Chapter 7 The Dark Knight

A few days after returning from Washington, Ren took the commuter train into Manhattan. After leaving Penn Station, he walked from 7th Avenue and 33rd street to the Upper East Side, where he was to have dinner with an old friend. There was a brisk breeze. Luckily, the fall weather was still mild. Ren was feeling pretty good and all the excitement of the past week had given him an extra skip to his step. He was on his way to have dinner with Mark Stanton, who had invited Ren to join him at Donguri, a Japanese restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Mark could certainly afford to eat at Donguri, one of most expensive restaurants in New York. He had told Ren he had a proposal to discuss with him. Ren had no idea what Mark was going to say, so he walked at a quick pace and arrived after a 40-minute walk.

Mark Stanton and Ren had met in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They worked in neighboring labs and Ren often went into Mark’s lab to talk. For some reason Mark and Ren had hit it off from the first moment they met. They started to go out to lunch together and then started to go to local bars to listen to bluegrass music. Within a short time, Ren was to consider Mark a very good friend, as well as the most resourceful person he ever met. Mark was moderately but not strikingly tall at 6 foot. In graduate school he wore his black wavy hair mid length. When you were talking with Mark he looked at you intensely like he was surveying the surface of your face. There was a twang to his voice as he had grown up in the mountains of South Carolina. Mark was a resource, plain and simple. When Ren hit a snag in something technical in the lab, Mark was the person he called. At home, if he needed to pour concrete or knock down a wall, Mark was up for the job. If Ren needed to replace some plumbing, Mark knew how to do it. Ren always joked that Mark was the infinite tool man, as it appeared that he had mastered every skill imaginable. Ren played a running game with Mark. He tried to think up something Mark could not do. But when he finally thought of something new and asked, Mark would usually say, “Oh hell, I did that when I lived in ….” After months of playing this game, Ren gave up; he was unable to come up with one thing Mark did not know how to do. Although amazingly capable and confident, Mark was reserved and quiet. This was probably the main reason Ren and Mark got along. Mark was a doer, not a talker. But he was also cool and calm, so there were many sides to Mark, and there were sides to him that he kept to himself. He was obviously tough, in a quiet, calm, dangerous way.

Only years later did Ren learn, through a mutual friend, about Mark’s previous life before graduate school. The CIA had recruited Mark from the military when he was still in his teens. He was trained as a sniper and an assassin and was sent to Southeast Asia. After several years the CIA extracted him and sent him to college and then transferred him to a technology related group in the agency. But he was haunted by his experiences in Viet Nam and he preferred to do something positive with his life. He quit the CIA and went to graduate school for biophysics, where he met Ren. After he graduated with his Ph.D. he worked in academic research for just one year and then started his own company in New Jersey. It was the proverbial business started in a garage. He made miniature cameras and top of the line lenses and filters for biomedical research. After a slow first couple of years his company took off like a rocket and within another few years he was very successful and had made millions. Surprisingly, this did not alter his life style or personality at all, as he continued to work long days leading his company. Mark was directly involved in the development of new products and traveled constantly to trade shows. When he was not working, he spent most of his time sailing on his 18-foot sailboat along the East Coast. He had been married very young for a short time, and he had a grown daughter in graduate school. After becoming successful he had come close to marrying five or six times, but each time he broke off the engagement at the last minute. Ren always attributed this to Mark’s experiences in Viet Nam, but he didn’t know for sure. He never asked him.

With their long history together, it was a plus that Mark was located in New Jersey when Ren moved to the state. Mark was someone Ren could rely on. After reaching the correct address on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Ren walked into Donguri. As usual Ren was the one who was late. After a warm handshake Mark and Ren sat down and ordered lobster miso soup, dinner and two scotches. It had been six months since they had seen each other. During the first half of dinner, Mark related to Ren his many recent trips and adventures. It is truly remarkable how much Mark was able to fit into life.

Finally Mark said, “Now here’s my proposal. I am getting ready to fly to New Zealand in a month. Do you want to go along on a 14 day hiking trip? I’ll pay for everything!”

Ren loved to backpack, and in fact, his dream was to hike in New Zealand. But this was awful timing. Ren answered him, “This hurts deeply, but I don’t think I can make it. With a little longer lead-time, I might have been able to go. I am pretty busy right now. When did you decide about this?”

Mark answered, “Ren, you know me. I don’t make plans too far in advance. I just decided the other day I needed to get away. We are finishing the development of some new products and now it is time to let the marketing people take the ball and run with them. I am cutting back on visiting clients. If a client needs to talk to me they can reach me on the satellite phone.”

After my negative reply, Mark seemed slightly annoyed and switched subjects. He asked, “Well, Ren, you’ve been in New Jersey for three years. Have you finally settled in? Do you feel like it is home?”

Mark’s questions opened up a book that was still being written. Ren had been too busy to even think about these questions in the past few months. But now that Mark was asking, Ren was suddenly confronted with his own life.

“Mark, I try to stay busy and not to think about those things. I wish I could step away and look at where I’ve been and what I’ve done the last few years. But I can’t seem to do it. Everyday I get up early and attack the day. I work all day and sometimes late into the night. I go to bed exhausted and wake up early the next day, and there is always as much stuff to do the next morning.”

Mark chimed in, “Hey, that’s an academic for you. You sound absolutely dismal. What happened? You sound like you fell into a hole and can’t get out. You need a break, Ren. Have you taken any vacation in the past year? If not, it is more important than ever that you travel with me to New Zealand. Getting away will do you good, and you will be able to calm down and figure things out.”

“I need to stay on top of things here for a little bit longer. You’ve been here in the East for 15 years now and you are well established. I’m still surprised you can leave your business so often and travel for such long periods.”

Mark answered, “I have already made enough money with my business. I still want it to grow and prosper, but I decided that I’m not going to treat it like a baby. I want to travel and enjoy myself while I can. I should sell it, but then I would have too much time on my hands and no problems to solve. The trouble with you academic types is that your business is developing the next problem. You are always conflicted. You are always working. There is no start and no finish. It alls blends together. I saw this in graduate school and decided to stay clear of academics. I am not a scientist like you. A scientist needs technical skill, needs to relate his or her work to the world around him, and then needs to publish the findings so the world can benefit from the new knowledge. I am incapable of doing two and three. I just wish to make something, sell it, and make a lot of money. I like solving problems, not developing new ones.”

Mark was being extremely aggressive tonight.

Ren responded, “I came back to the East to be close to my roots, so to speak. But I still have not anchored myself. I’m just drifting. I can’t live on such a high intensity level and be happy only to plug away at work. Something is missing. Should I settle down? I failed miserably at it before. I’m not sure I have it in me. I am unsure what direction to go in. You are so different from me.”

Mark countered, “Ren, you know me. I’m pretty simple to figure out. When you said high intensity I guess you were describing me. Because of my Epicurean philosophy, I live on the animal level. I do not have inner conflicts about what to do or when to do it. It is surprising we are friends. We met when I was pulling myself together after Vietnam. I was lucky to get out of there alive. I really do not have to ask the big questions. I have seen enough of the world to know that the big picture is unknowable. I was very lucky. I learned a highly technical occupation and followed through by making products that are useful and wanted. Hopefully, that will be enough for my personal contribution to the world. Hanging out with you is my one diversion from a comfortable animal existence. I only talk about existential topics when we are together. When I travel it is to have a great time. As Churchill said about traveling- “I am easy to please, I only like the best.” That’s me perfectly!

Ren replied, “Mark, the one thing I am sure of is that it is my role in life to make you question yourself. In that way I get closer to my inner, spiritual self, if only for an hour or two.” They both laughed. Marked seemed to exhale and relax.

Mark finally said, “OK Ren, you’ve succeeded in making me feel exceedingly uncomfortable. Let’s change the subject. Let’s order some more drinks. What crazy thing are you working on? I can’t wait to hear this.”

Ren immediately launched into Ali’s project, “We have an exciting new case. Someone came to me with an expensive old painting and he wanted me to tell him if it was real or if it was a forgery. I analyzed the paint in some remote regions of the painting and the paint seems to be correct for the period- the late 1880’s. But there were two interesting ingredients in the paint that have tripped me up. They are not modern chemicals, but their presence in the paint is intriguing. Therefore, I told Ali that his painting appeared authentic, but I couldn’t definitely tell him without more research.”

Mark replied, “Oh no, Ren, you have gotten yourself into another ‘interesting’ project. What do you know about art or paint? When are you going to focus on your botanicals research? When are we going to hear abot a miracle discovery from you. When was the last time you went on an expedition to collect plants?”

“It gets harder all the time to travel. I teach 2 classes in the spring and I need to finish a great deal of my work this fall. The clock is ticking and I can’t stand it. I’m wondering whether my trekking for exotic plants days are over.”

Mark looked concerned, “Ren, it is even more important for you to come with me to New Zealand. It is spring there. You will be able to recharge. We will have a great time. You can even look around for interesting plants. You might find the biggest discovery of your career!”

“Mark, I’ll give it some serious thought. In a week or two I should know if I can make it.”

They finished dinner and Mark drove Ren back to New Jersey in his beautiful Porche. All the way back Ren regretted taking on Ali’s project. He was absolutely sure that he would have a wonderful trip to New Zealand if he was able to go.

Leave a short comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s