David was in Manhattan a few weeks ago and we met for dinner. There was a lot to catch up on – we hadn’t met since his wedding – and it was, as always, delightful to see him.
We’ve both lost parents and talked about that for awhile. His mom was sweet, mine was entertaining, and they both died too soon for their lonely-only children. We discussed obituaries, and tributes, and grief. David went back for his mom’s service, but mine didn’t want a funeral. It was comforting to talk to someone from home, if surreal to sit in a Manhattan restaurant comparing hometown mortuaries.
Skipping across other topics, we compared notes on what the old crew is doing lately. Back then I only knew people who were seated alphabetically around me in classes: H-M was the limit of my social horizon. But David had friends (from Boy Scouts? Grade school? I never knew) with surnames that started with letters as esoteric as B and G, and the weirdest amongst us coalesced into a social group. Our collective teen years revolved around classic pretentious youthful venues: the art room, the drama department, band, international club.
We had lockers in the same hallway by happenstance, and then by choice. We shared rides, gossip, mix tapes. Our little crew encompassed miscreants but most of our misadventures were pranks – forking lawns, moving effigies between stands of trees, trick or treating and egg hunts out of season. We adopted exchange students and dragged them along, often against their will. We threw candlelit dinner parties in supermarket parking lots, and skipped school to take the ferry to Seattle to go to matinee performances of Shakespeare plays.
I’m neither sentimental nor nostalgic but it was good to laugh with someone who knew the version of me sporting despised pink spectacles and a JC Penney perm chosen by my mother. When we met, David had no idea that I was in the middle of cancer treatments, and I still don’t know what secrets he was harboring. But there is huge value in talking to someone who was there, who knew the same people, walked on the same beige carpets, suffered through the same pep rallies.
We talked and laughed for hours before he said something casual about the summer he worked on Mt. Rainier. I smiled and shrugged, then watched as the emotions raced across his expressive face. Counted one, two, three, and there it was: the flinch as he remembered what happened the day I drove up to visit him in Paradise.
This is the inevitable part of any visit with friends from home. Eventually, inexorably, no matter how well intentioned, they remember, and the memory hurts. Not just the fact of the accident, but the aftermath. Four lives destroyed. Five years of lawsuits. Injury, devastation, violence, chaos.
I can recite the facts, because I was the only witness and my testimony was required. But I’ve never discussed that day with anyone who was there, or the kids who were supposed to be there, or the people we visited on the mountain. What could I possibly offer? They’re lucky they don’t know, can’t remember. I wish I could forget, but thirty-one years later I still have a box of photographs, transcripts, hospital bracelets, blood soaked clothes cut off broken bodies in a ditch in rural Washington.
The accident isn’t a suitable topic for any social occasion. I steered the conversation toward safer subjects: how much we miss the mountains and the water, how the place that made us lives in our bones.
Recently I was at a formal wedding reception in a private club. Nobody in the room was circulating, we were all seated according to a strict plan, listening to speeches. In the gap between toasts a man walked up to our table and started talking very intensely to my husband, who listened politely, but with a bemused expression. It was not the moment to mingle.
After a minute it became clear that the fellow looming over us was an angel investor. Someone had pointed toward our table and told him that he should meet the startup CEO who sold their last company to Facebook. Mr. Investor raced over, wasting not one second on small details like the identity of the CEO.
Surveying the table of twenty people, he had decided on instinct that the tall guy with Joe 90 spectacles was the target. His pitch was swift and succinct, he hit all the relevant points, and was in the middle of the traditional exchange of business cards before my husband could say anything. When he could get in a word, aforementioned husband (who, while exceptionally talented, does not have the stomach for startups) pointed at me and said “Uh yeah… I think you want to talk to her.”
The man in the gray suit was visibly startled. The hand holding out the business card twitched, and he looked down at me, flummoxed. I raised my eyebrows and waited. He put his card back in his pocket, mumbled something inaudible, and walked away.
It was classic, like a low budget comedy from the 80’s, or a Rowan Atkinson cameo come to life. I turned to my husband and said “Did that just happen?” He shrugged, and we went back to watching the wedding speeches.
Another guest at the table overheard the exchange and sought me out later. He’s an executive at a major US company and was incensed over the implication that Mr. Investor dismissed me solely based on gender. I laughed, and said “I like it when people reveal bias. It is so much more… efficient.”
Perhaps the man reacted to my gender – there is no way to know. It could have been a hundred other cultural markers, or none at all. I’m not especially sensitive to this kind of thing: I worked my way out of poverty through hard graft. There are very few insults I have not endured, and there isn’t much in the way of human behavior that surprises me. Some of the injuries I’ve sustained along the way were intentional, but most were inadvertent.
Everyone grapples with the chaos of their own lives. It is easy to make mistakes, or get angry and lash out. Sure there are tricksters and provocateurs trying to cause trouble, but mostly people speak before thinking, which is excusable in almost every instance. I do it all the time, alienating people right and left with my strong opinions about sunblock and seatbelts and handwashing.
When a stranger contrives something as spectacular as Mr. Investor, I tend toward the charitable explanation. My first thought was that he must have been embarrassed over his mistake.
But he was definitely expecting something else. In the current startup climate, that is usually (regardless of gender) glad-handing self-promoters, people who want to tell you all about their great new idea, etc etc ad infinitum. If Mr. Investor was expecting a pitch he was definitely disappointed. Perhaps he had a vision of what a tech CEO looks like and I didn’t match, but if so it could have been anything: gender, clothes, age, crooked teeth, backwoods accent.
Realistically, none of this matters. Humans make choices based on their own idiosyncratic interpretations, and there is opportunity cost in every outcome. Maybe the angel investor made a category error in walking away; maybe he guessed correctly that we would not get along. Who knows, and also – who cares? I enjoyed the exchange: it was hilarious.
My youngest flew out to meet us in Seattle, his first visit as an adult. We walked around looking at all the things we both remember from our separate childhoods, and all the things that have changed.
The Pike Place Market is largely recognizable, and although I no longer know the people serving, the donut robot is still churning out little bits of fried deliciousness (enjoyed vicariously by celiac members of the family).
I grew up on the Puget Sound and lived in the Pacific Northwest for the first 33 years of my life, my kid lived here until age six, but neither of us had a chance encounter with lost friends or misplaced blood relatives. Instead, he stumbled across people he met in college in rural Vermont, and I randomly encountered colleagues from London and New York.
It is easy to spot a local, even in my small family. The kid who came of age in London jaywalks, while I stand obediently waiting for the light to change. We could hear passerby speaking in the regional accent (it annoys my son that I revert whenever I spend more than a few hours here) but it was like listening to ghosts.
This is the first time he’s been back since my mother died, and her loss changes how we experience the city. There is no longer any reason to ride the ferry out to the peninsula, no excuse to go to Randy’s, no binge of thrift stores and swap meets. We miss her all the time, but the feeling is more visceral in Seattle.
The city feels familiar but uncanny. It is eerie being in a place we know so well, after the people we loved best are gone.
My house is always full of guests, but only a few have noticed that I have a new project. Stella and Al figured out I was up to something, but during a recent stay managed to wrangle just a scattered few sentences on the subject. Sara clocked that I was taking phone calls (aberrant behavior – I literally never use the phone except in my business life) and enquired; compelled to tell the truth I admitted I was hiring, you know, employees. Engineers, to be specific.
Why? Because I started a new tech company last year, and most of my thoughts and actions have been caught up with the whole thing, which I would never talk about at the dinner table or in mixed social groups. I discuss it with colleagues, attorneys, accountants, and customers; in other words, the people who are involved with the project. But I don’t see the point of chatting about my job with anyone else. I am aware (from observation) that other startup founders talk about their companies endlessly, to the peril of all social gatherings. Not me, not ever.
All the companies I’ve started have been successful by normal standards (the most recent was acquired) but that doesn’t mean I am inclined to brag. Hubris is both dangerous and idiotic. It is a simple fact that the majority of startups fail, which isn’t surprising. Does the world need another social media company? Digital marketing and real estate innovations? Companies claiming to be tech because they sell stuff online? Blockchain? And don’t forget scooters!
What I would ask is: are any of these ideas… necessary? Maybe. I don’t know, but I’m also not very interested. Yes, people sometimes make a lot of money working in startups, but it is more common to lose both money and time. I hate wasting money, and I’ve been living on borrowed time since 1983.
As a general rule I think the startup scene is bloated with bad ideas and bedeviled by irrational investments. I also believe that the amount of VC floating around is distorting traditional economic indicators. High consumer debt, cuts to infrastructure investment, and the fragility of the international supply chain are additional troubling factors. We’re in another bubble, if we’re lucky, but it is far more likely we’re riding unicorns toward economic armageddon. My best guess is a proper full scale depression within the next eighteen months or so. It wouldn’t take much to set it off.
This analysis didn’t deter me from starting a company, but it did make me cautious about which sector to operate in. I thought about it for a good long time before assembling a team of super smart people, who are working on products to address fundamental software security issues. We had customers before we had a prototype.
This is a very old-fashioned way to run a tech company, and the opposite of current received wisdom. If anyone corners me and asks for my advice, this is what I say: trouble is coming, and we all need to be prepared.
When I was born my parents were teenagers, and functionally homeless. They felt lucky when they were allocated public housing in a dire and crime riddled cluster of shacks near Oyster Bay. My mother believed that ratty little duplex was key to improving their situation; it was easier to get and keep jobs once they had a place to live. From that base, they spent the next several decades working tirelessly to improve our material circumstances.
My mother enrolled me in Head Start as soon as I qualified, and compelled me to go even though I found the other children terrifying. Because she needed the free hours in her day, but for deeper reasons: she credited that program with giving me the skills I needed to be successful. Before she died I suggested that having a good mother was more important, but she disagreed. From her perspective, free basic preschool was the single factor that prepared me for anything life would bring.
When I was six our family entered a government cooperative program for low income families to build their own houses. We spent a year framing, hammering, pouring concrete, literally building a neighborhood. Sure the houses were built on wasteland, and the single shared well was often contaminated, but the houses belonged to us. And there was another bonus – the new neighborhood was on the other side of the county from our family. I started kindergarten fresh, without the reputation that followed her maiden name.
The other miraculous change that year: my mother got a full-time job in the naval shipyard, doing classified work she wasn’t allowed to talk about. Her earnings would have provided a reasonable standard of living, if I had been healthy. But I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she found herself in an impossible situation, because her job provided the health insurance that saved me. The bills were punishing, we were constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, and she could not take time off work to care for her sick child. I was sent to school while literally radioactive because there was nowhere else to go.
But she kept the job, and she kept our family together, and I survived. It took a couple of decades to pay off the medical debts, and the job at the shipyard was the source of that money. That is where she remained until just before her death at age 63. Her job with the Department of Defense held our little family to a high standard of conduct (unlike the criminal branches of the clan), and she set the example of how people are supposed to exist in the world. She served her country, and her family, and she expected others to do the same. When anyone complained about normal things, or even tragic things, her most common reply was boo-fucking-hoo.
From the first day of kindergarten until I graduated high school, my parents did not attend any school events. They did not meet with teachers, and they certainly did not intercede on my behalf in the long battle I waged to gain access to mainstream assimilated education. By age thirteen I knew all about Section 504, by age fifteen I had threatened lawsuits often enough I was catapulted out of remedial programs and into honors classes. My mother thought the fight was good for me. She reckoned life is hard, then you die.
What she hadn’t bet on was the fact that her efforts would encourage me to go even further. Free public education was considered good, but it was supposed to end at 18, when a smart kid could hope for a job in the shipyard or on the ferries. There was no reason to think I had any other prospects, since I too had become a functionally homeless teen parent.
It was a shock to the family that I wanted to go to college; when I finished my undergraduate degree in two years and enrolled in grad school my actions were disruptive, abhorrent, unforgivable. The choice certainly killed my marriage, and also created a terrible rift in my relationship with my mother. She didn’t like airs and graces, or fifty cent words when a nickel would do.
When I landed my first job in government I believed I was following her example, protecting my child, serving my community. But my education and litigious nature made me that worst of all things: management. And I did it without getting my hands dirty, or putting in the hours. It was insulting that I was a boss at age 22, when nobody in any generation of her family ever achieved that — or indeed wanted to. Management is the enemy, not your kin.
My relationship with this status is likewise problematic. I’m a working class woman in every particular, regardless of title or rank, and I make no effort to mask my antecedents. I don’t aspire to be middle class or even to understand what middle class people care about. They annoy me, middle class humans, with their smug assumptions and comfortable lives.
When my mother made sharp comments about my failures as a daughter I shrugged and told her it was her own fault – she set the standard, I’m just trying to live up to the example. The importance of family, service, and stability are the values she instilled. I’ve never found a better belief system.
But then my children grew up and shocked me, the way I shocked my own mother. Because my kids, though born into poverty, had a softer version, defined by a mother with an advanced education and professional aspirations. They didn’t know they were poor, because I made up elaborate games to distract them and keep them busy, and because they hardly ever went to school, and because we moved constantly.
I grew up near the town my immigrant ancestors settled in the 1890’s. The regional library was an hour away, if I could get a ride, and there was a strict limit on how many books you could borrow. Our extended family of junkies and felons were always around, demanding cash and rides and attention. School was the place I felt safe, where I could read and dream, and I resented the unnecessary (and unlawful) obstacles that were placed in my way by teachers more concerned with absences than aptitude.
In contrast, my kids traveled the world, living for long stretches in hotels in Europe, corporate housing on the west coast, the faculty club at Berkeley, student housing at CMU, in genteel squalor in Cambridge, in a cottage on the grounds of an ancient college in Oxford. We didn’t have enough money for basic things like food and clothes — but we had libraries, and museums, and parks, and countless visiting scholars arguing over the dinner table. We had careers instead of jobs.
My kids went to school largely when they could organize it themselves, which was only intermittently. The younger child did finish primary school, but the elder attended classes for perhaps two years (cumulatively) before age eighteen. My opposition to standardized childhood education is absolute: I think it was principally devised to create conformity and clerks. Good luck to anyone who tried to make my offspring normal, or make them do anything. I didn’t let them have personal computers, television, or video games — but other than that made no effort to interfere. They were not homeschooled. They just did, well, whatever.
But to me, higher education is an entirely different matter. And it is in fact possible to go to university without any preliminary work, if you are smart and work hard. I inflict this notion on everyone in my vicinity, proselytizing against K-12 and in favor of college at every opportunity. I find the weird kids and the dropouts and offer to teach them my tricks. I locate the ones who think they need permission, and spell it out.
Mostly though I debunk cultural assumptions. Not good at math? Doesn’t matter – look at my mathematician husband, a junior high dropout who never studied the subject before grad school. Family doesn’t support you? Gotta support yourself. Impostor syndrome? Easy: I agree, you’re an impostor. Fake it til you make it.
I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to helping people figure out applications, scholarships, strategy. I take them on tours, and write their recommendation letters, and provide encouragement that is perhaps at times a little too intense. If the subject of education comes up at one of my dinner parties, regular guests see my mouth open and chant Have you considered grad school?
My own kids didn’t really have a choice; their scary working class immigrant mother accepted nothing else. I had to make my own way in life and they were going to do the same whether they liked it or not. At age 18 they were either out of the house, or they were in school. If they could figure out how to support themselves, fine. If not, too bad. They both tested my tolerance – one with serious illness (childhood cancer rendered me deeply unsympathetic to anything short of death) and one with standard doldrums (when that one turned 18 without a plan I moved to another country the very next day, leaving them behind to sort out finances the hard way – true story). No exceptions, no excuses.
They didn’t particularly want to go to university but did the calculations, failed to find jobs, and accepted their fate. I nudged, debated, and basically harassed my teenagers to apply broadly, accept the best offers, and start proper degree programs. Imagine my surprise when the eccentric little unschooled cygnets proved to be excellent, disciplined, self-directed students. Now imagine the sheer terror I felt when I realized they were not interested in practical things like computer science or contract law. Oh no – they wanted to study anthropology and art and music.
When I was young I thought my mother wasn’t proud of me, because her reaction to my accomplishments registered as baffled. Now I look at my own children and understand how she felt.
My eldest is finishing her PhD, my youngest has a fistful of grad school offers from prestigious institutions. He is going to study opera, of all the outlandish things. I’m proud of them, but also perplexed.
How did this happen? How did I stop a cycle of poverty, abuse, and exploitation stretching back generations? How did I produce children with the intelligence and grit required to achieve at such high levels? The answer is: I didn’t do much except survive. The real work was done by my mother, who put me in Head Start, and built a house with her own hands, and got a job at the shipyard, and never let me repay the debt caused by my cancer.
Her sacrifices are astonishing, and her presence is missed. If she were here we could sit at the kitchen table eating coffee cake and marveling over my odd children, and all the strange things they will do with their lives.
Four years ago we dropped off our young, urban, British child in the rolling hills of Vermont. We didn’t know what he would make of the countryside, the notorious college, or his peers – it could have been a disaster.
But on the first day he discovered his roommate shared his first initial, his upbringing as an expat in the UK, and an eerie match of parental job titles.
Within a few weeks our kid was in the middle of a robust social group, in bands, in a relationship: in other words thriving, after a lifetime hating school. And he brought the experience back to share with us.
Every winter the college has a mandatory field work term, and our son would arrive with five or six kids for the duration. During the holidays a rotating assortment of undergraduates arrived, piling into all the rooms, occupying beds and sofas and sleeping on the floor when there was no space left.
They sat at my kitchen table and told me about their friends and lovers, heart break and horror. They played the piano in the parlor, and held band practices in the dining room. They helped me throw huge parties, and I helped them drag gear to underground shows. When I came home from the hospital the undergraduates gathered in a circle around my sickbed, eating ice cream and laughing. They listened to my hectic stories after my mother died.
Over four years we saw the whole gamut from failing grades to graduate school applications. We were entertained by sociopathy, sarcasm, and several actual operas. We watched teenagers grow into adults.
Now we’re in Vermont to watch the graduation, celebrate, say goodbye. The weekend was poignant, awkward, hilarious. We talked to people we’ll never see again, and met a few we will probably know for decades. Oh and the roommate with the eerie coincidences? We finally met the other parents, truly delightful and also somehow familiar people. Within moments we figured out that we lived within a few blocks of each other in Portland when the boys were babies.
I assured my son that he will know many of these people for the rest of his life, that endings are always beginnings. This is true, but does not make the experience less poignant. Even the kids who hated the school (or dropped out) understand how special the place is. Good or bad, they have a unique connection just by virtue of living in this place.
It has been an honor to know these people, and I am excited to see what they do next.
Christopher committed suicide on May 6, 2010. He announced his intention to end his life at Mary’s funeral. He said he was following her example. Over the next year he made sure that everyone around him knew his plan: relatives, friends, doctors, his parole officer, probably even the clerk at the liquor store.
There was factually nothing anyone could do to stop him. Or at least, nothing the family could do. His doctor provided the means – the autopsy said he had enough Oxy in his system to kill a dozen men.
He was forty-six when he died, Mary was forty-eight, and they were both old by the standards of my family.
When I was little it seemed obvious that everyone who grew up on the farm was destined to die young: of the seven siblings, only my mother lived to see a fiftieth birthday. They were born and raised in poverty, with all the attendant physical dangers, but that doesn’t entirely explain the early deaths. They were smart and wild, but that doesn’t justify the mayhem.
Suicide is an ugly word. Look at the outline, the shape of the letters, think about what it implies. Death is always difficult but suicide is a choice. I was raised to see it as a basic right, the ultimate grace. But as an adult I view the act as aggressive, violent, ruinous. I have an intellectual and philosophical appreciation of the complexity of the question, but I also know that when Christopher and Mary ended their own pain they guaranteed the surviving family would suffer. Would my mother be alive now if the others had died of natural causes? Probably. Suicide is contagious.
As a child I didn’t have enough experience to understand our family story. The aunts and uncles and cousins were just my kin, the people I belonged to and with. I perceived them as blazing giants bringing joy and destruction. I loved them, and they loved me.
I turned forty-eight this year with a wrenching sense of dislocation: I have outlived most of the people who raised me. I don’t have a script for what comes next.
Mary, Art, Bee, and Christopher – 1971.