The Omelet Maker

by Ross West

I flew to London to deliver a TED Talk that Rachel, my PR director, had arranged as part of the campaign to promote my newest book. Truth be told, it wasn’t really new, but an updated, thirtieth anniversary re-release of Europe on the Half-Shell, the travel guide that launched my career. The contract for the talk included a first-class flight and a suite at the Thames Westminster, London’s newest 1,000-room hotel. I found my lodging modern, efficient, crammed with every imaginable amenity—and completely devoid of anything even vaguely resembling a soul.

When the time came, I took the concert hall stage and shared with the audience some of what I’ve learned over the years, ending with this:  

In all I do at Half Shell Adventures—the guidebooks, the special tours, the television programs—I try to keep in mind the experience of the first-time traveler. Perhaps a little nervous. Perhaps unfamiliar with the local money, or language, or culture and customs. I try to help that person over their resistance, their hesitancy, because I know that waiting on the other side of their fear is a whole new world of adventure. Thank you.

I’ve listened to many profound and inspiring TED presentations and I know that mine didn’t reach anywhere near those heights. Still, when I finished, the listeners were generous with their applause and I consoled myself with the thought that they got something for their time. 

That night the TED people fêted the day’s presenters at a fine restaurant. Afterwards, in the cab heading back to the hotel I felt strangely unsettled, agitated with a disquiet I feared meant the onset of another bout with depressive thoughts. It would seem ludicrous to most anyone looking at me (the guy who’s told over and over he has the best job in the world), but I often sink into melancholy. I ask myself, is this all there is? Another airport, another country, another hotel.

Rather than return to my room, I rode the elevator to the top-floor lounge. I sat at the bar, sipping a brandy and peering down on London’s twinkling city lights.

It wasn’t long before a woman in her mid-thirties took a seat beside me and ordered a drink. She wore large round tortoise-shell glasses which had the effect of making her pretty green eyes seem unusually large. 

“You’re Colin Parsons, aren’t you?” she asked with a Dubliner’s pleasing lilt.

I get this all the time—along with requests for photos, autographs, and tips on good nearby restaurants.

“That’s me,” I said, which was about as clever as most of my responses in these chance meetings. 

She smiled awkwardly in a way that was somehow comforting, as if she felt as ill at ease as I did. 

“I listened to your talk today,” she said. “In fact, it was to see you I got myself to this conference.”

Our random encounter suddenly felt a great deal more complicated. I would proceed with caution, ready to make a quick exit.

“Oh?”

“I’m doing doctoral research at the London School of Economics on the tourism industry and its global impacts.”

I turned in my seat to get a better look at her. Deirdre O’Fallen, as I soon learned was her name, seemed thoughtful and forthright, a little shy—but definitely not a wacko. 

“Interesting work?”

She laid out for me the essence of her research: 100,000 flights each day, billions of passengers each year—and how each jet emits so many tons of greenhouse gasses, melts so many cubic feet of polar ice, pushes sea levels just a little higher. She pulled a thick folder from her bag, spread it open on the bar, and showed me articles from scientific journals.

“And all that destruction, Colin,” she said pointing to a graph with a line sloping ominously upward, “in twenty years it doubles.”

Our bearded bartender asked if we wanted another round. I looked at Deirdre. She nodded. While he poured our drinks, I thought about the sobering, even frightening tale she told. As to why I was being so very pleasantly ambushed….my best guess was that sooner or later she’d get around to asking me for something; likely an interview or, if she had ambitions of turning her thesis into a bestseller, maybe a letter to a potential publisher or a promise to write a blurb for the dustjacket.

The bartender delivered our drinks. 

“This work you’re doing, it’s so timely, so important,” I said. “If there’s anything I could do…”

She folded her hands in her lap and looked up at me. Her eyes were as sincere as any I had ever seen.

“The time’s now come,” she said, “for all of us to do what we can.”

*     *     *

After parting from Deirdre in the bar I made my way to my suite, my head swirling with thoughts. Some of what she’d told me I knew, of course, but only in bits and pieces. I’d certainly never faced up to the direct connection between my work and significant damage to the planet. I brushed my keycard over the door lock, the mechanical bolt clicked open, but I just stood there, paralyzed by a sickening feeling in my gut: I no longer had the refuge of ignorance.

In bed, I stared into the darkness. I needed to act, needed to alter the course of Half Shell Adventures. How could I do otherwise?

I repositioned the pillow under my head. 

If we shifted our focus from Europe to North America…all those transatlantic flights not taken, all that jet fuel saved…and if we reached tens of thousands of people…year after year…. 

The pillow still wasn’t right. I fluffed it. 

Change wouldn’t be easy—the company had gotten so large and complicated. European travel was what we knew. We’d found a sweet spot and made the most of it. 

I rolled onto my side. 

How simple it had been—highlighting Florence, Barcelona, Paris. But Provo, Kalamazoo, Bangor? Who’d buy those guidebooks or watch those TV programs?

I kicked the blanket off my legs. 

It didn’t matter. We needed to do our part. As Deirdre had so forcefully convinced me, it was the right thing to do. 

*     *     *

I called a special meeting of Half Shell’s board of directors—even flew Deirdre to our headquarters in Oregon to help (and yes, we did see the irony). I kept the subject of this meeting a secret, wanting the attendees to have the same eye-opening experience I’d had in that London bar. 

Eleven board members and company executives sat around the big table in the conference room listening intently as Deirdre presented her facts and I explained my vision. The company would take the high road, divest from our single-minded focus on Europe; we’d adapt to the rapidly changing world, become part of the solution, reshape the company into something new and sustainable—the Phoenix reborn from the ashes. 

When we concluded, I scanned the room. Eleven of my closest colleagues, people with whom I’d worked side by side to build what we jokingly referred to as the Half Shell empire. And each one of them stared back at me, devastated, speechless, and as if I had lost my mind. 

*     *     *

Six weeks later I returned from filming in Scandinavia and got a call from board chairman Kitt Jordon. He asked me to join him and company president Mindy Maxwell for what I thought was going to be an update on plans to transform the company into Half Shell Adventures 2.0. We met around a small oak table in Mindy’s ninth-floor corner office, surrounded by all-glass walls and panoramic views of Portland’s skyline and the Willamette River. 

“Let’s get right to the point,” Kitt said with the same no-nonsense tone I’d heard him use with cowboys on his Wyoming ranch. “The board can’t make any decisions about changing the mission of HSA without solid data. So we instructed Mindy and the team to prepare a comprehensive report.” He turned to her and nodded. 

“I’ll highlight our key findings,” Mindy said as she handed each of us a thick document. “First off, barring force majeure, we’re locked into the television contract for the next twenty-one months. That leaves us with a potential perception problem: taking a public stance against transcontinental air travel while de facto endorsing—” 

“You’d catch holy hell,” Kitt cut in. “Critics would scream bloody murder—call you inconsistent, or, God help us, a hypocrite.”

“The Book Division is where we project the biggest hit,” Mindy continued. “The Travel Guide Unit currently accounts for 83 percent of non-television top line revenue. All of our titles are on a two-year refresh cycle. If we followed your direction to stop updating the content, the books would rather quickly become…stale.”

“Competitors would jump to fill the void,” Kitt said. “And as for replacing those revenues with American guidebooks—that’s more pipe dream than long shot.”

It went on like this for another half hour. Our little gathering had turned into one of those interventions where family members step in to get the wayward drug addict or alcoholic back on the straight and narrow. They looked at me kindly and spoke with compassion while dishing out tough love in the form of facts and figures and charts with the arrow pointing in a downhill direction. Half Shell 2.0, they explained, was so misguided it threatened the company’s very existence. 

I hadn’t expected the overhaul to be easy, but neither had I anticipated such strenuous resistance. 

“Yes, of course there will be costs,” I said. “We won’t be the same old Half Shell—maybe we’ll be smaller, less profitable, have fewer employees. But just for the sake of argument, what if we make those sacrifices…for the greater good?” 

They looked at one another. Kitt raised an eyebrow. Mindy saw the signal and paged to the end of the report. 

“In Appendix One you’ll see that we hired EconoQuant to run a some analyses.  According to their assessment, full implementation of HSA 2.0 would decimate the company and at the same time, the changes would yield an overall impact on global travel sustainability of,” she paused, “approaching zero.” 

“The numbers just aren’t there, Colin,” Kitt said. He stared at me, saw the miserable look on my face. “But we’ve worked up a Plan B that splits the difference between a perfect world and the real world.” The old horse-trader was doing his best to sweeten a sour deal. “Give it a listen and see what you think.”

As they described it, Plan B would be a total rebranding—vigorously promoting HSA as a sustainability innovator leading the transformation of the American travel industry. I would become the spokesperson for a wholesale rethinking of how we vacation: fewer but longer transcontinental trips, more train use, eco-friendly cruises, biofuels, carbon offsets—anything and everything that would lessen ecological impacts. We’d roll it out in stages over the next five years.

“We also like the idea of you writing a book—a sort of manifesto,” Mindy said cheerily. “It would put you and your ideas squarely in the spotlight.” She spoke like a CEO, but her eyes were those of a friend.

“And a whole new television series,” Kitt added. “Sustainable Travel with Colin Parsons.”

“Using the leverage of your brand recognition,” Mindy said, “there’s a real chance we could move the needle.” 

I rose and walked to the window. Out on the river a motorboat sped upstream, slapping over the waves, the white chevron of its wake spreading behind. I watched it for a while, thinking about what they said, about how hard they were trying to find a way, about all that melting ice. 

I turned back to face them. “It’s not enough.” 

They stared with blank faces. 

“What we need,” I explained, “is big and bold and now.”

They had no response, which surprised me as I’d never seen either of them at a loss for words.  

Finally, Kitt cleared his throat. “I’m afraid the chips aren’t gonna fall that way, partner. We can’t sacrifice the company just because you got religion.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“It means—and this is not where I wanted this conversation to go—but it means that if push comes to shove, well, you’re the one’s gonna end up on his backside.”

He was dead serious. Unbelievable. We had eighty employees and without them the company couldn’t function, but as far as the outside world was concerned, I was Half Shell. 

I looked to Mindy for some sort of support, some sanity, anything.

She shook her head, “I’m sorry Colin, it’s our fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders.” 

The lines had been drawn; our positions were clear. We sat in a tense silence, looking at one another, looking away.

“Let me think it over,” I said, rising from my seat. “We’ll talk again later.”

In a daze I wnt to my office and phoned Deirdre. After apologizing for the lateness of the call, I told her about the meeting.

“Are they genuine in their support for this Plan B, or are they just codding ya?”

 “Very real, I think, both of them. You should have seen Mindy’s eyes light up when she used the phrase ‘initiating the process of disruption.’”

“She’s got the gift of the boardroom tongue, that one,” Deirdre said and we both laughed. 

Soon we were talking about the nature of change, compromise versus ideals, the many paths up the same mountain. She was so bright, such a pleasure to talk with, her voice so musical—and as long as we kept talking, I didn’t have to face Kitt and Mindy.  

“We’re getting a tipsy bit philosophical here,” Deirdre teased.  

She was right, and we returned to a more practical discussion of my options. And that’s when I heard exactly what I needed: “Don’t you think that what matters, Colin, is staying in the game?” she asked. “The planet won’t be won or lost in a drizzly weekend.”  

*     *     *

Never had the staff at HSA worked as hard as they did on fast-tracking the development of Plan B—all hands on deck, lots of overtime, the office as busy on weekends as during the week. We set the launch for the Wednesday before Memorial Day, the start of the summer vacation season and the peak of media interest in anything related to travel. Rachel orchestrated a PR blitz that would begin with me appearing on Good Morning America followed by three non-stop days of interviews and speaking engagements, cable news show appearances, meetings with newspaper editorial boards, and on and on. She and I were in a cab from LaGuardia to our hotel in Manhattan when I got the call from Mindy.

“There’s been a leak,” she said.

“Hold on a second.” I relayed the news to Rachel, who grimaced and mouthed the words oh shit

“What happened?” I asked.

“An anonymous employee passed internal company documents to a reporter at the Times—e-mails, HSA 2.0, Plan B, everything. The reporter called, wanting a response. He said the story will be posted online at midnight and run in tomorrow’s print edition.”

We cancelled all the publicity events and took a late flight back to Portland. By early the next morning, the magnitude of the crisis was becoming clear. The Times ran the story under the headline “Leaked Documents Reveal Greenwashing at Half Shell Adventures,” along with a blistering editorial, “Half Shell Sells Out.”

The editorial included this dagger:  

…after calculating that the proposed virtuous actions would cost HSA millions of dollars, the company chose not to do the right thing. Instead, they ginned up a marketing and PR campaign to position itself as a global sustainability leader while doing virtually nothing of real substance. HSA has joined the rogue’s gallery of corporations publicly touting a concern for all things green, while behind closed doors pursuing only one thing of that color, the dollar.  

I had never given much thought to the term media frenzy, but now I saw reporters behaving like crazed piranha stripping the meat off some animal that had wandered into the wrong river. And I was that hapless beast. Social media took whatever passed as reporting and twisted it, coated it with venom, and disseminated it to a vast audience that made a sport of warping it further and adding more poison. I was the chief conspirator at the heart of their theories, the money-crazed, megalomaniacal spawn of Satan. Vicious memes and petitions of condemnation were being circulated; boycotts organized. 

Damage control became our fulltime occupation. We worked around the clock in the HSA conference room, the bunker in which we devised increasingly desperate strategies to protect our crumbling empire. On the third day of the siege Mindy said she had something she needed to discuss and invited me to her office. When we arrived, Kitt was already seated at the little oak table. He started out with some uncharacteristically frothy phrases about my contributions to the company—a preamble that warned me to brace for bad news. And it came when he delivered the fateful words, “a complete severing of all ties with Colin Parsons.” 

I felt like a plant ripped ot of the soil. Devastated as I was, I had to agree, it was now the only hope for saving the company. What followed was a flurry of meetings with lawyers and stacks of papers to sign. I didn’t argue, I didn’t negotiate. It was over.

While walking out of one of these somber sessions, I asked Mindy if she had been able to find the source of the leak. 

“Yes, we found our rat.” She made a face. “Of course, we can’t lift a finger—the optics.” 

“I want to talk with him,” I said. “If I’m going to be banished, I’d like to know why.”

*     *     *

I pulled the employment file on Jude Efferson-Lefarge. He’d worked at in HSA’s Accounting Department for a little over two years. He was twenty-nine, had a degree from an online college I’d never heard of, and claimed no dependents on his W-4. He had been written up once by his supervisor for using his office computer for personal business (which the reprimand cryptically described as being “of a political nature”).  

We met during his lunch hour, not far from HSA headquarters at one of the cement chess tables in Riverside Park. As I approached, I saw that he was thin with pale blotchy skin and a haircut that wasn’t doing him any favors. Resting on the table’s black and white tile squares, his flattened brown paper sack had spread on it a sandwich, baby carrots, and an apple. 

 “You must be Jude.” I said, extending my hand. “Thanks for agreeing to meet.”

“Sure,” he said as we shook, his grip limp, thin-boned, and moist. 

Settling into my seat, I said, “One question I’ve wanted to ask you is, well, what caused you to…do what you did? I mean, I very consciously built this company on my values—that everyone counts, that we’re all in it together. Did we fail you in some way, or—”

“Or fail the whole world?” He finished my question with a sneer—surely counseled by his lawyer about the whistleblower lawsuit they could bring if we retaliated in any way.

“The documents you gave to the Times, how did you…come across them?”

He took a generous bite of his sandwich and spoke while he chewed. “I was assigned a project…gave me special access on the server.” He swallowed. “I’m a curious guy.” I smelled peanut butter and saw a speck of purple jelly at the corner of his mouth. “What I found was like, whoa, smoking gun.” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “People need to see this stuff—how the corporate wheels turn.” 

I took a breath before responding. “And you were certain that what we did was wrong?”

He shrugged. “I don’t have to make any judgements. My job was to liberate the documents. People can draw their own conclusions.” He popped a baby carrot into his mouth and crunched it. “I really had no idea it was going to blow up so big. But you’re famous, right, so it’s like IMAX. God bless America.” 

“What about, I don’t know, context, extenuating circumstances?”

“Not my problem.”

“And if the company tanks, if you and half the people you work with get laid off?”

A mischievous smile curled on his lips. “In the grand scheme of things,” he said, completed the thought with another shrug. “Look, you got rich flying around the world consuming and polluting and writing your little guidebooks to help other rich people fly around the world consuming and polluting. Like there’s no tomorrow. But there is. And if it isn’t going to totally suck, things have to change. So what if people get laid off? Boo-hoo. Nobody cares if you write another book or get your TV show extended for another season—nobody but you and the parasites that depend on you.”

“How are you going to create this tomorrow, the one that doesn’t suck?”

 His face brightened. “We replace the whole cultural narrative. Recode all economic and political models—radically, from the ground up.”

“A revolution?”

He smirked. “Utopia on the half shell.”

“Everybody’s going to get on board with you?”

“We start with the kids—early, before society dumbs them down into idiot muggles. Old people and their obsolete ideas die off. The tipping point kicks in.”

“And if a few eggs have to be cracked to make the omelet…”

He looked at me quizzically, as if he’d never heard the phrase, then after a few moments of reflection said, “If that’s what it takes.”

He launched into his plans for recreating the world, speaking in a manner so energized, so enthusiastic I was reminded of my eight-year-old nephew breathily recounting to me the fantasy novel that had him under its spell—the evil dragon living on the mountaintop, the enslaved princess and her loveable dwarf, the magical coin, the sword-wielding hero. 

I stopped listening and took a long hard look at Jude Efferson-Lefarge, wondering how it was possible that this was the guy destroying a company it took us thirty years to build. With a thumb drive and a call to a reporter he’d altered history, wiped out Plan B, prevented all the good that would have come from it. 

He sank his teeth into the flesh of his apple and ripped off a mouthful. 

“Do you?” he insisted, rousing me from my thoughts. 

“Do I what?”

“Do you really think we can save the world without eating the rich?”

#   #   # 





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