Two: Two Months Earlier


112 again?

Spence shook his head.

I need to practice at the range, he thought, but August is just too damn hot here, shade or not.

Clicking the Home icon in the Firefox browser on his computer, the forecast for Surprise Arizona disappeared while the first page of his on-computer TWiki loaded.

Years ago, he’d started using TWiki to save his bookmarks and other personal information he needed at his fingertips. The TWiki files were portable to any OS, any browser. He needed that flexibility as he moved from job to job.

When employed full-time, Spence was invariably given a notebook PC with the current flavor of Windows; that’s what all the corporate IT departments wanted. So, while he preferred Linux and could deal with the interoperability issues with Outlook’s calendar, Windows email, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, he knew the IT folks would give him a hard time if he tried to use something else.

“They pay, I comply,” was his rule.

At home, on his own time, he used the Sony notebook he’d bought for $50 three years ago. He’d upgraded the disk, max’d the RAM and installed CentOS, a clone of Red Hat’s enterprise Linux. It did everything he needed and was faster than the new machines with Windows.

For work away from full-time employment, he hosted at GoDaddy on a Linux server. His virtual “store front” in WordPress looked pretty good for his otherwise mostly nonexistent consulting work. His personal email was served by the same company.

When he was his own IT department, it was all Linux.

He clicked the link in the Finance grouping in TWiki for Bank of America’s website to check his balance.

$1,406.17 in checking and a little over $4,300.00 in savings.

“Not zero yet,” he said, closing the lid of the notebook.

Spence got up from the sofa and crossed the living room to the hallway and went into the laundry area. He looked at the three canvas bins and decided to start a load of “whites” — dress shirts with corporate logos faded from such treatment, sports socks, and a few towels.

Laundry underway, he went to the bedroom, pulled up the covers so it wouldn’t look totally unkempt — to who, he wondered — and then headed into the bathroom and started the shower, having forgotten the washer that would send him a surprise when it suddenly stopped filling with hot water.

After the shower, he decided he could go another day without shaving.

“Why bother?”

Spencer Blake, Spence to his friends, looked younger than his 53 years. He was 5’11” and a tad on the chubby side but had a youthful face that sometimes worked against him in professional situations. His light brown hair was beginning to  grey on the sides but his brown eyebrows were straight and even. He snipped the occasional “Einstein” so they didn’t become bushy — but they would someday, he knew. His brown eyes were bright and sharp. He had a full, straight nose flanked by strong cheek bones.

Grinning at himself in the mirror, he saw a wide smile with moderate lips and a blocky chin just hidden behind a trimmed goatee. He kept his mustache short so he wouldn’t appear unkempt.

Completing his physique, his arms and legs hid more strength than they suggested.

The leg strength came from the ten-speed mountain bike he rode several days a week. His most common route went to the Beardsley Canal and, on the other side, he spent an hour or two, when his schedule permitted it, on the Maricopa Trail that would someday circle metropolitan Phoenix. Riding and bike-camping the entire 242 mile circuit, when it was finished, was on his list.

When employed, he kept a couple of five pound weights at the office and another pair on his desk at home. Either place, when he was on the phone or taking a break to gaze out the window, he’d do reps for wrist, elbow and shoulder strength.

With newcomers to pistol shooting, he would say, “Build a strong platform from the ground up: feet, legs, body, shoulder and arm; then, tighten up so everything locks hard. You want your wrist, elbow and shoulder to be a single, rigid piece with no joints. Finally, line up the sights on the target and then move the trigger straight back without disturbing the sights until it breaks.”

So little to remember, so very hard to do.

“Come back on Tuesday night; we shoot Bullseye or International, depending on the week,” but not in the Arizona summer heat if you expect to see me, he would omit.

He pulled on a pair of black boxers from the drawer, a blue plaid short-sleeve cotton shirt from the closet and the khaki shorts still on the chair from yesterday. He pulled on his sport shoes, also from yesterday, his ensemble for the day now complete.

“No ‘No Socks’ stores today,” he noted.

In the kitchen, he brought the kettle back to a boil and made a cup of decaf with a little whole milk for taste and temperature.

Ready for the day with nothing to do and no one to see; he went back in the living room and opened the notebook computer. While it woke up and reconnected to his wireless, he sipped coffee and gazed out the window.

He saw a cookie-cutter Arizona bedroom community. Every house had an orange, Spanish tile roof, tan exterior and desert-landscaped front yard extending the ten feet from the street to the house. In their back yards, most of his neighbors had an oval pool and a brick-edged grass area for their kids to play, all of which was surrounded by desert gravel with xeriscape plants running parallel to the six foot concrete block wall that enclosed the entire yard.

Spence’s grass was plastic and he didn’t have a pool.

He and his wife had intended to use this house as a rental and because it had no pool, it was $20,000 less. But a year later, the pool contractor told them the easements for underground utilities made it pretty much impossible to dig a hole because of the buried power line down the center of the backyard. Of course, the pool guy said they could “relocate it” but that would add $10,000 to the price.

In the settlement, his now ex-wife had gotten the main house and he’d gotten the rental.

She was a personal injury attorney.

Their two kids, now adults and married, were both in metropolitan Phoenix. Their daughter was in Chandler with her mechanical engineer husband who worked, as Spence had, for an aerospace company which made optical systems for military helicopters.

Their son, married with an infant son of his own, was in Scottsdale not that far from Spence by the 101 freeway. A tax accountant, he did a lot more for his mother’s ample tax return than for Spence’s.

Sometimes, after a couple of beers, he’d get depressed about the twists and turns in his life, but eventually the rational side of his brain would start saying all the predictable cliches, “You’ve got your health,” and “It’s a beautiful day,” and then he’d start hearing Mr. Rogers voice singing…


Looking down in his lap he saw the notebook was re-connected to the wireless and ready to go.

He started KMail. It sucked down a dozen emails from the POP server and marked most of them as Junk. Before deleting them, he scanned those first to be sure nothing important had been filtered out.

Yep, all bad.

He selected that folder, deleted its contents and then promptly emptied the Trash as well. Working with small disks all those years made him fastidious about keeping his file system neat and uncluttered.

In the regular in-box was an announcement from Felipé for the Tuesday evening Bullseye league.

“Nope, too hot guys.”


An advertisement from The Discovery Store?

No thanks.

He clicked the Junk icon and the message disappeared from his in-box.

The next message was from Megyn Zhang.

“Megyn?” he said aloud.

“A message from Megyn?? Wow!”

Megyn was a good friend he’d met years ago at her employer’s Cupertino office while teaching an embedded RTOS class. He remembered it was some Chinese aircraft manufacturer. Megyn and her engineers worked in that office helping the Chinese company build avionics for sale to US companies. They bought a class to train them to use the VxWorks operating system so they’d be better able to get FAA certification. Spence was assigned as the teacher and Megyn sat in even though, technically, she was management.

“I need to understand the reports from my engineers,” she had explained when Spence had politely noted the class would be highly technical. Spence remembered it had been a small class and, in hindsight, he was pretty sure the engineers had noticed most of his attention had been on Megyn that week. Regardless, she seemed to understand the general concepts and was content to leave the details to her engineers.

“Wish a couple of my managers had been smart enough to do that,” Spence thought.

Her beauty was the first thing he had noticed. She had been at the side of the room as he entered, her back toward him and talking to one of her engineers.

She had dark chestnut hair that was clean, shiny and perfectly combed. He’d guessed it would be shoulder length when the gold pin with the clear green stone were removed. The image of green on gold on the deep, dark brown stuck with him.

When she turned to address the person on her left that day, he saw she was composed and confident, and also relaxed, warm and friendly.

Her complexion was pale. “China doll” came to mind.

Half covered by hair, the one small ear Spence could see had a white pearl earring that matched her necklace, the color of the pearls like facets against her translucent skin.

When she turned and began to introduce herself, “Li Zhang but please call me Megyn,” Spence was overwhelmed by a dozen impressions.

He shook her hand — gentle, strong, long fingers, red nails, no rings.

She wore a solid Ivory-color dress with a sweater decorated in flowers of strong, primary colors. She had a straight chin, warm smile, small lips with bright red lipstick that matched her fingernails. There was a really nice dimple in each cheek and an ever so subtle blush on her cheekbones. She had dark brown eyes with, yes, little flecks of gold in them.

Overall, he appearance suggested someone quite youthful for her position, very feminine and with a strong, professional demeanor.

Spence smiled thinking this will be an interesting class in Cupertino.

During the class, Megyn watched as her engineers worked the exercises, her occasional questions amply demonstrating she understood the general concepts and many of the details. She would have no trouble staying on top of what her engineers had to report.

At the end of the first day of class, Spence asked the engineers as he often did for dinner recommendations. A couple of places were mentioned; he took notes and thanked them before they left.

Megyn stayed as he packed up his computer for the evening. She said she knew a particularly good place for asian dumplings and, if he was interested, she’d be glad to show it to him.

Spence was delighted to learn she was also a foodie and knew lots of interesting places in the Bay area. From then on, if Spence was anywhere near Silicon Valley, he’d email, text or phone Megyn and they’d meet at some out of the way place she knew or that had been recommended by another foodie. They spent many hours that way.

But it went no further. They were each focused on their jobs, lived hundreds of miles apart and while they both obviously enjoyed the same things as well as each other’s company, …

Thinking of his first marriage and how ugly it became grinding out the settlement, he knew he didn’t want to ever go through that again.

Spence looked at Megyn’s email again.

It said that she’d kept up her association with the International School of Software at Wuhan University in China where she’d received her Masters degree. He learned that every year after she moved to the states, she arranged for an experienced US computer engineer to go to China and teach a seminar in his/her area of technical expertise.

This year, she’d decided to ask him.

The school would pay all expenses — air, lodging, food and local transportation — and make all the reservations. They wanted him the last two weeks of October, if that would be convenient — about two months from now, Spence acknowledged — and, if agreeable, they would send him a contract and the formal letter of invitation. He would need both when applying for the Visa.

“The topic is up to you as long as it’s about computers and software,” Megyn wrote. “I’m sure the students will benefit from any of the expertise you choose to share. I know your ability to teach, your sincerity, and how well you connect with engineers in the classroom. I’m sure the school will be delighted.”

Spence clicked the Reply button and typed a quick note to say he was very interested, that the dates sounded good for his calendar — which he knew was totally empty — and that he’d like to move ahead.

After sending the reply, he scanned the text of her message again looking for the data points. His mind quickly pulled out the nuggets:

Teach class; two weeks; late October; Wuhan, China; $7,000.

“I can sure use the money, but what should I teach?” he asked the empty house.

I could teach about RTOSes, he thought, but that’s kind of limiting and they probably cover the main ones in classes at the university.

How many hours of lecture content do I need?

Megyn had specified, “two five-day seminars with identical content.”

Spence calculated: Five days of material; If we do six hours of actual teaching per day — a normal day minus lunch, breaks and some Q&A leaves six “teaching hours” per day — that’s 30 hours of content for the week; I usually do about 2.5 minutes per slide but, with the language difference, I’ll figure 3 minutes each so that’s 20 slides per hour times 30 hours; I’ll need a total 600 slides, give or take.”

Spence considered the alternatives before deciding, for safety’s sake, to leave the topic very broad. Depending on the students, he could then add or subtract verbal content to make the course take the right amount of time. He’d use all 600 slides but the timing of each would be flexible.

So, where is Wuhan, China and where is the University? He wondered.

Spence Google’d “Wuhan University” and clicked the link to for their English-language home page.

Under their Schools menu he found “Faculty of Information Sciences” and, clicking that link, he saw International School of Software.

That’s it!

For the next half hour he clicked around and explored the school’s web pages.

Looks pretty much like any university here, he thought; same majors, same courses.

Google gave the university’s address as Wuchang, Wuhan, Hubei, China, 430072.

Spence launched Google-Earth, copied, pasted and then clicked the Search button.

Google-Earth zoomed in to central China on an area roughly aligned with Shanghai to the east and Hong Kong to the south. Wuchang was apparently just one of the cities within Wuhan, just like Surprise and Scottsdale and Paradise Valley were all parts of Phoenix.

Metropolitan Wuhan straddled the Yangtze or Yellow river with Wuchang on the east side.

Comparing the map on the university’s website to what he saw as he looked around in Google-Earth, he soon found the campus on a knob of land poking out from the southwest shore of Donghu Lake. Zooming in, he could easily see sports fields, several dozen buildings and tree-covered areas including a large forest at the southern edge of the campus. It was named Luojia Mountain.

Pretty much what you’d expect for a major university, he acknowledged.

The formal contract, letter of invitation and other details were in his email in-box the next morning. He pasted JPEG images of his signature onto the PDFs and sent updated versions back, again by email.

In 48 hours, the official paperwork was done.

I am committed, Spence thought.

Now all I have to do is write 600 slides.

September was filled with creating the course. With over thirty years in the industry and, working for seven different companies with dozens of products, Spence found the task fairly easy but time consuming. Fact checking on the Internet and raw typing and formatting filled the days and, by the end of September, he had nearly 700 pages of content, more than enough for five days of teaching, times two.

He then took a two-day driving trip to the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles for the Visa. They already had a copy of the school’s letter of invitation, but required him to personally submit the application along with a notarized statement from the City of Surprise Police Department which said he had no criminal record. They would keep his Passport overnight. The next day he could reclaim it with the added Visa stamp for China.

The paper air tickets and printed itinerary arrived the first week of October in regular mail. He would take a United flight in three weeks starting on a Friday morning at 7:45AM to San Francisco where, three hours later he would board another United flight to Shanghai where they would land at the Pudong airport the next day around dinner time. There, he would take a shuttle to the Andaz Xintiandi Shanghai hotel for one night. The next day he would take a different airport shuttle to the Hongqiao airport, still in Shanghai, for the “domestic flight” on Shanghai Airlines to the Wuhan Tianhe airport. He would arrive in Wuhan mid-afternoon. At the airport, he’d be met by his driver — I get a driver? — and taken to the Fengyi Hotel.


Along with the itinerary was a “Plan for the Seminar.” Apparently his driver would pick him up each weekday at 8:30AM and take him to the nearby classroom for class at 9:00AM. That session would last three hours. He’d then be driven back to the hotel for lunch and middy break. That pattern was repeated for an afternoon session from 2:00-5:00PM after which it would be back to the hotel for dinner and sleep. All his meals at the hotel’s regular dining area and bottled water from the commissary in the lobby were included but if he chose to go out for a meal or buy other snacks, he was on his own for the expense.

So basically it would be two weeks in the middle of China with strangers speaking a language he didn’t understand, eating in the same restaurant every night, brushing his teeth with bottled water, and showering in water that could kill him if he swallowed it.

I can do that, Spence said to himself, not wholly convinced.


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