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 objective standards 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 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.
On his first day of kindergarten we asked our son how it went. He paused, thought for a second, and said “I don’t think you need to know.”
From that moment until quite recently he remained aloof, preferring to conduct his life without reference to parental authority. Now that he is grownup, we are genuinely amazed to be invited to events and excursions.
And the senior show (an opera) was shockingly good. Congratulations to the whole team!
The Portland house is vacant for the first time since we moved away seventeen years ago. All of us have been homesick to some degree since the day we packed up the Volvo and headed off on what would become the start of the big adventure, so I asked each child in turn if they wanted to move back, offering to rent it for the price of the mortgage (quite a bargain since we bought in 1997).
When we left Portland the children were small, feral, and unschooled. For the next decade or so they clamored to go home again, the word home always pointing at that house and that city. But now they’re grown and launched. They have partners and work and lives elsewhere – the family is scattered between NY, London, and Vermont, everyone busy and occupied. The kids declined the offer; they didn’t even have time to come on the trip, to look at the walls they kissed and cried over on the day we moved away.
Through all the years of tenancy there have been friends living there, but we were hesitant to visit – because we didn’t want to intrude, because the city has changed, but more importantly because we missed it. This week Byron and I wandered through the house, then sat in an empty upstairs dormer. Floods of memories came back to both of us: the good times with the children, the hard times as we both worked endless hours.
We owned the house by virtue of my mad planning skills and ability to navigate bureaucracy, and also because it was cheaper than renting. Middle class people did not want to live in the neighborhood in the 1990’s, nobody could even imagine the gentrification that would consume the whole city in the new century. It was a wretched downtrodden sort of place, not the shiny hipster boulevard it has become.
Back then we were poor people, living a shabby impoverished life, without enough money for basic necessities. But (and this is not nostalgia talking, because I’m famously allergic to sentiment) we did have a grand time. There were stories, songs, friends, hope for the future.
I expected the trip to be brief, a quick expedition to decide if we would sell the house. But as we sat there we both wondered: should we go back? Or should we keep moving forward?
The other day I went to dinner with someone who has been a friend for more than twenty years and at some point toward the end of the conversation it became clear that this person has no idea what I do for a living. Or even that I . . . work.
This wouldn’t be surprising in a recent acquaintance; I resist the NYC social imperative to self-promote. Countless dinner parties have involved me waving away questions, refusing to discuss, changing the subject, twisting in all manner of creative ways to avoid recognition of my achievements in any field. I don’t talk about work. Not the writing, and certainly not running companies. Not with people who do understand, not with people who are curious, not any of it, not with anyone.
I know this is unusual, and, well, I don’t care.
But to have a friend who has known me for so long have literally no clue about my occupation is extraordinary. How did this friend imagine I fed and educated myself, clothed and entertained my children, paid for health insurance, bought my house, moved around the world?
I’ve been paying my own way since age sixteen. I had no support from my parents, no public aid, no partner when I became a teen parent. I worked three jobs in college and graduate school, scrabbling for scholarships to make sure I finished without debts. Once I acquired a partner I worked while he went to grad school and launched a career as an academic.
Yes, we share responsibility for family finances, but the emphasis is on the word share. I’ve worked through life-threatening illness, during school field trips, on family excursions to theme parks, through half a dozen funerals. I sat under a reception table and worked during the wedding of dear friends. I worked in the recovery room after my most recent cancer surgery. I sat on hiring committees, ran board meetings, and took my kid to a sci-fi festival in another country while my surgically reconstructed forehead was held together with stitches and tape. Oh yeah, and I never take any drug stronger than coffee.
I work all the time, ceaselessly, and I truly cannot imagine not working. This is my nature, and also my training: it doesn’t matter how much I earn or own. I was born working class and that means I work.
Do I sound a little defensive? I’m certainly sensitive about the subject. But I wasn’t offended, only mystified. And that is the virtue of friendship.