This post began as an attempt to poke fun at some of my innumerable social failings here in Silicon Valley, the reputed center of the networking universe. But what began as self-criticism took a zig, and then a zag, on its way to riveting self-disclosure and navel-gazing vulnerability.
The art of hospitality
A few weeks ago I was a first-time guest in a home that, from the outside, looked like any other comfortable, well-kept suburban abode in the U.S.A. But immediately upon entering, I was floored by the art hanging from the walls, covering nearly every vertical surface. I found it difficult to have a normal conversation because the cornucopia of images was so engrossing. Not all of it was top shelf, but I was nevertheless transported. All the more so when I learned some of it was the work of my host, who I didn’t know very well. I felt fortunate to get to have this window in on her life.
I enjoy welcoming people into my home, too, especially for dinner. At least, in theory. At their best, intimate dinner parties say: I trust you. They say: I want to spend some time appreciating you, cultivating our friendship, all without appeasing the clock or the din of public life. You belong here in this safe place with me and mine. I felt a little of that at the artist’s house, even though there was no dinner. I felt she was trusting me with knowledge of her art, her home, her sanctuary. I felt honored to bear witness to it.
Which is why it disturbs me that I’ve all but stopped having people over to my own home. It gives me pause. I’ve been trying to figure out what is blocking my hospitality.
For a while, I could use busyness as an excuse. (That’s our favorite one around here, isn’t it, neighbours? Busyness.) Like a lot of people, I had a lot going on and was struggling to keep all the balls in the air. I regret, now, that one of those balls wasn’t more intimate down-time with friends. Some of you knew better than to let this slide. I, too often, did not.
Then, it became lack of skill: hospitality is an art form, and needs practice. So, I reasoned, given my imperfect craft, my failure to host is really a gift to these fine people of avoiding my bad hospitality. But that’s rather circular, isn’t it? I can’t do it well because I’m not doing it at all. Defeatist. And, oh, by the way, it’s not worth doing unless it’s done perfectly. Hmmmmm. Cripplingly perfectionist, much?
This line of thinking views hospitality as a performance to be rated, with a stage and an audience. But what I’m after isn’t that; it’s a shared and unassuming experience, an exchange, the verbs of laughing and conversing within the noun of home. It’s something that, actually, I have enjoyed — helped to provide, even — on many occasions, over many years, most of which have hardly been disastrous, but have certainly been valuable and life-affirming.
And yet, I rarely offer hospitality now. Here’s another excuse: I’m an introvert with, at present, woefully touchy neurobiology, so it takes a lot out of me to spend time with people, and all the more so when they are people who are fascinating and complex and fun and, well, stimulating. (So, yes, if I tell you you exhaust me, it’s probably a compliment.) Physically, I cannot do it every night. I need a lot of quiet time.
But the biggest hurdle to my having the people I enjoy over for dinner is this (drumroll, please): my home doesn’t look like the ones in the magazines. I’m embarrassed by this, and, most unhelpfully, profoundly conflicted by my own embarrassment.
Digression: if you are male, and reading this, and the foregoing paragraph does not seem like a confession to you, congratulations. You are probably still benefiting from generations of social conditioning that leave women more likely to feel responsible for the outward appearance of their hearths and homes, and, what is more absurd, to involuntarily stake some part of their identities in said domestic arts. You, on the other hand, may be more psychologically free to ignore such expectations and go on about your business of excelling at things you are both innately good at and enjoy, which may or may not be keeping house. Thank you for reading this far.
For starters, my home not only bears no resemblance to the ones in magazines, it doesn’t even look like what real homes are supposed to look like, at least here in Silicon Valley, at least when they are inhabited by a lawyer and a couple of engineers, in which case, it is fair to say, expectations may occasionally run high.
Rather, my home tends to say: Oh, look! You are so far behind the Joneses, you’re not even breathing the dirt they kicked up as they zipped on by.
Sometimes I kick myself. Why don’t I just go ahead and put together a home that’s, you know, pretty, or, at least, something closer to it? With sumptuous, urbane, trendy furnishings. Is it lack of industry, or pluck? A failure to apprehend the finer things of life? Well, yes, probably some of these.
Of course, I’ve also failed to master the ukelele, to try fire-breathing or the trapeze, and haven’t yet got around to sculpting the Venus in clay. No tango dancer or voice of the angels has arisen here, as of yet. Maybe after I’ve got more art forms like these under my belt, I’ll tackle mastery of home décor.
Also, I’m a backpacker at heart. Some of my most fulfilling moments have been marked by not a lick of furniture, as far as the eye can see, and farther. Living a while off of nothing but the air you breath and what you carry on your back is a grounding experience, literally and figuratively. Domestic trappings start to seem a little…gauche. Sometimes I look at my sofa, or a floor lamp, and think: why so heavy?
Nope, not a lick of home décor here. Just a grubby, and elated, backpacker, 150 miles into her trip. (Pinchot Pass, 12,000’+.)
But that’s not entirely it, either. My aversion to proper hostessing also arises from something more fundamental. It’s an invisible cloud that hangs over me, and you, if you live here in Silicon Valley, and sometimes I choke on it as I breathe.
WARNING: KILLJOY ALERT
As you may or may not know, Silicon Valley is a place where some people are dripping in money and other people really, really are not. Tech creates enormous wealth and excitement and innovation here. I look at that previous sentence, and it’s so true it’s fatuous. Call me a small-town girl at heart, but I’m agape every day that I think about the fact I really, actually know real, actual people working for our “local,” world-impacting businesses: Google, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, Cisco, Boeing, Hitachi, Symantec, and many more. (Hi there, friends!) This says very little about me; I’m not even good at networking. Anybody could throw a stone around here and hit someone working in these annals of power (not recommended). These companies have human faces, in addition to their stock tickers.
But this is also a region with one of the largest wealth gaps in the nation. Maybe you’ve heard about our homeless encampments and our hungry children. When I worked as a poverty lawyer here, I saw through my clients’ lives the grueling, life-threatening hardships that come with living poor next door to Big Tech. It’s brutal.
We’re talking night-times spent trying to avoid death by exposure or the thieves (and worse) who prey, viciously, on you, if you are one of our more than 7,600 officially counted homeless people (the nation’s 5th largest population!). And daytimes spent trying to hustle up some work that will help you keep saving toward a shot at the indoor life in one of the steepest real estate markets in the nation. In the unlikely event you get a job interview (there’s a decent chance nobody ever taught you to read, let alone use a computer), it will take you a couple hours to get there by public transit and, since you will need to haul all of your worldly possessions with you (no place to put them) and you have no place to clean up and don your best clothes (such as they are), the interview is probably not going to go very well anyway. Meanwhile, as in so many places, it might be a crime for you to sit and rest there, or there, or there, or there; your body is falling apart from stress, disease, malnutrition, and, quite probably, abuse; and you may have lost your all of your teeth. (And we wonder why people drink under bridges.)
Yet very rarely do we hear voices of outrage from among our poor neighbours here. Some people say it’s because even our poorest often labor under the delusion that they are only one lucky break away from striking it rich. Or, worse, that they got what they deserved out of the precious, improbable gift of life: unmitigated suffering. They accept this suffering as fitting punishment.
Personally, I find these ideas abhorrent. And I think a lot of poor people know better, too. Look around, take stock, know the score. The deck was stacked, is stacked, against some of us. There are personal, individual choices, yes, but it takes a real commitment to willful blindness if you are going to insist that they explain the whole picture.
In the face of all this, the causes and effects of silence deserve our careful consideration.
The least of these is what your chaise lounge means to me
In my darker moments, sumptuous furnishings repel me because I hear them whispering: My owner has money to burn, and wants you to notice. Or, perhaps more insidiously, I’m here by way of a maxed out credit line, because someone was willing to go into debt in order to impress you. This makes me…uncomfortable.
There. I said it. Sometimes, dear hosts, I behold your beautiful homes, and in doing so, do not think well of you or them, even while I delight in your fine hospitality, fantastic cuisine, and impeccable manners.
Terrible, I know, and no one will blame you if you choose never to invite me back.
Call it a weakness of mind on my part. I just keep remembering the homeless guy I see out near our garbage all the time. I don’t think of him often, nor, certainly, effectively, but, still, there he is. In my head. And along the creek, where I’m pretty sure he lives.
Can you see him too?
All of this is utterly unfair. Because if you’re reading this, and you have a beautiful, well-appointed home, maybe it got that way because you were following a delightful instinct to share the good life, pleasure, bonhomie, and all, with the people you love. You worked hard for it, it reflects your deepest creative self, and it affirms part of who we are as humans: extraordinary animals inspired to find and cherish beauty in its many forms.
Maybe, too, you are far better than I at extending yourself to those without the privilege of a home to be ashamed of. It wouldn’t, frankly, be a difficult bar to hurdle at this point.
I applaud you for your successes, and I’m more than flattered when you choose to share them with me, too. Thank you.
My hangup about the way my own home looks — my self-consciousness of it, its unflattering reflection of some unsprung domestic diva version of me, and the economic injustices in every direction I see when I look hard at it — is made even more stupid by the fact that the people I enjoy bringing into it tend to have no interest whatsoever in judging me the way I judge any of these things. These guests, past, present and, I hope, future, are people who, I tell myself, can look on my humble abode and say to themselves, “Oh, look! Hanging over the front doorway is that faded construction-paper mobile, lopsided and amateurish, scrawled years ago in glorious chaos with the well-wishes and considerable wisdom of her friends and family, assembled by them over homemade enchiladas at a party in celebration of the marriage of two quirky, adoring people, both of whom seem to have forgotten at present to offer me a proper aperitif. Now, this is the good life, indeed.”
Finally, guidance for dinner guests
In hopes that I will work up the courage to invite you, or somebody almost as interesting as you, over for dinner again really soon, in spite of all of the foregoing — and maybe all the more because of it — let me just put it all out there.
I am thrilled you are coming, and have reason to believe good times will be had by all. To that end, here are some things I hope you can keep in mind:
1. We (the spouse and I) invited you because we like you. It doesn’t mean you’ve impressed us or we expect you to move our careers or investment prospects forward. So, please, let’s not worry about all of that. We just like you. We want you to feel like you can be yourself. If not, let us know what we can do to change things so you can, and then let’s all have a good laugh about how awkward we were, together.
2. Please don’t judge our housekeeping. Before you arrived, we looked around to make sure there was nothing here that would jeopardize your health. It got the thumbs up. So, you’re cool. Take a load off!
3. If there is anything we can do to make you feel more physically comfortable, please let us know. Please forgive our inevitable oversights. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a massage chair. But there is a hammock out back.
4. Our improbably athletic little black dog wants to make you her new best friend. You don’t have to consent to that. Just let us know if you want help rejecting her. It happens a lot…we’re all used to it around here. (All the same, feel free to borrow her for a day or two.)
Your new best friend.
5. We will probably try to get you to play goofy card or board games with us or, if you’re really lucky, break out DIY craft projects or some of our favorite books or music. You don’t have to do or enjoy any of these things, but unless we hear a firm “no,” we might keep dropping not-so-subtle hints in one of these directions. Again, we can take the rejection, just shout it out, preferably with a friendly smile.
6. We experiment a lot with food in this household. Not in the chic, cultured, Manresa kind of way, but more in the “hey honey, look what I found in the refrigerator” kind of way. We mostly eat a lot of vegetables and legumes around dinner time, but if you happen to be on a bacon-only diet or something, we can try to accommodate that, too (the spouse says: gladly). We try to feed dinner guests well, but maybe you should know there have also been some spectacular failures, most notably one involving too many people, an enormous mound of unappetizing canned salmon, a backed up sink, and not nearly enough foresight. Nobody’s gotten sick, though. There’s really good pizza (with an edible salad bar on site) not far away, if it comes to that.
7. We don’t have a TV or all that much to show off, other than, hopefully, love and good cheer. So if you come over, it’s because we want to talk at with you and hear your stories. If we get boorish, it’s ok to tell us, or even out-monologue us (though the latter can be a difficult feat for non-relatives).
I’m truly looking forward to your visit.