My Personal Journey

The velvet-lined rut

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am a privileged Silicon Valley executive with no grounded reason to complain. I have my home, my family (our adult kids came home) and a living that creates a comfortable lifestyle. So don’t feel sorry for me.

But here I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, back in lockdown in a state where the infection numbers are going in the wrong direction, turning sixty today. Wow – that’s a big number. I’m not afraid of it, but as I look back on the lives I have led, and look forward to the lives I still plan to lead, I cannot believe I find myself living a life which, while comfortable, is a velvet lined rut where I can’t see over the edges to the track and the fields and the horizon beyond. And which is not the life I chose.

I have always traveled since becoming a working adult. I’ve been all over the world, as have most tech execs, meeting people, learning, stretching my mind on technology and culture. I’ve always traveled for fun too. Back to Europe at least once a year, even when the kids were little. Dragging the family to Asia, to Europe, to Central America, to the Middle East, to Italy and France over and over, reveling in the art, food, history and excitement of the new experience.

Travel is a choice. Some people never have the choice because of their work but many office professionals do. There comes a point in a career where you choose whether to concentrate your career near home, or not. Some people don’t want to be on a plane every week. They prefer the stability and security of being home every night and choose a career path accordingly. But I never chose to be domesticated the way I have to be now.

I thrived on the variety and stimulus that comes with a mobile lifestyle. Visiting customers, factories, conferences and international colleagues. For some, like me, the movement became the purpose. The lack of repetition, the continuous joy of moving from place to place and experience to experience. The visual stimulus of art; the palate stimulus of food; the ability to wander free, accountable to no-one in the moment. Human beings are, at their core, nomadic and with me that desire is right at the surface.

So lockdown is a challenge. A maturing opportunity – at sixty – to grow up maybe? To stop searching and stay in once place? At fifty I wrote that I recognized the loss and challenges of aging, “Clearly only a healthy dose of humor and self-depreciation is going to get me through this.” At fifty five I retired to sit on boards and travel. At sixty aging has now taken over my body so I can’t worry about that any more – so I serve on a number of boards, 100% on zoom, but no travel! Unthinkable. Especially when I now know we (office workers) can work from anywhere. The lockdown proved that if nothing else. I could do my job from Italy as easily as my living room, if they’d only let me in.

This pandemic is a dramatic loss of freedom for everyone. But life is now distilled down to its essence – the pure spirit. There is no room for frivolity, no room for superficiality in the face of so much tragedy and restriction of movement. My only choice is to learn to appreciate the velvet in my rut and cherish the time – not knowing how long it will be.

Photo: Pompeii © 2011 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

I know why my Grandmother drank gin at breakfast

It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.

But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.

Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.

I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.

I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day. 

I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.

Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher