Silicon Valley: Describing the Indescribable

A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York City for a conference, and a local author, hearing where I lived, asked me to describe Silicon Valley.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. In writing about technology for thirty years, I’d steeped myself in the history of the valley (there are those who trace its origins all the way back to the California Gold Rush). But she wasn’t interested in history. She was interested in now. I suppose to outsiders, it does seem like an intriguing place. But like most places, it has two sides. I described both to her.

The most famous side of Silicon Valley is the one of lore, though it is no less real for being famous, because dreams do come true here. The people that live here are dynamically and manically focused on solving problems through technology, of making the future better, so much so that it bristles and sizzles with the seemingly osmotic exchange of ideas and innovation. In that valley, financial lightning can strike in a flash, bestowing untold winnings akin to a lottery.

The flip side of Silicon Valley, I told her, is just as real, but less shiny. It is a valley of overwhelmed infrastructure, of too many cars and not enough roads, of too many buildings and too little water, of too many people and not enough public transportation.

It is a valley where all those untold winnings trigger their own nightmares. People with inflated home values stay put sell to avoid whopping capital gains taxes. Government mandated tax loopholes like Proposition 13 keep people in their houses long after they’re working, or enable them to retain low tax rates by bequeathing those homes to their children. The tech lottery winners drive up the cost of the remaining housing stock. Lines at stores stretch on Saturday afternoons because no one being paid minimum wage can afford to live here.

That was my capsule explanation for this author. I likened it to the original California Gold Rush, where only a few miners struck it rich, and the rest went home empty-handed. But for many – now and then – the air buzzed, and people lived in a time and place that they could tell their grandchildren about.

I neglected to elaborate, but there’s more, and it’s worrisome. Part of this perspective, I admit, comes from our decision to flee the valley for quieter climes, and can be attributed, truthfully, to justification and rationalization for that decision. But still …

The cracks are beginning to show. The winners in Silicon Valley exhibit an excessive level of entitlement and competitiveness, whether it’s beating someone in something as big as a deal or as trivial as a parking space. The losers in Silicon Valley exhibit an increasing level of anxiety, whether it’s trying to pick up a child from day care before penalties ensue or figuring out which bill to pay.

The problem is that on the surface, entitlement and anxiety pretty much look the same. There’s a difference between being desperate and being an asshole, but it’s impossible to discern whether someone acting like an idiot deserves scorn or sympathy. And that makes life extremely difficult, even when you’ve grown up here and seen so many changes transpire already.

It’s easier to just leave, and that’s the saddest part of all.

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A Moving Experience

As the weeks count down toward our move north to Oregon, I am faced with an unanswerable question: why in the hell did we spend so much money on so much stuff that we’re now spending so much time trying to get rid of?

Even with a house far too big for two people, there was never enough wall space for the framed posters and artwork; there were never enough display cases for the toys and tchotchkes; and there were never enough guests for all the dishes and silverware. It was like we were intentionally trying to piss off the ghost of Thorstein Veblen.

Our conundrum became clear when our real estate agent insisted that we declutter the house in preparation for showings. What? We’ve spent 14 years turning it into the house we wanted, and now we have to take everything out? To add insult to injury, once we removed our clutter, the stager brought in a bunch of other clutter; we never quite understood why our clutter was inferior to her clutter.

Unexpectedly, once the house looked a little more austere (as long as no one looked in the closets and drawers), we were intrigued. We kind of liked these Spartan surroundings, and vowed to emulate them in the new house. That required a newfound discipline in terms of redistributing what we owned. It’s a process, but we’re progressing … and processing.

The thing I hate the most: our garage looks like Spielberg filmed the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark there. Boxes and boxes and boxes. I’ve been haunting the local moving supply stores, not to mention cadging boxes from our local grocery store (parts of the garage have so many wine boxes, it looks like I hijacked a liquor distributor’s truck). I’m frankly tired of squeezing my way through narrow passages of boxes in constant worry about knocking, bumping, dropping, falling, or some other participle that brings back aural memories of Fibber McGee’s closet.

If that weren’t bad enough, it seems as if our stuff procreates in the night. Open a new drawer or closet that you swore you packed, and there’s more stuff in there. I worry about either ending up with too much stuff left to pack, or too many unused boxes (yeah, like that ever happens). Having the stuff-versus-box ratio come out even at the end is one of life’s unsung pleasures.

This too shall pass. Eventually we will get everything packed and then unpacked in its place in our new home in a new city. It will be a house full – but not too full – of art, music, and flowers, with a huge Douglas fir in the front and a babbling fountain in the back. The cats will adjust to their new home, and hopefully forgive us for putting them in cages for twelve hours. We will resist the temptation to fill up every inch of space.

And somewhere, Thorstein Veblen will be smiling.

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The Most Unexpectedly Wonderful Thing About Getting Older

I have become delightfully aware of something that I never expected about getting older. Simply put, it’s not the heirlooms that are things, but the heirlooms that are people. This concept was driven home to me by three conversations that happened fairly close together recently.

Item No. 1: We were at a party when my fraternity brother Josh launched into the story of how, in my dual roles as Kappa Sigma rush co-chair and Stanford Daily movie reviewer, I had wangled admission for members and pledges alike into the opening night of Star Wars at the Century 21 theatre in San Jose. It was May 25, 1977.

One never tires, of course, of hearing anecdotes in which he’s the star, but it dawned on me that it took place more than forty years ago. That story is older than my father was when I was born.

Item No. 2: I was having lunch with my friend Rich at the Olive Garden. We were bantering, as we tend to, and the waitress – who was probably young enough to be our daughter (or granddaughter, if we’d really been serious about it) – said, “It sounds like you guys have known each other a really long time.”

I looked at Rich and Rich looked at me. We were both doing math in our head and realized that we had first met in Boy Scouts fifty years before.

Item No. 3: Brian and I grew up next to each other; except for the garages, our houses had identical floor plans. Our fathers were both small businessmen. Our mothers both worked. Off and on, we went to the same schools and lived in the same towns, seeing each other occasionally, like Dickens characters. Now, sixty years later, we see each other more regularly.

We were having dinner with our spouses at a German restaurant. “I’m not sure I understand this menu at all,” frowned Brian. “But Brian,” I whispered across the table, remembering what he’d told me once about his mother’s heritage, “You’re half German.” His wife looked at me and said, “You’re one of the few people that knows that.”

Getting older, I’ve quickly realized, is not all bad. It’s an opportunity to look back on a tapestry woven over time, with friends who thread in and out along the way. And it’s not just a tapestry of the good times – there are memories of relationships gone awry, of job decisions gone wrong, of health scares and nightmares – the whole gamut of life over multiple decades. We don’t talk about those bad times, but we hold the memory and sympathy in our hearts – carefully and tenderly.

And sometimes, because we’ve known each other long enough, and enough time has gone by, we can take out the bad times and giggle at them. One of my fondest memories of my friend Andrew revolved our raucous laughter on an island vacation as I recounted the story of the time my wife had to drive me to the emergency room. She was driving so fast, I thought I was going to die even before they could have a chance to treat me. It wasn’t funny when it was happening, but it was sure hilarious in Hawaii.

I consider myself so lucky to be surrounded by so many longtime, long-term friends, the ones who remember the best and worst about me and still trudge forward. More than anything else, I treasure my heirloom friendships.



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Sucking Out The Poison

Something different happened this past weekend. I knocked over a glass of milk, but I didn’t shriek and I didn’t call myself a moron. I got a sponge and I cleaned it up. It took about a minute. It was a nice feeling.

I don’t know how I got this way. Wait, that’s not true. I do know how I got this way; I just don’t remember getting this way. I can only imagine that many decades ago, when I did something that small children do, like knocking over milk, my father screamed at me. It created what someone explained to me as a highly developed startle response.

I don’t remember being yelled at. But I do know that somewhere along the way, I developed a deep, instinctual sense of shame and fear for doing something clumsy. For doing something that kids can’t help. And now, decades later, after years of therapy and recovery, I’m trying to fix it, to finally suck out the poison that my father injected into me day after day.

I did take one positive step many years ago. I decided not to have kids. My gift to the succeeding generation was not to rain upon them the terror of the previous generation, and the easiest way to deliver that gift was not to have a succeeding generation. I’ve never regretted that.

I have regretted that I’ve carried the poison of the previous generation in my blood, as sure as I carried its DNA and hereditary traits. It wasn’t even that I heard their voices in my head, although I do remember that my father would frequently rail about us kids “taking stupid pills.” No, this had to have happened earlier, before I was good at forming memory.

All I know is how it manifested itself, turning me into a neurotic, people-pleasing goody two-shoes (and when I wasn’t that, I was the exact opposite: a manipulative, cruel asshole). My years of therapy taught me to love and nurture that little boy – because his parents were so bad at it – but like Soviet agents launching a cyberattack, they got into his basic operating system, and did such a fantastic job of it that all the subsequent apps in the world couldn’t erase what they programmed in at the very beginning. It’s a frustrating state of affairs: to want to reboot and not knowing which buttons to press on the keyboard.

In the realm of recovery, people say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t agree with that. I’ll never be able to go back and change an unhappy childhood. But more than sixty years in, I’m just trying to be patient. As with any twelve-step issue, admitting the problem is the first step. Hearing that the startle response had a name was wonderfully empowering. Short-circuiting it is challenging, but I’m trying. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’m trying to be patient with that little boy. I’m trying to act, rather than to react.



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The End of Complacency

About this time next year, Republicans will be cursing the name of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is widely credited for eliminating the concept of bipartisanship in Congress. In lambasting the idea of compromise, he managed to rile up the right-wing Republican base to such an extent that they rabidly went to the polls and voted. They may have been single-issue voters, but they voted.

Meanwhile, according to this PBS report, voter turnout has been falling. The articles cites a study from the United States Election Project noting that “only 36 percent of registered voters cast ballots during the 2014 election cycle, the lowest turnout in a general election since 1942.” Conventional wisdom suggests that voters just don’t care. Everyone in Washington is corrupt so what’s the point of voting?

I have a different theory. It’s not that they don’t care as much as the fact that what Washington did didn’t have much effect on people’s lives. We kind of wafted through a middle course without doing too much to screw up employment or the economy (2008 notwithstanding), so unlike the right-wing Republicans, no one else really had the motivation to go to the polls.

Enter Donald Trump.

With his slash-and-burn tactics, aided by Republican control of the House and Senate, he’s got people paying attention. I suspect that a lot of people didn’t like Hillary Clinton. Seeing polls that said she would easily win, people could not vote for her and still enjoy her presidency. Oops.

Now, seeing the United States slip further into a plutocracy, headed by plutocrat-in-chief Trump, I suspect that complacency in the American voter is on life support. Increased turnout in the off-year election last month in Virginia indicate change may be afoot (New Jersey did not have a commensurate increase, however). Voters now understand what can go awry when they don’t exercise their right to vote.

The result, I predict: the House and Senate both flip next year, turning Trump into a lame-duck president, if not a sitting duck for impeachment charges. But it doesn’t stop there, and that’s why I’m predicting the call for Gingrich’s head. The pendulum is going to swing back, and hard. It’s going to reverse course with enough force to topple some of the horrific changes we’ve seen in America the last eighteen months.

We’re going to see more laws favoring abortion rights, but not gun rights. We’re going to see immigration regulations relax. We’re going to see taxes go up on the rich, and maybe even the Pentagon budget go down. And the Republicans, back to their minority status, will be powerless to do anything about it. The right-wing that brought this on will be absolutely apoplectic.

But none of this would have come to pass if Gingrich hadn’t goaded the Republicans to play unfair in the first place. So for all those rabid right-wingers who believe so fervently in the Bible, look up Galatians 6:7: as ye sow, so shall ye reap.


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The Cat That Slipped Away

Zack in Dining Room DoorwayThis is a story about failure. It is about two people who didn’t fail very much during the course of their life facing up to that very fact. That’s the problem with success: as wonderful as it is, when something, even a small thing, goes catastrophically awry, its importance becomes magnified. (The use of the word catastrophically is only a partial pun.)

This is also the story of Zachary (pictured). Of all of our rescue cats, he was the most willful – he never allowed us to pet him, and he was the one who was most interested in scampering outdoors, and the one least likely to return. I’ve written about his disappearances before, but he always came back. He would eventually appear in the front yard, plaintively mewing, his desire for adventure losing to his desire for regular meals.

He disappeared five months ago when we opened the door to let the cats enjoy the summer weather. Zachary went out, and then came back in. He went out, and then came back in. But then something happened that we never reckoned on: the territorial neighbor cat came in and scared everybody out. Rose came back. Max came back. Zachary never did – at least, not in the way that we wanted.

We were sitting in a lecture sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley about free speech when my phone buzzed. “Zachary Has Been Found!” the subject line read. The message – sent by the company whose chip he’d had implanted – told us to call the number of a local vet. But even in that short time, by the time I got through, the veterinarian told me that Zachary had been brought in by a family that found him in their yard. But he was too far gone – from some internal malady, the doctor surmised – and he’d had to euthanize him.

From the highest high to the lowest low in a matter of minutes.

We left the lecture and raced to the clinic. It had a room set aside for mourning, and one of the technicians brought Zachary’s lifeless body into us to say good-bye. It was one of the first and last times we had been able to pet him. We’d never even been able to hold him on our laps when he was a kitten. His fur was still lustrous. He was thinner than when he’d left, but he’d obviously found nourishment somewhere. As with any pet, even one that didn’t love us, it was hard to say goodbye.

And the fact that he didn’t love us was the toughest part about saying goodbye to Zachary. Thankfully, we got the closure of holding him one last time. We’d never have to peer in to the bushes, wondering if he was lurking there. We’d never have to wonder if he’d died alone and in pain. Nevertheless, the sad fact was that we’d failed him. We’d fostered feral cats before, and seen them become remarkably affectionate. Our most loving kitty, Billy, wandered into our yard two Decembers ago and never left. He goes out, but he always comes back. Why wouldn’t Zachary come back? We couldn’t have loved him any more than we did. Why did he choose the noise and the unfamiliarity and the uncertainty of the world over a house full of cat toys and Fresh Catch? For two people used to succeeding at most of the efforts they’ve put their mind to, the failure to nurture Zachary stings.

Our friend Barbarah is more easygoing about these things. She texted that Zachary was still wild at heart and was following his spirit. Indeed, he did live the last months of his life on his own terms. That’s somewhat inspirational, but no less sad in the end.

The day after Zachary passed away, I drove to the gym. When I opened the car door, there on the pavement, right where I couldn’t possibly miss it, was a penny, the legendary symbol that a loved one is sending a message from beyond. That rascal. Even though he’d slipped away from us, he made sure we knew he was still waiting for us at the Rainbow Bridge.

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The Dish Best Served Cold

My friend Amy’s mother has a saying: everything works out for the best. But sometimes when you’re in the middle of a really aggravating situation, it’s hard to see how that’s anywhere on the horizon.

I was reminded of this when I got an e-mail recently with the noncommittal subject line “Hi.” E-mails with that subject line are either from really close friends or really complete strangers.

When I opened it, I found myself reading a solicitation to refinance our house from a guy whose name was strangely familiar (I’ll exclude it here to save him even more embarrassment). It took me only a moment to realize who it was and where I knew him from.

Nine years ago, in the midst of the last recession, we were attempting to refinance our house with the Bank of America, an institution that I’d patronized for 35 years. That’s 35 years, not 3.5 years. Unlike so many other properties around that time, our house was not underwater; it had lost much of its appreciation, certainly, but we were in search of a lower interest rate. Unfortunately, my freelance income had also dropped, as it tended to do during recessions, and even though my spouse was still gainfully employed, the bank kept stalling and stalling, asking for more and more documentation. The guy who’d e-mailed me was the loan officer we had been working with, a guy who seemed absolutely powerless to intervene on our behalf and get the bank to either refinance or just flat out turn us down.

Finally, asked for one insane piece of documentation, I just said no. We ended up refinancing with another institution, and in high dudgeon, I closed all my Bank of America accounts: checking, savings, credit cards, and brokerage.

When I closed the Merrill Lynch brokerage account, I was surprised to see that almost half of my money was invested in Bank of America stock. I was surprised that that was even legal, but it turned out that it’s not illegal, because Merrill Lynch was a division (or subsidiary, or something) of Bank of America. It may have been unethical, but it was not illegal. That was in 2008.

As this wonderful transcript from NPR recalls, Bank of America had bought a mortgage-lending company called Countrywide Financial the same year. NPR called this “quite simply the worst deal in the history of the financial services industry.” The following year, 2009, as the recession deepened, it turned out that a lot of Countrywide’s mortgages were not just bad, but black, mushy, squirting rotten banana bad. Bank of America lost $40 billion on the Countrywide deal, and its stock dropped 90 percent.

Which didn’t bother me anymore, because I no longer owned any.

It’s for situations like this that the Germans coined the word schadenfreude.

As I disclosed in 2013, we jettisoned the financial institution we moved our accounts to and went back to the Bank of America. I did not open another Merrill Lynch account, though.

I thought about just deleting the e-mail from the mortgage broker (who is now with still another financial institution), but I replied and told him that because of this reverse windfall, I really should thank him. But no, I wasn’t interested in his help in any sort of refinancing.

And Amy’s mother is still right after all these years.

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