Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Five years on

The advance of winter has always made me a bit melancholy. Besides being darker and colder,  there's the relentless march of holiday enthusiasms, which can wear out even the hardiest. I wouldn't be surprised to learn I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder.

This is also the time of year when my mom Kay died. It happened, after a long slow decline, five years ago on December 13th. I was sure, before the fact, that I'd write about her when she died. It didn't work out that way — I think her long-anticipated passing took me away from contemplation and remembrance. (I wrote just once here, about 18 months before she left.)

By the time she died I was exhausted from the cross-country routine I got into during her last two years. During her long decline, I got caught up in the details of daily caretaking: sponge baths, trips to the bathroom, pull-on clothing, blankets and pillows adjusted just so. As these details became all-encompassing for her and a cadre of home health aides and hospice workers, I worried: I don't want to remember only this.

But as the months wore on, it was increasingly hard to recall much before this world of invalidism encroached. I had more and more difficulty conjuring up any of the thousands of wonderful moments I'd had with my lively, engaging, generous mom.

Now, five years on, as the days shorten, I'm more able to consider her life in full. That seemingly endless period of her diminishing — in fact, just 2 1/2 years of a 92-year run — has at last receded into reasonable perspective. Now I can remember her frequent dinner parties, her long and satisfying pink-to-white-collar career, her kindness towards all who came her way. I can almost hear her regular phone check-ins with friends; I long observed (and learned from) her looking after the lonely, the isolated and the disaffected. She was always ready to put together a gathering or a meal, and her home became the center of her crowd.

For a woman born in rural Texas in 1916, one of 11 children (and one of only two of them to graduate from high school), she became known in her adult life as being remarkably worldly, open-minded and unflappable.

But even as a young woman — before she left Texas to experience the world — she showed self-confidence and an unusual inner strength (she was probably 19 or 20 in this photo).

Over the years I loved calling her to consult on recipes (she was a terrific scratch cook, and could also read cookbooks to unearth adventurous new dishes). She was friends with my friends and had her own relationships with them. (And hired a few, too.) As a Washington-area resident for 60+ years, she kept current with the news and especially loved the ritual of the D.C. Sunday talk shows. She was always keen to see new sights, and she and I had wonderful trips to New York, California, Alaska, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. When my dad was alive, he put off the notion of pleasure travel until he retired — but he died at 63. She understood that lesson immediately; within three months of his death she began to travel the world, and did so for the next 30 years.

As her auburn hair began to go grey, she took the time-honored route of so many women, to become a champagne blonde. She made the most of it, that's for sure. Here she is post-retirement in her beloved garden. (Only at age 91 did she finally agree to skip the color rinse; it turned out that her hair was a beautiful white.)

It surprises me a little that it's taken this long for me to remember more of her than her last couple of years. It doesn't surprise me that — the month she was born, and the month she died — would be filled with many memories and a sharp sense of loss, in part. Even so, I'm so glad I'm able to remember much more of her prime (a long period, for her — a good swath of age 55-85) as the years move on.

And this is how I love remembering her: full of life, engaging and engaged in the world, as she was here.  She was the sort of person who, after a long absence, you could pick up with right away. Maybe that's where I'm getting to now.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

I'm not tweeting about losing weight.

Six months ago, I enrolled in a Bay Area weight-loss program called JumpstartMD. Today, I've lost 33 lbs., and am on track to get to my goal of 40 down. Before I signed up, as I spent way too long contemplating how to "get serious" about dropping some avoirdupois, I had visions of using a combination of fitness apps and public encouragement. I admired the approach that Brian Stelter and Owen Thomas took: they both successfully lost a lot of weight, and more important have incorporated a healthy regimen, in part through reporting their progress and seeing the good wishes and attaboys of their followers on Twitter and elsewhere. I even reserved a Twitter name for this effort: @kvoxless.

But as much as I've embraced melding my public and private selves online in recent years, I kept stalling on announcing the "campaign". As I proceeded with weekly weigh-ins, tracking food and debating menu items, I didn't go live, and kept wondering why, or when I would.

I guess I am now. Good wishes are always welcome, but let's face it: as an older woman (therefore, by most any definition, invisible), it just felt wrong to tout my own effort in frequent updates. I don't care that much about every or step bite I take; why on earth should you? Add to that the fact that by nature I'm not inclined to much self-tout much. (Hey, it's not just me: a recent study by political scientists notes that women in the field cite themselves less in their work — a factor in career success.)

Nevertheless, here I am, telling you what I haven't told you. In part it's because this program, created by a couple of Stanford-trained doctors, really works for me. Needless to say, it's not revolutionary: I cut out starch, eat a lot of vegetables, some fruit, and a reasonable amount of healthy fish, meat and tofu (I like all three). That, and a Jawbone UP band to track steps, calories and sleep. What I have learned after many years of failed (or very temporary) attempts at losing weight is that, sadly, I need to spend money for results — and even more specifically, I need a plan with regular appointments. Where someone expects me to show up. A while back, it worked for me to show up for a trainer, and it's still true. I've spent plenty on gym memberships, but that alone doesn't make me go. Neither does a support group, a la Weight Watchers. (Pretty much one of my least favorite things in the world is going around the circle discussing substitutes for whipped cream. I fled a group years ago after the initial weigh-in, when the leader said to me, "Are we having a bad week?" Bad or normal, lady, you're not helping.) Neither, I knew, would I want a program based on expensive pre-made ugh-inducing food, as my hope was to develop better reflexes around eating such that I'd truly make it routine.

I'm from a long line of working class folk. None of them had time or inclination to exercise apart from their day jobs, which, reflecting the arc of western social history over the last 60 years, moved indoors and began to include desks. My dad's family were rural Norwegian emigrants in cold climates; that meant generations of eating potatoes, bread, meat and cheese (of course, my previous stand-bys). Most of them were overweight, with high blood pressure, heart disease — and they pretty much all died fairly young. My mom's side, mongrel Scots-Irish-English from Texas, were a hardier bunch (my mom and her four sisters all lasted well into their 80s and 90s, their six brothers almost as long), but it must be said most of them were not hard-wired for healthy living. (Ma was a bit of an outlier: she had a career and a garden, and was a good cook.)

So my genetic predisposition, plus the constant, painful awareness that comes from acclimating to being fat, led me to finally, finally take a step. (I have a high boiling point; the mental gymnastics lasted years before I took action.) What I can tell you is this: it feels wonderful to simply weigh less, because that means to have more energy and move more easily. It's gratifying, too, to have totally normal blood pressure instead of pre-hypertension.

At this point, I'm old enough to know that making a weight goal is not the end of this thing. I'll always have to walk by 50 bakeries and only rarely step into one. I won't keep Mitchell's ice cream on hand as a matter of course. And spaghetti is a very occasional treat. But the trade-off is now having a brain less crowded with worry and despair, and more room to pursue new notions and curiosities. And that, my friends, something I want very much to hang onto.

Photo courtesy

Thursday, February 28, 2013

My TED bookstore picks

It's always an honor to curate a selection of books for the TED Conference bookstore — the team asks 20 or so people to select a few books that are their current (or all-time) favorites, and say a bit about why. Here are my picks for this year.

From a very early age, letters on a page have drawn me in. I get nervous in a room with nothing to read. These days I have plenty of digital titles (and devices), but also house many paper-based books, a messy pile of magazines and newspapers. All of that comforts me, as does the act of zeroing in to read. I can feel the synapses firing and I’m happy.

Why these books 
Predictably, these six titles reflect my passions. I love graphic non-fiction, and so there are two very different books in that style. Two touchpoints in my life are home and Buddhism, loosely defined, and so here they are represented too. One is an old classic, and the other a brand new novel. I hope you discover something that speaks to you in any one of them.

Rebecca Solnit - River of Shadows
Solnit has written a raft of books since this came out in 2004, but it’s such a terrific story: how Northern California became the nexus and nurturer of early technologies, outsized dreams and failures, and wild ideas that came into being. Little has changed in 150 years.

Alison Bechdel - Are You My Mother?
I loved Fun Home, her earlier graphic memoir about her father. This one cuts deeper for most every woman: the saga of Alison’s gnarly relationship with her complicated, mixed-signal-emitting mother. It’s rich in self-awareness, humor, and a hard-won understanding how life works.

Pema Chodron - Comfortable With Uncertainty
I have my share of “Buddhism for Westerners” titles; the ones I return to are by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist teacher. The chapters are short readings that guide us through the various difficulties of being human in a modern world, toward generosity of spirit, openness, acceptance.

Mary Gordon - Home: What It Means and Why It Matters
This little book is a lovely exploration of what makes a space into home, and how acutely we feel love or longing for that ideal. She writes candidly about times in her life when she knew she’d found a “home”, and other times when she couldn’t get to it. As a nester of the first order, I love understanding the deeper impulses of home.

Brian Fies - Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
A whimsical (and dark) graphical exploration of our old ideas of what the future could mean, and our grownup understanding of its limitations. Fies starts with the World of Tomorrow at the New York World’s Fair in 1940, the visions from which were quickly dashed. But Fies is still hopeful: “There was a time when building the future was inspirational...I think it can be again.”

Robin Sloan - Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
I’m not usually a novel reader, but this cabinet of wonders offers a rich story of a secret bookstore, Google, magical characters and digital natives interacting and therefore exploring the pull of old and new. Sloan is deft and affectionate about all of it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mika Louise, 1999?-2013

The day I have long dreaded has come. My darling brindle pit girl, Mika, died this morning around 6 a.m. Over the past year or so, she had been living the reduced life old age brings: she couldn't walk very far or very fast anymore (let alone run, her specialty for years). She had much less energy, she slept more, ate less. But it was the last few weeks where I knew her advanced age (13 years and change, but who really knew? — she was, of course, a rescue).

Early this morning, her weakened body - her rear legs had been giving way, and she had not eaten anything in three days - surrendered. As last night wore on, I knew today was going to be her last day. I  kept my hands on her most all night, comforting her as I readied myself for the vet hospital to open at 8 a.m. But by 5 a.m., I could see that she was in distress. I called the emergency vet and bundled her in the car. She died en route, so that was a saving grace: I didn't have to make that decision. She went out on her own.

Mika was my first dog, and I marveled at her every move the way a child might marvel at a wild animal. Look — she's yawning! Isn't that adorable, how she rubs her snout with her paws! Watch her wipe her butt on the grass! How does she know to do these things? And of course I anthropomorphized her like crazy. She was like me, I was sure: sociable, but wanted her own quiet time (she was always ready to wind down after an evening of company). Knew her own mind. Self-reliant, like when she would jump on the counter to devour a whole baguette or quarter-pound of cheese. And above all things: resolute. I read this once about pit bulls — they can be resolute about being fierce, and equally resolute about being gentle.

Mika was resolute about everything to do with food and humans. Till last week, she was a tireless observer of humans preparing and eating food and (with luck) sharing any leftovers. When she was younger, her hallmark when hearing the doorbell was to run in circles till I opened the door, and then race down the steps to greet guests. They sometimes assumed she wanted to get out the gate and onto the street. Never! She wanted to guide them up the steps so they would come into our home to fuss over her and hang out with her. She loved nothing more than being underfoot with human friends.

I am going to need some time to understand that she's really gone. She won't be at the door. She won't be sleeping in in the mornings as I head to work. She won't be there to lick the plates. Perhaps in preparation for this awful day, I have already had dreams about Mika, so with luck she'll come back to me again that way.

Meanwhile, what I know to be true is this: She is the only creature who gave me joy every single day of our lives together. Which makes me think of Eugene O'Neill's famous "last will and testament" he wrote in the voice of his beloved dog Blemie: "It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again."

I hope to, sometime. But for now, what I said to her every day for 12 years holds: You're my Meeks. There is no other Meeks. There is only — Meeks. I love you so.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

See & Be Seen

Thanks to the gentle nudge of my friend Liz Gebhardt over the past couple of months, I have just finished a little art project I've been mulling over for a while now. It's a Blurb e-book about some of the art I've collected over the years, with some attempts at explaining what these pieces mean to me. I found it much harder than I'd expected to verbalize the wonderfulness, the depth, the context of meaning I derive. More than once I found myself thinking, "just look at it, for god's sake — the thing says everything it's supposed to say!" Which isn't very effective when you're trying to write. Still, it was fun trying.

So: here it is, my 40-page special, available as a physical book and as a digital e-book for iPad. (You can find it on iTunes, too, but Apple being Apple, corrections aren't possible after you submit it to the store, and I've since fixed a few bits and republished on Blurb.)

Blurb e-book (iPad)
Blurb print book

I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The other shoe drops...@twitter

A couple of weeks I wrote an affectionate farewell to the Goog, where I hung my hat for a long time. Today, I've landed at my next new thing: Twitter. I'll be working closely with the marketing & comms teams (and probably a few others) in a new role: editorial director. As you might guess, it will involve a fair amount of wordsmithing as well as nurturing a consistent Twitter voice across our public messages and information pages.

I've been enamored of Twitter for a good while now, and am both pleased and amazed at how its value and influence have grown in an incredibly short time. Count me in what promises to be an extremely fun ride — and I'm sure you'll let me know how the Twitter voice works for you, or doesn't. Just give me a small window before you start with the heavy feedback!

And of course, feel free to follow me @kvox.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Wickre ankles* Google

After 9 years in the trenches, my last day at Google was Thursday. This long stint marks a personal best with one employer, handily beating my last record of 4 years (IDG). In my pre-Google life, I tended to get bored after a couple of years. Now, it's clear that when I'm talking about my career, there will be two phases: Before Google (BG), and all that follows. I say this because working at Google really and truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and never boring.

If you know me you know "starry-eyed" isn't the first descriptor that comes to mind. But trust me: Google is an astonishing, life-changing place to be. Of course, its (incessant) output has changed the lives of everyone who searches the Internet, has an Android device, uses Gmail, Maps, Apps, and all the rest. In fact much of the work Googlers undertake has a huge impact on the world, which, let's face it, is not something most workplaces can offer.

At the risk of sounding ancient, I remember a time before there was good search (or before there was an Internet, but that's another story). The emergence in 1999 of a funnily-named service with a plain page that "just worked" was nothing short of miraculous. Even more astounding: that fast, accurate and efficient search mechanism still works 13 years later—today with billions of people performing surely tens of billions of searches in dozens of languages. We all still expect—and we still get—accurate results in nanoseconds, now on multiple devices in umpteen locations. It is nothing short of awesome. The core Google search team, led by the wonderful Amit Singhal with able veterans like Ben Gomes and Matt Cutts among many others, are real heroes.

Even for a peripatetic type, it hasn't been hard to stay at a place like Google. The benefits, as you've heard, are great. It’s certainly fun to work for a company, and this is my first, that absolutely everyone knows and virtually everyone loves. And then there are the people. From the start I fell for the friendly, informed, wry-but-curious worldview shared by so many of my colleagues. I've felt true and lifelong kinship with people very unlike me in nationality, age, education, and interests—it’s a veritable United Nations. If you are sensitive to such things, being a Googler can make you a citizen of the world. I'm a better person for it.

Since I was inside so long watching Google grow up, I’m struggling to characterize what is second nature to me now (like breathing out and breathing in). Let me try to distill a few elements I think the Goog offers.

Wisdom of the crowds. One example: Google has thousands of internal email/discussion lists for product teams, affinity groups, technology news, and an untold number of interests (chess, politics, photography, music, dogs, Burning Man, etc etc). There is a wonderful self-managing quality found on all of them. It’s a joy to meet and kibitz virtually with smart people. The best of these discussions do what Google does: point concisely to useful information, clarify answers, summarize, suggest next steps—and build virtual friendships. (There’s also crowd-wisdom to be found in teams, where everyone is free to have thoughts and suggest ideas that get serious consideration. And no small number of these succeed.)

Questions are valued. At the Friday all-hands meetings called TGIF, Googlers famously ask about everything from benefits to facilities to geopolitics and public policy; Google Moderator is used to solicit questions from those not in the room. Such questions are rarely softballs. Questioning product development or strategy (even about what’s already underway) is fair game. The point of asking is to understand better, raise unconsidered angles, improve on something or bring it to light. The assumption is: asking > information > exploration > greater intelligence > better outcome.

Humor is a strength. Googlers are typically very funny. They savor irony, they quip naturally, they make knowing jokes, and jokes have layers. April Fool’s hoaxes aside (even these are quite cerebral), there is a humorous sensibility that makes much of the work more pleasurable and improves the output of ~30,000 people. (Because there is an equal measure of earnestness among Googlers, thank god humor is a vital attribute at the office. Without it, the air at Google might be too thick with sincerity.)

Creativity is encouraged. Googlers are often quite accomplished in their outside pursuits, which range very widely— from photography and music to Maker Faire and Burning Man to chain mail, wine, and comics. Many avocations are celebrated with company exhibits, talks and meetups. Quite a few of the eulogies about Steve Jobs mentioned his belief in the intersection of liberal arts and technology. It’s a byword at Google too.

Agility is key. Perhaps the most significant skill I absorbed, and the one that will help Google as it continues to grow, is to stay limber. It would be easy for an unbelievably successful company to start codifying The Playbook and refer to that and that alone for all future roadmaps. Much credit goes to Larry and Sergey, whose very natures seem compelled to question past (often successful) approaches in favor of bigger new ideas. As work, so life: I think it’s infinitely more rewarding to be mindful and alert to the swirl than it is to rely on the bound volume on the shelf. As a work environment, of course, that doesn’t suit everyone. It can be messy, things never seem finished, there are long beta periods, you have to turn on a dime. To me, there’s no contest between this kind of ‘foolishness’ and a staid place where the checklist is tidy and the work is rote. Give me this road!

As for what comes next, I’ll write again in a couple of weeks as I plunge into an exciting new realm. Meanwhile, all thanks to Google for the amazing, memorable ride. I am lucky.

*I’m a long-time fan of the ‘slanguage’ of Variety, and at last have a reason to use “ankles” in a hed.