I love living in Silicon Valley, and I highly doubt we'll ever live anywhere else full-time. The energy of the place is infectious, and it seems like smart people are everywhere. Beautiful climate + positive energy + smart people = as close to heaven as I'm going to get until I die. I could wax poetically about the palm trees, about sitting next to Steve Jobs at Fraiche as we both enjoyed our oatmeal with blueberries, and, most of all, how the latter has come to be no big deal -- for while there is only one Steve Jobs, somewhere around me is his heir apparent. Somewhere nearby is the next nobody with the little idea that -- overnight! -- is going to be the next Somebody with the next Big Idea to sweep the world. Entrepreneurship is alive and well in Silicon Valley. I've bandied about many a business idea with people over wine and pizza, knowing that we might make them happen; we're in the right place, we know the right people, and it could be huge. (Everyone actually believing that about their own idea is what makes the place great.)
You knew that "but" was coming, right?
It's. Always. On. Life, that is, in Silicon Valley, doesn't take a vacation. There is no rest. There are always places to be and people to see ... breakfasts and coffees and lunches and coffees and dinners and yogurts and plugging people in and connections and new apps and new ventures and this event and that fundraiser and this party and that awareness-raiser and OMG-did-you-hear-the-latest-buzz and new investments and new opportunities and new friends... and that's on top of Girl Scouts, PTA, soccer, basketball, t-ball, softball, playdates, book club, life.
And every single bit of that is absolutely, positively, unquestionably wonderful... but it is exhausting.
I feel like my life was good in New Jersey, but, in Silicon Valley, it's nearly-perfect. I have girlfriends, and a book club, and, for God's sake, a wood-fired pizza oven and a convertible in the family. I got my dog, my kids are athletic and happy and friend-rich, and the Guv and I actually spend a lot of time together. We didn't have as many of those those things in New Jersey. We made some exceptional friends in quality but not in quantity; getting to know each other didn't come easily when it felt like everyone was from there already and hung with the crowd with whom they were raised. Plus, the Guv's commute to work was 1+ hours each way, and that cut way into our time together. The four-minute bike ride that replaced that time in the car is a real blessing. (Biking anywhere in CA feels like a blessing!)
In any event, back to the "BUT": my kids don't know how to shut down. Rephrased, my kids need to remember how "off" is okay. For God's sake, they're only children. I work hard in CA to make sure they have time for "free play," and I try hard not to overschedule them ... but we do require participation in a sport (for health, not competitive, reasons), and softball and t-ball season took five days per week. Squeeze in playdates right and left (I'm not great at saying "no" to those), and, suddenly, my kids are busy. And I get really mad at myself for that, because you know what? I don't think kids should be busy. I think they should be bored. I think my boredom led me to read more books than many, which contributed to my intellectual growth and spurred my fantastic imagination, which has made me a lot of who I am. (Some people might think that's good... some not -- lol.) I want my kids to have to fill their time with whatever they choose (within limits, mostly when it comes to anything electronic), especially because they end up making pretty good choices after the "nothingness" stops overwhelming them. It's kind of like my favorite "anti-coloring book" -- if all kids are given are pictures with lines in which they color, well, they never learn to color outside of the lines. And, darn it, I want my kids to paint whole landscapes of their own creation. So...
We leave Silicon Valley for a while each summer, clinging to a cottage in Vermont that we bought in our New Jersey days to escape the miserable central-inland NJ summers. I hated New Jersey in the summer, and I don't ever say "hated." So we came to Vermont, where it was cooler and crisper and a little less crowded but not a lot different from New Jersey -- friendly but distant, things to do but not too much. We came a lot -- every long weekend, sometimes even for a quick overnight. We lived in two places. Now, we're back in Vermont after a ten-month absence in which we rented our house a few times. After getting over the weirdness of someone else having been in my space, it's so nice to be settling back in to ... nothing.
Oh, how the kids have repeated that word: "Moommmmmmm, we have nothing to do..." ... "Mommmmm, there's nothing I want to eat in the cupboard" (side note: in a vacation house, mom stocks NO junk food) ... "Mommmmm, I want nothing to do with my brother/sister/dog right now..." ... "Mooooommmmmm, if I have nothing to do, I'm just going to sleep."
To all of the above, I say: GOOD.
After getting over their initial misery, they're back to what they did last summer, minus the vernal pool (there wasn't enough snow this year to fill it, so our little extra-special chunk of nature is MIA): they are traipsing through the forest, making light sabers out of sticks; they are taking walks with each other and with the dog; they are playing wiffleball, trying to figure out how to set up the badminton net, stalking chipmunks, and watching and waiting to catch the first firefly. They're building with Legos, playing with trains, and playing loads of board and card games. They've built Roxaboxen and lived there intermittently. They're reading books together, reading books alone, taking naps and making breakfast in bed for me. Sometimes we go to the pool or to the lake. Sometimes we call friends to join us, but, mostly, we enjoy time together as a family. Sometimes we're hermits, staying in our PJs past noon and going back to bed after lunch.
In other words, most of the time we're doing all the kid stuff that I did as a kid in the summertime ... and that we seldom have time to do during our real life back in Silicon Valley. Like I did last year (and failed, but I'll try harder this year, I swear!), I vow once again to try harder to find that time on BOTH coasts, even when given the added complication of school. Sadly, though, it's not as much their fault that they don't have as much of that precious kid-time, because, back in Cali, I have a to-do list that sometimes competes with theirs. Here, the house is littler and cleaner and emptier, and all of us have few commitments.
So... this next school year is the one in which I underpromise and undercommit and, hopefully, overdeliver. If only I could return to CA, empty out my house so that there's not as much to keep clean, keep the fun with friends and just slow it all down to where it's only wine and pizza and the really important stuff. I have to find the midpoint between "everything" and "nothing." It's my bicoastal balance, I guess, and I love it... once I readjust each time.
In this post, I am participating in the Silicon Valley Moms Blog Book Club. We read "Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok. (Yes, I know that I just wrote about the Silicon Valley Moms Group closing up shop, but the book club has some unfinished business.)
It is rare that I read a book and have so many thoughts and reactions to it -- primarily, "Here; read this." And when you do, keep reminding yourself that this is a novel, a work of fiction; but remember that you read the author's note, which will make you wonder how much of her is in the lead character, as both worked in sweatshops as children in the U.S.Protagonist Kimberly, who we see first as a child and raise through adulthood, is foreign-born, but she becomes her family's first American. In her plight, I see a lot of the story of first-generation Americans, including my own husband, son of a Polish immigrant mother and a Greek immigrant father. Reading this story, I reflected on how different my life path -- as an American mixed from a handful of European ancestries from people who've lived here a long time -- is from my husband's, and how different both of our paths were from Kimberly's. For example, growing up in my family in West Virginia, everyone who wanted to work could. We could check the right boxes, so to speak: white, local, etc. If we had a trade (farming, coal mining, breadman, teacher), we could work in our field. My in-laws had a harder time. My mother-in-law became a U.S. citizen early on, but she never did work in her field; holding a graduate degree in chemical engineering, she retired from work in sales and catering at a luxury hotel recently. Compare her to Kimberly's mother in the story, a former music teacher in Hong Kong who becomes a factory slave in America: she is beholden to her big sister, Paula, who has Issues. But no one can really take Paula to task, for, culturally, they are beholden to Paula for bailing Mrs. Chang out multiple times, from marrying her intended to paying tuberculosis-related medical bills to bringing them to America ... to forcing them to work in a sweatshop to pay off these debts with interest, to forcing them to live in a condemned, heatless building ... things that any American would find legally actionable. The concept of honor pervades the story: honoring debts, honoring familial ties, honoring education, honoring being in America, honoring one's own life path while choosing not to mess up someone else's. And I submit that the longer an American has been off of the boat from another land (the more generations that have passed), the lower the commitment to honor. My family would have never spent one night in Aunt Paula's condemned apartment nor one minute working in a sweatshop. My in-laws would've tried both, perhaps, but they, too, would've abandoned it, realizing quickly that they did not come to America to live and to work in squalor. Kimberly's family honors their commitments until their debts are paid and beyond; but that honor exacted some pretty steep prices, too. (You'll have to read the book to find out more about that.)
All of these thoughts on honor inspired me to think: how many people stick together -- specifically, how many people stick to horrible situations -- because their sense of honor outweighs their common sense?
I've known someone in that situation lately and, let me tell you, it is an ugly place. Heck, I've been in that situation lately; haven't we all? Can we honor requests from people who treat us badly? I know that I cannot. And worse, what about people who are bad to our children? That's the part of this book that tugged at my heart the most: I can understand how Kimberly's mom owed a debt to her sister, but it was pretty hard to stomach Kimberly, a child, having to pay that debt, too. Not only would I never be able to honor someone who mistreated my children, I'd find it hard not to make their lives hell. And that is another piece of beauty of "Girl in Translation": Mrs. Chang doesn't once fight back, but she wins, in the end, anyway, just by doing the honorable thing, getting through the circumstances life threw at her, and moving on to a better life, devoid of the person who made it hell. There's a lesson in that for all of us.
I always add a note at the end of my book club posts regarding whether or not I'd recommend this book, and I enthusiastically note "Yes!" regarding this one. I'll be gifting it to folks, even; it's well written, the story is compelling, and, like I mentioned, there are valuable take-aways in it, which one doesn't always glean from works of fiction. It was a real privilege to read this book.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book. I did not commit to reviewing the book, let alone favorably, and am not being compensated otherwise for this post. The opinions and reactions above are mine alone.
Sorry for the repetitive title... I just needed a reminder. I AM ON VACATION.
BUT, unfortunately, my blogging group, the Silicon Valley Moms Group, decided to shut down yesterday, and, well, that has momentarily detracted from my otherwise zen-balance of being in the Green Mountains ON VACATION.
Have I mentioned that I'm RELAXING????!!!!!?!??!!?!?!? Can't you sense how relaxed I am?
Breathe in, breathe out.
Here's the thing: I do support the closure of our group of sites based on the information I've been given. As a recent paid employee of the group, I understand how much work it is, how lucrative it is not, and how some issues in the partnership (of which I am not part) have made it impossible to continue that partnership. Whatever. We'll all move on.
But what will happen in the meanwhile is that my dear friend, a founder and partner in the group who is going through a difficult time on a number of levels, will be accosted repeatedly by people who really don't have any idea what led to the decision to shut down the sites, what she is going through in her personal life, and, worse, who just don't care about messing with my friend, with me, and with a host of other supporters of the difficult decision that was made.
And the thing is, I don't want to care too much about it, but I do, because it is that blogging group that inspired me to start my own blog... it is that group that gave me a bigger platform for my writing... it is that group that saw some of my work through to syndication... it is that group that gave me a lot of my friends, including the one who decided to shut the thing down.
So... I'm going to make some lemonade with these lemons, leave the mommy blogging world for a while (well, except for here, sometimes) and start writing some opinion pieces for more serious venues. Specifically, I'm getting prepared to pitch some juicy pieces to a major publication, am writing a novel (because life these days has been better than fiction, so why not fictionalize this drama?!) and am setting up a new opinion blog... and may return to actual work in my actual field.
But for now, I am going back on vacation. That's right: I. Am. On. Vacation. Right... Now!
It seems like it took a year to get here, back home in the Green Mountains. Wait, it almost did ... it's been ten months, ten long months of health issues and wondering whether or not this beautiful place contributed to my ongoing pulmonary issues. My doctor came down on the side of "probably not," so we're home again, breathing the oxygen-rich air and feeling so happy to see our little slice of heaven again. And so far, so good.
It is tempting to write a blog post about the last couple of months, as they were exceptionally hard, both health-wise and with some extended family matters that have caused a great deal of stress. I'm not going to blog about it, though, because, frankly, I'm sick of it all -- sick of being sick, and sick of drama in general. It's in the past, dumped out of my plane somewhere over flyover country. And it doesn't affect my future -- a future filled most immediately with a whole lot of Vermont-style relaxation and ongoing with friends who have spent a whole lot of time lately loving and supporting our family. We especially saw a lot of that these last few weeks, as the Guv's pizza drew dozens of people to our house to break bread with us. It looks as though some of those folks will be flying all the way out here to spend time with us, and we can't wait! We'll show them what we love about the Green Mountains: the simplicity, the gorgeous natural surroundings, the people... I want to show them the shopkeepers I've come to know over the years, take them to taste the farm-fresh cheese, cured meats, and maple syrup -- and take them to my beloved Farmers' Diner, "Food from Here."
There's a vibe in the earth on which I walk in these mountains, a vibe which makes me feel closer to God, closer to understanding myself (the good and the parts that need work!) and closer to my little family of four, which is pretty darned special -- and that's a whole lot more noticeable outside of always-on Silicon Valley and away from the aforementioned crap. There have never been smiles so wide as those on both of my kids as they pulled down our long gravel drive and squealed, "We're home!" They'll be just as excited to return to California, but, for now, they're outside, climbing some trees, looking for frogs and bugs, and living just a little bit more like I did as a farm kid in West Virginia. It makes me proud that they have some mountain spirit in them. It'll make them stronger, which they need to be in this world that's so much crazier than it was when I was their ages. Here's hoping it'll make me stronger, too. Breathing in this cool, fresh air, I feel sure that it will. It's great to be home.
The Guv and I just watched Avatar for the first time, and I'm left with a whole ton of emotion plus one overwhelming word: WOW. I mean, really, WOW. The Oscars should give James Cameron a "Ruler of All things Cinematic" award. I doubt anyone will ever make a movie that prolific ever again. It was like "An Inconvenient Truth" if Al Gore weren't so stiff, boring and had an imagination with a Phish concert and some special drugs effects mixed in -- and yet, Avatar is still so much better!
If you haven't seen Avatar, the basic plot is this: The main character, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic Marine who, after his identical twin brother the scientist dies, is trained to take over his brother's mission to the faraway planet of Pandora. The mission in progress is that of a corporation mining precious materials. His brother's role (now Jake Sully's) is the operation of an avatar that looks Na'vi among the Na'vi people, Pandora's natives. The scientific hope is to build understanding so that the Na'vi will be less resistant when the American corporation spearheading the mission removes precious materials from their land. The corporate figurehead running the mission is smarmy but not quite as despicable as the Marine running the military unit that would just as soon kill all of the natives to ease access to the product. Things get complicated when Jake Sully's avatar falls in love with a native girl, and he finds himself in the middle of a battle of corporate greed versus a native people that he loves and their land. The cast is all-star: Sam Worthington (who was on the brink of homelessness before being cast) plays Jake Sully, and Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri, his love interest. What would a sci-fi movie be without Sigourney Weaver, who plays Dr. Grace Augustine, the avatar mission's lead scientist? Stephen Lang plays Colonel Miles Quaritch, the despicable head of the military occupying Pandora, and Giovanni Ribisi plays the corporate figurehead, Parker Selfridge. (Side note: I thought Ribisi's casting was the weakest part of the movie, as he's not a believable leader, being short among other things -- but I also think that was part of the point, to make him weak against his military leader and Sigourney Weaver. Still, that's the one part of the movie I thought could've been cast better.) There are a host of others in smaller roles who also play great parts, and that's one of the most special things about this movie: most of the actors are people I don't readily recognize, and I think that helps to sell the story of this as a "different" film. Sigourney Weaver is legendary, of course, but the movie is definitely not all about her; the unknown Sam Worthington magnificently playing the character of Jake Sully is what really makes the film.
In any event, as my daughter, Petunia (age almost-10), watched the movie also, we had some follow-up discussions on the movie's message. Petunia always has been my nature-lover, and she had a lot of defensive thoughts about the Na'vi people and those "greedy miners" who try to exploit their land. While the message of the movie wasn't overt, it's clear that my kid picked up on the conflict of material wants/money-making schemes versus the destruction of the earth (and, in the movie's case, its people). We've talked about this a lot lately when it comes to shopping for our food. Living in NorCal, we have access to some fantastic farmer's markets, and we patronize them each weekend. I've shared with my kids why we try to buy local, organic produce and why large corporations' farming practices (like Monsanto and the others highlighted in Food Inc.) aren't in the best interest of protecting our earth. Having grown up on a farm in rural West Virginia, I feel a particular defensiveness about from where our food comes. (Specifically, I don't think it needs to come from genetic modification and pesticide-laden, over-controlled land.) Family farmers aren't in it for the money, just like, in the Avatar movie, Jake Sully didn't end up working for the corporation's interests but, rather, chose the land. The message of Avatar -- a connectedness between people and their land -- is a universal one. To my great sadness, though, it's not one that my kids are hearing much about in school. While my kids' schools compost and recycle, it varies teacher-to-teacher how much they learn about why these things are important. I think educators fear being charged with "indoctrination" (after all -- for shame! -- some people don't believe in global warming!) -- but I'd rather they be charged with "responsibility." During "Earth Week" at school, kids are asked to walk/bike, and there's a family picnic (no-waste lunches encouraged!) -- but, to me, those are the same old baby-steps. I'd rather see something like the "Cool the Earth" program brought into the school. I could go on and on about this subject (heck, I could -- and probably will -- blog about it for years!), but suffice it to say that I feel like it falls to me to teach my kids environmentalism. I take that seriously, for they are the future, after all.
With regard to kids, I feared that Petunia might be too young for Avatar, but it was fine for her (a fourth-grader); there are a few references to mating, but nothing about the movie or the mating is overtly sexual. There's a bit of swearing, but, ahem, that doesn't bother my kids. The reason for the PG-13 rating is most likely the battle scene at the end of the movie, in which people die. (You can click here for IMDB's Parental Guide if you want more specifics.)
One last thought about this movie, which has nothing to do with the environment, but, rather with people: watching this movie soon after Arizona's new immigration law took effect -- a law with which I strongly disagree -- made me think of another message of the movie. When Jake Sully becomes his avatar (he slips into a machine in which he's brain-linked to his blue Na'vi), he's walking a fine line between being one of "us" and one of "them." He comes into the movie a paraplegic Marine, and he ends it as much Na'vi as a non-Na'vi could be, having come to understand that the Na'vi are a people of value, too -- and one with which he identifies more than he ever did with his prior life. It's the old "walk a mile in their shoes" message... When we do that, we come to understand that we're not so different in our value systems after all; we just might go about the process of attaining our best life a little differently. Bringing this back to Arizona, I agree wholeheartedly that immigrants to this country should be legal and documented; but, until we make that process more simple, especially among those border states, I think Arizona needs to remember a few things: how many businesses and farms rely on cheap labor in addition to how that cheap labor is often fleeing a life that's more impoverished and difficult than many Americans can imagine. Walk a mile in an illegal immigrant's shoes, and you don't see anyone smiling and dancing that they've pulled one over on the American government. Often, you see families still struggling, but struggling in a place where, at least, their kids have a chance at a better life. This used to be the land of "give me your tired and your poor," and now it's "give me cheap labor but I don't want to be responsible for other baggage like kids and healthcare." Well, it's not that simple, is it? We're all people who have an interconnectedness and mutual need; fences and laws are obstacles, not solutions. Arizona needs to figure out a different way, just like Jake Sully did in Avatar. Maybe they have; maybe the U.S. government finally will change immigration policy now that Arizona has made it look so bad. Otherwise, like in Avatar, they're fighting a senseless war in which people will die for no reason. What a tragedy.
To sum up, I highly recommend this movie -- definitely one of my favorites ever, and one I'll watch again and again. As a bonus, when you purchase this film, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and the Earth Day Network have teamed up to plant 1,000,000 trees worldwide in celebration of the April 22nd release of the film. Purchasers of the movie receive an online access code that can be used to adopt a tree and chart its location and progress. Now that's some good work following up a fantastic movie! (The picture below is of James Cameron and others planting a tree on the Fox lot. Nice!)
* I received a complimentary copy of Avatar from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. I did not commit to reviewing the movie favorably; the writing and opinions above are mine alone. Other than the movie, I received no compensation for this review. I want to thank Fox for the opportunity to do this review; I enjoyed it immensely.