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Chapter 12 Fake It Until You Make It Or You Break It Or It Breaks You

1988 was turning out to be the best year ever, and it was as though the entire city sensed it and was coming out to celebrate my success and urge me on to even greater things. The center of the city was resplendent in flags and buntings on every lamp post, and brightly colored commemorative pins proudly worn on thousands of lapels. A crooked  new coin was minted, and a colossal metal fountain erected down the center of O’Connell street that quickly became Western Europe’s biggest outdoor urinal.

It was the Dublin Millennium, a year-long party to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the submission of the Viking overlords of Dublin to the reigning high king of Ireland in 988. Until it was quietly pointed out by a contrarian medieval historian that the event we were all so enthusiastically celebrating actually happened a year later, in 989. But by then the party was in full swing and no one really cared anyway.

I was emerging as a legitimate entrepreneur and a respected expert in the cautiously sprouting field of computer security, and all in spite of still knowing nothing about any of it. But it made my parents happy and Orla even happier. We had been dating, even secretly engaged, for a couple of years, and she did little to hide her discomfort over the buggery I’d been doing and the company I’d been doing it with and did much to avoid talking to others about my work.

It didn’t matter any more anyway. The most important thing of all was that while I still had regal aspirations, I would no longer be king of the buggers. I’d relinquished my throne and title to a kingdom that I knew from the start was beneath me.

1988 was also significant for me but no coin would be minted and there would be no parade. It was the first time I was formally introduced to my demons, by name, even though they’d been my constant companions for as long as I could remember. Merciless, cruel, and nameless and like me, always misunderstood.

Shy, that’s what I was told, you’re just shy. Nothing more. That’s all that’s wrong with you. Except maybe a little awkward too. Except to those who didn’t think me shy or awkward at all but simply weird and even creepy. And they upset me the most. So much so that in order to avoid their ridicule I became even more detached and isolated and therefore more shy, awkward, weird, and creepy.

The demons were first summoned to name themselves by a trendy doctor in the north of Dublin who simply asked me something no doctor before had ever dared to ask me before – was there anything else on my mind? There was, of course there was, there always was, and suddenly this seemed to be not just the best but the first day to unload and explore.

I tried to explain, put words to my acute discomfort around people, any and all people, even family and friends. A releneless and unsettling discomfort, I said, whenever I was around people or out in public, something that not only made me very uneasy but seemed to make everyone else around me uneasy too. And uneasy about me because of me. Which naturally made me more uneasy and they the same and so the dance went on.

It’s as though the doctor was bent on unleashing all the demons at the same time, in the one room, poking and prodding, daring them to reveal themselves. “Is there any depression in your family?” he asked. Depression? In my family? Sure if there was an Irish family without some history of depression it could only be because they were English.

“Probably,” I said, not wanting to expose the family name to any shame as he seemed to want to write everything down. Was he making a record of my madness for future reference?

I was a shy child, I already knew that, introverted to a coil. Like an owl in a tree, my mother would say, always aware and watching and even fascinated but never participating. I watched because I couldn’t participate. I watched because I longed to be part of whatever was happening down there, out there. I watched in order to learn, too young to realize that the only real way to learn those skills was to participate. But I thought every child was supposed to be shy and that eventually, soon, please for god sake as soon as possibly possible, the shyness would be overtaken by something less suffocating.

But the shyness and the anxiety only grew worse as I grew older, and by my early teens I realized that as long as my heart pounded, thoughts and words stumbled, and hands sweated with something as simple as a conversation or interaction, I would always be banjaxed.

In order to compensate, to adapt, I had to act. Every interaction with every human ended up as little more than a clumsily choreographed performance to achieve nothing more than acting like I wasn’t acting. But because I wasn’t an actor, it always ended up coming across as forced, even fake.

I was finding eye and physical contact becoming increasingly difficult, which made it an almost impossible task to attend even the simplest of meetings. The sweating hand, racing mind, and pounding heart made those meetings ever more challenging.

Conversations were a nightmare as I’d trip and fall over my words, say silly and mindless things to fill in blanks or spaces and immediately chastise myself for saying something so stupid. An invitation for a drink or to a party was always met with an excuse until they quickly stopped coming.

Whenever I did socialize, forced myself to, I was constantly observing and absorbing, but rarely participating or engaging. I realized later that I was just trying to understand how other people, normal people, interacted with each other. How they smiled and laughed, chatted and flirted, casually enjoying each other’s company and with seemingly little effort. As though it was something completely natural that we all had the capacity for, or at least learned in the same way we learned to wipe our asses.  They weren’t acting. Why couldn’t I do that?

From the earliest age, at least the earliest I can remember, I was acutely aware of and interested in everything and everyone around me. And intensely sensitive to every word and glance. I would notice how people reacted to me, glanced at me, or didn’t glance or quickly glanced away. How they spoke to me or simply didn’t notice me. I noticed it all even when I didn’t appear to be looking at them at all. And I catalogued and recorded it all.

Even a walk down a street was an explosion in anxiety as my mind would race to recall how I should simply react to those walking towards and past me. How should I plan my approach to any stranger from far away, how should I greet them, if at all? Eye contact, if so, when? Which side should I pass them on and at what point indicate which side I’d chosen? Relax, screamed my brain, you’re walking too stiffly. You’re just passing, not jousting.

Isolation became a go-to coping. I tried to turn the loneliness into a Zen virtue “He travels fastest who travels alone” I read from Rudyard Kipling and I clung to it, embraced it like a mission statement. My only peace was isolation, the only place I didn’t have to pretend, the only place the heart would stop pounding, the hands stop sweating, and the demons cease mocking. But a peace that came at such a high price.

I was crazy, in some way or many, and I was not only beginning to accept it but embrace it. There was nothing else to do but hold it tight and try to control it. It would be nearly a quarter of a century before I fully realized how deeply rooted and cruel my dictator demons were, and the iron grip they maintained on everything.

In the meantime, my doctor wasn’t able to offer any treatment or cure, any consolation or comfort. It was a little relief, to know that I was sick and not just mad, I was misfiring because of miswiring and not imagining it all.

After just unburdening myself to the doctor, he seemed pretty confident that not only was I suffering from something vaguely known as social affective disorder, but that there might even be some depression and other ailments mixed in too.

It did feel a little odd to discover that I wasn’t just a little odd but had an official medical diagnosis to back it up. A stamp of approval, a seal, a travel card. But even better, the bad news would finally help explain and even excuse a lifetime of inexplicable behavior and very uncomfortable feelings. And specifically when in the company of the very humans whose attention, acceptance, and adoration I craved above all else.

As I grew older, the problems became more obvious and debilitating, and made the Crock so much more important for my survival. The Crock would be the best of all possible worlds, isolated but not alone. It was so important for me to inherit the family kingdom, if only because never having to venture out of that kingdom was the only option I could see for any kind of bearable life. At least as the master of the Crock of Gold, all those within the walls of the kingdom would have no choice but to like me. And I would have the chance to give them many reasons to.

I never shared the discussion, or the revelation, or the diagnosis, with anyone, ever. I was already so used to being a man of secrets and these were no different. Besides, things were changing, business was changing, and maybe I would change along with it.

At that same conference in London where I stood alone and awkward  in front of a near blank tabletop, one of the other vendors wandered over and struck up a conversation. He represented an American firm selling a range of new computer hardware and software and was curious about what the competition was like in the Irish market.

“You’re looking at it,” I lied so straight-faced. And it worked, again. Who needs impulse control when all the impulses end well? After an expensive boat trip and dinner on a converted barge on the River Thames a few weeks later, I was now the newly appointed sole distributor for Ireland for an extensive range of advanced encryption products and associated software that I, still consistent, knew absolutely nothing about. Nor had any interest in learning.

But I needed the income and the credibility, and even more than that, I needed to please Orla. And she seemed comfortably content when I quickly announced that no less than the Bank of Ireland had summoned me to a meeting to talk about how my new software could help them stop terrorists from blowing up their national data center. I was already loving this new business. I would still be the keeper of secrets. Just the secrets would be so much bigger and more important. A matter of national interest.

One of the products in my new tool collection was a new type of software they simply called expert software. Supposedly the floppy discs had been so well fitted with a mind of their own that they would make it easier for any organization to test out all kinds of risk scenarios on a computer before trying it in real life.

Based on whichever outcome they were happiest with, the software would not only produce a detailed step-by-step plan that everyone could share and follow, but a host of additional outcomes, challenges, questions, and recommendations if any part of the plan was deviated from. More wizardry than technology but I was still impressed. And especially if it required no attention or intervention from me.

It was called RecoveryPac, designed for disaster recovery planning, and to help organizations plan for catastrophic computer failures or attacks before they ever happened. The distributors in London had forced me to sit through nearly a full day of training on the software, and it was easily the longest day I had ever spent sitting anywhere.

Part two of the familiarization plan was for me to install my own personal copy on my own personal computer and run through a number of disaster planning scenarios so that I could be confident enough to expertly walk a client through all the features. Eventually, I thought. Whenever I finally get around to buying a computer. I’ll learn it then.

And that was my state of disaster planning expertise the day I showed up for the meeting with the computer security manager at Bank of Ireland’s national computer center in Cabinteely, just a few miles from my parents house.

The manager’s name was Victor Hume and after a short round of pleasantries where I lamented with him what a waste of time this computer security nonsense was becoming, he explained that for the purposes of this meeting the issue was less about computer crime and more about terrorism.

Bank of Ireland was the country’s oldest, largest, and most esteemed commercial bank, and their entire national computer center was located in a sprawling two-story building within just yards of a public road. The concern, said Victor, was that any terror organization with just an ounce of creativity could not only obliterate the bank’s computing capabilities but impact the lives of millions of citizens and businesses by simply bombing the place.

The scenario they worried most about, he explained, was as simple as a blaggard driving a massive truck bomb through the main gate, parking it next to the data center, and after a respectable amount of time for civilians to clear the building and surrounding neighborhood, detonate and obliterate.

You can see the worry, said Victor. I could, I said, and wondered why the terrorists hadn’t thought of or executed such an easy plan before now. In order to counter such a threat, Victorwent on,  the bank had decided that the safest option, while also being the most expensive and disruptive, would be to build an exact replica of the surface computer center in a hardened bunker approximately fifteen feet below the ground. Right under our feet, he banged with his heel.

It wouldn’t deter them from the first option, he said, but at least the bank might survive. I thought about suggesting maybe a better or higher wall or stronger gates but I assume they’d already taken those into consideration.

The entire process, expected to take a couple of years, was considered a major disaster-in-waiting and so in order to plan to avoid that disaster, Victor wanted to know if my RecoveryPac software would be of any help.

I could have reached for any number of answers. Maybe a few questions to put off the inevitable – tell me more about the challenge, how familiar are you with our products, did you read the manual I sent? I was on the brink of going to my safest place, “of course it could help, it would be perfect, let’s talk about pricing and delivery” and worry about the failure and fallout later.

For whatever reason, whether a sudden burst of growth and maturity or the realization that if I didn’t contain my most dangerous urges this could have serious consequences for me and maybe the entire nation, I paused, squeezed my top lip like I’d learned from Orla, and stared deeply into his desk.

“You know,” I said, and with great and somber thought, “I think this is a very powerful product with lots of great features that could make your life so much easier.” And then I closed with equal gravity “But it’s so new and untested that I just wouldn’t be comfortable recommending it for such a major project.”

As the words fell out I could already see the fallout when Orla found out that there was no sale to be made and Bank of Ireland would not be my new and most prestigious customer.  But I’d lied to her before and would have to again and the practice always helped

What I can do, I said, is ask the company if they would give you a free copy, as a gesture, and see if it helps you. What I didn’t say was that it would protect me and still keep my toe in the door, and Victor seemed happy with all of  that. So did Orla, or at least happy with the version I shared with her and the real possibility that now Bank of Ireland was a client, I might make a hundred thousand pounds or more selling the same software across the country.

I never sold a single copy of that or any other software. But in a matter of months my honest response to Victor paid off when he called to say that the Irish Banks Standing Committee had approved an initiative to work together to protect all their combined ATM machines across the country. Every single ATM in the entire country connected on the same network.

It was bold, and not without risk, and it would all need protection. That protection meant encryption, lots of it, and Victor thought that if I was interested in bidding, he was confident I’d have a decent chance. Especially as he’d persuaded his other colleagues on the committee that the ideal vendor should have a physical presence in Ireland. I was the only vendor that could check that box.

Less than two months later I received the letter congratulating me on my win. It was the first and biggest such contract, and hopeful there would be many more. Orla was pleased, the family was delighted, and there should be no looking back now. No more buggery for me.

More importantly, it would complete the missing half of the Man from Intrepid. No longer was I just an expert on phone security, I was now an expert on encryption too. If someone could only marry the two, encrypted and speech, now that’s something that might make millins for someone.



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