About The Fahm, How Did We Get Here, Anyway?
An Introduction of Sorts
A clouded and gloomy New England day in late Autumn, cold by my admittedly California standards commandeered the horizon. My long-time boyfriend Rajinder, visiting in Hartford for a few days, left me on my pioneer ownsome on the back forty. The land was an unrelenting canvas of gray and prickly brown; even the evergreens lacked color, subsiding into looming, leaden towers, while wood smoke tanged the air. I dragged deadwood to the middle of the field, making a disheveled sort of haystack to burn later.Mulling over the pros and cons of serving s’mores vs. roasted wienies at the bonfire, I was entirely unprepared for the voice in my head shouting, "What the FUCK are you DOING here?" The voice bolted out of nowhere and landed splat in the middle of my shiny spotless mind. Just like that, The Existential had me by the throat and flung me to the cold, hard ground. On the way down I remembered something a friend asked me recently, only half in jest: "So…is this your new vocation?"
Hmm, I thought, from my prone position, IS this my new vocation? Manual labor outside in freezing temperatures clearing brush, hauling kindling, and making disheveled little haystacks for burning, accompanied by manual labor inside consisting of eradicating mouse poo and other rodentia, removal of mosquito bodies and ladybug corpses along with spider eggs and cobwebs, shuffling heavy antique furnishings from room to room like a Rubik’s Cube, scrubbing wide-planked wooden floors, and generally eliminating the rest of the dirt and detritus that one can imagine might end up in a 270-year-old farmhouse out in the middle of rural New England nowhere.
Is this a wise choice given that I have lived pretty much my entire life in large urban areas? Warm Californian urban areas, I might add, where I've spent the last decade working in software, hardware, and Internet application development. I did not strike it rich during my years in Silicon Valley and therefore retire early to my pristine and perfect place in the country. I did not go to Texas A & M University for a degree in, say, animal husbandry or agricultural methods either, so it really isn't easy to see how I ended up here.
And now I find myself wrestled to the ground by The Existential, joining myself in a resounding chorus of, “Yeah! What ARE you doing here?” I have learned through hard experience that when I start asking this type of question - a question typically accompanied by a greasy feeling in my belly of free floating anxiety mixed with a soupcon of failure, all tangled up with the leaden and inexorable pressure of time whizzing by, I can start to feel a little peevish. Even as The Existential attacks however, one must be productive and so I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and returned to herding branches into pyres.
Here at The Fahm my productivity consists of cleaning (see above), cooking, provisioning, laundering (clothes and bedding not money, regrettably), grounds keeping, refurbishing (furniture and The Fahm), managing household and small business finances along with other Familial Administrivia (finding a new family dentist, registering to vote, arranging for flu shots, etc.), scouring the Internets for information of general interest, and finally, blogging for the entertainment of friends and family, on a forty five acre farm in rural Massachusetts. I receive, on a daily basis, practical and theoretical lessons in physics, meteorology, mechanics, thermodynamics, colloquial language, zoology, agriculture, home economics, land use, and resource management.
Living here at The Fahm is so relentlessly physical that your brain and your body are utterly occupied: if it doesn't work, you're missing a part. The physical relationship to this reality is very grounding - an experience that is at once so humbling, and yet one that has nothing to do with "who you are". Instead, it has everything to do with irrevocable (T)ruths: fire burns when you touch it and you'll freeze to death very quickly without it, your nearest neighbor is also your dearest friend in hard times, 20 mph wind at 10 degrees Fahrenheit is really, really cold, bears really do shit in the woods, and survival without electricity in the 21st century is possible, even for 11 days without power in the dead of Winter.
In the grips of my vocational crisis, when I think too much about how my life now is so very much like the lives of the Fahm women fulfilling traditional female roles who dwelt here before me, well, as it does with so many things Existential - or as we say around here, Extra Stencil - my brain slams on the brakes, hits the Escape key, and begins circling around chasing its tail. I’ve always been the outspoken feminist in the crowd arguing that women can do anything men do that doesn't require an actual penis, and for the last umpteen years I've walked the talk, operating in a male-dominated professional environment with some success. And now here I am, working the work of another type altogether, which is not exactly how I imagined my career, such as it is, would evolve.
The simple answer about how we ended up here is, Raj lost his job, and then I lost my job just as all hell broke loose on Wall Street in late 2008. We couldn't afford to live in California anymore and pay the mortgage on our home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have medical insurance. Leaving the Bay Area was hard. Our house sits on a ridge road a thousand feet up in the hills, near the University of California campus. The house has 3 bedrooms with just enough baths in a plenty big layout, a stunning 180-degree view of the East Bay to our left, the City of San Francisco straight ahead, the Golden Gate Bridge just to the right of the City, and Sausalito and Marin to the right of the bridge. The view can only be called a Million Dollar View (so long as we keep the wisteria trimmed and the window glass reasonably clean).
We planted native grasses in our front yard alongside a dwarf lemon tree, a dwarf lime tree, and an ornamental plum. We kept a small vegetable garden in raised beds in our back yard, which is also where Raj put the croquet course, next to the pond and the stream he designed and built, near our two cherry trees (one ornamental, one fruity). There was a small workbench and art studio space set aside for me in our garage, and I had a membership at the local Y.M.C.A. with a standing date to visit the downtown Berkeley Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings with my friend Ruth. Raj had his own rituals of many years standing, such as nearly always working outside when the weather was fine, keeping a goodly supply of easily available chaat in the pantry, coasting his motorcycle through the twisted turns of Grizzly Peak Blvd., and surrendering his after-the-cereal-is-gone milk bowl to his cat, Schnitty.
Several of our friends lived nearby, some of whom Raj has known since his childhood growing up in India, some of whom even lived within walking distance. We had BBQs and watched the Celtics, hosted parties on behalf of friends, and had plenty of parties of our own including one New Year’s Eve party that has since become legendary. Through the course of a single very jolly evening, one person left in a huff – on foot, while two people passed out, one of whom was gloriously sick before falling over. Toward the end of the evening, our friend Audrey turned to me saying, “Wow Sara – three down! GREAT party!!” And while I have many shortcomings and peculiarities, it is true that I do throw a really good bash.
When we wanted to go out for dinner in our neighborhood we had our favorite spots: Vic’s for Indian food and Jupiter for potato skins pizza; when we wanted take-out we had pizza from The Cheese Board, and dhal from House of Curries. Groceries we got from Andronico’s, Safeway, or Trader Joe’s. Both my parents lived close enough to join us for festive gatherings of one kind or another, and we were near enough to all our siblings and their families to easily see them a couple times a year. In short, Berkeley was HOME.
Be that as it may, however much Berkeley was home, our last year there was particularly hard. We were struggling. And, Raj and I were not alone in our economic challenges in September 2008. In fact, things were about to get a whole lot worse for almost everybody. At the same time, I was hired for my final job in Internet application development at a company in Silicon Valley run by a twenty-something CEO. Within days of my start, his entire business model collapsed right along with Bear Stearns because the product we were developing was specifically intended for the legions of traders on Wall Street.
Equally unfortunate, my new job was an all-around professional disaster. From the migraine I got during my job interview, to the day four months later when I was laid off in a gratuitously humiliating manner, it was the worst professional situation I had ever experienced. In retrospect it is clear that I should have paid more attention to the interview migraine; it is entirely possible that the bad juju of the office environment caused that migraine. All I know for sure is that I ended up on the floor of the Ladies Room (after excusing myself from the second of what ended up to be six interviews), nauseated beyond description from the pain in my head. As I splashed cold water on my face and looked drippily at the mirror, I was actually surprised that my left eyeball didn't explode from my face and splat against the mirror, given the pressure I could feel accumulating behind it.
In a cold sweat, pale, light-headed, and disoriented, I pulled it together enough to emerge from the bathroom and finish the series of interviews. I was profoundly relieved to wrap them up and start the drive home; a drive that took an hour and a half in bumper-to-bumper asshole- riddled traffic. I was very, very happy to finally return home, and simultaneously painfully aware that that hideous commute was about to become a regular occurrence if things had gone as hoped in my interviews.
On the surface the company had all the right stuff. The longer I worked there though, the more I learned that things were not as they seemed in that people were unclear about the product concept that in any case was changing right under our feet. By the time December of 2008 rolled around, our legions of prospective clients were themselves out of a job, and the people left on the trading floor were too scared to commit to anything that cost actual money.
Meanwhile, the housing market and the entire economy went into free fall thanks to the sub-prime mortgage credit default swap derivative collateralized debt obligation clusterfest, and bodies were everywhere. Millions of people all over the world were being laid off, losing their homes, teetering on the brink of insolvency, or falling over the edge into the TRANCHES created by Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, UBS, Citi, and Deutsche Bank, tranches filled with AAA rated shit, apparently created specifically to fuck investors.
To further complicate matters, my position at the company was such that a large part of my role was to push against the status quo, to recommend changes in methods and processes, to codify accountability. The engineering team, as fine as any I have worked with, was open, receptive, and grateful. The executive team, as it turned out, not so much, and I was laid off in early December.
I was hoping for a severance package, even a small one; the CEO on the other hand apparently did not share that sentiment and I was summarily denied even the modest amount ostensibly on the table. Despite an intervention on my behalf where the CEO was reminded that severance in such cases is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in Silicon Valley and that it could be construed as punitive to deny such severance, with all the wisdom of his twenty-something years, the CEO was not to be budged. A sympathetic soul on the team suggested that I might make an appeal to the CEO’s sense of decency, and so I arranged for a phone conference a few days later.
The amount in question was a relatively small amount, just a few thousand dollars. Small as it was though, without it, it seemed just that much harder to stay afloat. The awful headlines out of Wall Street and the attendant media hysteria fueled my growing sense of being forced one step closer to the financial edge. I swallowed my pride and called the CEO to beg for a severance package of two weeks’ pay. With Raj listening on an extension as my witness, I respectfully requested the CEO to please reconsider his decision; I told him that I really needed the money, that things were hard. That’s when he told me that the decision wasn't his to make, that the Board had determined that I should not be given severance pay. Since his response directly contradicted my sympathetic source, I was, actually, stunned.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I stammered, near tears, “I’m sorry to hear that.” It was hard enough to be denied the money. But what was almost as bad was that I believed the CEO was lying. That lie was the second to the last straw for me although I didn't realize it at the time.
The last straw, the one that made me lose my shit and go freak out in virtual public (albeit accidentally), was this: six weeks after leaving the company, I received a FedEx Next Day delivery addressed to me in the CEO’s writing (“Was it in crayon?” a friend asked later). Inside the package was the contribution I had been asked to make as a new hire, to the company’s “Culture Table”. Opening up that package was like being poked in the eye – hard – and that was when I marched over to my laptop to Twitter my rageful new word thoughts to a small few private fellow users. Except that in my rage, I forgot to switch the privacy setting to PRIVATE.
And then a Silicon Valley technology blogger saw the Tweet and posted it on his site, complete with snarky headline. The post didn't just go viral –it went virulent; within days I found that my ‘new media’ blunder was materially affecting my employability. It was awful to realize that I had done this to myself, but worse, to realize I had done it to Raj as well since he had to deal with the fallout. I had let us both down. January of 2009 was not a good month for me. Rather than get a shiny new job, I was instead in the throes of online professional savagery due to my inadvertent public posting of messages meant for a select few.
Since without a job I suddenly had an abundance of free time, and having had my interest in Wall Street trading re-ignited by my recent ill-fated job, I began to follow disclosures about the financial collapse. It was immediately obvious that my trials and tribulations were actually not that bad, given what so many others in the country were coping with. I was actually really lucky: I had a roof over my head, no dependent children to support, food on the table, a partner with a mortgage that was not underwater and who was willing to cover me financially until things turned around.
While I was personally relatively well situated, I was still appalled by the dollar cost of Wall Street criminal activity that continued to mount until the numbers reached utterly astonishing (How many is a billion, anyway?) and thereafter became pretty much meaningless. What is not without meaning is the blitzkrieg effect of the crisis on the lives of many of us regular folks. Our lives have been turned upside down: Raj and I moved out of our home and rented it to strangers so we could continue to afford our mortgage; this necessitated moving 3,000 miles across the country to a place where we could live for free, due to Raj’s brother and sister-in-law’s generosity. We did this all in order to keep our little family together, and to keep ourselves together financially. But for so many other people, folks with actual lives lost, long- held dreams aborted, education deferred, life works undone… well, the cost of these losses was – and continues to be – far greater even than the dollars lost, and that should mean something to all of us.
The worst of all for me was the realization that those were real people on Wall Street, working at the likes of Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers and etc., real people who did real damage to other real people all over the rest of the country, and indeed, the world. I don’t know about you but I wasn't raised that way – that is, I was brought up along the lines of (borrowing a phrase from Jim Hightower), “We all do better, when we all do better."
Each new revelation of venality on Wall Street, each new failure to prosecute any of the executive-jet-flying Bordeaux-swilling short-selling profiteer CEOs (or any of the rest of the New Bad Guys), each Cabinet appointment of another Securities and Exchange Commission crony, each new unemployment report, each new thing drove me deeper into thinking that we were all, as a human collective, fucked. And while I admit that it is not my particular nature to always assume that everything is going to work out for the best, this was a new low even for me.
I began to feel an active hatred for banks, investment bankers, and market analysts, and sheer disgust at stockbrokers, hedge fund managers, and the entire insurance industry, including predators from the likes of Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente. I developed a deep dislike for the concrete and asphalt and traffic of the Bay Area; I fought road rage constantly. I became more and more disillusioned and downhearted, and with each passing day felt more and more like a deer in the headlights of a job market growing more competitive, in an industry where suddenly I was Google-able and not in a good way, in a political and economic environment that was revealing itself as more and more nasty every day.
It was therefore with some relief when six months later, while I was still stunned and amazed by the whole mess, that Raj suggested we move to The Fahm. We knew such a move would radically change our lives. In the interests of our financial, emotional, and relational health, we also hoped it would be well worth the adjustment trauma. And so the adventure of Our Year at The Fahm began...