Ecochondriacs [1]

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This book is dedicated to Mark Steyn, to whom I am indebted for various things, including my introduction to the word ecochondriacs.

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Sunday Night


Dr. Helen Greene let herself into her brown Annapolis townhouse apartment, kicked off her shoes by the front door, set the small bag of groceries down on the kitchen counter, and then went back to lock and bolt the front door. She lived in a nice neighborhood, but it was only three blocks away from one that wasn’t so nice, and she had always been a careful sort.

She circled back into her living room, enjoying how the carpet felt on her sore feet. It had been the day of days, and was actually about to get a good deal dayer than that. This, in fact, was going to be the day-iest of all her born days. If you threw in the next morning, it was going to be epic.

As she walked by her home office laptop—which was lined up perfectly straight with the lip of the desk and perfectly perpendicular with the  two mechanical pencils on the right side of the computer (there was nothing else on her most immaculate desk)—her eye caught a notification from Steven Lee, her one-time advisor and mentor from grad school. Dr. Lee was now the current head of her research group, and up to this year she had thought that his “gruff” manners were the mark of great genius. But over the last several months, she had started to wonder if they were really an indicator of a soaring ego, as opposed to a soaring intellect. That thought had occurred to her a time or three.

Helen had been appointed to the research group last year—and it really was quite the honor for someone her age. The group was an international task force on climate change, and was the most prestigious of the lot—the lot consisting of all the other task forces, each one scrambling for money and throwing the occasional elbow. Fueled by massive amounts of money from multiple governments and international organizations, climate change research was a growth industry, a boom town, a cash cow that emitted no methane, only cash. So the fact that Lee’s group was the most prestigious of the bunch was really saying something.

Usually no one was ever invited to join this group unless they were at least five years out of grad school and had made some kind of independent glory for themselves when it came to publication in the kinds of journals that exuded significantly higher levels of that special numinous and scientific glow. Although the source of that radiant gravitas was mysterious, you knew it when you saw it on a resume. And Helen had only been working at establishing her resume for three years, with the same number of significant publications, three thus far, and so the invitation had come to her as a genuine shock. Such an invitation had been her goal all along, and was precisely what she had been driving for, but she had assumed she was going to be in the salt mines of schlub research for at least two more years. But since that exuberant day, since her appointment, as she was a careful sort, she had been doing her level best to pull her own weight. Her labors had been, she thought, paying off. It was not the kind of place where anybody ever said “good job,” but it was the kind of place where displeasure was cogently expressed without any stinting, and she had not been on the receiving end of any of that. So she thought she could say that she was doing well in her job.

She was quite an attractive woman, but she had some years before decided that she wasn’t really all that attractive, and that if she were to make something of herself she needed to really give herself to her studies. She prided herself on her scholarship, and kept all her girl stuff in a back room somewhere. That decision, ironically, had been the result of some mean things another girl on her junior high cheerleading squad had said to her, and Helen had really no idea that the girl had said them because of how pretty Helen was.

At any rate, Helen sat down, clicked the email thread open, and according to her usual custom, scrolled down to the bottom of the initial email so that she could get the context. The subject line read “What’s one more lie . . .?” which she thought a curious tag, but as the next few minutes passed, her curiosity gradually turned to horror and dismay as she scrolled up through the exchanges. They were between Steven Lee, her boss, and Martin Chao, and Leonid Ravinsky, the triumvirate of Climate Change. World-respected authorities on the subject, and here they were all chortling at what a scam it all was. They didn’t believe a lick of it.

Helen just sat there, gobsmackedon more than one level. The first had to do with her own worldview. They didn’t believe any of it. She had believed all of it, heart and soul. No missionary had ever gone to deepest Africa with more devotion in her heart for the lost than Helen had gone off to grad school. Now she suddenly felt like an archbishop would have felt had he been goaded into opening up his cathedral’s most precious reliquary to a team of scientists so that they could carbon date the finger bone of St. Andrew, only to have them come back to him with the hot news that the finger bone was only 700 years old, a time nowhere close to the time of St. Andrew, and that it was, moreover, the finger bone of a chimpanzee. It was the chimpanzee part that hurt.

The comparison may be inexact, but she felt something like that.

The second level had to do with her sense of personal betrayal and astonishment. These were men she had respected on a personal level, and here they were joking about all the money they were raking in, and making fun of all the rubes who gave it to them, and what a laugher the whole thing was. There was even a joke about how easy the women at the big climate change conferences were. Thank heaven that wasn’t mixed up in her story with any of them. But she then thought, rather suddenly, that she still must be numbered among those gullible women in their eyes, and she could feel her cheeks getting hot.

But the third level of difficulty dawned on her a little more slowly. This last one was a stinker. She got to the last email at the top, in reply to the rest of the thread, the one that Steven Lee had sent directly to her. It said, without any fanfare, “Please delete the previous thread without reading it. It was sent to you by mistake, and does contain some confidential and proprietary information.”

Without hesitating, and without thinking about it too carefully, she quickly typed, “No worries. Will not read,” and clicked send.

Then she jumped up immediately and walked around her apartment three times. How should she conduct herself at the offices the next day? How was she going to act? What was she to do? She was needed there by 10 am, and she had a report to present right after lunch, at 1 pm. That part was all right because she was the sort of person who always completed reports a week before they were due. But how was she going to act?

Everything about her situation was a complete and total novelty to her. She had lost her surface-level evangelical faith in high school, and even the memory of it was greatly dimmed by her undergraduate days. By the time she had hit grad school, her atheism was in full flower, and so naturally she fit right in. But since the first appearance of that atheism, because she was the kind of woman who never did what’s not done, she had never faced any kind of ethical dilemma. She had simply memorized the rules of her new chosen discipline, and followed them loyally. If there was a climate change line anywhere, she colored inside it.

And here she was now, with a full-blown ethical dilemma. This was an ethical dilemma with a fire in the attic. This was an ethical dilemma with the brakes gone clean out at the very top of the switchback grade. There was no God, and so no help there. The rules of her discipline—well, the ethics code for climatologists—as she knew full well, had been drafted by Dr. Steven Lee, and helpfully edited by his friends Martin and Leonid.

Should she confront them? Should she just lie and keep her head down? Should she laugh about it openly, in a worldly-wise way, and assure them that their secret was safe with her? Join with them in the shake-down? She felt like her skull was a bone box full of water and that somebody had dumped about twenty-five Alka-Seltzer tablets into it.

She put her groceries away, more than a little bit agitated. She noticed this when it dawned on her that she had put the milk into the fridge at least three times, and must therefore have taken it out at least two times. She shook her head violently, and forced herself back to the task. When she eventually got that job completed, and it ought to have been a simple task, she thought about dinner momentarily, and turned away from that idea with a shudder. No appetite at all.

Helen then decided to get up early in order to sit down at her desk with a clear head, and work it all out. She had to work it all out. Tomorrow was Monday morning. She had to go to work in the morning, so she would work it all out. She set her alarm for 6 am, took a hot shower and went to bed. Despite an hour or two of tossing and tossing and tossing—Helen did not toss and turn, but always went clockwise—she eventually fell into a fitful and uneasy sleep.

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Scott Z
1 year ago

What!? A novel? Hang on a tick; I am not sure I am prepared for this. I don’t even have my coffee nearby.
Okay, okay. Write on, good sir. I will try to keep up. Good stuff, as always!


Kara Dekker
Kara Dekker
1 year ago

Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to the next installment! I remember the fun of Evangellyfish on the blog, back in the day.

1 year ago

Looks fun, but Glocks don’t have safeties.

Important to keep our gun facts straight if Biden makes it in…

1 year ago

“She had believed all of it, heart and soul.” When that’s the case, people generally don’t suddenly drop their beliefs because they find out their high priests were fakes. Typically they come up with some reason why they should have seen through their lies, why they were never credible to begin with, then depose them and install new ones as fast as possible. But I suppose I should wait for more character development before making too much of a judgement.

Anthony Butte
Anthony Butte
1 year ago

I’m catching up on this, but in clicking the tag ‘Ecochondriacs’ from the post for Chapter 12, it lists all chapters EXCEPT this one. There is no ‘Ecochondriacs’ description for this post. So I had to quite a bit of digging to find this first chapter to start it all.