California Dreamin’ as the Blueprint for a Nation under Siege?


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In 2004, I published Ontwaken uit de Amerikaanse droom (Awakening from the American Dream) about our lives in the shocking aftermath of the Dotcom Bomb in California which also impacted my family and which led to unsavory revelations about dumpster diving, botox trials for money and sleepless nights about losing our home and health insurance. In a country of social insecurities, there is one baseline security: adversity, losing your job can result in personal bankruptcy in a matter of months. I faced a personal and financial abyss which resulted in a long article for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and the above mentioned book. It’s more than ten years later, now. Where am I now and what, if anything, has changed?

My smartphone is buzzing underneath my pillow. I open my eyes and let out a groan. I ginned up too much last night… now that I work with Millenials, it doesn’t mean I can behave like one. I am 50 after all. My mother joined a quilting club at 50. I confess this to my hubby, who is already sitting up straight in bed, staring at emails. His cell phone screen colors the room an unnatural hue of blue.

“You’re not a Babyboomer,” he remarks stoically.

 “Whoat?”

He tells me we’re Gen-X. Shit. “Well,” I tell him, “That X stands for nada, nothing…” There are endless tomes about Babyboomers and in the US, Millenials get mega attention right now, but Gen X?! Give me a break. The other day, a newspaper article mentioned that Millenials vote for Bernie while Babyboomers throw their weight behind Hillary, as if Gen X never even existed.

     I check my email, hoping I can postpone the chilly walk to the bathroom. One of the iOS-engineers of the startup where I work as a contractor, wrote me at 1 AM the morning. He asks if I have a shorter word for Verwijderen (the Dutch word for Remove) since this doesn’t fit inside the button on the iOS interface. This is a well-known phenomenon. The long words of Dutch (and German) are a disaster for tech companies who want to go global.

     Yes, I am a Dutch immigrant and with the immigrant bashing that has heated up the Republican debates, I sometimes wonder myself how I, as an immigrant, ended up here, with companies like Google, LinkedIn and others on my CV.

      I came to this country with a PhD in American lit and a real book to my name (as in published by a legit US university press) and then I was hired in 2004 as a Lecturer… in Dutch at UC Berkeley. But I was grateful to accept that job because at that moment we were still experiencing the after effects of the Dotcom Crash: one in three families in the Bay Area was hit by this recession, including our Dutch-American family of four.

     My husband, who had always had a stellar career with big names on his CV was booted out, out of the blue, and because my career had slowed down after the birth of our two kids, I came to the sobering realization that you cannot afford to have a family in America if you have only one source of income.

As the college bills of our kids started looming on the horizon, I realized my Lecturer salary at Cal was not enough, so I started supplementing my income with working late afternoons and nights at LinkedIn, helping them with their launch in the Netherlands. Having been in academia for quite too many years, I realized the power structure and hierarchy of the pale, patriarchal penis people of Academe didn’t exactly apply to the world of startups: at the free lunch, you could sit down next to the CEO who would stick out his hand and start a wonderful conversation. That sort of thing never happened in Berkeley: if you ended up next to the Chancellor in a line at the library, neither he or I would even dare address each other, let alone start a conversation.

     Also, while many Silicon Valley companies truly try to hire more women, non-Americans, i.e. immigrants set the pace in these companies. There may be a handful of Americans working in PR or Marketing but the best engineers come from India, Asia and Eastern Europe. Closing our borders or building walls would have never made this tech boom possible and as long as Americans don’t want to pick grapes in 100 degrees’ temps in the Central Valley, or want to learn how to code, open borders are necessary and immigration remains a net benefit.

On my way to the bathroom, I receive a text from my son Will who studies in Boston. While both my husband and I now work in tech, we struggle to pay the $50,000 bills from Northeasten University, where our son goes to school. The price tag of a BA diploma, you ask? You can buy a little palace with that in Alabama or North Carolina. In California, that would be a hovel, for the real estate and rent prices in the San Francisco Bay Area are now some of the highest in the country.

     But you can buy at least 4 cars with it, with which you could start your own Uber company, which is probably more lucrative than that barrista job at Starbucks you had to take after graduation. Seriously, even the most average graduate from UC Berkeley can, after graduation, write a terrific essay on Derrida but what job skills does the university really give you? And how long will it take you to pay off those student loans? Loans, admittedly, that have a low interest but loans that will also follow you everywhere, even when you think you might be able to ditch them through personal bankruptcy.

     So… as parents we pitch in. This also means that our retirement will come at an age when we fail our performance review because dementia kicked in. If we even make it there, for with all the startup activity, there are now also rumors that the next bubble is about to pop. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there was talk of a Silicon Valley “hangover”: venture capitals are not doing so much venturing anymore when of the 48 companies that went public since 2014, 35 have shares that are under water. Is the startup bubble the tulipomania of the 21st century?

     I am skeptical, for I think that the next bubble is the student loan bubble. What kind of chances do we give our kids when they are forced to move in with mom and dad, because they can’t find jobs after graduation or pay off their debts? In my generation that was unthinkable or taboo: the rare exception who moved back in with mom and dad did so because they had a nervous breakdown or a boyfriend who used his fists instead of his words.

I turn on the shower. Showering in California means military style and flushing our toilets we only do to a degree (when it’s yellow let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down). The drought in California is more than disturbing: everyone has been browning their lawn and trees drop limbs because they’re so damn thirsty. A journalist in our community even started a “shaming list” of consumers who have used too much water. We had a good laugh over that one the other night, because we recognized the name of friends, who, as far as we know, are very much pro-environment and in favor of conserving water. “Maybe it was a pipe that burst, or god knows, they might have started a weed garden,” I joked. Prescription pot is legal in California, and so is Assisted Suicide in case of an incurable disease. While California starts to look more and more like the Netherlands, the rest of the country takes a step back with Republican candidates who spread hatred and fear, twist the facts and don’t believe in global warming.

My husband and I hurry to Bart, the metro system that connects our town with San Francisco proper. Like sardines in a can, we hang on the loops with a commuter crowd of “smombies” (smartphone zombies).  I get out at Powell where cable cars drag tourists up the hill for $7 a pop, but before I feel the fresh air of San Francisco on my cheeks, I have to brave the underground tunnel where homeless people sleep on cardboard boxes, under the unforgiving neon lights. The familiar whiff of urine and shit that comes wafting my way I now associate with the beginning of my work day.

     In spite of the Teslas which are crossing the city and that live nice lives in garages on Nob Hill, the homeless are a reminder that very few in the country or city care for this mass of unfortunate souls who live in abject poverty. Politicians only care for what they call the embattled middle class but the homeless can no longer rely on community or fellow-feeling. Community has become something that you buy. In the past, your neighbor would let your dog out, and in a crisis, you could seek out a friend and have a good cry in her kitchen. Now you hire a petsitter and if you want to reboot mentally, you pay for a shrink.

     My husband and I were on Java and Bali and even though the majority of the Indonesian population lives on a few dollars a day, we could count the number of homeless people on one hand, and they were all better dressed than the souls that are rotting in San Francisco’s underbelly. Is community something that is more alive in the Third World and is our sense of community so eroded that we just don’t give a shit anymore when tourists from all over the world stare and talk about people who live in their own dirt on the streets of one of the wealthiest cities in America? But community also comes with family, and maybe it’s a sense of family that is disappearing in America, too: friends of my daughter marvel at the fact that I still do most of the cooking every night, so we can have a meal together as a family rather than eat in our separate rooms while fiddling around with Instagram.

Once outside, I head for the so-called Dry Bar. It’s a big day for our team, so our manager pays for a hairstylist who doesn’t cut, but gives us a kind of glamor do. When I look in the mirror afterwards, I look like a bad episode from that eighties soap, Dynasty. Lo and behold: the entire team dressed up, and even the engineers put on a tie. When it’s time to do our presentation to the rest of the company, we stand up from the crowd to do a Flash Mob dancing to Pharrell Williams’s Happy. With my glamor mug I dance along: the optimism of this promising startup is infectious, even though I feel I am one of the older people on the work floor in this very young and playful sector. Playful yes, but working hard precedes playing.

     And work hard, they do, behind their shiny Apple monitors. Every morning, we have a standup meeting: it’s a form of accountability and it promotes team communication. At 5 PM sharp, music comes blaring out of the speakers because it’s time for our “5-minute-stretch”. Our manager turns that into a yoga session one day, and I crack up laughing when our Indian engineer starts complaining in that lovely accent of his. We all lose it, but 5 minutes later everyone is behind their monitors again, working like a dog.

     I only work here for a few months but I am in awe of the can-do mentality of these Millenials: they work night and day, experience great pressure and stress, but never once does anyone lose their cool. They’re smarter than most students I had in front of me at UC Berkeley and they manage to stick to the deadline, even though I had my doubts when I saw the website for the first time. I voiced those doubts but I understood very quickly that this team was energized by the pioneering history of America’s West Coast: people who come to California, American and immigrant alike, already have this work ethic and optimism in their DNA or reinvent it for themselves. Remember, it’s only here that the oxymoron fail, and fail often is seen as the precondition for ultimate success. It’s a privilege and an honor to work with these people and on my last day, I say goodbye with a laugh and a tear.

After Super Tuesday, there is much doom and gloom about a potential Trump Presidency. The world thinks the US electorate has gone mad. Yes, there is that side to our country, and while I, too, awoke from the American Dream more than ten years ago, there is still much to be loved about this country and its citizens. For me, a big part of that is the California Dream that is alive and well on the West Coast, and, provided it can flourish and innovate as it has, it is the epitome of America’s genuine openness to ideas and embrace of people from all over the world who all buy into our greatest good: the pursuit of life, liberty and of happiness. Our grandparents fought and died for those values in their fight against Hitler and Hirohito in WWII. Let’s not compromise this in any way by voting for someone who plays the fear card of race and religion and puts our national security at risk. The American Dream may be dead, but the California Dream (with the exception of the homeless problem) may well serve as a blueprint for this country to move forward and make its mark in the world in the 21st century.     

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