I drove the winding road up the cliff overlooking the deepening Pacific and took in the ridiculously beautiful view. The sun was heading down in the sky as I was driving up the road toward Agnes’s house. I was more than a little curious about what kind of place I would find. Agnes struck me as simple and unpretentious, and I expected her house to be the same. I pictured a small, comfortable, one-story with a shingled roof and a neatly manicured wedge of grass out front. Maybe a little porch with a swing and a planter full of geraniums. That’s why I soon found myself checking and rechecking the address on the page and comparing it with the plaque on the tall iron gate at the end of the street. There was no denying it, the number was the same, so I drove up and pressed the intercom button.
A moment later, the gate rolled aside and I eased up the driveway, lined on each side with enormous Canary Palms, the kind whose immense height and breadth and majestic quality always takes my breath away. If one of those massive fronds were ever to fall and hit you on the head, you’d be skewered to the earth like a shrimp on a spit.
I pulled into the driveway, paced up the steps to an oversized stained glass and hardwood door, and rang the bell, though I didn’t need to. Before I could even take my finger off the button, the door swung open and Mary Ellen stood there, beaming.
And I mean beaming—as in radiant—as in hamma, hamma, hamma. She was dressed in a classy, black, designer evening gown with a string of black pearls swooping down her neck above a plunging V.
“Hamma, hamma, hamma,” I actually said, ever the eloquent Casanova. “You look… you look…”
“Thank you,” she laughed, mercifully letting me off the hook. “C’mon, follow me.”
Not… a… problem. She took me down a hallway, which was like a celebrity photo gallery. Here was a young Agnes posing with the late, original Mayor Daley of Chicago machine notoriety; Agnes and the late Chicago columnist, Mike Royko, who was the perpetual thorn in Daley’s side; Agnes with Oprah, with Clinton, with Reagan, with Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, with Jesse Jackson, and,—I almost passed out when I saw this one—a group shot with Agnes and every single scrawny and fantastic member of The Rolling Stones.
I dragged my chin along the floor down the hall and into the living room. The sun was settling down over the horizon and casting a red and orange glow on the surface of the sea. I knew this because I was looking at it through the panoramic window that arched around the round living room in which we now stood. The furniture was comfortable looking, very simple and classic so as not to attract attention to itself. Earth tones, greens, and muted purples created a warm, inviting environment that seemed to say, come in, sit down, stay as long as you like.
Ever the waitress, apparently, Mary Ellen took the two bottles of Silver Oak Cabernet that I’d brought and excused herself saying she still had some things to do in the kitchen. I walked up to the window and looked out at the breaking waves, way down at the bottom of the cliff.
“Do you like the view?” Agnes walked up behind me and put her hand on my back. I turned and gave her a hug and didn’t bother to answer the question, not verbally, anyway. She gestured for me to follow her into a large but informal dining room, also with a spectacular view, and we sat down together at the table which was, I noticed, set for four.
“Cam should be here any second,” I said after several minutes of my effusive praise for Agnes’s amazing home. I nodded at the extra place. “Who else is joining us?”
The doorbell chimed and moments later Mary Ellen brought Cam in to join us at the table and then returned to the kitchen where we could hear her clinking dishes and clattering pans. We exchanged polite hellos and small talk until Mary Ellen emerged carrying four plates of endive and walnut salad in her experienced hands. The way she was dressed, she looked more like the lady of the house than the kitchen help, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when she sat down and joined us at the table.
Cam did look a little startled, however.
“Mary Ellen is not only my treasured employee,” Agnes explained, “but my caretaker here at home and,” she rushed, not wanting to dwell on caretaker, “the cofounding director, with me, of the Foundation for Women in Social Enterprise.”
Impressive, I thought. “But what about your kids?” I asked Mary Ellen, assuming that she lived here with Agnes. “I thought you were a single mom.”
“I am,” she said. “But the kids don’t live with me.”
“With their dad?” I assumed.
She laughed. “Not exactly. My son’s 30 and my daughter’s 26, both out on their own and doing fine.”
“I know,” she said with a smile. “You don’t have to say it. I look young. Good genes. But I make no secret of the fact that I’m 51 years old.” She raised a glass of sparkling water in Cam’s direction. “Old enough to be your mother.”
He gave her a slow once-over. “Now, that would be a shame,” he crooned.
A wave of nausea was not a good way for me to start dinner, so I hastily raised my wine glass in a toast and we all started in on our salads.
After a few mouthfuls, Cam gave an overly obvious gander at his watch and then looked impatiently in my direction as if to say, better get this moving. Not that I was all that eager to oblige him, but out of respect for Agnes’s generosity with her time and wisdom, I tried to get the conversation started.
“So, Agnes,” I said. “Is there a reason, other than sharing fine company and fabulous food, that you invited us here tonight?”
“Yeah, thank you,” said Cam. “I don’t mean to be rude, Agnes, but I do have to leave pretty soon. Is there a particular subject that you wanted to talk to us about?”
Maybe he really didn’t mean to be rude—maybe—but he sounded like he was bracing himself for a classroom lecture from a billowing old windbag professor.
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Agnes. “The best subject of all, Cam.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“You.” She answered. “The subject on the table is you.”
“The second element of the Radical Edge is amp your life, remember?” she said, ignoring Cam’s uneasy body language. “Have to have all three: business, life, and effect on the world, remember?” she asked again.
“Yeah, I remember,” mumbled Cam.
“Well, if you’re going to amplify your life, you’ll have to first know who, exactly, you really are.”
Agnes pushed herself up from the chair and walked over to a vintage looking radio perched on a shelf between the dining and living rooms. I had noticed it earlier with its oversized dials and jukebox era appearance. She clicked on the power and soft static hissed through the large grates of the radio’s speaker.
“Hear that?” she asked.
“Just barely,” I said. “But that’s okay; it’s just noise. You may want to adjust the antenna or the tuner…”
She cranked the volume up. “How about now?” she called.
“It’s louder, yes, but…”
She cranked again as if she were channeling the spirit of Mick Jagger from that picture on the wall.
“Now?” she was shouting over the noise.
The three of us at the table all clamped our hands over our ears and looked incredulously at each other. Leaving the tuning dial right where it was, Agnes merci- fully turned the volume back down to barely audible fuzz and stood by the radio smiling as if she’d just shared with us a glorious composition.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “You didn’t like that music?”
“That was noise,” Cam groused.
“So it was,” she admitted, bemused. “Well, then. Let’s try that again.”
Leaving the volume where it was, she now fiddled slightly with the tuning knob until the static evaporated and Take Five by Dave Brubeck jumped from a clear, crisp station. “Oh… a little jazz,” Agnes delighted. “Louder, please,” she said to herself and swung up the volume once again. This time, I noticed, none of us did any ear clasping whatsoever.
“Too loud?” she asked again.
“No, it’s all right,” I said. “That’s one of my favorites, but I don’t know how well I’m going to be able to hear everyone talk if you leave the volume where it is.”
She nodded, turned the level down to where it filled up the background but didn’t encroach on our voices, and came back to her chair. Silently, she placed her napkin back on her lap and reclined lazily, staring at Cam and then me.
She waited, saying nothing. Neither did I, or Mary Ellen, or Cam. Brubeck continued to swing in and out of the sound of the surf from the ocean below.
“Get the point?” asked Agnes.
Mary Ellen took a sip of wine and set her glass down. “That’s one of her favorite demonstrations,” she said with a smile. “Just think about it for a second. Loud static is annoying; loud music that you enjoy is exhilarating.”
“And,” Agnes broke in, “it’s the same for each of us. The first thing we have to do is find our frequency, find our station, the one that clearly expresses who we are at our core. Have you ever,” she turned to me, “helped your clients to find, clarify, and articulate their values or operating principles?”
“Sure. It’s pretty standard procedure nowadays,” I said, slipping easily into consultant mode. “Right up there with the vision thing.”
“And it’s important work, to be sure,” she acknowledged. “But there’s a missing piece, usually, in that process. Do you know what it is, Cam?”
“I know what they showed me when I started working, a poster on the wall with a bunch of statements about ILGI’s values. That’s all I know about it. I don’t think it’s any big deal one way or another.” Again, he looked at his watch.
“That’s a nice timepiece,” commented Agnes. “May I see it? No… take it off and hand it to me, please.”
Cam popped the clasp on his Tag Heuer and dangled the watch over the table. Agnes took it in her cupped hands and admired the workmanship.
“Very, very nice,” she cooed and handed it to Mary Ellen, who abruptly jumped to her feet and jetted into the kitchen, taking Cam’s bling hostage.
“Hey! What are you doing?” he cried as if she’d ripped off his pinky.
“Relax, sugar.” Agnes patted his hand. “It’s not going down the disposal; I’ll give it back, I promise. I just don’t like the competition.”
“Now listen to me for two minutes, Cam.” She laughed when he looked at his wrist and dropped his hand to his lap in frustration. “The core of your business is not your customer, it’s not your product, it’s not your numbers, it’s not your company, and it’s not your team. Do you know what it is?”
“I’ll bet you’re going to tell me, aren’t you?”
She ignored the sarcasm. “It’s you, Cam. You have no business, no money, and no life without yourself right at the center.”
“That’s obvious, Agnes.”
“Yes, it should be. So answer me one simple, little question, baby, and I’ll give you back your watch and let you go on your merry way. Fair enough?”
He nodded. “Sure. Okay.”
“Who are you?”
He stared at her. “Is that a trick question?”
“Yes it is, but not in the way you think. The trick,” she told him, “is not in how we answer the question; it’s in our uncanny finesse in avoiding it altogether.”
[Note: I’m excited to share my second book, The Radical Edge, in serial fashion here on SteveFarber.com! We’ll post one installment a week until the very end of the book. You can go back and read from the beginning here. If you ever get impatient and want to scarf the whole thing down at once, you can always just pop over to Amazon and satiate yourself.]