Incredible as it seems, my life is based on a true story. – Ashleigh Brilliant
Much of what’s on this site is not specifically personal or autobiographical, though of course you can tell a lot about who I am and how I think by the subjects I choose, the opinions I hold, and how I express myself about them. I’ve been told many times that I should write a book, perhaps about living in Italy, India, or just my life in general. I don’t think I’m ready to tackle my memoirs just yet – for one thing, I should probably wait until a number of my co-protagonists can no longer make objections.
But, for those who want to know all about me, or for people who are coming back into my life after years (which happens, with the vast reach of today’s social media), here’s an attempt to organize the truly autobiographic material on this site into chronological order. This is, of course, a work in progress.
Born in New Orleans on November 28th, of Bairds, Cooks, Tiemanns, and Straughans.
Attended my first Mardi Gras as a vampire baby with something red in my bottle.
Kennedy was shot just a few days before my first birthday.
Moved to Beaumont, Texas, where my dad was teaching German. Got pneumonia due to chemical refinery pollution.
Moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where my dad had a year of Vietnamese language training.
My mother and I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, while my father went to Vietnam (video!) with USAID, trying to develop what everyone else was trying to blow up. The theory was that, if you could make the Vietnamese more prosperous, they wouldn’t want to be communist. Dad came to Bangkok on leave every six weeks or so. I had very little understanding of what he was doing or where, except that it was dangerous and he could even be killed by the Viet Cong. I didn’t know what they were, either, but some how “Cong” became conflated in my childish imagination with “Congo” (about which I also knew little), and I imagined that black men in grass skirts were going to stick my daddy with spears.
After a quickly-aborted attempt to attend a local Thai school, I went to Mrs. Stevens’ School for 1st and 2nd grade.
Dad moved to join us in Bangkok, where he continued to work for USAID. We traveled to various parts of Thailand, and were probably among the first tourists to Nepal. I did 3rd and 4th grade at the International School Bangkok.
These are pieces that cover wider arcs of time, such as my schooling.
- Another Brick in the Wall (to 1981)
- Third Culture Kids (ongoing)
- Shoes (to present)
- Girls Who Love Horses
- Beach Memories
- A Peculiar Experience of Privilege
My brother Ian was born.
My parents split, my mother remaining in Bangkok with my infant brother; she soon remarried. I saw her once, a year later, after that we did not meet again til I was 18.
My father and I went to Pittsburgh, where he started grad school. I did 5th grade and started 6th at Liberty School, then did part of a year at Shady Lane School.
To try to repair my mangled schooling, Dad got me into Ellis School, an elite private girls’ school in Pittsburgh, for one year.
After my dad was hospitalized for something he’d picked up in Mexico the previous summer, I spent part of my 6th grade year living with my aunt Rosie and cousin Casey in Coupland, Texas. In April, my father married Nancy.
I started 7th grade at Reizenstein, a brand-new middle school.
In October we moved to Norwalk, CT where my dad took a job running a drug rehabilitation clinic for rich kids. I finished 7th grade and started 8th at West Rocks Middle School.
We moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where my dad was the country head for Save the Children. The American school there only went up to 8th grade, and didn’t have room for me anyway, so I did 8th grade by myself on correspondence. Both my parents were working and I had no friends of my own age; this was a horribly lonely time for me. And it was a difficult place to be growing into a woman’s body.
For 9th grade, I went to Woodstock School, an international boarding school in Mussoorie, a hill station in the Indian Himalayas, and stayed there for four very happy years, with visits to my parents at Christmas and in the summer. My dad and Nancy moved twice during this period, first from Dhaka to Bangkok in 1978, oddly enough returning to live at Red Rose Court where my dad, mom and I had first lived in 1967. But my real home was, and in some sense remains, Mussoorie.
That summer, we visited friends and relatives in various parts of the US on home leave. Had my first kiss from a nice Jewish boy in Pittsburgh who probably went on to become a doctor. Had my hair disastrously permed.
I did a lot of textile arts at school: embroidery, weaving, batik, a quilt top… The photo shows me with some of my work at Dad and Nancy’s place in Khon Kaen, a town in northeastern Thailand where I spent several vacations with them.
I graduated from Woodstock School on June 25th, then flew to the US, where I hopped all over the country visiting friends and relatives (including my mother and brother, after a hiatus of 8 years) before beginning my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz.
Having spent many of my formative years in Asia, I tried to come “home” to America once before, when I graduated from high school in India and entered college in the US. Like many, I had felt out of place (though not unhappy) in the exotic countries I’d lived in, where I was very obviously foreign even after being there for years. I dreamed of returning to a country where I would feel wholly at ease and be accepted as a natural part of the scenery. It was a rude shock to discover that this homeland, for me and others like me, is a myth. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a “hidden immigrant”: on the surface seemingly a local, but in reality a not-quite-native, which manifested in ways which confused and irritated the real Americans. – from Coming “Home” to America
That winter I visited Dad and Nancy in Semarang, on the eastern tip of Java. My return to Santa Cruz involved a Fabulous Flying Jeep Trick.
One of the pitfalls of expatriate life is that, unless you’ve planned ahead and made arrangements, you may not have residency for college tuition purposes in any US state. My dad soon realized that he could not afford the University of California’s out of state tuition, but the University of Texas was a bargain in those days even for non-Texans, and my aunt still lived in Coupland and worked in Austin. So I transferred to UT, where I eventually settled into a major in Asian Studies and languages, in part because the US government kept paying me to study Hindi. During the cutbacks of the Reagan era, these FLAS (Foreign Language Area Studies) scholarships were kept alive at the behest of Secretary of Defence Casper Weinberger, as a matter of national security. I suppose the hope was that some of us would go on to work in defence or intelligence.
Sometime around this year I began writing my still-not-completed fantasy novel.
I went to visit my dad in Jakarta, Indonesia, intending to obtain a student visa to go on to do research of some sort in India. Instead, I ended up working at the US Embassy (commercial section) in Jakarta for six months. During this period, we had death threats from the Islamic Jihad.
I returned to Austin in the fall and took up my schooling again.
My dad and stepmother split during a summer home leave in the US. Nancy went on to the School for International Training and eventually began working for the UNHCR in Peshawar, Pakistan. I never saw her again.
In September I joined the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in India program in Benares (now known as Varanasi). Traveled a fair amount in north India during this academic year.
I returned to the US, determined that I had enough credits to have finished my BA, and ended up living in the Washington, DC, area, in part because I had met Enrico, who was doing his PhD in mathematics at Yale: How My Italian Adventure Began.
Enrico finished his thesis and won a ricercatore position at the Politecnico di Milano, so we moved to Milan, Italy.
Rossella began full-time daycare.
That summer I took a freelance job writing software documentation for an unusual Italian high-tech startup company, Incat Systems. At the end of that project the boss, Fabrizio Caffarelli, said “I like the way you work, but don’t have any more work for you at present.”
- How I Became an Italian Journalist
- Asilo Nido & Scuola Materna (to 1994)
- Working in Italy
- Raising a Bilingual Child
Fabrizio and I wrote Publish Yourself on CD-ROM, published by Random House in early 1993.
By the time the book was finished, I was working full-time for Fabrizio, doing documentation and other technical and marketing writing. In December of that year he moved the engineering staff of Incat Systems to Silicon Valley.
I began traveling four times a year to Silicon Valley to work for Incat Systems, doing technical writing/documentation and online customer service. Only much later did I understand that some initial difficulties I had with American colleagues were due to me being a third-culture kid and hidden immigrant. Other difficulties were due to their suspicion that I was having an affair with the boss (I wasn’t). Meanwhile, back in the Milan office: The Taming of Mr A.
Rossella began attending elementary school in Milan.
In August, Fabrizio sold Incat Systems to Adaptec, who hired me as a consultant and allowed me to work from my home in Italy – when I wasn’t in their Milpitas offices.
I visited India again for the first time in ten years. This was the start of a series of annual or biannual trips, mostly to Woodstock School to see friends and do things at the school. I was a heavily involved alumna: secretary of my graduating class of ’81, did the school’s first website and helped train staff to use the Internet, spoke to students about careers in high tech, helped raise funds, attended and organized reunions…
I traveled a great deal, both alone and with the family, happily mixing work and play worldwide.
My resumé at the time.
Thanks to my Woodstock classmate Jeet, we celebrated the end of the millennium in style at Chateau de la Bourdaisiere, Montlouis sur Loire, France.
Adaptec decided they didn’t want to be in the software business after all, and spun off our software group as a new company, Roxio. I persuaded my family to give me a year or two to see what I could make of my career in the Bay Area, but for the first 9 months I was there alone, working 14 hours a day, traveling back and forth to Europe every 6-8 weeks, still working on the MBA at the same time, and generally exhausting myself. At Christmas we met for a family vacation in the Caribbean.
It became apparent that the family was not going to move to California with me. I returned to Milan and, not long after, quit my job when my mother-in-law got breast cancer (which was cured by surgery and has not recurred).
At the instigation of long-time fans of my Adaptec/Roxio newsletters, I began publishing an email newsletter on my own behalf. Over time this evolved into a website, which is now in the process of becoming this blog (manually converting HTML pages to WordPress takes a long time).
I had money saved up from lucrative earnings during the dot.com boom (though I had also paid out a lot in taxes to both the US and Italian governments during this time). I spent some of my savings (and a great deal of time and energy) on my daughter’s passion for horses. In September we went to England and bought Hamish.
I began writing about travel in Italy:
Ross and I traveled:
For the first couple of years after quitting Roxio, I had some interesting and well-paid freelance work, thanks largely to friends and a good reputation in the industry, but this dwindled as the effects of the dot.com crash deepened. I ended up with a lot of time to spend on the nitty-gritties of website design and analytics, SEO, web advertising, and what was beginning to be called “social media,” as well as the actual writing for my site and newsletter. I wasn’t paid for most of this, but I learned a lot.
Enrico moved up a rung on the Italian academic ladder to become a professore associato. The Politecnico di Milano asked him to move to their branch campus in Lecco, a mid-sized town on the southeastern tip of Lake Como. This enabled us to get out of Milan, a city I was fond of but whose pollution was quite literally killing me.
- Got my Italian driver’s license. Barely used it.
- Imaging in Italy -A Photographic Walking Tour of Rome
- Had a cartoon portrait made for my (old) website
- Ross broke her arm falling off her horse, Hamish, requiring surgery.
- Enrico’s father died.
- There Goes the Neighborhood
- Side Effects
- Silver Threads Among the Gold
- As my savings dwindled, we had to give away Ross’ beloved Hamish.
We moved to a beautiful house high on a hillside overlooking Lake Como. In the summer, Rossella finally accompanied me to India, a trip we had both been looking forward to for a long time.
I was working for Fabrizio Caffarelli at his new startup in Milan, pouring lots of creative energy into my work in return for very little pay and a killer commute. Because the company’s business was about videoconferencing and video content sharing for consumers, I wondered just how difficult it might be for ordinary mortals to share video online. In 2005, it turned out to be very difficult indeed. I joined the brand-new Yahoo videoblogging group, learned a lot, made some friends, attended the first Vloggercon in New York, and, of course, began doing my own vlogging. One theme in my career has been using new technologies to communicate (often on behalf of a company, with its customers), so video was a natural next step for me.
^ I spoke at FemCamp Bologna 2007
Rossella applied to spend A School Year Abroad at Woodstock.
I began using Twitter: “just arranged travel to Colorado for next week! 2:27 PM Mar 12th 2007”
Rossella left for Woodstock in July, I spent six weeks in August/September in the US on Sun work. By the time I returned, I no longer had a job with TVBLOB – to my relief.
In mid-November, after giving an early Thanksgiving dinner, I went to India to visit Ross at Woodstock (working remotely for Sun from there) until the semester ended, then we spent the Christmas holiday together in Delhi and Mumbai with classmates, and I returned to Italy for New Year’s Eve.
This was my theme song that year.
In March, Sun offered me a job on condition that I move to the US. I instantly agreed, on condition that I be allowed time off to attend my daughter’s graduation from Woodstock. I moved to Colorado, deciding to start at Sun’s Broomfield office to give myself a quieter place to re-acclimate to life in the US.
After her late May graduation, Ross came to the US in July to start… the Hindi-Urdu Flagship program at the University of Texas. Yes, this was all my fault. Enrico visited us both in August, Ross and I spent Thanksgiving in St Barth’s, and we both went back to Italy for Christmas.
- Twitter: July, part 2, August, part 2, (hmm, missing some Twitter here), October, part 2, November part 1, part 2, December part 1, part 2
Ross left school and began working in January.
By February, I knew that I was done with Italy.
- Twitter: 2009-02-08
At the end of August, after a road trip vacation together in the US, I split from Enrico.
During much of this year, starting with rumors about IBM in March, Sun Microsystems was in the throes of being acquired, as well as going through several rounds of “would have done it anyway” layoffs. This added still more turmoil and uncertainty to my life:
- Part 1: Resistance is Futile: The Oracle Acquisition
- Part 2: What to Expect When You’re Expecting – to Be Acquired
- Part 3: Fishworks and Me
- Part 4: Into the Belly of the Beast
- Part 5: The Last of OpenSolaris
- Part 6: Diaspora (not yet written)
I spent Christmas with an old friend and her family in Arkansas, then we drove to New Orleans (my first visit there in over 30 years) for New Year’s.
In January, my mother announced her intention to cut off all contact with me and my brother for 12-18 months, saying that dealing with us was “too painful”. In some way that I don’t even understand, I was failing to be her definition of a good daughter. She placed the blame for our estrangement on my father, whom she had divorced 35 years earlier. Which does not explain why she also can’t get along with my brother – she raised him.
On February 15th I (and most other Sun employees) became an employee of Oracle Corporation.
Made a trip to India for Sun/Oracle Tech Days in late March, returned to Colorado on a Monday night, finished packing my things, and Thursday morning started driving to California. I arrived and moved into my new apartment in San Francisco on April 3rd. I’m very happy to be here.
The day before Mother’s Day, I received a letter from my mother to let me know that she had legally adopted a woman a year older than myself – “your new big sister” as she put it. She left it up to me to break this news to my brother. I declined to do so, and decline all further contact with her. Unfortunately, there is no legal mechanism by which an adult can “divorce” a parent. Maybe I need to ritually burn something. Seems as if my whole family aspire to be characters in a Tennessee Williams play.
On December 1st, I began a new job at Joyent, joining several illustrious Sun colleagues in a very hot area of technology. I’m the Director of Technical Education, which boils down to helping geeks share what they know – something I’ve already been doing for a long time, and am very happy to do more of. Stay tuned!
Too busy to blog; the best way to keep up with me is Twitter.
^ March, 2011
In August, I changed my job at Joyent to become the SmartOS Community Manager. A week later, my father died. In October I had a dream vacation in India. In November I was paid to go to New Orleans for the Hyatt hotel’s re-opening, and filmed my cousin Celia talking about Katrina.
July: Spoke at FISL in Brazil on Using Video to Communicate Technology.
November: Celebrated my 50th birthday in New York and San Francisco.
Was interviewed about Woodstock School on the Kamla Show.
My mother-in-law, Graziella Ballanti, died.
On my 51st birthday, flew to Australia for a month’s vacation.
- May: left my job at Joyent.
- June: began my new job at Ericsson: The Place for Me
- November: diagnosed with and began treatment for breast cancer
- December-January: Australia trip
- Still recovering from cancer treatment.
- Photographed and interviewed for the Techies Project (another long story of my life!).
- November 9th: we were on vacation in India when we learned that Trump “won” the election. This is the face of a woman looking at the future of the entire planet, and not liking a single damned thing about it:
…went by in a blur of travel, events, and happenings, gains and losses. We all lived with terrorism. Mid-year, I quit Ericsson and began working for Amazon Web Services (as my friends at RedMonk put it, Amazon Web Services keeps hiring for experience: Deirdré Straughan. I reflected on workplace bullying. And makeup (which I can rarely wear, post-chemo).
Elfquest ended, and I thought about what its authors, Wendy and Richard Pini, have contributed to my life.