BE: Before Entrepreneurship
“Can I ask you a question, goddess?” A. was at the sink with me in the ladies’ room at Burger King. We were on our way to Tucson to visit my stepson, his wife, and his new baby. “If a boy puts his thing in you, will you have a baby?”
I groaned. “Didn’t your mom talk to you about the facts of life? And didn’t you take sex education in school?” I felt like at thirteen years old she should already know these things. She had already lived in a group home, and I figured she had already had sex.
“My mom wouldn’t sign the paper for sex ed,” she answered. ”She said she wanted to tell us herself.”
But of course A’s mom didn’t. Like she didn’t make meals for the kids and she didn’t get up in the morning to send them to school and she didn’t clean the house. And like she didn’t even have the impulse control to save some of her food stamp money to buy actual food before she sold the stamps for cash to buy drugs.
That’s how A, Jr. and J got taken away and put into foster care. And how I got to be the person who would try for the next twenty years to keep their family together until they were old enough to do that for themselves.
On the surface of things, I was the last woman on earth to be a foster parent. I didn’t even want to be a regular parent the first time.
Like I said, I was an expert. I did, however, also know where babies come from, and I had mothered two wonderful grown daughters. So I guess I was ready for the next challenge.
“Of course I’ll tell you,” I answered A. And I launched into the discussion about sex, children and parenting.
Parenting turns out to have been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. From my own two children to the foster kids to the stepchildren from my husbands’ previous marriages, I’ve now been a parent for over forty years, and now I am, of course, a grandmother. Of sixteen.
Did I ever want to be a parent? Not at all. From the time I was little I thought I wanted to work. Yes, I remember playing with some dolls and stuffed animals, mostly around the time my little brother was born, but mostly I wanted to be a man and go to work like my father did. And that’s not because my father was such a wonderful father. He wasn’t a bad father, but he was, as many men were in his day, an absent one. Maybe he was more absent than most, because he worked late into the night and usually wasn’t awake when I left for school.
But somehow he imprinted on me in the most primitive ways. As an example, he was the one who taught me to “be a little different.” Those were his words. That’s now described as thinking outside the box. For a while it was referred to as being “inner-directed.” It’s a rare freedom some people have from the confinement of worrying about what other people will think of what you say and do. It lets you experiment, try new things, and have experiences other people would never attempt. That would be me.
The downside of that is never entirely fitting in. At certain times of my life I cared about that, and it nearly made me physically sick as I tried to mainstream myself. The first time that happened was in college at Cornell, where I began having the panic attacks that would follow me through most of my adulthood. The next time was when I ran the largest of my three companies, the one that allowed me to put my kids through college out of cash flow but sent me to the emergency room once a month with what I was sure were heart attacks and which were variously diagnosed as esophagitis, panic attacks, or neuroses.
Looking back, I think those were the symptoms of too much peer or community pressure, too much caring what people thought on the outside. Those were the times when I forgot my father’s mantra as he donned his sheer light blue Italian shirts and skinny white ties no matter what the fashion of the day: “if you’re not a little different, you won’t be noticed.” I was trying to make a life for myself as a woman entrepreneur, owning a tech marketing agency in Phoenix Arizona — a place as different from where I grew up as day is from night.
My father also taught me to be a performer. He was proudest of me when I performed, whether it was tap dancing or going off for a Ph.D, although he never lived to see me receive the degree.
Throughout my life, I never really appreciated how lucky I was to have the parents I had until I reached the present, in which I sit on the board of a startup charter school in Phoenix Arizona and have a chance to see how incredibly careless most parents are about the lives of the little people they bring into the world.
And I don’t mean just the poor parents, the non-English speaking parents, the parents who nonchalantly get pregnant without a thought for how they will support a child, and the parents whose drugs are more important to them than their babies. I also mean the wealthy middle class parents who put their kids on Montessori school waiting lists, march them from activity to activity, and teach them to become consumers.
At every place along that spectrum, parents are failing. Not all of them, but many of them. Myself among them. The responsibility of reproducing the race and making it fit for the future. I see my own mistakes in my birth children, now adults, and my foster children who are also adults. I see it in their children. And I see it in the children who attend the startup STEM school.
My own life is no great example of doing things right. If anything, it’s an example of mindfulness arriving too late, and of experiments with mixed results.
I was born on May 14, 1941, six months before the outbreak of World War II, which officially ended the Great Depression. My parents had had to wait years to get married, until they could afford to move out on their own, and then wait three more years to have a child, until they could afford me. They didn’t even conceive me until they were able to have a large enough apartment to fit me into. And until they were sure they could give me and my brother everything we would need.
They were part of the growing middle class after World War II, part of the Greatest Generation, although my father never went to the war because he had rheumatic heart disease. As a result, I not only didn’t lose my father in the war, but I never even had to say good-bye to him as he went off to war. He kept making money in New York while the war went on, a war I hardly noticed and don’t really remember.
I don’t start to remember until after war, when the US middle class began to emerge as a power in and of itself. In the 20th century the middle class was the place everyone wanted to be — at least until Sloan Wilson exposed its underbelly in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, ” a novel about a business-centric purposeless life. The book coincided with the Eisenhower era, a particularly conformist, depressing period in American life when people began to make serious money as a result of America’s victory in the war. Trust me, I know how depressing and conformist I was, because I was in high school.
“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” along with many other novels of that time, including those of John Cheever and Arthur Miller, made a great impression on me and I vowed never to be one of those job-seeking, conforming, grey flannel suit wearing minions. I brought up my own two children, both born out of wedlock, in a geodesic dome I had hand-constructed with their father out of instructions from the Whole Earth Catalogue. We grew vegetables and cooked in a solar oven. My children never ate fast food. We ignored the conservative society around us in Phoenix, literally living on the side of our own little mountain.
And yet, when I had those three foster kids, three little minds in my care, the thing I wanted to do most of all was make them part of the middle class.
Through most of my life, I’ve avoided being “ middle class” like the plague myself. It was everything I DID NOT want to be — stultifying, conventional, average. My parents were in it, and they valued it because they had had to attain it, although they were always somewhat outliers because my father was an entertainment lawyer in New York City and not a Rotarian from the midwest. They were in it economically, that is, but not socially. Socially they were glamorous, uninhibited, Manhattan-drinking, even marijuana smoking jazz-club habitues. They were not the middle class our politicians prattle on about in their stump speeches that talk about generating jobs.
For me, I’ve only found myself happier for being out of the middle class as much as possible. I aspire to be out. Too many negatives go along with it for it to appeal to me. I spent the middle class aspects of my childhood (school, summer camp, and social life) learning how to escape the restrictions and the boredom of the normal, where I never fit in. I was not an athlete, and hated summer camp. I was a nerd, so unless I was in special schools I was a troublemaker. And in college, I was not in a sorority. I never felt the same sisterhood with girls and women that most women do.
As a young person, I was unhappy with my inability to get into all the groups I didn’t want to be in anyway. Did I want them to want me so I could reject them? How loathsome. Over the years, I’ve grown first comfortable with my weirdness and now proud of it. if you ask people who know me to describe me, the last words they’d choose would be middle class.
Never mind what politicians say; there’s very little to be gained by being in the middle class, and the few perks there were — guaranteed jobs and suburban homes –have lost their value or vanished. Even in the heyday of the US, the fifties and sixties, when I was a girl, writers were already telling us how awful the suburban post-war American dream really was. The page-turners of the fifties — John O’Hara’s “Butterfield 8” and “Ten North Frederick, “ Grace Metalious’ “Peyton Place” — told the stories behind the facade of stay-at-home moms with new appliances. I used my parents’ Book-of-the-Month Club membership to buy and read them all, and I acquired a sense of irony at a very early age.
But for all my cynicism, I grew up in an America when, for immigrants, a middle class lifestyle might have been something to aspire to. And something you could get to through hard work, entrepreneurship and creativity.
When you got there, you didn’t have any sense of entitlement, believe me. And no student loans. For most people of my parents’ generation, college was a far off dream and a luxury, unnecessary for ascent. You climbed the ladder through work. Post war America was a hotbed of entrepreneurship, and that’s probably where I acquired my risk tolerance.
My mother never went further than high school, where she took typing and shorthand. My father never went to law school, although he was an attorney. He clerked for a judge, Judge Hymie Bushel, took the bar exam, and passed. You could do that then.
Just recently, one of my stepsons ( I have four stepsons, a stepdaughter, two foster sons and two foster daughters in addition to my two birth daughters) remarked that he had never known a lazy immigrant. The immigrants of my New York childhood, the middle Europeans who escaped persecution by Hitler and the Puerto Ricans, who escaped extreme poverty, were entrepreneurs, and New York city was like a huge incubator for their small businesses: apparel, media, entertainment, medicine, law, manufacturing, publishing, advertising.
Before them had come the Germans, the Italians, the Irish. and before them, the religiously oppressed non-Anglican Protestants. Because earlier generations came mostly by boat, Ellis Island could contain them and funnel them in. Yes, there was anti-immigrant sentiment, and there were quotas, but in 1941 America was a land of far more opportunity than it is now. and besides, for many the alternative was death.
A bit later came the refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, among them Andy Grove, a cofounder of Intel, whose entrepreneurial risk-taking, no-holds-barred mentality came from staring down tanks in his native Hungary. Andy, although I only knew him for a little while, was a real influence on my life. Intel acqui-hired my marketing company, which was the largest in Arizona at the time, in 1996. It was the biggest deal I’d ever made for myself, and certainly one I never expected. One condition of it was that I work at Intel for a year, and I stayed there a year and a day (long enough for one year of options to vest) before realizing I wasn’t a “cultural fit” and leaving.
Not a cultural fit? That was the biggest understatement of the century. I was miserable there for the entire year. Everyone at Intel seemed to be an Asian engineer and a man, and I was in marketing and a woman. When I sold my company I gave up all my authority, and it turned out the money wasn’t worth it. What I learned about myself from Intel? I care about influence more than money, excitement more than routine, and being “out there” on the cusp of change rather than being secure. I left Intel for my passion, the internet.
But I digress. The people who emigrated to the US during my youth contemplated different goals: perhaps being Americans, providing for their families, perhaps getting rich, perhaps just escaping from Dachau or Auschwitz. At the same time, authors like Sinclair Lewis and John Cheever wrote portrayed the unhappiness of the people the immigrants were joining. Their middle class characters, white Protestants for the most part, were already unhappy and unfulfilled in the 1950s. Who really wanted to be “The Organization Man?” I got a snoot full of complaints about the American way of life by reading all those novels as I was growing up. You can be sure I did not aspire to work at Intel.
So I still believe middle class should not be an aspiration, as it seems to be recently, in an era where every American thinks he/she deserves a job. It should be just a way station, a stop on life’s journey. As a destination, it has too many limitations and too many norms to make anyone happy. Those Joneses are hard to keep up with, especially if you are divorced, out of work, or non-white. And the rewards of managing to keep up are oversold. In fact, the middle class is confining and enervating because it makes psychological and emotional demands on its members, and exerts strong forces for conformity. What’s worst about today’s America are the rigid mores and manners of what used to be the middle class.