for and been granted early admission to college with a dual major in finance and computer sciences. And she quickly learned that while she could handle the academics, she had no idea what to do about college social life. She got badly drunk at a sorority rush party. She went on a few disastrous dates and learned a few lessons that 16-year-old kids shouldn’t have to learn so soon. Her solution was to do well in class, take on freelance game development projects, and keep to herself. After two years of this, she was so lonely she was on the verge of dropping out of school. That is, until she saw this shy, goofy, disheveled kid coming across campus, hauling a cello case on his back. It seemed two sizes too big for him. Meera thought him cuter than any puppy she’d ever seen. She didn’t waste time. She stood right in his path until he, oblivious to what was going on, almost crashed into her. His name: Norwood T. Rossiter IV, “Nobby” to his friends. Brilliant and even more talented than Meera in his own way, he was otherwise almost her exact opposite. Very shy. Very quiet. Totally disorganized. Incurably shaggy. Illiterate in anything technological. Focused on music written 300 years ago and ignorant of music that Meera loved. And able to count founding fathers as ancestors, Nobby’s family was bemused by Meera and figured it wouldn’t last. On hearing about Nobby, Meera’s family ordered her home where she was to stay in her room until she came to her senses. It had never dawned on them that, unlike her dutiful sisters, Meera would fall for a non-Desi. Or that she would not give him up. Meera never did what she was told. And this time was no different. Now, three children and a very large house in Palo Alto later, it is seven-thirty in the morning and Meera is getting into an outrageously long stretch-limo and looking tough, dressed in one of her “killer” suits. There’s a meeting of her company’s executive committee, during which she will once again get her way, despite several nasty individuals who – like Meera’s parents – have no idea what they are in for. The nanny will see that the kids get to school. Nobby gets home tomorrow from his most recent European tour. Lately, he’s been getting rave reviews for his Prokofiev Cello Concerto, a piece that has been called, “rarely performed and deservedly so.”

76. Marjorie “Mags” Svensen

Her Father’s Son

In more ways that she could realize, she is her father’s son. As a girl, even in her teenage years, she loved being with him. They played tennis. They camped in the roughest conditions. Later, she went her father’s alma mater. And then, into her father’s profession, chemical engineering. Along the way, he always encouraged her to do one better than he did. She never let him down. After getting a master’s in chemical engineering, Mags took a job with an international chemical company and quickly moved up the ranks, not only nailing a couple of patents but also showing unusual leadership and sales skills. Even when it came to a husband, she excelled in her father’s eyes. Ronnie is tall, good-looking, good company, and a great doubles partner. But even better, he is very smart. Who could ask for anything more? Before meeting Mags, Ronnie took a law degree and became a partner in a very prestigious law firm. His clients have included some of the most socially prominent people in the country and – in more than a few instances – the corporations that account for their wealth. And that has been a bit of a problem. In that circle, Mags is supposed to be a “proper wife,” a complement to and an ornament for her husband, an expert at charming small talk, a good mother, and an even better hostess. She is not supposed to have muscles, is definitely not supposed to drink beer with the boys, or to laugh too loudly. Or swear. Or tell amazingly filthy jokes. Or, even worse, to flirt. Mags gets enormous amusement from her flirting. She loves how it drives the women in her husband’s client circle insane. And how it drives their husbands even crazier as they realize that Mag’s flirting is just her way of making fun of them. It used to be far worse but, after Ronnie asked her to cut it out, Mags took on a more “corporate” demeanor and “behaved like a lady.” She even stopped making snide comments about conservative politics. But just lately, things have taken a bit of a different turn. First, her mother died and her father went into a deep depression. Then, Ronnie’s father broke his hip. Next, Mags got a big promotion. It meant that as an EVP she is being groomed to be President and CEO of her company. And finally, Ronnie announced that he hated his job, couldn’t stand his clients, and wanted to start a woodworking company. To which, Marjorie said, “You mean we can finally stop the bullshit with those awful clients of yours and have a real life?” Ronnie’s answer was, “Yes, yes, and yes.” They put a bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator and had a little party, all by themselves. She knows it will not be easy. As a lawyer, Ronnie made a ton of money; woodworking is not quite as lucrative. So, their income will come down a bit. She knows that her new job will mean a lot of time on the road. And she expects that their two boy-crazy, prep-school daughters will a bit upset about some of the changes ahead. But those camping trips with her father – sleeping in a tent in the middle of Maine winters – prepared Mags for anything. Maybe those two little overly-delicate girls needed a bit of that sort of experience themselves.