Archive for the ‘Midlife’ Category

Do-it-yourself empty nest blog post

April 15, 2012

This week it became apparent that the end had arrived for my 17-year-old Camry station wagon, the mommy car I bought when my daughter was 18 months old. 

The blog post seemed ready to write itself: Another sign of transition to en empty nest. Feelings of sadness, astonishment, mortality. Et cetera.

But I feel like I’ve written this same post about a dozen times so far this year. First rule of blogging: Don’t be tedious or whiny. 

So I figured: If people know what I’m going to say already, why not let them say it for me? Here goes — fill in the blanks to create your own empty nest blog post —  

Yet Another Empty Nest Blog Post

As a young adult, I fantasized about little flashy sports cars like the _________. As a good environmentalist, I drove little high-mileage cars like the __________. 

But when I became a parent, I needed a vehicle that was more ________. I envisioned ferrying bevies of children on field trips to _________  or camping trips to _________. With only one child, a minivan seemed like overkill. So we bought a white Camry station wagon, the kind with a back area that could be turned into two rear-facing seats to carry a total of seven passengers. 

The Mommymobile, almost old enough to vote / Photo by Ilana DeBare

It was huge. It was bulky. We nicknamed it the Great White ___________. The first few weeks when I looked at it in our driveway, I couldn’t believe who I had become. I was suddenly a suburban ___________. I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a Parent. And that felt so wrong! I was supposed to be someone who HAD Parents, not someone who WAS a parent.  That big white stationwagon was a symbol of all the _______  I felt about the transition to parenthood. 

Well, I got used to it and the station wagon did a sterling job for 17 years and 140,000 miles. Field trips, ski trips, camping trips. Trips to the Oakland Zoo, Fairyland, the Monterey Aquarium, Marine World. (That’s before Marine World got all __________.) 

Then last week the computer that runs the _________ gave out. I was told it would cost $3000 to replace it. That crosses the border into “time-to-buy-a-new-car” land. 

And since B. is going off to college in four months, the next car won’t be a station wagon. It will be smaller. Probably a _______ or maybe a _________, since I remain the good environmentalist.

I can’t help thinking that this is the first in a series of downsizings over the next couple of decades –- smaller car, smaller grocery bills, eventually a smaller house and someday leaving houses entirely for a _________. 

The parenting period of my life is ending.

Even scarier, the expansion period of my life is ending. 

I don’t want to be morbid, and I know there are lots of upsides to this transition, but I still feel __________.

The upside of being a biking widow

April 3, 2012

We’re entering the time of year when I become a biking widow — meaning that Sam is in training for a monster ride over the summer, and thus as likely to be found pedaling up Tunnel Road or over Mount Diablo as spending time around the house.

This is not so bad. I’d rather be a biking widow than a Sunday-afternoon-football widow. And today I discovered a bright lining to this cloud.

I replaced our back door lock!

Note the before and the after pictures:

This may not seem like a big deal, but I am just about the least handy person around. I’m a major feminist in theory, but not so much in practice when practice involves changing tires, finding studs in walls, or doing anything that involves power tools.

(In my egalitarian defense: I’m terrible at sewing too.)

A few days ago, the knob fell out of our back door. Sam said he would “get to it” this coming weekend. However, this coming weekend involves not just his bike training regimen but also hosting two Passover seders with a total of 43 people, so I figured maybe I should just deal with this now. Today I went to Ace Grand Lake Hardware with the pieces of the defunct knob/lock, bought a replacement set, and installed it myself!

Granted, there was no drilling, sawing or electric motors involved. I had to unscrew and then re-screw a total of four screws.

But I still feel like Superman and Martha Stewart combined.

One pathetic step for womankind, one big step for Ilana.

Stinson alone

March 25, 2012

I drove out to Stinson Beach on Saturday afternoon by myself to spend a couple of days writing. I haven’t touched my novel since the fall. Now I finally had a little window of time. This was what I imagined when we bought the Stinson house with our co-owners two years ago. It was on my mind when I took the half-time job at Golden Gate Audubon. Having Mondays and Tuesdays free gives me a solid block of time to have my own mini “writer’s retreat” every few weeks, especially once Daughter is in college next fall.

But it was hard coming here yesterday. I always feel torn leaving Sam and Daughter, homesick, even when they are busy with their own activities. It was pouring rain. I arrived and it was almost dark, the house was cold, and I forgot a bag of groceries I’d meant to bring. The only heat is a wood stove, so the first thing I had to do on arrival was make a fire, which is an area of chronic anxiety for me. I am a bit of a pyrophobe and feel like there is some magical art to starting fires that I will never master. We all have our “oh, I can’t xxxx” activities, and this is one of mine.


Photo by Ilana DeBare

The house gradually warmed up. And this morning we had a break in the rain. The clouds were high and blue sky started to emerge. I took a long walk to the end of the beach. On the way there, I wore my iPod and practiced the Torah portion I’ll be chanting at my nephew’s bar mitzvah service in May. On the way back, I thought about the structure of my novel. By the time I was back at the house, I had taken off two of the three layers I’d started out in, and I’d visited the little Stinson market to replace the missing groceries.

Stinson hills / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Stinson Beach between storms / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now it’s enough procrastinating and time to work!

How Bruce Springsteen nearly wrecked my marriage

March 19, 2012

About a year ago we went to a nonprofit fundraising dinner with a silent auction. I made my husband promise not to bid on any of the items unless we really wanted them.

This had been a problem at other fundraising events. We tend to go to grassroots charity events — not high-rolling black-tie galas — and often there are silent auction items with no bidders. We look at the empty sheet of paper and feel sorry for the charity and the donor, whose offering looks as lonely as the uncool kid in the lunchroom.

AP Photo by Mel Evans

So we place a bid, figuring other people will certainly jump in after us and buy the item.

And we end up going home with armfuls of unwanted winery tours, glass bowls, and framed wildflower photos.

This time we showed restraint. There was nothing unusual on the silent auction table anyway – aquarium tickets, dinner for two, a day at a spa. But then I noticed there was also a live auction — and one of the live auction items was an electric guitar autographed by Bruce Springsteen.


Or should I say, “Br-u-u-u-u-ce!”

Okay, I’m a stereotypical aging-boomer, bleeding-heart-liberal, former-New-Yorker Springsteen fan. So I got all excited and started doing a little jumpy dance and maybe even playing a teeny bit of air guitar. I told Sam that  I wanted to bid on the guitar – just one bid, the opening bid of $500, and no more.

We went in to dinner. It was a lovely dinner. We had wine, we sat with friends. In fact, we sat on either side of our friends since we hadn’t seen them in a long time and we see each other every night. Sam held our auction paddle. When the bidding on the guitar started, I admit to giving a few little “Bruce” hoots. (Just a few.) Sam bid $500. It was grand fun.

Someone else bid $1000. I figured this had now become a spectator sport. It was still fun.

And then Sam’s arm was up with the paddle again. $1,500!


The friend sitting next to Sam was egging him on and they were laughing. He was too far away for me to lean over and whisper “stop.” I couldn’t nudge him with my elbow, couldn’t reach him with my leg to kick him.

Someone else bid $2,000. It was too noisy to make myself heard across the table. Sam bid $2,500. Stop, I waved frantically. The room seemed suddenly silent. I looked around for someone to hold up a paddle and outbid him.

No one did.

We were now the proud owners of a $2,500 autographed guitar. We don’t play guitar; our daughter already has a guitar; and aren’t owners of celebrity guitars supposed to keep them in special climate-controlled trophy rooms filled with other rock memorabilia?

We don’t have a trophy room. In my freelance-writer incarnation last year, I hardly even had what you could call income. That $2,500 equaled two or three years of my personal clothing budget.

“He thought it would make you happy,” one of our friends said consolingly. That made me even madder. After 21 years of watching me clip coupons and re-use yogurt containers, he thought I would be happy to spend $2,500 on an autographed guitar?

We drove home, my anger morphing into a stunned sense of betrayal. How could Sam have misjudged me so badly? What happened to our famous teamwork? Did he know anything about me at all? Had I been married all this time to a stranger?

This was one of those moments that in fiction would have been a turning point: Disillusion. Dissolution. Gabriel Conroy’s sudden understanding of the hollow core of his marriage in The Dead.

Instead I went to bed. In the morning I called my sister, who is an even bigger Springsteen fan than I am. I asked her what I was supposed to do with the Goddamned Guitar. It seemed obscene to bury a $2,500 autographed guitar in the garage under our 1970s record albums, outgrown ski clothing, and cages from deceased hamsters. I wondered if we should sell it on eBay to someone who really wanted it, or if we could return it to the charity to auction off again next year.

“WOW!” she said.

She went on for a while about how $2,500 seemed like a bargain price. She suggested that I wait for a few weeks, then hang the guitar on a wall and see how I felt. If it made me laugh, keep it up there. If it made me want to kill my husband, move it to the garage.

“Oh,” she added, “can you leave it to me in your will?”

I’d like to say that I ended up with some kind of deep epiphany – that I was touched by Sam’s generous spirit and came to love the guitar as a symbol of his love for me.

But in reality, it was more a matter of letting things go.

I try not to get angry when my daughter leaves clothes on the floor of her room. I silence my shrieking miser-brain when Sam spends a zillion dollars on a new bike. Living with people is like that – a hundred little things that could make you crazy, but if you value your peace of mind and your relationships, you let them go.

We ended up hanging the guitar over our stereo in the living room, the corner that Sam has made into a music nook for practicing saxophone. It’s still there.

Next month, I’m going to see Springsteen when he comes to San Jose for his Wrecking Ball tour. Four days earlier, we’re going to the 2012 edition of that charity dinner where we bought the guitar.

We’ll be sitting with the same friends. There will be another live auction.

This time it’s a Rolling Stones guitar. Sam says he won’t even consider bidding.

Still, I think this time I may hold the paddle.

The Goddamned Guitar / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Mamma Mia!

March 4, 2012

I took my daughter and a friend of hers to see the live touring company of Mamma Mia! in San Francisco last week. We had a blast! Daughter had seen the movie a gazillion times; friend had seen the show twice before. At the end, all three of us were standing up and waving our arms and singing along to “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” with the grey-haired lady a few seats down and the entire rest of the theatre.

Daughter & friend with Mamma Mia cast members / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I’d previously seen and loved the movie version with Meryl Streep.

And what struck me, as we left the theatre, is that I absolutely hated Abba when all these songs originally came out.

Abba — four Swedish musicians with a series of international mega-hits in English — were around from 1972 to 1982, my high school and college years. They were hardly on my radar. I was into folksingers like Phil Ochs and Dylan in high school and then rock/New Wave in college: Springsteen, the Clash, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Talking Heads.

To the extent that Abba entered my consciousness, they were a symbol of everything that seemed vapid and repulsive about the 1970s. Disco culture. Singles bars. Girls with poufy hair and platform heels and nothing on their minds beyond looking for Mr. Hot. Abba’s lyrics were meaningless drivel:

Honey honey, how you thrill me, uh huh
Honey honey, nearly kill me, uh huh
I’d heard about you before
I wanted to know some more
And now I know what they mean, you’re a love machine 

You couldn’t get much further from the poetry of Dylan or the pounding political anger of the Clash. Why the hell was a Swedish band writing in English anyway? They seemed all commercialism and no artistic vision. I put them in the same box as, say, the Bee Gees or the Captain and Tenille.

So why do I love Mamma Mia? Why did I spend the day after the show bopping around the house and office singing “Dancing Queen?”

Sure, the tunes are extremely catchy. But there’s something else going on. The plot of Mamma Mia! has virtually nothing to do with Abba or their 1970s cultural milieu. The show saucily subverts Abba’s lyrics:  “Honey Honey” isn’t sung by a girl with a “love machine” boyfriend, but by a bride-to-be who has decided to find out who her father is by inviting all three of her mother’s old flames to her wedding.

“Dancing Queen” doesn’t show some disco blonde prowling for a one-night stand, but a middle-aged Meryl Streep bouncing on a bed in overalls and then dancing with her best friends through their small Greek town, as old peasant women and housewives drop chores to dance along.

That scene is one of my favorites in the movie. And this is where Mamma Mia, as hokey as it is, speaks to me.  I suspect my daughter identifies with the young bride. I identify with the Meryl Streep character — the bride’s mom, worn down with money worries and single motherhood, who rediscovers romance, spontaneity and joy long after she had given up on them as possibilities for herself. With the help of her two best female friends from girlhood, no less!

The “message” of Mamma Mia is that everyone is a Dancing Queen. The middle-aged mother of the bride. The old Greek peasant women. The grey-haired woman down the row from us in the theatre, shaking her hips and waving her arms in the air.

And that is most likely 180 degrees distant from what the Abba lyricists were imagining when they wrote the song. I think Mamma Mia is ripe for some structuralist PhD thesis on deconstructing or decoding or whatever the correct jargon is — basically, how a work of art starts out with one meaning and is reinterpreted to have an entirely different meaning.

Then again, I finished my English degree just before structuralism engulfed American universities. (Thank goodness!)

So I’ll just end by wishing that all of us find our internal

Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing Queen, feel the beat from the tambourine
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen.

The failed fable of the overpriced greens

February 20, 2012

As part of a rushed round of pre-weekend shopping, I bought a small container of sauteed greens at the Pasta Shop, our local gourmet deli. When I got home, I looked at the label on the container and my jaw dropped:

Photo by Ilana DeBare

That’s right, click to zoom in on the photo if your middle-aged eyes can’t handle the small print.

Twenty-one dollars for a pint of greens! Based on a rate of $38.95 per pound!

Even Dean & DeLuca in New York wouldn’t charge that much.

Needless to say, it was a mistake. I took the container back to the store the next day and the clerk acknowledged adding a digit. The price was supposed to be $8.95 a pound, not $38.95. They refunded my money and all was well in the world.

Later in the day, I felt compelled to turn this story into a fable with a moral for my daughter. “You should always double check the receipt when you buy something,” I said.  I handed the plastic lid to her. “I didn’t do that, and look what happened.”

I knew full well what I was doing even as I started  through this futile exercise. With barely six months until she goes off to college, I feel compelled to cram every last little bit of life-lesson into our remaining time. Read your receipts! Floss your teeth! Don’t neglect your female friends just because you have a boyfriend! Don’t put wool sweaters in the dryer!  

Six months from now, she will be out on her own in the world, with nothing to shield her from imminent disaster except a few inebriated dorm advisors and this stockpile of motherly aphorisms.

And of course she won’t hear or remember a word of it.

It’s not just about being a teenager. It’s about the nature of our memories. Ninety-nine percent of the things we see or hear in a given day are forgotten almost immediately. The things we remember are those with some emotion attached to them — surprise, fear, excitement, joy.

I may — may — remember this encounter with the overpriced greens a year from now because I was so stunned. It was a visceral response, a combination of shock at the price and then embarrassment that I hadn’t noticed the overcharge while checking out. For my daughter, though, it’s just a story. She didn’t have that direct emotional connection. I reflexively tried to make it a little more vivid by thrusting the plastic lid at her, like some elementary school teacher trying to make the Miwok Indians seem real by passing around a grinding stone. Fat chance.

There was an old Gary Larson cartoon that I loved. It had two frames. The first was labeled, “What we say to dogs,” and it showed a man scolding his dog:”Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! I’ve told you to stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!”

Then the second frame was labelled “What they hear,” and the dialogue balloon coming out of the man’s mouth went: “blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah.”

Or here’s his cat version of it:

Cartoon by Gary Larson

Sometimes that’s how I feel talking to my daughter. She’ll absorb about as much of what I’m saying as our cat will.

I don’t hold it against her. I know it’s not personal, it’s just human.

But still, that six-month college departure date is hanging out there. I keep talking.

The accidental networker

February 12, 2012

Thinking about the past three years since I left the Chronicle, I realized that almost every job I’ve had came about through a personal connection.

This wasn’t nepotism or favoritism. I didn’t get the jobs because of connections. But I got the interview or the initial contact because of a connection.

One of my main freelance clients was referred by an old small-business source from when I was at the Chron. Another came from a former colleague, who was also now freelancing but didn’t have time to take on any more projects. My Technion assignment last fall came through someone I knew from Hashomer Hatzair during high school. And so on… Over three years, I landed exactly one freelance assignment from a “cold” response to a Craig’s List ad — and even there, it turned out I had a couple of acquaintances in common with the client.

Career counselors always talk about the power of networking. Well, here was firsthand evidence of it — and I hadn’t even been aware that I was networking.

I hadn’t been going to Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and handing out business cards. I hadn’t been mustering troops on LinkedIn to help me find assignments. I’d barely been looking for work, in fact — too busy trying to rewrite a novel and figure out the next stage of my life.

What I take away from this is that if you live long enough, and you’re involved in your community, and you basically do good work and try to help people out, you create a network. You may not think of it as a network. Or you might call it by some other term — goodwill, good karma, social capital.

But it is a clear advantage to midlife, a solid hammer in our career tool kit. We may not be fluent in the latest social media jargon, we may not be willing to write Web content for $10 an article, we may no longer be able to flirt our way into workplaces run by powerful, chauvinistic men.

But we have reservoirs of experience and wisdom. We have community. We have networks — even if we don’t know that we do.

I wonder what things will be like for my daughter’s generation when they reach our age. I graduated from high school with maybe a few dozen friends from school and from Hashomer.

She’ll graduate with about the same number of flesh-and-blood friends… and then her 800-plus Facebook “friends.”

Who may mushroom to a network of 4,000 by the time she is fifty.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion

January 15, 2012

I have spent about fifteen hours over the past three days obsessively creating digital photo albums on Snapfish. One was of our recent vacation in Puerto Rico; the other included all of our family photographs from 2011.

I’d finished the first draft of my Technion manuscript. I didn’t have to start my new job at Golden Gate Audubon until next Tuesday. In the interim, I could have worked on my poor long-neglected novel. I could have immersed myself in checking out Bay Area bird-related Web sites and blogs, or reviewed the past two years of Audubon’s newsletter, or collected resources on nonprofit marketing, or… you get the idea.*

Instead, I uploaded and and edited and arranged  a gazillion photos.

And before that, I gathered up all of our home videos from B’s childhood and took them to the camera store to be transferred onto DVDs. That costs a ton of money. I’d been putting it off for about four years. But I did it this week.

It doesn’t take Dr. Freud to diagnose that there’s something psychological going on here.

On one level, this is just trying to tie up loose household ends as I move from one phase of life into another — from working at home with total freedom and flexibility, to working in an office with a whole additional set of external demands on my time. It’s a new calendar year, a good time to organize mementos from the past year, and who knows when I’ll have this kind of available time again? It makes perfect sense.

But I think there’s also a deeper level. Maybe I’m quietly gearing myself up for B. going off to college in the fall. I’m starting to tie up the loose ends of her childhood. There were twenty-one VHS tapes that needed to be transferred before they someday decay and before our decrepit VCR gives up the ghost. There are about six years of family photographs sitting in my computer, waiting to be put into albums.

B. will always be our child. She’ll come home on vacations, we’ll fight over chores just like we do now, we’ll help her with her problems, maybe even more than we do now. But as of this coming summer, her childhood is officially over. The years of outings to the Oakland Zoo and Children’s Fairyland, the birthday parties at gymnastic studios, the horrific Disney princess dresses and early-morning soccer games and lousy attempts to braid her hair. All gone, tied up like a package that has just gone into the mailbox with a metal, unarguable clang.

So some part of me wants to tie all these photos and videos up too. To have her childhood neatly organized and packaged, lined up in a row on a shelf. So I can look at that shelf and feel, “We did it. We did this project of raising an entire child.”

Some of this may be a little obsessive and Type-A personality. I just spent 20 years in a career where every project I undertook left a written record, a page of newsprint with my name and work on full display. I keep a lot of those clips jammed in a file drawer. Are these photo albums an effort to turn B.’s childhood into similar proof of my productivity?

But some of it is perhaps a normal reaction. She’s going away; our time with her will become a wisp of smoke, a tuft of cat fur floating in the living room sun. And these albums and DVDs are something tangible that can remain.

Perhaps when the albums are done and arranged, I will be able to read  them in order like a graphic novel and perceive the patterns and plot turns that were completely invisible to me as we were living through them. Perhaps the albums will help me make sense of it all.

When B.’s soccer team was little, we bought them cheap plastic trophies at the end of the season — whether or not they’d won any tournaments — so they would have a tangible reward for trying hard and being good sports.

These photo books and videos are my cheap plastic trophy.

I’m not sure how to tease out all these intermingled causes, but I do know my syndrome — SOSC.

Sudden-Onset Scrapbook Compulsion.


*Author’s disclaimer: In all honesty, I did engage in some productive activities like looking at bird-related blogs this week. But I also did a ton of photo album stuff. :-) 

I have a job!

January 8, 2012

I have a job!

Three years after leaving newspapers, I’m starting a new job on January 17th. I haven’t exactly been lounging around eating bonbons all this time — I’ve drafted one novel, reworked another, revised the one I drafted, wrote queries and collected rejections on both of them, and worked as a freelance writer for a variety of clients, most recently the Technion.

(Oh, and there was an adult Bat Mitzvah in there, wasn’t there?)

But being on staff somewhere is different. This feels like grasping the wood of a dock after treading water for a long time. It feels like feet on solid ground after drifting weightless in space.

There are many wonderful things about freelancing. I’ve appreciated the ability to set my own schedule, accommodate family needs and put time into fiction. But I also love many things about a traditional job — being part of an organization, connecting with co-workers on a daily basis, having a dependable paycheck.

Now I may have the best of both worlds. This is a halftime job, at least for the near future, so I will still have time to work on my novel, maintain some freelance clients, and be available to Daughter during her last semester before college.(In theory! In reality, I know it will be a challenge to make time for the novel.)

By now, you’re probably asking, So what’s the job?  (Trumpets, please.)

I’ll be communications director for Golden Gate Audubon Society, the independent local chapter of the national conservation organization. GGAS has an incredible grassroots volunteer base who lead dozens of free bird-watching walks each month throughout San Francisco and the East Bay. It provides nature education for inner-city kids, and political advocacy on behalf of birds and other native species. One of GGAS’ recent achievements was a San Francisco ordinance requiring that new buildings be “bird-safe” — i.e., take steps such as using frosted or textured glass to prevent migrating birds from flying into large glass-walled skyscrapers.

So you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about birds in this blog in the future.

Maybe it morphs into Midlife Bird Mitzvah?

No more adorable kitty photos? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

More seriously, this feels like the end of a phase of being in the semi-wilderness. Perhaps transition is always a wilderness — like the ancient Jews in Sinai, when you are no longer what you used to be, but not yet what you are going to become.

I was a newspaper reporter when I entered the wilderness. I hoped to be a published novelist when I came out the other side. But would I succeed? And in between… what was I? where was I?

One of the reasons I undertook the adult Bat Mitzvah process two and a half years ago was to help tame that wilderness. I hoped that studying to become a Bat Mitzvah would serve as a small anchor — providing structure, connections, and achievable goals — when everything else in my life felt amorphous and uncertain.

It did fill that role. But even so, I’ve felt a little unmoored.

It’s nice to touch a dock.

Reading the Steve Jobs Biography

January 1, 2012

When Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs came out during the fall, I scarfed up a copy to give to Sam for the holidays. Almost immediately I regretted that because then I had to wait for the holidays to read it myself! In any event, I finally got to sit down with it this weekend at Stinson Beach and am loving it.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Isaacson does a great job of showing both Jobs’ genius and his (many) flaws. He is a terrific storyteller, and Jobs’ life is perfect fodder for stories — both because of his own intensity and oddities, and the way his life paralleled and influenced the zeitgeist. From being a Bob Dylan fan in the 60s, to living briefly on a commune and traveling to India for spiritual enlightenment in the 70s, to… well, you know what Jobs did from the 80s on. I’d also like to give Isaacson big strokes for telling vivid stories that are entirely reported — not imagined or reconstructed or whatever it is that Bob Woodward calls the narrative scenes in his books.

I just switched from owning PCs to a Mac in 2011, so had never followed the world of Apple closely and a lot of Jobs’ story is new to me. As a business reporter, I’d covered a little bit of tech and an occasional Apple story — but very occasional, so I’m not someone with any real connection to the company. I’m as much of an outsider as anyone else, except with the frisson of living in the Bay Area and knowing that all these events happened a stone’s throw from me.

But because of that stone’s-throw element of geography, and the fact that we are pretty much the same generation, reading about Jobs is sparking constant comparisons with my own life.

  • In high school on the East Coast in the early 70s, I heard of friends-of-friends who had some kind of box that allowed them to make long-distance phone calls for free. It sounded weird, a little unlikely, and more illicit than anything good-girl-me would do. And why would you want to make long-distance phone calls for free, anyway? But this was one of young Jobs’ early forays into technology.
  • In 1980, I finished college and moved to San Francisco. With no clear career direction, I applied for a couple of social-change type jobs including one with a group called the Electronics Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health. It was located someplace called “Silicon Valley,” which I’d never heard of but apparently could reach on a commuter train. I didn’t get an interview. If I’d gotten that job, would I have spent the past 30 years in the Valley? Haranguing folks like Steve Jobs over their labor practices? Maybe crossing over and working with those folks at some point?
  • In 1981 Xerox introduced the Star, a farsighted desktop computer with a Macintosh-like graphic interface that pre-dated the Mac. It failed and became a minor footnote in tech history.  I was working as a temp in 1981 at the San Francisco offices of Bechtel (after none of those social change jobs materialized). Selectric typewriters were state-of-the-art. But I remember being tantalized and excited to get to work on a newfangled Xerox office machine with a screen and black and white images — in retrospect, a Star.
  • Almost everyone who was around in 1984 remembers the Super Bowl “1984” commercial that introduced the Mac. I never saw it or even heard of it until years later. I was living in Jerusalem in 1984-5. There is a whole chunk of American experience that I was oblivious to — the 1984 political conventions and presidential race, the 1984 Olympics, the 1984 introduction of the Mac. Those eighteen months are like a black hole in my life when it comes to American culture and history.

I guess that, over all, reading about Job’s early life gives me a kind of “so near, and yet so far” kind of feeling. With a couple of minor circumstantial changes, I could have been someone in the orbit of the Apples and Steve Jobses of the Bay Area — maybe someone working in marketing or communications at a place like Apple.

Or maybe not. I might not have had clear ideas about a career in 1981, but I had very strong political views and values. In the early 80s, while Jobs was aiming to revolutionize the world with a human-scale computer, I was spending my volunteer time trying to reverse Reagan’s wrongheaded support for Central American dictatorships. My car had a bumper sticker that read “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” I was interested in political change, not technological change. I had zero interest in phone-hacking boxes or “personal computers.” And I would have died rather than go “into business.”

Now, thirty years later, I am typing this blog post on a Mac. I learned my Torah portions on an iPod. My husband and daughter have iPhones. All my old Windows PCs were influenced for the better by Apple.

Thank you, Steve!